Sunday, December 25, 2011

Master of Death, Master of Nothing

It's been a while since I've written anything here, and I suppose there should be an explaination forthcomming. First, I am actively writing again. If I'm writing here, I'm not writing my book. It's exceedingly hard to write good literature during every second of spare time I have, and then to squeeze yet more time out to write a 500 word blog article. To blame it all on my book and my time restraints isn't entirely fair, or honest, for that matter.

I have been decidedly distracted lately, though I haven't really been forthcomming about it. The issue has been plaguing me since I was 12 or so. At that point in my life I experienced, for me, the most tramatic thing I could have then, Death. My grandmother died, and she and I had become increasingly close during the last year and months of her life. I'll never understand it but the death haunted me, in ways that I can never really explain.

I've tried to explain them, in thousands of poems and free writes and pieces of verse, I've tried. I've tried to understand death, and in this I lost myself I think. What I had thought was my grieving process was, I think, just an obsession with death. Or perhaps more apropriately at that time the pain that death inflicts in the fallout of it's merciless grasp.

In my poetry I saught to conquer this pain, to overcome it, so that I never had to hurt that badly again. But the scariest part I'm only realizing now, is that I succeeded. And in what then I would have seen as my greatest accomplisment, I now see as my greatest failure, my dramatic flaw.

A year later my great aunt died, and a year after that my great grandmother, then my grandfather. Each time it hurt less, and less, and less. The deaths kept getting closer and closer and the pain kept fading. I didn't take much notice then, I just kept writing, working. It was like every emotion that pained me, I could, I would, find the words to describe it on my pad, and in doing so lock them away forever.

It's only now that I understand exactly what I've done. It took the death of a great woman, someone I admired and respected deeply, to help me understand. When a friend's mother passed away and I felt nothing, not sadness, not regret, nothing, some part of me questioned it. Why doesn't this feel bad? And it bothered me. Shook me, really, shook me deeply and I began to wonder how well I really knew myself, how well I understood myself.

I've been kind of lost lately, spending more time trying to understand myself. I've spent a great deal of time analyzing my past, trying to discern the turning point, trying to find the way back. I don't know, I do know that I've gone numb in a sense and for some reason the pain in the painlessness hurts that much more.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I Saw Breaking Dawn Part 1

I saw Breaking Dawn, part I on Saturday and while I enjoyed the opportunity to re-live the Twilight Saga, I found it laking. The actual story-line followed the actual plot rather closely, I believe, though it wasn't perfect but I'll concede on this point that movies based on books have limitations as per the inherent nature in the way books are written.

My complaints lie mainly in the acting. The first thing that really make me cringe was the shyness that seemed to permeate their relationship in this movie. It was weird and hard to explain, but it was almost as if they were uncomfortable. I know what they were going for, and the effect worked in the scene immediately before the sex scene (I'll get there.), who isn't nervous and jittery before that first time with someone? So I see using that flavor of acting there, but it seemed to stay with them the whole way through the movie. It was -- it was just weird.

The wedding was great and I loved it. The vowels always make me laugh, I just enjoy being "in" on their little secret. My absolute favorite quote from the movie was from Emmet, Kellon Lutz, “Bella, I hope you got enough sleep these last 18 years, ‘cause you’re not gonna be getting any, any time soon.” I laughed probably a little too loudly, mostly because again we're in on the secret and the wedding is not. Bella's Dad was great as well with his toast, he reminded me of my dad with his guns and hunting men gambit. This was probably my favorite scene from the whole movie.

My other quip is with the Jacob/Bella dance at the reception, where Jake was all over her. I seriously would not be surprised if Mrs. Cullen didn't have a hickey on her neck before it was over. Again, we know Jake has some misplaced affection for Bella because she is destined to have a daughter who Jake imprints on. I get it, really I do, but it was over-done just a tad too much.

The sex scene itself was done tastefully, and I don't have much to say here except that I would have really, really enjoyed actually watching some feathers flying, rather than snowing down lightly in the morning. I'd also imagined her bruises being a bit worse, but perhaps that stemmed from Edward always being a drama queen when it concerned Bella in the books.

Over all it wasn't awful, however I came away thinking there was some filler in places there didn't need to be, and full of nuances over smaller details, many acting and dialogue. I just feel like it could have been better and that Summit Entertainment dropped the ball on us this time around. Here's hoping for better direction in part II, or whatever it takes to make this series go out with a bang.

(emmafrost has a review of Breaking Dawn pt. 1 that reflects my feelings better than I can.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Heroes of Olympus: The Son of Neptune

In the first part of this follow-up series to the New York Times Best Selling series "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" by Rick Riordan, The Lost Hero, Percy Jackson has gone missing and the mysterious Jason has been brought to Camp Halfblood by Grover and the gang. In part 2 of the series, The Son of Neptune, Percy makes his way to the other demigod camp, Rome.

Riordan is a master at making Greek and Roman mythology (and even Egyptian mythology as well), and perhaps even history in general, interesting. I've always been a mythology lover, be it Greek or Roman, so he didn't have to work hard here. However the result either way is a captivating masterpiece that makes you want to read and read and read, leaving you pining for more when you turn the last page (or click the last click on  your Kindle).

The book is perfectly paced, he moves his characters around his playing board with precision. Never spending too long in one place. His fight scenes are balanced with just the right amount of battle, tactics, dialogue, action, and even the touch of humor making you spontaniously giggle like a school girl. Often though, I found myself belting in laughter at points and always the comedic relief is thrown in at just the right moment.

Often when I read, I find myself thinking "I would have done this differently." I know I'm not the author, and it's not my call, but I don't control my thoughts most of the time (if ever). But when I read Riordan, I don't think I've ever had one of those moments, it's perfect, everything about it is perfect.

My only complaint is that I have to wait until the fall of next year to read more. Riordan has another series, that Egyptian one I mentioned earlier, that is due for a new book so I have that to look forward to (I hope).

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Review of Destined (House of Night)

I recently finished reading the latest installment of the "House of Night" series by P.C. and Kristen CastDestined is packed full of sub-plots and many twists and turns keeping the reader guessing constantly.

I started reading the series back in May of '07 when I randomly saw the book on one of the new release shelves at Walmart. The Cast, mother-daughter, duo had me from the first page. I was intrigued by the idea of the vampire finishing school vamps go to when they're Marked. I fell in love with Neferet right along with Zoey and I think I began to hate her just as quickly.

These two are great story tellers, forcing me wonder at the ever-popular question "what happens next" at the end of each book. This time around Destined has not left me without wondering. We started the series fighting Neferet, who then took on Kalona as her consort after raising him from the Earth.

Now Kalona hates Neferet and Stevie Ray in equal parts, the only logical thing to have happen would be for the two sides to at least call a truce in favor of Stevie Ray's Consort, Kalona's son Rephaim, but what happens in the end will suprise you and leave your head spinning and thinking about possibilities you never would have thought possible.

If you need action, magick and vampires and a loving Goddess when you read, grab a "House of Night" book while you're out. They're perfect for the reluctant reader too! I love a fast, easy read to just relax into just as much as I love the deep and involved books.

Friday, November 11, 2011

My Thoughts on Joe Paterno (Child Sex Abuse Scandal)

I've been hearing bits and pieces of this story break and unfold during my drives to work on the radio. Suffice it to say I don't know if you score goals or baskets in football (I'm only partially joking here, my sports knowledge is very limited), I can and will commit my opinion on recent events to the slew of news and blog posts popping up all over the Internet.

Since I'm not a fan at all, and could care less about Penn State University as I'm a Carnegie Mellon fan and future Alumnus, I feel my opion will be as ubiased as possible.

I've always disliked sports, mostly because I'm an academic, and my High School (Hempfield) was (and kinda still is) renound in the area for its academia. So when the district built a $15 million sports complex, installed ridiculously expensive turf other schools were replacing because of numerous injuries, bought a instant re-play scoreboard (with insurance money for the one damaged in a freak tornado) that I'm can't be used in WPIAL sports, and cut the foreign language program from primary schools' curriculums (which is the perfect age for learning a language), you can imagine I was, to be perfectly blunt: more than a little pissed off. School budgets should be focused on providing a top-notch academic environment for students, spending excess money on athletics. I understand many have differing opinions on this particular matter and I respect them, and also respectfully, and strongly, disagree. (During my time at the school, they also almost ruined a teens life.)

I can tell you I've been reading a lot of the articles that have been popping up, as well as some of the comments. Not to mention it's the topic of every conversation I hear. I'm getting a lot of mixed feelings about Paterno, who many will be glad to know was terminated on Wednesday following an emergency meeting of PSU's Board of Trustees.

Some say he should resign immediately, some say he should be fired (along with his superiors), some defend him citing that he did what he was supposed to and reported it to his superior, which he did. I can find sense in all of these arguments.

The comments I find most peculiar though, and I know people will read this and think a whole slew of terrible things about me, are the ones saying what they would have done if they were Paterno. These things range from beating the "living **** out of that mother ******" to calling the police to killing him to stopping him. I believe that %95 of these people are telling the truth. Of those people, I believe about %50 actually belive what they are saying. Of those people I think that %5 would have actually intervened physically, and the number is probably even lower.

Something like this is gruesome, there is no blood and gore, but it is terrible all the same. My thoughts above are backed by Paul Mones who is is a sexual abuse attorney as well as a children's rights advocate out of Oregon. He is quoted by USA Today as saying:

"I don't think it's in our cultural DNA to intervene in certain situations. I would also say in my almost 30 years of doing this kind of work, it is extremely unusual for someone to walk in at the time a sexual assault on a child is taking place. And so it's almost like the person who witnesses it can't integrate it into their understanding of things as they see the world."

Many are wondering why Paterno didn't follow up on the situation and I too, wonder that myself. His legal obligation was to report it to his superior, but I know with certainty that I would have at least followed up. We can't say with certainty he didn't. I think a lot of us forget that the people that run these universities aren't high school principals with a masters in education or administration, but often incredibly powerful people. I mean this in the sense of both money and connections to other people with lots of money and lots of connections. I really don't want to do the whole conspiracy theory thing here, but it is entirely possible (and perhaps not even all that unlikely) that Paterno was asked (forced) to keep quiet. Perhaps some very subtle, or not so subtle, threats were exchanged. No one but the people involved can be certain as to the exact details of what went on behind the closed doors of Penn State University.

I think that given this, it's unfair for any of us to pass judgement so harshly on Paterno. I hear lots of people and articles saying he was trying to protect his reputation, but until we know more about what went on, we're only poking blindly in the dark at the truth with short sticks. I think then, for now at least, Paterno should have been permitted to remain in his position. Perhaps suspended pending details of the investigation. He announced his retirement for the end of the year anyway so he was leaving either way. Some crisis specialists have said that the only way the university could save face was quick termination of Paterno (along with PSU's president who was indeed terminated as well).

I also want to make clear that, baring any circumstance in which Paterno would have been unable to go to the police, I'm on the side of the rest of the world in believing he should have been terminated immediately. If we were in France (and probably several other countries) he would be in jail right now for failing to report a crime.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Yeah, I Can do Web Design

I recently designed this site for a friend of mine who needed a way to collect donations from the members of her Alliance in a Facebook game she plays. 

The donations enable her to have more contests and give out more prizes which in turn cause her members to work harder to be better players and win the contests.

This is probably the nicest thing I've designed in a long time, as I'm not a Web designer by default, it's not something I do often. My primary function in the IT world is to design and develop software and backend systems for Web sites. A lot of what I do is high-volume, sensitive data management and analysis work.

What that means is I write some computer code that moves information around and looks at it and makes decisions based on it or derives stats about customers (Customer Relationship Management). I do a lot of Point of Sale (cash register systems) development as well. I hate trying to explain exactly what it is I do because I do a lot of things, and I always have to be careful because I can't really talk about a lot of my work. 

Since this isn't nearly as sensitive as what I normally do, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share some of my work with you, even if it doesn't really showcase my programming skills. If you click on the image thumbnail, you can see the whole screenshot. The "latin" looking text is called "Lorem Ipsum" which is filler text we use in the Web Design industry to see how text looks on a Web page. It was originally used in typeset books by typesetters.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How to Kill a Character

Killing my first ever character was one of the hardest things I've ever done as a writer. It didn't help that the character, and its death, was crucial to the book. By now I hope you've guessed guessed I'm talking about Maerik. He was Mattes' mentor and teacher and stand-in father. He was incredibly important to Mattes, if not to the story in many subtle ways, and I understood that and I felt awful taking him away from Mattes.

I spent a week writing that scene, and to this day I don't believe I've done it justice. It was, after all, the first time I'd ever offed a character in a story I'd written. Not in a short story in high school, not in any of what I've written in my past. I get mixed feelings about the scene when I talk to people about it too. Some have told me that the emotional connection for the reader should have been stronger with Maerik, others have said I left them feeling incredibly sorry for Mattes.

Part of the problem with killing a character is that the reader isn't actually seeing it happen, and it forces me to work harder to create the right emotions in the text, to pull at the heart-strings of the reader. To do that I have to open old wounds from my childhood. I have to relive the loss of my grandparents, feeling all the pain and sadness all over again. Then I project it onto paper. 

I tend to gain a sense of attachment to the characters I write about. I'm not talking about Maud, even though her death was a crucial part of making Mattes understand that there was no doubt he would have to destroy Marqus, she was a minor character. The only difficulty she gave me was the manner of her death. In fact I created her only to kill her and wrote almost nothing about her. She existed to die and to break up the monotony of staying in Inns accross Kaetuernen.

When I speak of attachment I'm talking about the characters I've spent weeks developing before I even have them written anywhere. I know their fears, their desires, the story of their life. Sometimes I know who their parents are, I know their height, weight, eye color, hair color. I become so intimately familiar with them, that it sometimes feels like they're real, like I could call them and have a chat or something.

How then, do you make this whole process easier? I don't think you can. It's going to make you feel bad, if it doesn't something's wrong. I'm not sure I want it to be easier, I think if I stopped feeling the pain I'd stop writing it well, and I'd probably begin to question which part of me had to die so I couldn't feel anymore.

Something we also have to worry about, as a writer, is alienating our reader. Going back to what someone had said about there not being a strong enough emotional connection between the reader and Maerik, I did that on purpose. I built the connection to Maerik through Mattes, I wanted the reader to feel Mattes' pain, not the grief at having lost a good character. I was also acutely aware that if I made Maerik seem too important, and made my readers love in too much, I would run the risk of alienating someone. After all, it was the first couple chapters of the first book.

The best tip I can give to someone though, who is struggling with killing a character is to relive the saddest moments of your life and write it into the story, make it feel real. But steel yourself because it's going to be unpleasant.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Perilous Comma

If you've read much of what I write, or you've ever been my English teacher (or professor), you probably know that I have a problem. I hate admitting it, but the first step to recovery is admitting that one has a problem and well, here I am, on my way to recovery.

I tend to over use the comma. I'm a huge fan of run-on sentences. I've practically mastered the ability to write, what I've dubbed, the "paragraph-sentence." It is just as it sounds, a whole paragraph comprised of one sentence, or perhaps it's a sentence that should have been a paragraph (or could be). However you'd care to define it, you get the picture.

I don't know why I don't use periods more often, it's right beside the comma. Perhaps I tend to write like I speak, fast. Too fast sometimes with little sepparation between my sentences. So where I should actually be ending a sentence and starting a new one, it feels to me like it should be a natural pause in speech denoted with a comma. I guess I talk in paragraph-sentences. I'm working on it though.

If you visit this blog regularly, and re-read an article a day or two after it's been published you notice some minor changes. Usually it's me going back and re-reading what I've written and fixing the giant run-ons. This is another terrible habit of mine, I seem to treat proofreading like an after thought. Usually because I'm crazy tired when I get home and still have an article to write not to mention a chunk of my second novel and in delirium I click publish. Despite my constant effort to stay a few days ahead, (I've been trying to write several articles at once for some time now) I can't seem to manage it. This is another matter entirely but I'm working on this as well.

I'd intended this article to be more of a grammar lesson than anything else, however it has evolved into what it is mostly because a grammar lesson would bore you to death whereas this is, at least mostly, bearable (I hope).

Monday, November 7, 2011

Your Waitress Can't Read Minds, Go Figure

I've worked in a restaurant and I have several friends who work in the industry as well and we've often exchanged horror stories about customers and managers in equal parts. As far as customers go though, there has always been one common recurring theme that repeats, over and over and over again, and I'm not talking about people who don't know how to tip.

There seems to be this terrible misconception by people that their waiter or waitress is a mind-reader, outside of the normal mind-reading we do each day, capable of gleaning all the little details you didn't mention about your entree that you should have while you were ordering. As much as we all wish it were true (I mean come on, how cool would that be?) it's simply not possible.

For instance, let's say you ordered a roast beef sandwich (which is pictured smothered in gravy and comes that way unless otherwise requested) and you order mashed potatoes to go with it. Your server asks you "Did you want brown gravy on the mashed potatoes?"

"No." You might say. Your server would note you wanted plain mashed potatoes, perhaps thinking in some remote part of their conscious that these instant potatoes almost require gravy to even begin to be palatable.

When the food arives you have on your plate plain mashed potatoes and a roast beef sandwich covered in gravy. "I said no gravy!" you start screaming, making a scene in front of everyone. You dinner guest is hopefully by now appalled at being seen with you because you did, in fact, say no gravy, but that was in reference to your mashed potatoes and not your sandwich. Believe it or not the two items are indeed two items existing sepparately of each other.

Another friend of mine once told me this gem after a fun day at work. They were taking care of this lady and her husband who both ordered drinks and started with an appetizer. The lady ordered a burger with the words mushroom and onion in its name. They enjoyed the appetizer thoroughly while waiting for their meals and when the burger was placed in front of her she lifts the top bun and says "I'm alergic to onions." She hadn't mentioned this at all while ordering. She's offered a new burger or another meal entirely if she'd like and her response is "No, I think I'm full." While this crazy lady was obviously lying about her onion allergy because she got full on the appetizer and didn't want to pay for the burger, it's still a good example showing that servers do not read minds. How was this server supposed to know she was allergic to onions if she never said anything?

Now, everyone makes mistakes, I make about 10 a day, and it's really no big deal. Most times if you make a mistake ordering and simply fess up to it, your food will be fixed, for free, because they want you to leave happy. Please though, don't make a scene and cause your server to take the fall for a simple mistake that you made. Besides, people will stare at you, employees will talk about you, and every time you come it after that they'll whisper in the back of the house "That's the crazy lady who claimed she was allergic to onions." If you're one of these people who expect your server to read your mind, please stop because you're single-handedly driving up the cost of my food and it's expensive enough to eat out as it is.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Yes, an Author Can Write Too Many Books

I love a good series, in fact I read series over "one-offs" almost exclusively. I think it may be because I become attached to the characters and the story and constantly crave more. The end of Harry Potter was a devastating moment, I experienced a minor period of depression while I searched for a new series to cling to. So yeah, I guess that makes me a stage 5 clinger.

For these reasons, it strikes me odd that when I'm reading a series, I eventually get bored with it. I'm not talking eventually as in 8 books, or 10 books, but there are some whoppers out there. Laurell K. Hamilton writes the Anita Blake series which now spans some 20 volumes (as of June '11). I stopped reading a few years ago and just can't seem to want to start reading again. I loved the series, I was enthralled by it for some time. However it seems toward the end where I'd stopped reading the series began to dry up, the plot seems to get tired. You can only fill so many pages with sex before it starts to feel repetitive and like it's there to fill space. Another author, Christine Feehan, has done the same with the Dark series, which I really enjoyed at one point, before it grew past 20 books and started to bore me.

I love these authors, and their stories, but as much as I hate to admit, I think book series do need to have some clearly defined end point where some major event happens or a bad guy is defeated and the series stops. Perhaps leave room to spin another series (like Tamora Pierce did with the Circle of Magic series, and even that came to a close, though she continues to work in that world), but I'm of the opinion that series do need to end, preferably before they're 30 books long and counting.

I know I say this now, and I do mean it, but I know, too, that when I'm about to finish the next series I'm invested in I'll be longing for more, wishing it didn't have to end. I think though, that's the magical part of a series, that they do usually end. It will take you on an adventure to unknown, faraway places where you can battle mythical creatures with magic and crazy weapons. When it's over the story gets to lay fallow, allowing us to recommend it, allowing it to gain a certain following, allowing the fans a chance to re-read and learn all the little details we missed the first time.

I think that's what I miss most about those incredibly long series, the inability to re-read. At 20 books, at a book a week (I do a book in a day when I have a full day, but that rarely happens anymore), it could take almost 6 months to re-read something that large. Further, after so many installments details and facts and names and places start to jumble, I have a great memory and yet I have a rough time remembering some details after the 10th book.

Since I can't stop authors and publishers from over-writing, I guess I'll have to simply enjoy a series for as long as it keeps my interest. If nothing else, they're great clingers between Paolini's long spans of time between books.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Fickle Friend Fame

The one thing I hear the most from friends and new acquaintances since being published goes something like "Don't forget us when you're famous." The sentiment comes in many different forms but always boils down to me not forgetting all the people who cared for me when I was still an unknown kid getting by in Southwestern Pennsylvania. My fundamental response to this statement I get so often these days is always: "I don't want fame." I don't, not really.

I don't want every moment of my existence scrutinized by gossip-mongers looking to make a few bucks off of some good celebrity gossip. I don't want photographers constantly popping out of nowhere taking pictures of every embarrassing moment in my life. Honestly, I don't even want to become incredibly wealthy.

I think perhaps when I was younger, I may have entertained the idea of being famous. I also think that I'd not really at that time had a distinction between being famous and having money pouring out of my ears so I could have every new toy I saw on TV immediately teleported into my living room without waiting for Christmas.

Now though, with the advent of reality TV and shows like TMZ, or at least with my ability to watch them, I've learned the monster that fame truly is. I feel genuinely badly, in some respects, for the people, or train-wrecks in some cases, that are exploited in the press. In other ways, I know they've chosen their profession and their lifestyles, and the fame can often come with it.

I know I, too, have chosen to be an author. I know that there is a possibility, though probably infinitely small, that this series could blow up over night or acquire a crazy following of fans. I understand that if it happens it is my own doing and that I need to deal with it. I won't bask in the limelight or parade around lavish establishments making a total fool of myself. I'll attempt to live as I do now, quietly and very un-lavishly.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Evanescence is Back With a New Album

It's no secret that Evanescence has been my favorite band since I was about 11 years old, 10 years later and I'm still in love with this Little Rock, Arkansas band. No wonder, too, with Amy's soulful lyrics that draw you in and her amazing vocal range, the music is angry and sad and happy and often all at the same time.

The band dropped their first studio album, Fallen, in 2003 which went on to sell 17 million records world wide, win 2 Grammy Awards, and capture the hearts of millions. A year later the live album Anywhere But Home was released and sold about a million records worldwide. The DVD portion featured a taping of the Paris performance as well as plenty of back-stage antics and crazyness from the band.

The band has had a tumultuous history with the lineup changing drastically and often over the years; David Hodges left in 2002, co-founder Ben Moody left in 2003 mid-tour, Will Boyd in 2006, and John Lecompt and Rocky Gray in 2007. There was at least one lawsuit and amid all the turmoil flying up around Lee, she still managed to drop a second studio album in 2006.

The Open Door which landed in stores on September 25, 2006 sold more than 6 million copies worldwide and was certified platinum in the US only a month after its release. Its obvious at a glance that this album, which featured a new Co-Writer for Amy (Terry Balsamo), didn't do as well as their debut Fallen, which featured lots of bass and lyrics laced with pain, sorrow and heartbreak over an abusive relationship with Ben Moody. Even I had my reservations in the beginning, but the album quickly grew on me as I grew with the band. The Lithium CD single for this album featured a bonus track, if you pre-ordered, from Amazon titled "The Last Song I'm Wasting on You" which is exactly that, having been married and moved on, she's done reliving the pain of her past relationship through her music.

Earlier this month, the band released their third studio album self-titled Evanescence which hit iTunes and Amazon on October 11th. The release date for this album is especially interesting because it happened to be my sister's birthday as well as National Comming Out Day. The newest album has spawned 2 singles so far: "What You Want" and another single, "My Heart is Broken," that was distributed to radio stations today. I'm fast falling in love with this rockier follow-up to their latest album The Open Door which featured softer harmonies and spookier vocal styles.

The original contract for the band was for 3 studio albums, and with Lee having been quoted "I'm not doing this forever" fans, including myself, are beginning to worry. Could this be the end of a band we've all come to love? Lee continues to evolve and grow as an artist with every album and I hope we don't see the growth end here with Evanescence. The album title itself kind of foreshadows just that though, given that the band's name means to "fade away" could this be Lee's way of telling us she's done with this chapter of her life?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I'm Completely Awkward at Parties

I spent the night at a small Halloween party hosted by a friend of mine who I work with. Immediately upon arrival I had a rum punch in my left hand, a pudding shot in my right, a pastry stuffed between my fingers, and a kamikaze jello shot tucked between the fingers of my other hand. The night was fun, or at least about as much fun as I'm capable of having at these things.

I tend to stand around a lot, gravitating toward the larger groups of people so I look like I'm part of the group, but not actually participating in the conversation. I feel weird if I'm just standing completely alone, as I should, because who stands alone at a party? The worst bit is my social awkwardness, I earned some distinctive honors back in high school doing forensics (the National Forensics League), which is essentially a bunch of speech and debate competitions.

I obviously have no problem talking to people, but I have trouble conversating with them. Generally you'll talk and I'll listen intently (presumably) dropping in a "yeah" or "of course" here and there, especially if I'm not really interested in what you're talking about. It doesn't help that I love to people watch and get distracted fairly easily in large gatherings of my prey as there are so many personalities to take in and analyze later. If I don't know who you are, well I'm even worse. I'm not shy, but I don't know how to explain it, I don't know what you're interested in  and have no idea what to discuss.

There are always the "Bards," as I like to call them, at parties though who don't care who's interested in what, they have a story to tell, or a bunch (God help us), and they plan on telling it (them) to everyone they stumble upon. These are the people that are often also the ones that can't quite handle their liquor as well as they think and they end up running into you multiple times throughout the evening and forcing you to listen once more to yet another story, or even worse, the same story they told you 15 minutes ago, which happens to also be the story they told you 30 minutes ago and when you walked in the door.

That said, I know way too much about this guy's great aunt's cousin's niece's daughter who's kitten drank some spilled beer off a floor this one time and ended up in the mailbox where it attacked the mail lady the next day when she attempted to deliver the mail. While a summary is mildly amusing, the 20 minute version with the guy breathing his gross, alcohol lace breath in your face is less so, especially after hearing it for the 4th time.

If you're that guy or girl (they're often male) please understand that while we don't hate you, you'v probably only been invited as a courtesy and probably weren't really supposed to actually show up and have some stranger you've never met before drive you home in the crazy fog because you insist on drinking too much and telling too many stories. I feel bad for the poor guy who ended up taking this particular gentleman home.

At any rate, the night was fun, and since I have almost no life outside of work, writing, and writing (no, it's not a typo, I write so much I counted it twice) was also a much needed retreat where I could relax and have a few drinks with friends. Kim throws one hell of a party and makes some killer pudding shots. I'm mostly writing this because I wanted to put another article out today but didn't have time to actually sit down and do the work for the article I wanted to write given the party and all, plus I decided to sleep a little later than usual.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

How Do Authors Keep Ideas Organized?

One of the biggest issues for writers is keeping all the plots they construct organized, along with the flow of the story and the way the characters develop with the plot. For every author it's different, and I struggled while I was working on my debut novel, Majician's Journey, “TheProphecy,” and it shows, at least to me. I'm told though, that people are very critical by nature of their own work, but that's another matter entirely.

I'd tried to outline, like we'd been taught in my English classes in high school, and it always felt too refined, too finite. When I used an outline, I felt too restricted and often ended up diverting entirely off topic. The basic plot would rarely change but the details I'd imagined and jotted down almost always did. I think it was more in part my initial brainstorming/epiphany being flawed than with the way I was writing the story. Outlining in the standard sense just wasn't going to work for me.

Before I started working on my current book, I had a breakthrough. One day I got the urge to start working and I was curious as to how some of my favorite authors planned their work, so I started with the most obvious, Joanne Rowling, whom I respect and admire greatly. I ended up clicking on a Google search result that led me to a photo of a page from her notebook laying out her plan for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in which she'd set up a grid, kind of like an Excel sheet (this is probably what I liken it to most), that laid out the time of year, the times, the chapters and the individual chapter plots among other things.

When I saw it my brain whirred, and started building it's own version, making changes that began to fit perfectly with how I write and the way I approach the writing process. I'm use a very free-style way of writing, so-to-speak, preferring to let the words just “come-out,” rather than thinking too much about them. I I've found that with me, if I think too much about the story while I write, everything begins to feel forced. I eventually came up with what you see below ruled onto a legal pad:

Intro main chars minor back-story; the tattoo; build maerick's emotional connection for later
Maybe start with the tat spell? Kinda solemn, serious tone, an older mattes reflecting

With this, I can keep track of what time of year it is, the characters I'm working with and where they are, as well as approximately how many days need to be covered in that chapter, there is a place for me to write down the gist of the plot, I also know the chapter title (or a list of contenders at least, although sometimes they're blank (shh!)) and there is a spot for my notes or thoughts about the chapter. In the above example I used the first chapter of The Prophecy for example, because I can't exactly use a current chapter, now can I?

This method of outlining keeps me on-track, but allows me the freedom to create the story more fluidly. I've also used time lines a lot throughout, mostly to lay out the back-story for events that happened a long time ago but I still may need to reference because they're important to what is going on now. I need to keep everything aligned so that the dates and times are consistent throughout the series. I recommend time lines enthusiastically to anyone who has similar needs.

Keep in mind that, as I mentioned in the beginning, there is no de facto method for outlining or planning that works for everyone. Having a good understanding of how you think and work will make finding a method that works for you so much easier. The easiest way to figure out how you're working and thinking and what your “process” is could be by listing exactly why a standard MLA outline doesn't work for you, or what's wrong with it, along with other things you try. Experiment. After all writing is an art-form, and even though art isn't a science (though science can be art), at the heart of every artist needs to live a scientist because experimentation is so important in our work.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Taking On Cricket Communications

You've just enjoyed a great meal and a nice evening with the kids, you order desert and tuck in, the server drops the bill and you make your way up to the cashier and they say “$37.86 plus $5 convenience fee.” Absolutely absurd, no one would charge their customers to pay their bill, right? Wrong. This is where my battle with Cricket starts, on a sunny afternoon in the middle of Pittsburgh International Airport.

At one point in time I had a USB 3G wireless broadband modem from Cricket for when I traveled. Since I work mostly from home and charge clients extra for me to work on-location, I don't usually travel that much so I generally just pay the modem bill only if I know I'll need it in the next 30 days, and this works for me. On this particular occasion I forgot to pay the bill before I left, being in a hurry and needing to catch a flight and all, so I give Cricket a call.

They gladly pass me over to the billing department who kindly tell me I have to pay a $5 convenience fee in order to process my payment over the phone, to which I promptly say “No way in hell.” I'm already giving the company $50, so why should I pay them five dollars, merely so that I can hand over another fifty? The foreigner on the other line spits out the same line of crap time after time, a canned response showing up on his screen. Finally I've had enough, and ask for his supervisor.

When the supervisor gets on the line, I explain to him my situation and also explain how ludicrous it is that I should pay them in order to pay them. He spits out a slightly different line of crap that's shown by his computer screen again and again, and after another half hour of back-and-forth, me making valid points and him spitting out some flimsy excuse and apologizing again and again, I ask for his supervisor. Another half hour goes by before this guy finally gives in and takes my money without me paying a convenience fee. I'm happy (and I've effectively killed a ton of time waiting for a flight) and they can wash their hands of me, for now.

Normally I pay my bills online, that's how I pay all my bills, it's just easier, I'm always at my computer anyway and Cricket charges no fee to pay online because apparently that's, in their opinion, the least convenient method to pay and therefore requires no “convenience” fee. When I signed up with this company I was never told about these fees or many of their other policies which I'll get to in a second, because my run-in with this company is far from over.

I also have my cell phone with Cricket because they're fairly cheap and have a good "unlimited everything" plan which is what I need, given my call and text message volume, plus I spend a lot of time searching the Web when I'm away from my PC in my phone's browser, normally I pay my bill online, like I mentioned before, but on this particular day, I'd somehow procrastinated too long, and it's now the day the bill is due and I only have cash so I drive down the road to the Cricket store to pay my bill. They want me to give them a $3 convenience fee to pay my already $66 phone bill (I'm an Android user and they require special data plans at Cricket) so I have to give them money in order to give them more money. So I mention my phone incident and how they waived the fee and how I expect them to do the same. He basically laughs, and says (this is a direct quote) “If you don't fucking like it, go somewhere else and they can put up with your shit.”

I gave him the “Wow, really?” look and figured he'd just lost his job so with a self-knowing grin I gave him the money and left, pulling my phone out of my pocket on the way to my car. While I was still in the parking lot, I dialed the number to corporate, they took my complaint and all my details, the store location and the clerk's name. Not long after this I'm at my friend's house, enjoying a drink with him and his wife, and his wife Denae looks at me and says “What was that guys name who gave you so much crap the other day at the Cricket store?” I told her asked her why, she explained how she was there with her mom earlier while they were out shopping together and her mom had told her to be careful because she was Denae's ride home (I guess my friend had made sassy joke). The same guy who I had complained about had overheard this exchange and quipped “Don't worry baby, I can ride you home.” Denae laughed and explained she was married, he said, and I kid you not “Honey it's mind over matter, if you don't mind, it don't matter.” (lame pick-up line anyone?) I told her to call corporate as I had, and she did. To this day that employee still has his job, and still regularly harasses customers.

At the beginning of September, I had some further issues with the company and so did some close friends so I basically said I'd had enough and decided not to pay my bill, I planned on switching to T-Moble because they have a no-contract unlimited plan priced similarly to Cricket with better coverage and award-winning customer service (literally). T-Mobile's only draw-back is that their phones are $500-700 without a 2yr-agreement, so I was saving up to get a nice phone and be able to pay the first month. Unfortunately I have the least favorable odds in the world and things almost never work out as planned.

Shortly before I'd be able to make the switch I get an E-mail telling me I'm going to need to travel out to a client's data center on the other side of the state to do some maintenance, and I don't travel without a phone, it's just not a good idea at all, and besides my sister and I share my house so I'd need to keep in touch with her while I was away. So I break down and log-in to MyCricket and pay the bill, and my phone turns on. For about a week.

Cricket markets themselves heavily based on the fact that they're a no-contract provider, with no late fees or early termination fees. They don't maintain the same business practices that companies like Verizon Wireless use, allegedly that is, aside from providing absolutely terrible customer service. So when I got the text message “reminding” me that my bill of $66.35 was due on the 7th of October (I paid it on the 29th of September) I thought it was a mistake and dialed up Cricket. Turns out, it's not a mistake, they actually thought I was going to give them $134 for one month of service.

Before I go any further, I need to crunch some numbers for you, the same numbers I crunched for each and every person I spoke with at Cricket. On average there are 30 days in a month. My bill is $66.35 which works out to 2.21166... or $2.21 a day. My bill is due on the 7th, they shut my phone off on the 8th at midnight (so at 12am on the 9th my phone no longer had service) Which means I had one day of service that I didn't pay for, but I mean, that's their fault for not shutting me off right away, assuming it was a courtesy I'm willing to accept responsibility for it though. I paid my bill again on the 29th, because I needed to, God know not because I wanted to, and they wanted me to pay again on the 7th of October. In effect, I should technically owe them $2.21 for the 8th, but since “we can't just change your billing date” and the payment I made for essentially the next 30 days of service would only take me to the 29th of October, I told them I understood, and that I'd gladly pay for the 9 days needed to get me back on track with the 7th of November billing date. So in the end I was paying for a total of 10 additional days of service (one of which I conceded to pay for as my way of being reasonable and trying to meet them half-way) which at $2.21 per day is $22.21.

They refused to listen to any of it, well they all listened, and every single one of them said, and this is an almost word-for-word quote “I'm sorry sir, I do understand sir but the maximum rebate we can provide for time without service is $25.” In other words I was expected to pay $41.35 for 10 days of phone usage, and this is after I'd gone through 2 supervisors.

The third supervisor very, very rudely told me “You can't just pay your bill whenever you want, it's not a pay-as-you go service, it is [a] pre-pay service.” I responded asking him if I was wrong in my belief that Cricket had a no-contract service and he confirmed I was correct, and I also mentioned I never signed an agreement with Cricket and he confirmed I hadn't. So I told him that I wasn't Paying-as-I-Went, but merely Pre-Paying for 30 days of service beginning with the 29th. I finally asked this twat for his supervisor who pretty much said all the same stuff with the same accent and a slightly ruder tone. I'm not sure if it was this guy or if I went through one more supervisor before I finally, becoming so very frustrated, explained again the mathematics of the situation and that I was willing to pay for an additional 10 days of service to bring me to the next billing date. He told me that because they require a payment every month, if you miss a month, you still have to pay for it, plus the current month, to restore service. If you don't pay for 2 months, or 3 months, you'd have to pay for 3 or 4 months of service to restore your phone connection. So much for a no-contract plan, eh Cricket?

We ended up arguing for another half-hour, and finally, at long last he said “How about this sir, you're the customer and [other stuff], we want to work something out how about $20.” I promptly agreed, and made the payment, reminding him again calmly and politely that this is all I'd been asking for for over 3 and a half hours, and honestly, they'd have gotten more money if they'd just listened to me from the start.

Why did I just type over 2 thousand words about Cricket? Because they're an awful company and I want people to know about it. Further, Cricket isn't a no-contract wireless carrier after all, because their terms of use are considered by them a “legally binding contract between you and Cricket” which essentially does say that you have to make a payment every single month or you'll pay for the months you didn't have service too, even if their FAQ leads you to believe otherwise. Just pray the sales person who sells you your phone lets you in on this and hands you their terms and conditions pamphlet because I never got one, and lots of other people I know didn't get one, so either this is new, or it's the terrible service at the neighborhood Cricket store. Either way, this company is ridiculous.

But it's not the first and only company to indulge in unsavory business practices, plenty of companies charge you a fee for you to pay them, for instance, and the only way they'll stop is if we force them to, by refusing to pay their fees, or use their service. Big businesses don't care about customers anymore, just like they don't care about employees, we're all replaceable. As a small business owner/freelance developer, I can say that I will never treat customers like this, I've fired my customers before, and gave them a full refund, but Cricket wasn't even willing to give me a refund and send me on my way. I am leaving Cricket, and honestly, I don't care about a contract at this point, I'll need a phone for the next two years pretty much no matter what, so I might as well, right?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Things to Consider When Tipping Your Waiter

Everyone goes out to eat at some point in their lives, often more then once or twice a week. When we go out, we do so because we don't want to cook, or clean, or maybe we're celebrating a special achievement or event of our kid(s) like an "A" in math or a celebratory dinner after a concert.

Rarely, though, do we think of the people who make this nice, relaxing evening with the kids or that new special person in our lives possible. Most notably are the service staff at your favorite restaurant. They run around literally all night, waiting on us hand and foot, making sure our drinks are refilled before they're empty. Your server is the person who acts as the intermediary, between the customer and the cook, making sure you get exactly what you want and how you want it.

The server often gets crap, so to speak, from both sides. They put up with our rudeness, our needy demands, they go out of their way to make the evening right, and they get the comments from the kitchen when the cooks screw up, your server is a micro-managment-machine, and they make your dining experience enjoyable. Even if the food is less than par, a good server can make the evening favorable anyway. Servers are, in fact, the most important piece of a dine-in restaurant's equation and what do they make on average? $2.83/hr. 

Having talked to many servers and non-servers alike, it seems that most people generally assume that a server makes minimum wage like every other employee in a restaurant. But state and federal labor laws allow employers to pay their service staff a special minimum wage which is far less than the standard. What makes the situation worse is that most people don't understand exactly how to tip, or what to consider as a basis for the tip.

As a general rule, for me at least, my server never gets less than $5 from me, even if I simply sat down and had a coffee, but I also tend to be out at 2am and often sit for an hour or two. Generally, you should tip your server $1 for every $5 you spend, which works out to 20%, this simple formula can save you time at the register with your phone's ridiculous tip calculator that defaults (usually) to 10-15%. 

Remember when I mentioned I sit for a few hours drinking coffee? Time should be taken into your tip as well, remember that on average, a table "turns" every 30-45 minutes in most family restaurants (like Denny's) and ever hour to hour and 15 minutes in higher-end establishments (think Olive Garden or Long Horn Steak House). So if you and your family sit for 3 hours catching up, you should probably at least tip 1.5 times the 20% standard (ex: $20 check works out to a $4 tip, divide the tip by 2, you get $2 add it to the original tip for a new tip of $6) however if you sit much longer consider doubling your tip all-together.

"Why should I double my tip or even tip more?" You might be asking, and the answer is fairly simple, if a server has 4 tables in their "section" that she is responsible for, and you take up one of them for 4 hours, they're effectively losing out on 3-4 tables worth of tips, which you should help to make up for, even if you've stopped needing refills an hour and a half ago.

If you've had a bad experience at a restaurant you probably shouldn't take it out immediately on your server, they may have had a death in the family, or perhaps another table was abusing them beyond what is expected, and trust me when I say there are some people who will run a server from minute one. If you thought your service was poor, tip no less than 10% and talk to the manager, they will usually adjust your bill for you or send you home with a free desert or gift card. If the manager or head waiter/waitress comps your bill, you should perhaps consider leaving at least a 15% tip, or even 20% because, after all, you did eat for free and it may not have been the server's fault.