williamallenpepper

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Archive for the month “November, 2012”

YOU WANT PEPPERONI ON THAT PROSE?

The faintest whiff of an idea tickles your brain like the scent of a piping hot pizza wafting through the house. A good writing idea, like the sensuous smell of your favorite pizza toppings is your first inkling of the yummy goodness (literary and culinary) to come.

The genre – fiction or non, veggie or meat lovers? Sci-fi, urban fantasy, steampunk. Hawaiian, taco, supreme. So many choices. Something for every taste.

The structure – novel, essay, screenplay, blog – is the crust.  You could slap down a boring old, store-bought, frozen crust and make it serviceable, but that’s not you. You, you’re a word chef. You gather the ingredients, knead the dough. Toss it, smack it (shamaladingdong?), pound it out until it’s just right. Circle or rectangle? That’s up to you, word chef.

The words and paragraphs and chapters form the sauce coating the crust. White sauce or red, choose carefully. The sauce is where the word pizza lives. A sweet sauce is a whole different experience than one with a little more tang.

And now: the toppings. Every pepperoni slice is a new character. Sausage is the setting. Green peppers, black olives, the busy verbs. Mushrooms are the adjectives. Anchovies are like adverbs. Who needs ’em?

Once your pizza prose is assembled, slide it into the oven. The oven is the agent/editor/publisher. It gives you the finished product you crave. The book. The story. The ‘za.

Word pizza comes out piping hot – hot off the presses. Cut it and plate it. Package the book for sale, put the blog post up, release the essay. It’s out there.

A chorus of “nom nom nom – yummy!” or “Bloarugghhhh!” equals the critics’ reactions as they bite into the meal you’ve prepared.

The word chef’s job is complete. On to the next idea meal.

*Burp*

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TV DEATHS: FADE TO BLACK

The death of actor Larry Hagman the day after Thanksgiving resonated with a lot of people. Many TV fans heard the news and immediately thought, “Oh no! Not Tony Nelson!” (From “I Dream of Jeannie”) Or more likely, “Aw, man, J.R. Ewing’s dead!” (From “Dallas”) Not many of us knew the actor, but we feel the loss of this favored character he played as acutely as the loss of a friend or family. More so, in some cases.

It’s a weird thing, TV fandom. We get attached to characters in movies, of course: Harry Potter, Bridgette Jones, James Bond, everyone in “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Christmas Vacation”. But TV is different. TV characters seem more familiar, more there. It makes sense. Even a recurring movie character like James Bond is on a giant screen in  a huge auditorium for a couple hours, then disappears for two or three years. But a TV character is in our living rooms, bedrooms or iPads EVERY WEEK. Absence may make the heart grow fonder in real-life relationships, but when it comes to bonding with our favorite characters, more episodes means more love.

So, when a character dies, we feel it. When I was a kid, I saw the 4th Doctor on “Doctor Who” die in a cliffhanger episode and was stricken. When the next episode aired and he escaped unharmed, I cheered and danced, genuinely relieved. I wasn’t old enough to get that shows don’t kill off main characters. At least, they didn’t in the old days.

I think “Lost” was really the first show where it was common for main,name in the opening credits, character to die. And not just in season or series finales. Until “Lost”, the death of a main character warranted a show-stopping “special” episode. It was epic change for a long-running series, not simply this week’s plot twist.

When John Ritter died several years ago, it was written into the sitcom “8 Simple Rules”, with huge dramatic effect. In contrast, in the 1960s, when the original actor who played Darren, a central character, on “Bewitched” left (by choice, not death), they just hired a whole different guy to play him without explanation and nobody really even noticed.

“Lost” declared no one was indispensable.

That expendability, in a way, made the characters more precious. There are so many channels now and so many shows, the emotional investment in characters doesn’t happen that often. With “Lost”, it did.

JR Ewing/Larry Hagman rode to fame in an era where characters were more invincible, but there were fewer of them (fewer channels, no Internet). So when one stood up and shouted, like JR, we noticed.

And maybe it’s because of that appearance of immortality, Hagman’s death hits TV fans so hard; all the more so because JR was back on TV in the “Dallas” reboot last summer and now fans are left wondering what will happen with season 2.

Even in death, Larry Hagman leaves us wanting more.

I’M SORRY: THANKSGIVING EDITION

Thanksgiving is a traditional time to stop and give thanks for all that we are grateful for. The weekend after Thanksgiving is the traditional time to stop and apologize for all the stupid things we did on the holiday. So, without further adieu, here is the blog’s annual mea culpa.

I’m sorry I chewed with my mouth open. More sorry that it turned out I was chewing food from your plate. Even MORE sorry that I put it back.

I’m sorry I hit on your grandma.

And that she’s not hotter.

I’m sorry I insisted on a eulogy for the turkey. I know now that was kind of a downer.

I’m sorry your kids were annoying me. I mean, I’m sorry I SAID your kids were annoying me…no, I was right the first time.

I’m sorry I screamed and tipped the dinner table while accusing you of poisoning me with tryptophan, when it turned out I was, in fact, just sleepy from cold medicine.

I’m sorry that yams suck. But they do.

I’m sorry that I woke everyone up at 4 a.m. Thanksgiving morning and insisted on a group hug.

And that I was naked for it.

I’m sorry that I went out and peed off the deck. And aimed it into the house.

I’m sorry that I insisted Grandpa play the opposing linebacker when I recreated that awesome football play in the living room. In my defense, his hip probably would have shattered anyway.

I’m sorry I then tackled the TV. Got caught up in the moment. Also sangria.

I’m sorry I stuffed the bird with Twinkies. I’m just gonna miss those little snack cakes so much! *sob*

I’m sorry I mocked the floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. But cousin Jimmy really does look like Woody Woodpecker.

I’m sorry I fed your dog the leftover bean dip from the snack table. He looked hungry.

I’m sorry I brought Ted with me to dinner. When he said he just got out of prison and had nowhere to go, I thought he meant he got parole. I wanted to help him out. Oh well. I’m sure insurance will cover the losses. Also, who knew a SWAT team could eat so much?

SAME TIME NEXT YEAR?

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

TEN THINGS WRITERS SHOULD BE THANKFUL FOR

As Thanksgiving draws near in the U.S., we all know how difficult it is to stop for a breath and put down the pumpkin pie. But it’s important that we do so, and not just because turkey gravy is starting to ooze from your pores. It’s important to step back this time of year and remember what you’re thankful for.

Writers as a group have many things to be thankful for. Here are ten. Why ten? Because I easily succumb to the peer pressure stemming from the established tradition of presenting lists in groups of ten. I blame Dave Letterman. Perhaps unfairly, I also blame him for this weird trend of people wearing pajama pants everywhere.

Anyway, here’s my list of ten things, in no particular order, writers should be thankful for.

  1. TIME. Writers have lots of it. I know, there are deadlines and whatnot, but fundamentally, there’s no rush to finish a story.  To get my kids to read more, rather than watch so much TV, I remind them the great thing about books is you don’t miss anything if you have to stop and walk away for a while. The action waits for you to come back. TV doesn’t. (Yes, yes, I know. DVR’s do that. Seriously, shut up! I’m trying to win an argument with a seven and a three-year-old. Shush!) Take all the time you need to tell your story. If it’s not working right now, those characters will wait for you.
  2. SUPPORT. Yes, getting traditionally published may be harder than ever. There’s lots of competition. Still, whether you go the peril-frought road of traditional publishing or brave the lonely road of indie-publishing (which isn’t all that “indie” if you do it right), there are countless people out there supporting you. Friends, family, agents, booksellers, publishers, editors, designers. Even other authors – real, professional authors don’t see the writing craft as a competition. They get that there is always a market for more stories. They want to read what you wrote as much as they want to have their own stuff read by others and are willing to share their time and expertise to make that happen.
  3. DUH, YOU’RE WRITING! Whether writing is your day job or something you do in your spare time, storytelling is an amazing way to get to make a buck. Admit it.
  4. E-READERS. Fear for the demise of the print book if you wish, but e-readers, I think, have helped book sales. If nothing else, the ease and relatively low expense of e-publishing means more writers are getting into publishing. That means more stories and more attention. More sales for everyone.
  5. BOOKSTORES. Yes, they’re struggling. Maybe people are buying more and more from e-readers and online booksellers, but the bookstore is still the most visible, tangible outlet for books. Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun, as a writer, to walk into your local bookstore and see your book on the shelf, isn’t it?
  6. A GOOD PEN. Anymore, getting a story edited and submitted requires a computer. But writing a story is another matter. To write a story, you can get by without all that stuff. You really just need a trusty pen of your choice and a quiet place to write.
  7. FREEDOM. You can write any damn thing you want. Someone, somewhere, will want to read it. The Internet and social media make it easier than ever – also cheaper – to find that someone.
  8. TURKEY DRUMSTICKS. I’m sort of being facetious here. But only a little, ’cause, you know, yeah TURKEY DRUMSTICKS! Yum! The point is writers today understand ours is a pretty sedentary profession. We get that the old model of being an author – drink all day, smoke like  chimney, blow your head off at 45 – doesn’t really work anymore. We kicked the cigarettes, cut down on the fat and get out in the sunlight once in a while. Our drinking we reserve for the evenings, preferably on someone else’s tab.
  9. FRIENDS AND FAMILY. This is something obviously everyone should be thankful for, but since writers live in their own heads much of the time, friends and family are even more important to draw us out into the world of the living now and then – while also being aware enough to let us go back inside ourselves when duty calls.
  10. READERS. You guys! If no one reads our stuff, we’re just doodling, giggling to ourselves in a lonely corner, journaling about things that never actually happened to us (unless it’s a memoir). Be thankful for your readers. Say thanks when one of them compliments you. Suck it up even if it’s the forty-third time you’ve been asked what the inspiration for your series of algae detective novels was. Without those questioning readers, we’d have to get real jobs.

Happy holiday season!

TWINKIE’S TWINKLE SNUFFED

Invoking the nuclear option, Hostess has announced it will shut its doors rather than continue negotiations with employees. As devastating as this is for employees, its a pop culture blow to the expanding waistlines of the world as well.

Now that Hostess has taken its sugary ball of dough and gone home to the demonic, diabetic hell that spawned Twinkie the Kid, what are we to do? How will we get our Snowball fix? Can you really call a life fulfilled without Ho-Hos? And who doesn’t enjoy a good ho now and then? Amirite? *Ahem*

Anyway, this is a crisis of epic proportions. Hostess is a venerated institution. True, in recent years the leader of the junk food industry has been pummelled under the weight of epidemic diabetes and obesity. But by this point in its long history, the name “Twinkie” has built a place in popular culture far more solid than its creamy center. Twinkies remind us of an earlier, innocent time in our nation’s history like “Leave it to Beaver” and Republicans.  The loss of Twinkie the Kid, that admiral dude from the Ding-Dong box and, uh, Helen the Ho-Ho (or whatever) will be felt even in the corners of society that had purged the high fat foods from their diets.

Like most other kids of the early seventies, my diet was constructed for me without much concern about whether I would get fat. (We could get into a whole thing about how that was because kids back in my day ran around more rather than staring at TV and computer screens, but that’s not nearly as much fun as talking about Ho-Hos.) A typical summertime lunch at home consisted of: a cheddar cheese sandwich on Wonderbread (just cheese, nothing else; usually a flat, round disc that came from a small, barrel-shaped brand our family simply referred to as “Daddy’s cheese”.), Cheetos, whatever flavor Kool-Aid packet Mom chose to mix from the rainbow of colors in the cabinet. For dessert, naturally, a Twinkie, Ho Ho or Ding Dong. (I liked cupcakes, Snowballs, fruit pies, but not as much as the Big Three.) Thanks, Mom, for making me the champion of quality eating I am today!

I don’t really remember the Hostess commercials from TV, but I liked seeing the images of Twinkie the Kid and other characters in the stores. Hostess seemed like it would be a fixture in grocery stores forever for my kids and their kids to enjoy – like Heinz Ketchup, Vlasic pickles, and Marlboro Lights.

Once Hostess liquidates, I know another company might buy up the “Twinkie” and “Ho Ho” names, maybe even the recipes, but it won’t be the same.  “Bewitched” wasn’t the same without the original Darren. “M*A*S*H” wasn’t the same without Colonel Blake. Some things can’t be replaced. The era of Hostess goodness is all over now. Now I’ll have to find something else to get my kids addicted to.

*Sigh* It’s tough being a parent.

SANTA’S PUBLIC APPEARANCE CONTRACT

It’s not yet even Thanksgiving as I write this, but in my town, Santa kicked off his world tour this week. He appeared at our local mall with a highly orchestrated gala of marching and dancing as he assumed his appointed spot in the Christmas village where he will spend the next month and a half accepting the good wishes of the local citizenry.

It’s a lot of work for the old gent. But he puts on a good show. My kids were very impressed with the jolly old soul. But, still, I couldn’t help but wonder: what does it take to get Santa to your town before Christmas? My town is nice, but there are lots of nice towns. How does he decide which ones to visit during his crucial pre-holiday time? Santa may be all about the giving, but c’mon, the man’s got reindeer to feed. Surely, he expects a little something for these public appearance. Makes you wonder what’s in his contract.

Wonder no more.

If you’re thinking about booking the big guy for your company Christmas party, here’s some thing’s you’ll need to know. Never mind how the blog got hold of this (it involves compromising photos of Hermie the Elf), but we got a peek at the various clauses (har!) in Santa’s public appearance contract. And, because the blog is about nothing if not public service, wanted to share a few of them here. We would simply post a link to the contract and let you read the whole thing yourself, but when you click on it, the computer turns into one of those old-timey parchment scrolls Santa is fond of. It’s really hard to figure out what to push down to reset it.

So here’s some of the highlights.

The reindeer cost extra. Santa is, of course, paid in cookies, the toppings of which are negotiable. To get some reindeer to show up is a tough one. Ironically, they don’t really like to travel. The cost in carrots (not carats) is pretty steep. Except Blitzen. You can pretty much get him for gas money and cigarettes.

Santa’s “throne”: Every Santa’s village has a throne where St. Nick sits to greet the children. There’s  a rider in Santa’s contract that his throne shall also have a minimum of three inches of padding covered in green velvet, scotch-guarded and lint-rolled daily by the pixies that inhabit the spaces between grains of sands on infinite beaches.

Photos: You may, of course, get your kid’s picture taken with Santa. But only if you don’t care about stealing his soul…

No ho-ho-ho’s, dammit: At his tour debut this week, Santa didn’t utter a single “HO HO HO” and now I know why. It’s in his contract. Hugely famous bands don’t trot out their iconic hits for just anybody either. Santa’s gotta save his best stuff for the big dance, by which we mean Christmas Eve.

Elves: A minimum of three elves shall attend to Santa’s needs at every appearance. To avoid fawning fans and/or ridicule, the elves shall always be disguised as bored, part-time, minimum wage employees in silly hats.

Only one wish per kid: He can’t give everything to everybody. C’mon, who do you think this guy is, Santa Claus…

There will be candy in his dressing room. It will only be plain GREEN M&M’s. Any other color in the bowl and he’ll fire your ass. He won’t say “ass” of course, because he’s Santa, but you’ll still be just as fired.

If Mrs. Claus isn’t happy, no one is happy. She wears the oversized, red velvet pants in the family. She calls the shots. Your mall/auditorium/den/parking garage/porta-potty better be up her standards for her husband or there’s hell to pay.

So there you go. Here’s what you’re in for if you want to book St. Nicholas for your holiday bash. You may want to consider Plan B, Holly “Jingle Your Bells” Jolly and her ladies of Christmas Cheer.

 

 

SOUP IS A FUNNY WORD

 

 

Soup is a funny word. “Soup” the food is tasty, usually, but “soup” the word is not.

Soup soup soup. Sounds a little like poop, but it’s not.

Or maybe something you say when you feel like cursing, but can’t. “Oh, soup it!”

Quizzical is another funny word. It’s one of those words that, when you say it, makes you feel like the very characteristic the word describes.

I also like plunger because when you say “plunger” your voice sounds just like the noise of a plunger doing it’s job.

Titanium sounds like something really strong. And it is.

Saying the word tantrum makes me feel like having one.

Foreskin. Need I say more?

Baloney (or, if you prefer, bologna), is funny too. I use it a lot with the kids since it is generally bad form to curse them out. Still, saying “that’s baloney,” might get your point across, but it lacks the same punch.

Antidisestablishmentarianism. Longest word in the English language. C’mon, what’s not to like?

So. Some people will tell you IF is the most powerful two-letter word in the English language. But for my money SO has IF beat. “If this, then that” has the power to change lives, sure, but “This happened, SO I’m gonna…” leaves you open to an infinite range of possibilities. Ponder that.

Rigatoni tastes great, but sure sounds funny. Try not to giggle while you eat at Olive Garden tonight, you’ll choke.

Lambaste is an interesting one because it actually has nothing to do with lamb for dinner.

Deoxyribonucleic acid sounds exactly like what you think it should be. Truth in advertising.

Fetish  sounds like “furtive” and  is slightly off-putting, which seems appropriate.

If you write me a good, short, comment-length story using all these words, I might change my mind. Until then, color me unimpressed. Challenge extended…?

 

HOW A THREE-YEAR-OLD READS A BOOK

You’ve heard it before. If you want to be a writer, you have to be a good reader. But what does that mean? We all can read, right? We know how to spell. We know to read left to right, top of the page to the bottom. What else is there?

Well, the writers respond, it’s not enough to just consume the words, you have to let them wash over your eye-drums and puddle in your cortex (or something). You have to pay attention and scrutinize. You’re not reading for entertainment, you’re reading to learn about giving the gift of reading. What works? What doesn’t work? It’s not enough to say, “I liked/didn’t like that story.” You need to figure out what the writer did to make you like/hate it so that you can employ (or avoid) the same techniques in your own work. You have to read critically.

And if you want to see a critical reader, get yourself a three-year-old.

I happen to have one in stock already. And a lot of books.

Both my kids are excellent readers. Love books. Read everything that doesn’t move, including the cat (his eyes speak volumes). But the three-year-old has a way of effortlessly sizing up a book. Wannabe professional writers could learn a lot.

The cover:  When I say the three-year-old is an excellent reader, of course, I know he can’t actually read. He’s pretty good at writing his name and recognizes a few words, but even at this limited stage, he still takes in a story better than most people. It starts with the cover. In truth, he’s not so much concerned with the front cover of his picture books as he is with the back. That’s where all the thumbnails of other book covers in the particular series are – Berenstain Bears, Sandra Boynton books, Mo Willems, Einsteins, Dr. Seuss, whatever.   He’ll sit for ten minutes just looking at the cover thumbnails of all the other available books. “I have that one. I have that one. I want that one.” Sometimes, he enjoys looking at the cover more than the insides.

The take-away for writers: Books should offer the promise of something more. Oh, and you can totally judge a book by its cover (or at least, you usually do). Everyone knows, but only a three-year-old is honest enough to tell you. So spend the time and money to make it a good one.

The words matter: At some point, though, you have to open the book. Pumped from the thrill of a successful selection of a book from his shelf, my kid’s demeanor totally changes once it’s time for the story to begin. He’s attentive, rock steady, hands in his lap. He studies every word, every illustration. Eyes never stop moving. He listens to the story. He’s into it. 

The take-away: Write something good and you’ll stop people in their tracks.

Ask questions: The boy enjoys his book time, but he’s not shy about the questions. “Why’d he do that?” he’ll ask. “Where’s that boy going?” “What’s this?” “Where’s that go?” He wants to know everything those familiar, but still maddeningly out of reach words will tell him and more. He can’t wait for the next page.

The take-away: Demand more from your own stories. Ask the hard questions. Think of every possible flaw or inconsistency. If you don’t think of it, some reader out there will…and she’ll tell her friends. And there go your sales.

Write more: The final lesson is to keep writing. If nothing else, you’ll keep my kid in stock. At the rate of forty-two bedtime stories a night, even his massive library will be depleted soon. Freebies, especially, are welcome.

Thanks.

HOW ELECTION NIGHT WAS LIKE A BOOK DEBUT

I’m a writer, so much of what I experience is filtered through that prism. My kids are sick of me calling them my little novellas (kidding. They’re more like vignettes), but such is my affliction.

So, it’s not surprising that on election night amid all the electoral-no-popular vote/Fox News meltdown/What’s-up-with-Wolf’s-beard? Drama, I kept seeing parallels with the stages of Sturm und Drang writers go through with their books. Here are some of my  observations:

Procrastination: What writer doesn’t put off to the last-minute finalizing that project? Romney’s speech writers were no different. One of the reasons, reportedly, that Romney took so long to concede was because the speech still wasn’t written yet. The Romney campaign claimed this was because they were supremely confident their guy would win and wouldn’t need a concession speech. I think it’s just because they left a writer in charge of it. “It’s midnight on election night. CNN, NBC, Fox News all are calling it for Obama? Well, has Home Shopping Network said anything yet? No? We got plenty of time.”

A sign of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome:  I’m not saying Romney is insane, but writers certainly are. While networks were calling states left and right for the Democrats, the Romney campaign was supposedly holed up in their hotel crunching and re-crunching poll numbers to find where there might be a pocket of reliably Republican votes coming that hadn’t already been looked at. I kept having this image of a dude with his tie loosened, one sleeve rolled up and the other dangling and stained with nacho cheese, his eighth cup of coffee in one hand while his other hand obsessively refreshes the numbers on a screen. It reminded me of a writer whose book just came out, endlessly updated the Amazon Author Central page to see if his rank has changed yet.

Yes, truly, a little stimulus never hurts:  For writers, inspiration can come from walks in the woods, good music, or the need for money to buy copious quantities of alcohol and narcotics. Similarly, Fox News pundit Charles Krauthammer is also a psychologist (insert your own joke here) and when the writing was on the wall election night, he was offering to write prescriptions for viewers to help them through this ordeal. Great, Charles, now what can you do to help me get back all the time spent watching political ads the last two years?

You gotta know when one more edit is not gonna help: Every serious writer knows that most of writing is re-writing. You gotta edit your crap like crazy to polish it to a high shine (whatever that means). Still, enough is enough. Too much can actually undue the good you put into the work. Part of being a good writer is knowing when you are, in fact, done writing. On election night, a whole bunch of news outlets were calling the race for Obama. The balloons were dropping, music blaring, but even as bits of confetti were gagging Wolf Blitzer, CNN lumbered on running scenarios how Romney might be looking at Florida and still predicting a win. Maybe CNN and the Romney campaign were playing that game kids play where they try to see who holds out the longest before finally one of them turns off the hall light like Dad said to.

Eighty-four agents have rejected this query. Maybe if I just move this comma over here…: Poor Karl Rove (never thought I’d say that). When the election outcome was so clear that even Fox News was resigned to it, he stuck to his guns. “Well, maybe if Florida does this…” he say or “Don’t forget there might still be some uncounted ballots under Joe Biden’s futon…” FInally, it got so pathetic, that Megan Kelly was sharply saying, “They have scientific methods of determining this, Karl, give it up.” It was fascinating. And sad. (“Sadinating”? “Fascinad”?) But it’s kind of like what writers do sometimes. Pushing and pushing and pushing a book on agents that just simply isn’t ready to see the light of Barnes & Noble’s day. The problem isn’t the electorate/readers. Changing the font of your query letter or finding a synonym for “mucus” isn’t going to change any agent’s mind. The problem is your product just wasn’t ready for its debut.  That’s a good lesson. Thanks, Karl (never though I’d say that either.).

The lonely Maytag repairman syndrome: Remember those old Maytag dishwasher commercials with the bored, lonely repairman sitting around with nothing to do because, supposedly, Maytag washers never breakdown? Fox News kind of looked like that Tuesday night. They all had this, “Poor me” pouty look about them. The same look some writers get at signings where they hide between stacks of books to hide from the nonexistent customers who aren’t stopping at their table to buy books. It’s a look that conveys total shock that anyone would dare to suggest yours is not the bestest candidate/book ever.

Or the best blog.

*Stares at you poutfully, but with purpose*

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