Inside or Outside

Inside or Outside?

 

Simple Guidelines for Opening Stories and Scenes
by
Max Griffin

We’ve all read them.  Some stories just grab you by the throat and make you keep reading.  Others kind of meander along, and you fall asleep before page two.  Everyone wants to write the first kind of story.  So, how do you do that?

I’d like to say it’s simple, but of course it’s not.  It takes practice and craft.  This essay is about some simple guidelines–craft, if you will–that can make opening paragraphs more compelling.

It’s worth starting with a bit of theory.  Some of the greatest literature of the nineteenth century used an omniscient narrator.  This technique places the author–and the reader–outside the events of the story, looking in.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach. However, modern commercial fiction has almost completely abandoned the omniscient narrator.  Today, about thirty percent of all commercial fiction uses a first person narrator, while the overwhelming majority of the remainder uses third person limited.  The purpose of this short essay is to discuss the latter approach and its consequences for opening a scene in a short story or novel.

One way to think of telling a story–a modern way–is that it is a guided dream in which the author leads the readers through the events. In doing this, the author needs to engage the readers as active participants in the story, so that they become the author’s partner in imagining the story. Elements of craft that engage the readers and immerse them in the story enhance this fictive dream. On the other hand, authors should avoid things that interrupt the dream and pull readers out of the story.  In his books on the craft of writing, John Gardner was one of the most articulate champions of this idea.

To be sure, there are other theories of fiction than the one Gardner advocated.  Many powerful works of modern literature deliberately use a “distancing effect” (German: Verfremdungseffekt), promoted by Bertolt Brecht among other masters. This competing idea purposefully reminds the readers–or the audience, in the case of theater or cinema–that the fictional events are an artifice and thus strives to engage the readers on a more critical and intellectual level.

However, this essay is about commercial fiction, and in this arena Gardner’s ideas have become dominant.  One might think of the “fictional dream” as drawing the reader into the story from the outside world, while the “distancing effect” places the reader outside the story, looking in, hence the title for this essay.  Commercial fiction today is firmly on the side of putting the reader inside the story.

This dichotomy is certainly an over-simplification, but it’s a helpful paradigm to keep in mind.  If you want to construct a fictional dream, you need to draw the reader into the story and hence into a dream-like state.  You want to avoid things that pull the reader out of that state.  While the readers are inside the story, you do not want them thinking–you want them believingimagining, and feeling.

It’s not that you don’t want your readers to ever think–surely every author has a message they want their readers take away from their story.  However, you don’t want them puzzling out the details of the fictional world while they are reading the story.  Later, as they reflect on the meaning of tale, that’s when you want them thinking.

So, the basic idea is to draw the readers into a fictional dream.  The readers become the author’s active partners in imagining the fictional world, in a state of suspended disbelief.  In crafting the opening of any fictional work, it’s the author’s primary task to launch this dream.  Each change in scene runs the risk of disrupting the dream, and so the author must use all the tools of his or her craft to keep the dream-state alive and to lure the reader into the new setting.

Here are three simple guidelines.

  1. Launch the scene with action, usually by having your point-of-view character doing something.  The old saw, “start in media res,” in the middle of things, is still good advice.
  2. The action should  orient the readers.  The reader needs to knowwho the point-of-view character is, where that person is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.  If the scene is embedded in a bigger story, the readers also need to know when it’s taking place relative to the earlier scenes.
  3. At the very start of a scene, put the readers inside the head of the point-of-view character.

These are simple ideas, but difficult to carry out in practice.  It’s amazing to me how many stories I read where the authors have omitted all the informational tasks listed in the second guideline.  The third step, putting the reader inside the point-of-view character’s head, is even more challenging.  Let’s look at an example, starting with a basic opening and then tweaking it.

It was dinnertime when John walked into his brother Tom’s hospital room.  He felt bad seeing Tom’s injuries and wished he’d been more careful when planning their hunting trip. 

These two opening sentences accomplish the basics of orienting the reader:

  • We know who point-of-view character is: John.  We’ve established we’re in his head because we know he’s “feeling bad.”
  • We know where he’s at–in a hospital.
  • We know what he’s doing and why he’s there–visiting his brother.
  • We know when the scene takes place–dinnertime.

Thus, this opening does the basic job of orienting the readers.  Note you have toname John to answer the “who” question.  The sooner you name him, the better, as this helps readers to identify with him.

Do not start by writing, “It was dinnertime when he walked into the room.”  The pronoun “he” has no antecedent and makes the reader stop and think about who walked in.  Even if the point-of-view doesn’t change between scenes, a new scene marks a break in the fictional dream.  Reinforcing that we’re still in John’s head helps maintain continuity of the dream-state.

Do not start with dialogue. A disembodied voice will almost surely put the reader outside the story looking in, hearing the words on their own instead of through the point-of-view character’s ears.  Establish the point-of-view first, before anyone speaks.  Further, opening with dialogue will lead the reader to think about who is speaking and where they are.  You don’t want them thinking–at least, not yet!

The worst thing about this opening is that it does almost nothing to put the reader inside John’s head.    Doing that takes thought and craft.  The author needs to beinside John’s head, imagining entering the room, imagining the sensations and emotions that pass across his psyche as this scene opens.

John hesitated in the hall for a tremulous breath, and his nose tingled with astringent hospital scents.  He stepped into his brother Tom’s room where a nurse’s aide huddled beside the bed, spooning a liquid dinner of steaming soup into Tom’s waiting lips.  John blinked back tears at the sight of the casts immobilizing his brother’s limbs.  Guilt clenched at his stomach and tightened his throat while memories of yesterday’s hunting accident came flooding back.

This opening is by no means perfect. Instead, it’s constructed to make some specific points about craft.  It starts with John doing something personal–hesitating for a “tremulous” breath.  We learn that he’s in a hospital when his nose tingles in response to the “astringent” hospital scents.  All of this combines to make this bit of information more intimate and immediate, since it’s about what John smells rather than just telling the reader that he’s in a hospital.  In the next two sentences, we learn about Tom’s injuries in specific ways: he can’t feed himself, he’s on a liquid diet, and his arms are immobilized in casts.  We also learn that he’s getting dinner, which answers the “when” question.  Finally, we learn that John “feels bad” through descriptions of his physical responses to seeing his brother: he blinks back tears, his stomach clenches, and his throat tightens.  These are all visceral, inner sensations that help to put the readers into John’s head and establish him as the point-of-view character.

It takes approximately twice as many words to establish the point of view–the first opening is 29 words and the second is73 words.  But notice that the second does a much better job of drawing the reader into John’s head and hence into the scene and the story.

Never forget that guidelines are just that.  They are suggestions, based on both theory and practical experience.  Your story may have different demands or structure.  Maybe you want to employ the “distancing effect,” in which case nothing in this essay applies.  Maybe, for example, discovering why the character is where s/he’s at is integral to the plot, and thus you’ll leave the “why” out of the introductory paragraph.   Always follow your muse, not that of someone else.  At the same time, take advantage of things that make sense for your story and your style.

Good luck, and good writing!

Max

Posted in Writing | Leave a comment

Notes From the Cat Box

Max is busy writing today, so we have a guest blogger.  His name is Erwin Schrodinger the Cat, or Mr. Dinger for short.  

 

Notes from the Cat BoxMrDinger 

November 27, 2013

My pet human, Max, is pretty weird.  Selfish, too.  I mean, he wanted to sleep this morning at 5 AM when I wanted petted.  Then he fed me the wrong cat food.  I just had the salmon with gravy yesterday.  What was he thinking?  When I showed my displeasure by trying to trip him on the stairs, all he did was swear at me.  I guess he learned those words in the navy.  Certainly, no proper cat would even think such obscenities.

Anyway, right now he’s shut up in his office working on the next chapter of his latest novel, Timekeepers.  Or so he says.  Speaking cat-to-reader, I think he’s playing solitaire.  But he won’t ever let me in his sanctum, so who’s to say what he’s really doing in there?

He did spend some time petting me this morning before turning into a solitaire-playing hermit, but it turns out he wanted a favor.  It seems his novel Murder Me Tender released today, and he says he’s too busy to blog about it.  He wants me to do it!  I mean, it’s not like I don’t have a dozen better things to do.  Like lying in the sun.  And sleeping. Oh, and pooping.  Okay, so I’ve only got three better things to do.  Still, he did pet me this morning, so I guess I owe him something.

murdermetender_smallHe thoughtfully left his notebook computer open on his nightstand, with the electronic edition of his book right there for me.  The first thing that I noticed was the hunky guy on the cover.  Of course there’s a hunky guy on the cover.  This is Max’s novel, right?  I’d never do anything as shallow and human-like as judge a book by its cover, but I’ve got admit I can see where certain of Max’s species might be attracted by this guy.

The next thing I noticed as I pawed through the pages were the chapter titles: they are all song titles.  Really old song titles. Things like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Don’t Know Much About Algebra.”   I mean, I know when Max passed his PhD comprehensive exam in algebra he nailed his copy of Rotman’s An Introduction to the Theory of Groups shut, so he probably really doesn’t know anything about algebra.  But what’s with that for a chapter title?  Like I said, it seems it’s always about him.  Instead of me.

Supposedly, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca inspired this novel.  I looked, though, and I couldn’t find Mrs. Danvers or Mandalay anywhere.  There’s a big mansion in southwestern Wisconsin, and an estate manager named Daniels, but that’s not the same.  Oh, there’s a May-December romance, too.  Well, it’s really more of a May-August romance, between Brandon and Rick, the estate’s owner.  I did notice that Brandon’s the only character who has no last name, kind of like the nameless narrator of Rebecca.  He’s pretty cute and whip-smart, but Rick’s a bit of a nebbish, like de Winter in Rebecca.  Who knows what Brandon sees in him.  My favorite character was Rick’s sister-in-law and ex-fiancé, Sandra. She cracked me up. I know there was no one like that in du Maurier’s novel.

The mystery had some twists that would make a nice CSI episode. Wait, I think something like this was in a CSI episode.  Brandon even mentions it.  In fact, it was in an old Columbo episode before that.  We felines have excellent memories. We’re smart too.  Smarter than Brandon, or at least we’re brighter than Max. After all, that doesn’t take all that many smarts. Anyway, I saw through this from the very start.  In fact, I wrote down the name of the murderer at the end of chapter one, and I was right!     So there, Mr. Smarty-Pants Author.

My biggest complaint about this book is that it doesn’t have any cats in it.  Who wants to read a book with no felines? There’s this stupid dog who drools and sniffs around.  If Max has time to write about dogs, why doesn’t he feature a handsome Abyssinian like me?  That would be way more interesting.

Despite the fact that it’s got no cats, I liked this book.  Tell Max I said so if you see him.  Maybe he’ll give me some lobster next time he feeds me.

Erwin Schrodinger the Cat

AKA Mr. Dinger

Murder Me Tender is available from Purple Sword Publications.

I got the idea to ask Mr. Dinger to be my guest blogger from Gary Pennick, whose Jack Russell Penny often appears on his blog.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Cartoon Canticles

At one time, I thought about being a musician.  That lasted about thirty seconds, and then I remembered that my ear is worth its weight in tin.  I played flute and piccolo in high school, and you can imagine the fingernails-on-the-blackboard screech when I tried to preform, say, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune or even the solo from The Stars and Stripes Forever.  Suffice to say everyone’s ears were saved from what would have been a disastrous and failed musical career.

Still, I’ve had a life-long love affair with music.  My tastes tend to be pretty all-inclusive, ranging from Richard and Karen Carpenter to Bela Bartok.  Looking back, I have to say that my earliest introduction to music had to come from after-school cartoon shows, and in particular the genius of Chuck Jones.

I can still watch classics like The Rabbit of Seville, set to the tune of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, with enjoyment.  In this work Bugs Bunny is barber who shaves Elmer Fudd not once, but three times. There is almost no dialog in this piece; all of the drama and comedy derives from clever sight gags that are perfectly coordinated with the score.  The music itself is remarkably faithful to Rossini’s original, although the tempo is accelerated to match the madcap frenzy of the action and some recapitulation is eliminated.

Igor Stravinsky once said he wouldn’t criticize Disney’s Fantasia since he didn’t want to remark on an “unyielding imbecility.”  Of course, he may have been a bit miffed since Fantasia quoted Le Sacre du Primtemps without paying royalties to the composer.  It was “Russian,” you see, and at the time the US had no copyright treaty with the USSR.  However, who among us can hear Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice without thinking of  Mickey as the hapless magician?

These short movies are part of our cultural heritage.  There are compositions I can no longer hear without seeing Bugs, Daffy, or Mickey prancing on the screen.  Chuck Jones in particular brought a visual energy, dramatic flair, and biting social commentary to this unique medium.  Four of the five greatest cartoons of all time were directed by Jones.  His One Froggy Evening features not only tin-pan alley classics like “Hello My Baby” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” but also Figaro’s aria from The Barber of Seville.  Spielberg called this masterwork the Citizen Kane of cartoons.

However, by the 1960s the cost of producing high-quality animation began to cause the visual quality of these films to degrade.  The difference between, say, What’s Opera, Doc? and sixties classics like Rocky and Bullwinkle or Huckleberry Hound are obvious.  It’s not that the latter aren’t clever and well-written, but it’s hard to imagine these dramas succeeding in the absence of dialogue in the way that The Rabbit of Seville does.

That’s not to say that Jones’ heritage doesn’t live on.  In some ways, feature films like Shrek or Ice Age are modern manifestations of his genius.  Even in the sixties, shows with live actors owed a huge debt to the cartoons of the thirties, forties and fifties.  Indeed, last night I re-watched a TV episode from October, 1966 that I hadn’t seen in at least thirty years.  When I saw it was available on Amazon, I jumped on it to see if it was as clever as I’d remembered.  It exceeded my expectations.

The episode was “The Producer” from the third and final season of Gilligan’s Island.  Okay, so your eyes probably just rolled out of your head.  I’ll give you a moment to pick them up and reinsert them.

Ready? Here we go.

Truthfully, this is a show I’ve excoriated whenever it worms its way into my brain. However, I confess that I watched this episode with new eyes last night.  Gilligan’s is a cartoon–one with live actors, but a cartoon nonetheless.  Just watching the zany and frenetic action in this episode confirms this.  Gilligan drives a straw “car” that zips around the island, the camera under-cranked to make him seem to move at lightning speed.  When the islanders put on their musical version of Hamlet, they manage to find appropriate costumes for the eponymous hero, played by Gilligan, for Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Laertes.  The Powells play the king and queen–of course!–complete with golden crowns and heavy chains.  Later, guest star Phil Silvers repeats the entire musical play at twice the tempo, playing Ophelia in drag–reminiscent of Bugs’ appearances in drag in The Rabbit of Seville and in many other Chuck Jones’ creations.

Best of all, the musical choices and lyrics are perfection.  We’ve got Gilligan singing “To be or not to be,” to the tune of the “Habenera” from Bizet’s Carmen.  Then Ginger, as Ophelia, advises Hamlet to chill out, singing the melody from Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” in The Tales of Hoffman.  Next, the Skipper as Polonius tells Laertes “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” this time lampooning the Toreador Song, again from Carmen.  The music and lyrics fit together seamlessly and tell the story in just a few short, brilliant minutes.

I could go on with other examples of classical music in cartoons, but this is enough for today.

 Th-th-th-th-that’s all folks!

 

 

 

Posted in Reviews | 3 Comments

Five good Movies I Hated

Five Good Movies I Hated

This is a companion piece to my last blog, Five Bad Movies I Liked This list is eclectic and not inclusive, just like the other list.

I can understand why some of these are beloved, but others…well, you’ll see.

Gone With the Wind

I know, I know. This movie has signature performances by Gable and Vivian Leigh.  There is the awesome Oscar-winning performance by Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to be nominated for an Oscar, let alone win one.  Max Steiner wrote the incredible score.  There is so much to love from a technical standpoint about this film.  But I just cannot watch it.  It’s the same with Birth of a Nation.  The pervasive racism and a script that’s an unquestioning love-letter to the slave-holding culture that’s “gone with the wind” is more than my blood pressure can stand.

Pulp Fiction

This has to be the most boring three weeks I ever spent in a movie theater.  Oh, wait.  This movie only lasts 168 minutes in real time.  It just seems like it lasts three weeks. Don’t get me wrong: I like Quentin Tarrantino’s other movies.  Reservoir Dogs is full of drama, suspense and humor.  This movie though, from the very first scenes, is just smarmy. The characters weren’t interesting enough to engage me in what little plot there was. I don’t have to like the characters, but I they do have to be at least interesting. These characters were boring, in somewhat the same way that Hannah Arendt talked about the banality of evil.  I get that this was a turn-around performance for Travolta that reinvigorated his career.  In fact, I’m happy for him: I’ve always felt he was an under-appreciated actor.  But this is a movie that the critics loved and I absolutely loathed.

The Graduate

I was eighteen when this movie came out.  According to everyone, it has a stupendous performances by Ann Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman. I have no reason to doubt this. They seem to always turn in awesome performances.  The soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel has many of my favorite songs from my favorite group of the era.  It’s supposed to be the signature movie of my generation.  I first tried to watch it on a date with the woman who was to become my wife.  I fell asleep about a quarter of the way through.  Later, after we were married, she insisted I see again, this time at a drive-in.  Same result.  When we could rent it on VHS, we tried again.  Zzzzz.  Since then, I’ve tried two more times, on DVD.  I just cannot stay awake through this movie.  I had to watch the famous bedroom scene with Bancroft and Hoffman on Youtube.

I imagine this must be a good movie. Everyone who stays awake through the whole thing agrees.   For sure I cannot say whether it’s good or not.  I can attest that it’s my ideal cure for insomnia.

How Green Was My Valley

This much-loved film by John Ford from 1942 won the Best Picture Oscar. It stars the ineffable Walter Pigeon, Maureen O’Hara, and a young Roddy McDowell.

I understand that the artistic approach to cinema has changed over time, but dammit it’s a visual medium.  It’s all about showing your story, not telling it. By 1942 everyone knew that, except apparently John Ford and the Academy.  This movie starts out with an establishing shot of the valley and an extended voice-over telling the audience stuff. Lots of stuff.  Boring, out-of-context stuff.  The dialogue and plot were so trite my eyes threatened to roll out of my head.  It was so awful, I stopped watching, and I sat through Look Who’s Talking 2.  Twice.

Maybe this gloppy stinker won Best Picture because the competition was weak.  After all, the other nominees included films no one has ever heard of, like  Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and Hitchcock’s Suspicion.  Oh, wait, I bet you have heard of those.  Even Here Comes Mr. Jordan–remade by Warren Beatty in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait–was better than the winner.  The Academy must have been even more brain-dead than usual that year.

Destination Moon

Okay, I love Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novels.  I grew up with them, looking forward each year to snatching up and devouring the latest one.  He wrote, or co-wrote, the screenplay for this movie. In his semi-authobiography, Grumbles from the Grave, he complained bitterly about how awful it was working in Hollywood and how even the second director’s girlfriend wrote dialogue.  Maybe.  But he was also involved in developing other projects for film and TV, and they were even worse: they had all the narrative flaws of How Green Was My Valley.  Voice-overs telling the story instead of showing it.  Hackneyed characters, and even more hackneyed dialogue.  Indeed, it’s astonishing how bad this movie is just from a story-telling standpoint, since the flaws apparent in the movie are absent–except for occasional political rants–from his books. This movie seems to be widely praised because (a) Heinlein, the Dean of Science Fiction, was involved; and (b) it has ground-breaking and Oscar-winning special effects for the era.  Still, I’d definitely pass on this period piece.

 

Posted in Movies | Leave a comment

Five Bad Movies I Liked

Five Bad Movies I Liked

When my daughter entered first grade, we started a family tradition. I would take off work early on Friday, and we’d all go to a matinee. We did this every week until she went to college. This tradition survived divorce, various boyfriends (hers and mine), and other incidental traumas of adolescence. Later, when she was in graduate school and once more living at home, we took it up again. Now that she lives in San Francisco, it’s a little far for me to commute from Tulsa, so our weekly family tradition has died. But it went on for almost two decades. If you watch a movie a week for that long, you see lots of bad movies. You see good movies, too, of course.

What’s surprising to me is how often the critics would pan a movie I sort of liked, or like a movie that I loathed. That’s what generated this blog. I’ve been watching movies most of my life, and I got to thinking about the bad movies that I actually kind of liked. Looking at the five that percolated to the top of my list, I see that most of them are not ones I saw with my daughter. Some of the ones I hated that the critics loved are in my contrary list, Good Movies I Hated, but that’s another blog for another day.

In no particular order, then, here are five movies that the critics either hated or ignored that I kinda-sorta liked.

Glen or Glenda
As with all Ed Wood movies, this one is spectacularly bad. It’s even worse considering that it’s semi-autobiographical. It seems that Wood himself was a cross-dresser, given to wearing fluffy, Angora sweaters.  You would think his personal experience would have brought some verisimilitude to the movie, but then this is Ed Wood.   Anyway, Wood plays in the title role, Angora-sweaters and all. Besides the Glen/Glenda story, there is another about a “pseudohermaphrodite.” Bela Lugosi provides a lugubrious voice-over as a scientist. The story is highly nonlinear, with flashbacks-within-flashbacks and weird dream sequences. There’s also an earnest lecture on tolerance. Bad as this movie is–and trust me, it’s bad–it was made in 1953 when any kind of sexual non-conformity was not only criminal but thought of as insane. It had to take enormous courage for Wood to make this movie and come out, as he did, as a transvestite. Of course, he was either courageous or stupid to put any of his dreadful movies out for the public to see, so maybe it’s stupidity rather than courage that leads to this movie. Still, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and give him kudos for courage. This time, but not for Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Zabriskie Point
Another film from 1970, this one is by Michelangelo Antonioni. It’s kind of the consummate 1960s rebel movie, with disaffected and aimless Mark on the one hand hooking up with anthropology student Daria on the other. We’ve also got the wonderful character actor G.D. Spradlin playing the Evil Capitalist. By the way, Spradlin is a fellow Oklahoman from Paul’s Valley, and he ran JFK’s Oklahoma presidential campaign before he became an actor. This movie also includes a signature, artsy scene of the Evil Capitalist’s snazzy, Brutalist desert home blowing up. More like…

B…..L…..O…..W…..I…..N…..G      U…..P

filmed in loving, Technicolor slow motion. Mark Frechette, the unknown who played Mark in the movie, provides ample eye candy. Oh, by the way, Frechette turned to robbing banks after his star-turn in this movie and died in prison. The best part of the film is the soundtrack, featuring the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd.

Doing Time on Maple Drive
This is a made-for-TV movie. Matt Carter brings his fiancé home to meet his family. His brother is an alcoholic; his sister is married to a failure–according to Matt’s father–and the father gives new meaning to the word “perfectionist.” At least Matt’s mother is as loving and full of cheer as June Cleaver, although with less depth than plastic wrap. Everything in this family is a competition to please good old Dad, which seems to work out pretty well for Matt since he’s the Perfect Son. That is, until his fiancé finds an old mash note from his, er, boyfriend hidden away in his pocket. Things go downhill from there, with excellent performances all around. Most particularly, James Sikking is sterling as the father who turns out to love his son no matter what, and the then-unknown Jim Carrey shines as Matt’s older brother.

Friends
Paramount-UK released this film in 1971, so I saw it while I was a junior in college. In a chance encounter, Paul, who is fifteen, and Michelle, who is fourteen, flee to the rural French countryside from their dysfunctional families in Paris. They hide out in an abandoned mill, surmount many obstacles, fall in love, and have a child. They not only survive, but build a resilient and meaningful life for themselves. Until, that is, the ending. I re-watched this film a few years ago, and still enjoyed it. What I noticed the second time around is that one of the songs is by a then-mostly-unknown minstrel named Elton John.

No Blade of Grass
MGM-UK released this really bad film in 1970. I was sick with mono at the time I saw it, so my memory is doubtless flawed by high fever and incessant coughing. This was an early entry in the natural-disaster-apocalypse genre. It’s notable since the premise is that a virus has killed off all the grass on the planet, thus devastating the food supply. In our era of food monoculture and industrialized agriculture, it’s a prescient warning. Don’t expect anything here you’ve not seen a zillion times before, but in 1971, it was actually kind of new.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Clever book promotion

Lexa Cain is a good friend and colleague of mine. MuseItUp Publishing will release her terrific new novel, “Soul Cutter,” on December 6, 2013. I’ve been privileged to be a beta-reader for this, and I can tell you that it’s full of adventure, romance, and exotic settings. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, she’s got this clever idea for promoting her book–a sort of a “Where’s Waldo” game based on her cover. It’s all explained on her blog. Check it out!

The game is fun. It’s worth a visit. Don’t forget to purchase her book when it comes out.

Max

Posted in Reviews, Writing | Leave a comment

Chocolate Brownie Torte

2013-12-01 14.49.54Here’s a favorite recipe of mine.  It is almost impossible to screw up and results in an elegant-looking dessert.  Your guests will think you’ve slaved for hours to produce a gourmet treat, when in fact you’ve spent about thirty minutes total.

The hardest part of the dessert is finding the basic ingredient: Nabisco’s Famous Chocolate Wafers. Fortunately, they are available from Amazon!

So here are the ingredients:

  • 3 egg whites
  • dash of salt
  • 1/2 TSP vanilla
  • 1/C sugar
  • 3/4 C (about 15 cookies) of Nabisco Famous Wafer crumbs (use your food processor to make a powder)
  • 1/2 C finely chopped walnuts

For the garnish

  • 1/2 C whipping cream, whipped with 1TBSP of sugar and 1/2 TSP of vanilla extract
  • Red granulated sugar or unsweetened cocoa for dusting
  • Chocolate curls for garnish

The method is so easy.

Whip the salt, vanilla and egg whites to soft peaks.  Slowly add the sugar and beat to stiff beats.  Fold in the cookie crumbs and walnuts.  Coat a 6″ or 7″ spring-form pan with PAM or other non-stick cooking spray and spoon the batter into the pan.  Cook at 350 degrees F for 35 minutes.  Let cool for approximately 15 minutes before removing from pan, and then let cool to room temperature before topping with whipped cream.

I usually make two of these, so I’ve got a layer cake.  I put raspberry jam between the layers for an extra bit elegance.

By the way, there’s a trick to making chocolate curls.  If you try to use semisweet chocolate squares, you’ll get a flaky mess.  But if you combine 3 oz of semisweet chocolate squares and 1TBSP of Crisco, it changes everything.  Put both the chocolate squares and the Crisco in a microwave-safe bowl and heat it on high for about 45 seconds.  Stir the the result together with a fork, so that the Crisco and chocolate are thoroughly mixed.

If you’re lazy–like me!–you’ll freeze the mixture in a small container, pull it out once frozen, and just use a potato peeler to make the curls.  This works okay, but the curls tend to be a little small, and the block tends to melt in your hand so you have to be quick.

If you’re ambitious, you’ll spread the mixture on a flat cookie sheet until it’s very thin before you freeze it.  (Finding room in my freezer where a flat cookie sheet can rest level is a problem, but that’s another story.)  After 3-4 minutes, it’s probably cold enough that your thumb won’t leave a print on the chocolate.  Once it’s passed the thumbprint test, get out a spatula with a pretty sharp edge, hold it upside down compared with how you’d use it to flip eggs, and scrape the chocolate from the bottom of the pan.  If it’s neither too cold nor too warm, you’ll get those huge, perfect chocolate curls, just like you see in the bakery.

So now you know how to make a fancy-looking dessert and how to make chocolate curls.  Enjoy!

Posted in Food | Leave a comment

Top2Bottom Reviews

Check out Top 2 Bottom Reviews.  This week they are featuring five Dreamspinner Press authors, and I’ll be in the spotlight on Thursday!!!  They’ll also be reviewing “Seeking Hyde,” my latest release.  If you leave a comment on their blog, you’ll have a chance to win a free copy of the novel, and Dreamspinner Press is putting together a grand prize package for the week.

Check it out!

Max

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Building a Computer, Part Four

Okay.  So far, we’ve got the motherboard, the processor, the memory, and the power supply.  Along the way, I mentioned an after-market fan for the CPU.  In this post, I’ll go over the other elements I put inside the case.

Of course, one of the things you need is a hard disk.  In my case, I decided to get two identical hard disks.  Alas, this is one of the places for a hard-learned lesson.  Hard disks can use different kinds of technology to interface with the motherboard and the computer.  You choose which one in the system BIOS setting.  In my case, the choices were RAID, IDE, or ACHI.  These are pretty standard.  I already knew I needed to use RAID for the hard disks, since it’s required for the Intel RapidStorage Technology (RST for short) I mentioned back in part two of this series.

Now, there are several flavors of RAID.  For the purposes here, I originally thought I wanted RAID1, which causes the two disks to “mirror” each other: everything is written to both disks.  The idea is that you then have an automatic backup.  If one disk fails, just pull it out, order a new one, and your system continues running just fine while you wait for the replacement to arrive.  It turns out there are reasons why this isn’t an optimal backup strategy and you need to do ordinary backups anyway, but that was my original plan.

The actual cabling that you use for your drives–whether they are hard drives, solid state drives, optical drives–is something called a SATA cable. I can plug up to six SATA devices into my motherboard.  I’d planned to use two for hard disks, one for a solid state drive, and one for my optical drive, leaving two left over for expansion.

So, I needed to have the two hard drives configured as RAID.  The RapidStorage technology requires a solid state drive, also configured as part of the RAID array.  No problem, thought I.    But, of the six SATA ports, the Intel H77 chip controlled four and a third-party chip controlled two.  In order to use RST, I’d have to put the hard disks and the solid state drive on the ports controlled by the Intel H77 chip.  However, these ports operated at different speeds: two at 6GBs and two at 3GBs.  No matter which device I plugged into which port, I couldn’t get a system that would (a) boot; (b) put the two hard drives on a RAID1 array; and (c) enable the RST technology.  I concluded that the the three drives would not only have to use the same controller chip, but also all be at the same speed. This bit of experimentation cost me about half a day.

What I finally did was use a single RAID array for one of the two hard disks and the solid state drive, both attached to ports controlled by the H77 chip.  Then I attached the second hard drive to a 6GBs SATA port controlled by the third-party chip, and not configured as part of my RAID array.  Now everything booted, I had RST running, and the system was stable.

The final configuration of my drives is then one 2TB drive that has all my files on it, one 64GB solid state drive that’s the “swap drive” used by the RST, and a second 2TB drive that has only my weekly backups.  I can still recover my system should the main drive fail since I’ve got backups, and all the data drives are connected to high-speed SATA ports.

For the solid state drive, I selected a 64GB version based mostly on price.  To use RST, you need a minimum of 16GB, but the larger drive you’ve got the better.  On later builds, I chose a more expensive and faster SSD, but truthfully I don’t see any difference in speed.

I wanted to be able to play the occasional BlueRay disk on my machine, so I knew that I wanted an optical drive with that capacity.  With a little bit of research, it turned out to be not terribly more expensive to purchase one that would also write BlueRay disks.  Another great feature of new disk drives is something called LightScribe technology.  With a suitable disk, you can flip it over in the disk tray and the laser will write a label for you on the disk.  There’s no more need to have sloppy and–in my case–illegible labels on your backup disks.  How great is that?

I don’t know about you, but I work from multiple computers.  I’ve got one in the living room so I can work while watching TV.  It’s useful other ways, too, like discovering that really is Ellen Barkin in “The New Normal.”  Then there’s the netbook on my nightstand that annoys my partner at 3AM when I get this fantastic idea I just have to write down.  Of course, sometimes I need to work at home on work-related things.  That could be on either one of the laptops mentioned above, or on my desktop system.  I used to rely on VPN tunneling for the work-related files and file sharing at home, but neither of those work when I’m traveling, say, for the Higher Learning Commission or visiting family.  Of course, there are the ubiquitous thumb drives, but they pose security problems if you lose them.  Nowadays, I mostly use Dropbox for non-work-related file sharing.  It’s secure, easy, and means I can work on documents anywhere I want.

Even with the above technologies, there are still instances where I sometimes want to be able to read or write to SD cards.  For example, I’ve got one of those electronic photo albums on my desk that’s loaded up with a gajillion pictures of my grandkids.  It takes an SD card and the only way to load it up with pictures is by plugging it into my computer.  Thus, I wanted a card reader.  There are lots inexpensive choices out there.  I selected one that plugged into a fast USB 3.0 port on the motherboard and gave me an additional USB port on the front of my system.

 

I used an existing monitor for my system.  It had VGA, DVI, and HDMI inputs.  It also has speakers, which are more than sufficient for my limited purposes.  By using the HDMI input, I minimize the cables that run from my system to my monitor.

 

 

 

 

I’ll finish this series with a discussion of cases.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Building a Computer, Part Three

I’ve been a bit delayed with this series.  Life has this way of intervening.  On the plus side, there have been galley proofs to read for Seeking Hyde.  On the not-so-plus side has been a root canal treatment.  That turned out to be painless while it lasted, but the two weeks waiting for treatment weren’t quite so pleasant.  In any case, I’m back to talk about processors.

My motherboard selection meant that I had to choose an Intel processor.  The reason isn’t so much that I bought an Intel motherboard as the socket on the board that the holds the processor.  The motherboards I considered all had LGA-1155 sockets, which designed specifically for a line of Intel processors.  The “1155″ means that there are 1,155 pins that plug into the processor.  AMD processors have a different socket design, as do some Intel processors such as the Itanium.

In any case, I still needed to decide which Intel processor to go with.  I don’t play games, and I don’t do heavy lifting with databases.  I’ll usually have no more than three or four windows open at once. My computing needs are really fairly modest. I could have probably gotten by with a Pentium or some older technology, but where’s the fun in that?  Besides, I wanted to take advantage of on-board high-definition graphics and on-board support for USB 3.0, so that meant stepping up to one of the new processors.

Intel has taken to giving cute names to the latest releases of microprocessor architecture.  First there was “Sandy Bridge,” and now it’s “Ivy Bridge.”  Blech.  Anyway, at the time I built, Ivy Bridge was the latest.  But even here, you’ve got over two dozen different processors in the I-3, I-5 and I-7 product lines.  I opted for a mid-range I-5 processor.   It has four cores, which means it can run four processes at once.  This greatly speeds things up, especially if you have more than one window open. It has on-board graphics with support for up to three monitors.  It can be “over-clocked,” which means that you can increase the voltage and thus the speed.  However, I don’t plan to do that as there are downsides relative to stability and heat.

In fact, one of the reported downsides to the Ivy Bridge processors is that they seem to run a bit hotter, by as much as ten degrees, than the older Sandy Bridge.  For that reason, I invested another $28 and got the third-party CPU cooler at right.  It’s more efficient and it’s also shorter.  Since I was planning to purchase a smaller case, size was an important consideration.

Just as your CPU has to fit into the available socket, your memory also has to be compatible with both your motherboard and your processor.  Most memory vendors have tools on their websites that let you specify motherboard and processor and will then display compatible memory.  Memory chips tend to be come from a small number of manufacturers, no matter what the label says.  They also tend to not overheat, so there is little reason to buy a memory chip with cooling fins. All those fins do is take up space, which can be at a premium in smaller cases.

My board had room for four memory chips.  Here’s one of the places where building your own machine has it all over buying a big box machine.  Typically, the commercial stores will populate all four of your memory slots with 1GB chips, giving you a total of 4GB of memory.  That’s not very much with the current bloated operating systems and office automation packages.  The more memory you have, the more efficiently your computer will run.  I wanted a minimum of 16GB of memory.  If I’d bought a big box machine, I would have had to throw away the 4GB they forced on me and replace them with my own chips.  Worse, if you do this yourself, you void your warranty, which means you have to pay a premium to have a technician at the store do a five minute job that doesn’t even require a screwdriver.  That’s good for me, since I can’t use a screwdriver without cutting myself.

One final component that’s often obscure is the power supply.  The first question you’ll encounter is how big should it be–how many volts?  Most vendors have a web tool to help you calculate this. For example, there’s one here: http://www.thermaltake.outervision.com/

But the big advice I have on power supplies is, first, get a modular power supply and, second, get one with flat cables.  Absolutely the hardest part of cabling your new system will be connecting the power supply to the components.  An inexpensive, non-modular power supply will have permanently attached all the cables any system could possible need.  That means you’ve got a whole bunch of thick, ungainly cables stuffed in your system that do exactly nothing.  With a modular system, you chose which cables to plug into the power supply and hence into your system.  You use only the ones you need.

The other thing about inexpensive power supplies is that they have these thick, inflexible cables.  They are hard to handle, won’t go where you want them, and in general make me swear like a sailor. Flat, modular cables solve both problems.  They are flexible, they fit through the channels built in your case, you can tie them off in a corner, and you use only the ones you need.  I figure I spent an extra $40 or so on my power supply. It was the best investment of all the parts.

Next:  The peripherals and the case

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment