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Archive for April, 2013

The blank page is a writer’s worst enemy. It is a double-edged blade, representing the great promise to come, and the incredible failure of untapped potential. I spend a lot of time looking at blank pages. Every now and then I come up with something that might be worth reading. Most of the time I’m just watching a polar bear in whiteout conditions and wondering just how cold it would have to be before even one of them went looking for an electric blanket.

Today’s one of those polar bear days. Usually I get to Monday and have a number of ideas I want to play with for the week’s entry, but not today. A lot of personal stuff has been going on, which has led to some significant stress, which has flared the depression to the point that I didn’t even bother to get out of my pajamas today. Coupled with what is now week three of a sinus infection, I couldn’t give any less of a crap about most things.

There was a time not so very long ago when I would have just curled up with a blanket, a cat, a cup of tea and spent about a hundred hours straight watching science fiction on Hulu. Come to think of it, I may just yet do that. But I’m really trying to work on my discipline, especially when it comes to my writing. Goddess knows I have none in any other aspect of my life, but I feel like I’m finally starting to get a groove going with writing.

Probably the most common and important piece of advice any successful author will give to any aspiring author is to write EVERYDAY. I’ve witnessed that repeatedly at writer’s conferences, heard it in interviews and read it in books. WRITE EVERYDAY. For a long time I was one of those pish-tosh naysayers who felt I had to be moved by the Muses before I could write. I could get away with that when I still worked for other people. Then I could justify my sporadic word bursts because I just didn’t have time for it regularly. My schedule was just too hectic because of the BS at the office, or the commute, or professional training or some other dumb-ass-insert-stupid-excuse-here.

But once I stopped having The Office (believe me, some places I worked made those people at Dunder-Mifflin look positively sane) as my reason-de-jour, I realized I had to get into a routine. Being OCD, I do best under a regular schedule, and I had to make writing a big part of that schedule. Initially I had to incentivize myself. The deal was, write at least 1,000 words, and then I could play one of my computer games. At first the desire to go straight to the games was pretty overwhelming. Sometimes that desire won out. But, slowly, I found myself looking forward to doing the writing more and more. And the more I did, the easier it came, and the better it was.

I slogged through the first novel (see an excerpt here), wrenching out every word, editing, rewriting, slashing, writing again, forcing it upon beta readers for comments, and writing yet some more, and I’m still far from happy with it. Not sure that I ever will be, quite honestly. I came to a point where I just had to let it go and start submitting it. And, while it hasn’t been picked up yet, I have had some encouraging comments. Between the actual process of forcing those words onto the page and getting the occasional positive rejection (weird juxtaposition, but that’s writing for you), I have come to a point where I look forward to each evening’s sojourn into the Great White Page.

The second novel is moving along much better. It’s a total scratch built story, something I only came up with these last couple years. As opposed to the adaptation of a feature-length script I wrote at the American Film Institute, of a short story I wrote in junior high school, which also changed genres in the middle there somewhere. Don’t ask – that’s also just one of the weird things that happens when you’re writing.

But because of the grind I went through to get that first one finished, this second one is clearer, has a better voice, is coming together much nicer. The characters are better delineated and the nuances of the story are weaving together in ways that are surprising even to me. Most of the time, I’m just the typist as the characters dictate the action. Each time I sit down at the computer, something new is revealed, something tantalizing or worrisome or shocking. I’m not even sure of the scope of this thing; I just know it’s going to be pretty big, probably more than one book. The writing has become fun again, for the first time in a long time.

Writing every day is more than just getting yourself into a habit. It’s also freeing you. To write every day means you have come to terms with being a writer, to accepting the calling of the blank page and the challenge it presents. When I started this article tonight, I only had the first sentence. And then mostly out of irony more than any real intent to riff on the subject. Now, a couple hours later and a lot of stream-of-conscious blathering, I have something that might be interesting to someone, or prove helpful, or even (if I’m lucky) entertaining.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

Michelangelo

And so it is the task of the writer to discover the story on the page. Time to just sit down and do it. Put anything on the page, even if it’s just one word, and let that stir the pot of creativity. Somewhere there’s a polar bear looking for an electric blanket and wondering what’s taking you so long.

© 2013   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at that title and somewhere remembering that I’m a science fiction writer. Then you’re putting that together with all the news lately about new-found extra-solar planets (“Most Earthlike Planets Found Yet: A ‘Breakthrough’ “), and Mars One’s search for one-way colonists, and you’re expecting my declaration of why Earth isn’t the only place to hatch intelligent life. Or that I’ve put my name on the applicant lists for the first starship out of Dodge. Both lovely topics for one of these little sojourns of mine, but not on the docket for tonight.

Rather, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank those who have signed on to follow this blathering bit of BS. I’ve had on average of one new follower a week over the last few months. Some of them aren’t even related to me. And a few I’ve never met at all! I mean, South Africa? India? Really??? Whatever I’ve done to embolden you to hit that button, I hope I can keep being worth it.

And while one new convert a week might not be worth mentioning for some people, to me it is extraordinary. I’m not here to make money (Goddess knows I could certainly use it), and I can’t say that I have the credentials to back up anything I write. This is, and always will be, a place for me to let off some steam, offer up some hard-learned advice, and occasionally piss off a few of the ultra-right. An ethereal diary, if you will. Anyone who plays along is a welcome passenger. Anybody else can just go take a flying leap into the endless black pit that is the Internet.

It took me a while to realize the enormity of what my efforts here have accomplished. When I first started to check my stats, most of the hits came from the United States. To be expected, given that I’m in Southern California. Then I started to see Canada, England, France, Indonesia, Australia, Russia! There was somebody in RUSSIA reading my vanity blog!!! I went from thinking “Wow, this is pretty cool,” to “HOLY CRAP!”

As little as ten years ago, a writer grabbing the attention of a reader half the world away wouldn’t have happened without the Herculean efforts of publishers, advertising, best seller lists, and more time than any of us would care to commit. Now, in seconds, my words can be seen anywhere in the world, by anyone in the world. That’s the WHOLE WIDE WORLD, people. I know to you young-uns out there, this concept is not new. But to those of us who had rotary dial landline phones (one line, no call waiting, no caller ID and it didn’t fit in your pocket) as children, and have witnessed the massive change in our communications and culture because of the advances in electronics technology, it’s just a bit overwhelming.

It’s also making our planet that much more tiny. Two young men set off bombs at the Boston Marathon last Monday, killing three and wounding nearly 200. Within hours their pictures were plastered everywhere. Investigators were able to pull information from dozens of civilian cell phones and untold numbers of public/private security, traffic and ATM cameras from all over the area. A manhunt that might have taken weeks, if not longer, just a few years ago, was over in less than five days. People from all over the world have made donations to funds for the victims (One Fund Boston), with totals now over $10 million in just a week.

A few days later a fertilizer plant in West, Texas made the bombings in Boston look miniscule by comparison. Because it’s being deemed an industrial accident, it’s not getting the attention two cowardly terrorists managed to snag for a couple of IEDs, but it deserves at least the same. Fourteen people are known to have died in Texas, with hundreds injured, and an entire town blown apart by the force. Less than a week after the blast, donations have already come from all over the world, with more arriving by the minute. A decade ago, nobody outside of Texas would have heard anything about this, and now somebody on the other side of the world is contributing to the Red Cross because of our inter-connectedness.

We live in an age of instant information. I write something here right now, and in five minutes somebody in Brazil is reading it. There’s an explosion in Texas, and the BBC is posting an article about it within hours. Terrorists strike at a public event in Boston, and Syrians (yes, war-torn, bombed-out, shot-up Syrians) are sending us a sympathy card.

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(http://www.buzzfeed.com/mikehayes/syria-sends-condolences-to-boston-here-is-bostons-heartwarmi)

And that’s why we are not alone.

© 2013   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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It is said that knowledge is power. But if you have no way to show the rest of the world that knowledge, then what power do you really have? To use knowledge you must be able to communicate that knowledge, whether it is to simply impress your friends while watching Jeopardy, or lead the way in stunning scientific breakthroughs. Either way, you have to let that knowledge out.

The impetus to spread knowledge more quickly than show-and-grunt gave us the basics of communication. We began communicating that which we knew to those who wanted to learn, and found ourselves with language. Whether it is pictograms, signing, the spoken word or even mathematics, we depend on some form of language everyday to get by. Those ideas in your head need to be released somehow, and new ideas need to be put in.

We are constantly searching for better methods of communication. Through research we’ve discovered individuals who might not be able to speak or write normally had plenty to say once we figured out how to connect them to the world.  Without modern technology we would have missed the great mind of Stephen Hawking. He would have been long gone from this world and the field of physics would likely not be as far along as it is. Through his gift with language (both math and, yes, words), he has elevated us to a much higher level of understanding than we might have achieved otherwise.

Words are the most common form of language. Because of words, we have amazing scientific, literary and philosophical works. Words have been given meaning and strength and purpose. Words have power. Anybody that doesn’t believe that obviously has never been bullied. Whoever said, “Sticks and stones will break by bones, but words will never hurt me” was never a teenager on Facebook. Social media has allowed what might have been a random few bullies to turn into great hordes of hatred. And often those hordes don’t even know why they do it. But it all started with just a few words.

And while words have brought down great nations and lifted up individuals, my purpose as a fiction writer is to entertain. I use words to elicit responses, to play with your perceptions and emotions, and to offer you an escape from the usual stresses of the day. To be a good writer (not saying that I am, just that I’m aware of what it takes), you have to play with words like no one else, to be able to take some silly scratchings on a page and build everything, every mood, every shadow, every environment, every world. You have to know the grandiosity of words, as well as their subtleties. And, most importantly, you have to know when it’s the right time to use them.

Still not convinced that words make that much difference? Here, let me give you an example:

She walked into the room. She looked through everything and found nothing. She exited the room.

The paragraph above is simple and factual, but not really very interesting. It could be a police report, for all its straightforward words. It needs something else to hold our attention:

She tiptoed into the darkened room. Quickly she rifled through everything, but found nothing of interest. She quietly left the room in frustration.

A whole new tone becomes apparent, because of a few words. We have a different view of what might actually be going on. Who is she? What is she looking for? Why is she searching a room? It sounds like she might be there illicitly. Things might just be interesting after all. Or how about this one:

She barged into the quiet room. Angrily she tossed everything, coming up empty. She stormed out of the room cursing.

Well, that’s something yet again different, and brings up an all-together new set of questions, simply because a few words were changed. All sorts of things can be implied, inferred, or suggested by words, even when they don’t speak to the details explicitly:

Sister Hannah padded into the room. She regarded the contents, but found nothing she needed. She withdrew from the room slowly.

Dr. Beckett sauntered into the room. He glanced over the contents, but found little of interest. Whistling, he departed the room.

Detective Summerville strode into the room. He glared at the contents, but saw zilch to work with. Scowling, he spun on his heel and left.

Each of the above gives you a little bit different tone, starting with just the title of the individual. Each paragraph is giving you a description of the same basic act, but because of a few choice words and their placement, the reader gets a new experience with each reading. It is the experience that captures the reader, and that’s why words have power.

The examples I’ve given are just the beginnings of what words can offer. This same scenario can be written in thousands of different ways, offering shades of historical romance to modern comedy to hard-boiled detective mystery. And because no two people will read the same words the same way, there will be millions of interpretations and responses.

That’s the beauty of it. You never know what you’re going to get. So go out and play with words yourself. Use words like lugubrious, loquacious, and salacious instead of gloomy, talkative, or scandalous. Challenge yourself to learn a new word everyday. Listen to yourself talk and break your normal patterns of speech. Dig out the Scrabble board.

You can spend your life being a boring police blotter, or you can join me in the rapturous magnificence of libretti. I’ll keep the dictionary open.

© 2013   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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I have three nieces and a nephew on my side of the family, three of which are still teenagers of varying degrees. All of them have “friended” me on Facebook. Why they would want to be “friends” with a cranky middle-aged broad like me is still a mystery, but I’ll take their perceived interest as a compliment. The vast majority of their other friends are real-life and age-appropriate, so I mostly try to stay out of their business. Lurking quietly allows me to peek into their lives and keep an eye on any drama. I’ve put my two cents in on occasion – mainly to offer what I hope is helpful advice – and have yet felt the need to rat them out to their respective parental units. Not having my own children, it’s given me a real education about what our youth is going through in our modern world. And it’s also shown me that our kids can’t write for shit.

I blame the phenomenon of texting for why “because” turns into “cuz” and “to/too/two” is simply “2,” and why punctuation and grammar seems to have gone the way of the woolly mammoth. Humans are basically lazy (that’s why we keep inventing things to make our work easier), so when the first clunky text-enabled cell phones came out it was a natural progression for the earliest users to minimize what they were typing for the maximum effect. When the tweens and teens took to the cell phone like a duck to water, it was expected they would become even more inventive in their abbreviations. But when I need a translator to figure out what all the letters, numbers and emoticons are actually saying, I find myself sympathizing with those early scholars who were tasked with translating Sanskrit.

Sadly, that abbreviated method of writing has bled from texting onto social networking and is beginning to drown more mainstream communications. I can’t go a day without finding typos, bad grammar, slips in punctuation, or lack of proper capitalization on something I’ve read from the Internet. Those sorts of problems seem to be commonplace on “news content aggregator” sites (i.e., Huffington Post, Yahoo! News, Examiner.com), which are fueled by bloggers uninhibited by editorial over watch. But I’ve seen the same issues on sites I would expect to be more diligent in such matters. The vernacular is becoming the accepted form and “proper” English is to be left behind like so much offal (look it up).

It’s happening in the spoken language as well. I’m by no means an expert in the field (and certainly not free of any linguistic mistakes), but there are some commonly accepted phrases that just burn my little OCD heart. The term “we’ve got” (and its various pronoun variations) is everywhere and I find it just WRONG, despite what Grammar Girl might state. Let’s just think about it for a second, shall we?

We’ve got = We have got

We’ve got the weather. = We have got the weather.

You either HAVE the weather (present tense), or you GOT the weather (past tense). Using both just makes me think you didn’t pay attention in English class, which automatically lowers my opinion of you. Sorry, I’m cruel that way.

Another of my verbal pet peeves is “gotten.” It even wormed its way into a question on Jeopardy, where I thought the last bastion of intellectualism held sway. The clue was about national parks and read, “…this park has gotten more visitors…” I could only stare at the screen with my mouth open. Really? “Has gotten” over “received,” “welcomed,” or even plain ol’ “saw”?????

This is another example of how language is evolving. The University of Michigan states “I haven’t gotten the bills done yet” is a perfectly acceptable sentence in modern English. I look at that sentence and cringe and not just because it reminds me of things I need to do, but at the inelegance and waste it promotes. “I haven’t done the bills yet,” or “I have yet to do the bills,” or “The bills aren’t done yet,” or “I didn’t do the bills yet” seem much better choices to me. Using more words doesn’t mean you’re smarter. Language, whether written or spoken, needs to travel smoothly and freely. If it gets too hard to read or listen to, the ideas you might be trying to impart may not be fully understood, or – worse yet – lost entirely.

But the sad truth of the matter is, we live at the crux of another major change in our language and, hence, culture. English a thousand years ago was very different from our modern English. Just to give you an idea:

Excerpt from Prologue to “Beowulf” in Old English (circa 1000AD)

HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!

Translated into Modern English [1]

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

If there’s that much change over a millennium, one can only imagine what future English will look like. I suspect it will consist largely of emoticons and abbreviations, and be completely unintelligible to the likes of me. Much as I – and others of my ilk – grouse about it, language is a living thing. It constantly changes, adapts, edits, rearranges, and inserts words, styles and meanings at every opportunity. What I was taught in school forty years ago no longer holds the same level of importance today, and will just be a great mystery in another forty years.

But don’t expect me to jump right on board. As a science fiction writer, my job is to look forward. As someone who must have order in everything (read that with a German accent), I will still hold stubbornly to my well-trod ways. I’ll either die as that crazy lady in the spooky house on the corner with all the books and cats and the nervous canary. Or when civilization falls and electronics fail and I’m the only one who knows how to read all the books you’ll need to rebuild, I’ll be the one in charge.

Either way, luv u 4vr

© 2013   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.


[1] Taken from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/beowulf.asp. But translations are interesting things. For further discussion of translations, see http://www.nvcc.edu/home/vpoulakis/translation/beowulf1.htm.

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I just spent the last week and a bit catching up on Star Trek: Enterprise. I had already gone through the first season and then Hulu offered all seasons of all Star Trek shows for free for a limited time. It was a marathon of epic proportions, but I now have seen all 98 episodes, many of which I had missed during the show’s original airing. As pissed as I was when it was cancelled, mainly because I’m such a junkie, I understand now why it didn’t last. It had good actors, nice production values, experienced Star Trek directors (LeVar Burton and Roxann Dawson, to name a few), but – and I’m ashamed to say this – the writing largely sucked. The fourth season became much better, but by then it was too late.

Normally I try not to fault the writers in film and television because I know how directors and producers love sticking their fingers into the pie just ‘cause, and sometimes little of what was written actually makes it onto the screen. But when you have episode after episode with cliché after cliché, one begins to wonder just how many monkeys were at the typewriters in the writers’ room.

The whole experience got me thinking about science fiction writing in general, and sci-fi television in particular. There are bad ideas that just keep getting repeated in the genre over and over, ideas that might have been interesting when they first appeared but have now been used to death, and I’m just sick of them. So, in my position as Executive Producer and Chief Potentate of Indiscriminate Editing to this little shop of madness, here are those Things I Never Want To See in Sci-Fi again:

1)                   The Evil Twin – sorry Data/Lore fans. It’s a gimmick, the results of which can be seen a mile away. The evil twin will invariably wreck havoc after substituting for the good twin, often laughing manically along the way. Sometimes I think it’s done in television largely so the actor in question can get a break and stretch out a little. It’s supposedly more fun to play the bad guy. It can be more fun to write the bad guy, too. So just go write a really good bad guy and challenge the other characters honestly.

2)                   The Clone/Double – who invariably dies. Just another cheap way to tug at the heartstrings. Yes, I balled my eyes out when John Crichton II died in Farscape, but that is more credit to the fabulous actors on that show than the idea itself. If there’s exposition, experiences, ideas, whatever, that you want to get out and you think having a clone will make it easier, think again. Don’t take the easy way out. The same information can be revealed in other ways. It may be harder to write, but the result will be much more satisfying.

3)                   Alternate Universes – sorry Fringe fanatics (though I still love the show, mainly because of the characters). It just makes my head hurt to try and keep track of them (the Star Trek Mirror Universe episodes are another guilty pleasure). Are they possible? Yes, according to theoretical physicists. Are they necessary? See the entry above.

4)                   Time Travel – sorry Dr. Who, Marty McFly, and any number of other permutations. Especially if your main character runs into himself or a distant relation as part of the story. I don’t want to see my starship captain in the Old West, the gun-toting Prohibition days, or the swingin’ ‘60s. That includes visiting planets in the story’s present time that have their evolutionary equivalents to a different Earth time. Think you have a story that needs to be told in a different era? Write a whole story for that era, with characters that are appropriately designed. Time travel has been so overused in science fiction, I just automatically groan and tune out when I come across it. It takes some really bitchin’ writing to overcome that. So far I haven’t seen much that counts.

5)                   Nazis – or some cheap copy. It’s 2013, people. Do I really need to explain this one?

Have I been guilty of cliché’s? Sure, every writer has at one time or another. And there are times when a cliché may still be a necessary tool, if only to make a point. Even bad examples can serve a purpose. But good writing means finding the best, most entertaining, interesting manner in expressing the ideas you think need to be on the page.

The best way to get your reader’s/watcher’s attention isn’t with an overused gimmick, but with rich characters people can identify with. Real people have many layers, are conflicted and confused, are obstinate and naive and obvious and subtle. Bad guys are never really all bad, and good guys sometimes have to make some really horrific choices just to survive. Relationships are never perfectly smooth and are constantly changing, and the circumstances your characters are thrown into should never have simple solutions. You can have the best story-line every written, but if I don’t give a crap about your characters, and pretty fast, I’ll be moving on to the next thing in my reading/viewing pile.

It’s hard to write well. It takes time and thought and about a million edits to get just the right words on the page to make your reader jump, cry, swear or frown. You want your audience to react because they care about the characters and what’s happening to them, not because of a gimmick. Even an angry reaction is better than no reaction. Love me because I finally let the two main characters get together or hate me because I killed the lead character off, but give me something to show me I did my job. The worst review you can give a writer is “Meh.”

So on that note, I’ll be off to work on my (second) novel. There’s a few clichés I have to go kill.

© 2013  Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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