Monday, March 26, 2012

Hello, My Lovelies

Doctor Jericho here. In Full Sans Pants Glory.

The Jericho Files are going to take a short break. I figure I'd let Abner get a word in for a bit. After all, I let him run that post about writing serial fiction.

For I am a Kind and Generous Master.

Catch up on any entries of the Files you've missed here.

See you in a while.

Monday, March 19, 2012

"The Balls of Destruction (excerpt)" by Dr. Ace T. Jericho, Rogue Journalist

[originally published in the May 2001 issue of The Oblivious Plethora; from the Jericho Files collection]

"Are you sure about that?" I said, pointing to the flamethrower and then to the acres of grass around us. "Aren't you worried about a brush fire?"

Kramer shook his head and hefted the gun unit. "This baby's been modfied to fire pinpoint flames," he said with a Southern drawl.

We were crouched next to a small gray outbuilding near a house somewhere in the wilds of Croydon, Utah.

Kramer was a Specialist from the Louisiana bowels who battled cotton balls several times a year. He told me he'd spent twelve years as a young man roaming bayou country, eating alligators and wrestling toothless old women. "Strong 'uns," he'd said. "Don't let the skinniness fool ya. Got the strength of an earth mover. They drink loup-garou blood out there, that's why."

I had heard about the deadly cotton ball infestation from CNN and my good friend Cordwainer Duke had suggested I contact Kramer about it. After I did, Kramer invited me to a cotton ball hunt to watch him ply his trade and I jumped on the next flight from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. He met me at the airport, a gaunt-looking man of medium height with a hook-nose and ponytail. He was dressed in a rumpled gray jumpsuit tucked into a battered pair of military jungle boots.

The two of us piled into an old brown Dodge van that had the rear seats taken out and was piled with all manner of equipment cases. An hour drive took us east on Interstate 80 and then north on state route 65 past a land of fenced-in bungalows called Jennifer. Or Hennigan. Or Hefner. Something.

"We're meetin' Bloody Martin Smith in Croydon," Kramer had said as we raced across blank grass landscapes bordered by low hills. "Again."

"Again?" I asked. "You've been here more than once?"

Kramer nodded, swerving to avoid a small pack of jackrabbits that had leaped into the middle of the highway brandishing jackrabbit-sized pitchforks. "Three times this year."

"And all because of cotton balls?" I asked, incredulous.

"Don't be quick to judge none," Kramer said. "They're real nasty and do a lot of damage. You heard of the Dust Bowl, right?"

"Sure," I said. "Back in the Thirties. Out in the Midwest, Great Plains. Caused by severe drought and years of bad farming practices. No crop rotation, cover crops, all that stuff that they were supposed to do. Dried out the topsoil."

"No sir," said Kramer. "That was them cotton balls."

"You serious?"

"They won't tell you it was them. But it was. Biggest cover-up I ever saw. Next to what really happened to JFK and Elvis Presley."

"Don't tell me," I said. "They're both in an East Texas rest home."

Kramer chuckled. "I see you know."

"Nevermind that," I said. "How did cotton balls cause the Dust Bowl?"

"They descend in a swarm," said Kramer. "Like Biblical Locusts. Only without the Charlton Heston voice-over. Eat all the vegetation in the area. Then vanish into oblivion. For some reason, they must've mutated or something 'bout twenty, thirty year ago. Now they ravage the wild areas of Utah. They seem drawn to Mormons for some reason. Must be something in the blood."

"In the blood? Do they eat Mormons?"

"Mormons, Cath'lics, Muslims, Protestants, Jews, Greek Orthodox, gay, straight, Black, Eye-talian, you name it. Anybody gets in their way, they mow 'em down. Not actually et you, of course. But they can put a dent into a foot of steel. I've seen it. And if they get into various necessary orifices, then..." His voice trailed off and he shrugged.

"Then....what?"

"You're dead," he said.

"Sweet Mother of Dingos!" I said.

Kramer nodded. "Nasty way to go, too. Dead, with cotton balls stuffed up your nose, your ears, your mouth, your nether regions." He shuddered.

So did I.

And I needed mental floss.

"But," Kramer went on, "they sure do love them Mormons."

* * *

As we crouched next to the faded gray outbuilding, I said to Kramer, "There was a movie back in the 80s about alien fuzzballs with teeth."

"I seen that," he said, nodding. "Closest they got to telling the story of a cotton ball infestation in Nebraska back in the mid-70s. It all got changed to aliens, of course. Just to throw off the scent, y'see. They added the teeth. And they put it in some hick town in Kansas."

"So where'd they really come from? These balls?"

Kramer shook his head. "Don't know. Never really looked into it, 'cept tracing them back to the Dust Bowl days."

"So how'd you get started in this nasty business?"

"Answered an ad in the Des Moines Register fifteen years ago," Kramer said. "Four hour Learning Annex class followed by certification. Notarized and everything." Then he paused and squinted into the distant hills.

"What--" I began, but he held up a finger then put it to his lips.

Then I heard it. A faint, high-pitched chittering. Like single engine plane. Or a crazed woodchipper.

Kramer pointed into the distance. "Here they come," he said. "Put your flamethrower on and get ready."

I pulled on the twin fuel tanks and tightened the straps, then took up the gun unit. Then I looked in the direction Kramer had pointed.

Along the foothills I spotted a wide blanket of whiteness, like snow. Moving snow. Moving, creeping snow. But more like melted mashmallows that bubbled and pulsed and undulated along the ground. The blanket of whiteness was at least the size of two football fields, maybe more, maybe with trapped players in it.

Kramer reached down to the boombox sitting between us, tapped a button, and Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" blared from the speakers.

"They can't stand 80s music," said Kramer, grinning like a lunatic. "Throws 'em into a big tizzy. The frequencies of the songs messes with their equilibrium and internal membrane flow."

I felt the music coursing through my veins, felt the frequencies rushing through my membrane flow, felt it jitterbug into my brain.

Time to rock and roll, by gum.

Come back next week for another entry of The Jericho Files!
Read previous Jericho Files entries here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Four Tips For Writing Serial Fiction

There other day, a fellow writer told me he'd been working on a web serial and asked if I had any advice for him. I sent him a few general thoughts on the matter.

But that reminded me of a piece I'd written for Ezine Articles a while back so I'm gonna pause Doctor Jericho's ravings for a moment and post the meat of that article today.

So...here are my four keys to writing solid serial fiction.
  • Finish the story first
  • Write to a cliffhanger
  • Keep 'em short
  • Move it, move it, move it
FINISH THE STORY FIRST
This is important.

Having a completed story means you've already dealt with all the various plot and story elements that arise during writing. You know the hero's motivation and goal. You know what the villain is going to do. You know who killed the rich industrialist. You've worked out the various tangles and red herrings. And you've got the ending.

This also means that you aren't going to be revising your story as you release the installments. Not something you want to do and I strongly advise against it.

Have a fully written story first.

That takes care of the overall aspect of your serial.

Now, let's look at the pieces that make up the finished story.

WRITE TO A CLIFFHANGER
You want your readers coming back. Period.

The best way is to write to a cliffhanger.

Now, that doesn't imply that your characters are always going to be in harm's way at the end of each installment (although that is the time-honored way). It could also be as simple as a plot twist. For example, the boon companion turns out to be the traitor. The promising clue turns out to be a dead end.

You get the picture.

KEEP 'EM SHORT
This is a personal rule of thumb, but I find it extremely effective. Most blogging experts advise keeping your blog posts around 500 words. For a serial, I advise at least 800 words on the short end and no longer than 1200 words. 800 words is plenty of time and space for a scene.

Additionally, you don't want to assault the reader with a huge block of text, especially on their monitor. That looks daunting and will likely make your potential reader click away.

Instead, go short.

Your readers will thank you.

Which brings us to our last key...

MOVE IT, MOVE IT, MOVE IT
Your story needs to move. Remember: it's a story. Not a travelogue. Not an architectural review. Not a lecture.

Story. Always a story.

If you're thinking of spending 2000 words describing your main character's ornate gown or on the sociopolitical history of the elven kingdom she's visiting, don't do it. Stop. Right now. You will lose your reader.

This is an excellent tip on handling exposition and info-dumps in general but it is vitally important in serial fiction. You don't want to lose your reader. You want to keep them reading.

As a corollary to this, keep navel gazing to a minimum. Use it only to reveal character or some facet of a character or situation. Even then, keep it short and sweet.

And keep your story moving forward.

* * *

There you go, Gang. My tips for writing serial fiction.

One thing I didn't cover in the original article was the platform for the serial story. It's up to you whether you use Blogger, Wordpress, Drupal, or hand-code the site in HTML/CSS. I won't get into the technical stuff of any of those platforms.

Totally your choice.

But the basic tips I outlined above still stand.

Any questions? Post a comment and let me know.

Jericho will be back next week.

Monday, March 5, 2012

"Strange Rumblings From The Bar And Grill" by Dr. Ace T. Jericho, Rogue Journalist

It was yet another day of furious rogue journalism and I was once more in my usual booth at the back of Mr. Happy's Bar and Grill slaving over my laptop, Mycroft Holmes Four (aka "Mike the Laptop"). Jonesy was hot on my heels for 7,500 words on the current goings-on in the standard literary circles and I was 1,000 words short and still trying to get a lead on editor Kristin Nelson's episodic TV career. She was a wily Coloradonian who was a literary agent and a recurring star of the TV show Psych.

I had tried reaching out to another known Coloraturian, SF/F blogger and podcaster, Patrick "One of a Kind" Hester to see if he knew about Nelson's double life. After all, we did both wear hats of the wide-brimmed fedora kind. And he was a known entity in the Circles. But those prior attempts hadn't yet worked and there were bubbling rumors of another restraining order.

Damnable laws, how they mock me.

Someone on Twitter had mentioned using breakfast burritos as incentive, but I needed to check that information further.

True. I could reach out to another known blogger. But Tammy Farmer was a Phoenician and she was 800-some miles and 14-plus hours southwest of Denver, where Nelson held court. She was also a fiend who despised me because of a review I'd written about a Jim Butcher novel a few months earlier.

That wouldn't do.

I could try Skinner, but last I'd heard he was headed into the middle of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness for covert purposes relating to nun's habits made of leather and yaks.

That left Cordwainer Duke. Except Duke was scoping out the Anaheim Convention Center ahead of WonderCon.

Yes, WonderCon was just around the corner again. This time in Southern California due to rumored eldritch happenings at San Francisco's Moscone Center. The general public had been told there was renovation underway which necessitated the move by WonderCon to its SoCal location. But that was, in fact, a cover story. Gray-cloaked cultists had been spotted in the vicinity during the last week of February, no mean feat given the vast population of adult street urchins in the SOMA neighborhood in and around the Moscone Center who were sometimes similarly garbed. With the pending Fey Invasion and the recent Miskatonic Country strangeness, Omega-13 was on heightened alert.

"We're on Code Vermillion right now," Azerov had told me a week ago via Internet Messaging. "Down from Raw Umber. If it gets worse, we'll have to go to Neon Puce. Not a good sign."

"Neither is red biohazard," I'd replied, also via Internet Messaging.

It would have to be Duke then. I was running out of time and I was pretty certain he'd answer. Provided there weren't cultists at the Convention Center and he was in hot pursuit. Those got scratchy and uncomfortable after too long.

He was SFWA-affiliated, after all. He'd at least point me in the right direction.

I was digging my phone from the top pocket of my safari jacket when Alabaster McMurdo slid into booth seat across from me, out of breath. He was dressed in his usual thick red-and-black flannel shirt, nayv blue watch cap, and faded blue jeans.

"Jericho," he said, then grabbed three two-ounce packets of liquid Half-and-Half from the ceramic holder on the table, ripped off the covers, and upended all three into his mouth then wiped his lips with his shirt sleeve.

"Al!" I said. "What's the matter?"

"Quick fuel," he said, nodding to the Half-and-Half. "I'll have to continue moving. The bozos are back and I need to prepare."

"Which bozos?"

"The bozos. The clowns."

"Are you talking about real clowns? White face paint? Big red nose?"

Al growled, showing teeth. "Those are the whitefaces. The pack leaders. But yeah, those clowns. They're coming back."

"They are? I didn't know they were gone."

"I can smell them on the wind," said Al. "They'll be here soon. I can can feel them, too. My left elbow gives me a slight twinge when the time is right and the time, it is right. They come around once every twenty-five years. Cause all kinds of hell and havoc."

"Like in It? Pennywise the clown? Or Jeepers Creepers?"

"All borrowed from the real story," said Al. "Know what happened the last time they were here?"

"Twenty-five years ago would be '87," I said. "I was in high school. I don't remember any clowns rampaging through the city?"

"Do you remember the Horowitz incident?"

"The pianist?"

"Not Adrien Brody. David Horowitz the consumer advocate."

"The 'Fight Back!' Guy," I said, recalling the TV show.

"Yeah, him. In August of '87, this guy went into the KNBC studio in Burbank during a live afternoon news broadcast, held a gun to Horowitz's back and told him to read a prepared statement. But the studio cut the broadcast before the statement got read. Know what it said?"

"No. What?"

" 'The man who has appeared on KNBC for the last three years is not my biological father. He is a clone, a double created by the Central Intelligence Agency and alien forces.' "

"Okay, but what's that got to do with clowns--"

And suddenly it hit me.

"That movie," I said with a gasp, feeling my guts twist like a pair of knickers.

Al's eyes lit up. "Yeah. Killer Klowns From Outer Space. Came out the year after, in '88. Late, but still timely."

"So you're saying it was a message."

"Couched in Hollywood-ese. But yeah. A message. A warning. Just like all these zombie movies and books and the TV show. It's all preparation."

Sweet Mother of Dingos! Duke had said the same about the recent upsurge of urban fantasy novels and series. They were preparing us for what was to come.

I said to Al: "So these clowns. They're aliens? And we can't see them? And they're raining death and destruction on us every twenty-five years?"

"Aliens," Al said, nodding. "And you can see them. You just have to know what you're looking for. And..." He looked around, eyes slitted. "There's too many folks here. I'll call you in one hour with a new meeting place. I have Powerpoint slides. You'll want to see this."

Before I could say anything more, Al leaped from the booth seat into a low crouch then bolted out of the place.

I pulled out my phone and checked the time.

One hour. And 1,000 words left.

I could do it. I was a Professional, after all.

As I turned back toward Mike the Laptop, a hushed stillness descended over the bar, like the calm before the storm.

And beneath that quiet, I heard a faint chittering. Gnashing, really. Of tiny, pointed, needle-sharp teeth. Accompanied by the jabbering. Which could only mean one thing.

Rabid mutant lawn gnomes.

Jones.

They were his Deadline Messengers.

So: One hour. 1,000 words. Threat of death by rabid mutant lawn gnomes.

And then a thought struck with all the impact of a sledgehammer hit to my balls.

Lawn gnomes wore pointed hats.

Just like clowns.

I steeled myself.

I'd be ready.

Bring it.

Come back next week for another entry of The Jericho Files!
Read previous Jericho Files entries here.