Archive for November, 2011

Of Books and Men

This is a difficult road to walk down, as it requires a very clear delineation as to what I am about to defend.  So I want to start by clearly stating what shouldn’t need stating, just so I am on the record.  What Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing is wrong on the absolute base level.  Wrong, inexcusable, and indefensible.  Nothing but nothing in this post should be seen as excusing any act Sandusky is accused of, or the acts of people around him who did so little to report what they knew was happening.

That’s a heavy start to a post, but this is a heavy topic.  Two heavy topics, really.  There’s what Sandusky did, and there’s what some Amazon want done.

Back in 2001 a biography of Sandusky came on the market.  It was called Touched.  I will pause now for everyone to consider how bad that title has become in retrospect.  It focuses on his life up through the founding of the charity that he is now accused of using as a front to gain access to his victims.  It’s a glowingly positive portrayal of the man, and why wouldn’t it be?  At the time he was known as the driving force behind Penn State being called Linebacker-U.  There was nothing to indicate that he was engaging in any sort of inappropriate behaviors.  Books don’t magically change when new facts come to life, that just isn’t their nature.

Touched fell out of print a few years ago.  It’s now available only through third-party sellers, and still listed on the Amazon website.  This is ruffling feathers, and some are calling for the book to be pulled from the website, for the company to act like it was never written, that it never existed.  This call for censorship of the book has not been acted on by Amazon, and I want to go on the record and state: I hope it isn’t.

See, this is the part where I squirm a little, and go pointing back to my opening paragraph.  I am not defending the man.  I am defending the book.  As I tend to defend books, as I have in the past when the specter of censorship has raised its ugly head.  It’s why I was against the PG-ification of Huck Finn.  It’s why I wrote in favor of Banned Books Week.

Censorship is a slippery slope.  It always has been, and it always will be.  Once begun, it’s hard to keep that line in the sand, that arbitrary point at which one thing is okay and one thing is to be considered vile.  It starts out very simply with things that everyone can agree on, but it walks down a path where 90% of people agree.  Then 80%.  All the while, more and more is being swept under the carpet.  Shunted away.

It’s easy to say this is a First Amendment issue.  It isn’t.  The First Amendment clearly starts, “Congress shall make no law…”  However, that doesn’t keep this from being a free speech issue, and while the Amendment is not applicable to Amazon, I should certainly hope that it remembers why it exists.  That popular speech never needs to be protected.

I understand there is a lot of emotion involved in this issue, and I feel it too.  I was shocked and disgusted when the allegations came out.  I can understand in the heat of the moment wanting to see some kind of justice, and pulling the book would be nice immediate gratification in a case that will likely linger for awhile before coming to a conclusion, which will never be an entirely satisfactory one.  But the book is not the man.  And this is a nation founded on such concepts as not pulling books about people we find distasteful or downright disgusting.  And Amazon, for better or worse, is becoming one of the chief scions of information in this digital age.

So hate the man.  Go ahead.  I won’t stop you.  But don’t pull the book.

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What did Delaware?

On Wednesday I got my first blog hit from the state of North Dakota.  That means that I have now “collected” 49 states.  Plus DC and Puerto Rico.  All that’s left is a state only 93 miles from where I am here in Annandale.  I’m talking about the gem of the eastern shore, the heart of the Delmarva, the first state itself: Delaware.

And so in hopes of finally collecting the full set of states, I present to you my favorite things about Delaware.

No sales tax.  Seriously, what’s not good about this?  Oh, I understand that taxes are the necessary evils of living in a society such as the United States, but doesn’t it feel awesomely like cheating the system when you buy something in Delaware and see that no taxes charged on it?  Oh yeah, they make up for that with the costs of the toll roads through the state, but that doesn’t negate that giddy I’m-getting-away-with-something sensation.

Bethany Beach.  Oh sure, it doesn’t get nearly the glory of Rohoboth.  Or Ocean City.  But that also means that it’s a lot quieter than Rohoboth.  Or Ocean City.  But it has a great beach that I’ve never seen crowded, is a wonderful little town, and is perfectly between the two, ideal for visiting either while staying in neither.

This did not actually happen in Delaware, but it includes the word "Delaware" and is awesome.

Punkin Chunkin.  Last year my in-laws went to see this in person.  I can’t even express how jealous I am of that.  Because…seriously.  Trebuchets, cannons, giant whipping arm contraptions that look like they could break down and explode at any moment, pumpkins flying through the air.  If there’s anything better about America than that, I certainly don’t know what it is.

Wedging the Wedge.  Due to poor definitions of state borders there was a little chunk of land near where Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania meet called The Wedge.  It’s now called the Delaware Wedge because the tiny state fought off both larger states when making a case for possession of the tract of land.  Because what Delaware wants, it goes out and gets, damnit!

Caleb Rodney.  He was governor of Delaware for a brief period from 1822 to 1823, but in that short time in office he not only became the first man to walk on Mars but also killed a bear using only a rusty spoon!

I swear most of the facts above are not entirely false.  So let’s go Delaware.  Come on in.  I swear I don’t bite, and I love your quirky, tiny, beachy, tax-free state.

Edit 11/14/2011: VICTORY IS MINE!

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Enabling

It’s always a bad sign when I feel the need to start a post by saying how much I love certain institutions.  I love Nanowrimo, it got me started in writing and it can be a way of dipping your toes or a push to be more productive.  Fantastic event.  I love Smashwords, I used them for the brief e-publication of Rust and they provide a vital service for authors looking to get their books into various e-markets as painlessly as possible.  Fantastic company.  The Meatgrinder rocks.

Do you know where I’m going with this?

If you don’t, you likely haven’t seen Smashwords/Nanowrimo promotion, by which Smashwords is giving a place for people participating in Nano to put their works, whether in progress or recently “finished,” up for the world to see.

Right now there are only 42 books up, and I’m happy to see that most of them are actually free, but…well…let’s get back to something I said just about a week ago now:

However, please keep a few things in mind.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell this to anyone reading this blog, but what you’re writing the next thirty days is a rough draft.  Nothing more (though in my own experience, occasionally less).  Don’t be that person who is sending their manuscripts out to agents or publishers on December 1st.  Yes, those people exist.  Yes, those people are why Nanowrimo has a bad reputation in some circles.

Yes, I just quoted myself, but I want to repeat that exact point.  What people are creating during Nanowrimo are drafts.  Rough drafts.  Often extremely rough drafts.  They really aren’t stories that are ready for human consumption.  This move by Smashwords feels like an attempt to enable those who feel that the act of creating in November is good enough, that what they have at the end of the month is a novel, and that it’s ready for the world at large.

It isn’t.

I’ve fallen into a similar trap.  The entire reason I eventually pulled Rust off various online stores (in spite of the best efforts of Lulu to keep throwing it back up) was a realization that what I had written had a beginning, a middle, and an end.  But it wasn’t a complete novel.  What editing it saw was my own amateur editing, and I really am my own worst editor.  I pulled it down because it was a bad representation of my writing and a rather poor excuse for a work made available for a price.

I’m not going to pretend there aren’t writers in the world who would put their Nanowrimo novels up on Smashwords on December 1st and pat themselves on the back for being a published author.  I’m sure they see an uptick every year in that first week if they felt the need to put this promotion together.  However, I’m less than enthused about the apparent promotion of that idea, especially the promotion of putting up a work in progress that isn’t just unedited but incomplete.

And beware.  Anyone putting their stories up this way is burning their first publication rights, which will make these novels almost impossible to sell in any traditional way should they eventually be cleaned and polished.

Perhaps I’m being a curmudgeon.  Grumpy Ole Mr. Thurston.  I just want more people who want to be writers to actually be writers, and not just someone who threw something onto a website and called it a day.

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Steal This Post

I heard a story once.  Goes like this.  Most writers for television shows are strictly instructed not to read fan fiction related to their show.  Or unsolicited scripts that come in the mail.  The reasoning behind this is a legal one.  It keeps the show out of trouble if they end up airing an episode that is similar to a concept a fan came up with and banged out on his home computer.  This actually happened early on in the run of the Simpsons and cost the show some money from a settlement payment.  I know that last part is true, it’s on the commentary tracks.  I can’t promise the rest is.  But it wouldn’t surprise me.

Why?  Because whenever I start a new piece of fiction, I tend to stop reading anything else written in that subgenre.  Right now that means no Steampunk for David while writing Nickajack, which is awkward since the Steampunk anthology I’m in is due out rather soon.  I do this not for any legal reasons, I do this entirely for paranoia reasons.  I don’t want to read something and end up influence and accidentally lifting ideas.  The idea of accidentally plagiarizing something gives me the cold sweats.  I’ve tried the opposite, immersing myself in a subgenre so I would know what to avoid.  But then I get frozen every time an idea I have comes within shouting distance of what someone else has done.

Yes, living in my brain is hell sometimes.

Because of this admittedly irrational fear of unintentional plagiarism, actual cases boggle my mind.  Not just in academic settings where it can ruin grades or enrollment, but into the world of writing.  The idea that someone would plagiarise a section of a book is something I can’t cope with.  The idea that someone would craft an entire novel, Frankenstein-like, out of the bits and pieces of other works?

How is it possible for anyone to do that?

And yet…

Spy novelist Jeremy Duns writes it all up on his blog.  The promising novel.  The hint that something might be wrong.  The discovery that the entire work was cobbled together from nearly a dozen other novels with scenes stolen, names changed, locations altered, but prose in tact.  And what kept Duns from recognizing the plagiarism?  My own habit of stepping away from a genre I’m writing in.  He missed it for the same reason I would miss it, and that actually angers me all the more.

And the trail is spreading.  As I’ve been drafting this post, Huffington Post Books has just tweeted: “We just found examples of plagiarism in the piece Quentin Rowan wrote for us.”  It’s a clear and growing path of stolen content that goes far beyond just one novel.

All found out because someone on a James Bond forum thought a bit of prose sounded suspiciously familiar.  The novel is being pulled.  Jeremy Duns was an unwitting victim in this, as were publishers, editors, and a few early buyers of the book.  It’s amazing that it got so far without being caught, but it’s also amazing how fast the process worked once the truth was brought to light.

I shouldn’t have to say that the lesson here is, “plagiarism is wrong.”  That’s something we all learned a long time ago.  Some people have clearly chosen to ignore this, but that’s no surprise.  People do worse every day.  The actual lesson here is: The internet is watching.  This global community that can link people together instantly may be the best policing force intellectual property rights has ever seen.  Examples can be compiled rapidly, and with online tools can be quickly checked out and sent around the world.

So…

Ya know…

DON’T DO IT!

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Election Day

There’s two things I don’t talk about on my blog or on Twitter: politics and religion.  Not because I don’t have opinions, in fact I wear them quite openly on my sleeve in real life.  But just…because.  There are debates I don’t want to sidetrack either by getting into.  However, I don’t think it’s political to say that today is election day here in the United States, and while it’s only local office elections, there are still important issues to decide.  It’s your right and your privilege.  Go do it.

Now.  Watch as I take that and turn this into a writing related post.

There are several bizarre and arbitrary dates on the calendar.   Thanksgiving was originally the last Thursday in November, but was bumped up to the fourth Thursday (though that’s often the same) to extend the Christmas shopping season.  Washington’s Birthday never, by the way its definition, falls on his birthday.  And has become Presidents Day largely due to the chronological coincidence of Lincoln’s birthday.  But perhaps the oddest bit of jiggery pokery on the calendar is Election Day in the United States.

One thing I learned during my brief blogging adventure into the lead-up to the war of 1812 is that the modern concept of Election Day is just that.  Rather modern.  Elections had to take place by a certain date, but they didn’t have to take place on a certain date.  When things were finally codified, Election Day was defined as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  There’s three oddities in here that bear explaining:

First Tuesday.  The United States is unique in the world for voting on Tuesdays.  The day was chosen to mesh with a more agrarian society, a more rural society, and a more religious society.  Tuesday was well free of the sabbath days of the two major faiths, allowing residents who needed time to travel to their polling sites to do so, while also not interfering with Wednesday markets that took place in several towns.

After the first Monday.  This is basically to say “Election day can’t fall on the first.”  In part because the first of November is a holiday in Christian traditions, All Saints Day, which was observed more devoutly in the early periods of the United States.  But also because businesses tended to balance their books on the last of the month, and Congress didn’t want grumpy business men fresh off balancing books the night before voting raw emotions.  Best to give them a day to cool off.

In November.  Again, agrarian rural society.  November was after the harvest but before Northern states started getting really bad snowfalls.  It was seen as a month that would maximize participation.

So three quirks, all that have a perfectly logical reasoning behind them, combine to form one of the longest definitions on the American calendar.  But I promised I’d tie everything back into writing.  So what is my loose connection?

World building.

When building a calendar with holidays and observances for a world, keep in mind that weird quirks work their way into calendars.  Most American holidays have been shifted around to fall on Mondays, in spite of the actual date being remembered, to create long weekends rather than interrupted weeks.  Most countries celebrate the birth of either their first and/or current leader.  Sometimes it’s rather arbitrary, as the various realms of the Commonwealth celebrate the Queen’s Birthday on various and sundry days, none of which have anything to do when Elizabeth II was actually born.  The date of holidays don’t need to make immediate external sense, but they do need to have an internal logic.  Even if that logic is never explored in the book, it’s something the writer should know about the society.

So there you go, my roundabout way of turning Election Day into a thought on the writing process.  Convoluted?  Sure.  But convoluted is what I do best.

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Naming Names

It’s odd to think that anyone was ever born with the name Bertha.  Or Mabel.  These are names that only apply to people later in their lives, women who step forth one day fully realized.  Yet if you were to look at the Social Security Administration’s list of the most popular baby names for given years, both were among the 50 most popular names for baby girls in the years 1911 and 1912.  By today both names have fallen out of even the top 1000, meaning you’re far more likely to find a Mabel celebrating her first century than a Mabel cooing in a nursery.  According to the list of the most popular names in 2010, those babies are far more likely to be named Khloe (#42) or either Zoe or Zoey (#31 and #47 respectively).  Even Mary, a name that was the #1 most popular name for a baby girl from the earliest SSA records in 1879 through 1946 and again from 1953-1961, has now fallen out of the top 100.

The most common name for baby girls now?  Isabella.  A name that wasn’t even in the top 1000 as recently as 1989.  For boys it’s Jacob, a Biblical first name that’s always been in the top 400, but has risen in popularity around the same time as Isabella.  Odd, that.  Edward is down in the 130s for the curious.

Among the top 10 most popular baby boy names in 2010, Jayden and Aiden.  Jayden wasn’t in the top 1000 until 1994, Aiden not until 1995.  Which means you may find nurseries or kindergartens with Jaydens and Aidens in them, but probably not a lot of high school or college graduating classes.

Names are odd fads to consider.  They grow in popularity, they decline in popularity.  Sometimes, as with the example of Mary’s recent decline, it’s because of overuse.  Sometimes, as with the decline of Adolph starting in the late 1930s, it’s a geopolitical thing.  Sometimes it’s even meteorological, as the name Katrina has gone from the 200s to the 800s very quickly.  New names can come from foreign languages, such as the adaptation of Aiden from Irish.  They can even be invented whole cloth in movies.  The first name Madison for girls did not exist on the SSA listings until the movie Splash came out in 1984.

Why am I talking about names?  Because Scrivener for Windows finally moves from Beta to Full today.  What’s the connection?  Because I have entirely too much fun playing with the Name Generator in Scrivener.  Tell it a nationality for a first name, a nationality for the last name, and suddenly you know what to call your Maori/Armenian main character when he first comes on page.  It even has lists of ancient names from bygone cultures.

The one flaw I saw in the whole of it was a lack of basic American first names.  Oh yes, there is an American option in the first name drop down, but it’s largely populated with the modern trendy names.  Fortunately there’s a nice way to import more names into the database, so rather than complaining about things I decided to do something myself.  That’s why I started putting together files based on the most popular US first names based on the same SSA lists I quoted above.  The files start in 1880 and are a snapshot of the 500 most popular boys and girls names every 10 years right up through 2010.  All the files are available in the Scrivener tab at the top of the page (or this link, for the scrolling adverse).  There are also lists based on the major families in Colonial Virginia, and the first and last names of every general on both sides of the Civil War.  Those were more for my own purposes, but I figured why do the work if I wasn’t going to share it.

I’m really thrilled to now have the SSA listings in the Scrivener Name Generator, as they’ve been my go-to lists for names for as long as I’ve been writing.  A note on usage, however.  Remember that the names are the most popular names for children born in a given year, not the general population living in a given year.  So when generating names, consider when the character was born.  What this means is that the 40 year-old titan of industry in your 2050s near future science fiction is, for better or worse, more likely to be named Jayden, Aiden, or Mason than John or Mark.  Last names, you’re currently on your own.  There’s plenty of fantastic lists included in Scrivener.  I’ll likely put together a few more files in the near future, but more likely focusing still on first names.  Make sure you’re following me on Twitter and Google+, as I’m more likely to announce new files there, or just keep an eye on the Scrivener page above.

So use.  Enjoy.  Share.  I’ve based the databases I’ve put online completely on open source material, so I feel it should be perpetuated forward in the same form.

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Cast of Characters

David MitchellSee the gentleman to the right?  His name is David Mitchell.  He’s a British actor and comedian who I’ve become familiar with due to his participation in that most British of television phenomenons, the prime time panel show.  Particularly through his involvement as a regulars on QI and a team captain on Would I Lie to you.  What can I say, I’m a fan of British comedy, and there’s a lot of these shows that’ll never get broadcast in the US for one reason or another hiding on Youtube.

So why do I have a picture of David Mitchell on my blog about writing, and why am I babbling about BBC panel shows?  Well, the latter is just because I’m a fan of them and this is my blog after all.  The first question is more to the point of this post.  I have a picture of David Mitchell because I realized he’s a character in Nickajack, the novel I’m currently outlining.  Oh, not the actual David Mitchell.  That would just be silly.  But rather the persona that he adopts during the panel shows, the version of himself that he puts out there for the UK and the world to see.  His mannerisms, his defensiveness, his delivery, his occasional dismissiveness.  Little bits and pieces of that are going to end up floating around the brain of an 1870s mechanical construct named, simply, No. 3.

Casting my characters is a trick that I picked up when working on a spec television pilot.  It’s probably a natural extension of writing for the screen, but is less obvious in writing for the page.  Casting characters allowed me to see them in more depth.  Allowed me to impart mannerisms better than just having the characters as raw constructs in my head.  Since I’ve started using this trick, I’ve seen and heard of other writers doing the same, often to very positive effect in the writing process.

And it’s fantastically cheap and easy to do.  As a writer for the page, rather than for the screen, there’s no worry about the budget for actors, no need to worry about availability and scheduling, no need to worry about an actor turning down a role because they simply feel it’s crap.  Or that they don’t want to do that kind of story.  Or that they’re dead.  Or that you’re casting the 30-year old version of a now 78-year old actor (I’ve done this).  It’s the kind of casting call that any Hollywood studio would kill to do.

You can also conduct horrible experiments, chopping stars up and gluing the pieces back together.  Something that would get you quite properly arrested in real life, but will create that much more dynamism in a character.  Take the demeanor of one actor, the delivery of another, the cadence of a third, mix them up, add a little of your own flavor, and it’ll come out on the far end unrecognizable as being inspired by a single real-world source.

This is not without peril.  When writing the pilot, I initially miscast the main character in my head.  And just as a poorly cast lead can drag down a movie, this bit of “miscasting” seriously dragged down the narrative of the story.  It took backing out of the written draft, recasting the character entirely, and starting nearly from scratch before he became an actual character and not just lines of dialogue floating around the pages.  It didn’t matter that the newly “cast” actor would never work television, he had the right presence to inform and build the character.

So play around with your characters.  Think about who you want them to be.  This can be especially helpful for a character who just won’t quite come together.  Think of who you imagine playing them, then write around that idea.  It’s not going to work for every character in every story, but it has gotten me out of several jams with characters who I otherwise wasn’t quite feeling.

David Mitchell photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  Attribution: Pinkboy at en.wikipedia

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The Problem with Zombies

Even in their first major movie appearance, it was about the people, not the zombies.The problem with zombies is that they always want to eat your brains.

Wait.  No.  That’s not what I was going to talk about at all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about zombies lately.  Likely this is due to some Twitter conversations I’ve gotten into mixed with the second season of Walking Dead spiced with just a dash of feeling rather like the walking dead myself due to my annual late fall head blah.  That’s why, over in Unleaded yesterday, I talked about just what makes Zombies popular right now.  And why here I want to talk about the biggest problem that exists with zombies.

It has nothing to do with them being an unstoppable horde, that there’s always ten more to replace the one you just killed.  It has nothing to do with the nasty skin issues that come with being a reanimated corpse.  It doesn’t even have to do with the issues that arise when one continues to eat after biological functions have shut down your digestive tract.  Though that’s somewhat nasty to consider.  No, zombies boil down to one problem:

They’re boring.

Yup.  I said it.  Zombies are boring.  That’s not to say they aren’t scary.  That’s not to say they can’t appear in an entertaining bit of fiction.  But take an individual zombie and try to force anything interesting out of it and you just can’t.  By definition they have no personality.  They have no quirks.  They have nothing that differentiates them from the crowd, save for the occasional loved-one-turned-zombie that shows up in the stories.  But even then, they’re not interesting for who they are, they’re interesting for who they were.

Great title I saw on a fake kids’ book: That’s Not Your Mommy Anymore.

Alright, so if you’re willing to follow me this far down my rabbit hole the question comes up: then why do we find zombie stories entertaining.  The answer is that, while zombies are boring, people are not.  And people put into a situation that we can hardly imagine are even more interesting.  That’s why zombie stories can’t be about the walking dead, they have to be about the still living.  Oh sure, there’s the occasional attempt to change the paradigm around.  Any number of short stories written from a zombie perspective.  There’s even the movie Fido, which is more about a zombie than most movies.  But most readers, most viewers, even if they’re seeking out zombie fiction don’t actually want fiction about zombies, they want fiction about people dealing with zombies.

Boring zombies, really interesting zombie survivors.Enter the Walking Dead.  Enter a show named after zombies, is really the first television show primarily about zombies, especially the first show to have its zombies be zombies (if I’m still in this mood next week I’ll talk about the Borg and Reavers), but at the same time it can tell more compelling and better crafted stories in episodes that feature almost none of the titular walking dead.  Because it’s not telling stories about zombies, it’s telling stories about the tensions that arise when a group of people who would have nothing to do with each other are forced together by horrendous situations and told to survive.  It’s about who would go how far.

It’s really a variation of a life raft story, a deserted island story, any of a number of genres that look to create unlikely groupings of people.

And where does that leave zombies?  It puts them in interesting company.  They are the ocean, or the island.  They are not a character, they are a setting.  And as with any good setting, they will dictate how people react, they will even directly affect how the characters behave, but the setting is never the beginning, end, and everything of a story.  Even Lost was ultimately about the people, even as the island’s prominence grew.  At the end, the characters all have to be distinct, and be reacting to the setting in a way that fits.

And there it is, in a nutshell.  Settings are not characters.  Oh, sure, you’ll see reviews about a novel that talk about the location as a character, but that’s just shorthand for a robustness in world building.  In the end characters are characters, settings are settings, and while the two influence each other, dictate to each other, there is a wall drawn between them.

So go forth with your zombie worlds.  Just remember that, as much fun as the zombies might be to write, they are not your characters.  So don’t neglect the living.  That’s who interests people.  We are the living, make the stories about us.

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A Writer Reviews: Them Apples

I love Honeycrisp apples.  And really, who wouldn’t?  They were scientifically created by the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities to be the perfect apple for eating raw.  They’re crisp, they’re sweet, they’re juicy, they really are the best thing that you can grab out of the grocery store produce aisle and just sink your teeth right into.  Except they’ll probably want you to pay for the apple first.

But this is A Writer Reviews, not Eat This.  So why am I talking about Honeycrisp apples?  Well, first I want you to see a picture of a Honeycrisp.

Honeycrisp photo released under the Creative Commons Attributions-Share Alike 3.0 license by wikipedia user Jonathunder.

Aw man, that looks good, doesn’t it?  They get that great two-toned skin similar to a gala apple that makes them visually distinct.  I show you that picture to show you another picture.  These are the kinds of apples that Once Upon a Time has been using for the Evil Queen.

Red Delicious photo released under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 by wikipedia user Fir0002/Flagstaffotos.

That’s a Red Delicious apple, the apple that put Washington State on the map as an apple producer, and that still makes up most of the crop in the state.  Not as good for eating raw, great for cooking.  It has an iconic look to it, somewhat tall with very distinct bumps on the bottom, and a uniform red coloration throughout.  Every apple we’ve seen thus far on Once Upon a Time has clearly been a red delicious.  However, this week’s episode made a point of calling them Honeycrisps.  Several times.  It expounded on the ability of the Honeycrisp to grow in harsher northern climates.  Which is true, it’s what they were partially bred for.  A character talks about tending a Honeycrisp tree since she was a child.  Which is unlikely for the age of the actress, since they were only recently released, but since she’s also the Evil Queen I can forgive her a lie on this matter.  But to go out of the way to pick one very specific type of apple and then show another?  I can’t understand that.

If the store the prop department goes to doesn’t have Honeycrisp apples, they you go to the farmer’s market or the off ramp in Valencia and you buy a bag from Pedro.  Where’s the effort?

Sorry, that’s not me getting into random racial profiling, but rather it’s from another show that featured very specific species of apples this week, American Horror Story.  In a great scene, Zachery Quinto, playing a ghostly house stager (fantastic sentence to type) wants Granny Smith apples for a bobbing station, but series star Dylan McDermott bought Galas.  And, by god, those are Gala apples floating in the basin.

In the case of a television show, this is a prop department issue.  The prop department for American Horror Story is clearly a little more up on its apple varieties than the prop department of Once Upon a Time.  Or cares a little more.  Or realizes if a character is going to get mad about a variety of apples, it better as hell be that variety of apples.  If you think I’m being harsh and pedantic on Once Upon a Time (“I think you’re over-reacting.”  “Because I’m the only one who actually gives a shit?”), well, I am.  But I’m also not the only person who noticed that they clearly were not using the new darling of the apple world, and instead using mealy cooking apples.  But it’s still a prop department issue, not a writing room issue, so why am I even bringing it up?

As writers on the page, rather than writers for the screen, we are our own prop departments.  And we are writing for an audience that is going to include harsh and pedantic people, because that’s who people are.  So we have to do what we can to ensure that the props we put in stories are accurate, especially if we’re being precise about their nature.  If there’s a bowl of gala apples on a table and a character examines their green skin, that’s a prop error.  If Dirty Harry is running around shooting his .44 Magnum, he better fire either five shots or six, because if there’s a seventh, that’s a prop error.  Anytime a real world object is mentioned by name, it better work and look the right way or include an explanation of why it doesn’t.

People will notice these things.  People will call bullshit.  And it will pull people out of the stories.

What’s the solution?  There are two.  Less specificity and more research.  The former works where specificity isn’t essential to the plot, but be careful not to turn it into a cheat.  Sure we’re not going to know the make and model of every gun being shot at our hero as she escapes the death trap set up to finally kill her, especially if we’re in third person limited or first person perspective.  But we’ll probably know what her gun is, even if it’s a fictional one, just so that the rules of the weapon can be internally consistent.  So when specificity is called for, it’s time to do enough research to make sure the details are right.

So get your apples right.  And while you’re at it, go out and try a Honeycrisp if you haven’t.  Me?  I’ve actually got a bottle of Honeycrisp hard cider at home I’ve been meaning to break open.

Honeycrisp photo released under the Creative Commons Attributions-Share Alike 3.0 license by wikipedia user Jonathunder.
Red Delicious photo released under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 by wikipedia user Fir0002/Flagstaffotos.

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State of the Writer: November 2011

After an interminable summer, October absolutely sped past.  Anticipation of Capclave and Flashathon likely spurred much of that.  Looking back, both feel like they were more than a few weeks ago.  Someone needs to harness time’s ability to speed past while being experienced but dilate when being remembered and turn that into a viable method of time travel.

October turned into a great month of micro-production.  The week of the 22-28th alone I wrote 15 bits of flash fiction, something I wasn’t entirely sure was possible.  At least four of those are stories that I can get longer, or at least better polished, pieces out of.  I call this an absolute victory.  I’ll probably take some time in November to sort them out, and give them a more prominent place within my flash fiction Scrivener database.

The month opened with me working on one novel project, ripping apart the tangled novels Capsule and Post Apocalypse, and ended with me ramping up another.  I talked about that yesterday in my Nanowrimo Eve post, so I’m not going to rehash that here.  I hadn’t thought about it while writing it, but that really ended up scooping a lot of my typical State of the Writer post.  Half an hour a day working with my wife on the project, probably another half hour translating that into Scrivener, and poking around the flash pieces I want to turn into short stories.  Sounds like pretty good goals for the month.

October also delivered to my email a proof version of one short story and an edited version of another.  So anthologies are moving full steam ahead.

I want to get meta for a moment and say I like these State of the Writer posts.  The same writers’ group discussion that gave rise to Friday’s post about mission statements as writers drove home the need to keep abreast of what you are doing, and what you want to do.  That’s what this series is about, a monthly chance to really look at what I did the month before, what I’m hoping to do next month, and what direction I’m moving with my writing.  They’re a way of keeping me focused, and they’re a way of keeping me honest, since I’m putting them out there for all to see.  Or all who care to see, at least.

So the state of the writer?  Anticipatory.  I’m getting back into novel production.  I’m starting a project I’ve been churning for several months.  And I’m seeing if I can work a novel and short stories at the same time.  Should be an interesting month.

State of the Writer’s Blog: Anyone who has been following these State of the Writer posts knows I’m trying to collect views from all 50 states.  The numbers are dwindling.  At the end of September, I only had North Dakota, Arkansas, and Delaware left to collect.  This month saw the first visit from Arkansas, leaving just two.  I’m hoping to wrap up all 50 by the end of the year.  That’s just one a month.  That’s not so hard, right?  October was also the 4th straight month of blog viewership growth, fueled largely by Flashathon.

State of the Writer’s Beer: Still working through a backlog of suds before I get the next batch going.  Might brew at some point this month.  Pulled out bottles of both batches for the Flashathon crowd.  Mustache Cat got generally positive reviews, Lazarus Ale was more of a specific taste.  Responses ranged from hatred to asking for seconds.

So join me as we move into another month.  Tomorrow, it’ll be another trip to A Writer Reviews focusing on, of all things, apples.  Bonus points to anyone who can guess which two television shows that’ll cover.

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