Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hero Games Contest Results

Over the course of the last month, I've been running a contest on the blog for my current Work-In-Progress, Hero Games. The idea behind the contest was to use the wonderful tool Hero Machine to create a hero much like the ones for my main characters that I would then cameo in the story.

It turned out that making the hero, capturing them, and sending them to me was more work than I had realized when I set it up. (I'd have known that if I had taken the time to ask any supervillain about capturing a superhero alive.) So, despite some fantastic promotion from other bloggers (Thank you, Donna) and positive feedback from interested readers, I actually received very few submissions. Even with so few entries, it was difficult to choose from among them.
One entrant even created a nude superhero! Well, almost nude; she was wearing a very nice leather jacket. Perhaps I'll save her for a different genre all together!

I have decided, however, to write a scene for each of the heroes I received and put one or two in the novel, posting the remainder as bonus material. Posted here in this blog entry are the top finalists for the Hero Games Contest. Thank you, one and all, for your willingness to have some fun!
Obviously, the heroes' promotional photos aren't the only thing you need to know to like the hero, but feel free to offer your opinion of the heroes here in the comments, or even to suggest character ideas to include in the scenes! You can click on the images for larger versions

Monday, July 25, 2011

Gods of Justice Review: The Daughter of Nyx

I won Gods of Justice from Lisa Gail Green. It's an anthology of superhero short stories. Lisa asked if I would write a review of the anthology, but since I like to give more than asked, I decided to do a review of each story, one at a time. In case you didn't know, I really like superheroes, so this was a great prize for me. I'll be reviewing them one story at a time in this "Gods of Justice Review series."

The next story in the anthology is The Daughter of Nyx by Kelly Wisdom. First, let me say what a wonderful world Kelly Wisdom has created here. Packed full of conflict and angst, with a 1984 dystopian feel to it. We follow the main character, "Vee" (short for Veronica which you don't find out until late in the story) as she deals with a combination of relationship issues and governmental oppression issues, which resonate closely with some self-worth questions. The story builds to a wonderful series of events of self-discovery, along with a not-so-gentle tug on your heart strings.

I have little to say about the plot this time, mostly because it is quite well done and I don't want to ruin it. Suffice to say that Vee is hiding a secret that the government would kill her over, and this keeps her from getting close to anyone. (Does it have your attention yet? I thought so.)

Let's look at this world, which Wisdom reveals slowly, mysteriously. We begin in what feels like a church, during a sermon, but something feels slightly wrong. Soon we realize that it is a church of the government, the Bureau, which advocates following the very strict laws of this society (curfews, missing the Bureau's services, sedition, etc) and pay the "atonement" of any minor infractions. The oppression and control do not stop at the walls of the chapel. THe lower class, which appears to be most of society, are kept poor, and under control, scrapping not only for food, but even for chunks of coal for heat. Much of this world and society is not blatantly painted, but hinted at, as shadows of a story seen through the eyes of our POV characters. This is how a master painter creates a landscape: one horizon at a time, and letting your mind fill in the brushstrokes that aren't really there.

Characterization is actually the one stumbling block that got me as I read this story. It wasn't until page 13 (out of 21) that I finally was certain of the gender of the protagonist. Identified as Vee until then, I had the suspicion of femininity, but not the confirmation. The first person narration, coupled With the roughness of the society, Vee's job as a 'lowly dishwasher,' and the romantic interest between her and Mia, kept me from being certain of her gender. Does it matter? Not too much, the characterization was strong regardless, and Vee's conflicts, both interior and exterior, were well established. However, that question nagged me for those first 13 pages, preventing me from being able to completely immerse myself in the story. It's tough to focus on what is happening when you don't know who you are.

All together, this was a wonderful story that I thoroughly enjoyed. I suspected the plot almost from the beginning, but certain twists caught me by complete surprise. Well done, Kelly Wisdom. Thank you for the pleasure of sharing your world. Read more about and from Kelly Wisdom at

The Rest of the Series:
The Mass Grave of John Johnsons by Micah Urban

Monday, July 18, 2011

Writer's Toolbox: Novel Stats, Part 1

Every writer needs tools to get the job done. (Yes, pen and paper or laptop, I heard you. Please sit back down, peanut gallery.) I'm not talking about a word processor, or even a thesaurus. Plotting, organizing, scheduling, pacing... our tasks are many and guidelines few. My wife and I have developed and discovered some tools that I use, and I thought I would share what I am using and how I use it. To that end, this is the Writer's Toolbox series.

This post, I'd like to share the first tab of what we call the Novel Stats sheet. This is a dynamic spreadsheet that my wife and I worked up to help me with scheduling my writing time and tracking my progress. If you would like your own copy of this document to play with as you read this post, it is available here. Check my first post in this series, on Google Docs, for information about how to Save a Copy.

The embedded document above is the template. All the numbers are blank. The images I'm going to show you come from a sample document that I made up, using the same Template shown here. This document is great for keeping me on track with my writing. It lets me know when I am behind schedule and how far I have to go to get on schedule. It's also packed with neat little facts that help me figure out other things, like how long my chapters are, and what kind of deadline I can afford to set for myself. It also has some minimal plotting features worked into it, though I'll show you some more involved and complicated methods later.

I start by hiding that big, yellow banner with the page instructions.
Who needs instructions, right? I do, but I also don't want them in the way when I am trying to work. You hide a row by right clicking the row and choosing Hide row. I just don't want to confuse you when you get the yellow bar on the Template, and it isn't in my Samples.

To begin with, the Novel Stats page is pretty blank. It needs information from you. The only typing you do on this tab is in the green section. (Remember those big, yellow instructions at the top? You didn't read them, did you? This is what they were talking about. Shame, shame.)

We'll talk about the neat gadget on the side in a minute. Focus on the numbers in green, please. The three items in green are "Target Words in Novel," "Target Weeks to Completion," and "Start Date." Under Column B of Target Words is where you put your word count goal. NaNoWriMo's is 50k, so I filled that in for my Sample Novel sheet. It's summer, so I decided to claim 3 months (12 weeks) to write my novel. Then I put in a start date of June 15th.

Once I've filled in those numbers, notice that some of the other areas on the page have magically generated some values. Down at the bottom, the first red arrow I've drawn in the picture, you see that the sheet now knows what week it is. It has calculated based on the deadlines I gave it, what week of writing I should be on and what percentage of the novel I should have written at this point. As you can see by the rest of the document, I haven't written anything in this novel yet, so I'm horribly behind schedule. So far in fact, that it can't yet tell me how far behind I am! The next arrow points out a piece of information for me to use in my time management: I should be averaging 4,167 words/week to hit my goal.

However, with more information, the sheet becomes even more useful! I'll just take a break and go write a little. It said I needed 4k words, right?
OK, *phew!* that was some fast writing. I've plugged my updated word counts into the 'Chapters' tab of the spreadsheet (more on that in the next post). I got 4,062 written; let's see how that compares. You can now see that I finished the first chapter at 3,500 words, and wrote another 562 in the second chapter. The average words per chapter, obviously, is 3,500 because I've only done one chapter. However, using that average, it now tells me how many chapters it expects me to have in the novel. Also, I now know what my percentage complete is, not only for the novel, but also how deep I am in Chapter 2, using the numbers I've given it! These are the numbers reflected in those nifty gadgets on the right hand side of the page. The top one is Novel Completion, which shows how close you are to your total goal, and the lower one is chapter completion, based on your words per chapter average, how close you are to finishing the current chapter. Also, at the bottom of the sheet, you can now see how many chapters (Average word count) you need to write to stay on schedule.

Let's get one more week's worth of writing in before leaving this tab. Let's see, how many times do I turn this stupid time necklace again? ...
... Whoa, sorry I took so long, had a little writer's block. OK, so now I've got over 8,000 words logged into the Novel Stats (again, that's done over on the 'Chapters' tab.) The biggest difference at this point is that I have passed one week's worth of writing being tracked. Thus, it can now tell me how far ahead or behind I am! According to line 24, I am perfectly On Schedule, which shows up in blue.
If you work really hard, you can get Ahead, which reads in green, because you are GO-ing somewhere. (OK, bad pun.)
However, if you don't work hard, and goof off instead, you can get Behind, which glares at you in an angry, neglected, red letters. You shouldn't neglect your word count. You wouldn't like your word count when it gets angry. (No, wait, he turned green when angry. Ok, scratch that whole reference.) Anyways, when I am actively working on a project, this is how I keep myself on schedule. Stay tuned for more from the Writer's Toolbox!

Contest Deadline this week!

I'll have my regularly schedule post in the Writer's Toolbox Series up later today, but first I wanted to remind all of you that the deadline for the Hero Games contest is THIS FRIDAY!

If you are having trouble with it, I posted a "how to" on my blog, also. Go on over and give it a whirl! Everyone who has gone over has reported having fun, so what do you have to lose? Plus, you have something to win!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Gods of Justice Review: The Mass Grave of John Johnsons

I won Gods of Justice from Lisa Gail Green. It's an anthology of superhero short stories. Lisa asked if I would write a review of the anthology, but since I like to give more than asked, I decided to do a review of each story, one at a time. In case you didn't know, I really like superheroes, so this was a great prize for me. I'll be reviewing them one story at a time in this "Gods of Justice Review series."

The first story in the collection is The Mass Grave of John Johnsons by Micah Urban. Urban's true strength in this story is the extremely creative (though macabre) ideas he works into the characters, world, and plots.

Most of the setting is presumed to be "Earth normal" and "modern times." A mortician is given the mystery of a mass grave of 44 bodies, and calls upon the county, the state, and even the federal level for assistance. Our first clue that something in this world might be different is the Federal Office of Super Heroes that finally answers his call. Superpowered individuals being licensed and employed by the government isn't part of our status quo. I don't think. Let me check with my CIA contacts on that; I'll get back to you. This is an interesting idea that isn't present even in most of the current superhero dogma. Makes sense, though, and certainly smacks of the way Government works. If it has something to do with power or control, they're going to want to be in charge of it.

The heroes from the FOSH organization have very specific and limited abilities. A team of three arrives to assist the good doctor with his problem. The first of the trio goes by the name WhoDied and has the ability to tell who a body belonged to no matter the state, or how much matter is left. His companions, a girl named Locality and a quiet youth called 4D, can tell where and when a body died, respectively. Without a doubt, these are some unique abilities that have rather specific applications. Coming up with unique super powers, while creative, isn't all a character needs. A character, particularly ones so unusual as these, need their own voices. WhoDied succeeds in this, creating a macabre vision of bland detestation. The simple, matter-of-fact way that he goes about his wretched business makes one's flesh tremble. Locality, on the other hand, mostly serves as narrator to explain subtle points of WhoDied's work and the situation at hand as it unravels to be more mysterious, and devious, than it at first seemed. 4D has almost no character at all, serving primarily as a vehicle to put the feather in the cap of the introductory (primary?) plot.

These characters are weaved in to this setting through the use of three plot lines: the mystery of the 44 dead bodies, the mostly interior-conflict subplot of the main POV character's paternity, and the prevention of the 45th murder. The mystery is handily solved, but the initial action of the story, in fact most of the story, centers on it. The solution of that mystery yields a new plot to follow. These two plots are uniquely twisted, which is wonderful, and their pacing is well done. However, they are each rather simply solved. There feels to be no real challenge to them.

The third plot centers around an internal conflict as to whom the narrator's real father may be. While this plot is worked heavily into the story from the very beginning, and continues until the very end, it feels weak. As I read the story, I was interested in the mass grave, and I cared about preventing the next murder, but the daddy-dilemma didn't matter to me at all. It was an afterthought, a minor character trait. Finally, though we got the answer, it felt obvious and unfulfilling in the end.

I came away feeling as though this story was a bonus, side story taken from a rich, wonderful, interesting world. I felt as though the characters were much deeper than shown here, and that the plots, at least the one about the dad, continued beyond where the story stopped. I hope to find that this story is, indeed, a small taste of a larger world. Meanwhile, it got my feet wet for the rest of Gods of Justice, and I look forward to Daughter of Nyx by Kelly Wisdom.

The Rest of the Series:
Daughter of Nyx by Kelly Wisdom

Monday, July 4, 2011

Writer's Toolbox: Google Docs

Every writer needs tools to get the job done. (Yes, pen and paper or laptop, I heard you. Please sit back down, peanut gallery.) I'm not talking about a word processor, or even a thesaurus. Plotting, organizing, scheduling, pacing... our tasks are many and guidelines few. My wife and I have developed and discovered some tools that I use, and I thought I would share what I am using and how I use it. To that end, this is the Writer's Toolbox series.

There are some great programs out there that I can't yet afford, Scrivener being one I've heard much about and am currently looking into. In the lack of luxury, necessity can breed creativity. (Not sure what that means, but it sounds pretty intelligent and philosophical, right?) Over the past few years, seeing my struggles with organization and planning, my wife has stepped in and helped me find ways to get organized. Utilizing the amazing (and collaborative) free features of Google Docs, we created tools to track and predict word counts for chapters, schedule word count goals based on a deadline, to chart and pace the plot of a novel in progress, and other things. Very little of this is ground-breaking stuff, but I've found it extremely helpful. Since it is free, it's very easy to share what we have made with you.

For this first post, let's talk a little about Google Docs. You'll need that basic understanding to follow many of the other tools in the series, and it's a wonderful resource on its own. I love Google Docs. If you haven't heard of them, they are basically a completely free, online version of Microsoft Office. Spreadsheets and documents and more, I do the vast majority of my work there. I have access to it from any internet connection; I can download it to hard drives, print to pdf, even view it on my iPod. They're great. So, let's look at Google Docs.

Start by going to Docs.Google.Com.
You can also get there by going to Google's homepage, and choosing Documents in the list at the top. If you have Gmail, or use any other Google application, you probably already have a Google account. If not, sign up for one now, it's totally free. Upon signing into Docs, you reach the home screen, which will have a list of all of your documents, and folders(Collections) on the left to help you organize them.

There's a button at the left, under the Google Docs logo, that says "Create new". To start your own work, use that button to Create a new document, spreadsheet, Collection, whatever you want to work in. Once you give it a title, they save automatically, so you don't have to worry much about losing what you've written.

Another great tool in Google Docs, conveniently placed under "Tools," oddly enough, is the Word Counter. So many free-standing word counters on the internet, and this one is built right in. Bonus, it tells you a lot more than just word count for the total piece AND a selection as well! Words, characters, paragraphs, even readability stats!

Now to teach you about copying someone else's work, which is not something I allow in my classroom, but am highly encouraging in this blog series.

In a Google Document, click on File at the top, and choose "Make a copy..." (I know that isn't very intuitive, but work with me here!)
A box will pop up asking you if you want to make a copy of the document and what you'd like to title your copy, and warning you about copying collaborators and such. (It may also pop up without asking you for a new title, in which case the title will default to "Copy of [whatever it was called]." You can do this on any open document (like the templates I'll be giving you) and thus have your own version to use. Isn't Google great? I didn't create Google, I'm just a user. Next post, we'll get to the stuff I not only used, but I also helped design!