Play ball!

27 05 2010

Tonight, my step-daughter Emma will play her first t-ball game in Polk. I have the honor of being an assistant coach on the team, sponsored by Maurer Photography in Ashland. I also helped coach her soccer team, which just wrapped up an undefeated season on Saturday.

I am having so much fun helping coach her team. I played pretty much every sport growing up – baseball, football, basketball, tennis. I even played hockey for fun for a few years in grade school. I just loved to play sports. I loved the competition, the push to see how well I could do.

As an adult, especially once I turned 30, I haven’t had the opportunity to play sports as much as I would like. But now that all my kids are getting older, I am loving getting to play with them. Going to the park and shooting baskets with them or kicking the soccer ball or pitching a baseball to them. Those moments truly are priceless.

I have always wanted to be a coach. I love sports and I love teaching kids, so it’s a natural fit. I enjoy watching the kids as they learn new skills. I enjoy seeing them as they struggle and then show signs of improvement. Every kick of the ball, every swing of the bat is a learning experience for them. And I love being a part of that. Kids need  adults, and not just their parents, to show an interest in them and to help them learn. I feel as if helping kids is part of my calling from God.

We have such an amazing opportunity to make a difference in our world and making a mark on our future. Not by having the best job or driving the fanciest car or having a building named after us. We can positively impact the future by positively impacting children’s lives today. Giving them positive reinforcement and support in their formative years can shape who they are in the future. Never underestimate what you can do in the life of a child.

So when the umpire yells “Play ball” today, I will smile with pride as Emma and her teammates take to the field for the first time. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about having fun and learning important lessons that you can carry with you throughout your life. With each swing of the bat and each wild throw toward first base, I will watch and encourage them and remember what the Bible says about children.

Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from Him.
Psalm 127:3

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Matthew 9:14

Still feeling “Lost”?

24 05 2010

Today, I actually had so many things I wanted to write about, that I had to chose. Guess that’s a good problem to have. So which option won out? Well if you read the headline, you already know.

Last night, the series finale of “Lost” aired. I was a latecomer to the hit show. I always wanted to watch it but once I missed the first season, I knew there was no way I was catching up on all the backstory. So I waited and bided my time. Then, once I knew this was going to be the final season, I started getting the first 5 seasons on DVD whenever I saw them on sale or at Half Price Books. Finally, last fall, Erin and I started watching the show. We immediately could see why it was such a hit. We fell in love with the characters and were pulled in by all the mysteries. What was the Smoke Monster? Why was Walt so important? Who were The Others? What does the Dharma Initiative have to do with the island and its past? Why does that scary music play all the time on this deserted island? And as the seasons went on, there were more questions, with few answers. Scores of new characters were introduced. I loved how the flashbacks always revealed something about a character’s past while also being tied in to whatever story there were telling on the island that week.

Along the way, there were parts of the story that I thought worked, and some that really didn’t. But through it all, I was holding out hope that the creators (Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse) knew what they were doing and that there would be a satisfying conclusion at some point. After watching last night’s finale, I’m not quite sure I got that payoff.

All along, the creators kept saying their show was really about the characters, not the island and its myriad of mysteries. The island was just a setting and a storytelling device to tell these rich stories about flawed characters and their attempts to find redemption. As the final season started, they were honest in saying that there would be answers to some of fans’ questions, but not all of them. In fact, some of the “answers” may not have even been answers. For example, in the episode two weeks ago that showed how Jacob and the Man in Black got to the island, most people who watched believed that Jacob’s brother, the Man In Black, became the Smoke Monster after going down the river and into the mysterious light. But I’m left wondering if that didn’t release the Smoke Monster who then took on the appearance of the Man In Black. We’ve seen the Smoke Monster take on the form of dead people all along. And we did see Jacob burying the Man in Black after the Smoke Monster was released from the cave. So it’s open to interpretation.

As is the ending of the show, apparently. To me, it was pretty straightforward. But looking on Facebook and Twitter, it still is confusing some people. OK, spoilers coming so if you haven’t watched the finale yet, stop reading.

Throughout Season 6, we’ve seen the story of the castaways continue to unfold on the island. But we’ve also been introduced to what has been called a Flashsideways world – a world where Oceanic Flight 815 from Sidney, Australia to LAX did not crash. Most people thought this was an alternate universe created by the exploding bomb in the Season 5 finale. The flashsideways stories have shown the characters in lives similar to what they had in the “real world” before they went to the island. But most of the stories had some important twists. The last few episodes had shown characters in the flashsideways world remember the “real world” and their time on the island. Usually some very emotional event that was similar to one that had happened on the island spurred the memory. In the last few minutes of the finale, we finally found out why. The flashsideways world was actually a purgatory of some kind where all (OK not really all. Where was Michael?) the Losties had gathered, waiting to go into the light. They were just waiting for all of them to remember their previous lives. Since time doesn’t matter in the afterlife, we don’t know exactly when these scenes are taking place, but it is somepoint in the future since all the Losties have now died, even the ones who escaped the island in the finale.

In the “real world” on the island, we see the final showdown between Jack, who has taken over for Jacob as the island’s protector, and the Smoke Monster who looks like John Locke. In the end, Jack is able to kill the Smoke Monster and ends up sacrificing himself for the island. With Jack gone, Hurley becomes the new protector of the island, with Ben as his No. 2. And some of the castaways actually survive long enough to fly off the island in the Ajira plane that the Oceanic Six used to return to the island. Kate, Claire, Miles, Sawyer, Richard and Lapidus soar away with Jack watching as he lies on his back, dying. And the show closes with a close up on his eye closing.

On one level, the finale did just what the creators wanted it to. The moments in the flashsideways world where the friends and lovers were reunited and remembered their life on the island were some of the most touching moments the show has ever produced. However, we are left with so many questions. Where did the island come from? Why did it jump through time? Why was Walt important? Why was there a pocket of electromagnetic energy in that cave? And on and on and on. It just feels like we got shortchanged. Would it really have been that hard to answer some of the nagging questions?

As a writer myself, I understand having a creative vision and being true to it. If it wasn’t their mission to answer all the questions, then from an artistic point of view, they should be true to their mission and vision. But from the point of view of a viewer, especially for people who have been watching for 6 years now, many are left wanting more. They want resolution to the 6 years of stories and some kind of payoff for the hundreds of hours they spent watching the show faithfully. But as longtime viewers of the show, they should have known to expect the unexpected.

The writers were in a no-win situation. Even if they had answered every single question, there would be people not happy with the finale. So they told the story that they wanted to tell, and decided to let the viewers decide for themselves if they felt that it fit or not.

So what did you think? Did the story of Jack’s test and redemption satisfy you? Were you left wanting more? Were you left wondering what the heck was going on?

‘Heroes’ can’t be rescued now

19 05 2010

After four uneven season, the curtain has closed on “Heroes.” When the show debuted in 2006, it was an instant hit. Fans were drawn to the stories of ordinary people with extraordinary abilities, and how they dealt with those powers. Creator Tim Kring envisioned the show as an ensemble, character-driven series that would show how ordinary people could save the world. But in the end, nothing could save “Heroes” from poor ratings and rising costs.

The first season saw an average of 14.3 million Americans watch the heroes as they tried to stop the mysterious Sylar from detonating a bomb in New York City. By the time Season 4 rolled around in Fall 2009, only 5 million tuned in for the season premiere. How did such a hit show fall so fast?

The answer is simple: poor storytelling. In Season 2, Kring and the writers seemed to lose their way. The season was criticized for a slower pace, lack of focus and a less engaging storyline. And it was only downhill from there. Storylines made little sense, characters would change course with no reasonable explanation, and the same plot elements were retread.

“Heroes” was basically a comic book in TV show’s clothing, so it tackled many of the same issues. Ordinary people making a difference. Outsiders trying to be accepted. Individuals trying to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. That, along with fast-paced storytelling and a healthy dose of mystery, made the show an instant success. If only the writers had continued to tap into that, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.

There is talk of a TV movie or mini-series to tie up loose ends and try and give some closure to the series. At this point, I think it may be best to let dead dogs lie. Because that’s what “Heroes” is – dead. It has been dead for 3 seasons, and everyone except the show’s creators seemed to know it.

I loved the show when it started. As a longtime comic book fan, I loved the superhero elements. But as the show continued to run itself into the ground, I had a hard time watching it. Each season I would tune in, hopeful that the writers had found some way to right the ship. And while there may have been momentary glimpses of the greatness that was Season 1, the show never regained its footing. Season 4 was almost painful to watch at times as it limped to its death.

So it is with a heavy heart, but also a sense of relief, that I bid adieu to the once-great “Heroes.” Let us watch Season 1 on DVD and remember all the good times we had with “Heroes.” We can just pretend the other seasons never happened. Maya? Maya who?

Control – What A Beautiful Illusion AKA Why Best Buy is An Evil Corporate Giant

17 05 2010

Last Wednesday, the unthinkable happened – my laptop died. For someone who works from home as a writer, my laptop is a pretty important part of my life. I spend hours every day working and looking for more work. Without my laptop, I’m pretty much lost. So when my 3-year-old Gateway locked up and then wouldn’t restart, I  was suddenly very sick to my stomach. I have been backing up my data, but not every day. It had been 2 or 3 weeks since I had so all my work files for the last few weeks would be lost, as well as the chapters of my novel that I am working on but hadn’t shared with anyone else yet. Words on a computer screen that I could never exactly replicate. I thought I was going to get sick. My novel is almost like another child to me.

I am pretty computer savvy. So when something goes wrong, I can do basic troubleshooting. So I knew right away that this was not good. In an ironic twist, the three-year service plan I had purchased from Best Buy when I bought the laptop had expired exactly one week earlier. It made me want to scream. Just one week.

This wasn’t the first time the laptop had died. It had died three times previously – once the motherboard had to be replaced and twice the hard drive died. The service plan from Best Buy states that if they computer has to be worked on four times during the three years that Best Buy will replace the computer on the fourth time with a computer of equal technology.

So here I was last Wednesday with a dead computer and a service plan that had expired one week too soon. I decided that even though the plan was expired, I had to try and get Best Buy to do something. But first, I called my brother Paul in Cleveland who knows even more about computers than I do. He suggested I buy an adapter that would allow me to hook my laptop’s hard drive to another laptop as an external drive. So after a quick trip to our local computer store, I removed the hard drive from my dead laptop and hooked it up to my fiancee’s laptop. After saying a quick prayer that the hard drive wasn’t the reason my laptop had died, I plugged it in. Of course, it didn’t instantly work the way it was supposed to, but after another half hour of messing with things, success!!!! My files were still alive. That was an instant weight off my shoulders. At least I had the chapters of my novel and my work files that hadn’t been backed up. I wouldn’t have to spend hours trying to reconstruct them. Which was a good thing because I knew it would take hours trying to get Best Buy to do anything about fixing or replacing the computer. I wasn’t wrong.

My first step was to fire off an email to customer relations. I explained the situation about the computer crashing just one week after the service plan expired and it had died three times before. I told them that they should honor the service plan and take care of this for me because I was a longtime customer. In the last five years alone I’ve bought three computers, two TVs, a digital camera, a video camera, an iPod, a Zune and hundreds of CDs, video games and DVDs. I really didn’t expect to get any results from an email but I started there.

On Thursday, I drove to the closest Best Buy, a half hour away in Mansfield, OH. I took my laptop in and the Geek Squad member listened to my story, hooked up my computer and decided it was the motherboard again. He told me that he couldn’t do anything for me. He told me I would have to call 888-BEST-BUY and talk to someone to get approval for extending the service plan.

So I went out to my car and called the number. After being on hold forever and routed through three different people, I finally got a Customer Relations associate. He proceeded to tell me that there was no way they could extend the plan because the company who underwrites the plan for Best Buy would not allow it. So I told him that even if they couldn’t “extend the plan,” they could decide to just bite the bullet and fix or replace the computer for me as a longtime customer. The Customer Relations associate told me that he couldn’t make that decision. That was up to the local store manager to eat the cost. So he told me the names of the managers of the Mansfield store and said “I’m so sorry. If there was something I could do I certainly would.” Yeah sure. He was just in a hurry to pass the buck on to some other poor sap.

So, I headed back inside, still determined to get some satisfaction. After waiting yet again, I talked to the same Geek Squad associate, who then told me he had to talk to his manager. More waiting, and then he returns and tells me there’s nothing they could do. But if I wanted to buy another computer at Best Buy they’d be happy to do a data transfer for me. Oh my gosh. He is so lucky I didn’t jump across the counter right then. Really? A data transfer? That is the best you can do. I was willing to just let them send my old laptop out and repair it for me. I wasn’t pushing for a replacement. Just repair. But the manager wasn’t willing to do that for me. At that point, Best Buy went on my No-Shop List.

So I resigned myself to being without a computer for awhile. Luckily, I had Erin’s laptop I could use as needed, but I really didn’t want to steal her computer. She needs it for work, too. I was upset, but glad to have my files off my laptop at least.

At this point, it was totally out of my hands. I had done pretty much all I could. I was going to find email addresses for the store manager and anyone up the food chain that I might be able to continue my efforts, but didn’t really expect much success. But as always, God is in control. He asks us to make the efforts and do what we can, and then leave things in his hands. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that even after we are done working, he is always working.

Two days later, on Saturday, I got a phone call from a Best Buy customer relations rep from the corporate office and he told me that he had gotten the e-mail I had sent on Wednesday right after the laptop died. He had talked with the assistant manager who was on duty on Saturday at the Mansfield store and he said they would exchange my computer. I think my chin really did hit the floor. I immediately prayed “Thank you God.” I knew that He had made this happen.

It was a confluence of events that had made this happen. A customer service rep who had the authority to do this, and was convinced by my e-mail that he should do this, talked to an assistant manager who was willing to do this. The same set of events could have happened on Thursday when I went in to the store and made the phone call, but it didn’t. Now, on Saturday, it did happen. Why? God! He just wanted to remind me yet again that He is in control of it all. He will make things happen in His time.

With all that has been going on in my life in the last few years, you’d think I’d know by now that God is in control and watching out for us. No matter what has happened, He has never abandoned us. Even in our darkest hours, He has been there. Even when we’ve been in what has seemed like an impossible situation, He has saved us. There are many times I wish our situation was different – that I was making more money, that we had a nicer house, that Erin didn’t have to fight her many afflictions, that we didn’t have all the strife with certain people in our lives. But I have to step back and see that God is in control of it all. If we do our best to find out what He wants us to do, He will take us where He wants us to go. Not where WE want to go, but where HE wants us to go. Those two things aren’t always the same. In fact they often are not the same. But where He wants us to be is infinitely better than where we want to be.

We all need to give up control and let God take over our lives. Besides, we can never truly be in control. It is just an illusion, something for us to grasp us to make us feel more secure in this uncertain world. There are too many variables in life for any one person to actually be in control. You can do your best at work – never call in sick, work hard, work overtime, make your boss look good – but if your company suddenly loses a major client or the whole economy goes south, you can still be out of a job in no time. You can work hard and save your money and invest it wisely in the stock market, but when the whole market crashes, you can suddenly be without any retirement savings. We can’t see the future. We can’t even see all that is happening in the present or has happened in the past. Only God can see all things and know all things. Only He knows what end result is best for us.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Matthew 6:33

Location, location, location

14 05 2010

In the real estate business, they say that the three most important things when buying property are location, location, location. When writing a book, it may not be as evident it is in real estate, but location is certainly a key ingredient to a good story.

My novel, which by the way now has a working title of “The Truth,” opens in Columbus, Ohio. Believe it or not, Columbus is not one of the dozen or so cities I’ve lived in during my 37 years of life. However, for the last 19 years, I have lived within an hour or two of Ohio’s capital. So it is a city that I am pretty familiar with. My brother, Dave, and his wife, Kelli, and my niece, Mallory, live in Columbus. I have spent many hours scouring the city’s comic, used book, and CD stores for hidden treasures. I have been to concerts and sporting events across the city. And my family looooooooooooves shopping at Polaris and Easton.

So once I decided that I was going to have a female college student as one of my main characters, and since I wanted her to be relocated to the Midwest from New Mexico, and since THE Ohio State University is the second largest university in the country in terms of enrollment, it made sense to pick a nearby locale for her.

This choice had a few benefits. One, I am already pretty familiar with the area, making it easier to write about. Two, it is very close so I can easily go down for a scouting trip if I need or want more details.

Earlier this week, Erin and I were in Columbus for a business meeting so I decided we should take a quick trip to campus to find the dorm that Anne and Brandie live in. Thanks to having mobile Web and GPS on our Blackberries, we were able to find the dorm and get a first-hand view of the dorm and the surrounding area mentioned in the book. It felt really good to be able to see for myself what the area looks like in detail. Halloran House sign Halloran House exterior There was nothing special or unique about the building. It was just another brick dorm. I had driven very near the dorm before on High Street and Lane Avenue but now, knowing that these were the same sights that Anne and Brandie were seeing every day, I was seeing them with new eyes – with their eyes. Now when I am writing descriptions of the area, I will have fresh data to work with. I am planning more trips to the area to scout other locations around Columbus that may end up being used. in “The Truth.” 

I’ve got family all over the place that I can visit and use to scout locations. My maternal grandmother, her two daughters, Sue and Carolyn, and Sue’s two sons, Chris and Dan, all live in Joliet, IL, near Chicago. My dad lives in Georgia. Erin’s ex-husband just moved to Florida and has invited us all down. Might as well multi-task: take a vacation and scout locations. Never know where your story may take you. I’m thinking about using Hawaii or California in my book so I can write off a trip as a business expense. 🙂

Any of you have any locations you think would be good for use in my book, or maybe I can use it in a future book? Let me know your thoughts.

Characters welcome, and needed

12 05 2010

The USA Network’s current marketing campaign centers on the phrase “Characters Welcome.” If you watch any of the original programming on USA, you will find that characters really do matter, e.g., Adrian Monk on “Monk,” Shawn Spencer on “Psych,” Michael Weston on “Burn Notice.” Each of these characters is very different, but each one is a rich, unique character. They have well-defined personalities, interests and histories that guide their actions. The stories on these shows usually are well written, but for me at least, these characters are the biggest draw. And that can be true no matter the medium.

When creating characters for your book, it’s important that you know them. You should know everything about them, every detail of their lives. Not every detail will make it into your book, but they will shape who they are and how they react. But you as a writer need to know the characters so you can write them. If you don’t know what makes them tick and why they are the way they are, you won’t be able to easily and realistically tell how they will react when thrown into a situation.

A good place to start is by writing out a history for each character. Make it as detailed or simplistic as you need. It will vary for each writer. But you should start with their name, their likes and dislikes, their family, their job, their lovelife, their appearance, their emotional makeup.

Even more important than these basic biographical items is a little thing called motivation. Every character has a motivation which will shape their actions. The three things that makeup your character’s motivation are values (what a character believes is true and important), ambition (an abstract goal) and goals (a concrete thing your character will do to achieve their ambition). Understanding these concepts for each of your characters will enable you to create strong, compelling characters who will act in a believable way and who your readers will relate to.

You must be careful, however, to not include too much backstory in your novel. Your readers are interested in the present, what is happening to this character right now. Your challenge as a writer is to weave in bits of your chacters’ history as you tell their story. Certain elements will be more relevant to developing your story than others. It is your job to carefully pick and choose which items to include and when to include them. A good way to build mystery and keep the reader wanting more is to mention a bit of a character’s backstory without giving away the whole story of what happened. Then later on in your book, you can reveal the rest of the story, when it works in the overall structure of your novel.

For example, in my novel, I have dropped a few references to Anne having had a lot happen in her life in the last few years, and not wanting to worry her parents because of some tragedy they have had to deal with. What is that tragedy that Anne and her parents have been dealing with? Well I will reveal that later in my book. I just mentioned in passing that Shaun has two ex-wives and he’s only 32. That’s meant to show that he is impulsive and passionate, prone to leap before he looks, which has served him well in his journalistic career but not so much in his personal life.

That’s the kind of backstory you need to include – the kind that adds to the character or sets up a later plot point. You can’t include a character’s whole background. No one wants to read about how your character had eggs for breakfast on March 21, 2009, unless that event is somehow relevant to the story you are telling.

Creating rich, three-dimensional characters is a great place to go after you have your story idea. Once you figure out who the characters are and what motivates them, they will help drive the plot from Point A to Point B. Look around at pop culture for character ideas. But also look at your own life. There likely are some characters in your life who can inspire ideas for characters in your book. As always, don’t create your work in a vacuum. Some of the best sources of inspiration can be found in the world around you.

Characters matter

10 05 2010

To paraphrase Forrest Gump – Writing is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to find.

Everytime I sit down to write, it’s like an adventure. Many people read books because it allows them to enter a fantastical world that creates an escape from their boring, everyday existence. For me, writing is like that. In my novel, I have created a world. In the case of my current novel, the world happens to be very similar to our real world. But in this world, I am in control of my characters. It’s like playing “The Sims” only better. There are no limitations, except my imagination. I get to say what happens to them. I get to say who lives and dies. Who falls in love and who lives happily ever after. Who saves the world and who fails in their mission. Guess I must be a control freak with a God complex. Or maybe I’m just a wide-eyed daydreamer with a story that I want to share with the world. Yeah, I think I’ll go with the latter.

Sometimes when I sit down to write, I already know what scenario I am going to put my characters in. Other times, I am making it up as I go.  Either way, it is exciting to imagine who these people are and how they would react when faced with a particular predicament. I know these characters inside and out. I did create them after all. So it’s up to me to get inside their heads and share their thoughts with the reader.

For me, that’s one of the most important parts of the story – the characters. Of course you have to have an interesting story; one that the reader cares about and is curious about or else they have no reason to pick up your book. But if all you have is a good synoposis on the back cover of your book or the inside of the dust jacket, that won’t get you very far in the long run. You may get someone to buy your book and maybe even start reading it. But if you don’t populate your story with interesting characters who face challenges and are forced to struggle and grow during the story, the reader likely won’t make it all the way through your book. And they probably won’t be tricked into buying your next book that also has an interesting synopsis on the back cover.

How do you create good characters? Often writers will fall back on using an archetype to create many of those characters. Archetypes are universally recognized symbols or a prototype on which other things are patterned. For example, in literature, archetypal characters are the hero, the villain, the sidekick, the girlfriend/boyfriend of the hero, the mentor, the young lovers. You get the idea. If you’ve watched enough movies or read enough books, you’ve seen these character archetypes pop up in most of the popular media of the day in one form or another.

While these archetypes are a good place to start, you need to add a little more depth to your characters than just the vague, nebulous description that these archetypes bring to mind. For me, I need to make my characters more realistic. In real life, most people don’t fit perfectly into these archetypes. We are all flawed and imperfect, with quirks and challenges that make us interesting and unique. It is these touches we as writers must add to allow the reader to relate to our characters. Most of us can’t imagine having super strength and super speed and being born on another planet and being able to do almost anything. But when this character has a fatal flaw (Kryptonite) and a weakness for a certain brunette reporter (Lois Lane), suddenly Superman becomes a lot more like one of us. We all have our own personal Kryptonite and we all know what it’s like to be in love or to pine for someone we can’t be with or shouldn’t be with. Or imagine a character who has physical limitations because of their size and also has to deal with prejudice because of their race. Then imagine this character nearly succumbs to the temptation of evil. Yet this character is able, with the help of a team made up of other archetypes, to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and save the world from evil. If this sounds familiar, then you’ve either read or seen “The Lord of the Rings.” And we all have physical issues that limit us or make us doubt ourselves. We all have temptations that we must battle. That’s why these characters and stories have survived for decades.

Tomorrow, I will share some thoughts on steps you can take to create rich characters that your readers will want to get to know.

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