Monday, March 28, 2011

It's not where you start ...

I’m usually a very linear writer. It comes of all those years writing serials while going to school—I didn’t have time to get more than a couple of chapters ahead of schedule, and more often than not I pounded out the last scene right up against the deadline. I considered it good experience, since part of the reason I started writing serials in the first place was to teach myself to meet deadlines. So while I may not always know exactly where a given story starts, I always try to start writing at the beginning.

Except, apparently, when I write a serial as an adult.

With everything that’s been going on lately, I feel a little like I’ve climbed out of a car crash. I shake a little, and when I sit down to write, I find myself second-guessing my writing more than I should. Helpful constructive criticism from people who don’t know (or have forgotten) that I’m on a first draft is … less helpful than it otherwise would be. And under those circumstances, there is nothing more intimidating than trying to write a first sentence.

I have a thing about first sentences. I like to make them as startling, as fascinating, as I can. I consider the writing of a good first sentence or first paragraph to be an art form unto itself. It’s the door to a story, often introducing tone, character, and conflict all in one go. Often the theme works its way in there too, if you’re not careful. So first sentences are quite a job.

Consequently, I started writing the serial this time around on Chapter 2, because that chapter I knew. It’s about somebody having a nightmare, and it’s loosely based on a recurring nightmare I’ve had since childhood, so I knew that chapter inside and out. Then there’s a fight scene, and I’m pretty good at those and know how this one should go. There’s some tricky emotional stuff, too, and some characterization of course, but I knew the nightmare would ease me in.

So I wrote it. And then I went back and wrote Chapter 1. And they’re sort of working now. On to Chapter 3. I find I’m also writing my current novel a bit out of sequence, but it’s coming along beautifully. I still don’t completely trust the practice of doing scenes radically out of order—it’s not like I’m on a shooting schedule where I only have a location for two days, and so I have to start shooting there no matter where the scene falls in the movie—but it’s nice to have found a little way around my own neuroses.

Plus my strategy can now be summed up by one of my favorite Muppet Show sketches:

Monday, March 21, 2011

What's the opposite of coulrophobia?

I have a confession to make: I am not even a little bit afraid of clowns.

I don’t usually find them funny, but I don’t find them disturbing, either. I’m told this is odd. I apparently had all the usual traumatic exposures. I had a plastic coin bank shaped like a smiling clown when I was little. I have dim memories of being taken to a circus. There were some assorted clowns at birthday parties and the like. But the clowns just didn’t bother me. Heck, when I was sixteen, the first job I applied for was as a professional clown at a theme park, making balloon animals for kids—not because I had feelings one way or the other about clowns, but because my father had taught me to make balloon animals as a child and I was good at it. (The park eliminated the clown position after they hired me, and I ended up flipping burgers instead. But I still make quite a passable giraffe.)

I have several friends who are unnerved or outright frightened by clowns. It’s something about the smiles, they tell me—that cheerful familiarity in someone who is, fundamentally, a stranger, but is invading your personal space anyway. Then there’s the persistence of evil clowns in popular culture. But no matter how many Joker stories I read in Batman comics or how often I see references to Stephen King’s It, clowns just don’t bother me. So they act weird and invade my personal space. Big deal. I’ve ridden the New York subway.

I became freshly aware of this problem recently when I attended a Haunted Hayride event one night in Griffith Park around Halloween. I went for the rare chance to see the park in the dark—Rae hangs out there after sundown in an early draft of Masks, but the park usually closes at sunset and you can be arrested for being there after closing. So while the motorized wagon trundled us from horror scene to horror scene, I was busily taking mental notes on what the sky looked like between the dark trees, and how all the plants smelled by night, and how the lack of trail lighting might affect a mask trying to get around. I barely noticed when we rolled through the strobe-lit tent with the psycho clowns charging the wagon; I was inspecting the dirt.

Ultimately, my friends like to blame my clown inoculation on The Puppet. The Puppet does not have a name, really—he’s the only one of his kind. He’s a little wooden marionette, about twelve inches high, with a round wooden clown face and a body covered in a striped clown jumpsuit. He has a big smile and, because of my inexpert childhood attempts at mending a broken string, he tends to hold his head tilted to one side in what I’m told is an eerie way. All I know about The Puppet is that he’s been there all my life, he apparently belonged to my parents before I adopted him somewhere around age six, and he was made in England. He is my clown, and therefore clowns hold no terror for me—no matter how much it bothers everyone else that I have a spooky clown puppet hanging from a corner of my bookcase, it does not bother me because no scary clown could possibly overcome the affection I share with The Puppet.

Yes, I know this sounds like a horror movie waiting to happen. A writer and her creepy, ill-repaired clown puppet that she resolutely insists is not scary and yet identifies by a capital letter. Heck, just rereading this blog entry makes me wonder if I’ve creeped you out already. But he’s just a puppet, and I like him.

This presented a problem recently when I was designing supervillains. I needed an adversary for a detective hero, and the Batman/Joker dynamic naturally suggested itself. A monster in the service of good versus a childhood icon in the service of evil … order versus chaos … primary versus secondary colors … you get the idea. But as I said, I am not even a little bit afraid of clowns.

I was just explaining this to a friend when I caught myself saying, “I guess I’m not afraid of clowns because I had this cute little clown marionette when I was little, and he’s such a friendly little guy that …” and then I noticed my friend was staring at me. Finally, I realized that I’d justified my tolerance of clowns by talking about my love for a puppet … and many people find puppets just as freaky as clowns.

And that gave me an idea.

So the supervillain who gave Trevor nightmares as a young sidekick is not a clown in any way, shape, or form.

But there’s something about him that has to do with puppets …  

Monday, March 14, 2011

Making the plot-sausage

The old saw tells us that laws and sausages are two things we shouldn’t see being made. Add to that list story plots. But since this blog is partly a play for attention like a two-year-old throwing a public tantrum, I thought I’d blog a little about how I turn the random fragments of an idea floating through my brain into something you’d actually want to read.

Most of my stories start with a notebook. Sometimes they begin in the Book of Good Dreams; sometimes they show up fully formed enough to merit a notebook of their own right away, especially if the story is one I’ll need fairly soon. I carry the notebook around with me and jot down story ideas and scene fragments as they come. The dates in the notebook I keep for the new serial indicate that I got a new fragment about every day or every other day for perhaps a month. Sometimes they were big, like an ancient myth I used as a model for the larger plot; sometimes they were small, like a character getting a haircut at a significant moment. But I fill up pages in the notebook until I’m satisfied that I pretty much know what’s going into the sausage.

Then I turn to the dreaded Thinking Board.

I created my Thinking Board because I live in a tiny room with very little exposed wall space. One wall is taken up by towering bookcases; another wall is taken up by a closet and a door; a third wall is covered with wood paneling that I’d rather not damage; and the fourth wall, the one behind my bed, is half filled with a window, leaving the other half bare. I used to stick index cards to that square of exposed wall with putty, but it alarmed guests, who thought I was turning into a Darren Aronofsky character. So I made myself a portable bulletin board that can be slipped behind my desk when company comes over. This makes me no more sane, but perhaps a bit more socially acceptable.

The board starts out blank, except for a prototype Masks button at the corner for good luck.

Then I split the board into points of view. The serial will use the same alternating-POV structure Masks did, so one of my primary tasks is to figure out which point of view each scene will have. I will be making a list of the events in the story in roughly chronological order, and dividing them into events that must be described through the eyes of Character X (usually because Character Y is not present for them), events that must be described through the eyes of Character Y, and events that could be described either way. Character X gets the left column with cards shaded in green marker, Character Y the right with blue, and the either/or moments get the middle of the board.

My old drama teacher used to tell me that if you have an opening and a finale, you have a show. It’s not strictly true—the middle is important—but if you’re plotting and you don’t yet know what you’re doing, it helps to lay down where your story will begin and where it will end. That helps you plan the route. I knew that my story would open with a scene featuring Character X, then one featuring Character Y, then a moment where they meet. I knew what the closing image of the story would be. So I pinned those cards up first.

Then I added a few more key events down the center line, to make sure I had things paced out pretty well. I also added more cards to the midpoint of the story—a moment where I like to dramatically reverse something, even if it’s something small. The midpoint event makes a nice milestone when I’m plotting, so you can see little bits of Character X and Character Y radiating out from the midpoint as they are affected by that event.

Then I had to go to work for a few hours, and it was dark when I got back. I added more events to the board, filling in the full central timeline and adding more single-POV scenes at the sides. I went back through the notebook and made cards for everything I wrote down, from the mythological parallels to the haircut, and I pinned them up in the appropriate places.

Then, when I had everything up on the board where I could see it, I began making scene cards—one index card for each chapter or scene (in my serial work, chapters and scenes are almost synonymous). The stripe down the left side of the card indicates the chapter’s point of view (green for Character X, blue for Character Y) and the stripe along the top, if any, indicates that the scene is a high point (orange for a high-action scene, brown for a high-emotion scene). You can see that as the serial progresses, the action and emotion will both ratchet up, but there will still be points where the reader can breathe.

And that, more or less, is how it works for me. I know many writers prefer to “just write” and discover where their story goes as they follow it, but I tend to do that in the prewriting phase, in the notebook. When I sit down to draw up a writing schedule, I like having a solid outline. I back up these outlines on my computer, as well, in case I lose the deck of index cards.

Yes, you can say it. Just in case I find I’m not playing with a full deck …

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A chance to be a superhero!

I don't generally repost these, but one of my favorite bloggers, Michael Paciocco of Michael Paciocco's Mind, has asked his readers to pass this message along. As nearly as I can determine, this is a real 12-year-old girl with a real illness--and this sounds like a really good idea. I now turn the matter over to Paul Pogue of Pogue's Run, who is asking the nerd underground to help the kid out ... 


Some of you know me, some don’t. My name’s Paul Pogue, Indianapolis, Indiana, lifelong nerd, father to three-year-old cancer survivor Armand Zefram Pogue.

A couple of years ago, Armand was diagnosed with just about the worst case of cancer imaginable – a stage-four neuroblastoma that put a tumor the size of a cabbage in his stomach and left him with survival odds in the low double digits.

Armand is doing great now, two years later, and is cancer-free. But recently our circle of friends was hit with the cruel hammer of irony. One of my close friends these many years is Sarah Rogers. Last week her 12-year-old daughter Patty was diagnosed with stage-four neuroblastoma – exactly the same kind Armand had, and possibly an even worse case, with a tumor wrapped around her spine and another in her lung.

Right now she’s at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, getting the finest care available – as it happens, in one of the very same rooms in which my son spent so many days fighting for his life.

My goal is to help Patty stay a little more sane. If there’s one thing my family knows after 240 long days of inpatient treatment, it is that the days can go on endlessly. Armand got lucky – he had a DVD player and later an iPod to while away the days. And for a cancer patient who can barely even sit up, there is nothing better in the world than an iPod.

Unless, of course, it’s two years later and the world now has the iPad.

Patty Rogers doesn’t have her own computer, and even a laptop would be kind of hard to work with in the hard days ahead when she might be flat on her back for a long time. But an iPad? Perfect.

So I want to help get Patty an iPad ASAP and help her stay just a little bit more sane. But I can’t do it alone. I’m putting up $50 to start a fund, and Apple’s already agreed to give her a discount. I’d like to ask the nerds of the world to lend a hand – 50 cents, five bucks, ten bucks, anything you can give.

If we go over the limit needed, I’ll just throw in an iTunes store card to fill her up. If we go a lot more, I’m handing it straight over to the family for gas, food or whatever they need. Cancer is EXPENSIVE, and not just the medical treatment.

For convenience’s sake, we’re taking the online donations via Paypal. Send it to and put “For Patty’s iPad” or something similar in the header.

One other request: If you have a blog or anyplace online where people listen to what you have to say, please repost this and see if anyone else is up for helping. Think of it as an all-nerd alert!

I know it’s asking a lot. But I also know that my family and I wouldn’t have made it through the last two horrible years without the enormous support of everyone around us, and I want to do everything I can to help Patty Rogers get the same help.

Want to know more about her? Check out If you have any questions or want more confirmation that this is on the up-and-up, drop me a line at and we’ll talk.

Thanks a lot, everyone!

Paul F. P. Pogue
Veteran of the cancer wars

Monday, March 7, 2011

Planning my summer vacation (and maybe yours)

How would you guys like some free story?

It occurred to me the other day that I really miss doing serial fiction. I loved it when I was younger—the sense of progress that came of posting chapters regularly, the glee of watching readers drive themselves crazy speculating what would happen next, the challenge of improvising on the fly when a given character or plotline wasn’t working. And I had a dream, long ago, that someday I could walk into the office of a major publisher and say, “Here’s my new novel and a list of the umpty-gazillion people who signed up to read my last one. How would you like to be the one selling them what they desperately want to buy?” Granted, this was the sort of thing you fantasize about when you’re bored in freshman health class and never actually do, but it was a nice dream. I miss having it.

Mostly, I miss the sense that I was regularly doing something nice for people who were nice to me. I’m pretty much back to square one, as far as the old writing career goes, which is understandably distressing, and I long ago figured out that the best way to deal with my own problems (particularly the ones I couldn’t do much about very soon) was to help someone else. Stories were always my favorite way of doing that. Well, that and food. But I can’t bake you all cookies—some of you are in places like Mongolia or Ukraine, and the cookies would arrive as crumbs, if they arrived at all. So I’m considering writing you all some stories instead.

I’ll be honest—I’m contemplating this in part because it will give me an excuse to learn some basic web design and figure out how serialization works nowadays. The old email model I used in the late ‘90s just won’t fly anymore. I want to figure out how to set up an RSS feed, and format my stories to be read on smartphones and tablets, and all that good stuff. I also expect the series to drive a bit of traffic to my new website when I get it up and running, because—and this is the important part—if I do it at all, the entire serialized novel will be available for free.

Yep. You read that right. Free. Gratis. Costing zip, nada, and zilch, except whatever you pay to connect to the Web and download it in bite-sized weekly chapters. Basically, I’m asking you to put up with my inevitable technical fumbles in exchange for some kickass free entertainment. Well, put up with my technical fumbles and invite everyone you know to laugh at them with you. 

You see, whatever book I write next (and there are a few in the hopper) is easily a year or more away from being purchased by a publisher, and that’s if the stars align and I take someone’s firstborn child hostage. And in my last attempt to get published, one of the most consistent criticisms of my work had nothing to do with my work—it was that I didn’t have enough “name recognition.” Basically, I wasn’t famous enough to be worth anyone’s time. So it occurs to me that if I spend that year or two not only writing and pimping the new book, but building up a fanbase for a serial … suddenly I’m in a much stronger bargaining position. And you guys are entertained. Win-win.

So I’m kicking around ideas for a serial. I’ve got it about halfway through the plotting process while all the other books are in a temporary holding pattern. I hope to start banging out chapters soon, and then revising them and sending them out to a reading circle sometime in late spring. Since the serial isn’t going to my agent, or anyone else who requires a four- to ten-week window to respond, I hope to have something ready to post by summer. July, maybe.

The serial’s shaping up as a nice summer vacation for me. Based on the outline, it will have action, and romance, and humor, and a little bit of magic. It will involve a few characters I’ve talked about on this blog, and a few I haven’t. People will laugh, people will cry, stuff will blow up. I’m enjoying my time spent in this particular fictional world, and I think you’ll like it too.

But … getting a serial going depends on you guys. In the bad old days I could recruit readers out of my high school, stuffing chapters into their lockers before first period. I don’t exactly have that option anymore, so I’ll need some help drawing eyeballs to the project.

This is where you come in.

If I write it, will you come? Will you subscribe to the RSS, and bug your friends, and post links all over Twitter and Facebook and your blogs? You guys are the early adopters here, so I need you on board if this is going to work. Will you check the serial out on your iPads and smartphones, and tell me if I screwed something up with the formatting?

Most importantly—will you read it? Will you enjoy it? Will you share it?

I await your answer …