Archive for July, 2011

Oh, Lord, for these smoking hot wives may we be truly thankful . . .

Posted in Zing  by John Brown on July 30th, 2011
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How they pray at NASCAR. Boogity, boogity, boogity, amen!

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Some 101 for Congress and the President

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on July 29th, 2011

It’s not really rocket science.

  1. If you have loans outstanding and the payment is due, you owe the creditors a payment. Payables for Idiots 101.
  2. If you have received goods and services, then you owe your vendors a payment. Payables for Idiots 102.
  3. You pay your bills. End of story. That’s what grown ups do. If you have to float some debt for a few months, you do it. And you staple a note to your head to stop spending like a slot machine junkie. Payables for Idiots 103.

The debts we have are for goods and services we’ve already received. So increase the debt limit and pay your damn bills. What about spending?

  1. You do not spend more than you take in year after year. If you do, that’s called running your business into the ground. In the case of the Congress (primarily Harry Reid’s Senate at this point, although many, but not all, of the Republicans were happy to go along with dumb spending earlier) and the President, it’s the country they’re running into the ground. Spending for Idiots 101.
  2. If you’ve got all sorts of cool things planned like Acorn subsidies for pimps and Antarctica Jell-O wrestling grants for scientists, but you can’t afford them—i.e. you have to go into debt to get them–you cancel those plans. Spending for Idiots 102.
  3. The problem is that Congress and the President buy all sorts of crap and expect to put it on a credit card when it comes due. And there’s nothing to prevent them from doing it.
  4. They’re like irresponsible teenagers. They need controls that won’t allow them to overspend. Kind of like putting limits on a teenager’s cell phone minutes. Or forcing them to use a debit card. When they’re out of cash, they get a card denied response from their vendors.
  5. So you set spending limits, debt limits, and force them to balance the budget each year, except in extreme emergencies like when space aliens try to wipe out humanity. Spending for Idiots 103.

This means you pass Cut, Cap, and Balance and quit spending money you don’t have. Really difficult stuff. What about getting out of debt?

  1. You eat rice and beans until you’re debt is gone or down to a manageable level. That means you cancel crap you can’t pay for. Sorry earmarks, you’re gone. Sorry grants for nude artists in trees, you’re gone. Sorry subsidies for PBS, you’re gone.  Finances 200: How to Not Be A Money Moron.
  2. You figure out how to reduce your current cost structure. This means you figure out a way to reduce the costs of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and every other service or product you provide, cutting those that aren’t essential. You hire someone like Mitt Romney who knows how to go through every line in a budget and turn a bloated ship around.  Finances 300: No, You Can’t Pay For Your Sister’s Hair Implants with My Money.
  3. You remind people this is the freaking U S of A. A place where a man or woman can make themselves. Not where the government changes your diapers and feeds you mush three times a day. Communism and socialism have failed. They were badly conceived utopias, much like multi-level soap and vitamin marketing schemes that are supposed to usher in the Second Coming.  Finances 400: The USA Buried the USSR for a Reason.
  4. You increase your revenues.
  5. However, if you raise taxes, you’re actually going to depress your revenues. Think about this. Which car company has bigger revenues–Lamborgini or Honda? Who is going to put out, if they’ve got Louie the Fingers and his buddy Jockstrap taking increasing amounts of their money in a protection racket? Don’t be a thug. Be an enabler.  Do what Wal-Mart does and go for volume.  Do what Ebay does–create the environment that entices tons of commerce, entices people to dramatically increase their transactions. Transactions go through the roof; you take only a tiny cut, and, shazam, you increase your revenues.  Finances 500: Um, Do You Want People to Work to Become Rich or Do You Want Them To Pick Up Torches and Burn the Houses of the Rich Down?

Cut spending, reduce cost structure, and increase your revenues. That’s getting out of debt.

Is this really that hard?

EDIT: 8/1 Seems that “wacky” Ron Paul actually has a simple commonsense approach that doesn’t sound crazy. Why couldn’t we do this?

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Why I’m gonna purchase Correia’s MONSTER HUNTER ALPHA on Monday

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on July 22nd, 2011

I’m going to be purchasing MONSTER HUNTER ALPHA by Larry Correia on Monday.  Here’s why.

Reason #1: Correia delivers the goods

I read MONSTER HUNTER INTERNATIONAL.  I ended my review of MHI saying Correia was going to be a writer to watch.  Well, for those of you who haven’t been watching, not only did Correia  sell tons of copies of MHI, he also made the New York Times best seller list with his second book AND sold TV rights to the MHI series to a major TV producer.

Why would his books generate such a response? Because they’re so dang fun. That’s why. And Correia isn’t just a flash in the pan one-trick pony. Far from it, as demonstrated by Reason #2 below.

I told you in my review of INTERNATIONAL that I don’t read books that don’t suck me in. I don’t give them 70 pages to warm up and get going.  I don’t care who wrote the book. I don’t care if the author is a big lug with guns. I don’t care if he has status and money or friends who can put the hurt on me. I don’t care if the author is my girl’s godmother and brings me Walker Shortbread Rounds (which are evil cookies that exert mind control). If the book bores me, I put it down. That doesn’t mean that books which bore me aren’t wonderful. Sales and numerous reader exclamations of delight and satisfaction attest to the the fact that many are. It’s just that I’m a reader of little patience. I love it when a book starts with a bang and keeps me hooked. And Correia’s books do exactly that.   

Reason #2: Correia’s getting better

I read MONSTER HUNTER VENDETTA recently.  I should have reviewed it, but I’ve been so freaking busy I barely have time to shave or appear in public because I’ve begun to look like the Unabomber. But here’s the deal with VENDETTA–it’s better than INTERNATIONAL.  

Yes. Better.

Well, expect for maybe the opening paragraphs. The quote and first few paragraps that opened INTERNATIONAL are hard to beat. This doesn’t mean the opening of VENDETTA is weak. Heck, no. VENDETTA trounces the openings of most novels and steals their lunch. And then it continues to delight all the rest of the way through. It’s just that it didn’t quite deliver the same jolt as MHI. But 500 or 503 watts, what’s the difference?

So with VENDETTA, are there guns? Yes.

Monsters? Check.

Action? There’s action galore.

It appeals to my testosterone right off the bat (even though Larry reports that a good number of his readers are women). But there are guns, monsters, and action in a lot of stories that stink. What Correia does is not only give us great action, but he also gives us wonderful new situations.  For example, you will never see the scene set in the ghetto of Birmingham, Alabama that appears here in any other book. Never. It’s a Correia original. But even more important than great new situations, is that he gives us a first-person narrator who is delightful to be around. I’m talking about Owen Zavasta Pitt, the accountant monster hunter. His responses to the situations he gets in just make me laugh, as do a number of the responses of the other characters. My only wish is that Correia would tone down some of his language just a bit.  It is possible even when writing about military characters.  But you can’t have everything, and Owen’s such a loveable lug, I overlook it.  Hey, maybe Milo will help him out on that as the series progresses.

Furthermore, Pitt isn’t the only character who I find delightful or interesting.  In VENDETTA there is also Holly, Agent Franks, and G-Nome, one of Correia’s best yet. Of course, there’s also the Doctors Nelson, the former hunter Carlos, Melvin the troll, and Earl Harbinger who have their own moments to shine. As do Owen’s dad and brother. And Dorcas, MHI’s secretary with the plastic leg. Heck, I even like Susan.

So how many is that–eleven already? How many wonderful characters do most authors give you in one book? Two or three?

And that’s one of the things that is is better with VENDETTA than INTERNATIONAL.  In INTERNATIONAL, as good as it was, some of the characters just didn’t get the stage time they needed to shine. But here Correia declutters his scenes so we’re not trying to focus on too many people. The result is that those we do focus on each have the their moments and lines. The other thing I noticed was that Correia deftly orients us to each new situation. For those of you who are writers, let me suggest you look at Correia’s technique in VENDETTA for introducing characters and settings. 

Another good thing: he wipes out a Girls Gone Wild camera crew in the first chapter. Anyone who does that gets a few points in my book.

VENDETTA doesn’t attempt to become bigger in scope than INTERNATIONAL (as if it could). Instead, it feels like another episode in a great tale. And I’m happy with that because it promises more to come. I’m back with characters I like and situations that make me laugh and magic crap that evokes some oohs and aahs and every now and again makes me wish I’d come up with it for my own use.

Finally, VENDETTA leavens the humor and action with a couple of poignant moments. I’m thinking of a chapter with Carlos, another scene with Owen’s dad, and one with G-Nome.

As you can see, VENDETTA’S packed with goodness.

With ALPHA, I’m expecting to hook up with at least one of the gang for more exploits and laffs. Will Correia get even better? I have no doubt he will. But who cares–he’s already delivering great stuff.  

Reason #3 Did I mention that Correia makes me laugh?

Just didn’t want to forget that. Furthermore, I swear I read somewhere that laughter increases your health and makes you live longer. So not only am I getting a great read, I’m extending my days upon the land.

Reason #4 Monday is a special day

Not any old Monday. But the 25th of July.

Why is this special?

Because it’s the first day of the first week of the book’s release.

Now I know I’m going to buy this book sometime. But buying it in the first week lets me do something I might not be able to do at some other time.

Because Correia has given me hours of pleasure, I figure I can tip him for his good service by helping him make the best seller list again.  And a book has the best chance of making that list in the first week of release. (For those of you interested in how that works, Larry gives a good explaination here.) Making a best seller list does all sorts of good things for an author, and, as a result, that author’s readers.

So Monday’s my day to leave the tip on the table and tell the owner to keep up the good work.

The New York Times list is a good one. But I’d like to see him on the USA Today list, which measures sales so much better than any other list out there. My fingers are crossed.

For those of you who are Correia fans or who have been putting off giving his stuff a go, now’s the time to either get MHI and begin the series or ALPHA and continue the delight.

EDIT: After I posted, I couldn’t wait and just went ahead and processed my order. Pre-orders will count in that first week, and after writing this I couldn’t resist. Looking forward to more hours of laughter and some great characters.

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Jennifer Nielsen and “The Rules of Personality”

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on July 18th, 2011

Jennifer Nielsen is the author of Elliot and the Goblin War, the forthcoming Elliot and the Pixie Plot (Sourcebooks, August 2011), and The False Prince (Scholastic, April 2012).  She’s also worked for many years with a troubled youth program. I recently sat in on one of her presentations on characters and personality at a writers conference and quickly found myself scribbling down insights. Later I convinced her to share some of that here. Enjoy. You can learn more about her at www.jennielsen.com.

The Rules of Personality

In the Mockingjay series by Suzanne Collins, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen is selected as one of the contestants for the brutal Hunger Games held by the Capitol each year. Katniss is resourceful, fierce, intelligent, and compassionate. It is these traits she uses in her attempt to survive the Hunger Games. She is joined in the games arena by Peeta Mellark, who is clever, protective, and likable. Like Katniss, Peeta’s traits help him in his fight to survive.

These characters are excellent illustrations of the importance of character in a story. What if Suzanne Collins had not given Katniss her compassion? For those who have read the story, they know changing that single trait would have dramatically changed the plot.

It’s for this reason that character is so important in the creation of a story. If you change the plot, the character will remain the same. But if you change a character, the plot will inevitably change with it.

In order to create a believable human sketch, a visual artist would have to understand the physical body, muscle structure, proportions, etc. In a similar way, for a writer to create a believable character, he must understand the basic rules of personality.

But to create a believable characterization, there are some important things for the writer to understand about personality. Personality is the traits of a person’s core self. For example, there are many different types of people who value and practice honesty (the “trait”). But personality will determine how that trait is exhibited. An extrovert is far more likely to state the blunt truth while an introvert might create an opportunity for the people to discover the truth on their own. So although the trait is the same, there is no single way in which it might be expressed.

In other words, while the presence of a trait is important in developing character, the way it is expressed is equally important. A person’s stubbornness might be demonstrated as passive-aggressiveness or outward defiance. A person’s jealousy might be expressed in withdrawal or by vicious repercussions. It’s personality that determines the way character traits are expressed.

There are four important things to understand about personality. The better writers understand this, the better they can understand the characters they created.

#1 Personality is Stable.  The core of who a person is remains about the same throughout a lifetime. The way a trait is expressed may evolve or adapt as the events of life unfold, but the core self doesn’t change much.

For example, a shy child may hide behind her mother’s legs and refuse to talk. As she grows into adulthood, she will probably learn to manage her shyness and interact in the world. But she will likely never be the outspoken, bold, center stage person.

#2 The Intensity of the Trait Matters.  When creating character, most writers stop at listing the presence of a trait. However, that is rarely good enough because it’s really the intensity that matters. Someone who has a hard time forgiving others and holds grudges is probably fairly normal. But increase the intensity of the trait and you may create a villain who’ll go to extreme lengths for revenge.

#3 People Rarely Behave Out of Character.  Occasionally, writers finds themselves in a position where in order to make the plot unfold the way they want it to, they must force their character into behaviors outside of anything they’d normally do. This almost always fails the believability test because in real life, people rarely act out of character.

Consider the example of the shy woman. Is it possible that she would willingly get up in front of a crowd and speak with boldness? Of course. But is it likely? No. It’s far more likely that she would find someone else to deliver the message for her, or find another way to communicate the message.

When I’m speaking about this issue to groups, a common response from writers who are facing writer’s block is that this is the root of their problem. They are trying to force a character into a behavior not consistent with their personality. The entire scene becomes forced as the character literally balks at the writer’s attempts.

#4 People Tend to Rework the Same Issues Throughout Life.  Everyone has “issues.” Some are more major than others, of course, but we all have them. And whatever it is that we battle, we likely battle it throughout life, even if the way we experience that issue evolves.

For example, the teenager who becomes explosively angry is later the man who may take out his anger on his wife or children. In later life that trait may evolve so that he turns his anger inward and develops a drinking problem. Or perhaps the man matures and mellows. Perhaps he’s learned to manage it, or perhaps he’s too tired to create the same fuss as when he was younger.

In April 2012, I’ll release a series with Scholastic that begins with Book 1: The False Prince. The protagonist in this story is a defiant boy named Sage who must use his own cleverness, determination, and strength to survive a contest that will name the winner as the false heir to the throne.

As the writer of this series, it was important for me to understand Sage’s personality if I was going to create a believable character. One of his core traits is his instinct to rebel. It’s a more intense than would generally be found in his peers, so I needed to respect the fact that he would rarely back down from a fight, regardless of the consequences. There is one scene in the book where Sage steals an item from his master that Sage believes was stolen from him. He refuses to tell anyone where he hid it, even though he knows the consequences will be serious. I didn’t want those consequences to happen to Sage, but he would not have had things any other way. To attempt to create a story where he gave in to the master would have cheated the character, the story, and the reader.

Likewise, writers must understand that creating great characters begins with understanding the rules of personality. And when it’s done right, whether it’s Katniss Everdeen, or any of your favorite characters, the reader will always remember them.

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JOHN SEZ: I particularly like #2 because homo-ficti need to be a little bit larger than life.  A litter more courageous. A little more finicky. A little more skilled. A little more outrageous. Exaggeration is one of the key tools for developing characters.

The statements about the core part of personality being stable and long-lasting, and folks dealing with issues for a long time, are interesting to me as well. It seems like this is where deep motives lie. 

Of course, I know I don’t start with personality grids when developing characters. But I do eventually try to peg my characters.  I’ve found that having a dominant impression, a type, helps a great deal when working with them, even if my characters mix or bend the types.  If I know that this one is a wise-cracking farmer, that one a quick-tempered tailor, and that one a no-nonsense baker, it makes them easier to work with.  It makes it easier to envision how they might react in a given situation.

In fact, I think I’ve created my most enjoyable characters when I didn’t try to make them super complex. They might have had things that occured in their past that affected them greatly. They might be dealing with terrible dilemmas now.  They might have a number of interesting details about them.  But if I can peg them in my mind as this or that type of person, it seems the scenes flow more easily.  I can improvise the dialogue and their reactions much better in my mind as I write.

Sometimes I can capture that type with a description, e.g. “scary smart farmer.” Sometimes it’s enough to get a voice or a photograph or link them to someone I know.  Sometimes I’ve linked them to animals and that gave me the center.  Very often they form as I write them. They often have to come on stage first and have me start writing them for everything to coalesce.

Check out Nielsen’s site. I love the first line of Goblin War. I mean not only does she get all these fab illustrations for her book, but then she opens it with this: “When he was 8 years old, Elliot Penster started an inter-species war.  Don’t blame him.  As anyone who has ever started an inter-species war will tell you, it’s not that difficult to do.” Elliot is trick-or-treating at the moment, everyone thinking he is dressed up as a hobo, when in reality he’s just wearning his normal day clothes. Hum. A little homo-fictus anyone?

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Cranford, Balsamic Vinaigrette, Nebo Grotto Falls

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on July 12th, 2011
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Cranford

For those of you who love stories like Pride and Prejudice, have I got a TV mini-series for you—the BBC’s five-part Cranford.

The series is set in the 1840′s in England in the fictional village in North West England and focuses primarily on a handful of the town’s single middle-class ladies who are forced to deal with lace-eating cats, marriage prospects, and prank valentines, as well as death, loss, and a changing culture. There are also two stories about the male inhabitants woven in as well—one about a new doctor and another about a young boy of the lower class who has a chance for something better.

I will confess that when I saw this arrive in the Netflix envelope, I wasn’t at all excited. The cover’s too cold–all blue with a bunch of sour-looking women. In fact, I decided not to watch it. But the laughter of my wife and daughters lured me back upstairs to the TV, where it took about seven seconds for me to revise my earlier decision. The characters are delightful. In fact, some of their lines are such a joy to listen to, we had to rewind many parts to watch them again and again.

The series is based on three novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, a British novelist, which were published between 1849 and 1858. The sets made us feel as if we where there. For example, one of the things I noticed was the lighting. Incandescent bulbs weren’t invented until the late 1800′s and took many more years to find their way into most houses. So the directors, instead of making it feel all Hollywood, seemed to rely heavily on the light at hand, as those inhabitants would have. When a scene was in a house, it felt as if they were only using the natural light coming in the windows or the candles being burned. Of course, this is just one of the many details that made this series an excellent period piece.  

The best news of all is that I just found out there’s more–a two-part special called Return to Cranford. I can’t wait until it comes in the mail. Don’t let the cover fool you. This is a wonderful mini-series. It has poignant and sad moments, but is also full of humor and wit.  And the ending is perfect.   

Kroger’s Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing

I love balsamic vinegar and oil on bread. But I never think to make it. And I never thought of what else it might go with. That was until a relative left behind a bottle of Kroger brand Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing.

I just happened have a homemade bagel handy, squirted out a bit onto a plate and dipped.  Lovely.  So then I tried it on salad and even splashed some on tomato or turkey sandwiches. It’s delicious. Only 80 calories for a whole tablespoon. In fact, it was so good we bought four more bottles because I don’t want to run out.

Kroger, of course, is a grocery conglomerate. In Utah, it owns the Smith’s, and that’s where you’ll find this delight.

Nebo Grotto Falls

The mountains and canyons of Utah are literally desert oases. That’s where our clear streams run, the forests grow, and the wildlife congregates. In the summer, the canyons are a refreshing source for cooling winds. All this meant that, as I grew up, “forest” and “refreshing” became intertwined in my mind. Only when we moved to Ohio did I learn that some forests can also be muggy and hot and not at all refreshing to a desert boy perishing in the humidity.

Because I love Utah’s canyons so much, we hike and walk them all throughout the summer.  We recently went down to enjoy the Stadium of Fire and the heat (yes, I love dry heat) in Provo. However, we didn’t just hang out in the city. We made time to hike a few trails in the surrounding canyons.

We love Rock Canyon (just above the Mormon temple in Provo), Hobble Creek Canyon (Springville), as well as Mapleton and Santaquin canyons.  However, there’s another special place that you’ll want to visit should you find yourself in the Provo area. It’s a short little hike just off of S Canyon Road (also known as Nebo Loop Road) which runs from Payson south through the Mt Nebo Wilderness area to Highway 132.

The trail head is just a few miles into the canyon south of Payson and is marked with a simple sign that says “Grotto.” There’s a little bit of parking on the side of the road. The hike is 0.6 miles along a wooded stream.  The grotto itself is more than worth it.  You can find directions here: http://www.utah.com/thingtodo27245.htm

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The eBook Tsunami of Crap is Crap

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on July 9th, 2011
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Some folks say ebooks will foist a terrible problem upon readers–they’ll soon have to wade through mountains of crap to find a book to read. It will be a terrible chore. J.A. Konrath gives his answer to this lament. Kris Rusch gives hers.

Here’s mine: there will NEVER be a tsunami of crap facing a reader looking to buy ebooks or any other kind of book. Ever.

Why?

REASON 1

Buyers REFUSE to look at seas of choices–crap or otherwise. Shoppers always seek to limit choices (too costly to look at everything) and use a number of methods to immediately narrow those choices down: recommendations, reviews, what’s on the shelf, etc. (For a fascinating look into a few facets of how we make choices, listen to this Radio Lab espisode.)

For example, when shopping for vanilla you don’t go searching through the 500 brands available online and in various stores–Mexican, Vodka, American, Rum, organic, generic, brand, etc. It’s just not worth the time. Something on the shelf is usually GOOD ENOUGH.

Likewise, nobody cares to look at 150,000 titles to find the best. They don’t have the time. In fact, they don’t need to. They can usually find a number of books that are intriguing enough in the “smaller” selection any given vendor sets before them.

In the case of Amazon ebooks, that selection is the best-sellers, the ads, and the this person bought that.

Nobody ever sees the 4 gazillion books. Ever. They don’t want to.

REASON 2

Vendors can’t display a gazillion choices, even if they wanted to, which they don’t (studies have actually shown that providing shoppers too big a selection leads to FEWER sales).

And no, just because Amazon says it have 2 quintillion titles for sale that does not mean they’ve been displayed. You only see a handful of titles at a time.

Even if you scroll through the various lists, you are rarely looking at more than a dozen choices at a time. You’ll probably see less than 200 titles total any given time you go shopping.

Vendors NEVER display a tsunami. EVER.

REASON 3

Readers have MORE THAN ENOUGH leads to fill their capacity for reading.  Even if they wanted a sea of options, they wouldn’t wade through them because they don’t have to–it’s too easy to find something to read.

Leads are everywhere. There are recommendations from friends, family, reviewers, celebrites, and Amazon’s this person bought that.  There are leads from best-seller lists (another type of tacit recommendation). Leads from browsing.

Readers have leads coming out their ears.

This is important because the number of leads any given reader has far excees that reader’s capacity for reading.

How long does it take you to find one book that looks interesting? From browsing or recommendations or whatever?

Minutes.

Maybe if you’re having a really bad day, it takes an hour. But it takes so much longer to read one story than it does to find one you want to read.  That’s why we all have two year’s worth of books to read in our queues.

So. There is no sea of crap. There NEVER was or ever will be one for any given reader.

Buyers avoid selection seas like the plague. Vendors don’t provide such seas anyway. And readers don’t need them–they have more than enough leads which turn out to be exciting enough to fill up all their reading slots and more.

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