Monday, September 22, 2014

My Six books

Recently I was asked to write a list of the six books that had the greatest effect on my development as a writer. Holding at just six books was a bit difficult, I would loved to have included Shel Silverstein, 13 Reasons Why, and the Three Musketeers for how much I loved them or books like Treasure Island and Lord of the Rings for showing me what I didn’t like in the written word. Paring it down to six, I had to admit that these were the books that most affected my personality as a reader and a writer. Someday I may go back and cover other books and writers, but for today let us stick with what we have.

The Encyclopedia Brown Series
If ever there were books that started me on my way to reading it was these. I was raised at a point where there wasn’t a lot of reading material for teens, the YA designation hadn’t been invented yet. I was given a series of classics to read as a child and I remember starting one. Treasure Island for the record is a story of swashbuckling adventure that doesn’t have anything exciting happen till the very end. As for Encyclopedia, I loved these stories; they were part puzzle, part adventure. Each one was delivered in bite size pieces with a solvable mystery. These have had a huge impact on the future of storytelling for me. I hate any story, mystery or otherwise, that has a twist at the end but never gives the audience all of the information to solve it. Encyclopedia Brown always gave you all the clues.

The Incredible Hulk/Thor/West Coast Avengers
I’m including these as one entry because doing three separate ones would probably be considered cheating and what I learned about storytelling comes from the comparison of the three. As I grew older and wanted more form my stories I turned to comic books. I tried several different ones, other companies and heroes but these three ended up being my go to heroes. Each had its own take on how story telling worked and functioned under the guise of being silly little stories for kids.

The Hulk was a tragic figure trapped in an unwinable situation. Persecuted for being an out of control monster he managed to function of a very basic level as a hero, he reacted on gut level instinct and a need to protect his friends. His greatest desire was either to be left alone when he was the Hulk, or to find a cure for his condition when he was Bruce Banner. In both forms he fought to control his anger and keep his friends safe.

Thor had the distinction of being on of the very few superheroes who liked being a superhero. The three big heroes at the time all had issues: Spider-man was sad all the time about how hard it was to do the right thing and how much he had to sacrifice to be a hero, Batman was a dark depressing mess who lurked in the shadows and grieved for the loss of his childhood while battling inner demons that drove him to be the best, and Superman was a preachy boy scout who spent all of his time lecturing everyone on the right thing to do. Thor was happy to get to fight someone, the bigger and more powerful his opponent the more excited he got. When giants attacked New York he would laugh as he went off to stop them.

The West Coast Avengers was a team of misfits and second string heroes who were relegated to being the other Avenger team. They all had problems and failings and yet still managed to come together to learn how to work as a team. They didn’t always get along but they always stood up for one another. The powered through alien invasions, kidnapped children, and banishment to hell. They faced people far more powerful than themselves and managed by the skin of their teeth to squeak out a victory against all odds.
Even with this these books showed me more in storytelling than almost anything else. I got to see complicated character development and motivations. I got to watch Loki, at the time Thor’s greatest enemy, stand side by side with his brother to defend Asgard from a demon invasion because it was his home too. I watched as the Vision and Scarlet Witch lost their new born twins to a demon lord and how it nearly destroyed them. I watched the heart wrenching moment when the Hulk hugs Betty Banner after she says she’s pregnant.

Certainly over the years I’ve learned to appreciate the daily struggle that Spider-man goes through to protect those around him. How Batman chooses to train different young people as Robin specifically so they grow up and become him. How Superman lives everyday of his life struggling against himself, knowing that if he makes the tiniest mistake turning a corner, opening a door, or patting someone on the back that he will destroy them. I will forever remember the quote, “I live in a world made of cardboard.”
More than anything I think comic books formed my opinion of story telling.

A Spell for Chameleon
This fantasy novel by Piers Anthony was probably my first foray into modern novels. I remember being in love with how the story unfolded in such a way to give me every piece of information that I would need to finish the tale and yet never leave me as if I didn’t know what was going on. I got to see the bitter power struggles of people who fought to save themselves for their own reasons and see how a man could be both a hero and a villain. It set me off on a long journey as I delved into all of these stories and kept then spread out into other novels by the author.

Disk world (all of them)
I fell into these in high school, introduced by a friend. I immediately fell in love with this lengthy series of high fantasy books that took traditional narratives and rolled them on their heads. The very premise of the series was one the set my mind on fire. In an infinite universe there are infinite possibilities, therefore there must exist a flat world that travels through the universe on the back of four giant elephants that are in turn standing on the back of a giant tortoise. Each of the stories is a unique and inventive story that follows the rules of the genre it’s a part of while at the same time pointing out the flaws and foibles of those rules. In one book a chase through mountains ended when the villains horse drawn coach went out of control and sailed off a cliff. Then, because this is how things work, the coach exploded and a flaming wheel rolled down the road. It is also a master class of writing, one of the books, Guards Guards, begins with a scene in which seven unnamed characters all dressed in hooded robes have a conversation and because of the unique vice given to each character you can keep track of who is talking all the way through it.

Storm Front & The Dresden Files 
As a fan of Buffy the Vampire slayer and most everything else Joss Whedon has done this series of hard boiled detective novels about a wizard living in Chicago were and instant hit with me. The series followed all the tropes of modern fantasy and noir fiction in a way I had never seen before. The series that the book spawned gave us a hero who stands up to evil no matter how badly he’s outnumbered and manages to survive by dint of luck and exceptional amounts of support. The series is also unique to some in that Harry and all of the other characters grow and evolve as the story goes on. They learn from their mistakes, reuse old tricks, and have legitimate problems and reconciliations. It’s a series that keeps giving me more and more amazing amounts of things to love.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone & the continuing series
This would be the first modern YA novel I read and I did so begrudgingly. I felt that as a YA novel it was most likely not going to be any kind of challenging story or have any sort of surprise or merit for me as a reader. While I enjoyed some of the humor, and felt several of the characters were decent I was unimpressed for most of my first read of the book. I knew how children’s entertainment worked and because of that I was immediately able to identify the villain. (Spoilers, though honestly I‘m not sure it‘s necessary at this point) As Harry approached the final room I knew full good and well he would find Professor Snape on the other side of the door. When it turned out to be Quirrell I was floored, the fact that they were then able to go through and tell me exactly what clues I had missed I was sold. The fact that the ensuing books were able to continue to keep me guessing and find new ways to fool me was a testament to their quality. It also set me on a new avenue of reading. Since then I have viewed YA as source of very stellar stories with a solid edge.

Let me know what you think. Post below or head over to my Facebook page and leave a message there. You can also follow me on Twitter @stevemayne2. Also feel free to look at my Youtube.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

How I Think

Recently, people have been asking me how I can possibly have some of the opinions I do. Where most political issues come up I tend to be in the middle. I view both sides as having valuable input and think if we look at the problem just a little bit differently we might notice a couple of inconsistencies in the overall narrative we’re getting from the various media outlets.

I don’t typically enjoy talking about politics anymore because people have become so invested in how they think that by offering even a slightly different opinion it seems to outrage them to a point of frustration. There was one day where I had been engaged in a couple of debates on a single political issue. During the day I was called both a horrible liberal extremist and an overzealous conservative fascist. Which was interesting because I didn’t change my opinion from one debate to the other; I only changed the people I was talking to.

I’ve been trying to look for a way to explain the way I think to people for a while and I wanted to use a news story that was as innocent as possible. I think I found that story. A little while ago a young man tweeted to Dominos Pizza that the pizza he received was completely bare; no sauce, cheese, or toppings there was only crust. Dominos responded however by that time he’d figured out he opened the pizza upside down. Almost everybody had a great laugh. Some people thought how funny it was that this poor fool did this; ruined his pizza. How stupid was he that he opened his pizza upside down. Some people have even accused the young man of pranking Dominos, the scamp.

In order to show my thought process I’m going to work off the basis that this was not a prank. This means he did open his pizza upside down. Which means one three things had to happen. One, he turned the pizza upside down before opening it. Two, the driver gave it to him upside down. Three, the pizza was put in the box upside down. Now let’s look at each of these individually.

First scenario, he flipped the pizza. This is a possibility, except there are a few things that would make this a bit of a challenge. The driver would hand him the pizza upright and he would have had to turn it over on the way to the table and why would any one do that? To be fair he could have been stoned, even still it seems unlikely they would flip the pizza on their way t the table. There’s the added problem of the box, check out a Dominos pizza box, they aren’t designed to be opened upside down, and it would be difficult to pop the tabs on the box that way around. Additionally, there is decoration on the bottom of the box that clearly informs you the pizza is upside down. It seems it would be really hard to open one of these upside down and not notice you had flipped the box. To me this seems unlikely.

Second scenario, the driver gave it to him upside down. While slightly more likely as it does remove the he flipped the box between the door and the table. It’s possible the driver had to slam on the breaks and the warming bag slid off the car seat and flipped over the driver didn’t know which side was up when he grabbed it off the floor of his car and delivered the pizza upside down as an accident. Or they did it on purpose. I have known several pizza delivery drivers over the years and they all have dozens of stories about how they messed with customers who were difficult, didn’t tip, or didn’t tip enough by their standards; I’m not saying it’s right just that they did. We then hit the problem of the bottom of the box. One of them is sure to notice the box is upside down at this point. Maybe the driver didn’t want to say anything because they hoped the customer didn’t notice. Once again this seems unlikely, because of the box.

Our final scenario, they put the pizza in the box upside down. This could happen, especially if you have a new employee, the place has a large number of orders and they are in a hurry to get them all out the door, or they have some grudge against the customer, as I explained earlier. If they put the pizza in the box upside at the restaurant it would avoid the problem of the bottom of the box. It would also be unlikely to get noticed by the customer after they opened the box depending on how they closed the box once they were finished. To me, this is the most likely scenario. In my opinion Dominos owes that man a pizza because the employees at that location screwed up.

That’s how I think. I look at a story and wonder about these things. To be clear, I choose this story because it is fairly innocent. I wanted a news story that people would be familiar with and that I could point to with some accuracy. I also wanted to pick a story that wasn’t politically motivated. It is my hope that you read this and got a couple of chuckles out of this and you may even read the news a little closer in the future. Since this is a story about pizza and not gun control, deficit spending, or any of the other myriad political pieces in the world I think I have a better chance of that.

As for me, I’m off to carry out a pizza for some reason I’ve been craving one for the past few minutes.

Let me know what you think. Post below or head over to my Facebook page and leave a message there. You can also follow me on Twitter @stevemayne2. Also feel free to look at my Youtube.