Monday, August 29, 2011

Someone a Lot Smarter than Me (10)

"The editor likes the taste of the coffee better after he's pissed in it."
Jubal Harshaw a character in Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land"

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ol' Chumbucket's Book Club

On our Talk Like a Pirate Day Web site, I review books – but not just any books. "Ol' Chumbucket's Book Club" focuses on pirate books of course, and you'd be amazed how many there are. And more coming all the time. Right now I have six sitting on my desk to finish writing about, and the first two of those are below.

Pirate books run the gamut from history to swashbucklers to romance to picture books for the kiddies. I've read some great stuff. But I will not write a bad review. If I don't like a book, I keep my mouth shut. I know how hard the business of writing is, and I honor that even when I don't like the result. It's too easy to write a quick and dirty pan, and I won't lie to you and recommend some book I think is crap. So from me it's either laurels (translated into a scale of one to five tankards of ale) or the silence of the watery grave. I've given a couple of twos over the years, but never a one.

It struck me that, since this blog is about writing and pirates it might be a another good place to post those reviews. So, here's the first pair of Ol' Chumbucket's Book Club for this site. And you can read through the back history of pirate book reviews here.

"Pirate vs. Pirate" vs. "Pirates vs. Pirates"

Two books with practically the same title arrived on my island this summer. They're both fine tomes and they're both stories of competition between some of the best pirates on the planet.

"Blast me deadlights!" I cried. "How is a gentleman rover supposed to tell them apart?"

Well here it is in a coconut shell, mates. "Pirate vs. Pirate" is a fantastic picture book for readin' to the kiddies up to about first or second grade, I'd reckon, while "Pirates vs. Pirates" can entertain the crew in roughly the fifth grade range all the way up to adults.

"Pirate vs. Pirate" – by Mary Quattlebaum, with illustrations by Alexandra Boiger – tells the story of Bad Bart, the meanest, baddest pirate on this side of the Atlantic, and Mean Mo, the roughest, toughest pirate in the Pacific. They both want the world title, so Bart sails his ship and Mo steers hers towards each other. When they meet, it's a titanic competition for ultimate supremacy of the pirate world. But the two are so evenly matched there's only one way this battle royale can end.

There's a real sense of "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better," as man and woman pit their strength and wits and buccaneer bonafides. As contest after contest ends in a tie, their animosity turns into grudging respect, and then into something more. I don't want to give anything away, but as they say, it's a story of sharing and caring like no other. There might be an "Afterschool Special" in there somewhere.

I love the book, and yer nippers will get a big kick out of it whether they're boys or girls. But my favorite part is the illustrations. We have been told that Mary Quattlebaum and her husband are HUGE fans of Talk Like a Pirate Day and our source said "you and Slappy are 'as gods' to them." So maybe it's just a coincidence or maybe it was a subconscious thing – or maybe it was an out and out tribute – but Bad Bart looks EXACTLY like Cap'n Slappy. I mean a lot. Bart IS Slappy, if you ask me.

Anyway, "Pirate vs. Pirate" is a fine read for the wee ones, who'll enjoy the zany contest for piractical supremacy, and get a warm fuzzy all over as the rivalry becomes something else.

"Pirates vs. Pirates," on the other hand, is all about which age gave us the best pirate. Imagine a fight to the death between a Viking raider and a Barbary corsair, or a Buccaneer and an ancient Cilician. Who would win and why? And who would be crowned the ultimate one-on-one fighting pirate champion?

Award-winning author Richard Platt imagines bouts among 10 such rivals and then crowns a champion. There is no main text, it's all breakout boxes, illustrations, foldouts and factoids. It's quite a fancy package, reminiscent of the TV series "Deadliest Warrior."

Platt envisions 10 contenders from throughout the long history of piracy – four of whom would fall under the rubric of "classic pirates," a Caribbean privateer from 1580, a Buccaneer from 1610, a Roundsman (who cruised "on the round" between the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean) from 1700 and a Golden-Age Freebooter from 1720. He pits them in action in five fights (Viking fans won't be happy, their man falls to the Barbary Corsair surprisingly quickly.) Technology plays its role; the bronze sword and shield of a "Sea Person" from 1100 B.C.E. were no match for the pistol and steel blade of a privateer.

But the ultimate winner (no spoilers here!) owes as much to his tactical skills and experience as to his weapons, and those of us who say "Arrr!" on Talk Like a Pirate Day will be glad with the way this turns out. OK, so a little spoiler.

"Pirates vs. Pirates" is a good compendium of some of of the world's top seagoing raiders, with insight into their characters, weapons and history, although the author makes the point that this is about face-to-face solo fighting. The Chinese pirates' swarming fleet actions are not taken into account, or the privateers' tactics of cutting out a single galleon from the treasure fleet. This is man to man – even when they're women.

Together, "Pirate v. Pirate" and "Pirates vs. Pirates" covers the entire age spectrum.

"Pirate vs. Pirate" gets 5 full mugs o' grog, I liked it as much as I've liked almost any picture book I've seen in the last 30 years (and as the father of six, I've seen a LOT of picture books.) "Pirates vs. Pirates" gets 4 mugs. I enjoyed it, but I liked the whimsy of the other book just a bit more.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Heck of a Deal!

Tori came home from the thrift store this weekend with a prize for me.

No, not another coup like a few months ago when we found a signed, first-edition hardcover of Bruce Campbell's memoir, "If Chins Could Kill." (Still can't believe we got that for a quarter.) But this was pretty good all by itself.

A pristine, mass market paperback edition of Stephen King's "On Writing."

This book is one of my very favorite books about the craft – mostly because he treats it like a craft, not an art. I don't understand the word art, or the concept. It's a slippery devil. I'm not sure how useful a word can be if no one can agree on what it means. I'm also not big on the word talent, as far as it implies some gift that some people have and others don't and there's nothing you can do about it.

I like the idea of craft or skill. Those imply things you can learn, practice, improve. If you keep your humility and accept that you don’t know it all, don't have all the answers and don't have some secret, god-given gift that know one else does, then you can grow in your craft.

The first half of King's book is his memoir. He says right at the front he doesn't know how to make a writer, he just knows what made him a writer, and tells the story. The second half, or really about the final third, is very practical, down to earth advice about how to build your writer’s tool box, what to put in it, how to sharpen your skills. He has a lot of pithy advice on dialogue. It's a good read.

She also brought home a copy of Patrick O'Brian's "H.M.S. Surprise," the third n the Master and Commander series. When I first came across that series I devoured them, all 20 in less than 10 months. Outstanding historical/adventure series, and must reading for anyone who wants to write in the genre, just to see how it's done by a master. Since I got all 20 from the library, I don’t actually own them and haven't been able to reread them.

Well, know I own two. I got the first one, "Master and Commander," about a year ago, also at a thrift shop, and now a second. On top of the King, that was gravy.

And the amazing thing is, the thrift shop has stopped charging for books. They were charging a quarter a piece, but now apparently so many have been donated that they have to clear them out to start over. So every week or so we go down, fill up a shopping bag, buy a few shirts or coffee mugs and take the books for free.

There are worse deals on the island, let me tell you.

And an update – Wrote 1,200 + words yesterday on a project Tori and I are doing together. Won't have as much luck today because I've got a story for work in the afternoon and I'm editing tonight. But I'm going to try to get at least a few hundred in as soon as I finish this.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Paradigm Shift

Talking recently to an acquaintance who had just written an article. In the course of the conversation he said something along the lines of: "I always enjoy writing WHILE I'm writing, but later when I look at what I've done it looks stupid. I start second guessing myself hating what I've done, and that spoils everything for me."

Time for a paradigm shift, my friend!

Don't throw down your first draft and think, "Man, this really sucks. I should never write again." No! The aftermath, as you call it, isn't a time for self-loathing. It's a gift! It's a second chance!

The second draft is your opportunity to say, "OK, that's a start (good start, bad, indifferent, doesn't matter. It's a start.) Now what can I do to make this EVEN BETTER?"

It's an unbending, unavoidable fact of life. NOBODY'S first draft is good enough. Even if it's pretty good, it can be better, and that means it isn't good enough. My first draft isn't good enough. Yours isn't. Dave Barry's and Neil Gaiman's aren't. Not even Bill Shakespeare's first draft was good enough. And he didn't have the luxury of a word processor to fix his. It was back to the quill and inkpot for him.

That doesn't mean that no one should ever write. On the contrary, it means writing is one of the more forgiving of the creative arts.

When you cook, if you make a mistake there's no going back. You've blown it. You eat the burned meal or you get out a box of mac and cheese. When you're a sculptor and you slip, there ain't no gluing that chunk of marble back to where the horse's tail was supposed to be. It's gone, baby. Painters can slop more paint over their mistakes, but they can't make them go away in the way hitting the delete key can.

Actors, and singers and dancers can practice and practice and practice, but if they make a mistake in performance the audience sees it in all its gory glory.

But when you make a mistake writing, no problem. First of all, it's private. No one will ever see one word you've written unless you want them to. So that's a start. One of my all-time favorite phrases is "I'll fix that in the rewrite." Aaahhh! God, I LOVE that phrase.

After all, that's what rewrites are for. The chance to make it closer and closer to perfect. Shit, even God didn't get it all right the first time. He needed six days.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Man with a Terrible Mind

Chuck Wendig is not for everyone.

He's a writer, and his blog, "Terrible Minds," is like few others. Powerfully written. Teeming with excellent advice. He does this writer's blog thing very well. But he's not for everyone.

For instance, you might not like to be insulted, which Chuck hands it out lovingly and in large, hilarious doses. Or be constantly referre to as a penmonkey. You might not appreciate some of his pungent observation in "Why Your Self-Published Novel May Suck a Bag of Dicks," although if you're being objective, you have to at least consider his points.

You might not enjoy repeated use of the word "fuck."

I'm guessing here, because it's hard for me to imagine why a writer wouldn't enjoy his work.

He has a recent post titled "25 Ways to Fuck with Your Characters" that covers the same ground I did last week in "Better Living Through Friction." Needless to say he covers it more colorfully than I do, with some concrete exmples. Such as: "6 - Deny Success With Speedbumps, Roadblocks, Snarling Tigers. This one? So easy. Whenever your character reaches for That Thing He Wants (a girl, a cookie, world peace, a leprechaun’s little hat), slap his face. Throw a tiger in his path. Chop off his hand. Thwart his every grope for the brass ring. That said, don’t let your story become torture porn. A character needs smaller iterative successes to match the longer, larger failures. 'I didn’t get the leprechaun’s hat, but I got one of his little shoes. We can use it to track him.'"

He often does lists of 25. Another recent one, "25 Ways to Become a Better Writer," was a terrific post. Inspiring. In his usual twisted, almost sick style.

Anyway, that's all for now. Just wanted to direct your attntion to Chuck Wendig, a master penmonkey showing us all the way. And writing his name ith piss in the snow while he does so. Neat trick.

Like I said, he's not for everyone.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Someone a Lot Smarter than Me (8)

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.

Kurt Vonnegut