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How Did I Forget This Book?!

24 Jun

I reread a book this weekend and two-thirds of it was pretty much like I remembered. But I forgot how it ended. In fact, the final third turned it from being 4 stars to 5. Am I just getting old? Or did I deliberately tune this plotline out?

The name of the book is Freehold by Michael Z. Williamson; solid military sci-fi. I was given a signed copy by a friend of mine and I remembered really enjoying it. But I was kinda turned off by the first third of the book because… well, I really don’t like books that are a political rant disguised as fiction. This is why I’ve never read Ayn Rand, although I’m a card-carrying Libertarian. This is same problem I had with this book. The Freehold of Grainne is best described as a “Libertarian utopia.” So the author spends the first third of the book talking about the nature of their society.

This is also why I didn’t like Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Then I realized that I read the unabridged version of the novel; I really enjoyed the story, maybe if I read the abridged version, I would have enjoyed more. A better example of Heinlein bloviating is For Us, The Living… which was only published posthumously.

However, the entire setting of the book is that the UN on Earth is a bureaucratic nightmare; Freehold is the polar opposite. They can’t co-exist without one destroying the other. So the second third is the war, and oh brother, what a war! Williamson pulls no punches, glorifies nothing, and tells a compelling and coherent story. The characters we met in the first third continue in the third. The character traits we see in peacetime get amplified in the crucible of war. It’s incredible and everything you want out of military sci-fi.

The final third is where I completely blanked out and the story became brilliant. Two of the three main characters were raped and the third is mentally damaged. Their reactions to surviving the war show you the whole veteran’s experience; survivor’s guilt, unable to return home, inability to talk with people who hadn’t lived your experience. This set in the backdrop of a world that also is recovering from their entire planet being destroyed and having to rebuild.

Although I remembered the first two thirds of this book, I didn’t remember a bit of the last third. Did I ever finish this book? I certainly didn’t remember how the war ended and… oh brother, I didn’t expect that! This went from being a good story to a great story with the willingness of the author not to leave the story at victory. The story of Freehold is very much the story of the main characters in the novel. I couldn’t put it down. Check it out!

Fortress of Solitude

22 Jun

I call my cubicle the “fortress of solitude,” because I don’t want anyone to know what I’m doing here. In reality, I hide here from my family, because I don’t want anyone to see how little I do.

Continuing on the topic I started yesterday, I realized I have a BS Job. In my observation, there is really no reason for my employment except to show to higher management that we have deliverables that are popular enough to prove our department’s continued existence. “People want our classes, so that must mean you need to keep us around!” 🙂

Mind you, I’ve been seeking this kind of job for sometime. Back in 2007, I got a job at a hospital training software. After six months, my boss told me that I was losing my cube, and I needed to work from home. At first, this was shocking, but I suddenly realized the joy of not being in the office. I could finish up the 15 hours of work I had that week, go for a bike ride, check in with my computer from a cafe an hour ride away, play some computer games, then bike some more before coming home.

In the same year, a book I admire came out: The Four-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferris. He explained how he went from working 60 hours a week at his own business, to having a mental breakdown, to discovering his business ran… just as easily without him. He was the chokepoint that was slowing everything down. When he granted his employees more authority, only handling the important issues, he ended up only working 4 hours a week.

Of course, he explains how you can do it as well–what we today would call having a “side hustle.” Figure out what your cash requirements are, find a REALLY niche product (or service, but he recommends product) that no one else is providing, and automate the production as much as possible. He also recommends that if you don’t wanna give up your day job, he talks about the “great disappearing act;” how to convince your boss to let you work from home. Once you figure that out, you can use that extra time to go anywhere you want.

So with my jobs since 2007, sometimes I was at my desk, sometimes in the classroom… and no one knew or cared when that was. I’ve been grateful to have good bosses that only really care if the work’s getting done. It’s when it’s not that they have to intervene. My only problem is that… I don’t have the money to blow on enjoying my extra time. When you’re the primary breadwinner for a family of four, well… all that extra cash that a single man would have in my position goes to frivolous things like clothes, doctor appointments, yadda yadda. 😛 For a while, I had the advantage of simply going to a café or my Legion Post bar… but even that got too expensive. Hence, I wanted to go into the office, where my family couldn’t find me, and thanks to COVID, nobody else.

I think the answer is that I need to get a side hustle, so I can get back on the road with my bike–well, a new bike–and start exploring things again. Of course, I just got done convincing my boss that I need to be at my desk four days a week, but… one problem at a time.

Do You Have a BS Job?

21 Jun

If someone has a gig that only requires 15 hours of work a week, is it really necessary? What are the consequences of hiring them? Does your feeling of self worth decline if you know your job is meaningless?

My favorite radio hosts were talking about the danger of the “laptop class” losing their $200K jobs and how that will deepen our current recession. What do I mean by “laptop class?” These are the people objecting to / refusing to go back to the office after working from home for the past two years. People whose jobs allow them to do their work from anywhere. What many have found is that many of those people can get their job done in 15 hours a week, which leaves 25 hours to do… whatever they want. And it’s a lot easier to fake working when you’re not in the office.

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my office–there is two people on this floor–thirty-five cubicles, all but five assigned to current employees. This tells you two things: 1) my workplace suffers from this very problem and 2) I’m part of the problem. After all, I’m writing a blog post when I should be working, but I’m one of those folks who can get their job done in 15 hours a week… some weeks more, some less, but it does make me realize I have a BS job.

Of course, I’ve realized this for some time. In fact, I’ve sought a 15 hour work week for some time. The term 15 hour work week comes from John Maynard Keynes, who predicted in 1930 that automation would lead to people working less…. but we’re working more than ever. Why? Because of what David Graeber calls “BS Jobs.” He contends that half of all societal jobs are pointless…. and you know they’re pointless, but you have to pretend as if they aren’t.

He breaks these down into five types:

Flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants, store greeters, makers of websites whose sites neglect ease of use and speed for looks;

Goons, who act to harm or deceive others on behalf of their employer, e.g., lobbyistscorporate lawyerstelemarketerspublic relations specialists, community managers;

Duct Tapers, who temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently, e.g., programmers repairing bloated code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags do not arrive;

Box Tickers, who create the appearance that something useful is being done when it is not, e.g., survey administrators, in-house magazine journalists, corporate compliance officersquality service managers;

Taskmasters, who create extra work for those who do not need it, e.g., middle managementleadership professionals.

Wikipedia

My current job falls under the taskmasters–or technically, I work for the taskmasters–and the fact that frequently my ability to complete a task is stalled by my boss. At first, I just thought that was because I work in government… but now I’m wondering if it’s the nature of my subject. The question is… why do I even have a job? Shouldn’t someone question why we’re paying for this? No, says Graeber, because in any bureaucracy, number of employees equal power. If HR admits they don’t need ten people, they get less of a budget next year, which means they don’t have as much power in the company.

So as I joke with my friends, I make sure that the head of my department doesn’t know my name. This is not really a joke. Because if the department head knows my name, they might ask, “What does Marcus do?” And if they find the answer is “Not much,” he might ask, “Then why are we paying him?” So I hide in my fortress of solitude on the 3rd floor; the department head is on the 7th and no one knows the other is here.

Somewhere Beyond the Barricade

12 Jan

Another lifetime ago, I was asked to review a book, and I promised I would get to it… right after the book on my Kindle. Well, three months later I did and… is it bad? Is it good? The answer was unsatisfying.

The name of the book is Alejandro’s Lie by Bob Van Laerhoven. Now once I got past my knee-jerk resentment of the Dutch, I barreled into the text. Start with the good stuff: the book is incredibly well-written. The characters are detailed and multi-faceted. The setting is… interesting. But every time I read a chapter, I had a hard time starting the next.

Someone once said that being an author is like being a substitute teacher; you have the readers a reason to pay attention. So here are some of the things that threw me off while reading:

1. If it’s Chile, just call it Chile.

Alejandro’s Lie is set in Chile during the end of the General Pinochet dictatorship. Except it’s not Pinochet, it’s Pelaron. It’s not set in Santiago, it’s Valtiago. It’s not Chile, it’s Terreno. At first I thought, “okay, I can accept that it’s a made up South American country.” But it’s not, it’s in the Andes. Everything about this screams “CHILE!” and it’s not subtle about it. You mention America, Belgium, Cuba… why not Chile?

I only have a tertiary knowledge of Chile and its history (mostly from Death and the Maiden), but come on! Why not completely make up a whole country like Parador, where you can invent everything you want how you want it without offending anybody… but he doesn’t. Why just write about Chile and then file the serial numbers off?!

2. Your protagonist should actually do something.

The eponymous Alejandro, after ten years being tortured in retail hell Chilean Terranan prison for being the lead guitarist of a protest band, finally gets out and has nothing. He runs into a protest that goes violent and saves a rich woman from getting arrested. Okay, good start.

Then Alejandro is whiny for the next hundred pages. He has to be coaxed into everything by Beatriz (the love interest), including sex, to get back down with the cause. Everything that moves the plot is done by either Beatriz or Rene (the Belgian priest). What the hell is Alejandro’s lie? That he’s not really down with the cause? Yeah, we get it.

3. Everybody Hurts

One of my favorite radio hosts talks about he loves War and Peace, so I tried reading it again. I got to Page 250 and stopped reading because I just couldn’t care about any of the characters. They were aristocrats trapped in a cage of their own making. Interestingly enough, he also talked about how he hates Dune, which told me that his tastes and mine and completely different (I’ve read Dune six times–love it).

Alejandro is miserable about being tortured. Fine. Beatriz is miserable because of the oppressive father and oppressive ex-husband in her life. Okay. Rene is miserable because he feels like his life’s work is meaningless and he should have just banged his brother’s girlfriend and been married in Belgium. None of the characters actually want to do anything apart from a vague idea to free Terrano from Pelaron, but they certainly aren’t on fire about it. They’re too far up their own ass to actually fight.

Sure, this is more realistic, but it’s depressing as hell.

So… can I recommend this book? It is good, but it’s not for me. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction for just this reason. I want a story, not detailed character studies, and their interactions. That doesn’t interest me; but if you like War and Peace (or Russian literature in general), go for it. But I got about 2/3rds through the book in three months and it was torture getting that far.

Maybe I’m not the best audience to review your book. *shrug*

We Are The Vandals

5 Apr

Where is the borderline between profound and pedantic? The answer: your mileage may vary. Some books hit you at the right time and change your life. A piece of music might bring one person to tears and leave another person dry. If you have to explain the joke, is it funny?

I keep thinking back to Type O Negative–I loved that band, bought most of their albums, and they had a very tongue-in-cheek approach to their heavy metal/goth music they produced. Anyway, on their third album cover (yes, kids, bands used to put out physical albums!), they wrote, “Functionless Art Is Simply Tolerated Vandalism. . .We Are The Vandals.” When someone asked the guitarist (Kenny Hickey) about that, he said,  “That’s the truth, that wasn’t a joke. Our art is completely functionless. There is no use for it except for listening pleasure or killing time. The rest of the album is a joke!”

A lot of literature is like that. I know the Tanakh (Old Testament) pretty well; I’ve read the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and I’ve picked at a variety of religious texts. If you’re a believer, the lessons are profound. If you’re not… it’s hard to find meaning. Take the Bhavagad-Gita; the seminal work for everyday Hindus, which teaches the lesson of the Gods to men. There’s a lot more holy books in that religion, but that’s the one that gets studied. My grade school knowledge is limited, so all I know is when Robert Oppenheimer quoted it when he saw the atomic bomb test, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one… I have become death, destroyer of worlds.”

Wow. That’s pretty cool… but it’s out of context. It’s not what the god meant–in context, he was telling Arjuna, “You’re here to fight. It’s your dharma. You’ve become death at this moment, so do it.” Let’s take a random verse from the same text:

O son of Kuntī, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.

Bhavagad-Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 14

If you can get past the rather stilted translation, you might get out of it, “Don’t get too upset if you’re not happy–it comes and goes–don’t let it get in the way.” Which is an important lesson to learn and pretty valuable. But you might get lost in the verbiage, and since I’m not a Hindu, I don’t find it terribly profound.

One of the books that literally changed my life was After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield. He’s an American Buddhist teacher who interviewed fellow clerics from different faiths to ask the question, “What does a spiritual person do when they get burned out?” There are moments in one’s life where you feel close to the infinite–what I call a “spiritual high.” The problem with any high is that you crash from it. So what do you do when you beat yourself up because you don’t feel enlightened when your delicates have to go through the dryer?

This book hit me at a time when I was spiritually burned out–where I fell far short of the Glory of God. This made me realize that I wasn’t alone and I could proceed on in my spiritual journey. For other people, who weren’t in that situation, they might think, “Oh, that’s nice,” and move on to the next book. For me, that was gospel; for others, good advice.

Timing is everything. Maybe you’ll find a moment of perfect clarity in one of my books. Or if $1.99 is too much to pay for revelation, you might find it in one of my free stories. Or maybe you’ll just enjoy them as good stories, either way, let me know in the comments below! Or any other thought about profound literature… I won’t judge. 🙂

You Were Doing So Well!

22 Mar

Publishers and directors all want the “sure thing,” which is fair, because that’s what their customers want, too. Formulas work, and to go off formula, you have to train the audience to expect where you want to go. So when the creator goes off script, the audience gets mad.

For example, let’s take the book I just finished, Takedown by Brad Thor. It’s a “thriller,” not a technothriller, because that would require more “tech.” This is hunting terrorists, which…. hey, is not necessarily my thing, but I’ve liked them in the past. I happened by the Little Free Library near my home and found this, so I thought I would give it a shot.

It starts off well, capturing the bad guy, who becomes the McGuffin of the whole story. In other words, he’s the objective of the whole plot and does nothing to further it himself. I know this because he has the blandest name in the world: Muhammed bin Muhammed. Now we can’t just have him be the bad guy, he has to have a kink that makes him a really bad guy, but since we just met him, it’s hard to bring him in. They bring in a… what I can only call a “consultant villain,” who is actually really cool, sympathetic, and highly capable. Unfortunately, he’s a minor character.

Now this being the fifth in the series, and I’ve ever only read this one, our hero is a complete unknown to me. However, he’s introduced pretty well. The author introduces a lot of characters, but unlike other stories, I don’t feel overwhelmed by them. It becomes obvious that a) here are the characters that matter and b) here are the characters that don’t, but I’ll remind you of them when appropriate. So the flow works great.

When the BOOM happens (because this is a book about terrorism), it’s pretty good and the plot is great. In fact, the actual plan is pretty cool–even cooler because no one–not even the terrorists–know what the actual plan is. However, the point is to chase the McGuffin, and our hero has to stop them. That’s pretty cool.

There is a needless chest beating subplot where the civil liberties loving DHS secretary just can’t understand why everyone else in the administration just wants to use “extraordinary rendition.” Which leads to a “how dare you question the military” speech. Now I’m a Navy brat. I love folks who serve in the military. But when you’ve been around enough veterans, you know they’re the first to tell you, “look, the military screws a lot of people over.” Just because someone serves does not make them a saint. So there’s a “screw the hippies” storyline, which is rather ridiculous, considering you need both the “kill the bastards” and the “save the whales” crowd to make society work.

However, the unforgiveable part is after the climax, when the hero has saved the world, got the girl, and everything is resolving as it should, the author ruins it in the last paragraph. Literally–the last paragraph. “Ha, ha, Horvath! You have met your match!” What. The. Hell?! I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you’re going to screw over the hero, you start it at the beginning of the next book, not at the very end. At least make it an epilogue or last chapter, not just a… “oh, I forgot!”

This is why Bond fans hate On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The film is actually really good! But because it ends on such a downer, fans rejected it. (Plus, it was the first film without Sean Connery.)

So a book that was a good 4 out of 5, drops an entire star just because the author wanted to set up the next book… at the last minute. What a waste! I now have no interest in reading anything this author writes. Have you run into this before? Let me know in the comments below!

And when you’re done writing that, why not check out some of my books! Or if that’s too pricey for your blood, download some of my stories for free!

Technically Brilliant, Still #@%$*!

19 Mar

What is the point of creating a wonderful, detailed world if you can’t write a story in it? What’s even worse? Writing a story that bores your readers.

I’ve talked about the difference between storytellers and stylists before, but since I started a book recently, it’s been back on my mind. After stopping by a Little Free Library, the book that I found is Brightness Cove by David Brin. I’m sure part of my discontent is that this the beginning of a second trilogy in this universe, so I have no history with this series. So I’m coming into this book blind.

Right from the beginning, the world building was exquisite. Six different races living in harmony, a whole religion based on hiding from the rest of the universe. Brin writes well-developed characters that inhabit three (or four) different storylines, telling the whole planet’s story as it is revealed. It’s a brilliant creation!

But I’m halfway through the book and… I couldn’t give a damn. Part of the brilliance of the world building is its downfall. Six races are about three too many to keep track of in my head. Oh, and throw in alien animals with strange terms, and I have to think, “Is that the cat thing? Or is that a cow? Which is it?” When I start getting confused, I just tell myself to ignore it–after all, it’s not crucial to the plot. However, I was finding myself ignoring more and more of the detail that the book was becoming incomprehensible.

This book includes a map, which is good because it’s one of my pet peeves, but if you don’t mention where any of this action is happening until page 80, it’s useless to me. Which gets to the three (or four) different storylines–technically there’s four, but the fourth so rarely comes into play that I’m surprised when it shows up! It follows the three adult children of this papermaker we meet at the beginning, which helps, but then there’s this group of tentacle alien kids who are obsessed with English lit who are built an undersea ship so they could fulfill their dreams of being Jules Verne. (It actually makes sense in the story.) Oh, and there’s this other alien that’s supposed a leader, but only appears to let the reader know that “here’s what’s happening at the higher level.” Of course, I didn’t know it was an alien–or what type of alien–because the author didn’t bother explaining that race until page 150.

I think any one of these stories would be worthwhile to follow on its own. I like the young woman taking care of the wounded man who came from the stars. I like the scout who finds a girl who came from beyond their hiding spots. I could do without the monk or the alien kids, but maybe if I had time to concentrate on all the characters there, I might care more. There is just TOO MUCH going on here for me to care enough to keep reading the story.

This is the problem between stylists and storytellers. The stylist wants to write a story that will allow him to play with themes and sentence structure and different characters that will show the ennui of existence. Or whatever. The storyteller just wants to tell a good story. It might play with the same things, but that’s not her intent. She just uses those tools in service to the story; not the other way around. This is the reason Samuel Clemens wrote at the beginning of his novel:

NOTICE

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

He got tired of literary critics telling him about the themes and what he meant when he was writing Tom Sawyer. He was telling them–I didn’t think any of that! Just enjoy the story!

So I’m not sure I’ll finish this book. It’s great, brilliantly written, but not gripping–I barely care what happens to any of these characters. Have you run into this problem? Authors who care so much about using conceptual tricks to make art that he forgets to write a good story? Let me know in the comments below!

As you might have guessed, I fall under the storyteller category. It’s not great art, but try picking up one of my novels and let me know what you think! If the $1.99 threshold is too high for you, download some of my stories for free!

Sympathetic Villains

15 Mar

It happens so rarely that you have to sit up and take notice. In my opinion, the best fiction has an antagonist that you can actually sympathize with. When you know why they’re doing their scheme, it makes the story really come alive.

So I finally decided to watch Jack Ryan Season 1 on Amazon Prime. I like the Tom Clancy books, I like his universe, and I’ve even read the books (literally) ghostwritten for him since his death. Then I watch the show and… yep, you’ve got all the old characters reimagined for the modern day and I’m loving it. Then they introduce Mousa bin Suleiman… holy crap!

Here you’ve got the perfect villain; it doesn’t start that way, though. He’s just a dad with four kids, struggling with his new job, and his wife doesn’t like the guys he’s bringing over to the house. He just happens to be the leader of a breakaway Muslim extremist cell. He’s intelligent, speaks multiple languages, charismatic… heck, he even beats the crap out of ISIS leaders who are perverting the cause. You’re rooting for him as much as you’re rooting against him. Plus the actor does an amazing job of showing the man who has so much need for revenge, at the same time, worried about what his actions are doing to his family. Frickin’ brilliant!

Mind you, that’s the Clancyverse–from the beginning in Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy always made sure you knew what the villains were doing and why. They were not just paper targets for the heroes… they had a solid reason why they were doing bad things. In some ways, I always thought Clancy gave terrorists far too much credit. When he wrote clever scenarios for attacks, Tom thought like… well, an American. Al Qaeda knew what targets get the most attention. Bin Laden attacked the biggest building in New York (twice!), Clancy blew up a church in Texas (well, on paper, anyway). Personally, I think the church in Texas would be more effective, but I’m getting way off point.

Sympathetic villains are hard to come by, probably because it takes time to develop them. Take Hans Gruber from Die Hard; you follow him and his whole crew from the beginning of the film. He’s smart, effective, charismatic and he’s there to rob the place. You don’t know that at the beginning of the film, of course, but he’s systematic and clever and suave. Of course, when you’re trying to rob a major international corporation, you kinda have to be. I guess that’s why I also like Heat. De Niro is great as the leader of this heist, but they hire one doofus who likes to fire off his gun and suddenly everything unravels. (That movie was actually based on true events.)

It’s so much easier to create black and white villains, or robots wrestling, or faceless aliens coming to kill us all. But when you have to know why they’re coming to kill you… oooh, much scarier. What do you think makes a good sympathetic villain? What’s some better examples? Let me know in the comments below!

While you’re at it, you can check out some good villains in my books! 🙂 Or if the $1.99 threshold is too high for you, download some of my free stories. Mind you, I don’t have as much time to develop the enemies in those, but you can get the flavor for my writing. Enjoy.

Whatever you’re doing, it’s not enough.

26 Feb

Every so often, my wife makes me read non-fiction books. If she’s read them as well, then they’re pretty good. Then there are the books she suggests “you should really educate yourself.” So reading a book about raising daughters turned out to be an exercise in futility.

Naturally, I want to be a good father to my daughter. She’ll be hitting puberty any day now and it’s important to be prepared for lots of things. So I ended up reading Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters by Meg Meeker, MD. I mean, after all, she has an MD after her name, she must know something, right? And she does cover a lot of different topics. Things to do, things not to do. How to be supportive, but allow her to independent. Girls are different than boys (I know, radical statement), so naturally how they approach different milestones is different than how I would approach it with my son. Plus, since he’s my clone, I can understand him a whole lot better, because I’ve been through most of the same situations.

But with girls, I don’t have the same experiences, so I read this in order to be ready. After a few chapters, I noticed a pattern. The chapter would start off with 1) Here’s what you do, 2) here’s what you don’t do, but as they get older, 3) something outside your control might screw up all your hard work. For example, a father “is the first man a daughter falls in love with.” Model healthy relationships, treat her with respect and love, show her how she should be treated with friends and family. However, they might fall for a guy who treats them like crap, and this causes emotional scarring that will undo a lot of the work you did before.

Thanks, Meg.

So what you’re saying is “the only thing you can really control is how your daughter perceives you.” Life has a way of taking you places you weren’t expecting to go. (That really should be one of my maxims.) Fair enough. Often when I don’t feel like playing with my kids, when they prompt me, I do it anyway. Because I think of it as an investment in the future. “Remember that guy who took care of you and played with you the first 20 years of your life? You don’t want to throw that old guy out on the streets, right?” 🙂

So putting Meg’s advice aside, perhaps the best advice was one that I read was a post that said, “I want you to have bad sex.” (I wish I could find it.) It was beautifully written, but it was a father writing to his daughter saying, “I want you have all these experiences. Some of them will be bad, some will be good, but I want you to have them all.” So if all I can control is my own actions, then I’m going to do the best with my daughter… but accept I can’t control what happens when she goes out the door.

I don’t wrap her in bubble wrap, but comfort her when things go wrong. I have to accept things will go wrong. That’s the true strength of being a father–seeing your kids go on without you. And the easier you make that at the beginning, the easier it will be when they finally leave.

But I could be talking out of my behind–what do you think? Is there a better book that gives advice to fathers? Is there advice you wish your dad told you? Let me know in the comments below!

Stranger in a Strange Book

24 Feb

Who is John Smith? The protagonist in most books has a simple name, understandable motivations… in other words, forgettable. They are taking the place of you while you walk through the universe. Because there’s a price to be paid if your protagonist is too exotic.

After reading The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, I realized that he rotates between three or four main characters, of which one is American, two are Thai, and one is Chinese. It’s set in Bangkok, so that makes perfect sense, and you’d think that a guy with a complicated Portuguese name is going to be comfortable with characters with strange names to American ears. But Paolo struggles with this same problem. When you have to crank out a last name like Chulalongkorn (actually the name of King Rama V), you start using nicknames or first names fast. When I lived in Thailand, it seems Thais understand that, and are comfortable being referred to by their nickname because their real name is so long.

However, it doesn’t have to be just names. For example, when I sat down to write Drag’n Drop, I thought I would make my main character the dragon, because… that sounded really cool. However, it quickly became clear to me that if I wanted a two-ton flying machine running around an alternate New York, and not have him be a shape changer… he wasn’t going to be in all the scenes. So I invented a guy and a girl to hang out with him to go to all the places where a big green dragon just wouldn’t fit in.

The more I thought about it, though, my main characters were generally white guys, but do NOT have easy names, because… well I’m a white guy with a slightly uncommon name. You would surprised how often Marcus Johnston becomes Mark, Marc, or Markus Johnson. I generally refer to my characters by nicknames. In Defending Our Sacred Honor, I thought it would be fun to call my main character Javier Jackson, but he became Jax instantly. Fatebane is the name of the main character, but it’s not the name he was born with, for reasons that are clear in the book.

Predatory Practices is the only book I was involved with that where there was a non-human main character. However, his name was Heth… because the complicated three name alien nomenclature wasn’t practical most of the time. Mind you, I wasn’t the main writer on that, but I thought Ed did a great job creating a believable alien culture that was still relatable to the reader.

In the end, though, I am an American, and although I reach out to readers all through the world, I’m sure when I slip, my references are uniquely American. Since I prefer to write sci-fi, I hope it’s more universal. However, I’ve read books that use references that are distinctly English or Irish or Japanese and my mind hits a speed bump when I read them. I remember reading an article by a Czech, and since I was working through Google translate, I didn’t catch an idiom when I was writing it down. It was only talking with my Czech friends that they explained the reference.

What do you think? Have you been taken out of a book by all the strange names? Or do you not mind a main character named Massaponax? Maybe it’s better if he goes by Mass. Let me know in the comments below!

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