Shared World Exercise from #SciFiChat 25 Jan 2019

We had 2 hours of fun building a world for an anthology with the working title “Crab Max”.

Here’s the run-down as summarized by @DavidRozansky:

In CrabMax, a mutant coral has evolved that thrives on pollution that the Landlubbers are now trying to curtail. The Coral is intelligent hivemind that telepathically controls sea creatures and Lundlubbers in/near the water, through control of mesmerization fantasies.

The Sky Belters have taken to the aether of outer space, to escape the polluted world. They mine the asteroids in their steam-driven sky ships, and use the Earth as a dumping ground and to steal oxygen and water, exasperating Landlubber efforts to clean their world up.

For Coral Hivemind to thrive, it must force Landlubbers to pollute , building up a toxic atmosphere (for the Landlubbers). The Coral is winning the war, as it has the science of atomic energy and information technology on its side. Landlubbers live in age of steam.

The Sky Belters dumping pollution on the planet helps the Coral, but the Belters are also stealing vast amounts of water, which is of course bad for the Coral and the Landlubbers. It’s 3-way conflict

Interesting characters in this shared world idea: Land-ambulating octupi and squid who act as minions and spies for the Coral. Captain Nemo type traitors under Coral mind control. The Belters have gene-engineered roaming pterosaurs.

And the Coral Hivemind has gene-engineered a wide variety of sharks and cephalopods and other creepy terrors of the deep. The Landlubbers have been breeding dolphins in return, but that’s a paltry effort against the underwater terror, and worthless against Belters.

Pertinent to the stories of CrabMax are “star-crossed lovers” whose affections may or may not be the result of Coral mind control. Yes, there’s room for inter-species “Shape of Water” type love affairs. Oh the horror, the horror.

If you feel like participating by writing something using this world, go right ahead. Then drop the link by at #SciFiChat. We’d love to see what you come up with.

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Tapped Out?

Image via Wikipedia Commons

I’ve been working on a short story. It’s supposed to be slightly horror – that is, it should unsettle the reader, though won’t likely scare anyone. A horrific thing happens and you can see the lead up to it, but because of the viewpoint, the reader never gets all the information and when the story concludes, they’re likely to have more questions than answers.

I’ve never written one like this before, and that was the point of it. I wanted to stretch myself, challenge myself as a writer, and so I came up with a few ideas that I thought might help me do that.

Problem is, I haven’t been working on it.

This may mean nothing – I haven’t been working on anything lately. I have a painting on my easel, just waiting for me to get back to it, a watercolour planned, a diorama kit of an abandoned gas station I’d like to get to, and some felt soft sculptures that need finishing. Instead, I’ve been thinking about other people’s writing, trying to make some room in my tiny cottage by going through three boxes of long unplayed LPs, gardening, and working on my family’s history.

This isn’t unusual for me. My creative output is always low because I’m easily distracted by all of the other things that interest me – volcanoes, history, political science, mind science, and everything I’ve never heard of before. Lately, I’ve had a near-obsession with Ancestry.com and working my way up and down the family tree in every direction. This is complicated by the fact that I’m also working on my late husband’s family tree at the same time.

But getting back to the story.

So distraction is part of the problem, but I try to at least write 200 words a day. Very little, considering I have done upwards of 3-4K a day, when I’m on writing fire. Which I’m not with my writing lately. In the olden days, and with most of the very short fiction I post here, the writing sort of took off and I was just along for the ride. Hasn’t been like that with my longer works – I struggle to feel my way through as though I’m blindfolded rather than the helter-skelter gallop I have been used to and got high off of.

That’s obviously another part of the problem.

Distraction I can – and have – dealt with. But it’s not a problem, when I’m fully invested in the work. Yep, there’s the real issue – I’m not fully invested in the work. And I don’t know why. Other stories I’ve told were just as complicated and I had no difficulty starting or continuing. If anything, I had difficulty turning off the flow at any point.

The only thing that comes to mind is that maybe I’m overthinking. Trying to infuse what I write with as much literary goodness as possible might have sucked all the fun out of the process and caused the tap to close. And while the desire to open the tap is there, the handle seems to have been mislaid.

How I can fix this, I’m not sure. But I know that, in the meantime, I have to work on finding the discipline I need to continue putting the words down, even if they’re only 200 at a time. If I let myself off the hook for one day, getting back to it the next day is harder and the temptation to skip another day is easier.

One day, I hope I can find the handle for that tap and see my words flowing freely again. Until then, I’ll have to savor each drop I get.

Crowdfunding – Begging or Investing?

After a few jobs as this and that, I finally found my niche as a technical writer of user manuals in the new field of computer software. It was a wild and wooly time and the stories I could tell… Not too long after starting this career, I was found to have a knack for copywriting as well as user manuals, so I found myself dividing my time between working with engineers and working with marketing. I also helped out designing materials for trade shows and working the shows themselves. So I was not only writing to serve the purpose of informing the customers about how to use what they had purchased, but also writing to invite them to invest in what we had to offer – to become a customer.

And this experience has shaped how I see crowdfunding for creative projects.

I moderate #LitChat on Writing Wednesdays on Twitter, and recently we talked about funding the writing life.

Most writers work full-time jobs. They have to because most of us have mortgages, kids, and an unfortunate desire to eat regular meals and having a job makes all of these easier. Some of us have retired (or been retired) and though our pensions aren’t lavish, they allow us the freedom to write without a lot of worry. Some of us (as I used to do) write nonfiction (articles, papers, marketing materials) as a regular job and fight against writing fatigue at the end of the day to get in a few hundred words on our fiction.

And some of us turn to crowdfunding.

A couple of the writers on the chat today surprised me by equating crowdfunding with begging and one stunned me by calling it degrading.

Begging, I tweeted, is saying please give me money. Crowdfunding is saying I have a great idea. Join in if you think it’s great, too.

There’s no begging going on in projects presented on sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, or the site I heard of just today, Pubslush. I’ve helped fund several creative projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, including a graphic novel, a film, and a web series. The same writer who called crowdfunding degrading also said that if “funding” was needed, it was not a job. In a sense that’s true. But you’re not asking people to support a job – you already have a job, finding funding for your project and then producing it. What you’re looking for in crowdfunding is investors – people who view your pitch and decide whether or not they like the idea enough to put money into it. It’s give and take on both sides, while begging is a one-way transaction: you give, I take.

When you give money to someone who’s begging, you give it in the hope they will use it wisely – for food, for shelter (please note that there are sites, like GoFundMe, for funneling cash to people with a problem, but those are different from crowdfunding a project). When people invest in a crowdfunded project, whether it’s a graphic novel or installing solar powered lights in homes without electricity, or a museum, the investor knows what they will get in return for their money. It’s a contract, even if the contract isn’t written out on paper. And, like every investor ever in the history of time, you put in your money with the hope the project will be successful. That’s it. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and your reasons for investing are your own.

With crowdfunding, the rewards are spelled out and generally not big – one of the products once it goes into production, your name in the credits, a tee-shirt. Of course, the bigger the investment, the bigger the reward, like being flown to Italy for the opening.

Two good things about crowdfunding: One is that you almost always get the reward you expect, whether the project does well over the long run or not, and you don’t have to be rich to invest. You find a project that interests you and you throw a little money at it, then you sit back and see how it does. And you do get regular updates on that.

Not begging. Definitely not begging. And nowhere near degrading.

Obviously, I’m very puzzled by the attitude that it might be. I don’t understand how anyone could possibly get that impression, unless they’ve never checked out a crowdfunding site. They’re not charities, although charities are not beggars, either. Every nonprofit I know goes to a lot of trouble to tell you how they use your donated monies.

Nope. I just don’t get it, and I think that writers with a great idea for a series or a graphic novel or screenplay or anything else creative who won’t consider crowdfunding are cheating themselves of an opportunity.

NOTE: I don’t like the term ‘begging,’ anyway. Individuals sometimes have problems they can’t solve by themselves and they ask for help from family, from their community, and it’s usually to help them get going again on their own. I’ve heard that some people can make a living from begging, but I’ve never met anyone who has.

Update: Crowdfunding is also a way to market your brand

Blurb or Babble?

Text Balloons

Image via IndieReader Publishing Service

Like most readers, I have a never-ending appetite but not a purse to match, so I must take care to spend my money wisely. Lately, I’ve become more aware of book blurbs. I subscribe to a couple of lists that tell me what e-book bargains are available and every day I get a new batch of recommendations. In grid form, they show the book cover and next to it, the blurb.

A blurb, the way I see it, is an open-ended summary of your story’s characters, conflicts, and goals delivered in a compelling, short form that will inform the potential reader and entice her to buy, or at least look at, your book. When seen in grid form, where comparing blurbs is easily done, lazy blurbs stand out.

Want one? All you have to do is follow this formula:

When Suddenly + Chosen One = Question

When Suddenly

The protagonist is living a happy-go-lucky life as a normal person when suddenly mysterious people start picking on him/her. Alternate: protagonist is a former military person with issues or a woman with an unhappy past.

Chosen One

The protagonist becomes aware that s/he is the person foretold by the prophecy and the salvation of the entire world rests on her/his shoulders. In fantasies, they usually awaken to powers hitherto unknown or in other types of books, they end up being the only one with the right skills to find the truth.

Question

This is the part that’s supposed to get the reader’s blood going and generally includes a list of the obstacles: On the run from the police/evil sorcerers/abusive ex-husband, can the protagonist find the killer/control the power/defeat the ex before the murderer strikes again/destroys the world/deals out more abuse? Not that a question can’t be useful, but if your protagonist is a cop trying to catch a killer, then it’s just silly to ask a question about whether or not he can do so – he wouldn’t be the protagonist if he couldn’t, right?

Bonus points if you use phrases like ‘race against time.’

So what makes a good book blurb?

As I expected when I began to research this topic, everybody’s got an idea and some even have it broken down into steps (there’s a list of the links I read at the bottom of this post). But here’s the gist I got:

  • Know what kind of blurbs appeal to you as a reader (augh, research? LOL)
  • Keep it short (maybe 4 paragraphs maximum)
  • Don’t give away the store (they’re supposed to buy the book to see what happens, remember?)
  • Remember that it’s about the story and characters, not the setting or the era (Ancient Rome was interesting, but if it’s a romance, I need to feel I’ll like the couple)
  • Set a mood (give me a taste your writing and how it evokes the atmosphere of the story)
  • Work as hard at polishing your blurb as you do your novel

Got your own list for what makes a good blurb? Tell me about it in the comments. In matters of writing advice, I’m like the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. When Sheriff Bart asked him if he needed any help, he replied, “Ohhhh – all I can get.”

Blurb Writing Blog List

  1. How to Write a Blurb by Marilynn Byerly
  2. Four Easy Steps to an Irresistible Book Blurb
  3. How to Write an Effective Blurb for a Self-Published Book by Sarah Juckes
  4. The Five Core Elements of a Book Blurb by Frances Reid Rowland (my fave of the blog posts)
  5. Blurbs That Bore, Blurbs That Blare by MichaelBrent Collins

Jesus Saves

jesussaves

When I was thirteen, my mother appeared on the cover of the National Inquirer. She was extremely proud of it and bought all the copies she had the money for. The covers were all black and white in 1965, and I was thankful: her minister outfit was a purple cassock, cloth of gold chasuble, and purple and gold stole. Still, black and white was bad enough when your classmates were asking “Isn’t that your mom on the cover of the Inquirer?” The headline was: I RUN A CHURCH FOR HOMOSEXUALS.

I don’t know when and where Momma met her first gay friend. I only know that, growing up with Momma, nine out of ten of my babysitters were likely to be drag queens or gay hustlers or gay hairdressers, all of them what she called ‘fem queens’. She didn’t seem to think them unusual, so neither did I.

I found most of them an interesting contrast to my mother. The drag queens often dressed as well or better than she did and more flamboyantly and they were definitely better at putting on makeup and producing a bustline. But out of drag, or if they didn’t wear it, they were usually slight young men whose voices flowed out in a rush and whose hands fluttered about them as they spoke. My mother was considered very tall for a woman in those days – she was five foot nine or ten in heels and very broad-shouldered with a solid, boyish shape and pretty but sturdy legs. In the midst of her friends, she was an Amazon.

When I was very young, Momma would sometimes run away from home for a few days and take me or my sister with her. Never both at once. It usually happened in Spring or Summer when the evenings were soft and warm.

We would spend the early parts of an evening in downtown Los Angeles, in Pershing Square, named after “Black Jack” Pershing, the World War I general. We would arrive there just about twilight, when the office workers were heading home maybe from City Hall – then the tallest building in Los Angeles – or the Richfield building, all black marble with gold filigrees and eagles decorating its deco splendor.

In the Square, Momma would talk to her friends until the people with the songbooks and portable organ arrived. Then we would sing hymns of the type my mother learned when she was being raised by my great-grandmother. My mother told me that great-grandmother had been a Seventh Day Adventist and had once given away all of her belongings because the leader of her particular congregation had said that Christ was coming back to earth on such-and-such a day. It might have been just a story. My mother told me a lot of stories and probably believed every one of them. During her lifetime, she tried on a lot of religions, but always liked singing those songs, so maybe that story had a little more truth in it than the others.

Pershing Square was lush with palms, ferns, and elephant ears and thick with stands of Birds-of-Paradise, the official flower of the city of Los Angeles. Lighting was a mix of Edwardian era standards with frosted, knob-like glass, and newer metal lamps, spare and utilitarian. A long time ago, purple glass blocks had been placed in the concrete sidewalks downtown and some places the light in underground garages or workplaces would still shine up through them, as it did in Pershing Square, where there was a vast amount of underground parking. I put my little feet on the purple glass from time to time, wondering what was underneath.

There were also lights in the bases of the planter boxes and lights at the bottom of the trees, but no matter how many lights were put in the park, it remained shadowy and full of dark and secluded grottoes; the perfect place for some of Momma’s friends to conduct their business.

In the early to mid-fifties, if you could stay in the closet, you did. But, if you couldn’t, you still had to earn a living. Then, as now, a lot of young runaways and boys who had been turned out of family homes, came downtown to hustle, providing sex to the guys still in the closet. Baby-faced kids with barely there beards who serviced the “chicken hawks,” and “drugstore cowboys” who went for a ride with those who liked their companionship a little more exotic or “rough.” Pershing Square, with its secluded spots and underground restrooms was perfect for such anonymous meetings.

The Los Angeles police were often there, and sometimes they would talk with Momma, and smile at me. Momma would wait until they were out of earshot before calling them “bastards” and “gestapo.” There must have been other types of people there, too: business people on their way to dinner or a night at the Biltmore, couples headed to the big art-deco movie theatres a couple of blocks away, drug dealers, other kinds of opportunists. But I didn’t know any of those. When I was with Momma in Pershing Square, my world was a night world of shadow and lamplight, my nearsighted vision blurred all lights to snowflakes, and I would sit on top of one of the large concrete planters and listen to the sounds of traffic, footsteps, the thrum of the pigeons as they went to roost in the trees, the mix of voices raised in song.

Maybe it was the Salvation Army, those people with the songbooks and portable organ. Or maybe another group, people from the building with the big red neon light reading, “JESUS SAVES.” Someone was always there, though. They would hand out the song books and start the singing. My mother knew every song. Her voice was not beautiful, but it was melodic and distinctive. In later days, I came to think of it as representative of her Missouri roots. It was strong and clear and conveyed a sort of certainty. She would stand near a planter, with me sitting on top of it next to her, my legs dangling from underneath my car coat, and I would listen as she lifted her voice about gathering at the river or clinging to an old rugged cross or becoming a Christian soldier. Sometimes I would try to sing along, but mostly, I listened.

I always fell asleep. Once that happened, I would experience the rest of the night as a series of blurry vignettes: opening my eyes to find myself being carried somewhere; hearing a man’s voice with a woman’s lilt singing to me; seeing the parade of Yellow Cabs in front of the Biltmore, men in tuxedos and ladies in evening gowns getting out of big cars to stroll across the sidewalk; Momma asking me if I needed to use the toilet and realizing I was already in a stall.

I alternated sleeping and waking to a continuous buzz of talking and laughter, the smell of cigarettes, coffee from a vending machine, and sometimes a cup of hot, watery cocoa or salty chicken-soup.

When the evening was done at last, we often walked to Cooper’s Donuts for a plain cake donut and a cup of coffee full of milk, each of them only a nickel. The pressmen from the Times or Examiner might be there, or men from the flower market. Almost always, one of them would buy me a special donut – eight cents – with chocolate frosting and nuts.

Walking downtown afterward, looking for a place to spend the night, we sometimes ran into more friends of Momma’s. They yelled, “Hey, Mary!” across the street at her, called her “Miss Thing,” and introduced her to others as their “sister Bobbie.” Momma and her friends would laugh about the evening’s work or entertainment and often, we would all go to a Clifton’s Cafeteria. My mother and I both favored the one that was decorated like an island paradise.

In those times, I thought the best part of being with Momma then was Cooper’s Donuts or going to Clifton’s. But now, I think I might pick Pershing Square in the springtime and the sound of young male voices singing about being Christian soldiers while the big red neon sign across the street flashed, “JESUS SAVES” and the world rushed by in shadow.

 

NOTE: this piece is part of a collection of autobiographical works under the title, My Life in Pictures

Half a Decade? Oh, Please…

Words

It’s a writer’s job to use words to give voice to emotion but I hate it when language is blatantly manipulated to inflate the mundane into the gasp-worthy. Example:

“…after all, it took nothing less than the pent-up rage of thousands and a fantastically dumb sound bite from Kenan Thompson to get Michaels to bring on Sasheer Zamata, SNL’s first black female cast member in over half a decade.” (Excerpt from this article.)

Five years. Leaving the subject of  the article out this, five years can be either very long or very short, depending on the context. But putting it in the frame of a decade automatically takes us to ten years, just as $1.99 makes us mentally round down to a dollar. It’s a trick and an obvious one used in service of the author’s argument, which was also a side rant to the real issue. In another writer’s hands, such treatment could be construed as ironic: Gee, a whole five years? Used with all seriousness, it just comes off as manipulative.

 

Used to It

Painting of Czech Harvest Festival celebrants

 

“Will you not come down to join the festival?”

Fanne did not turn from where her hand holding the quill moved across the paper. “Sorry, no.”

There was no sound of Leefer leaving.

“Why not?”

Fanne still did not turn. “I would not enjoy it. After greeting a few friends and having a glass of something, I would retreat to a corner and spend the rest of the evening watching. It’s more profitable for me to stay here and work.”

“But – ”

Fanne continued to write.

“But there are folk to talk with and dancing… you like dancing.”

“Perhaps I’m not in the mood.”

“I don’t understand.” There was a quiver in Leefer’s voice that finally made Fanne stop writing and turn her head.

“Listen, Leefer. I like to help people, I want them to prosper. But as a group, I prefer to let them be. I never feel a part of them. At every celebration, some bit of me is always standing away and watching. It is a lonely feeling and I like to avoid it.”

“But they like you – ”

“And often, I like them. but sometimes that is not enough.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s not required you should.” Fanne turned back to her paper and re-dipped the quill, began writing once more. She paused as a hand fell gently upon one shoulder.

“Fanne, does that not staying apart feel lonely as well?”

One corner of Fanne’s mouth lifted, though Leefer could not see it. “Yes, sometimes it does. But I would sooner be lonely here than there. And I am used to it.”

“Used to it…” Leefer’s voice trailed away and the hand on her shoulder was removed.

Fanne continued to write as the thick door shut behind her, cutting off the sounds of celebration in the streets. The sudden silence was like a balm. And a burden.