The Thirty Minute Blogger

Exploring Books and the Writer's Life, Faith and Works, Culture and Pop Culture, Space Science and Science Fiction, Technology and Nostalgia, Parenting and Childhood, Health: Physical and Emotional ... All Under the Iron Hands of the Clock and That 30 Minute Deadline

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sloggin' Thru Blogging: The Hot Air Dilemma

There is a certain depressing truth about blogging that no expert has taught me. I learned this one all by myself. A blog is like a hot air balloon. When heat is added, the balloon rises as we all know. When there is no heat, the balloon slowly, slowly sinks to the ground. A blog is just the same. When you put a great deal of material into it, that material acts as hot air and the blog rises and is noticed floating in the blogosphere. When you have to be away for a while, despite all the hot air you have pumped into it, the blog sinks back into obscurity. The descent is far faster than the rise.

This blog will descend for a while. I am away taking Introduction to New Testament Greek for my Masters of Divinity degree. This is a six week intensive course. As of this writing, I am two weeks in.

See you when I rise again after the summer semester ends.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Fascinated by UFOs? Check This Out

Back in the 1970s, when I was a teen, there was a UFO craze around 1977 (30 years after the purported Rosewell, NM event). Well, it's been 30+ years and people are again interested in UFOs, mixed with a heavy dose of conspiracy theory. Check out this site, which I was alerted to by Universe Today (a wonderful online rundown of space activity) and see what has been called U.S. Air Force Personal UFOs in action.

This strange flying vehicle is called the X-Jet. See it in action by going to: http://www.realufos.net/2009/07/x-jet-your-own-private-ufo-made-by-us.html Then ask yourself the following: Were these jet pods developed with technology taken from crashed UFOs? Or is this just another weird device, like the personal rocket pack, that is going nowhere fast ... outside of James Bond films? How would you like to fly your own personal little UFO?

Me, I think they look like the old Dick Tracy flying trashcans without the shower head nozzles around the base actually. Still, it would be fun to fly one!

The truth is out there ... sort of.

Friday, July 3, 2009

See Pixar's UP!

Gather up the kids, borrow a friend's kids, or boldly go to the theater without kids to see Pixar's newest offering, UP. This is a movie that will delight the kids and reward adults who took them ... or adults who came alone. There's plenty of adventure for the kids and amusing dogs who talk through technologically enhanced dog collars. The dogs say just about what you'd expect and are frequently distracted by squirrels. The new child actor who plays the young scout, Russell, determined to help out Ed Asner's character, Carl Fredrickson, an old balloon salesman living alone and lost in the past, and earn his last merit badge is wonderful and honest in his emotions.

For adults, however, the story of Ed Asner's character is wonderful. There is a ten minute or so wordless montage that takes you through the life of this man and his wife from childhood, through marriage, and her demise (I'm not giving away much there by the way) that is as moving as it gets. Be prepared to cry (or struggle hard not to guys) several times in this film. It's far more emotionally moving for adults that my wife or I expected.

Whether you see this film in 3-D or not hardly matters. The story is wonderful and the animation is beautiful. When Carl lifts his house off its foundation and sends it flying south toward Paradise Falls in South American chasing after the adventure he and his wife long sought, the effects are powerful indeed. There are times where, if you have a fear of heights, you will have that fear activated for sure.

I'm keeping this short so as not to give away anything. Go see for yourself! Take your family and go.

If you need to see more before you're convinced, go to http://www.pixar.com/featurefilms/up/characters.html and see some of the images and renderings I couldn't legally use here. If you love animation, you'll soon be convinced!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Writing a Children's Book, Part 2: The Plot


No single article can give you all you need to construct a tight and engaging plot. I recommend a book series by Writer's Digest Books called The Elements of Fiction Writing for would-be first time novelists, short story writers, or children's writers. For this topic, you want the book simply titled Plot. That said, here are a few elements you'll need to consider to drive your children's story and keep it an engaging tale kids want to read.


Your story has to go somewhere and do something. You can't have some fluffy animal friend hopping randomly around a field today and expect that to sell your story. On the most basic level, your plot needs a beginning, middle, and end. It also needs a stage to take place on.


Let's look at the stage. This may seem fuzzy and nebulous and you might want to blow it off to plunge ahead with your story. Don't. You need to create a world for your characters to inhabit and for the plot to unfold in. It needs to be a place with rules that can't be broken so the reader can trust your story ... but they can be some pretty imaginative rules and leave lots of room for magical moments and strange twists. Remember Bartholomew Cubbins and the Oobleck? Old King Derwin of Did gets his mystic men to create a whole new weather for him. In Michael and the New Baby, my main character's nemeses abscond with him to Stinky Roo Island which is located a left turn from everywhere and the island is really a world all its own with rules set in stone by the perpetually obstinant inhabitants, the Stinky Roos (a name intended to amuse a 6 year old boy).


Now, with your world in place, you need a problem for your main character or characters to solve. This is where generating your original story idea is vital. Remember you need an engaging topic you are interested in and you know to be a pressing concern for children. In Michael and the New Baby it was the issue of becoming the older sibling when a new baby arrives and the constellation of worries that goes along with it. These worries were personified by the world I created and the characters in it and they were confronted and overcome by the main character one after another in a rising series of crises.


That's next. Once you have your world and your problem to address, you're going to need an interesting opening that moves the story along. The opening has several jobs to do. The opening must introduce the characters of the story, tell the reader quickly about their personalities, and make the main character likable enough the reader is going to be concerned for that character's well being. The opening sets up the problem to be faced throughout the book by plopping readers right down in the middle of it. In Michael and the New Baby, Michael is rudely awakened in the early morning by his new and crying little sister. Up on the wrong side of the bed, this sets Michael up with a bad mood and a cascade of events that lead to his arrival on the island and pressing need to escape the clutches of the Stinky Roos who are determined to make him one of their own as his ill temper matches or surpasses their own and they admire that. Have a care here that the opening isn't too exciting and wild. After all, you do need a climax and it does need to be more engaging than the opening. Make that opening too exciting and extravagant and you might never top it and leave the readers disappointed.


You need a point of view through which the story is told. In children's fiction, it should be the child who is the main character (child human, child dog, child bunny, child Creature from the Black Lagoon, it doesn't matter). The main character also needs to be the person who feels the situation most pressingly and painfully and has the strongest desire to resolve the problem, whatever it may be. Here's a common problem with new children's writers. You're adults and your writing for children. Your basic instrinct is to have some adult come in and help your main character solve the problem or have that adult solve the problem in some sage and all knowing way for the child. TRASH that idea right now, quash that instinct violently if need be. This is a book for kids and the kid who is the main character needs to solve the problem. No kid wants to read a story with an incoming adult with all the answers. A kid wants to see a kid win and overcome. That's such a novel change from most of daily life for a child that it is immediately engaging. Michael has to find his own way to defeat the Stinky Roos and return home with a new perspective. An ancient Roo does give him a clue, but the solution is up to the child.


The rest is mechanics and is best covered in the recommended book. Briefly, you need rising action that leads to the main crisis near the end of the book. Each crisis that leads there needs to be a bit more serious than the last. The main crisis needs to be the big one and it needs to be engaging. While in full blown novels you have misdirection, new directions, sub-plots, and twists and turns galore, the children's book has to be more streamlined in its approach, especially if it is a short picture book like mine. Longer novels for older children can be more complex, think Harry Potter here.


Also remember that the character needs to drive the story forward, and dialogue is often the vehicle to get you there. Make sure the conversations are interesting and actually drive the plot forward. Ignore the temptation to include little complexities you developed during world building just because you like them. If they don't move the plot, shelve them.


When you get to the end, stop. I have and I will.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Writing Articles For Magazines and Newsletters That Sell


For years I've written articles for magazines and journals dealing with antiques and collectibles (but not under this pen name). There are a number of things you must consider when writing an article for publication. First, the most obvious point, you need to write to your strengths. You need to write about something you know. For me, this was simplicity itself as writing antiques and collectibles books is what I do for a living and these books became the wellspring of my article ideas and my basic source material. This served two purposes: the books provided me with plenty of material to work with and the articles allowed me to make many readers aware of my books in print. As the publisher was always mentioned in my tag line, it was a win for everyone.


The next thing you need to consider is which source to write for. I recommend you never write an article on speculation without a magazine or newsletter chosen to receive that article. The reason it is useful to know in advance which publication you are writing for in advance is that once you know the source, you can read several issues of the publication and then tailor your writing to their style and readership. If you have not yet made a name for yourself as a freelance writer, I suggest you choose a source that publishes frequently, like a newsletter or trade paper that publishes weekly and accepts freelance material. The more frequently an publication is published, the hungrier they will be for new material and new writers who may potentially become reliable writers who may be returned to time and again (your goal).


Next write a proposal letter (see my previous blog post). After your article idea has been accepted, then move forward with the article as follows.


Review the writer's guidelines for the publication that has accepted your proposal and follow them to the letter. Make sure you do not exceed the word count and do not deviate from any other requirements the organization requires. Once you've done that you are ready to write.


Consider yourself to be writing for someone who is very interested in your topic, is intelligent and curious, but knows nothing about the subject. You won't be able to get into great depth in any topic in an article, so you might as well cover the basics well so as not to leave anyone behind. Throw in some interesting and unusual facts for people who are more familiar with the topics of course, but mostly stick to the basics.


In the antiques article, here is the basic format. Introduce the subject under discussion with a brief history of who developed the item under discussion and during what time span. Follow this with a basic examination of the item under discussion, including materials the antique or collectible was made of, the forms it came in , how it was decorated, any distinguishing marks it has (manufacturer's marks in the case of ceramics, my specialty), and any marks that might be left over from manufacture.


Once you have covered the basics, you can launch into a discussion of interesting features with whatever word count you have left. In ceramics this would include changes in forms and decorations over the years or decades of production, which items are common and rare and why this is so, and warnings over which rare items are being faked and imitated today. This might be followed by some advice on collecting and pricing that will enable the newcomer to begin searching for the items with some sense of confidence and a logical approach. Of course, if you have written books on the topic, this is also the place to shamelessly suggest new collectors need some good reference books on the topic. In the tag line about the author you will include you have a book on this topic, list the title, and the publisher and price.


If the publication wants photos to accompany your article, make sure you can provide images you own the copyright to (i.e. pictures you have taken yourself that you have permission of the owners to take and display) and that are of the proper size required by the publication.


A final note, don't bother getting fancy in your writing. I tried this in a very well known, upscale market magazine in an opening paragraph that appeared to be completely in the style of the magazine. The result was that the article was accepted but the opening paragraph was removed by the editor without comment. I never did that again and the editors have all been happy with my work.


In another article we'll talk about the contracts and what to watch for.