Wednesday, January 30, 2013

National Novel Reading Month (#NaNoReMo)

Over on his blog, The Bathroom Monologues, John Wiswell has organized a group to read classic titles for this year's National Novel Reading Month (#NaNoReMo). Check that link above to see his megapost about the month-long event. Basically, for February, you choose a classic novel of any genre (and you can decide if the book is a "classic" or not), and read it. Simple as that! Nothing else is needed. Of course, if you want to add a bit more participation, you're encouraged to talk about your book as you read it, be it on social media (Twitter - tag your posts with #NaNoReMo, Facebook, Google+, wherever) and/or your blog. You don't need to do a big book report, of course; simply give your thoughts on the title as you read. This isn't a literature course, after all! Have fun with it, and broaden your lit mind.

I'll be reading A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the one the movie, John Carter, was based on). I've wanted to read it ever since I saw the movie, but I've never bothered to pick it up. This is the perfect time to do so! In addition, I've decided to dedicate the entire month of #NaNoReMo to classics. What I mean is, if I finish A Princess of Mars before the month ends, I'm going to move onto another classics I've always wanted to read but have never picked up. I've already downloaded The Phantom of the Opera and The Picture of Dorian Gray from the free classics section of Amazon, so I'm set. I have no idea if I'll get to them, but since they're right there on my Kindle, it'll give me added incentive to finish and start on a new one.

How about you? Any interest in joining? Should be a blast!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Writing Prompt #122

Here is this week's speculative fiction prompt. I'm not labeling it this week, so take it whatever direction you choose. Have fun with it!

Your parents reveal a dark family secret.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Few Things That Kill a Story

There are plenty of things that kill stories and make you put down a book or turn off a movie. Today I'm going to cover just a few based on a film I watched last night (or the half of it I watched before I couldn't take anymore.) I'm not going to outright name the movie, but I'll give examples right from it.

This movie actually had a pretty cool premise, and I was excited to give it a view on Netflix Instant. A man accidentally kills his wife, puts her in his trunk, and drives a sparsely-traveled road to dump her in a lake that she'd loved in life. While he's driving, he's not sure if he's being attacked by supernatural events or if he's losing his mind. Dark, and if done properly, it could be really neat, especially since I enjoy stories where it's a mystery as to if it's all in someone's mind or not. The beginning was actually pretty cool; it drew me in. A few seemingly supernatural events happened that opened my eyes and made me realize I made the right choice in choosing to watch this film. I was invested and wanted to see where it all went. Too bad the storytelling made me realize quickly that my first impressions were wrong. Hopefully my reactions can help others in their writing.

The main character drives down the sparsely-populated rural road, and a few strange occurrences leave him doubting his sanity. Because of this, he speeds through the winding mountain passes. A police officer pulls him over, which is a bad thing because he has his dead wife wrapped in a sheet in his trunk. So far so good. The police officer is quite suspicious, not just because our anti-hero is acting strange due to his wife being in the trunk, but because the officer received a report that he behaved oddly back down the road in another incident. This is still good storytelling; a real-world problem has come prove a real menace to our main character. The scene escalates to the officer wanting to search the car. Our main character obviously does not want the officer to look in the trunk, and the officer has taken note of this. He's about to force the man to open the trunk when he gets a call on his radio. Here's where the scene takes a nose-dive.  The officer tells the dispatcher on the radio that he'll be right there, and he very pleasantly tells our main character that he's free to go, but please slow down next time. And that's it. With how suspicious the cop was, coupled with the main character desperately not wanting the officer to look in the trunk, there's no way that scene would have ended like that. It was unbelievable, and it drew me right out of the story despite the fact that I was all in up to that moment. Take that advice, writers; even if your readers love how the story is going, a blunder can still take them right out of the story. I continued, but with less enjoyment. Some readers (or viewers, in this case) won't.

At one point, our main character was 90 miles away from his destination. A few minutes later, which didn't skip much, if any, time, he was 45 miles away. There was no way he was going that fast, especially on that road. He also calls his mistress (the center of the problem with his wife), and leaves a message for her to call him as soon as possible. He then sets his phone down on the seat next to him and turns on the radio, cranking up the volume. No problem, right? Music, especially loud music, can help calm the nerves. Where this movie goes wrong, however, is that he leaves the radio on only long enough to miss the inevitable call seconds later. Little things like these matter. These again drew me right out of the story, and the great feelings about this movie I had at the beginning were quickly evaporating. I almost gave up right there, but pressed on. The lesson here for you is to make sure all of your details, even the little ones, match up. If your reader stops thinking about the story and instead questions your, the author's, motives/style, you have trouble. Question a character's motives is one thing, but a reader should never question the author's.

The thing that ultimately got me to turn off the movie was not only a cliche I knew was coming, but the way it was handled. The car ran out of gas. Sure, it could happen, but how often does it? I'd have had a better reaction to a flat tire or some other minor malfunction. That simply seems more believable to me. But, ultimately, it wasn't the running out of gas that got me; I could have stuck that out. Once he's stopped, he opens the trunk and whispers to his dead wife that she's not going to make it to the lake, but he's going to have to bury her in these woods because he doesn't want to get caught there with her. Good, good, he's thinking again. But then a car speeds by and he can't flag it down. So he stops and smokes a cigarette. I'm still okay with this, as he's calming his nerves. But then one smoke turns into a half-dozen, which is showing a passage of quite a bit of time. Wait, why did his plan change? He was all hot-to-trot about getting her out of his trunk, but now he's completely abandoned this plan? If he'd given a good reason, maybe, but he doesn't. Sure, you can infer reasons, and I'm sure the screenwriter and/or director was hoping the audience would, but that's a sign of poor writing. There are times when writers need to give the audience credit and let them piece together ideas, but this wasn't one of them; this stank of poor, lazy writing. This did nothing but allow the story to get to the next part of the scene.

Someone finally comes, and he manages to flag them down. When he tells the driver that he ran out of gas, not only was there a gas station not far back, but this guy had actually stopped, put some in a gas canister for his generator, and he's willing to give it to our main character. What luck! My finger went to the stop button on my remote, but I didn't push it yet. I waited until the main character looks back at his car and sees his dead wife's bloody sheet flapping about out of the trunk right by where the gas cap was. The Good Samaritan will see that for sure! The only problem is that there was not only no chance of her sheet getting in that position, but very little chance he wouldn't notice it while he was standing there smoking for the past hour (or however long). This reeked of lazy, desperate writing, and I'd been taken out of the story for the last time. Maybe these problems were something that was explained later in the movie, or maybe they weren't. All I know is that I hit stop and didn't finish watching.

Learn from these mistakes. Don't be a lazy writer. If you need your character to do something, make it believable, not a cliche. Give reasons for your character's actions. Pay attention to little details in your story. Never take your reader out of the moment to wonder if such a thing is possible or plausible. Don't make your reader want to close your book before the end. That's our goal as authors, right?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Writing Prompt #121

Here is this week's speculative fiction prompt. I'm labeling it as science fiction, but, as always, take it whichever direction you choose. Have fun with it!

Unbeknownst to you, an alien has been visiting you in your sleep for years.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Friday Flash: Little Miss Muffet: The True Story

by Eric J. Krause

I think most everyone knows Little Miss Muffet's story. If not, here you go:

          Little Miss Muffet/ Sat on a tuffet/ Eating her curds and whey/
Along came a spider/ Who sat down beside her/
And frightened Miss Muffet away

Straight forward enough, right? She was eating breakfast when a spider dropped down, scared the crud out of her, and ruined her meal. But what would you say if I told you Mother Goose (who isn't really a goose, but something far stranger – ask me again sometime and I might regale you with her tale) changed quite a bit to create that little rhyme? She was, after all, writing for children. You may not believe me, but I promise you I speak the truth. At least my version of the truth.

Her name wasn't Miss Muffet, but Karina McDonald. (Not of the famous Old McDonald Had a Farm McDonalds,' though she and her family were farmers.) The McDonalds' were dirt-poor, barely growing, harvesting, and slaughtering enough to get by. And forget about any excess to sell or trade off at the nearby market. Father and Mother McDonald couldn't, of course, afford to hire workers, so Karina and her younger brother, William, were the only extra hands available.

The family typically worked from before sunrise to well beyond sunset, seven days a week, through the coldest, wettest winter days to the hottest and driest the summer threw at them. Meals were often taken on the go. All four became masterful at balancing and juggling any sort of food while they worked.

Though Karina never had time to be a sickly child, she wasn't the strongest specimen. Therefore, she was the one relegated to the housework and other non-back-breaking chores, as her father put it. It also gave her access to the cute neighbor boy, Alexander, who would often stop by when his own chores were done so he could talk to Karina. When they grew to the age where such things became important, the two fell in love, which the McDonald parents whole-heartedly supported. Not only did they figure they'd gain Alexander as a son-in-law, but also as a new farmhand, as his family could afford to replace him on their own farm. Not to mention the children the two would spawn. There would soon be more than enough able bodies to tend the McDonald fields.

Alexander didn't see things that way. He wanted his own farm, and he wasn't content to take over that of the McDonalds' (which, truth be told, wasn't great land to begin with). Karina couldn't wait to begin her new life, and her parents saw no way to convince her otherwise. When Alexander set out on a quest to find farmland for him and his soon-to-be bride, Father McDonald followed. He had no idea of what he would do: Would he reason with the boy? Plead with him? Threaten him? Hurt him? Maybe even kill him? So he did the only right thing; he hung back and let fate decide.

As it turned out, fate truly did make the decision, and Father McDonald didn't have to do anything. Poor Alexander, while hiking through the forest and most likely dreaming of his future life with his beloved, stumbled through a giant widowmaker web. And while it didn't technically make Karina a widow since she and Alexander weren't yet wed, the two overgrown beasts that hung in the middle of their silk trap did kill the boy almost instantly.

One would think Father McDonald would have jumped for joy and left the boy's corpse there to rot, but he couldn't. Alexander really had been a good lad, and McDonald realized he wouldn’t have killed, or even threatened, the boy. He crushed the two spiders under his heal and dragged Alexander's poison-bloated body home. Karina, of course, as youngsters tend to do, saw him and Alexander much before he intended, and she flew into hysterics until she wore herself out.

Father McDonald laid Alexander's body next to the hearth where Karina stood vigil all night. In the morning, he headed over to the neighboring farm to break the terrible news to the boy's family. Mother McDonald placed a bowl of curds and whey in Karina's lap and took William out to begin their daily chores. Karina couldn't eat; she could only stare at her lost love's lifeless body.

Not too much time had passed (her porridge was still warm) when a tiny spider, a baby widowmaker, crawled out of Alexander's shirt and towards Karina. Instead of throwing her bowl aside and running for safety, as she would have done the previous morning, she slowly lowered her hand and let the miniscule monster climb aboard. Everyone, including Karina, knew a baby widowmaker was twice as deadly as its full-grown counterpart. Not only was its bite certain death, but the poison took longer to spread and proved much more painful in the process. When the tiny thing inevitably sank its fangs into the flesh of her palm, burning the veins in her arm worse than any flame could, she smiled and squished the pinprick of death between her forefinger and thumb. Soon she'd be with her Alexander, this time forever. Her still-full bowl fell to the ground as her soul escaped from this mortal coil.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Beginning to Run

In December, I wrote a post about the importance of exercising to stay healthy. You can view it here. In it, I basically wrote about how as little as 30 minutes of easy exercises a day can help keep you healthy, and how you can do it from the comfort of your own home. But what happens when you want to amp up the difficulty a bit? I didn't think I'd ever want to, as I was quite happy with simply walking, but soon the itch to run began to overtake me. How did I transition into becoming a runner when I've always hated running? I can give you some tips that helped me.

First off, I walked for months before I even began running. When I had five brisk miles down without breathing too hard, I knew I was ready. I began slow. Instead of tackling my same five miles as an entire run, I broke it down into segments. I'd walk to a predetermined point, run slowly to another predetermined point, walk to another, and so on until I finished the route. As my running muscles built up, I lengthened the distance between running points until I could run the entire distance. Another thing you can do is use time to break up your run. Start by walking for a minute and running for 30 seconds. Repeat throughout your route. And, of course, it's perfectly fine to lengthen the time you walk between running sets. As you continue getting out to run, you'll also begin lengthening your running time until you can do the entire route without walking. Don't like predetermined distances or time constraints? Simply run until you're tired, and then walk until you feel like running again. Maybe the first few times you go out, you'll spend much more time walking than running, but if you really want to be a runner, that will change. Keep at it!

Next, you'll want to get a good pair of shoes. Experts say you should plan on spending around $100 for a good pair, but I've found it depends on your feet. Try different shoes at different price ranges. Personally, I wouldn't buy bargain shoes for under twenty bucks that you may find at a Wal-Mart or the like, but experiment. I would suggest you buy shoes that are specifically marked as running shoes, especially if you plan to mostly run on sidewalks or streets. Try 'em on, and if they feel comfortable and are in your price range, give 'em a try. If you're willing to spend the money and know you're committed to running, you may want to go to a running specialty store and have them match you with your prefect fit. It's all up to you.

The final thing I want to touch on here is safety. Make sure you're comfortable with where you run. Don't run somewhere you aren't comfortable. Yes, it may be convenient, but why risk yourself. It'll be better for you to drive or hop on the bus to get somewhere you're happy with rather than risk life and limb because of convenience. Or you may want to join a gym and use their treadmills if that's safer. Also make sure you're aware of your surroundings when you run. If you choose to run in the street, make sure you're running against traffic so you can see oncoming cars. If you choose to listen to music (which I couldn't do without), make sure you don't have it so loud you can't hear what's around you, be it cars, people on bikes, and anything else. Don't shut yourself off from reality while you run. If you'd like to do that, stick to a treadmill, even if you're in an environment where you think you're all alone. Use common sense when it comes to running, and you'll be fine.

That's it for now. There's not really much to getting started. I'll be back in the future to add intermediate tips and other goodies I've learned, but for now, that's all you need. Of course, there are plenty of other ways to ramp up your heart rate (biking, swimming, rowing, etc. etc. etc.), but since I chose to become a runner, that's what I'm focusing on. Above all, have fun!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Writing Prompt #120

Here is this week's speculative fiction prompt. I'm not labeling it this week, so take it whatever direction you choose. Have fun with it!

A favorite piece of jewelry is more than it seems.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Writing Prompt #119

Here is this week's speculative fiction prompt. I'm labeling it as fantasy, but, as always, take it whichever direction you choose. Have fun with it!

Your favorite childhood storybook comes to life.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Workout During Commercials

I didn't have a chance to get to the gym today, so I've created my own workout to do during the commercials while I watch my beloved Baltimore Ravens in the NFL playoffs today. This is an easy routine to do not just during a football game, but while you watch any TV show. When the commercials come on, get to work! I have a group of seven moves, but you can mix and match as you see fit.

1st commercial break: 10 pushups
2nd commercial break: 20 crunches followed by 20 bicycle crunches
3rd commercial break: 10 bicep curls for each arm
4th commercial break: 30 second plank
5th commercial break: 10 kettlebell swings 
6th commercial break: NFL Shoulder Exercise
7th commercial break: 10 body weight squats

That's the plan. If you don't have weights at home (or wherever you are), you can skip those exercises and still get a great workout (or you can improvise with items around the house - a couple of canned goods would work just fine with the NFL Shoulder Exercise, for example). My aim is to continue this pattern through the entire game, but if you're not spending 3 hours in front of the TV (with a ton of commercials to go with it), you can adapt it to better work for you. You might only do the body weight sets (1st, 2nd, 4th, and 7th), and you can certainly add or subtract the number of reps to go with each to best fit your level of fitness. While the game is going on, I'll be moving in front of the ol' boob tube to keep the heart rate elevated above sitting level. I'll be walking in place, running in place, doing sidesteps, jumping jacks, etc.

And for you writers, you can do this routine during your writing session. Write for fifteen minutes, and then do the first set (pushups). Write for fifteen more minutes, and then do the second set (crunches and bicycle crunches). Continue during your writing session, and, of course, tailor it to fit your needs like I discussed above.

This is a great system to add fitness to a sedentary activity you were already going to engage in. Since it can be as easy or hard as you're willing to make it, it's perfect for every fitness level. You can add in or substitute exercises that are more beneficial for your personal level/goals. Have fun with it, folks, and here's to a healthier you!