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?”


“ 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.

Hemi 1.JPG

Writing: Shaving Pains

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


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.



And the Quote Contest Winner is . . .

Nate Ricks! 

“I swear, Dmitri, if you leave your spare dentures in the staff bathroom one more time, so help me, I WILL put a stake in your scrawny chest!”

I love the pairing you’ve made between the staple remover and dentures, the irritating behavior of co-workers that we can all identify with, and the genre-appropriate threat of a “stake through the heart.”

Send me your address via facebook messaging and I’ll mail you your very own print version!

Honorable Mention

Cami: The only caption that made me laugh out loud. I don’t know why. Probably because I expected more sophistication from such worldly vampires.

Ed: Best suggestion for use of genre-appropriate visual media. Also liked the addition of another character. Also plays on the bullying/predatory nature of the Vlad. It was such a fun concept I asked Marta to do a mock-up of a very worried Frank.


Caroline: Hitting closest to the original intention of the cartoon.  I also liked the realization  you shared that Dimitri’s behavior could eventually have a detrimental impact on his health. What a brave co-worker to take a stand for his friend.

Jaime: Conversion of cartoon to a murder mystery. Completely appropriate, and funny. Doubly funny as it reminds me of stuff I probably shouldn’t talk about in an open forum.(Did you know I used to work for the CFO at NASA?) Also liked the addition of a third character, the broadening of this universe.

Holly:  Sensitivity to alternative (and problematic) diets. One of my former co-workers was borderline allergic to onions. Anyone with who brought a philly-cheese steak into the cube farm really got the evil eye.

Andrea: Postmodernism award for use of “intertextuality.”

Jared: Deadpan delivery. Just like old times.

Original Caption

“For crying out loud, Vlad! It’s the 21st century!”

It was actually more fun to see your brands of humor in each interpretation. Thanks for sharing your creativity with me.

Quick Link to Caption Contest: Corporate Vampires

Quick Link to New York Pitch Conference Post

Report out on My Trip to New York

The tile in the small hotel room is always warm when my feet shuffle in, tired from a day of hiking in the city, or still sleepy from staying up too late working on my pitch for Immuno. This is the thing I love most about my hotel room. The ground is warm and it reminds me of Texas sun on winter carpet.

The glass shower partition makes it hard to reach the shower controls without climbing all the way in (clothes on), and that first cold blast of water is hungry to surprise me. It doesn’t give me much time to duck back behind the glass wall, but thirty-five is still young . . . As long as I don’t slip. When the water steams,  I close my tired eyes and crawl in to wake up, or warm up, depending if I’m coming or going.

At lunch, I tell my new friend Matt that he’ll sleep better if he wears earplugs at night, and he laughs over his tacos. We’re eating right next to Penn Station, taking in the March snow and the crazy crowds.

I love walking through the city and hearing all the voices, throats from another world, raucous and loud, quiet and timid, rolling out on the near-frozen air in ways that I’m not accustomed to.

Of course I’m going to a show. I’ll do conference homework ‘til three in the morning if I need to, but I’m establishing tradition now: Broadway Musical or die. . . Somehow I find myself buried in a crowd of  Japanese adolescents, old enough to be out on their own, but not old enough to have given up the flock of familiar peers, laughing, looking, and waiting while the best English speaker in their group tries to negotiate for twenty tickets to the Lion King, which has already been sold out.

Japanese Teenager:       “Twenny Leeon Keeng?”

Grumpy Ticket Lady:       “I’m sorry. There are no more tickets for Lion King.”

JT:                                    “Ten Leeon Keeng?”

GTL: waving arms.          “No Tickets! Zero! Nothing! Not Five! Not one! when it’s already sold out. “

Bummer.  That’s the show I wanted to see. My own English skills, though far from flawless, allow me to make peace with the Gods of the Inevitable and accept my fate. I don’t blame anyone, not even myself. Tonight might have found me dining with the other pitch conference attendees—which I still managed to do—or working on my next book. Whichever.

I love the voices and personalities: Ralph. Rachel.  Jason. Nina. Clarissa. Erik. Jessica. Sami. And the strangers. English. Irish. Mexican. French.  Japanese. American. I talk with them all, sometimes with just my eyes.

I love the warmth of people traveling, their bright eyes and free spirits saying things like, “Can you believe it?  I’m from Yokohama and you’re from Houston and we’re here at the Phantom of the Opera together.”

Actually, it sounds more like this: “You want come Japan? You stay. My email.” Hidenobu gestures for a pen.

It’s amazing what you can discover about a person during a 30-minute wait for the show to start, what moments you can share.

The French voices are easier to understand than the Japanese, Russian, and Italian ones, but it’s a stretch say something at first. What if my French is bad? (I know for a fact that it’s worse than my English.) But Mathieu and Julien are amazed that someone in the United States can carry a conversation, which might have lasted longer, but I have  to go to bed and actually sleep.  I do have time to warn them about being at the booth in Times Square two days in advance for Lion King tickets. They’re surprised to hear this.

I’m not surprised. They’re guys, and they think like me apparently, and will eventually wind up smashed between a pile of Japanese adolescents that are too old for parental. . . Oh wait. I already said that.

This is my humor.  The cold air makes me cough, and the snow stings my throat. There is slush on the asphalt  and clouds of hot breath and cooking smoke in the air.  Roasted cashews.  Can you smell them?

The TV lights in Times Square flash bright enough to make daylight and I can still hear the Irish lady in the adjacent seat singing the Phantom of the Opera even though I’m on my way home.

My earplugs are waiting on the bed stand, plotting to sleep me through my alarm tomorrow so I set three, just in case, and crawl into the bed. Or the shower.


And yes. New York wants the manuscript!

Madison Towers

Contest: What is Vlad saying to Dimitri?

I sketched the attached comic several years ago, but saved it until I found a cartoonist. (For a laugh, ask me for the original. In celebration of my previous vampire-riddled post, help me come up with a caption for the following cartoon:


I have a caption in mind for it, but maybe yours is better? Submit yours in the reply section by next Wednesday, April 1st (not a joke) for a chance to win a paperback copy of DARTS. And Subscribe. It’s fun!

Writing:  How Stephanie Meyer and Jane Austen Fixed My Robots

A few years ago I read a vampire novel by a BYU alumna that got me thinking about character development.  While I’m familiar with the vampire myth as told by Bram Stoker, I’ll admit that I don’t drink deeply from the horror genre. Life can be pretty scary as it is. But sparkly vampires were all the rage, so I made a concession. And then another.  Four concessions, to be precise. And I learned an interesting thing about my own writing: my characters are all robots. Medieval Robots. Sci-Fi Robots. Literary Robots.  They complained to me as I wrote:


“Stop complaining. I’m telling a really cool story!”



I thank Stephanie Meyer for opening my eyes to this, however ungently. I couldn’t turn a page without her protagonist describing the love/pain/joy/depression/excitement she was feeling. My robots began to get jealous:


“Impossible. You are robot characters whose only purpose in life is delivering plot points.”


“Umm. Okay. I’ll write something now: ‘The robot-like characters were suddenly overcome with waves of depression!’ Better?”

<< YAAY! We’re depressed! (This feels awful.) >>

There is such a thing as over-emoting, too, but my characters have never had that problem.)

Laughing yet?  You should be.  And you should be asking, “Why  for heaven’s sake didn’t you start instead with Jane Austen’s incomparable Pride and Prejudice?”

Fair question. I’ve been avoiding her assiduously since I was forced to watch Sense and Sensibility with my five older sisters, as a newly-minted teenager. (This following “infinity times” as a kid of getting Scooby-Doo trumped by Little House on the Prairie.)

Still, I shouldn’t hold that psychological damage against Jane Austen, right?

It took a thoroughly respectable friend to set me back on track. She caught me by surprise when I learned that Persuasion by Austen was one of her favorite books.


Until then though, I had only the light of Twilight to guide me.  .  .  During this dark period, I went so far as to attend a movie viewing of Eclipse with the aforementioned sisters, though I was smarter this time and took along my older brother for protection. We’re not Twi-hards—any of us—but the movie was entertaining, especially  when my brother whipped off his shirt at the end and howled at the moon of closing credits.

I followed suit.

“Team Jacob!” we barked.

Those Cinemark patrons exiting the theatre with us laughed and cheered, though some appeared concerned with the physical inaccuracies of comparing ourselves to Taylor Lautner’s band of brothers. My physique isn’t bad for a guy who only plays soccer once a week and rarely visits the weight room, but my skin gets a bit pale in the winter—say, the color of wet marshmallows. My ancestry can’t help it.

My brother has a similar skin tone, and though taller, is a wee bit on the thin side. The blinding Norwegian flash in mid-winter Tinsletown lights  probably sent a myriad of mixed messages. How could werewolves get so pale and hairless? Shouldn’t those two be cheering for the vampires? Could Stephanie Meyer please write a book encouraging young men to keep their shirts ON?

Eventually we decided—you can’t tell werewolves what to wear—to put our shirts back on. Fine then. Lunar eclipse complete.

And then, sitting at my desk one day, trying to pull a miss-staple from a stack of budget documents with my vampliers, the entire of spectrum of vampire humor (mostly red) was briefly opened to my view (see picture below).  In four years, not one person at NASA has ever asked me why my staple remover has the name Edward taped to it.

Not one.

Career mismatch? Too few scientists interested in problem of vampirism?

 I guess that’s life. Fang you all very much. And Subscribe.