Easter Eggs in Books


Girl in pink shirt looks behind rock for three Easter Eggs
Treasure hunt!

Hollywood’s pretty well-known for Easter eggs,.  It’s something that’s put into a movie or a TV show that only a diehard fan will catch.  Like these visits from the movie producer in a brief cameo.  They did miss one though–Donald P. Bellisario shows up in the episode with Mariette Hartley.  You can see him walking in the background in the hospital waiting area, near the end.

Some other examples I’ve run across:

  • In Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’s “Escape From Venice,” Admiral Nelson stays at the Hotel Dandelo.  That’s the name of the cat from David Hedison’s film, The Fly.
  • In Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, there’s a scene where Captain Christopher Pike gets paged.  Pike was a nod to Star Trek.

They can take the form of pretty much anything, especially if you’re familiar with the genre or the actors.  But books have them, too.

Clive Cussler did one in his later novels. Dirk and Al run into a crusty old character with the strange name of…Clive Cussler!  I know a lot of people thought it was hokey and silly, but it’s really kind of a fun nod to the fans of the books.

In fact, there was another action-type novel series where the writers were clearly a fan of Cussler’s, so that crusty character showed up in their first couple of books (not the later ones…).

Have you spotted any in your favorite books?

(And yes, I’ve used some in mine.  They really are a lot of fun.)

Behind the Scenes on NCIS


Most TV shows treat the military as a plot point or don’t really understand the rank or what the person does.  NCIS goes behind that with respecting the military in every episode.  Here’s some behind that scenes of the show.

Respecting the characters


I was watching a fourth season episode of NCIS, and it struck me how Michael Weatherly’s departure from the series last month fit right in with the entire arc of the series.

They respected the character, and the viewers.

Then there’s Criminal Minds, which had the departure of Shemar Moore, who played Derrick Morgan.  Also a very popular character.  The show has run nearly as long as NCIS, and like Michael Weatherly, he’s had a lot of really good character development over the years.

And the writers totally botched the departure. 

It was like they just threw it out there, trying to get some ratings.  In the first of the two episodes, the character is kidnapped and tortured.  The torture was the kind you should never ever do to the character because it was at the point anyone wouldn’t survive whole, and you want your characters to survive whole.  Even if they’re leaving, you want to feel like they’re going to live happily ever after.  Severe PSTD is not happily ever after. 

Story-wise, it felt like the actor decided at the last minute he wasn’t returning, so the writers scrambled to come up with a script to get ratings.  But it sure didn’t respect the character we’d come to enjoy.

I just bought a Gibbs’ rules t-shirt, in Navy blue.  The “rules” are one of those things where once you find out where they originated, it’s wonderful bit about the character.

New TV Season–Good, Bad, or Meh?


The new TV season is about to start in the next few weeks. I remember how I used to grab the next copy of the TV Guide when it arrived in the mail on Thursday and rush through to my favorite shows to see what the episode was about.

Now I don’t even subscribe to TV Guide.

And I find I watch fewer shows every year. Partially because the networks are so eager for instant hits (like book publishers) that they cancel a lot of them if they aren’t successful within 2-3 episodes. It’s not worth even getting interested if the show’s not going to survive.

The result has been that I usually discover a show once it’s been on the air for about 3 years, and sometimes when it’s about to get cancelled (Person of Interest).

Anyway, here’s some comments on a couple of shows:

Bones

This is one that I got the first season for and just about inhaled it. Loved the characters, loved the stories, and loved the combination of forensics and anthropology.

It’s also one that I stopped watching. I think it really lost something when they recast the boss of the Jeffersonian to Cam, and also when they had Zack go to a mental institution. I get why they probably had to have Zack leave the show in the long run. They’d gone about as far as they could with the character.

But they could have had him hired by someone, and then come back periodically. Instead, they crossed a line I’ve sometimes seen in series books where the author is pushing for the next big thing and changes the series in a very fundamental way.

The casting of Cam also changed the series, too, because it made the series entirely about crime. It might just be my personal preference, but the story was originally about scientists (“Squints”) and law enforcement clashing over how different they were, which was always a fun conflict. Sure, series do change, but this change took it away from the cool stuff of science and just made it forensics.

I stayed watching this one for a while, but I got to the point where everything now feels tired and old.

NCIS

This is the original one. I didn’t watch it originally because I thought it was going to be another JAG. TV is hugely imitative, especially when anything is successful. I started watching it the year after Tony’s undercover operation to get the drug dealer.

The characters really make the show. It’s even survived numerous cast changes, because they make the effort to develop a new character as a unique person. That’s pretty satisfying for the actors. Criminal Minds, on the other hand, has had problems keeping women because they obviously cast two of the roles as simply “the blond and the brunette,” and still think like that. The result is that the brunette character tends not to feel like a part of the series, but just a placeholder.

NCIS is either in Year 14 or 15, which is astounding that it’s managed to stay fresh. Series usually starting running out of stories about Year 7.

NCIS relies both on story arcs over the season, but also use solo episodes. One of the things I really like that isn’t always present in TV series is that the series refers back to old episodes. One of my early favorite series was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. But one of the big problems was that each episode hit a reset button. So when the aliens came to take over the ship, it always felt like they were treating it as the first time.

This is such a big thing in NCIS that if a guest star’s character is still alive, they may resurface at a later date. Even some of the dead ones have come back! It makes for a wonderful continuity, and keeps the show same and changes it, because those characters change.

Curiously, the network honchos can’t figure out why the show is so successful. Go figure.

What are you looking forward to this TV season?

Exorcising Writing How-to Advice


Last week, I wrote about leaving the writing message boards because my writing was getting polluted by a lot of the nonsense advice being passed around.  But I’d also started pulling back from general writing advice from how-to books even before that (some writers were absolutely horrified at this.  Writing advice is a huge safety net).  I was finding that the advice assumed all writers outline and didn’t provide anything really for someone who might not be doing that.

One of the core problems for me is that a lot of the how-to advice is common sense and seems perfectly reasonable.

Until I apply it to when I’m writing, and it turns the story into a freaking mess.  I could not tell this until I tossed out all the outlining-flavored advice, and once I did, the story simply worked.  Writing the story also went back to being a lot of fun.  Using outlining flavored techniques really sucked a lot of the fun out.

But it’s a constant battle, because I’ve been hearing that advice for decades.  It’s like it’s imprinted on me as a default.

I’m currently at the one-third point in my current book.  It’s a place where I always have trouble in every single book.  The story was going great, and then suddenly it’s ‘what do I do?’

LEFT BRAIN: Ack!  Ack! Story is broken!  Story is broken! Go find the problem and fix it!

I wound up stuck at that point, mainly because I’ve been at war with the Left Brain.  It figures all that writing advice out there is useful and maybe a turning point would help resolve the sticking point.

No, no, and no.

Because that wrests takes all the creativity away from my Right Brain that’s actually trying to do the writing.  What’s happened in the past is that when I let the Left Brain dictate what happens next — story beats were one of those things that seemed really reasonable but were horrifyingly bad —  I ended up trying to make the story fit what I’d come up with.  The story, in turn, became very convoluted and twisted because the creative process of discovery as I wrote was not allowed in.  It distorted the story so badly, in fact, that this is a complete redraft from scratch, and I have not used anything from the original version.

I end up feeling like I have to keep giving Left Brain an NCIS head slap to stay out of the story’s business.

The hardest thing right now is that I am literally doing a scene that I do not have any idea what is going to happen in it.  How-to advice and writing rules all say that’s a bad idea, and it’s what I have to do.

It’s trust the process.

Xray! Xray! the military alphabet


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Have you ever talked on the phone and had a really hard time differentiating between some letters like P and B? A lot of Army soldiers use radios to communicate, and misunderstanding a letter. The words were originally developed during World War II, and these are the ones currently used:

A – Alpha
B – Bravo
C – Charlie
D – Delta
E – Echo
F – Foxtrot
G – Golf
H – Hotel
I – India
J – Juliet
K – Kilo
L – Lima
M – Mike
N – November
O – Oscar
P – Papa
Q – Quebec
R – Romeo
S – Sierra
T – Tango
U – Uniform
V- Victor
W – Whiskey
X – X-ray
Y – Yankee
Z – Zulu

So you might have someone spelling out a last name like mine as Alpha Delta Alpha Mike Sierra.

But sometimes the phonetic alphabet can be used to mean other things. There’s an episode of  NCIS called “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.”  If you can’t figure out what the means, change it back to letters.

Military Cadences to March By


One of the things we did in the military was sing in cadence.  It was a work song to help keep everyone in step while they were marching or running.  Of course, I was perpetually out of step (having no sense of musical rhythm whatsoever), so it never helped me much.  You’ve probably seen it in the movies, and certainly on NCIS. Soldiers or Marines run past the camera singing.  From what I understand, the Marine Corps has a school where the Marines go to train in cadence calling.  The army … well, you’re pretty much on your own.

These are some of the cadences I remember.  Because women were in the units, we didn’t see too many that were offensive, but if you check out the others, you’ll find some that are.

Rock Steady

Everywhere I go.  For obvious reasons, this one was in Basic Training.

My Old Granny is 91

Airborne Sha-nah-nah-nah

I Won’t Enlist Because That Soldier is Pretty


The army’s had an embarrassing week.  It’s been roaming around the news that someone leaked an email officers sent each other saying that “ugly women” should be featured in ads depicting soldiers because they are perceived as more competent.

I get how they arrived at that.  When NCIS cast Lauren Holly as the new director, they got comments that was she was too pretty for the role.  I actually agree with that.  She was “model pretty,” which is to say a standard most people wouldn’t fit into.  She did not look like a high-powered Washington, DC woman; rather, she just looked like she was cast because the producers thought guys would be attracted to her and watch the show.

But the reality is that a job like the director of NCIS, or any other government agency, would be very wearing on a person.  High-powered government officials have long hours, equally long meetings, and probably not eat right because of all those long hours and meetings.  Even when they go home, they are on call.  If there’s a crisis involving whatever they do, they get called.  Sorry, but the character isn’t going to look like a model with all of that.

But.

There were two problems with what the army did here.

The first was that they assumed that because a female soldier was pretty, she wouldn’t be competent or would be sleeping around to make rank.  News flash!  We all went through basic training and suffered having a drill sergeant yell in our face.

The second was a more curious one.  How would they define “pretty”?  Or, let me put a different way: Would you want to be the one they defined as “ugly”?

Right.

None of this is helped by the media and the book industry.  We have an ad airing now that’s gotten a lot of controversy because it’s men in boxer shorts and jackets.  Yet, no one is bothered by another ad where a woman dances very proactively and is dressed in something that I don’t think qualifies as clothes.  Book covers for urban fantasies are designed to be provocative and have characters who need to be surgically removed from their clothes.  Yet, if any women complain, the men are like “What’s the big deal?”

But a key difference — and I think even the army missed this one — is that the media and the book industry are using s** to sell (I’m trying to avoid getting a ton of spammers here) products.  With the army, all the soldiers — male and female — are dressed the same.  It’s awfully hard to make a military uniform glamorous, especially when it doesn’t fit really well to start with.

Yet, looks are still the first thing these officers went straight to.  It’s not an easy answer, because it so wrapped up in our culture.  But there are actually answers to beginning to solve the problem the army was clumsily trying to address.  It’s just a first step, but might make a difference.

If the army wants women to look more competent:

They should photograph them more.  When I’ve searched for photos of military women for this blog, I can barely find any.

They should photograph women doing army things, like the men.  When the army does photograph women, it seems like most of them have the soldier talking to children.

There are some soldier stuff photos, but there’s not a lot.  It’s like the photographers get out in a group of soldiers and tune the women out entirely as if they weren’t there.  It sends the message that the women really aren’t that important, and that what the men do is.  Yet, we’ve had women die in combat, women save lives.  I’m watching episodes of China Beach, and without the nurses, some male soldiers probably would not be alive today.  And we’re worried about women being too pretty?  Please.

The NCIS Guide to Structure for Pantsers


When I moved out of the military barracks, I was introduced to an unexpected horror: Solo cooking.  The guidance was framed from the perspective of family cooking, and implication was, “Get a family.”  Every recipe was made for a family, not an individual. That’s the way it seems for pantsers when it comes to structure.  There are many resources that weave it in with outlining, the implication being, “Do an outline.”  And if you’re like me, you probably can’t.

But a TV series like NCIS is a rich source of structure examples.  In a book, structure can disappear into the story, but in a TV show, the commercial breaks highlight it.  Read more on Unleaded Fuel For Writers.

DVD Cover for Season 9 of NCIS, showing Gibbs in foreground and rest of cast in the background.