Closet Secrets.

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My son found them in my closet, stashed  behind my least favorite dress shirts.

I knew, because I caught him trying to sneak them out.

“Those are mine,” I said.
“I just want to read them.”
“I know. That’s why I hid them in my closet.”

This is the kid who—as a six-year-old—singlehandedly  loved my entire Calvin and Hobbes collection into oblivion. There’s a reason six-year-olds aren’t supposed to be good readers.  The parts of the books that  eventually made it back to the bookshelf were only spared the rubbish pile because I couldn’t afford to replace them, and because a house without a Calvin and Hobbes book (or scrap pile, as case may be) is a house not worth living in.

So it was normal for me to hide my newly-purchased Schlock Mercenary books in the master closet. A guy should be able to read a book at least once before the cover falls off. And my plan would have worked if the meddling kid hadn’t noticed the mailer-receipt I’d carelessly abandoned on the kitchen counter. After the hunt began,  no room was sacred.

I’m not a big connoisseur of comics, but this one has stuck with me.  I’ve followed the online iteration for several years now. Schlock Mercenary delivers a sci-fi punch line in every strip, and it’s written and drawn by one of the smartest people I know.  And I work at NASA.

Incidentally, I got to sit with Howard Tayler  and his chief of staff Sandra for an hour at LTUE in February and plug them about the do’s and don’ts of quitting your day job. They gave me some good advice, signed the previously-mentioned closet copies, and told me random stories about bog butter and what it takes to maintain the creative genius under duress.

Interviewing Howard and Sandra Tayler was definitely in my top three for the LTUE conference. (Getting there  in a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr  ranks fourth.)

So there’s the setup.  I have a box of funny books in my closet from a funny cartoonist. I also now have a funny thirteen-year-old in my closet reading through the 700+ page collection because I told him the books don’t leave my closet until I’ve read them all. And while I still have a full-time job, he only leaves the closet to forage for Cheez-Its.

If you like medium-hard  (yes, I made that up) science fiction / space opera humor, check out Schlock Mercenary. The early cartoon drawings are “rudimentary,” Howard insists, but that makes them even funnier in my opinion, because I’m super mature.

I’m also super glad Howard quit his day job.

–Ben

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Closet Secrets.

Anecdote: Sports Car

Hemi Ben.JPG

Enterprise Car Rental
Salt Lake City
9:37 PM

Oh. You.” her eyes say as she looks me over carelessly.  “Go stand over there.”

For a moment, I wonder if she’s going to do me like airport security, who didn’t actually frisk me, but made me feel naked just the same. Makes a guy want  another layer of protection for his next flight , like maybe some stretchy pants.

And the stretchy would double-up for warmth.  It’s like -40 degrees in SLC,  and I’m layered to the gills and still freezing.

My body’s gone soft, because there’s no such thing as winter in Houston, and now I’m in the middle of the Rocky Mountains with an improvised winter ensemble.

Dang it! Where is the Enterprise Attendant? She’s been gone for two minutes, and the people standing in the line behind me are all getting in their cars and driving away. They probably pulled  me from the line because I rented  the cheapest compact car available, and because I also fantasized about renting from Alamo.  And because I’m attending a writing conference instead of writing my next book.

And then she’s appears out of nowhere like some parking  garage opera phantom, scaring the imaginary stretchy pants off me and waving a pair of key fobs in my face. “Would you like a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr?”

“Pardon?”

“ I got you a free upgrade.”

I still don’t know what she’s talking about, but I like the sound of an upgrade, especially one that’s free.”

“That sounds great! Thanks”

And then she’s gone again, gesturing vaguely into the  parking garage. “It’s just over there . . .”

It takes five minutes to figure out what a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr is, because some idiot keeps pressing the unlock button on a black sports car three cars up and to my left, which distracts me from finding my own car. I don’t have time for this. I’ve got another hour to drive, an 8:00 am lecture to deliver to a class of graduate students, and a full day of writing panels to attend and interviews to conduct. I’m tired and I’m cold. In desperation I pop the trunk to my invisible vehicle, since the fob beeper system doesn’t seem to work.

The black V8 Hemi nods at me. “Maybe, ‘upgrade’ wasn’t the right word,” I think to my phantom fairy godmother.

And I can’t stop the wicked grin from spreading all over my face, across my neck, and into my hands and chest and feet. It’s going to be a great weekend.

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Anecdote: Sports Car

Writing: Shaving Pains

“We edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”
—Arthur Plotnik

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Last week, I started building a metaphor between writing and shaving. In my example metaphor, I had irregular hair patterns after knee surgery that kept drawing the wrong sort of attention in public.

In fiction, anything that calls undue attention to itself is a problem. The secret to a captivating story isn’t just artistic words and phrases, but the camaraderie that exists between them. Every time a reader comes across a misfit word—even a beautiful one—their suspension of disbelief risks being damaged. I tried to read The Fellowship of the Rings in second grade, but I spent more time in the dictionary than in the story. Granted, I probably should have been reading something else at that age, but . . .

One priority for fantasy and science fiction authors is transporting us from our reality into an alternate reality. Words that break that magic, by being inauthentic, confusing, or awkward, should be cut. Even a gentle reader will become a critic if they get bumped from a story one too many times.

Here are a few issues I see often in the manuscripts I read:

Overly Dramatic Adjectives
Overt attributions of emotion/drama (e.g. merciless army, breathtaking vista, furious opponent) should not be used in place of more descriptive narrative.  A reader should feel these things through the actions taken by characters, rather than by getting beaten over the head with the word itself.

Example: “The merciless army advanced upon our breathtaking city.”

A reader can tell if an army is “merciless” independent of the word if the author has already shown (1) the body count, (2) a city in ruins, and (3) a parent so desperate to protect her daughter as to consider killing the child in advance of the army’s arrival. All of these things do a better job of casting an invading army as “merciless” than the word itself.

Smart words
Sesquipedalian. Pontificate. Prognisticate. It’s fun to show people how smart you are, but words like these score way more points on a Scrabble board than they do in a manuscript. There are exceptions—a character that uses big words to annoy your protagonist (and readers), perhaps?—but generally, if it isn’t an everyday sort of word, think carefully about using it.

Example:  “As he ran, Vance cursed himself for not being more perspicacious.”

One of my beta readers marked this word out in bold red strokes and replaced it with the more pedestrian word “clever.” This alters the meaning slightly, but works better for commercial fiction.

Awkward Expressions
These are expressions that get in the way of the story. They often stem from an author’s desire to be poetic, or say things in a new way, but they’re more trouble than they’re worth to the average reader. If the average reader has to spend too much time decoding a book of idiosyncratic (unusual) expressions they’ll get irritated. (And editors have an even lower tolerance for awkwardness.) It’s okay to use conventional language.

Example: “The stillness halted his feet with fear.”

This is an awkward way to say, “He stopped walking when he noticed the eerie quiet,” or “He halted, suddenly apprehensive in the unnatural silence.” Feet don’t feel fear and stillness won’t halt them . . .

🙂

Obviously there’s more to revising than just shaving out these little indiscretions, but if you find beta readers, agents, and editors looking at your manuscript funny, it might be time to go hunting for dramatic adjectives, smart words, and awkward expressions. And if you are getting weird looks, pat yourself on the back. It’s a sign of progress. It means you have a knee worth shaving.

 

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Writing: Shaving Pains