New Ideas


Jerusalem artichokes

So I discovered Jerusalem artichokes the other day. They’re ugly little root-things but they’re delicious. They taste like…artichokes. You just peel and slice them up then sauté them. A lot easier than cooking real artichokes.

When I stumble upon a new food, I always imagine how it must have been for the first person who tried eating it. How did they know what was good to eat (e.g. NOT poisonous) and what it would taste like? Did they just try everything with their fingers crossed? Were they that desperate?

Probably. But sometimes I also think maybe God would occasionally come down and help them out. And that whole thing would most likely go something like this:

Farmer-guy (lifting the first Jerusalem artichoke out of the ground): “I wonder what this is. I wonder if I should try eating it.”

God (showing up, because there was a time when he just, you know, showed up, wasn’t there? Or do I have that wrong?): “Hey! I just thought of that. Yes! Try it!”

FG (apparently unphased by God’s sudden appearance): “It looks like ginger.”

God: “Well, it’s NOTHING LIKE ginger. Give me a little credit for originality. Try it.”

FG: “Okay.”

Farmer-guy peels the root, slices it, cooks it up and starts to eat it.

God (excited): “So? What do you think?”

FG: “Um. It takes like…an artichoke.”

God: “No, no, it’s not…”

FG: “Really. It takes just like an artichoke. Which is weird, because we already have…artichokes. What do we need this for?”

God: “Well…”

FG (eating more): “I mean, it’s good and everything, but artichokes are good. We already knew that.”

God (hands on hips): “Okay, fine. It’s just that…I’m out of tastes.”

FG: “You’re out of tastes.”

God: “Right. Out. Of. Tastes. How many ways do you think there are for things to taste, anyway?” (Huffing) “Not that many, let me tell you.”

FG: “That’s cool. I guess we don’t need any more new foods then. We’ll just stick with the ones we’ve got.”

God: “Oh, please, you people always want something new. And I’m running out of ways to re-package the old stuff and make it seem like something else.”

FG: “Ohhh! I get it. That’s why it looks like ging-”

God: “Shut up.”

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Does Stephen King ever feel guilty?

Mr. MercedesSo Mr. Mercedes from Stephen King came out today. I’m not that guy that buys every Stephen King novel the very day it’s published but, yes, I did purchase this one on its release date. Downloaded it to the Kindle so it can join the stack of many other waiting novels in the To Be Read pile.

Therefore I haven’t read any of Mr. Mercedes yet, but I did peek at a couple of the reviews. One thing I thought I noticed in one (and, sorry, I can’t seem to locate it now to link to it) is that part of the motivation King gives for the antagonist in his latest work (Mr. Mercedes himself) is his own work. That is, King’s own, earlier books, as if the world Mr. Mercedes occurs in is our world, where a guy named Stephen King has been writing a bunch of horror novels for years now. As I understand it – and apologies if this is wrong – Bill Hodges (revealed early on as Mr. Mercedes) has read King’s earlier horror novels (or, at least, seen the movies) and this is a contributing factor to Hodges deciding to mow down a group of unemployed job seekers at a job fair with his Mercedes.

This suggests a self-awareness from King, that perhaps he worries that his work may motivate some nut to do something awful some day. It reminds me of The Dark Half, when King seemed to be at his most self aware, having been “outed” as having the alter-ego Richard Bachman, the pseudonym behind which he wrote many horrific novels. In The Dark Half, Thad Beaumont’s alter ego is given literal life as a completely separate being, almost as if King wondered if his work had some sort of power that he didn’t understand, like he was warning himself to wield such power carefully.

It took me several false starts to realize that my latest work in progress is about brothers and sisters. In fact, early versions touched on this facet only superficially, but this latest revision has really honed in on this aspect as a major facet of the story. The main character is the oldest brother of three siblings, with two younger sisters. Yes, in real life I am the oldest of three, with two younger sisters myself.

Now, please don’t think this book is about me and my sisters, as it’s not. The middle sister is a binge drinking alcoholic, which my middle sister most definitely is not. The youngest sister, it’s revealed early in the plot, has died a tragic death several years ago. My youngest sister, thankfully, is alive and well.

I’ve been writing this book on and off for a while. The parts about what happened to the youngest sister affect the other two siblings greatly – they both feel responsible in different ways. In fact, this weekend, I was working on this project quite a bit when I received a really disturbing phone call. My youngest sister had a life-threatening medical issue and was being taken in for immediate, emergency surgery.

Obviously, I know that my writing about a completely different family that happens to have the same make-up as my immediate family didn’t cause my sister’s medical problems. Obviously, I know my writing doesn’t have that sort of supernatural power. I am not, after all, Stephen King. Or Richard Bachman. Or Thad Beaumont.

But, as I tried to get back to my work this weekend while I waited for news on my sister’s condition, I still felt guilty. Guilty that I was writing this story where the baby sister of the family dies, that I was using this sort of event as a catalyst for the arc of the other characters, even as my sister struggled to fight through a major medical problem in real life.

I love stories. The drama to them, the way they’re often drawn from real life. But the truth is, I don’t care how good the story idea is – I don’t want to have to experience an “arc” where I’m dealing with these types of things happening to my own sisters. I don’t want to sit in a dark room waiting for news, wondering if my sister’s going to pull through as I think about random things, like visiting her in college, walking her down the aisle when she got married, talking her through her options when she considered a change in careers, counseling her through her attempts to have children.

So I wonder, when real things happen to writers like Stephen King, do they ever feel guilty about the things they’ve written that were sourced from their lives and their relationships with real people? I guess I already know the answer is yes. That’s probably why Mr. King has written books like Mr. Mercedes and The Dark Half.

I’m not sure I’ll continue on this WIP now. Or, maybe I will and it will be that much stronger because the place it comes from will be that much more real. I guess only time will tell. As usual.





Secret Identities

Last night I watched the second half of Spider-Man 2.

Before you think I have some secret Hollywood connections giving me access to advanced screenings, I’m not talking about the new movie, coming out this weekend.

This was the older, Tobey Maguire version, with Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus. I’ve seen it I can’t tell you how many times, but it was on FX leading up to Fargo (which has been fabulous and which I do not miss, by the way) and so I left it on.

Peter Parker IS Spider-man

Peter Parker….is Spider-man?!?

Partly because I found myself waiting for that moment.

Come on – you know the one.

It’s the ending, where Spider-man’s mask is ripped off by Dr. Octopus while Mary Jane is held prisoner on the other side of the room. Then he turns around, no mask, and she realizes, with her trademark shocked look, “OMG. Peter Parker IS Spider-man.”

I’ve seen this moment, or similar ones for other super-heroes, play out a thousand times in a thousand different comic books. As it turns out I have collected a few of these alleged comics. Yet somehow I still find it immensely satisfying. So, tonight, while I waited for that expression to come across Kirsten Dunst’s face, I took a moment to wonder why that might be.

Here’s my conclusion: we all want people to know who we really are.

Most of us confine that knowledge – an awareness of our true selves, our secret identities – to a precious few. Not that we should. No, probably it should be clear to everyone exactly who we are. We should shout it from the mountaintops.

But only a few people do this. The rest of us hide behind our masks.

Yet, secretly, we wish people would somehow magically discover us, unmask our true selves with that shocked expression. “OMG! THAT’S who you were all along?!?”

This got me thinking about writing, and characters, and reading. And I realized that, perhaps, unmasking the true identity of the hero is probably one of the great pleasures of reading. Even when you know it’s coming. Even if you’ve seen it before.

Typically protagonists change over the course of a novel, becoming who they really should have been all along. Their secret identity is revealed and the reader feels they played some part in that.

And, before a book ever ends up in a reader’s hands, the writer unmasks her own characters during the writing process, discovering them page by page, word by word, until finally their mask is off completely.

Then with a shocked look on his face, the writer says “OMG! THAT’S who you were all along?!?”

And that – the writer unmasking the character first, only so the reader can do their own unmasking later – those secret identities, makes writing pretty darn cool. If you ask me.



Don’t be afraid to slap your readers in the face with your theme

Slap I finished critiquing a fellow writer’s work in progress recently and one thing that struck me was that she needed to emphasize her theme more.

In short, she needed to slap her readers in the face with it. I knew what her theme was – we had discussed the core of what she was writing about many times – and it definitely came across in her ending, but did it come across strongly or clearly enough? I didn’t think so.

Part of my recommendation was that she introduce more conflict, but another big part (I felt) was she needed to bring her theme home more directly. The stretch run needed more strength, more oomph.

I spoke with her on this subject out of personal experience. The first book I completed had a theme that was clear in my own mind, but I now realize I probably tried to be too subtle in my ending and in how I ultimately communicated that theme to my readers.

I was trying to avoid cliches and heavy-handedness. And I’m still NOT advocating these things. But in that attempt at subtlety, I think I ended up skirting around my theme in such a way that I now wonder how well it came across at all.

I’m watching Season Two of Six Feet Under, and there have been a few episodes where I have felt much the same way. The show is very well written, but sometimes I have the feeling the writers are being a little too subtle with what they are trying to say. Of course, the undertone is there, but there have been several points where I wanted more, wanted the loop to be closed more tautly.

I wanted them to slap me in the face with what they were trying to say.

If your reader is going to go on a three or four hundred page journey with you, or if your viewer is going to spend hours watching, they should leave with a clear idea of what you were trying to say. Make sure you find a way to impart it.

Unless you do this with a real heavy-hand, it probably won’t come across as obvious as you’re afraid it might. I know that when I get to the ending of my current work in progress, I’m going to be keeping this thought in mind, and hopefully I’ll end it with a strong idea for the readers of just exactly what it was I was trying to say.

(Of course, I don’t recommend slapping your readers too often or too many times…)

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This week’s podcasts updates:

First, we had a new podcast from The Velvet Podcast. These guys don’t post new podcasts very often, which is why they haven’t made my podcast list to the left, but when they do, they’re usually very entertaining and offer great content. This week’s entry was no exception, a great listen on editing:

Hopefully the guys start to post more and if they do, I will include them in my regular updates. I particularly like their roundtable approach. It’s great to get multiple opinions all at once, points and counterpoints.

Writing Excuses

I Should Be Writing

Books on the Nightstand

Reading and Writing Podcast

Adventures in SciFi Publishing

The Writing Show

Write for Your Life