Hero Portal, Chapter 1, Scene 1


Curious cat  is a closeup image of a Calico cat with magnetic green eyes
It’s not often I get to illustrate a scene! 
This awesome photo is by Mexitographer from Istock Photo.

Ever since the aliens came, I wondered if they’d been here in Ancient Egypt times and gave us cats.  ‘Cause there was a Calico with brown patches who kept climbing up my back to see what I was doing under the kitchen sink. 

She was a pretty little cat, all skinny and lithe, her purring machine humming away.  She’d already staked me out and knew I was a softie.  But I needed to get this drain unclogged.

“Cat, you need to move your crazy butt.”

Wedging my hand under her belly, I relocated her to the yellowing linoleum. By the time I had the gunk ball plopping into my plastic bucket, the cat was back, sticking her head in the cupboard.  Her tail brushed my nose, a cat mustache.  But not crazy cat butt.  Stinky cat butt.

A pair of wrinkled hands reached down to pick up the cat.  “Alistair, behave,” admonished the customer.

Alistair?  Who names their cat Alistair?

But then I supposed I’m not one to complain about names.  My name is Dice Ford.  The Dice is actually short for Candice.  Yeah, you’re probably making that face, too.  I hate the name, and Candy…just…no.  I’m not being called a food.  My mother hates it, but that’s okay.  She hates that I’m a plumber, too.

This was my fourth call of the day. Second clogged drain, one water heater rusted out, and a lost ring.  I’d been glad to leave that last house. Taken longer than the water heater.  The couple was probably still fighting. 

I tried not to look too much at the customers.  I saw all shapes and types and sometimes I wasn’t always kind with my thoughts.  Never had blurted out anything stupid but I didn’t want my thoughts on my face.  This customer was old.  Not old the way you think, though she was in her eighties.  No, she was old in the way some people simply are, regardless of their age.  Like they’d put up with too much in the world and used up all their years.

“How much longer?” she asked.

No hints of impatience.  It was an art form to figuring out how long I should take to satisfy the customer.  It was a clogged drain.  But if it took ten minutes to fix, the customer would squawk at the cost.  So I always did a little fourish.  You know, made it look more difficult.

“Almost done,” I said.

Behind the customer, the TV on the breakfast nook table flashed. The melodious voice of one of the aliens filled the tiny kitchen.  The customer turned to watch.  It was one of the aliens I’d seen around doing interviews.  News media ate him up.  He was talking about how they were still looking for the right superhero.

“What do you think of them?” the customer asked.

“The aliens?”  I latched my wrench around the pipe joints and tightened it.  Difficult in the work gloves but I didn’t want to get bit by a brown recluse.

“They’re downtown, you know,” the woman said.  “They have a Hero Portal set up in the convention center.”

I hadn’t heard that, but I’d been making an effort to not pay attention. Too much drippy love from the media.  They weren’t questioning anything, except what the aliens wanted.  Me?  I had enough of my mother’s lawyer side in me to be a cynic.  People were stupid if they thought the aliens were handing out technology and superhero suits from the kindness of their two hearts.

Alistair squirmed in the woman’s arms, so she let the cat jump to the floor.  The kitty immediately scurried back to me on soft feet, inspecting the open cabinet.

“You going to the portal?” the woman asked.  “Everyone’s talking about seeing the aliens in person.”

“I’m sure my boyfriend will take me,” was all I could manage. 

It was at least true.  Jason would be all over the Hero Portal.  He’d been talking about flying out to Los Angeles to visit the one there, convinced he was the one destined to a superhero.  We’d had our first major fight over it.  He’d wanted me to pay for the plane ticket since he couldn’t afford it.  I told him to save up for it.  He told me I was ruining his chances.

I left the cat inspecting the dark and mysterious hole and stood up to turn on the water.  Drain flowing smoothly again and no leaks below.  I removed the glop bucket and started putting back the cleaning supplies.  The calico came out, triangle nose poking at the bucket like it contained catnip.  I quickly snapped on the lid before the kitty got glop all over her pretty white fur.

“Do you think they’ll finally find a superhero?” the woman asked.

I stowed my tools in my red toolbox.  Alistair batted at my hands like she had fists.  “There must not be very many people with the right DNA. Kind of like a needle in a haystack.”

But the question bounced around in my head as I stowed the bucket and toolbox in my van.  The aliens had Hero Portals set up on all the major continents.  Not one person claimed a suit. 

Then what the heck were they doing with our DNA? 

3 Ways to Preserve the Creative Side


A small white British kitten lies upside down with his foot forward
Talk to the paw

Image from IstockPhoto, provided by SunRay BRI Cattery RU

One of the problems with all the craziness going on this week is that it’s very hard on the creative side, or the muse. 

Limit news sources

The media wants to sell us with headlines.  They also don’t care about us, beyond what they can sell to us.  There’s a constant barrage of “The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!”  That takes mental energy to absorb.  When I was in Desert Storm, we lived in minute-by-minute fear we were going to be attacked.

All this is very hard on the creative side.  For the first few days, I gave up on any kind of writing.  The energy simply wasn’t there.  But I took control by doing all of the following:

  1. Unsubscribe to daily news emails.  Even seeing the email like is like a bell going off to keep reminding us that we should be afraid.
  2. Unsubscribe to any news sites in your social media feeds.  This is the same problem as the emails, only the email is just one.  On a place like Facebook, you might get barraged with ten articles.  Just no.
  3. Limit your news to one source.  I’m a paper subscriber, so that became one newspaper that isn’t doing as much hysterics as everyone else.  I also stopped looking at anything on TV.  It seems like it’s a long time ago, but those used to be how we got the news and we went the rest of the day without.
  4. Limit your time.  If you go online for your news, stick to the main page, look at what you want, and then get off.  Then STAY AWAY!
  5. Cut off social media.  I’ve been shocked at how many people will send post after post on Coronvirus to be “helpful.”  It has the same impact as the news screaming at me constantly.  So I’m off Facebook for the moment.

Exercise

Exercise of any kind is very good for your creative side.  Just make sure you pay attention to any guidelines from your doctor.  When I was locked down four years ago due to a broken foot, I still did some limited exercise—I had a lot of rules from the doctor on what I couldn’t do then because I was no weight-bearing.  I still managed something.

These are some things you can do:

Walk.  If you’re not on lock-down, just take a walk down the street.  Washington DC is starting to bloom, so I can check out the white flowers on the dogwood trees and listen to the birds.  There’s also a lady who walks her dog when I go out.  The dog’s got a topknot!

Use the walk to help you mentally separate from what’s going on.  I have to deal with Coronavirus at work.  At the end of the day, I shut off my computer and head outside for a walk to reconnect with my creative side.

Do other kinds of exercise.  Especially if you’re in shelter-in-place.  It’s too easy there to do nothing and keeping your body moving is essential t keep your creative side happy.  You can grab exercise here and there all day—and the tools are available to you in your house.

Jack La Lanne, the godfather of exercise, was big about keeping the exercise simple.  A machine with weights is nice to have, but there are exercises that you can do with a towel or a pair of cans or a book.  His famous “bicycle” is done sitting in a chair.

I’ve been doing things like calf raises or chair squats while I wait for the computer to boot up.  While I’m waiting for sites to load, it’s bicep curls, chest flys, or wrist curls with coconut milk cans. 

Be Prepared for Plan B

You might have to do some things differently because of how you feel and respect that you may not get done what you want.

I normally write in the evenings and on the weekends.  With the chaos of the last few weeks, I’m only able to do some early in the morning before work takes me back into it.  I consider it lucky that I’m getting anything done at all.

It’s very important during these stressful times to protect your creative side.  What are you doing for it? 

Sign up for Writing Nerd’s newsletter! It comes out on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month and features links and other nerd tidbits.

6 Business Writing Tips From Pro Fiction Writers


Cute little kitten crowned with a chaplet of dandelion in female hands
Because we all need kitten photos now. A great photo from IStockPhoto, by vvvita

The business side always gets neglected by writers.  A lot of people tend to think that all they need to do is write the book and somehow the rest will magically happen.  Even in the writing of the book, there are choices you can make that may help with the business side if you know them.  Onward!

  1. Control what cover you get.  While it’s true that the publisher won’t give you any say when they create the cover, you have other options available.  When you write the book, include 3-4 more visual scenes.  That way, they can be used for the cover. (Dave Farland, Superstars)

  2. Entice Hollywood to option your book.  Hollywood likes visual, so following tip #1 may also get some movie interest as well. (also David Farland, Superstars)

  3. Include your address, phone number, and email on e-manuscripts you submit.  It’s easy to leave this off when you’re sending a manuscript as an email.  Why would an editor need the address when they’re simply emailing you?  Because the editor copies and pastes the address into the contract. (Kevin J. Anderson, from the Monsters, Movies, and Mayhem submission call)

  4. Write short stories for anthology calls.  Even if you’re not published or don’t have much published, you can land in an anthology with big names.  Readers will come to the anthology to read David Gerrold and then see your story (Jonathan Maberry, Superstars).  Side note: I’m in an anthology with both of these writers!

  5. Reread the magazine guidelines before starting a project, and reread them before submitting.  The first part is to make sure you don’t have it wrong in your head and end up wasting time on the story.  The second part is to double-check yourself on the little details. (Sheila Chandra, Linda Adams)

  6. Schools love having writers talk to middle grade.  Start local and talk to the local librarians and then you can expand nationwide.  The schools may even pay a stipend to bring you out.  (From Superstars…did not write the writer’s name down).

Got any business tips you can share?

Sign up for Writing Nerd’s newsletter! It comes out on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month and features links and other nerd tidbits.

A Day in the Life with Coronavirus Chaos


Dachshund snuggled up and asleep under duvet cover in human bed.
Because, well, dogs.

Image by Anton_Herrington from IstockPhoto

This week has been influenced a lot by coronavirus chaos.  I started the world semi-normal at the beginning of the week (as normal as a writer can be) and want to remain that way.

In that time, the US declared a national emergency and it seemed like everyone started taking crazy pills.  So my effort to remain normal (aside from not taking crazy pills)  Includes:

  • Minimizing my news consumption (once a day or not at all).
  • Dong my normal business.

I’m fighting to stay disconnected from craziness as much as possible.  During September 11, I remember when the media realized they needed to stop showing pictures of the attack and did.  Now they have no governer, and sadly, may even be doing it very intentionally.

So all I can do is control my input…and refuse to buy into the craziness.

Morning

I spent the morning running errands.  Groceries first thing.  It was a ghost town, except for a few people.  One woman was stocking up like she expected a nuclear attack.  All I was after was groceries for this week.

Pasta shelves empty.  Water shelves empty.  Frozen food empty.  Fresh veggies—untouched.

I couldn’t get tissues there, which I needed because the pollen’s pretty bad.  Time for the backup plan!

Writing Nerd Ninja Trick: Can’t get tissues because everyone else overstocked?  Head for Staples.  The office supply stores sell tissues and no one’s thinking of it as a place to find them.

Then off to the farmer’s market.  I had to check online to make sure it hadn’t been canceled.  People were selling, and my favorite vendor was there.  He brought a good selection, but much smaller quantities.  It was obvious they didn’t expect a lot of business.

After that, I visited my favorite restaurant.  They need the business, and I’m happy to provide it.  No seating outside today.  Sunny and gorgeous and cold.  Did dog watching while I was there.  People like to walk their dogs in the area while they shop and eat.

Final outbound errand was to a department store to shop for clothes.  I wanted something I was going to have fun with, and also a place that I had to hop on the freeway.  If I’m not commuting at all next week, I need a freeway run on the weekend to keep up the battery in the car.

Afternoon

Back to working on character worksheets.  The story is now called “Hero Portal.” 

One of the things I’ve discovered is that there was one writing skill that I should have worked at.  I’m really good at characterization, so I passed on workshots for it.  At the time though, it was the right decision because there were other skills that needed more love.

Now…

I’m wondering if that has to do with why my stories always end up too short.  It’s weird, too, because last year, I focused on learning to write longer and got no traction.  Then, maybe that goal wasn’t specific enough because I hadn’t tackled this one area.  We’ll see…

I feel like I’m working a muscle that was out of shape and needs some strength training. 

What are you doing to cope with cornavirus chaos?

Coronavirus Chaos Reading (Because, books, right?)

  • Golden Likes: An Al Travers mystery, set in 1940’s Hollywood.  The ultimate escape from the virus chaos.
  • Last Stand: A science fiction novel set in my GALCOM Universe.  Sometimes we just need a good action book.  I blow up spaceships and rip apart a space station.
  • Here Be Merfolk: A collection of short stories (including one of mine, of course!) on merpeople.
  • Here Be Magic: A collection of short stories on magic. Includes my clown magic story.

5 Quotes on the Creative Life


Shot of a pretty little cat biting the tip of a pen while its owner writes a note with him.
Idea Cat helps with idea. Photo from IStock Photos, by nensuria

Sometimes quotes from famous people can be quite profound. I thought I’d take some on the subject of creativity and share.

For anyone who has been told, “I have this idea. You write it and we’ll split the profits 50-50.”

Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard.

Guy Kawasaki

This one reminded me of a writer I knew who was a gifted storyteller, but was too afraid to put her work out to the world.

The difference winning and losing is most often…not quitting.

Walt Disney

Sometimes writers falter because they’re afraid. The writer above put her writing in a drawer instead of risking rejection.

Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.

John Wayne

When I broke up with my co-writer years ago, the one thing I had to do was get back up on my horse and write another book.

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.

M. Radmacker

And this one just because…

It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy.

Steve Jobs

Pacing: How long is a scene?


Cute baby cat between pastel colored balls of wool in a basket looking up
Gratuitous cat photo

IStockPhoto by MirasWonderland

Scene length is the foundation for pacing in every book.  Too many short scenes and you leave the story with a vague sense of dissatisfaction.  Scenes that are too long makes the story plod.

But how long is one supposed to be?

It’s a common question.  The answer is usually something vague like “When it’s done,” or when you change locations.  One published writer had this response:

How long is a piece of string?

Yup.  I can feel my eyes crossing.  It’s a non-answer. (But the kitten with string was cute.)

At one point I was doing the “when it’s done,” and the scenes tended to keep going and going and going.  I’d end up with scenes that went on for 3,000 words.  Worse, they were like a 75-word sentence.  Somewhere along the way, the scene lost focus.

Turns out there is an answer.

A scene is about 1,500 words.

This originally comes out of the pulp era and you see it in the bestsellers today.  Try typing a best seller’s chapter to see what the length is.  In most cases, it’ll be around that 1,500 mark.  

Just the right length to read in one sitting and feel satisfying.  You might find one around 2,000, though.  That’ll be the writer intentionally slowing down the story at that point.

Once I heard about the actual physical length of a scene, it was suddenly I had a picture frame around it.  As I was writing, the scene naturally found places to stop where it should.

One of my favorite writers who does the pacing of scenes very well is James Rollins.  Do you have any favorites?

Sign up for Writing Nerd’s newsletter! It comes out on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month and features links and other nerd tidbits.

Additional Reading

A Day in the Life of Writing Nerd


Desk with laptop, lamp, flowers, and stackable trays.
The Nerd Zone

With a full-time job, much of my writing time ends up being on the weekend.  That’s sometimes hard because I also need to have time for myself other than going to work and then writing.  But this is what my day looked like on Saturday.

6 AM – Up, and a sinus zombie this morning.  The weather’s been warming up, so the pollen Death Stars started their attack.  I puttered around until my brain woke up more.

Fun Memory:  This book on The Waltons popped up in my Facebook stream this morning.  I met the writer Charlotte Graham around the time the book came out and she autographed a copy of it for me.

7 AM – The dull and boring stuff.  I did some maintenance work on the website.  With WordPress’s change to blocks, I had to redo all my book pages.  I previously managed to get all the covers up, including some I’d missed (yikes).  But not all of them have links.

  • Checked the Non-Fiction page. Verified the links were all there.  But this is the one page I’ll need to redo, since I was still figuring out the blocks.  I was missing three books off this page!
  • Zap! General Fiction is now completed.
  • Validated the Mysteries page.
  • To the Science Fiction page, I added the cover for X Marks the Spot.  That’s coming out in April.  Zoomed through all the links—Yay! 

For all the pain of me not getting to this because my head imagined it bigger than it was, it only took about fifty minutes.

WordPress block tip: When putting up book covers in a block, only do three covers per block.  If you delete an image, or add one later, the block removes all the book cover links.  If you do only three, it’s a lot less work to fix.

8 AM.  Close all files.  Off to farmer’s market to pick up vegetables.  Hopefully there will be some.

Gorgeous day out.  The trees are covered with fuzz from the buds coming in.  And it’s really windy.  I thought I would stop off at this marshlands park nearby for a walk out in the sun.  Nope, nope, nope.  Way too cold still. 

I did stop off at Roaches Run, which is along the George Washington Parkway.  Gorgeous view of the Potomac River.  If you want to see a picture of it, it’ll be on Tuesday’s newsletter

Saw this on the road:

We fix viruses not coronavirus

Sign on computer store

It was a quick run at the farmer’s market.  Alexandria was setting up for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Streets were already being blocked off.  I lucked out and was able to find parking.

Zoomed n and did a happy dance.  One of the vendors I like is back for the season.  He and his daughter man the tables and they always have lots of good vegetables.  This morning, he said, “Picked at six AM this morning.”  That’s fresh!

Spoils: green leaf lettuce, kale, collard greens, celery, red bell peppers, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, avocados, ground beef, and eggs.

9:30 – Back to some more writing maintenance.  This time to Book2Read to make sure all the book links are current.  This site is a link propagator that picks up all the vendors, but with all the changes like new sellers, the links need refreshing periodically.  So I run a rescan.

Then a break for a while.  Closing everything down again.

11 AM – Off to my favorite Thai restaurant for lunch, Kindle in hand.  Sun’s really bright, and it’s still really cold and windy.  When I was coming back, a lady came out of a store with her black dog (lab-sized).  The first thing the dog did was steer over to me.  Yup, he got some petting.

1 PM – Onto some research.  This is for my next book, which may be a 3 or 7 book series.  Haven’t quite made up my mind.  But it’s a superhero story.

I’ve been watching both The Greatest American Hero and Earth: The Final Conflict.  In GAH, aliens come to Earth and give humans a superhero suit.  Motive: Prevent what happened on their world from happening to Earth.

In EFC, aliens come to Earth and give mankind technology and heal people.  Motive: That’s hard to tell in the first season, except that the Taelons appear to have other goals that benefit them and not humanity.  I liked how we were sure if they were good or not, and if the individual Taelons were good or not.

Researching superhero powers.  Who knew there would be lists?  Plus here’s the tropes.  I’m definitely breaking #7.  The parents are in the story.  #12 also: This character does not want to do it.  This is a full list of all the posts with a lot of interesting information.

2 PM – And out to the grocery store (across the street).  The sunlight keeps calling to me even though it’s too cold out!

Afternoon/Evening

Working on character worksheets for the protagonist and antagonist.  I’ve never liked character worksheets. How do you get characterization when the questions are superficial?

But I ran across Deborah Chester’s Fantasy Fiction Formula and that gave me a worksheet that was pretty different.

I also have some black holes in my skills that I’m working at addressing.  I took workshops from Dean Wesley Smith for many years, but it became apparent that I’d gone as far as I could with his workshops. 

Deborah’s idea is simple: Make the story simple and the characters complex.  Characterization is one of my strengths, but now I’m looking at it for improvement.  And I’m ready for it.