Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Weather Porn

I don’t consider a tropical storm a hurricane until Al Roker slips on his rain poncho and reports live from a breezy patio by the ocean. When Al begins to tilt in the gusts, I stock up on toilet papers and batteries. If he crumples to the ground and rolls like a tumbleweed with horsepower, I head to my apocalypse bunker. My question is, however: What in the world is Al Roker doing outside in an “extreme weather event” in the first place? If he simply tells me it’s windy and rainy outside, my imagination can handle the rest. And for those who have no concept of the effects of a hurricane-Google "hurricane".  

Honestly, what is American news outlets’ obsession with sacrificing a reporter to the hurricane for the sake of television?  First of all, the at-home audience rarely hears the reporter because of the wind, nor sees the guy through the downpour. I propose that viewers require an aspect of danger to keep a vested interest. I call this concept weather porn—legs spread, ass flapping, balls out weather porn. Al Roker reporting from a behind desk is boring. But if there is a chance that Al will get clocked in the back of the head by an out of control seagull or bowled over by a runaway deck chair…TURN THIS SHIT UP.

As an aside, I should mention that I have nothing against Al Roker. I don’t want to see the guy injured. In fact, I like Al. But if the Weather Channel absolutely must stick someone in the eye of the storm for an update, what’s wrong with Rush Limbaugh? In fact, I don’t even care if Rush mentions the drop in barometric pressure or the height of the waves. He can simply deliver one of his bombastic diatribes inside a nail gun factory, amid a category 5 wind.

Anyway, if news outlets require danger and spectacle during weather events to keep viewers meteorologically masturbating, here are a few ideas to lure viewers and attract advertisers:
Glen Beck reporting from inside the funnel cloud of an F5 tornado.
Verne Troyer (Mini-Me) reporting from a blizzard in which at least two feet of snow is expected.
Mr. T, in full-on Clubber Lane mode, reporting during a short period of light rain.
Richard Simmons reporting from the interior of an awakening volcano.
Gary Busey reporting from a surfboard riding a 12 foot tsunami wave.
Yao Ming reporting from the flatlands during an electrical storm.

I know my suggestions may seem excessive, but if weather reporting is trending toward hardcore, might as well show up-close insertion.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

From Negative Zero To Rip Orion: My Novel's Origin Story Pt 4

Whereas each of my first three drafts took six to eight months to complete, I began writing Save Me, Rip Orion in February and was finished, along with another edit, by Mother’s Day 2012. No trudging along until November this time. Luckily, I was able to import several large chunks of story from Anymore Forever via the greatest invention in human history, the “copy and paste” tool. I suppose that the quickened rate of speed in which I finished the novel was directly proportional to my pre-chapter 1 preparation. As in my prior attempt, I had a note card for each scene in the manuscript. Many of the note cards contained sloppily written sentences that curled in funky loops in order to fit in the diminishing white space. I also required a lot more note cards this time.
 When I began scribbling my notes Kait’s stomach was taut (taut is a funny sounding word).  When I concluded the first edit her stomach was already very, ah, pokey-outy. She was only in her second trimester, but judging by her pokey-outyness I’d say she could’ve easily passed as third trimester. The Parents magazines continued to appear in the mailbox monthly, but now their journey ended at the coffee table rather than the milk crate in the basement.
One of my concerns pertaining to my first three drafts of the novel was the lack of a sufficient one sentence synopsis. Furthermore, I could not conjure a buzzword that would instantly make ears perk. When the idea occurred to me to integrate the superhero element into my existing storyline, the pieces began to fit. First of all, the word superhero is attractive. When someone asks me what the novel is about, the word superhero is in my answer. Most importantly, the superhero theme fit each of the character’s plights, and glued together bits of the plot.
At the risk of being labeled as pompous or pretentious, I am going to take a moment to explain what I hoped to achieve with Save Me, Rip Orion. I really had two themes in mind, one being that fantasies fail. Several of the characters fantasize about either becoming a savior, or believing that a savior will come to their rescue. Roscoe fantasies about saving Marcy from the clutches of her past; Mitch fantasies about saving his relationship with his son; Damon fantasies about saving himself from obscurity and recapturing his glory days. The second theme concerns deciphering the “good guy” from the “bad guy”, and how that distinction  is really just a matter of perspective. Roscoe and Mitch mirror the comic book superheroes of their youth, Rip Orion and his sidekick Scutum. The arsonist at large mirrors the comic book villain, the flame-throwing Fornax. Even Damon, a textbook antagonist because he is in opposition to Roscoe, harbors heroic intentions. I chose the tagline “In order to save the world, he had to become the villain.” for good reason.
After I finished the novel I kicked back for a few months. In the meantime, I watched Kait’s stomach become gradually more pokey-outy until the poor girl almost needed some kind of mobile truss system to aide her in her daily ventures. Although the bulge may have been the bane of her existence (the weight of the bulge, not the contents), it had a practical purpose for me; it was a ticking clock. When the alarm would go off (baby comes out) I would need to transition from author to father. Remember, I told Kait “Let me have my baby than you can have yours.” I had precious little time left to deliver.
Rather than go the traditional, dying route of mailing dozens of query letters and such to agents and publishing houses I decided to self publish. I hired a great editor, Chris O’Bryne, who offered me half his typical rate to edit my manuscript; he said it was well-written enough to qualify for this hefty discount. (I received several quotes, and none were as generous as Mr. O’Bryne’s) Besides correcting grammar and sentence structure and the like, he also offered some valuable insight into big pictures issues. I made some changes, including writing two new scenes, and then allowed him to format the manuscript to suit different e-reader platforms. Once completed, I uploaded my draft to the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords, who distributes to Barnes and Noble’s Nook store, and other fine retailers.
As a matter of opinion, going the indie/ebook route offers many advantages. A book is downloadable instantly, from anywhere in the world. Plus, digital books are not pulled from digital shelves. Furthermore, an author controls all aspects of publication, including the cover. Kait designed mine.
I did face the problem of how to categorize Save Me, Rip Orion. The novel is not genre fiction. In fact, the story is a somewhat lighthearted generic mystery until a twist occurs about halfway through that blows up the formula. The novel certainly should be considered an addition into the literary fiction universe foremost. I also added it to already overstuffed action/adventure bin as well.
Uriah erupted from my wife’s birth canal on September 21st, of 2012, 11 days after Save Me, Rip Orion was published. I had my baby and Kait had hers; except I’m claiming ownership of both babies. Uriah is a healthy bulldozer of an infant. (As of this writing his body size is in the 70th percentile in terms of size; his head is in the 90th percentile.) I dug up and dusted off the 2010 and 2011 issues of Parents magazine from the basement and placed them on the bottom compartment on the coffee table. What’s more, Kait now has a badass double breast pump, purchased just yesterday. It looks like an alien dual action laser gun. 
These are good days. Villains be damned.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

From Negative Zero To Rip Orion: My Novel's Origin Stoyr Pt 3

Kait’s collection of Parents magazine had grown to about a dozen issues. She had endured another more aggressive yet unsuccessful procedure. Afterward, she asked me to stash the stack of magazines somewhere in the basement so the cheerful faces of the cover children could be hidden from her mounting despair until happier days. She was beginning to believe that having a baby was a fool’s dream. I jammed the magazines in a plastic milk crate and piled boxes on them. Whenever a new issue would arrive in the mailbox, I would add it to the milk crate. Whenever we would go to Target and happen upon a pregnant woman, Kait would detour down another aisle or wipe her tears from behind a tall winter jacket rack. This was the spring of 2011.
During this time I read three books about novel writing: Plot Versus Character, Your First Novel and Tools of the Writer’s Craft. Each of these how-to books was helpful in its own way. My brain highlighted several lessons of these manuals. When I sat down with scrap paper and pencil to construct an actual outline for my third draft, I was armed with a more heightened perspective of the concepts a well-crafted novel requires.
After several days of brainstorming, I had a recognizable plot structure for the first time.  Yeah, a plot structure; recall 8th English when the teacher drew the hump on the blackboard and labeled the differing levels of the incline exposition, rising action, climax and so forth. I had one of those. I also had a proper antagonist this time, Paul. I struggled with how much of an asshole to make him. I wanted Paul to be a decent guy who had only become the antagonist because he was a victim of circumstances. I wanted the reader to sympathize with him. (What’s worse in fiction than flat characters? If the good guy is as righteous as Clark Kent and the bad guy is as malicious as Lex Luther you either ain’t got nuttin’, or you got genre fiction.)
The third draft was such a far cry from the second draft, I could barely hear the cry at all.  Furthermore, this draft was extremely bleak. I think I was subconsciously more inclined to write a dark novel because of my own circumstances. My wife was unhappy. I was stressed. As a result I began to develop a case of Vitiligo on my face. Vitiligo is “the Michael Jackson disease” as the dermatologist put it; the “disease” has nothing to do with being able to moonwalk. (I don’t call Vitty-Eye-Go a disease; I call it a condition because it’s not health threatening.) This condition occurs when the immune systems turns its ammunition on itself and attacks the melanin producing mechanisms in the skin. Basically, the host develops patches of white skin and white hair. Several small patches of Vitty-Eye-Go sprouted about my mouth and chin. Fuck it, as they say in modern America. I had a novel to write.
I finished the third draft of the novel in November of 2011 (what is it about finishing the novel in November three years in a row?) In October Kait had a third, more aggressive procedure. This time the doctor knocked her out, although the process was out-patient. We stopped at King’s Restaurant on the way home from Forbes Regional Hospital; I nearly had to peel the groggy girl’s face out of her stew a few times.
Anyway, a few months removed from the latest draft I began to realize how downright depressing the story was. The main character Darin (who was once Duncan, and later, Bruce) was a cemetery groundskeeper. Heck, the novel began in a damn cemetery, where a vengeful Paul and his dying mother was visiting his dead father’s grave. How did Paul’s father end up buried? He was sent there after a teenage Darin set fire to his business many years ago. Furthermore, on the surface Darin seemed the kind of chap parents instruct their children to avoid on the walk to the school bus stop. Happy days are here again! This time around Marcy was a vocal atheist who harbored a hatred for her abusive past. Regardless, she was still the most animated and excitable of the characters, and sometimes a comic relief. She even could make Darin smile. Another character made his debut, Marcy’s best friend, her dog Random. Darin’s boisterous friend Mitch returned. God came back too; He is referenced in one scene as the target of a wrathful Mitch who aims his shotgun’s crosshairs skyward. This scene was a highlight and graduated to Save Me, Rip Orion, as did several other scenes.
I named this third version of the novel Anymore Forever. Sounds charming!
I also participated in a writer’s group. I don’t know whether or not to recommend writer’s groups. In the six weeks I was involved, six to ten people gathered in a conference room at the Children’s Institute in Squirrel Hill. Each week the group edited one of the writer’s works. One week the first chapter of my novel was critiqued. I evaluated five other writer’s pieces over the remaining five weeks. Do the math and consider the ratios. However I received enough suggestions and helpful tidbits that I do not regret involving myself. Another tool that a writer must utilize is his internal filter. Some critics fire so many suggestions that one must be able to decipher which to seriously consider and which to cast into the gutter. One group member in particular took grave issue with the physical positioning of the three character in the cemetery in chapter one; he believed I warped physics several times. I didn’t necessarily agree but I kept his comments in mind when I wrote a similar scene in Save Me, Rip Orion.
The good news came in January.  Kait learned on a Friday that her follow-up test after her procedure was normal. We celebrated by walking through a snowstorm to an Indian restaurant in Squirrel Hill.  I remember the day well. Just five days later she woke me up a half hour before my alarm clock detonated. She told me she was pregnant. I hugged her and congratulated her, and then dozed off again. When I came to, I was thrilled because she was.
I knew I wanted…I knew I needed to write a fourth version of the novel. I needed to make Darin someone for who the reader cheered. I wanted to lighten the dark tone of Anymore Forever. I needed to inject humor—good old-fashioned humor. I needed the next novel to better reflect my usually jaunty personality yet maintain a measure of a brutal edge. What’s more, I needed a theme.  But at the same time, I knew I wanted so much of Anymore Forever to graduate to the fourth draft.
After I marked a black X on the calendar the day of September 18, 2012, the baby’s prospective birth date, I knew the time remaining to write and edit the fourth draft was, well, numbered. An idea belted me one day at work. A theme soon followed. An audible “click” echoed amongst the Monongahela River Valley. Save Me, Rip Orion was conceived in a drab office cubicle and quickly began growing in my mind’s womb.  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

From Negative Zero To Rip Orion: My Novel's Origin Story Pt. 2

Spoiler alert: There will be no further spoiler alerts. I’ve realized that I will have a difficult time writing about the evolution of Save Me, Rip Orion without exposing any plot details. At the risk of being less compelling in this series of blogs I will attempt to be vague concerning details of the novel.
If I remember correctly I began writing the first draft of my new version of the novel in early March in 2010. In order to exorcise the first manuscript completely I renamed the main character from Duncan to Bruce; renaming this character would become a theme in the subsequent drafts as I would reload the amnesia ray gun twice more. I redubbed Evelyn as well; she was now Marcy. Another reason I did this was because a friend of mine had written a novel called Changes in which the main character was named Eve (Changes is a well-crafted epic-type novel that I will tout when it’s released. Get to work Kirsti). My friend had been working on her novel for a few years already and sharing the name would feel a bit like literary robbery. Anyway, I had a new plot in mind although I still neglected to write an outline or have the story crafted, start to end, in scribbled fragments on wrinkled scrap paper. I basically had a treasure map with “You Are Here” next to an arrow and a far off X marking the end of the destination, but no dotted line through the forest, around the mountain and arched over the river.
I made another mistake from the onset; I chose to write the novel in first person. This would not have been a mistake in-and-of itself, but when the plot progression is hazy the narration quickly becomes tortuous. Imagine, as a reader, being ensnared in the mind of someone who inspires to tell a story but meanders in a thousand different directions en route to the climax. Or even better, remember that time you began reading that Wikipedia page about Pink Floyd (or whoever/whatever) and you clicked on every single text link for every single album title, session player on the ’87 American tour and Syd Barrett acid breakdown fun fact along the way until you finally got to the part of the page that read “and they all played together at the Live 8 concert and they’ll never play together again so keep dreaming, and that is that.”
I believe that a reader with a keen eye would have noticed the muffled screams of a potentially riveting story buried somewhere under Bruce’s drivel. Marcy, if not Bruce himself, had become a more defined character. She also had become more a mouthpiece for some of my own sensibilities. I gave her the best lines. I liked her. I wanted to hang out with her (but not for long; this chick was trouble). I also added a new character who would persevere until Save Me, Rip Orion—Bruce’s best friend Mitch. Mitch was so unformed in this draft that if he were made out of clay, he would have been a lump of clay. Furthermore, I had quickly become attached to a few of the scenes involving solely Bruce and Marcy, and especially their locales: a pine tree rooted in a boulder in the middle of the woods, a desolate high school football field and a putrid lake in the midst of a fish kill. I loved the concept of a fish kill. I think every novel should include a fish kill. Heck, even children’s’ book should include a fish kill. Let ‘em know at an early age that biological shit happens. Imagine Harold and the Purple Crayon if Harold drew a lake crammed with rotting fish carcasses instead of drawing his bedroom. Bernstein Bears Discover a Fish Kill?
I also abandoned any supernatural or science fiction components. God was out the window (for now). The Earth revolved in normal fashion this time. This version was much grittier. Marcy’s back story was beyond cheerless and involved notions that I was not comfortable treading as her creator. I would alter her back story for Save Me, Rip Orion so I could feel less ashamed breathing life into her, and because a refreshed back story fit the journey of all the characters much more profoundly.  However, the biggest difference between this draft and the previous was that the presence of the “The End” on the final page.
I understand that I simply can’t abandon the sub story of my wife and her emerging baby fever. I finished the second draft of my novel in November of the same year. Kait had subscribed to Parent magazine about this time in anticipation be becoming a mother. I found this endearing. However, around this time she also underwent a common minor procedure, mostly as a preventative measure. A few months later we realized that this procedure was fruitless. (At this juncture I should mention that her condition was not life threatening or anything. I don’t want to reveal too many details because I’m particularly afraid of two things: an angry Kait and HIPPA law violations).  
I named this draft Our Imagined Somewhere, which was a snippet of a quote, delivered by Marcy. My eye was on the traditional publishing route as this was the only outlet I thought was available. I edited the novel once and crafted a query letter and synopsis—a taxing process. I sent out my materials to about 10 agents. One agent bit and requested the entire novel. I sent it and waited. As the weeks crept by I gradually began to realize that my novel still has quite a ways to go. I realized it was half-baked at best. I knew what the agent’s answer would be. It’s amazing; as soon as time distances you from your creation you notice its warts, zits and unwieldy cranial protuberances.
I canned all my physical copies of the novel and erased the digital ones. I recall the moment I told myself I would start from chapter one again: I was driving home from work, but took a detour so I could stop at Barnes and Noble and buy the first of three instructional books about novel writing. In way I felt like I had just broken up with a girlfriend (is this a cliché?), but I knew I’d find someone better, someone prettier, sometime without an unwieldy protuberance.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

From Negative Zero To Rip Orion: My Novel's Origin Story Pt. 1

I’m convinced that 9 out of 10 ideas are bad. Of course, one doesn’t know an idea is bad until he has acted on it and the consequences have developed to fruition. Want proof that 90% of all ideas are bad? Rifle though a history book. The consequences of bad ideas are scattered amongst the pages: ruined economies, dead armies and the cigarette umbrella (yes, it is what you think it is, and yes, it existed at one time). But bad ideas are what the make world go around, aren’t they? What if the history books were crammed with good ideas? There would be no Salem Witch Trials, no World War II and no James Buchanan.  BORING! We owe a lot to bad ideas—the fuel that powers the fun engine that puffs the carcinogenic smoke.
 My original idea for a novel was a bad idea. But surprise, I didn’t know it at the time. One night in June of ’09, while I was falling asleep, I had one of those thoughts that falls between a dream and an idea. (If I remember correctly, Keith Richards imagined the iconic guitar riff that adorns Satisfaction during one of these moments.) Anyway, during my half-conscious state, I imagined that the rotation of the world had stopped and mankind had begun to panic, but god himself, in the form of an owl, would intermittently come to a single person and guide him through the apocalypse. That, my friends, was the original idea. I wrote a brief synopsis at work the next day. I had made a few alternations but essentially my idea from the night before remained intact: The world stops turning. The moon, who is literally god, appears to a lowly file clerk named Duncan. The moon/god explains to Duncan why he has chosen to defy physics and allow civilization to destroy itself. Meanwhile, Duncan travels to save his gal pal, the jaunty deli aide Evelyn. The file clerk and the deli aide sleep together and when they awake they are the only two people on Earth, like a new Adam and Eve. 
 Salem Witch Trials, World War II…Matt’s first idea for a novel.
 I figured I could simply sit at my laptop and write the story day-by-day. Who needs an outline, or even hastily scribbled notes? I’d just develop the characters as I constructed one off-the-cuff plot detail after another. The first paragraph I wrote for my new high-drama story was an adjective-laden description of a skyscraper. Pretty arresting, huh? By the fourth or fifth paragraph, my main character was scrutinizing his puffy middle-aged self in a bathroom mirror. Good lord! Two pages into my first draft and any self-respecting reader, left alone a reasonably competent author, would have already been granted license to snatch the nearest blunt object and throttle me in the neck. Such a grisly attack might have thwarted me from continuing to invest time in the wretched mangled hunk of literature.
At the time that I decided to finally buckle down and commit a complete novel to hard drive my bodacious wife Kait began to express a desire to begin lugging an embryo. I told her bluntly “Let me have my baby first and then you can have yours.” I figured that I’d only be writing the novel for about 8 months, and I’d take another few months to edit. After that I’d divide my time between seeking a publisher and frequently sneaking off to the woodshed with Kait to steer nature our way. Little did I know that certain woman-type medical complications would thwart the baby plans for three years; little did I know that I would need every bit of those three years to complete my novel (which eventually became Save Me, Rip Orion).   
Although I ended up cutting the goofy moon/god component out of the manuscript altogether, I stopped writing about 35,000 words into my manuscript. Apparently 35,000 words are the approximate number of words it takes a neophyte author writing a first draft of a first novel to realize his idea is bunk. At least that’s how long it took me. My characters’ personalities were amorphous, my plot was meandering and my narrator was a rambling drunkard.
Although I had to hack off my novel midway and cauterize Duncan’s journey there were three aspects of the novel I figured were worth preserving.  Two were my main characters: the well-meaning schmuck Duncan and the bull-headed but endearing Evelyn. I wanted to imagine a new, more fascinating story for them. I thought they deserved it. During the four hour drive to Williampsort, PA for Thanksgiving that year I taxed myself with conjuring a new plot. By time I pulled into my parents’ driveway I had the seeds of an idea thanks to the third aspect I relished from the defunct novel: a scene in which Duncan wakes up in the dead of night and watches the house across the street burn.
Check out my novel Save Me, Rip Orion on Amazon, Smashwords and other ebook sellers.