Wednesday, November 20, 2013

This month's Netflix Obsession- Eureka

This month, I started watching the SyFy original series, Eureka. For those unfamiliar with the show, it follows the adventures of the sheriff of the fictional town of Eureka, Oregon, a town which was set up by the U.S. department of defense as an enclave for super-geniuses. The setting of a town where backyard mad scientists are common, and most have seemingly unlimited resources and inventive prowess, is one that is rife for great storytelling. The threats to Eureka range from the dangerous to the downright silly, and it makes for a really fun watch.

We are shown the town through the eyes of Sheriff Jack Carter, (played by Colin Ferguson) who is one of the few people in town with a perfectly ordinary IQ. It's a pretty typical narritive device in Sci Fi to put a 'dumb' guy in a room full of super scientists to give the geniuses someone to explain the incredible events around them to, and thus explain the situation to the audience. The fact that in this crowd of incredible scientists and innovators, Jack is obviously also the most expendable member of the town is not lost in the storytelling either, and him often risking his life to save the town on a weekly basis becomes almost a running gag by the end of the series.

I really enjoyed this series. I was a big an of Northern Exposure back in the day, and Eureka definitely picks up on the 'Fish out of water' and 'quirky small town' vibes from that series, and twists them with a wonderful level of nerdieness. If there's one criticism I have of the series, it's that the episodes themselves are very formulaic. There are season long story arcs that mitigate this somewhat, but the typical Eureka episode is "Scientist develops a new technology that has unforeseen/disastrous consequences, Jack has to save everyone with some help, we see a new clue to the season's big arc, repeat.". It's a good formula, (it sure beats "freak of the week" formulas that tend to run rampant in genre television) but the show never really breaks out of it until somewhere in the fourth season, where the season arc is really front and center, with only the occasional formula show.

Overall, I think Eureka is definitely worth the time to watch. It's not often that the genre serves up something that is so lighthearted in tone, and for that reason alone deserves your attention.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Writing Music

An important part of my process when it comes to writing is the music I listen to while I write. Like many writers, I have a fairly well established routine that gets me in the mood to write every morning. While I admit that my morning Mocha Latte and a breakfast sandwich have their place in my writing routine, neither is really as important or essential as what i've come to think of as my writers soundtrack.

It doesn't help that my local coffeehouse has TERRIBLE music. (A fact that I've gone on record about multiple times)

This of course, leads me to use my iPhone and a pair of earbuds to tune out the rest of the world as I type frantically in my usual 'hunt and peck' meets 'ingrained pattern' on the keyboard style. I doubt very much that my 7th grade typing teacher would be very happy with me if she saw the haphazard way I've boosted myself to my meager 50 wpm. She certainly wouldn't have approved of me listening to music and bopping my head while I do so.

The choice of music for me was a very personal one. I tend to listen to upbeat tempo songs while writing, mixed with a bunch of Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul Simon. I know other writers that change it up depending on the scene they're writing, and while I can see how moody music would effect the tone of what you're writing, I have also found that it doesn't really work for me. One friend in particular had created seperate Pandora stations for each character in his NaNoWriMo novel, and would alternate between the stations as he wrote their scenes.

I guess I'm lucky that I've chosen a tone for most of my work that reflects my style, and that style I think is reflected in the music I write to. I could easily see myself getting obsessed with picking out the perfect song/songs for each scene otherwise, spending all my time trying to capture the setting in someone else's music instead of my own mind. I doubt I would get much writing done that way.

Having said that, I do pick out upbeat songs for the simple reason that I find myself trying to type to the beat, which always helps me type faster, and get more ideas down on the page ion less time that I normally would. I've also "hacked my brain" into prepping my imagination when I hear a particular song.

I discovered this effect quite by accident. with my old iPod, i had no control over things like "shuffle" or "repeat", primarily because I refused to read the manual Cheri gave me with her hand-me down iPod. "Come on honey!" I proudly declared, "Where would man be without the adventure of discovery! Would Columbus have really been better off with a Garmin on the dash of the Santa Maria telling him how to find the west indies?"

At this point my wife launched into a tirade about the attrocities of Columbus, which I will save for another time.

Anyway, with no way of controlling my song order, I had to listen from song 1 to song 2, etc through to the end, where I would restart the ipod if I wasn't done, just like my good old walkman cassette player in high school. This was oddly comforting to me as I would start writing. I later figured out shuffle, but my playlist would always start on the first song. I noticed that whenever I listened to that first song, my brain would start to get into writer's mode, just like Pavlov's dogs had he been sitting them at typewriters instead of feeding them.

Of course, one would imagine Pavlov's mutts ripping him to shreds after weeks of getting typewriters instead of kibble...

In any event, the song at the top of my playlist is currently (and appropriately, I think) "Why don't you get a job" By the Offspring:

.By the time the steel drum kicks in, I am jazzed to write, and the images flow. Ultimately, that's what it's all about. That and typos. Lots of glorious, glorious typos.... Hmmm... Maybe I should have paid a little more attention in 7th grade typing after all.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The book that made me want to be a writer...

A question a lot of authors get asked is "What made you want to be a writer?". I have always tried to come up with a wise ass response to this question without success, my 'witty' replies varying from "Beats a real job" to "I was just bored one day and didn't want to play scrabble".

Like I said, without success.

The fact is that for most of us, there is no 'moment' that made us want to write to entertain others. It's a combination of a lot of things, and usually some insignificant thing that pushes us over the top to try it on a professional level. One thing that I have found though, is that there are common points on an authors journey that we all hit at one point or another. One of these is 'THE BOOK' that made us say to ourselves "yeah... I want to do that."

For me, that book was "Night Probe!" By Clive Cussler.

First edition cover, the one I read as a boy.
I know that some would be surprised that my book isn't by Douglas Adams or Issac Azimov, or even comedy or sci-fi. I won't deny that both are huge influences on my writing style, but Clive Cussler has always been my favorite author overall. I was nine when my Dad suggested that I read 'Raise the Titanic' and I enjoyed it so much that I went eagerly to my father's bookshelf to find more books by this Cussler guy. I found 'Night Probe!' and was immediately captivated by this incredible adventure novel. It's about an Oceanographer named Dirk Pitt, and a mysterious document called the "North American Treaty" which was lost in twin disasters over a hundred years ago. The resulting tale is equal parts James Bond thriller and Jacques Cousteau, with a healthy dose of historical mystery. To me it is one of the best plotted books I have ever read, and remains so thirty years after I first read it.

It so made me want to tell my own stories about my own larger than life heroes like Dirk Pitt, very human, always ready for the challenge, and with an extraordinary skillset.

In many ways, my Jake Price character is very much a spiritual brother to Dirk Pitt. I'd like to think that if Jake ever found himself in the universe of Cussler's NUMA crew, he would gladly by Dirk Pitt a beer while the two of them compared notes about their adventures. I would also like to think they would become very good friends.

If I ever have the opportunity to meet Mr. Cussler, however... I know I am totally gonna spaz out. I may offer him my dogeared copy of 'Night Probe!' for him to sign, but I doubt I will be able to form a coherent sentence while doing so.

I know it's unlikely that anyone within his circle of friends will ever read this blog, but in the unlikely event that he winds up reading these words I apologize in advance for being a spaz if I meet you, Mr. Cussler. That part that came out "Blug blurr magg blib" was really meant to be "Thank you for inspiring me to write, sir. I am forever grateful."

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Con game...

A question I'm asked a lot when I do public appearances and convention panels is "What is the key piece of advice you would give to someone thinking about self publishing their own work?" A lot of my peers answer this question with things like "Make sure you proofread it well" and  "Don't expect to get rich". Me, I always answer "Have a marketing plan." To me, the fact that I had one before starting off on this ride was a crucial difference between success and failure. Success being measured as "My wife lets me continue" and failure being measured as "Weeping in the corner in the fetal position because no one loves me enough to buy book one".

Me, trying to look as "authory" as possible.
Okay, so maybe that's a little melodramatic... but I did have a plan going in, and it relied heavily upon having a presence at Science Fiction conventions.

Sci-Fi Fan conventions are in many ways, what makes me a "real" writer. It's difficult to describe what it is about scheduling an appearance at a convention that makes me feel more validated somehow as an author. All I know is that from the moment I confirm an appearance to the moment I sit in the coffee shop on the following Monday, I feel like my writing is more "career" than "hobby". It doesn't hurt that I make money selling books at the Convention, but it really isn't about that to me. I've been to a number of cons that I didn't even break even on, but still loved every minute of.

Writing by its very nature is a solitary art... and interacting with my fans is one of the few occasions where this does not apply. I have no illusions about my work... (I know full well that the Jake Price series is never going to win a Hugo award) but there is a personal satisfaction I get when someone tells me how much they enjoyed Dimensional Games that is really indescribable. It also happens when I see a fan has posted a quote from one of my books on Facebook, but to a lesser degree. Reading kind words on the internet about what I do is completely different than a flesh and blood person saying "I loved that book! When's the next one coming out?" in person.

Yeah, not quite as authory here.
Being a guest at a convention takes much more work, effort, and actual time than an outsider would generally think it would. My con prep work starts months out, with hammering out my travel arrangements, making sure I have stock of books, finding out what other authors and guests will be there so that I don't sell the same books they are, and working out what expectations the Convention organizers have of me. Do they want me to do panels? readings? is there a meet the guests event I need to plan on attending? Then there's the tricky discussion of compensation for my time and effort, which is always balanced by what the organizers feel that I bring to the convention.

That last part, in particular can be one of the most difficult parts of the process. I have no illusions about my role as a small but entertaining fish in a big pond, and my wife always insists I undervalue my efforts. My compensation varies form convention to convention, and I always try to be mindful of the convention's resources when I approach them. Some can only afford to give me admission to the con and a place to sell my books. Others can spring for a hotel room if they're feeling generous. A lot of times, I will attend a convention that can't afford to compensate me well simply because of the networking opportunities it will afford me. Writers on the next level (national recognition, publisher support) can usually ask for travel expenses and a per diem. Someday I hope to be in that club, but not yet.

Me, being entertaining solely to myself.
Closer to the con, I start worrying about the details, like is the tablecloth I have clean? Do I have enough business cards? Do I need a banner? Doing research for my panels is a big part of it. A lot of guests will wing their topics, but THE Rob Cerio will never show up to a panel without at least doing some research on the topic at hand. Allan Gilbreath of Dark Oak Press and I once had a long talk about the responsibility an author to the convention attendees, and he told me something that has always stuck in my head. "Once you agree to being a guest at a Con, you are no longer an author." He said, "You become an entertainer, and the Con has hired you to entertain their guests." And it has been my experience that he's right. Boring, unprepared guests seldom get invited back... and furthermore Convention organizers talk to each other all the time about how their guests were, how much of a draw their panels were, what they did to promote the con, etc. I like to think that I have a number of references I can present to new Conventions at this point when I fill out a guest application that will get me in the door, but after that it's up to me to prove that I deserve to sit alongside guys like Timothy Zahn and Larry Nemecek.

I will never deserve to sit alongside Niel Gaiman though... primarily because I would pass out in fanboy glee.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Dimensional Games... The movie.

One of the things that you can't help doing as a writer is coming up with a visual in your head of your main characters. It's really important I think, to have a real handle on the people that your characters are before writing about things like their hopes, fears desires and everything else that makes them real people. A lot of writing advice books are well aware of this, and advise you to picture a favorite actor in the role of your main character. When writing Rising Sun, Michael Crichton pictured Sean Connery as the protagonist for instance.

Me, I've done this to some extent in that all the characters in my books are based to some degree on people I know, rather than Hollywood type actors. My main characters however, are almost always based on some aspect of my personality. It's one of the reasons that if you read Dimensional Games carefully, you'll find I never really describe Jake Price's appearance... there is another reason for this, (in that it allows the reader to more readily identify with Jake) but mostly it's because Jake is my point of view on the story. When I write about him, I am very much looking at the world through Jakes eyes, and like me, the man doesn't look in the mirror very often.

A fun exercise that we writers like to do is cast the movie version of our novels. Crichton got really lucky when it was time to cast Rising Sun, in that the producers cast Sean Connery in the role. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have written the character based on an actor, and then have them play that character later on. I can only guess that it must be amazing.

The above movie poster is something I threw together last April, as an April Fools gag to my friends and fans. I have never seriously considered who would play my characters in a movie version of DG, (I guess it's just so astronomically improbable that it's never come up) but now that I'm putting some thought into it, Nicholas Cage is actually a pretty good pick for Jake Price. He's old enough, sufficiently snarky, and plays 'too old for this shit' really well. He also can show great empathy when needed, which is how I've always pictured Jake to be. He can be an asshole... but when it comes down to it, he wants to be the good guy.

Sandra is a much tougher call. I always picture her as much curvier than the average Hollywood actress, tough but capable of a great gentility. She would also need to have really great comedic timing. Mellisa McCarthy would be pretty good, but not quite right I think.

There are a few characters in Jake's world I have no doubt about though... Jake's boss, Adrian Mitchell, would have to be Ving Rhames. Doc Laporte I've always imagined as being played by Christopher Lloyd.

Miss Cheri is a really tough call, as I always imagine my wife when writing her. I would be forced defer to a casting agent's judgement to keep myself out of the doghouse if it's a call that my wife would take exception to. But seeing as how that's really a cop-out in this exercise, if I had to pick an actress that I feel captures my image of Miss Cheri as "tough, sexy, exotic and mischievous", I think it would have to be Gina Torres.

Those are the main characters... I would also insist on having a cameo as a Moderator of one of the really boring dimensions... Just 'cause.

Feel free to post your suggestions over on facebook!

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The Politician next door... Tuesday Tirade

For some reason, I've noticed that the coffee shop I write in most often (despite the bad music... see previous Tuesday tirade) is a favorite one for local politicians. In the booth behind me, I've overheard impromptu school board meetings, city councilmen plotting revenge against their rivals, and even a state senator reassuring his wife that his position on the upcoming millage vote has nothing to do with HER. I've also noticed that a lot of campaign-runner type people do their business sitting in the booths around me, from calling supporters to remind them about an upcoming fundraiser, to figuring out tactics to get out the vote for their candidates.

I find it all equally fascinating and annoying.

I grew up in New York City, where the people that ran the city and state were as far removed from me as the typical American is removed from the staff of the White House. Meaning that before I moved to New Orleans, it simply wasn't in my experience to even be in the same building as these elected officials, much less in the next booth from them at a coffee shop. City council members, for instance (or even borough Council members) were never people that were accessable, or even all that relevant to my life. Sure, they made the decisions about things like whether... well, now that I'm writing, I don't even know how to finish that sentence, and that's the point. In NYC, the government became this big, faceless thing that operated behind the scenes to make sure that the trains ran on time, cause god help them if they didn't. Politicians never had a direct effect on my life in the slightest.

But now, here I sit in a coffee shop in a suburb of New Orleans, and I am surrounded by political goings on. I know that the dude in the next booth who is ranting about slashing the school budget to spite a political opponent is talking about slashing the budget to MY kid's school. I know that as annoying as I find the woman calling out supporters for the state senator, that senator is trying to pass a bill to protect the rights of LGBT couples. I know that the Mayor of our city is an excellent tipper, and I really want to be blissfully ignorant to all these facts like I used to be in New York.

"So, then don't listen, Rob!" I can hear you saying, and that simply isn't an option for me. Eavesdropping may be rude, but it is also an essential part of what allows me as a writer to write convincing dialogue. While the content of the conversation between the state senator and his wife will remain between them, my facebook friends, and anyone else that was within earshot, their loving tone and his sincerity to his wife will undoubtedly make it into one of my novels someday. I also have learned a lot about how my local government works as I take the time to Google some key words and phrases from their conversations.

Fact is, it would be awesome if it didn't distract me so. Maybe I really need to train myself to write with headphones on.