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The Needs of the Many

I saw this object on the shelf at my local Borders and it melted my mind. But as intriguing as a "Star Trek" themed online book would be, this product that claimed to be a Star Trek online book appeared to be nothing more than an ordinary ink-on-woodpulp paperback.

There was no USB port embedded in the spine. The pages weren't updated through a wireless interface. This purportedly online book didn't even have a touchscreen.

As it turned out, The Needs of the Many wasn't the "Star Trek" themed online book I'd expected. It was instead a "Star Trek Online" themed book--a traditional book based on an online video game based on a television/movie franchise. What a way to milk a story universe!

So okay, false alarm. This book turned out to be a sad little novelization of something online that exists entirely outside of the book's pages. But I'd like to see a product that starts as an ordinary storybook which then expands, updates, and customizes itself through a network connection. It wouldn't be the digitized version of a traditional book or a video game in text-adventure format--it would be a self-contained product capable of evolving into new configurations based on the needs and preferences of each reader.

Now that what would really fit The Needs of the Many!
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Scaling Back

I've blogged before about Project G, a promising work-in-progress that's gotten perhaps a bit too complex and complicated over the past few years of revision. As an author, I love the challenge of coordinating events in seven time zones and across the Solar System. But as a reader, I'd probably be hopelessly lost without the benefit of consulting my timeline and author notes.

That's all changed with the new "streamlined" version of Project G. Events in China, Germany, Brazil, and Mexico now happen off-stage and behind the scenes. There are fewer viewpoint characters to keep track of. The book moves faster and there's more room for deeper development. I still have an epic story to tell, but this part of it no longer feels like the opening book of an epic series. Also, I'm no longer pitching it as a series. This book will stand alone with an opening for potential sequels. Mind-blowing epic sequels, muhahaha!

I've been thinking about The Phantom Menace as a model. The movie had some truly irredeemable aspects but many critics piled on because Menace wasn't the galaxy-spanning epic film they were expecting from the Star Wars franchise. That never seemed fair to me. Menace is structured as the first movie in a six-movie series, the one that introduces the key players and kicks off the action, and it does that very well.

When we first see Yoda, for example, he is at the height of his powers, ruling an invincible Jedi Counsel from the political center of the galaxy. Seeing this aspect of Yoda makes it that much more impactful when he's reintroduced as a fugitive, hiding from the Empire in a swampy unpopulated wilderness. We have a few hints in Menace that there's a dark side to Anakin, but his development into villain of Darth Vader's stature is meant to be a surprise. Having a believable Anakin-to-Vader arc would, theoretically, give us a better feel for the villain's motivations and a bigger context to his ultimate redemption. The subsequent lack of a deep or believable path of the character's development is a shame, but I can't fault Menace for how badly Anakin's character arc is mangled in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

would have been a huge critical success if it had been released in 1977. For one thing, a non-CGI Jar-Jar would have had been a hundred times more watchable, but also the film wouldn't have been burdened with many years of anticipatory buildup after the grand climax in Return of the Jedi. As a small movie, Menace makes a big statement: the corruption of the Galactic Senate, the establishment of an Imperial dictatorship, and the end of the Jedi order all have their roots in a seemingly insignificant trade dispute on a single backwater world.

So that's my model, with Earth being the single backwater world and a game of Tic-Tac-Toe instead of a trade dispute. Of course my story won't have any Gungans in it. And no midichlorians. And I'm trying my best to avoid plot holes and bad dialogue. And now that I think of it, maybe The Phantom Menace isn't the best model to work from after all.
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Sid Fleischman (1920-2010)

I have to delurk for a moment to say goodbye to Newbery Medalist Sid Fleischman, who died last week after celebrating his 90th birthday. I first met Sid at the SCBWI annual conference in Los Angeles in 2004, and had the honor of introducing him at his workshop on screenwriting. Sid's workshop was both informative and entertaining, but my duties of shepherding him to the event nearly had me in an apoplectic fit.

The light over Sid's podium blew out just before he was to speak, requiring me to frantically search for a maintenance staffer while Sid peered at his notes in the darkness. Then there were technical difficulties with the sound system and podium itself, but Sid was amazingly good-humored and patient with the delay. Finally, when came time for me to introduce him, I asked if Sid wanted me to read from the biography in the conference materials.

He looked at them and said, "No, this is all about my career as a book writer. Since this is a workshop about screenwriting, it should be more about what I've done in that field."

So we sat down for five minutes and wrote a whole new bio, from scratch, about Sid's equally impressive work for film--and five minutes was hardly enough time to cover half of it. After the workshop we went to the conference luncheon, where I discovered that SCBWI's new award for humor writing would be called the Sid Fleischman Humor Award.

Sid was a speaker at the SCBWI New England Conference in 2007, where he inspired us with his words and wowed us with his stage magic. I gave him an ARC of my book and one of the biggest thrills of my life was hearing from him that he enjoyed it and thought it was very funny.

Sid will be missed, but his talent lives on through his books and films. The Ghost in the Midday Sun continues to be the best pirate book I've ever read and The Whipping Boy defines the entire genre of stories about whipping boys. Does anyone else remember "The Bloodhound Gang" segment from 3-2-1 Contact on PBS? It blew my mind to learn that Sid wrote that as well! Sid also has a biography of Charlie Chaplin coming out in April 2010 from Greenwillow and at least one other posthumous book that I know of.

Sid Fleischman was my idol. I'm still in shock at his loss.

Busy, busy...

Still polishing up something new and fantastic...

Because I need to post something every once in a while, can anyone with access to liner notes confirm the lyrics to that Kings of Leon song that plays every time I turn on my car radio? To my ear it sounds like:

You know that I could [squeaking sound] some bad [constipation sound].
You know that I could [squeaking sound] some bad [constipation sound].
You know that I could [squeaking sound] some bad [constipation sound].
Someone like [whiny sound].

Nah, I kid. I'm sure it's a lovely song if you can stand to listen to it all the way through.
Penguin Author

Something New and Fantastic from the Shoebox

To anyone who's noticed my recent lack of posts and cared to know why, there's been nothing to blog about on the writing front during the summer semester of my Masters in Teaching program, and little Internet connectivity during my subsequent period of rest and recovery at the Jersey shore. The projects I put "out there" in the spring have fizzed from editorial indifference and my agent is on me to put something else in the hopper. That's what August is for: I've promised to have something new and fantastic by the end of the month.

If you ever want to impress an agent or editor, offer them something new and fantastic by the end of the month, and then, most importantly, deliver on that promise. Here's how to do it...

Every author should have a folder or directory called "shoebox" where partially-finished books can sit and simmer. Every author should also have at least one project that can be referred to as "The Work." This is a book or series that's so ambitious, revolutionary, complex, original, and/or research-intensive that it can't possibly be finished...yet. The third thing every author should do is aim for continual improvement in the art and craft of writing. The moment you think of yourself as a "good enough writer" is the moment you start losing your edge. Instead, if you're comfortable with the self image of a "continually improving writer," you will be able to go on to ever more challenging projects that require a higher and higher level of skill.

Years ago I poured a huge amount of time and effort into a certain project. It had an epic plot, innovative story world, and original narrative voice combined with elements I'd never seen in any other book. The early manuscript was a hit among test-readers including my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife (I'm not claiming she married me because of this book, but it certainly didn't hurt). This was "The Work." I took this project as far as I could go with it, and then as far as my critique group could push me, and I still didn't have the skills to write this particular book to the level I thought it deserved. So I put it into the shoebox for what I intended to be just a little while. That was in 2003.

For the last six years, I have worked on other projects--including The Penguins of Doom (Blooming Tree Press, 2007)--always refining my skills in the process. I have also picked up tips and tricks from other authors through their books, blogs, and conference workshop presentations. And you can't discount the bits and pieces picked up from six years of life experience that include getting married, being published, hanging with the Class of 2k7, becoming a father, and switching careers from law to education. When I dug into the shoebox last week and opened "The Work.doc" for the first time since 2003, I saw the story with the eyes of a continually improving writer. I could identify flaws in the story, places where the manuscript fell short of my original vision, and--this is the exciting part--I could now figure out ways to address those issues.

By the end of August I will have a hugely-improved version of The Work to present as "something new and fantastic, just as I promised." I'm confident it will be good enough to submit, although out of my hands as to whether other people will take a chance on its publication. If there's no interest, the story will go back into the shoebox until I am able to bring it to an even higher level.

In the meantime, I wanted to write this post to encourage anybody who feels frustrated with the gap between their grand vision of "The Work" and the rough manuscript that represents their current level of writing. Don't get discouraged. Put that manuscript into an electronic or paper file, move on to other things, and continue to sharpen your skills. There will come a time in some months or years when you will be able to close that gap. And as a bonus, when you're looking for something new and fantastic to submit, you won't have to start from scratch.
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WOTD: Grad School

Today's word of the day is "Grad School" because I'm going back for a master's in teaching, starting next week. You may notice fewer posts from me about writing, but you will now find posts about teaching on my new teaching blog.

So, how long exactly until I'm allowed to stop shaving?

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WOTD: gods

Today's word of the day is gods. With a small "g".

It's been a while since I put a post up on "The Spectacle", the speculative fiction group blog I share with fellow authors Parker Peevyhouse, P.J. Hoover, Jo Whittemore, Linda Joy Singleton, Joni Sensel, and Steve Brezenoff.  My current entry is some thoughts on gods and their use in fantasy.  My experience is that pantheons of gods seem to be showing up in more than ever in literature including contemporary fantasies where you wouldn't expect to see so much mythology.  There are two individuals I blame for this, only partially tongue in cheek: Edith Hamilton and Gary Gygax.