So, You’re a Writer, eh?

One of my great fears is trying to explain the plot to whatever book I’m working on. The latest – Roadside Attractions – was built off the Satanic paranoia of the 80s and 90s and tosses together a renegade devil, the hitwoman sent from Hell to stop him, a ghost, and a pair of ghost hunters who find themselves stuck in the middle of a power-struggle straight out of Hell. It’s not the easiest thing to explain.

Actually, come to think of it, that’s not a bad description. Needs work, but doesn’t totally suck.

DeadSexyTwitterLilith
Note: not the actual cover.

I’m currently actively working on the 4th Henchmen book and that gets even more difficult to sum up succinctly because it’s the 4th (and final) book in that series and it’s still too early to tell exactly where the plot will take me.

I’m not a good plotter. Other writers have sketches and timelines and plot-points all neatly laid on beer-soaked cocktail napkins or Chinese Excel knock-offs. I just keep all that in my head. The closest I’ve ever come to successfully plotting out a book was Greetings From Sunny Aluna and even that ended quite a bit differently than I’d planned. Originally, Huizhong was going to kill Kevin and then kill herself. It didn’t turn out that way and now I’m stuck figuring out where to take the next book.

Anyway, back to the original task at hand: What’s the book about? I’ve done a bunch of posts on blurbs and even took a shot at loglines (Sean Carlin’s post on loglines is still the gold standard), but I’m still extremely weak at the punchy descriptors. Usually when someone asks me what the book is about, I change the subject and then pretend I don’t speak English.

smoke_bomb_archer

That’s not an adult way to handle things, especially when it comes to something I’d really like to do for a living. If I can’t talk about what I’m writing, there’s no way anyone’s going to be interested in reading it. Saying, “Trust me, it’s really, really good” doesn’t cut the mustard. In fact, it cuts the cheese.

I think it all stems from that deep-down insecurity everyone has. There’s that nagging sensation that someone you work with will say, “I read your book. It sucks.” Then you’re stuck at work with everyone knowing you’re the guy who writes shitty books. And that can’t be good for the ol’ ego.

I’ve met plenty of other people over the years who have zero problems talking about their books. I’ve even met people who will happily tell you they’re taking a year off work to write the next great American novel and it would be really great if you could give them some money to do that. To those people – the ones that want help funding their yearlong vacation in South France – I say, “Just write the fucking thing. You can do it in your living room and you don’t even have to take off your pajamas”.

I’m good at the “just write the fucking thing” part. Over the years, I’ve gotten disciplined to where I write something every night, usually 500-1000 words or so. Now I need to get better at getting people to “just read the fucking thing”.

If you have any tips on that, leave me a comment, I’d love to hear what’s worked for you and what was a waste of time and money.

ghostintheshelltyping
Now if I could only get my hands to do this.

On a somewhat related note, I’ve always been curious about my typing speed. I code all day and write at night, so I’m used to a keyboard. I can type reasonably well with my eyes closed. In fact, I’ve even fallen asleep and kept typing (that generated some…interesting text), but I’ve never tested my typing speed. According to Live Chat’s free online typing test, I type about 64 words/minute with 100% accuracy. Crunching the numbers, that means 3840 words an hour. Theoretically, if I didn’t need luxuries like food and sleep, I could write a ninety thousand word book in under 24 hours. That’s way faster than my usual six to nine months.

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All Your Data Are Belong To Us

My dad, before he died, was a market analyst in the semiconductor industry. His job, as he put it, was to “take information from companies, analyze it, and sell it back to them in a different format”. He was really good at his job because he had a solid understanding that data had value and that, like polishing a diamond, knowing how to polish that data could make it more valuable.

Here’s a quick factoid for you: Facebook’s worth – at least of October 2017 – was around $500 billion. That’s half a trillion dollars. Not bad for a company that gives its services away, right?

Well, that’s the rub, now isn’t it? Recent events, like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, should show us that Facebook isn’t exactly giving its services away to its user base. Not that they ever claimed to doing that. I find it amusing that now, in the midst of that scandal, that people are losing their shit over Facebook not protecting their personal data. The real problem is Facebook has never protected personal data. They’re in the business of collecting and selling data on a massive scale. In return for a platform for sharing cat pictures and political screeds, Facebook collects as much information about you as possible and sells it to whoever wants it. Ever posted something about your dishwasher dying only to see ads for dishwashers the next time you log in? Post a picture of your dream car and suddenly you’re getting ads for Mercedes Benz? Or Yugo. You know, whatever floats your goat.

Not your dad’s Yugo.

Like most social media sites, Facebook is nothing more than a fancy data collector and redistributor. Normally, companies have to fight tooth and nail to get information about what floats your goat. That kind of data is priceless, especially if you’ve got a platform you can use to deliver targeted advertising at the right time. Everyone on Facebook (yes, me included) gives that information away freely in exchange for more time with cat pictures and political screeds.

Is it an equitable exchange? Depends on what you’re doing. I don’t tend to post much personal information on there, so free access to cat pictures, friends, and the occasional political screed – er, heated political discussion – is worth it to me.

Still angry? Kill another bunny slipper, pal.

So, how does all this happen? Is Facebook actively giving your information to anyone that asks for it? Yes and no. They’ve something like over 2 billion users, so it’s not like Tide is going to ask for all the people who are likely to eat colored pods and Facebook is going to run a query and hand it over for few bucks. Facebook, like Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and all the rest, are services, not websites. Wait! How can that be? You use a web browser to access it, right? So it must be a website.

Back up, Sparky. Yes, most people access Facebook with a web browser, but that doesn’t mean it’s a website. It acts like a website, but you can also access Facebook with an app on your phone, a program on your desktop, or any other number of ways. Most of those programs render out the whole site for you because that’s what people want to see. Never mind the fact that Facebook is nothing more than a tarted-up group from back in the Usenet days, it’s the pictures and cool stuff that we really want to interact with. As users, we don’t care about the data. Unless you’re stalking someone, you probably don’t care that they live in Schenectady, love Nissans, and work for an advertising firm. You just want to see what people are posting. If you are stalking someone, stop it. That’s not cool.

Advertisers, on the other hand, don’t care about the cat pictures, but the political screeds and personal information are a goldmine to them. In addition to the random things we all post each and every day, the very metadata about you as a person is invaluable. Let’s say I run VHS to DVD shop in Clovis, NM and want to figure out how many people in the surrounding area could use my services. I could use your metadata about where you live and a scrape of your posts to target advertising to the right people (both of them) that might use my business. From there, I can decide to buy targeted ads on Facebook that promote my service to the right people.

So far, there’s nothing too terrible to see there. You share information, Facebook sells it, advertisers use it, you get your copy of Night of the Comet copied to a DVD. Everyone winds up happy.

Except Zuck. He doesn’t look too happy, but two days in front of Congress will do that to you.

The downside happens when unscrupulous groups use less-than-savory custom-built apps that exploit holes in Facebook’s API security to push misinformation or flat-out lies to people for the purposes of nudging us in a direction. That was the whole goal of various Russian data centers during the last election (and probably continuing to this day). And make no mistake, a nudge in certain direction is far more effective than a shove when it comes to getting people to do what you want them to. Now imagine doing that on a massive scale, say in the billions of users. Imagine what you could do with that kind of power.

That’s the why. The how is surprisingly simple. Remember, Facebook is really nothing more than a service. That means it can be accessed from a variety of different clients. That’s where the malicious apps come into play. Beyond creating a data scraper that exploits Facebook’s API, you could also make a Facebook app that looks like a regular game, but asks for certain kinds of information. If the game looks good enough, people will happily tell the game their names, birthdates, places of residence, political leanings, religious leanings, and everything else a data aggregator could possibly want. Just like with legitimate advertisers, someone who wants to nudge you in a direction can take that information and build on it, pushing you stories that reinforce a belief they want you to have. The next thing you know, something that was “meh” last week is the most important thing in the world to you.

And all it takes is enough people analyzing data you freely handed out and enough people pushing the message to make it a thing.

So, rather than getting pissed at Facebook for selling your data – they’ve never been opaque about that – think about what you’re sharing before you share it. Information is power. It’s a bullet, and if you aim it correctly you can blow the kneecaps off the world.

Definitely have fun with Facebook, that’s what it’s there for. But be wary of what you share because all the information is out there and available for a price. The same goes for any social media site (or, you know, blog site). We’re long past the industrial revolution and the computer revolution. The new model of currency is data and it’s very big business. If you don’t want your data polished and sold back to you, don’t give it out.

The Timelessness Of Spaceballs

We were watching Spaceballs last night and explaining some of the jokes to my son when something hit me. While the movie is pretty damned funny, it’s got some jokes that are forever stuck in the late 1980s. For example:

The Rocky tapes are a nice touch. Also, apparently Mr. Coffee has expanded their lineup.

Not only did I have to explain what VHS tapes were, we had to explain the significance of the scene in terms of movie making. Back in 1987, being able to watch a movie at home was a novel idea – and something that the movie studios were wary of. Remember, this was the time when replacing a video tape could cost you upwards of $100 and the cantankerous players could fetch nearly a grand. But all that price paled in comparison to what movie studios thought they were losing. If you could pay for a movie once and watch it over and over, that was a bad thing.

The movie theaters were less than enthralled at the idea as well. Why would someone come to a theater to watch a movie when they could watch it from the comfort of their own home?

Flash forward thirty years and not only are DVDs (and their ilk) cheaper, but you can pick up a player for next to nothing. Amazingly, movie theaters are still in business and Hollywood is still cranking out movies. They’ve just embraced the model of releasing a movie, waiting a bit, and then selling it to you.

But, at the time, plenty of people were nervous about the idea of video cassettes and that lead to a classic scene that bears explanation to younger viewers who are used to pushing a few buttons on Netflix and watching whatever they feel like. So the whole idea of video tapes and the associated commentary in the movie were a little lost on my kiddo.

The jokes about Dark Helmet using the Schwartz to crush people’s balls were right up his alley, though. To be fair, dick jokes never go out of style.

Admit it, you just laughed.

Anyway, the whole thing got me thinking about the idea of timelessness in a story. I’ve never really tried to set a story in a particular era. It would be fun to write something set in the 80s, but unless you lived through that time it would be difficult to explain things like “gag me with a Fraggle”, why anyone thought 7-Up Gold was a good idea, or the general appeal of The Cure. And, as the brief discussion of the Mr. Rental joke in Spaceballs shows up, if you have to explain a joke, it’s already not funny. Or, at least, not funny anymore because the world has changed.

The funny thing about Spaceballs, though, is just how timeless a lot of it has become. For what amounted to a throwaway send-up of Star Wars, it’s held up remarkably well and has spawned its own line of jokes. For instance, did you know the Tesla Model S has a Ludicrous Speed setting that will push that beast from 0-60 in 2.8 seconds? Ludicrous Speed, itself a joke about speed overkill in sci-fi movies, is straight out of Spaceballs.

Madness!

The second part of that joke, “They’ve gone to plaid”, has become a regular phrase to describe something that’s going way too fast. That one even has an Urban Dictionary entry.

In that way, Spaceballs created its own jokes and parlance. I regularly use the line “Oh, sure, I could carry two or three of these”.

That, I guess, is the genius of Mel Brooks. For a movie that only holds a 57% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Spaceballs has become its own timeless thing. Which just goes to show, when people are still talking about your work 30 years after it was released, it doesn’t matter what the critics say, that’s a piece of timeless art.

How do you go about telling that timeless story? Will people 30 years from now remember what you’ve written? That’s the rub. I seriously doubt back when he was writing Spaceballs Mel Brooks ever thought the joke about Ludicrous Speed would ever be resurrected in an electric car or “they’ve gone to plaid” would be a thing. At the time, it’s likely that he was just as concerned about the VHS revolution as everyone else who depended on movie goers to put food on their tables.

The things that become timeless – “I’ll be back”, for instance – are inherently unpredictable. You can’t set out to make that kind of thing happen. All you can do is make the best of whatever it is you’re making and keep your fingers crossed.

And have some really kick-ass marketing.

spaceballswallpaper

#WATWB – Your Monthly Shot Of News That Doesn’t Suck

Back in the day, when I was a wee lad in school, I caught a lot of shit from jocks because of my weight. While it only came to blows a few times (including an epic arm twist by yours truly), it was a constant problem. What jackass is going to pull my pants down today or try to beat me up so his buddies will think he’s cool? On and on and on. To this day, if I ever ran across one of my tormentors, I’d have to struggle with myself to not smash his smirking face in.

And therein lies the real danger with bullying. The physical injuries usually heal up pretty quickly, but the mental injuries stick around for a very long time. Forever in some cases.

My son’s school – and apparently most of the schools in the country – have taken a zero-tolerance approach to bullying. Bully someone and you’re done. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Get your things and get the hell out.

This is a good thing. Also, it’s a good thing that seems to be working. According to the Harvard Medical School, fewer teens (ages 12-18) are reporting being bullied. In fact, the number is down by a full third. So, either the bullies have become so successful that no one wants to rat them out or bullying has become so intolerable that fewer people are engaging in it. I guess it’s also possible that kids who were once bullied are fighting back.

The very last time I took a bully to task was after he jumped me from behind. I flipped him over my shoulder and told him in no uncertain terms that if he ever messed with me again I would kill him. Understand, this was a heat of the moment kind of thing when I was just a kid, so I wouldn’t have actually killed him, but bullies are dumb and weak and he believed me. For the rest of the year, every time that kid saw me, he took off in the opposite direction.

For those of you less inclined to resort to violence and threats, the world at least seems to be changing for the better. It shouldn’t hurt to be a kid and you definitely shouldn’t have to put up with dumbass jocks shaking your down for your lunch money.

Read Harvard Medical School’s post here and feel a little better.

If you’d like to connect your blog and help spread a little joy (or snark, like I do), it’s easy to sign up. Just ask and ye shall receive. Or go check it out here: here.

Our co-hosts for the month are the lovely and talented:
Sylvia McGrath, Sylvia Stein, Shilpa Garg, Eric Lahti and Belinda Witzenhausen

~~~GUIDELINES~~~

1. Keep your post to below 500 words, as much as possible.

2. All we ask is you link to a human news story on your blog on the last Friday of each month, one that shows love, humanity and brotherhood.

3. Join us on the last Friday of each month in sharing news that warms the cockles of our heart. No story is too big or small, as long as it goes beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.

4. Place the WE ARE THE WORLD Badge on your sidebar, and help us spread the word on social media. Tweets, Facebook shares, G+ shares using the #WATWB hashtag through the month most welcome. More Blogfest signups mean more friends, love and light for all of us.

5. We’ll read and comment on each others’ posts, get to know each other better, and hopefully, make or renew some friendships with everyone who signs on as participants in the coming months.

6. To signup, add your link in WE ARE THE WORLD Linky List below.

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And now, your moment of Zen.

Book Review – Lightning Blade by D.N. Erikson

Way back in ’93 Groundhog Day dropped Bill Murray’s single-handed show-stopping mania into American moviegoers’ laps. About eleven years later a Japanese author named Hiroshi Sakurazaka dropped a book called All You Need Is Kill. All You Need Is Kill was appropriated by Hollywood and turned into Edge Of Tomorrow which was a good – if underappreciated movie – that was saddled with a really unfortunate name. Not that All You Need Is Kill is a spectacular title, especially compared to the simple punch of Groundhog Day.

So, what do Bill Murray, groundhogs, Japanese novels, and American sci-fi have in common? They all center around the idea of a time loop. Bill Murray relives the same Groundhog Day 38 times, although the director says he lived the same day over and over for ten years. All You Need Is Kill‘s protagonist loops through the same set of days over and over again, dozens or hundreds of times. The prime difference between the two is Bill Murray wakes up each morning to Sonny and Cher and All You Need Is Kill‘s Keiji Kiriya restarts each time he dies.

D.N. Erikson’s Lightning Blade follows a similar pattern. Not that Lightning Blade is necessarily derivative of either Groundhog Day or All You Need Is Kill, it just makes use of a time loop, which is a pretty clever thing to do in an urban fantasy story. At least, I’ve never seen it done before.

Here’s the thing about time loops: They can get boring if they’re not handled well. Groundhog Day could have been the least interesting movie on the planet – right up there with Ishtar – if it wasn’t handled well. Ditto with All You Need Is Kill. If you’ve got the same character going through the same thing over and over, it can get ridiculously tedious. In other words, writing a time loop story isn’t for the faint of heart.

Fortunately, Erikson handles the time loop with a good deal of flair. Lightning Blade is told from the point of view of Ruby Callaway, a less-than-savory bounty hunter living out her days in a Tuscon penitentiary where she’s been imprisoned for a variety of crimes including having and using essence – the world’s version of magic. Ruby gets caught up in hunting down a necromancer who’s become a terrorist. Unbeknownst to Ruby and her FBI partner, the necromancer has dropped them both into a time loop where he’s been hiding out and getting stronger. Every time Ruby dies, the loop resets and she has to start all over again.

Each time Ruby gets re-looped, she remembers even though the rest of the characters are reset back to zero. Since she knows what’s coming, Ruby has to try new things to get her story back on track. Each of the loops gets us closer and closer to the endgame, which is just as much a surprise as everything else that comes before it. That’s what makes a good time-loop book.

For fans of Kate Daniels and The Dresden Files comes a new breed of urban fantasy heroine.
One who might not survive an endless day.

When the FBI releases supernatural bounty hunter Ruby Callaway after 20 years, the terms are simple: put down the necromancer killing public officials in return for amnesty. But then the necromancer plunges a blade through her heart, and Ruby reawakens at midnight, back in jail. Alive. 

Which means one thing: the necromancer has thrust the world into an endless time loop that only he and Ruby can see. And Ruby is the only one capable of stopping him before the world burns. But as she unravels the necromancer’s sinister plan, two questions repeat in Ruby’s mind: Just how dangerous is a vengeful serial killer with nothing but time? 

And what if the necromancer isn’t the worst thing lurking in the shadows of this brave new world?

Lightning Blade is the first book in the Ruby Callaway Trilogy, mixing dark, gritty urban fantasy with a sprinkling of futuristic sci-fi & cyberpunk. Not your typical bounty hunter. Not your typical urban fantasy.

All in all, Lightning Blade is a fun read with well-handled time loop that takes its time to explain the nuances of the world Ruby lives in. As a bonus, it’s available for less than a buck now.

Get it on Amazon

Check out Erikson’s website

 

No, Seriously. You Can’t Do That

My son is nearing his test for his Junior 1st Black in Kenpo. This summer, after years of training, he’ll be at that first plateau that we look at as the really the first step in a life-long journey.

Of course, being steeped in the martial arts these days means you have to wade through a ton of crap and lies that have sprung up over the centuries. Recently, on the drive home, he told me it was possible to hit someone’s nose so hard it sends shards of bone into their brain and kills them instantly. The trick, he assured me, was to use an upward palm strike so that you blast that nose with everything you’ve got.

In case you’re wondering, it looks like this:

Ninja hoods and Marines shirts add +5 to your strikes. But don’t tell anyone I told you that.

This exact strike – and the killing theory behind it – has been the stuff of martial arts legends for as long as I can remember. We talked about it on the playground when I was in school and everyone knew someone who knew someone who totally swore it worked and back off or I’m gonna test it on you and then you’ll be dead and no one will care.

It’s been used in books and movies. This was the strike that got Nicolas Cage busted at the beginning on Con Air. It seems any time someone needs to die from a single strike, this is the tired old trope that gets trotted out. Unfortunately, it’s utter hogwash. Pushing nose bones into someone’s brain falls into the same category of fighting nonsense as the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique and the Hurticane. Simply put, the human body doesn’t work like that. Your nose is mostly cartilage (sexy cartilage, in my case) and there’s another layer of bone behind your sinus cavities that you’d have to pierce into order to shove bits of nose into someone’s brain.

That’s not to say it’s not going to hurt like hell. The nose is always a good target in a fight because it’s so close to everything else on your face. I’ve been popped in the beak a time or two and I can assure it’s no fun. Your sinuses swell up, your nose starts leaking fluids you’d rather it didn’t, and your eyes leak water like a comic book fan watching someone burn the original X-Men. In other words, it’s a great place to hit someone if you want to take the fight out of them quickly. It’s not always an easy target to hit, but it is effective. It’s just not deadly in and of itself.

What about all that anecdotal evidence about people getting killed with one punch? Is that all bull, too? Well, yes and no. It has happened, but in most cases death comes from someone hitting their head when they fall down.

I guess the takeaway from that is if you want to kill someone with one strike, make sure they hit their on something hard on the way down.

So, if you’re writing about a fight scene and want to have your main character kill someone with a single blow, choose something realistic. If you want to have your character do some really crazy stuff, look into Dim Mak. On the other hand, if you’re in the middle of a fight and are worried about killing someone with a palm strike to the nose, don’t fret. Just fire that sucker and get the heck out of Dodge.

This gif cracks me up. Fun fact about Bolo Yeung: he swam from China to Taiwan to escape oppression. Fun fact about VanDamme: he can do the splits.

Just make sure your opponent doesn’t hit their head on the way down.

WATWB – Your Monthly Shot of News That Doesn’t Suck

I’ve spent the past couple of these railing on big things like Net Neutrality and the odious Joe Arpaio, so I decided it’s time to for a lighter post. Now, it’s well-known that everything causes cancer. Except cancer, that causes AIDS. No matter what you eat, drink, or breathe, it’s gonna give you cancer, rot your teeth, or flat-out kill you.

Or so it would seem.

Claudia Kawas, a neurologist with the University of California, tracked 1700 nonagenarians through a study that started in 2003. The goal of the research was to find out what kinds of daily activities allowed these folks to live into their 90s. The study found people who exercised 15-45 minutes per day were 11% less likely to drop dead prematurely than those who didn’t. While that’s good news, it gets better. The study also found that people who had 1 or 2 glasses of wine or beer each day were 18% less likely to suffer premature death.

Unless you’re in your 90s, this research probably doesn’t directly apply to you. If, however, you’re like me and happy to latch onto anything that sounds good, this is like getting the Holy Grail without having to fight Nazis or stumble through ancient booby traps. The way I see it, if I get 15-45 minutes of exercise and pop a couple brews each day, I can live to be 200.

At any rate, it’s nice to see something positive in an otherwise dreary world. My recommendation to you is to grab some weights, punch a bag, sprint on a bike, or do whatever floats your goat. Then, when you’re good and sweaty, pop open a couple dark beers and chill on the couch for a while.

On second though, maybe it’s chilling on the couch that will let you live longer.

Check it, and go grab a drink.

If you’d like to connect your blog and help spread a little joy (or snark, like I do), it’s easy to sign up. Just ask and ye shall receive. Or go check it out here: here.

Our co-hosts for the month are the lovely and talented:
Peter Nena
Yours Truly
Roshan Radhakrishnan
Inderpreet Kaur Uppal
Shilpa Garg

~~~GUIDELINES~~~

1. Keep your post to below 500 words, as much as possible.

2. All we ask is you link to a human news story on your blog on the last Friday of each month, one that shows love, humanity and brotherhood.

3. Join us on the last Friday of each month in sharing news that warms the cockles of our heart. No story is too big or small, as long as it goes beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.

4. Place the WE ARE THE WORLD Badge on your sidebar, and help us spread the word on social media. Tweets, Facebook shares, G+ shares using the #WATWB hashtag through the month most welcome. More Blogfest signups mean more friends, love and light for all of us.

5. We’ll read and comment on each others’ posts, get to know each other better, and hopefully, make or renew some friendships with everyone who signs on as participants in the coming months.

6. To signup, add your link in WE ARE THE WORLD Linky List below.

This is a Blog Hop!

Powered by Linky Tools

Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

And now, your moment of Zen.

The real reason we stopped going into space. But at least he’s having some wine.