Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fun With Mary Sue

A few years back, I wrote a book. A book I loved. Except for one minor problem.

I hated my main character.

The idea was to take a normal kid, normal in every sense of the term, and put him into extraordinary circumstances against his will. His job was to survive these circumstances with nothing but a little street smarts and truckload of determination. And even though everyone around him was gifted in a way he wasn't, he still managed to conduct a thorough campaign of butt-kicking and census-taking.

But I hated my character. He was like Poochie -- all construct and no substance. Designed to be cool, engineered to be awesome, and utterly lacking in anything resembling a soul.

On the other hand, I love my supporting characters. For the most part, they're absolutely awful human beings; self-absorbed, delusional, neurotic. But hilarious. And they feel like real people, enough so that I actually miss "working" with them since I stuffed my manuscript in the proverbial drawer.

So why is my main character such a tool (literally), when my other characters feel great?

Enter Mary Sue.

Mary Sue is a term for a character that a writer puts into a story for the sole purpose of living out some fictionalized, usually idealized, fantasy life. Mary Sue (or Gary/Larry/Harry Stu for guys) is basically the person the author wants to be. Prettier, faster, smarter, stronger, more lusted-after, but at the core, the very same person.

I think my unfortunate protagonist, Wilson, is a Gary Stu. He's never at a loss, always ready with a quip, iron-willed, resourceful, level-headed, and of course, ultimately victorious. He's the kid I would want to be if I were ever in a situation like his.

And he's about as compelling as wallpaper paste.

A secondary problem, but related, is that Wilson was thrust into his situation not out of choice, not as the result of some action he took, but almost by accident, against his will. He's innocent. A victim of fate.

I don't know that victims are that interesting, story-wise. Or protagonist-wise, at least.

So I've struggled now for years with this story, which has so much stuff I love and one major thing I hate. I debate whether it can be salvaged, or if it just needs to be tossed on the Bonfire of Experience and forgotten.  

In the meantime, I work on other stuff, but lately I find myself more and more preoccupied with that 400-page elephant in my writing room.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Gradual Whittling of Culinary Options

I have this stomach thing.

Long story short, there's about a million things I can no longer eat, and the list just happens to line up pretty much exactly with a catalogue of my favorite foods. Coffee, chocolate, garlic, tomato sauce, onions, spicy anything, and booze.

I actually found out about my stomach thing (which is, I think, the clinical term for the condition) about half a year ago. I went through this process wherein they knock me out, stick a balloon-thingy (more medical jargon) down my throat, and inflate it to break up a bunch of scar tissue in my esophagus. It cured the main symptom of my thing, which is that food gets stuck halfway down my gullet and just lodges itself there like some ill-mannered houseguest.

But the fix is only temporary, and my doctor, my very good doctor, gave me a prescription for an entire phalanx of acid-control products, as well as the following rules:

1. None of the above-mentioned foods.
2. No eating within two hours of going to bed.
3. Never, ever get myself wet.

Actually, that last one is from Gremlins I think, but the first two are legit. And since we now go to bed around 8 to maximize sleep, and I get home at 6:45, I just kinda don't get to eat dinner anymore.

Theoretically speaking, anyway.

In reality, after two weeks or so of diligently following Doctor's Orders, I started getting a bit indignant. I hadn't even had a chance to say goodbye to coffee. And chocolate has been such a boon companion, how could I give it the kiss-off without so much as a last lingering look, maybe with "Don't You (Forget About Me)" playing in the background?

But what started as a last walk down Culinary Lane turned into a six-month rebellion against medical science, during which I not only continued eating my forbidden foods, but actually reversed course and began feasting upon them like Azrael at a Smurf hospital for paraplegics.

I had the right, didn't I? I was barely sleeping. All my leisure activities had been traded in for changing diapers. I deserved a little indulgence.

Fast forward six months. My stomach is a mess.

I yield, kids. I yield. Bring on the oatmeal and stewed prunes and water crackers.

Will I give up everything, all the time?

No. I don't really have to. I have enough medically-prescribed chemicals to indulge in the occasional slice of Hawaiian style, or to slurp a very occasional soy latte. But this time, occasional actually means occasional. The way Christmas is occasional. Not the way, say, Thursday is occasional. Or, like, breathing.

The part of me that is lured by the positive thinking movement would like to see this as an opportunity, maybe a chance to clean up my diet in a way I haven't tried since I lost all my, ahem, baby fat in high school trying to impress Traci Whatsherface (didn't work, btw. She was more impressed by her pot dealer. But I digress...)

Maybe it will be.

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Old Man and the Seeds

Recently, I decided to dip my toe into the Kindle publishing waters. The story I posted here seemed like a good one to use as my test run. If you're still interested in reading it, it shoul be available at the Kindle store on an Internet near you.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Black Dogs, Agility, and Peanut Butter Cookies

It’s been a bit of a week.

Sleep has been hard to come by, lately. Aside from the odd siren zooming by and keeping me awake, the Budge is also teething.

I do not recommend teething, by the way, in case you had it on your bucket list. Mostly it seems to involve writhing around in pain, sucking on your fingers and waking up screaming at all hours of the night. Kinda like staying at the Ramada.

But my insomnia runs deeper than sirens and babies – a state of distraction that I can’t seem to shake. Anyone who knows me well also knows my moods, what Churchill called his black dog.

Ok, Christ, now I’m comparing myself to Churchill. Also, MS Word automatically capitalizes the word Christ when you type it. See? It just did it again. I didn’t suddenly get religion or something.

What was I talking about? No, before Churchill. Ok, right. Anyway, I get moods. Y’know, bad ones. I guess no one ever says they get moods if the moods they get are all happy and sunshiney, do they?

Take it easy today with your mother. She’s in one of her moods. Say the wrong thing and she’s liable to give you a hug and feed you peanut butter cookies.

Anyway, I am prone to deep introspective vortexes of self-doubt and general anxiety, a condition the Germans used to call angst before all the emo kids co-opted it. Generally I keep this stuff at bay through various outlets, climbing and writing being my go-to power duo.

Lately, not so much. There’s just no time. There’s work, and there’s sleep (ha!), and then there’s the weekend, which is hard to dedicate to anything other than laundry and recovery.

What I’m realizing, though, is that I’m not a particularly flexible thinker. I’m used to pouring about three hours a day into my writing, and several hours a week into climbing. And if I can’t make those broad strokes work… I’m kinda at a loss.

How do I keep a connection to those things that keep me sane when I can only get random, unpredictable, bite-sized chunks of time in which to pursue them? This is not my forte.

I am definitely more reactive than proactive. Maybe that’s from being the youngest in a large family – I got used to seeing where my siblings were headed and then tagging along. Building routines gave me some control over my own destiny, but it’s not a skill I execute with any dexterity. Knock down my jenga blocks and you will see that I rebuild the tower using rubber tongs tied to the end of a ten-foot iron rod. It is a process somewhat lacking in the nimble department.

I gotta say, I envy people who can really roll with it – people who can have their pieces scattered and somehow seem to catch them all in mid-air and rebuild on the fly. How do you people do that?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Giraffe Dumpster Story: The True Victims

Okay, so I'm a little late to the game on this one, but a couple weeks ago, a giraffe at the Albuquerque Zoo was put down due to a debilitating injury. But instead of taking the body to the zoo's special "big friggin' animal disposal" area, zoo personnel apparently just chopped the massive awkward beast into pieces and tossed it into the dumpster.

No, really.

Now, if you read the article you will see that people are outraged. Outraged, I say. Children weeping in the streets, men waving torches and calling for blood, or worse, Congressional investigations. An entire city unified by grief and an unquenchable thirst for justice over the giraffe's graceless post mortem handling.

Outrage? Over a giraffe? I think not.

Giraffes are freaks. Nobody gets attached to a giraffe. It's not like this was a polar bear or a wolf or a tiger or something cool. I mean, even zebras make fun of giraffes behind their backs. And zebras walk around all day wearing Zubaz. They are in a position to make fun of no one. 

But there is one party that has a right to be outraged by this whole stinking affair. One group whose rights were sorely neglected, whose needs were overlooked, whose very way of life was ignored when Kafka the giraffe (or whatever) was chopped up and tossed into the nearest trash bin.

I'm speaking, of course, about the lions.

I mean come on, people! They were gonna throw the giraffe away anyway! That's like 1,600 pounds of good ol' Serengeti home cooking.

These lions have spent their whole lives locked in a cage, eating what... Whiskas? And the zookeeper can't even throw them so much as a little neck meat?

Can you imagine that? That's like being stuck in a jail your whole life, eating nothing but tuna straight from the can, and then watching as your captors threw away five hundred In-N-Out burgers. I would hang myself, right there. If I had opposable thumbs. And rope. Which I wouldn't, because I would be a lion.

Beyond the noble goal of giving these big fearsome cats a decent meal, the act would have served a useful educational purpose. The children (of whom one must always think) would get an up-front and personal lesson on the grisly reality of life on the African plains.

And if the lions couldn't eat it all, just bring in the hyenas. Then the vultures. Then the ants.

It's the circle of life.

(dumpster photo courtesy DamnedVulpine)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Portrait of Hamlet as a Young Man

I’ll admit right off that I’m no expert on Shakespeare. I’ve read several of his plays, seen a few stage productions, seen a few screen versions. Not a CV worth noting.

But I’ve got a soft spot for Hamlet. I’ve got one of the Gielgud productions as an audiobook on my iPod, and whenever I get bored with my music or my podcasts or other audiobooks, Gielgud’s Hamlet slips right back into the queue. Is it nerdy to say that it never disappoints?

Well, suck it. It never disappoints.

Gielgud wasn’t an actor. He was an Actor, back before The Method or Stanislavski or whatever gave birth to the well-meaning creature whose inbred offspring finally limped and fumbled their way into begetting mumblecore.

It’s a brilliant thing to listen to Gielgud deliver Hamlet. When he’s over the top, he is positively scraping his follicles on the ceiling. His scene with the Ghost of Hamlet Sr. is, to put it softly, a scenery chewing binge that would bring rouge to the cheeks of William Shatner.

But why not? Why not? Your father dies, comes back as a ghost, and tells you that your uncle did it, and oh by the way, please kill the aforementioned offending party, who now happens to be married to your mother and who also happens to have a plaque inscribed with “King of Denmark” on his desk.

Right. Let’s see Brando cool his way through that one:

“That’s a bum rap, Pops. I’ll see what I can do.”

Dis. Satisfying. You need some Drama in your drama.

But where Gielgud really shines is in the low notes. The quick asides, the deadpan sarcasm he tosses at his “uncle-father” and “aunt-mother.” You can feel Hamlet’s bitterness as he absorbs every footstep that tramples over his father’s memory.

Anyway, I’ve been listening to Hamlet again lately, which prompted me to spend some time on the web, researching the play and it various interpretations over the centuries. And it occurs to me that people are kinda doing it wrong. (This is where my complete lack of qualification swoops in. Hold off the gong for just a moment, though, if you please.)

It seems like the major debate around the character of Hamlet himself focuses on his lack of, shall we say, agile decision making. Hamlet agonizes over his charge to kill his uncle, even though his own beloved father dragged himself back from Hell in order to give Hamlet the Columbo version of what happened, and then demand that his death be avenged.

Well what is this Hamlet guy waiting for? Just kill dear old Uncle Claudius and get cleaned up for dinner. Plenty of leftovers from the funeral/wedding.

Well, he’s crazy, say some. Or he’s indecisive. Weak-willed. Or my favorite, badly written.

Oh, I’m sorry Mr. State College Literature Thesis Guy! Did William Fucking Shakespeare not write the most complex character in human history to your exacting specifications? Maybe we should take a look at your own masterwork of dramatic writing, cleverly entitled Jack Squat.

So, here’s what I think. I think that Hamlet’s long, tortuous journey toward vengeance only seems weird because we’re used to seeing middle-aged men playing the part. Gielgud. Burton. Branagh. Hell, even Gibson.

I’m sorry, but aren’t we forgetting the fact that Hamlet was, oh, a teenager?

That’s right. A teenager. A college student, one who liked living it up – drinking, fencing, chasing girls, going to see the players. Your general Animal House lifestyle. His back and forth would probably seem a lot more understandable if he were more frequently cast as Luke Skywalker instead of Old Ben Kenobi.

Of course it seems weird to see Mel Gibson hemming and hawing his way through trying to work up the nerve to kill his ghost-convicted murderous letch of an uncle. Mel Gibson killed 193 people in the first five minutes of Lethal Weapon. Okay, not really, but he’s a grown man. A grown man would know his own mind well enough to make a choice and take action. When he can’t, it seems a bit off.

But Hamlet is a kid. If he and Romeo had met, they would probably have hung out, staring at blacklight posters, listening to Pink Floyd and talking about their girlfriends. Hamlet’s not ready for the big-boy world of regicide and revenge and supernatural death warrants. Hell, three weeks ago, he was trying to pick between Intro to Sociology and Business Management 101. It’s a big adjustment.

Hamlet’s smart, clever, creative, naive, but also cynical, self-doubting, impulsive, and fearful. Sound like any demographic you know? He wants to do his father’s bidding, but like any good teenager, he has to do it his own way. Hell, Brando would understand that. A kid’s gotta rebel a little, doesn’t he?

What I’m saying is this: I want to see an age-appropriate Hamlet. I want to see a Hamlet who just got his fake ID, picked his major, had humiliating first-time sex with a co-ed, and then gets the call from home.

Put down the beer bong, young prince. Your father, King of All Denmark, is dead.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Somali Pirates Make Poor Tactical Decision

The USS Nicholas is a 445-foot guided missile frigate. It weighs approximately 4,200 tons, can reach speeds of over 29 knots, and comes standard with a tasty array of sonar, RADAR, and other advanced sensor technology. Oh, and about half a dozen weapon systems.

I'm telling you this so that, in case you ever spot the Nicholas on the open seas, you do not try to hijack it in your three-person speedboat. Which is exactly what a trio of rather unfortunate Somali pirates attempted to do a few nights ago.

Now, granted, it was dark, and the pirates probably didn't realize they were attacking a ship that was not only armed, but actually had several entire genres of weapons from which to choose when it came time to defend itself.

But I like to think the pre-attack planning went something like this:

Ibrahim: There is the ship. We attack at once!
Sharif: Yay!
Ibrahim: Omar? I did not hear you cheering.
Ibrahim: Sighs. What is it this time, Omar?
Omar: I just… I am not sure that this is an oil tanker.
Ibrahim: It is. It is an oil tanker. I am certain.
Omar: How do you know?
Ibrahim: I just do. I know.
Omar: Have you ever seen an oil tanker?
Ibrahim: Yes. Many times.
Omar: I mean in real life. Not on television.
Ibrahim: … It's an oil tanker.
Omar: I don't think it is.
Ibrahim: What do you think it is, Omar? The Love Boat?
Sharif: Ohh! I would like to meet the Gopher!
Ibrahim: Shut up, Sharif. I was only mocking Omar.
Sharif: That is very disappointing.
Omar: Listen, Ibrahim, we should wait until dawn. That way we can make sure it is an oil tanker.
Ibrahim: No. We attack now. I want an oil tanker now.
Omar: Is this just because Noor captured that oil tanker the other day?
Ibrahim: No. That has nothing to do with this. And Noor is stupid. And also, his hair is ugly.
Omar: Ibrahim…
Ibrahim: And nobody likes him anyway. Him and his dumb tanker.
Omar: This is a bad idea.
Ibrahim: It is a great idea. In fact, we will vote on how great an idea it is. Everyone who thinks this is a great idea, raise your hand.
Ibrahim raises his hand. A long beat.
Ibrahim: Sharif, raise your hand.
Sharif: What's in it for me?
Ibrahim: Sharif, raise your hand or I will shoot you and throw you overboard.
Sharif: Omar, do you have a counter-offer?
Omar: I do not.
Sharif raises his hand.
Ibrahim: It is settled then. We attack at once. Sharif, ready your AK-47. Those poor fools will have no choice but to surrender when they hear the bone-chilling report of our automatic weapons!
Omar: Did you practice that line?
Ibrahim: No. Shut up.
Omar: I'm telling you, it's not—
Ibrahim fires his AK-47. BADABADABADABAD!
Ibrahim: It worked! They're slowing—
The night sky ahead blazes with the sudden and terrible flash of 50mm deck guns. THOOMATHOOMATHOOMATHOOMA!
Ibrahim: What in the hell was that!?!
Sharif: I have soiled myself, Ibrahim!

It might seem like overkill for the Nicholas to have attacked a three-person skiff with 50mm mounted deck guns, but keep in mind that these were actually the smallest weapons on the ship. If they'd used any of their other options, the only thing left of their attackers would have been pirate-scented vapor.

After the (ahem) battle with the skiff, the Nicholas went on to capture the pirate mother ship, which I'm guessing isn't nearly as impressive a vessel as the term mother ship implies.

Job well done, Nicholas.

(Photos courtesy the official USS Nicholas website, and Wikipedia.)