500 words.

August 31, 2011 Writing Comments (1) 612

Tonight was about two things: running, and writing. I ran. 5 miles. Then I wrote: a measly 500 words.

I tried to go further, but I just couldn’t put two words together.

This book will never be finished.

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Conquering (and Surviving) the Buffet (Vegas Week)

August 31, 2011 Personal, Travels Comments (0) 379

Can we just please get a round of applause for a girl who not only models, but also finished that whole plate - and went back for seconds?

The very first place Liz and I went in Las Vegas (after our hotel, of course, we did arrive at 1:30 AM) was the breakfast buffet. On the short list of things Vegas is known for, no doubt, is the food–and while the buffet prices might not be as rock-bottom as they used to be, the buffets are still certainly something to be experienced. On our first trip, we went straight for the dessert table, and I put away a frosted blueberry scone before I even grabbed my first plate. Liz had her first experience with monkey bread–much to my surprise, as it’s always been a Keelty family staple–and I don’t think she’ll ever be the same.

I won’t spend a lot of time with Vegas buffet tips, since they’re much the same as any other buffet, but I’ll do a quick run-down: scout the whole buffet before you fill up your first plate; take small portions of everything that looks good, so you can see what actually tastes good and go up for more; don’t fill up on soft drinks and bread when there’s better tasting (and more economically efficient) food available; and if you’re one of those people trying not to be “irresponsible” (and really, what the hell are you doing in a buffet in the first place, then?) grab a small bread plate instead of a big dinner plate, and fill up on veggies first.

What you do need to know about Vegas buffets is: (1) There are a LOT of them, and (2) They are NOT all created equal. A buffet meal on the Strip can run you anywhere from around $12 (for breakfast at the Monte Carlo, for instance) up to almost $40 (for the gourmet dinner at the Bellagio) per person. If you go off the strip, you can get prices even lower. Many mid-range buffets offer discounts in the free coupon books that are ubiquitous around Vegas, and the buffet has a reputation for being one of the easiest activities to get “comped” on based on your casino play. Continue Reading

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Adventuring off the Strip (Vegas Week)

August 31, 2011 Travels Comments (0) 370

Las Vegas is so well known for the Vegas Strip (which isn’t even technically in Las Vegas, but that’s a subject for another post) that many tourists miss out on the totally different adventures to be had within a short drive. Many know about the Hoover Dam, the project that gave birth to Sin City (as a sort of pleasure dome for the many dam workers who’d been taken away from their wives and families and sent to the middle of the desert), but few take the time to appreciate the wild areas that are only a short drive from the Strip.

An hour to the northeast, at the top of Lake Mead, is the Valley of Fire, a beautiful desert you’ve seen in plenty of movies, where tourists can observe petroglyphs left by indigenous people three thousand years ago. In the summer, though, when the Valley of Fire demonstrates its name, you may be more interested in escaping the heat. An hour northwest of Las Vegas is the Spring Mountains, better known for their highest peak and its namesake city, Mount Charleston. These mountains feature over 50 miles of recreational trails–some gradual enough for a beginning in tennis shoes, others suited more for advanced hikers–and because the base of most of these trails is 5,000 feet higher in elevation than Las Vegas, temperatures are generally about 20 degrees cooler than on the Strip.

Getting to the Spring Mountains is easy, and parking is plentiful. To find a trail suited for you, I recommend the comprehensive guide at BirdAndHike.com – but be warned, cell phone reception is very spotty in the mountains, so it’s wise to plan ahead and print out all the directions you’ll need before you go. Continue Reading

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Philadelphia Post-Hurricane Irene

August 29, 2011 In The News, Personal, Philly / Pennsylvania Comments (0) 451

The reporter in me says "what a great image!" while the nerd in me says "Obviously that's why they build things like parking lots on flood plains."

I flew back from Las Vegas literally hours before Hurricane Irene hit Philadelphia. Let me say that it’s pretty unfair going from the City of Overstimulation straight to twenty-four hours of lockdown inside my apartment, but I was worried about leaving my cats alone. I had visions of my windows shattering, glass flying everywhere, and one or both of the cats getting lost in the streets of South Philadelphia, and I figured that if I was home, I could pull them into the bathroom where there are no windows.

In the end, of course, there was very little damage. The wind blew pretty noisily for a few hours, and a brand new leak opened in the ceiling of my living room (which reminds me, I need to call the landlord today…) but mostly I played on Facebook and watched a lot of sensationalist hurricane coverage on the news.

Speaking of sensationalist hurricane coverage... my favorite image to come out of Hurricane Irene, courtesy of Skeptoid genius Brian Dunning.

To be clear, I am not complaining. At all. While Irene’s passage through Philly wound up being mostly hype, there were a good two hours when I was feeling pretty anxious, and I’m thankful things weren’t worse. One look at the consequences in North Carolina and in the Catskill Mountains reminds us that we shouldn’t take such weather events lightly. Continue Reading

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Luxor Las Vegas (Vegas Week)

August 29, 2011 Personal, Reviews, Travels Comments (1) 1111

In honor of last week’s trip to Las Vegas with Liz, this week is Vegas Week, where we learn about the history, sexy and sleazy, of Sin City, and I share my personal experience and advice for a visit.

Opened in 1993, the Luxor was an early entry in Vegas’s 1990s mega-resort renaissance.  Built by Circus Circus enterprises, the same company that built Excalibur, Luxor shares Excalibur’s heavy-handed approach to theme. While Excalibur’s medieval theme has been carried to a ridiculously tacky exterior, however, Luxor’s ancient Egyptian theme, equally garish, manages to be sexy. From the exterior, Excalibur looks like a giant toy castle, owing probably to the “family attraction” concept Vegas resorts were pushing so hard in the 1990s. The white towers with brightly colored roofs look like something that would come in a box labeled Playmobil or Lego. Luxor, meanwhile, is a sleek obsidian pyramid, which would be invisible by night except for the white lights that dance up and down its vertices and the spotlight beam at its peak, reportedly the brightest in the world, that seems to be beckoning alien life to come drop a few hundred grand at the tables. Yes, there is also a giant tacky sphinx out front, but most people hardly notice it because the pyramid is so eye-catching. Continue Reading

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The Effect of Narrative Point of View, part two (an illustration)

August 19, 2011 Writing Comments (0) 293

A fellow author in my writer’s group is working on a first-person account of a terrible real-life experience. Year ago, her son was arrested and prosecuted for a crime he did not commit. I will avoid any more specific detail here, because it’s her story and not mine. I also want to make clear that I am not picking on her. Her story is compelling, and I think it is going to end up being a great book – but she has been struggling with a few core concepts that I want to illustrate.

The critical problem I think she is encountering is that the book is written from her own perspective, and the mother of the accused is always, always going to present a problem of reliability. My guess is, when the mother of the accused says “I guarantee my son is innocent!” none of us take this as fact.

Compounding the problem, however, is that almost all of the factual information presented in the story comes from the mother’s voice, with no attribution to another source. This includes the core concept that the accuser is using the alleged crime to further a political agenda, that the son is “not even capable of this kind of action,” and other essential facts that the reader needs in order to weigh the piece.

Even further complicating things, the mother/narrator mentions in places that her son has on occasion gotten into trouble for vandalism, and has a history of taking hallucinogenic drugs. These facts, combined with nature of the alleged crime, the reliability problems presented by the mother-as-narrator, push the reader in the direction of suspicion – which could make for an interesting story, but is not, according to the author, her intention.

There are a few relatively simple solutions, as I see it. The first, and simplest, would be to introduce other characters with more authority, and have them deliver facts to the reader through dialogue. For example, instead of the mother saying through exposition that the accuser is a known liar and political manipulator, there might be a scene where she has coffee with a sheriff’s deputy who tells her so. By putting this information in the mouth of an objective and authoritative source (or, at least, more objective and authoritative than the mother of the accused) the reader can treat this information as reliable, and use it to form their own opinion.

A more extreme revision would be to take the story out of the first person and present the entire thing from a third-person perspective, maybe even from an omniscient narrator. If this were the approach, I think it would be smarter to craft the work as a novel based on actual events, rather than a non-fiction work – this allays questions about the author’s own reliability, being that she was personally involved in the actual events. Even in this case, however, it is important that facts the reader is meant to take at face value come from a source as objective and authoritative as possible.

In my opinion, the most interesting approach for a work like this would be a first-person account, in which the bulk of the facts come from characters with varying degrees of reliability – the mother of the accused, the accused himself, the accuser, and the residents of the small town who regard the accuser as an outsider and don’t necessarily welcome him. In a story presented this way, the reader is left to decide who he or she trusts, and to form their own opinion about what probably really happened and what the consequences should be.

Another member of the group has compared this kind of narrative to John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a book I myself have not read. But of course the decision belongs to the author, and it’s up to her to decide what purpose her story will serve, and how she would like her reader to relate.

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The Unreliable Narrator

August 17, 2011 Writing Comments (2) 832

You think you can catch Keyser Soze? You think a guy like that comes this close to getting caught and sticks his head out? If he comes up for anything, it will be to get rid of me. After that… my guess is you’ll never hear from him again.

— Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), The Usual Suspects

Few literary techniques can be as interesting – and few as frustrating for beginning authors – as the unreliable narrator. When someone (usually a fellow writer) accuses me of over-intellectualizing the craft and comments on how useless all my book-learnin really was, I bust out the unreliable narrator as proof that a good author must learn at least a few things about literary technique. Every reader is familiar with the unreliable narrator, and every reader responds to it – even if they don’t know the name, and often don’t recognize their own response.

As a concept, the unreliable narrator is simple. You’re sitting on a park bench, and a stranger sits down next to you. He begins to tell you a story. You as the listener, are doing two things: you’re listening to his story to try and follow the narrative strand, but you’re also (consciously or unconsciously) measuring the things he says to determine whether you can trust him as a source. You’re measuring how reliable a narrator he is. Continue Reading

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The effect of narrative Point of View, part one

August 15, 2011 Writing Comments (0) 1029

Get it? First Person?

Example 1 (third person): Jimmy never saw Rachel rob that bank.

Example 2 (first person): I never saw Rachel rob that bank.

Example 3 (second person): You never saw Rachel rob that bank.

Read the three examples above, one at a time. Imagine each as the first sentence in a short story, and think about where you would expect the story to go from there. Better yet, imagine you’re sitting on a park bench with a total stranger, and this is the first sentence of a story they tell you. Note the dramatic difference in effect, even though only one word changes. Note the change in your assumptions about the narrator, particularly his or her reliability. Do you find yourself, unconsciously, wondering whether you can trust what this narrator is telling you?

I have heard authors variously refer to this as voice, perspective, or mode, but as I understand it (and Wikipedia, at least, agrees), the correct term is point of view. The role your narrator (and, in second-person, your audience) plays in the story has major ramifications on the reader experience. It is critically important for the author to realize this, and to choose the right point of view to have the effect he or she wants.

Let’s do one more, with a more significant change. Think about how much this changes the way you read the sentence, and how you immediately make assumptions about Jimmy, about Rachel, and about the narrator.

Jimmy told me he never saw Rachel rob that bank.

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Book Review: “The Shattergrave Knights,” by David M. Haendler

August 11, 2011 Reviews, Writing Comments (0) 328


[Full disclosure: Dave is a personal friend.]

I wouldn’t exactly call myself an avid fantasy reader. While I greatly enjoy some entries in the genre, I’ve sampled many of the best-selling fantasy series and found them wanting. I only have so much patience for yet another repackaging of Tolkein: the unlikely hero, living a peaceful life in an idyllic region far removed from the world’s problems, finds a long-lost (or hidden) relic of great power, which attracts the wise old magician who sets the hero up with some motley companions and sends them on a long quest to challenge the rising power of the Big Bad. Along the way they fall into peril, they’re separated and nearly defeated, and the hero learns to wield a great power long forgotten in polite society. Ho hum.

Some of these are certainly tropes of the genre and relatively unavoidable, but good fantasy finds new and inventive ways of presenting the tropes. I’m pleased to say that The Shattergrave Knights, recently self-published by attorney and fellow Philadelphian David M. Haendler, does just that. The story follows Jack and Olive Merriwether, twins from the tiny hamlet of Muddy Hollow who are caught up in adventure when a simple act of kindness draws the ire of a paranoid and overreaching government. A quest to rescue their parents from extraordinary rendition leads to revelations about the history of the Protectorate and the Merriwether’s own sinister ancestry.  Continue Reading

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“The Dark Knight Rises” is filming winter scenes in Pittsburgh.

August 1, 2011 In The News, Philly / Pennsylvania Comments (0) 253

Yesterday in Pittsburgh it was ninety degrees and muggy, and Bane and his army of soldiers or minions or whatever were wearing winter coats. That’s fake snow that’s blowing around on the steps of the courthouse. Makes me a little glad I’m not in the movie business. Continue Reading

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