Monthly Archives: May 2014

Onset vs Outset

Frankenstein meets

I’ve seen the above words confused for each other a few times recently, right here on WordPress. By writing bloggers no less! Let’s fix that.

Outset = the beginning of something.

Onset = the beginning of something.

Okay, maybe I see the confusion. Think of “outset” as positive and “onset” as negative:

“At the outset of the Star Wars series, George Lucas created more iconic characters and ideas in two hours than any other filmmaker has since generated over an entire career. Unfortunately, with the onset of his egomania, Lucas forgot what made him successful and started insulting his audience with drivel like Jar Jar Binks.”

Or think of “outset” as something you chose and “onset” as something that chose you:

You didn't think I was going to put a picture of Jar Jar Binks on here, did you?

You didn’t think I was going to put a picture of Jar Jar Binks on here, did you?

“Larry was bitten by a werewolf. At the onset of his lycanthropy (during the subsequent full moon), he too transformed into a wolf and began killing. Later, he sought help from Dr. Frankenstein. At the outset of his treatment, he felt positive, but he soon realized only an idiot seeks advice from a lunatic who sews dead body parts into monsters and brings them to life with lightning.”

Or you could simply invert the words:

“At the outset of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, Frodo Baggins and his friends set out to destroy the ring of power. After watching 53 hours of walking scenes and experiencing the onset of severe boredom, the audience became dead set on hiring a more assertive film editor for director Peter Jackson.”

Please note that today’s advice is more of the Malcolm Gladwell “it just feels right” school than of the English teacher “I’m telling you facts” school. Sometimes language is funky like that.

If you’re feeling the onset of an urge to respond, please visit the comments section below.

A Writer’s Best Tool for Creating Characters: Empathy

Editor’s Note: A writer’s best tool for creating characters is probably observation, but then this post would be called, A Writer’s Second Best Tool for Creating Characters, After Observation: Empathy, and we can’t have that. It’s too unwieldy. We prefer wieldy posts ‘round here.

So anyway.

All republicans are religious wacko gun nuts.

All democrats are communist sheep who hate freedom.

All people on food stamps are too lazy to earn their way.

All wealthy people are selfish and greedy.

All young adults are entitled brats.

All feminists are angry man-haters.

All southerners are racist rednecks.

All Muslims secretly support terrorism.

All people from the northeast are elitist liberal snobs.

All car salesmen are out to rip off their customers.

All atheists are immoral.

If you agree with any of the above statements, you’re nowhere near as good a writer as you could be. Why? Because those statements all represent snap judgments about The Other. Knee-jerk reactions based on superficial qualities reduce anyone who is not like us to a cardboard cutout that personifies our prejudices and nothing more.

Hmmm. Twilight characters depicted in cardboard. Perhaps the manufacturer's slogan is "So lifelike, you can't tell them apart from the real thing."  I KID!

Hmmm. Twilight characters depicted in cardboard. Perhaps the manufacturer’s slogan is: “So lifelike, you can’t tell them apart from the real thing.”
I KID! Really. I’ve never read Twilight. It could be great.

How can we create a cast of complex, motivated, and conflicted characters who compel people to keep reading if we cannot relate to anyone who thinks, lives, hopes, and dreams differently from us? Empathy is not an easy emotional concept like anger. Empathy requires discipline and exists partly on an intellectual plane. For example, if I am writing a female character, I have to ask things like, “How would it feel if men gawked at me on the subway platform?” or “What if men who don’t have my qualifications still felt it okay to talk down to me about my area of expertise?”

What if, when I assert control over a situation, people think, “What a bitch!”? Not that these things happen to all women all the time, but I would be surprised if some of the women reading this post didn’t have these experiences sometimes.

Empathy isn’t sympathy or agreeing with people to agree. It’s understanding why, for example, someone would buy a heavy-duty pick-up truck when you think we should all be driving electric mini cars. Or, it’s understanding why someone would be a vegan when you’re an avid hunter.

It’s even understanding the motivations of the serial killer you created as a villain in your novel. Why does killing make him feel good (or strong, or aroused, or free, or whatever)? What would it be like to have that compulsion? What would push you to act on your kill fantasy? One can say, “Well, he’s pure evil. There’s nothing to relate to.” Then he’s probably a boring bad guy.

I fling poo for a REASON. You just don't get me, do you?

I fling poo for a REASON my writer friends. You just don’t get me, do you?

My current writing project is a World’s End novel with three tweenage girls for main characters. You can probably tell from my picture at the top of the right-hand sidebar that I am not, never have been, and—barring an egregious mistake in one of my mad-science experiments—never will be a 13-year-old female.

So, when developing my concept, did I say, “Eh. Tween girls like One Direction and watch Glee. Done. Next!”?

Of course not. First I imagined their lives and personal shaping experiences, considered their maturity levels, and gave them each a life-or-death challenge. Then I pondered what a girl that age experiences: a changing body, the simultaneous fear and excitement that comes from developing an identity and exploring relationships, the concurrent drive for independence and desire for guidance, and a growing awareness of her sexuality and what it means from standpoints both of power and vulnerability.

Then I killed all the adults and destroyed civilization.

I hope, by taking an empathetic approach to characters, no matter how different they are from me and my experiences, that readers will find them real, complex, and, by extension, worth caring about.

How about you? What are your techniques and philosophies for building characters? You can respond in the comments section below or send me your answer via carrier pigeon, though only choose the second option of you want me to think you are super weird. Note: I’m out of pigeon food.

Why Godzilla is the Best Thing Ever

godzilla new

A group of business professionals with college degrees sat around a table in their office building today discussing the most critical topic of the week, far more important than any potential merger, major new account, or policy initiative: When to see the new Godzilla movie that opens this weekend.

Thank you, world, for finally catching up with me. It has been a lonely bunch of decades.

I am a man of many interests. Music. Writing. Art. Film. Architecture. Science. Multiculturalism. Civil Rights… Drums. Guitars. Rock. Soul. Jazz. Metal. Funk. Pop. Classical… Horror and science fiction. Star Wars. Star Trek. Doctor Who. Zombie movies. Italian Gialli. Friday the 13th. Tarantino. Kubrick. Cronenberg…

I remember where I was in my life when I discovered all these things, and I know how each interest has helped shape my identity.

On the other hand, there’s Godzilla. I don’t recall discovering Godzilla, simply because my memory has not retained anything prior to age three. I was already a veteran at that point.

My mom has photos of the toddler me sitting on the floor, staring in wonder at our grainy old Zenith TV while the world’s most famous monster stomped across the screen, kicking up a maelstrom of fire, debris, sparks, and wind as he obliterated yet another Japanese city. The TVs have gotten better, DVDs and blu-rays offer picture quality undreamed of in the days of Saturday-morning monster marathons, and a 180-million-dollar epic remake is about to shake theater speakers all across the world, but the star of the show hasn’t really changed, other than cosmetically. Godzilla is still the coolest, baddest, biggest character in all of cinema.

Yes, the budgets were low in those old flicks. Of course it was a guy in a rubber suit. No, I don’t believe Godzilla exists on the same artistic plane as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, or Martin Scorsese.  But as much as I revere those artists, only Godzilla:

  • Inspired a shy, scrawny little boy feel strong for the first time in his life
  • Awakened that boy’s imagination and stimulated his drive to tell colorful, fantastical stories
  • Impressed upon that boy what wonderful, unreal things were possible if he was open to them
  • Put an appreciation, fascination, and respect for other cultures and ethnicities into his young, impressionable mind before forces around him had a chance to indoctrinate him to a life of judgment and intolerance

If you didn’t grow up watching this stuff, there’s little I can do to convince you Godzilla is great. I will only say that what’s ridiculous about those films is also what makes them so spectacular: The outlandish, implausible monsters and the manic plots. In one, a metallic bird monster with a buzz-saw chest and a bomb-spitting giant cockroach from an undersea kingdom team up to fight a robot that can change size at will and a 30-storey Tyrannosaurus who shoots blue fire from his mouth.

Show that to a three-year-old child and see if he lacks for imagination when he grows up. I may not recall my first experience with Godzilla, but I remember my son’s, and I will admit to more than a little satisfaction when he became mesmerized in an instant. Years later, he speaks with reverence of the different films and monsters, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention he is a rather imaginative writer himself.

I’ll also invalidate the frequent criticism that the films are “cheesy” because of the obvious special effects fakery. Realism and naturalism in art is a western convention. East Asian art has never aspired to look “realistic,” so comparisons are irrelevant. But I’ll make one anyway: watch any of the contemporaneous monster movies filmed in the west. With rare exception, the creatures and sets are rather shoddy compared to those constructed by their Japanese counterparts.

Oh, and making fun of the dubbing is misdirected superiority. The bad lip-syncing is the fault of the American distributor, not the filmmakers.

End of mini-lecture.

I have no idea if this American remake is going to be any good, though it is getting excellent reviews and appears to pay great respect and homage to the source material. I guess I’ll find out Saturday morning, when I invite the whole world into my house for two hours.


A gallery of big G through the decades

Godzilla 1950s2

The 1950s, as a metaphor for the atomic bomb

Godzilla 1960s

The 1960s, as a burgeoning global icon

godzilla 1970s2

The 1970s, as a children’s superhero

godzilla 1980s2

The 1980s, once again as a metaphor for nuclear proliferation

godzilla 1990s2

The 1990s, as a super-sized commercial property

godzilla 2000s

The 2000s, highly stylized and re-imagined for 21st-century tastes

Guest Post: How to Scare the Pants off Your Readers, by JH Mae

Editor’s note: You’d think that, as a writer of speculative fiction, I’d do a post on speculative fiction once in a while. Like so many other times in your life, though, you’d be wrong. Luckily, fellow WordPress blogger and speculative fiction writer JH Mae is on hand to do my work for me with this guest post she’s entitled How to Scare the Pants Off Your Readers. I’m not sure why she wants readers to walk around in their undies, but hey, who am I to judge? Read on…

japan horror


How to Scare the Pants Off Your Readers

“Good horror writers merely collaborate with our minds.” HP Lovecraft, master of horror

We love to have the crap scared out of us. Some say that when we watch a scary movie, for example, we tap into an ancient need to be on edge. Modern, first world life is, after all, a little ho-hum.

Some think horror is just about seeing guts spilling out of someone’s abdomen or a crazed man in clown makeup chasing someone else with a chainsaw. While blood does make a horror story more exciting, a masterful piece of horror is so much more than that. A little violence isn’t going to stick with a reader, but the confrontation of our peaceful lives with dark, disturbing ideas we’d rather not think about? Truly haunting.

Horror is about facing that life isn’t as safe as we think.

Balance the absent and the present
Spine-tingling horror is ripe with the absent – the unknown, the unexpected, the unbelievable, the unseen, the unconscious and the unstoppable. All of these elements challenge our grasp on reality and tap into primal fears – of what we can’t control, understand, explain or stop. And while blood and guts are disturbing, limiting the gore until the moment when things have gone absolutely wrong intensifies the shock factor. Such restraint ignites the reader’s imagination – and there’s plenty of darkness hiding there.

So what should be present? I think the most important is the sense of helplessness. In everyday life, we have a sense of control in our fate, and to an extent we do. We’re not used to the notion that we have no options, no escape and no hope. Hand in hand with helplessness isurgency, to regain control when it’s been lost – it’s instinctual.

Confronting darkness
Some people are sick, evil, and violent. They have horrifying urges and desires, ones which manifest in any number of perverse, disturbing practices. If you were to look deep in yourself, you’d find some darkness lurking there, too.

We don’t confront our most primal fears every day. We like to avoid and pretend that the evil doesn’t exist in the same world that we raise our children and pay our taxes. In horror, the author must put these denied realities in sharp relief, showing the reader that demon lurking in the corner or the serial killer down the street. Make readers see what they don’t want to see and ask questions they don’t want the answers to.

Use normalcy to heighten the bizarre
Where some horror films in particular fail is by overemphasizing strangeness to the point it becomes unrealistic. If the setting and characters are unfamiliar, the reader isn’t going to put himself in the story. Putting the bizarre alongside the everyday makes the reader feel like it could happen to him; creating normal characters will have him looking at his own neighbors with paranoia; and creating a familiar setting will make him nervous in his own house.

Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort balances the normal and the bizarre well. Lead “mind vampire” Melanie looks like a nice old lady, lives like a wealthy widow and acts like your average closet racist. And yet she controls people by invading their minds and forcing them to commit violent acts. If she wasn’t so run-of-the-mill, her evil wouldn’t be so frightening. In the context of normalcy, the horrifying is heightened.

Weave in a little suspense
While these Writer’s Digest tricks are meant for a whole other genre, a horror story without suspense is like chocolate without peanut butter. One key element of suspense is the lofty viewpoint, where you let the reader in on the bad guy’s side of the story. The reader will see trouble before your protagonist does; as your main character approaches his doom, you’re reader will be squirming in his seat.

Other elements of suspense apply – incredible odds, multiplying problems beyond the horror at hand, a terrifying villain against an admirable protagonist. But in horror, shock comes from unpredictability – just because the reader wants your MC to come out unscathed doesn’t mean he should.

The 1979 sci-fi horror classic “Alien” is killer when it comes to suspense. The mere atmosphere of the film warns the audience that something bad is going to happen.

About the guest author:

JH Mae writes speculative fiction and has somehow managed to get published a couple times. For more about her work, visit or sign up for her newsletter.

My trip to New York Botanical Garden

In my time on WordPress, I’ve notice that people love a post with garden pictures. That stuff draws clicks like nobody’s business.

I admit to having thought, in the past, that it must be frustrating for a blogger to get ten times the traffic for posting a snapshot of a backyard daffodil than she does for her painstaking and insightful pieces on the art of writing. Since I don’t have daffodils or a backyard to plant them in, I’ve been more of a neutral observer of this phenomenon than anything else.

That changes right now. Yesterday I visited the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and snapped a bunch of photos. As you can see, I’ve posted a few of the less-bad ones (trust me). It turns out that I don’t mind at all if this post gets ten times the traffic I usually get. Go figure.

New York Botanical Garden





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