4/30/14

Ever Wonder How (TV) Writers Work?

I'd be lying if I said I never tried to write a television pilot.  But I'd also be lying if I said it was easy or I'd ever finish it.  Books are what I do, and that's where I'm staying.

But what about the people who write for TV and are good at it?  Terrific, even?

Josh and I stumbled across a little gem of a show called "The Writers' Room" on Netflix last week.  Fans of the hilarious and smart-humored "Community" will instantly recognize Dean Pelton actor Jim Rash as the funny but well-mediating host.  He digs up all the dirt you could want on how the shows were pitched, how episodes are written, how teams of writers work, and all the problems in between.

What kinds of TV shows does "The Writers' Room" cover?  Season 1, which ran six episodes in 2013, covers about half the shows I'd want to hear about:

Breaking Bad
Parks and Recreation
Dexter
New Girl
Game of Thrones
American Horror Story

Obviously, it helps to understand each episode better if you're obsessed familiar with the show, but informative pop-ups provide any information you might need to know about what they're discussing.  Guests include actors, writers, producers, and for one final question, a special guest like an editor from Entertainment Weekly.

2 of these 6 shows were based on books.  Points for you if you know which ones they are.  Extra points if you knew it was a book before you saw the show.  An automatic win if you read the books before they got popular by way of television.

You can catch episodes from season 1 on IMDB via Amazon video here, but it'll cost you.  They're available on Netflix for instant streaming if you're a subscriber.  (If you're not and want to check out the amazing services Netflix has to offer, visit Netflix.com.)

Intrigued by season 1?  Grab your free peek at season 2 right here, which is already airing Friday nights on the Sundance channel:

4/23/14

My Top 5 Favorite Graphic Novels

I got into graphic novels through a class at Purdue North Central taught by Dr. Jesse Cohen.  He's a rare and brilliant person who knows more about the obscure corners of American culture than most of us know is even there.  Ten years later, I'm still reading graphic novels, especially most of the ones he picked for class.  If I ever find the right artist, I've got the perfect idea for a graphic novel - but I've got ideas for everything, as you probably know.

So here's a new Top 5 list for the blog.  Would any of these make your list?



#5.  The Jew of New York by Ben Katchor

1 part history, 3 parts hilarity!  Building off of little-known 19th-century history, Ben Katchor takes us through wacky situations by way of endearing but overly passionate characters.  My favorite character has always been Moishe Ketzelbourd, an accountant who fancies himself a woodsman and becomes obsessed with two things: the disappearance of beavers in the wild and a stage actress known as Miss Patella.  (Miss Patella is ironically missing half of one leg below the patella - the kneecap.)  Ketzelbourd's preoccupations come to a head when his depression has all but transformed him into a beaver and he finally sets eyes on the real Miss Patella rather than a picture of her.  My favorite part outside of Ketzelbourd's absurdity is when short, moustachioed Yosl Feinbroyt seats himself in an outdoor eatery and studies the sounds of slurping soup and belching in order to write them down phonetically.  This kind of humor could only be pulled off in a graphic novel or comic strip.  It's situational humor at its best.



#4.  Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

You know those movies that follow a real sad sack of a character?  The guy who can barely talk he's so shy.  The guy who's uncomfortable and uncoordinated in every situation, big or small?  In the book world, that guy is Jimmy Corrigan.  He's loveable, he's kind, he's the regular guy next door - but man, it'd be nice if he had an ounce of self-confidence.  Watching him fumble his way through everyday life is interesting enough, but Chris Ware doesn't stop there.  Jimmy, as an adult, is meeting his father for the first time.  He meets an adopted sister he didn't know he had.  And Jimmy Corrigan is also the name and the story of his grandfather, who among other adventures, participated in the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.  This book is every emotion you can think of - sad, funny, heart warming, heart rending, simple, complex, and ultimately addictive.



#3.  Blankets by Craig Thompson

Told exclusively in black and white, Blankets is an honest, raw, gripping portrayal of American life.  First love.  Trying to do the right things.  Being haunted by childhood memories of situations we didn't have the power to stop then or the strength to get over now.  The intersection of reality and religion.  At 582 pages, it's not a quick read or a light one, but for anyone who's ever felt close to someone, in childhood and/or adulthood, this book is for you.  Funniest moment?  In a flashback, main character Craig recalls growing up with his brother, sharing a bed, sharing a blanket.  One night, his brother plays a prank on him.  He licks his fingertip, pokes young Craig with it, and boasts that it wasn't his finger - he peed a single drop on him.  Craig freaks out, and in his attempt at revenge through peeing one drop on his brother, discovers the obvious.  You can't pee a single drop, but you can create a huge mess that makes your mom shower you both in the middle of the night.  Biggest change of heart?  Young adult Craig spends two pages worrying over the state of his soul and fretting over Bible verses when given the opportunity to simply sleep beside the young woman he likes.  But the second she appears from changing into her sleep shirt, Craig envisions her as an angel and calls to mind a Song of Solomon full of adoration, love, and peace.



#2.  The Sandman Volume 8: Worlds' End by Neil Gaiman

A story within a story within a story.  But I never notice it when it happens, and I care even less when I finally do.  I'm too busy being fascinated.  This one volume out of the entire Sandman series doesn't revolve around the main characters that hold all of the volumes together.  Set in between or alongside the main storyline is this collection, set in a warm and cozy inn in the midst of a terrible storm.  The wide variety of characters tell stories to pass the time.  These tales take us from a ship at sea to a fairy city to an all-American golden boy to the darkly fantastic city of Necropolis.  Only in a handful of pages near the end do we see a vision of what's to come in the final volumes.  Maybe that's why I like this one so much - it's the calm before the final storm.  I respect the conclusion of the series, but it's more bitter than sweet for me because of who my favorite characters are.  This is the last volume before the main story line unravels into its inevitable conclusion.



#1.  Cages by Dave McKean

I thought Blankets was heavy until I hoisted this one up.  It's huge, it's hardcover, and I put it at #1 for a reason.  It combines all the great elements of all the others.  It's funny.  The characters are real, everyday people with problems and interests and decisions and shortcomings.  Characters tell stories.  Characters feel uncomfortable and make giant leaps forward anyway.  Dave McKean is one of the true masters of the graphic novel medium because he mixes line drawings with photographs and other visual effects.  It's a story about a city and the people in that city and the way they think and the ways they relate to each other.  The ending, which brings every piece together beautifully, has three of my favorite moments in it.  The main character, pony-tailed Leo Sabarsky, an artist, finally creates a spontaneous romantic rendezvous with his dark-haired neighbor, Karen.  The peak of their union explodes as an actual fiery explosion covering two mirrored pages.  A picture has a thousand words in it, so why ruin it?  The afterglow contains some of the best dialog ever.  Leo:  What are you thinking?  Karen:  Hmmm?  Oh... stuff.  Leo:  What kind of stuff?  Karen:  Oh... the usual... post coital... clouds... stars... chocolate cake... stuff...  To which Leo eventually replies:  Jesus... I was wondering why the sun isn't green.  Aside from the humor, it's the last page, down to the final 6 panels, that blow my mind.  I won't spoil it, but it involves a cat, a piece of plain post-modern artwork, and the loss of everything you thought you knew from reading the rest of the book.

Are any of these your favorites, too?  Did I make you want to learn more?  Share your thoughts below or on Facebook to keep the conversation going.

4/16/14

The Sensitivity Speech: How I Yelled at My Classmates and They Loved Me For It

Anybody who's known me for a long time probably has a memory of me writing.  I used to journal in the summer sunlight of my grandma's condo.  I wrote during class.  I wrote during pro-wrestling pay-per-views.  (You can razz me for this, but it still gave me a pretty good story idea.)

Here's one of my favorite memories from a time when my writing - and its delivery - grabbed some serious attention.

It was 10th grade.  I was 15 years old, taking the standard, required speech class.  I don't remember what kind of speech Ms. Reffett assigned to us for that week, but I came up with one of my classic out-of-the-box ideas.  I'd noticed in giving other speeches that my classmates didn't pay much attention.  They slumped over their desks or down in their chairs, staring off at nothing.

I wrote a speech about sensitivity, being observant and responsive to others' needs.  I argued that life is too short to nitpick and get hung up on the little things.

Question Mark on Paper

My mom looked over my speech and noticed I hadn't written an opening for it.  "Do you know how you're going to start it?" she prompted me.  Oh, yeah - of course.  I knew.  But I didn't tell anybody what I planned to say whether they were going to be there or not.

I took my turn and took the floor.  As usual, half-zombies sat half asleep in front of me.  I opened my speech by raising my voice and reprimanding the whole class for being rude to me.  I'd prepared a speech, and they weren't even listening.  Within thirty seconds, I'd woken them up.  They sat up.  Their eyes opened.  And their eyes actually stayed on me.

My classmates got so involved with what I was saying about human interaction and compassion that when I used a reference to Mexican jumping beans, they jumped at the chance to point out my insensitivity to the Latino community.  (Even though that's exactly what they're called.)  I was so grateful the class was paying attention and participating of their own volition, I didn't even point this out.  I let them have the victory.  And I remember glancing at Ms. Reffett, who had a huge smile on her face.  Victory for me, too.

The next time I walked up to give a speech, one of my classmates asked me, "Are you gonna yell at us again?"  Nope.  I never tried that technique a second time.  Eventually, I think the attention dropped off , but it was never as bad as it was before I pointed out their sluggish indifference.

Like some wild west sheriff who wakes up a sleepy town with his new laws, crusty attitude, and fast-drawing guns, I brought voice and energy to an otherwise low-key classroom.

That's how you give a speech.

4/15/14

The Brutal Worlds Saga Starts Here!


People are already taking advantage of my offer to read the first section of “Prisoners” for free.  Now you can download and read the entire opening story of the Brutal Worlds saga for only $0.99.  If you subscribe to Amazon Prime, you can borrow it for free with the same link.

What does Janessa need revenge for?  Who helps her, and who stands in her way?  Get all the answers inside “Prisoners” except one:  What does her revenge mean for the future of the kingdom?  Follow me on Facebook or follow this blog with the form on the right to make sure you don't miss out on future stories set in Brutal Worlds.  New characters, new castles, more action.  And always more revenge.

4/9/14

Read “Prisoners” Free Before It's Published

Let's try something new.  Instead of giving you links to find “Prisoners” on Amazon and download your sample, I'm putting a sample right here in this post. No links, no clicking.  Just the first section of the story for you to read right now if you want to.  Feel free to share this post but not to violate copyright laws, obviously.  If you like this new feature, let me know, and I'll do it again.  In the meantime, enjoy.



Prisoners


Brigita stood brushing my hair when Lorelei slipped into the room. I couldn’t see her and didn’t want to, but I knew the slight padding of her slippers on the stone floor anywhere in the castle.
Lorelei’s deep, dry voice came equally unwelcome. “The prisoner is asking to see you, my lady.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Lorelei’s voice lacked inflection or warmth, making my skin crawl beneath my loose robe. “Which one?” I asked, baiting her. We rarely took prisoners these days, and the news of a new one had been buzzing through the halls for days.
“The new one,” Lorelei informed me. Her tone fell flat, giving me no indication whether I had annoyed her or not.
Before I could plan my next question, Brigita piped up behind me. “What does he want with Janessa?”
I cut Lorelei off as she inhaled to answer. “Perhaps he’s in love with me.”
Brigita giggled in repetitive spurts, but as a credit to her training, continued grooming my hair in long, even strokes.
I glanced at Lorelei, a grimace of disapproval tensing her face, making me smirk. “What does he want?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Lorelei answered a little more quickly. It was the only form of curtness her voice ever showed me. “He’s been asking for you all night.”
I turned toward her in the heavy chair, forcing Brigita to move to stay directly behind me. “All night?” I challenged Lorelei. “Why is this the first I’ve heard of it? If someone is in love with me, I have the right to know.”
Brigita tittered over my shoulder.
Lorelei took brisk steps toward me but stopped herself. She relaxed her shoulders and eased the aggravation from her face.
“I forgive you,” I prompted her, watching closely for any signs of squirming.
“Forgive me, my lady,” Lorelei responded evenly, still far from gracious or patient. She offered me a deeper curtsy than I expected. “I didn’t want to wake you with the half-mad ramblings of a wretched creature.”
I nodded thoughtfully, as if considering her good judgment. “Well timed, Lorelei.”
Brigita’s curiosity bubbled over. “Are you going to see him?”
I gazed unerringly into Lorelei’s guarded grey eyes. She waited for me to speak, and I waited until I saw impatient twitches in her fingers. “No, there’s no hurry.”
Lorelei closed her eyes, probably to keep from glaring at me. “As you wish.”
Brigita stopped brushing and smoothed my hair with her hand to test its quality. “Is he handsome, Lorelei? The prisoner.”
I laughed at Lorelei’s expense. “How do you like that? He’s in love with me, and Brigita’s in love with him.”
Lorelei twisted her lips. I kept looking at her until she answered. “It humors me, my lady.”
I reached back and patted Brigita’s hand. “I’m so sorry, Brigita,” I said with thick compassion as if my statement were true. “Perhaps you should go down to the dungeon and keep him company.”
By the time I finished speaking, Lorelei had slithered out of the room. I straightened myself in the chair and accepted the mirror Brigita held out to me. I only looked at myself to judge her handiwork. There was no one for me to meet with that day except workers repairing the castle’s southern walls, hardly anyone for me to primp for.
“What did he do?” Brigita asked.
I handed the mirror back to her. “Who?”
“The prisoner.”
I folded my empty hands in my lap, enjoying my last free moments of the day. “I don’t know. Avoided taxes or something.”
“It must’ve been terrible to land him so far on your husband’s bad side.”
An old gloom hardened my heart, as dark and cold as the stones of the floor. “It’s easy to land there, Brigita,” I warned her, lowering my voice in case Lorelei was listening at the door. “Remember that.”
Brigita laughed, stepping around to where I could see her. Her bright eyes and open smile made her seem even younger than she probably was, a number I’d never thought to ask her. “You’re so serious, my lady.”
A sliver of memory slipped loose across my mind, hysterical and ugly. I snatched Brigita’s hand before either of us knew I was going to do it. I tugged her toward me, trying to control my voice. “My husband wants you to like him. It’s to his advantage that you think he’s sweet and generous. But he has a firm side. A very firm side. I want you to be careful.” I let go of her hand. Her smile was gone, and her eyes strained with fear instead of joy.
Brigita turned to the vanity, picking up one of the jars and rubbing its powdery, scented contents into my skin just under the edges of the robe. I was used to the feel of her silky fingers against my collar bone and shoulders but not her awkward swallowing as she bent near my ear. “Have you been on his bad side often, my lady?”
Her concern for me touched me and freed my lungs to breathe again. “Not in a long time.” I tilted my head back to find Brigita’s worried eyes. I wasn’t used to her anxiety, and it didn’t suit her. Her fresh face looked all the more youthful for the strands of blonde hair falling loose from her braided bun. Round cheeks rose into high, narrow cheek bones. “Don’t let my careless talk scare you so much. I’m sure you’re quite safe here.”
Brigita moved on to my left shoulder and collar bone. “My mother hoped I’d be safe here. My father hoped for gossip and adventure.”
I chuckled. “Really?”
“My mother said I might find a husband here. My father was more caught up in the chance for action. He always hoped for a son. All he got were five daughters.”
I relaxed, letting Brigita’s talk carry me away. “And you were the most boyish one?”
“Never. My oldest sister could outrun any man and arm wrestle the strongest of them.”
“She sounds like me.”
Brigita gave a breathy laugh. “No, my lady, it isn’t true.”
“It is. I didn’t wear a dress until I was fourteen and my mother wrestled me into it. It was a frilly old thing. I thought I’d drown in the ruffles.”
Brigita stroked the silken sleeve of my robe. “But you wear your finery so well.”
I laughed openly, images coming to mind I hadn’t pictured in years. “You’re from the city, aren’t you? Stoneshire?”
“Yes, my lady. The old town section, and I’m very proud of it.”
My eyes sparkled to imagine how she would react to the truth of my history. “Would you believe I was raised in the country outside of Farmer’s Run?”
“No-o-o,” Brigita drew the word out, her eyes wide with interest as she faced me. She didn’t replace the lid on the jar, her hands idle despite her training. “Were you raised on a farm?”
“My father’s farm,” I said. “And I loved it.”
“What was it like?”
“Wild. Barely tamed. Plenty of room to run around in but also plenty of chores to do. My father would hire the strongest young farmers to help him with the work. If he only knew how many afternoons I watched them from my hiding spots, he would’ve hired old men.”
Brigita cackled, her old town roots showing through her castle-taught propriety. Her hands remembered their duties and returned the lid to the jar. She set it on the vanity. “Did you come straight from Farmer’s Run to Stoneshire?”
I flipped my hand in dismissal. “Oh, no. I did a lot more traveling than that.”
“How far?”
I stood up and let Brigita take the robe from me. My undergarments already hung over me. I only needed Brigita to bring me my dress. She fetched it from the bed where she had laid it out, a blue silk gown the color of the summer sky. “Not as far as some,” I admitted. “But I’ve seen the dancers who entertain the sailors in the port towns, and I’ve ridden horses across fields so large, no farmer will ever own them.”
Brigita lifted the dress over my head and helped me arrange it as she lowered it over my arms. She stooped to make sure the bottom wouldn’t crease. As she stood up, she said, “How did you come to live at the castle? Did you meet Lord Philip first?”
I jerked uncontrollably, startling Brigita into backing away. “Fasten the dress, please,” I murmured.
“I’m sorry, my lady,” Brigita breathed.
Even though she extended her hands to help me, I raised my voice to her. “Fasten the dress!”
She shrank away, then scurried behind me. I felt her hands moving quickly against my chemise, fumbling and trying again.
“Do it faster, or I’ll have Lorelei find a replacement,” I snapped.
Brigita made shaky gasps and exhales like she was crying, but I shut them out. Her hands reached the nape of my neck, fastening the last of the clasps, and she stepped away. “All finished, my lady,” she squeaked.
I shoved my feet into the shoes she’d set out for me. I strode past her without checking my reflection and tore the door open. I charged off down the hall, passing several doors before realizing I had chosen the wrong direction. Barely slowing down, I resolved to take the long way around. I nodded briefly to those I swept past, leaving them far behind me, trapped in mid-curtsy.
Philip’s voice reached me before I saw him, deep and booming even as the tapestries on the walls tried to absorb it. I rounded the corner and turned my lips into a welcoming smile. “Good morning.”
Today’s version of an ever-changing variety of staff surrounded Philip. Two cooks in soiled aprons stood ready to copy down his impromptu menu on slate sheets. Two youths, a boy and a girl, straightened Philip’s clothes. Behind them lingered two guards to protect his safety.
“My darling bride,” Philip greeted me, taking my hands as I approached.
I kissed his cheek, weathered and wrinkled in spite of whatever creams and oils his attendants rubbed into his flesh. Like Brigita, I had never bothered to ask Philip’s exact age.
“The workmen are waiting for you in the south hall,” he reminded me.
“I’m on my way now.” I adjusted his wayward collar, which shifted the seams across his shoulders. I straightened them, too. “You choose your assistants too young, my lord. They can’t see the high details, and even if they could, they’d be too short to reach them without a stool.”
“You have to start them young,” Philip announced grandly to the hallway. “You have to teach them your good habits before they have a chance to learn their own bad habits. They’ll be able to see to my collar in a year or two.”
“In the meantime, I’ll see to it myself.” I brushed his sleeves down, making sure they lay regally along his arms. As if remembering, I said lightly, “If you see my maid Brigita, will you tell her I apologize? I’m afraid we had a bit of a quarrel.”
Philip took my chin in his thick fingers as I knew he would. “Don’t you worry about a thing, my pet. I’ll have this settled by supper. Was she mouthy to you? There’s room in the dungeon yet.”
I patted his deep chest. “No, no. We misunderstood each other. Nothing more.”
“Very well. I’ll expect a report on the southern walls by the end of the day.”
“Then you shall have it, my lord.” I offered my best curtsy and continued on my way, hiding as always my creeping fear of Philip’s guards. Unlike his childish attendants, the guards stood sturdy as turrets and ready for bloodshed.
I reached the southern hall to find numerous workers in shabby clothes lounging against the walls and the floor. At first, they made no move, but as I came to a frowning stop before them, they jumped to more appropriate positions. “I’ll be overseeing your work,” I informed them, polite but unyielding. “I don’t appreciate laziness, and I don’t tolerate sloppy work. If you do well, I’ll assure you a place here tomorrow and another day’s pay. Disappoint me, and you’ll never work within fifty miles of Stoneshire again. Am I clear?”
They gave little bows and uttered, “Yes, my lady.”
“Carry on, then. I’ll tell you when to stop.”
They searched through their tools and began their assessment of the wall’s weaknesses. I remained in the middle of the hallway, blocking anyone who came from behind me and refusing to look lax by leaning against a wall for support. I kept my eyes on the men’s movements even if my mind wandered from them to my husband to Brigita to the nameless prisoner whose face I’d never seen.

4/2/14

“Dungeons & no Dragons”

A few months ago, Josh found an interesting project on Kickstarter.  The small video game studio Warhorse was working on a true-to-life role-playing game set in 1400's Europe.  The brilliant tagline? “Dungeons & no dragons.  Like often happens in the literary world, Warhorse's gorgeous, well-thought-out project ran into problems with marketing departments.  Was there a demand for a game with no magic and no dragons?

In a nutshell, contributors from all over the world answered with a resounding YES! that funded Kingdom Come: Deliverance over 3 1/2 times its original goal.  (You can see the Kickstarter project here.)

Along the way, the game developers at Warhorse delighted us with videos chronicling game design and features.  One of my favorite videos follows Dan V├ívra (and his amazing Czech accent) through the actual locations mapped out in the game.  For anyone fascinated by castles but too poor or busy to travel to Europe to see them, this is the video for you.

With my short story “Prisoners” coming out later this month, this video was like seeing the settings I made up come to life.  Castles of cold stone.  Dark, dirty dungeons.  And since “Prisoners” is now the kick-off point for the series Brutal Worlds, it's a place we'll all get to know a lot better in the next few years.

Enjoy the video tour!  If you want to skip past the video-game speak, the castles and old town start at about 6 1/2 minutes in.  He descends into the dungeon at about 8 minutes in.