Telling about Toppers

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Have you ever met a Topper?

You know the type – whatever you say, whatever you talk about, whatever you’ve done…they’ve done and done it better (or worse as the subject requires) than you. They’ve “topped” your story. No matter what.

I’ve known a few, and one in particular springs to mind. No matter what I said, she had a story to tell. Now, I don’t mind if someone wants to join the conversation and shows understanding and compassion by sharing a similar story, but when your stories are always – ALWAYS – bigger, better and grander, then you are doing it wrong.

Let’s call my Topper…Mrs. Knowitall.

Mrs. Knowitall and I would occasionally eat lunch together at a different job with a few other co-workers. She couldn’t bear to be left out of the conversation and had to constantly stick herself into each and every topic.

Example (may be highly stylized for the purposes of this blog):

“So last night I ate a big meal. Oh, boy, you wouldn’t believe all of the food I devoured. I probably had two entire pizzas’ worth at the Pizza Hut buffet and that doesn’t include salad and dessert,” I might have said.

“Really? I went to a different Pizza Hut last night and I was able to eat probably four entire pizzas with three full orders of breadsticks along with a head of lettuce covered in a one-inch layer of ranch dressing and croutons,” the wafer-thin Mrs. Knowitall replied.

The conversation would have veered off from there, but I would again say something else later.

 “I’m pretty excited – I think I may have another job soon. I’m really looking forward to teaching,” I said.

“Teaching is pretty good, but I tried out for Apprentice with Donald Trump. Apparently he was so impressed with my resume that he gave me a job on the spot. He actually decided that I’m going to succeed him when he retires,” Mrs. Knowitall said.

I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, but her final one may have done it.

“I found out last night that my cat has cancer. We’re probably going to have to put her down next week,” I would say, eliciting sympathy from most of our co-workers.

“That’s too bad. That reminds me of the time when my pet unicorn developed incurable Alzheimer ’s disease and then he grew wings and flew into the sun because he forgot that it was hot. We were all pretty sad about that for years at our house,” Mrs. Knowitall said with a smug look on her face.

Fine.

Your life is more epic than mine. Hands down.

I eventually gave up and couldn’t even speak when I was in their presence for fear of being topped. Every time.

So ask yourself: Who is the Topper in my life?

And I guarantee you that my Topper is 1 million times worse plus infinity.

Sneak peak at DEAD SIGHT

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For NaNoWriMo, I’ve been working on Dead Sight, my sequel to Dead Sleep. I just passed 20,000 words. I decided to reward my readers with a sneak peek of the novel. If you’ve read Dead Sleep, this will make a little more sense, but you may get a sense of how this novel will operate. I’ve had fun writing this one so far and I’m hoping to continue my NaNoWriMomentum and pound out a lot more this week. 

Well, without further ado, the Prologue to Dead Sight. (Bear in mind this is very rough and NO ONE has seen this yet except myself. I hold every right to change or discard anything you see before the book is finished). 

 

PROLOGUE

Thomas Hendrikson braced himself against the door frame between the dining room and kitchen of his home knowing his time was limited.

Within a few years, he would be sent off to war. War hadn’t yet been declared by the United States government, but it was only a matter of time. The signs were on the wall each time the newspaper came and with every radio broadcast. If that wasn’t enough, Hendrikson knew that once the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor in five months, the U.S. would be thrust into the war it had tried to avoid since Hitler began rampaging all over Europe.

For Thomas, death was almost certainty to meet him head-on in late December 1944. On a muddy battlefield with a gun in one hand and a letter to his wife in the other, he would breathe his last. When that moment came, the epiphany he felt while in his Midwestern kitchen wouldn’t matter at all.  There was almost nothing he could do to avoid his fate. The fear – not of the unknown, but of what was certain – controlled Thomas. It had entered through the backdoor and drifted through the house until it found him, about to enter the kitchen after a long day in the fields. It was fear that kept him rooted to the dark-stained oak floors as sweat stained his white, button-down, cotton shirt in the July heat.

Thomas’ wife, Julia, had left that morning to see her mother in Hurdsfield. Julia and Sue Ellen, their two year old daughter, packed for a week away from home. His mother-in-law was just 10 miles away, but he didn’t expect them back for seven days – possibly more. He didn’t mind Eleanor White, his mother-in-law, but he had other things to do. As a farmer in the middle of North Dakota, there was always work to be done. Even with rain on the horizon, there was plenty for Thomas to keep himself busy at the farm.

Taking a step back, Thomas found the desk in the adjoining room. Julia had always wanted the dining room to be just that – a dining room, with the clean formal table, lacy tablecloth and china cabinet. She’d put all that in the room, but Thomas insisted on keeping a desk in the corner for his personal space. Their home was spacious for a North Dakota farmhouse, but he liked to be near the kitchen while Julia was cooking. She didn’t like it, but she allowed it.

Rummaging through a few bills and invoices stacked together on top of the desk, Thomas found some blank sheets of precious white paper. Nearby, a half-sharpened pencil was ready for his use. He grabbed it while the thoughts that were tormenting his mind were still at the surface, ready to boil over. He needed to get these memories – his memories…or is it his future?… on paper before he forgot it all for good. Some of the images he saw were clear, recognizable – understandable, but most of the thoughts swimming around in his brain were beyond any comprehension he could muster. Thomas had always strived to be a progressive farmer, including the latest technology and techniques on the farm, but what he saw – what he knew to be true – was so unbelievable that the city folk of the 1940’s wouldn’t even understand his visions.

Without Julia on hand to nag him about cleaning up before sitting down to the table, Thomas straddled a chair at the solid cherry table in the dining room. He and Julia had purchased the immense table the year before in Fargo on a trip to see her sister. If Julia had been in the kitchen, she would have yelled at him to sit at the desk. That’s what he’d put it in there for after all. Somehow he knew that he’d need more space than the surface area the desk could provide. 

Thomas Hendrikson collected his thoughts. He was used to farming. The consistency of the annual plantings and harvests. The daily grind of milking the cows, feeding the livestock, and checking on his fields. Wheat, corn, barley and sunflowers. He tried out some oats last year, but it didn’t go as well as the salesman promised, so he went back to the basics and was determined to stay with them as long as they worked for him. He knew what worked in the fields of North Dakota and what didn’t.

This? The words and images that flashed through his head were foreign to him. He had no concept of how to handle this. He didn’t plant these seeds. He didn’t know how to harvest this crop.

All he could do – all he could even think to do – was to put pencil to paper and hope to rid himself of the confusion rattling around in his head.

But, when he finally had the pencil at the top left corner of the paper, he was at a loss. How would he start? What would he say? He knew the words he would write tonight and the next few days would affect his great-grandson and hopefully any great-great-grandchildren he might have. To ensure the continuation of the family, he began to write:

 

Dear Jackson Ellis,

At some point in time, you will be lost. You will not know what to do. The future will be blocked from you and the contents of this letter and the subsequent writings will be vitally important to your survival. As I write to you, the date on my calendar is July 14, 1941.

My name is Thomas Jackson Hendrikson and I am your great-grandfather. I already know that I will be long dead by the time you read this. You see, I share the same ability as you – I can see the future. I’ve known about my ability for some time, but only tonight was my destiny revealed to me. 

My future is destined to end on a battlefield in Europe in a few years, but your destiny is still wide open. I don’t want these letters to end up in the wrong hands, so after receiving this, there will be some tasks required to find the others. I believe in you, after all, you are my great-grandson. You are the only hope of keeping the family legacy.

Here is what you need to know right now…

 

Thomas Hendrikson wrote deep into the night, stopping only when the radio in the living room stopped playing its nightly variety of music. Waking up the next morning, he paused to eat breakfast and then continued, a man on a mission, possessed of the need to protect the child of his own grand-daughter. He continued writing, using up all of the plain white paper in the house. When that supply was exhausted, he used the scraps of paper left on the desk – old invoices, receipts and bills. Somehow his penchant for saving anything and everything over the years came in handy when the future most depended on it.

After that, he sealed the envelopes and made the arrangements that would need to be carried out over 70 years in the future. He couldn’t control the future – it was out of his hands – but the farmer knew he’d done what he could for Jackson Ellis, his great-grandson. 

Books and Movies

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We all love stories, to sit back and enjoy a good yarn.

But, where do we get those stories? More and more, those stories are coming from all sorts of different places. It could be plays, musicals, books, blogs, TV, movies, radio, podcasts, YouTube videos, and I could keep this list going forever and ever and ever…

But, what I want to address is books and movies. I gotta say – I love me a good book, but also love me a good movie. I’ll never be a filmmaker, but I can write a book, so I do have a somewhat vested interest in how books are re-translated to the big screen.

The issue came up for me today as I started showing a film in one of my classes after we read the novel together. The book is the 1964 Civil War novel, Across Five Aprils, that tells the story of one family’s experiences as they see sons leave for the war in rural Illinois. It received a Newbery Honor when it was first released, and has some great historical lessons. I wouldn’t say it’s a great book, but it isn’t bad.

But, then I found out there is a movie. “Great!” I thought. I can do the book and show the movie to cap the unit. One problem – the movie is terrible. I hate to criticize movies that are derived from books, but this is as much “based” on Across Five Aprils as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is based on Ol’ Abe’s life story.

There’s a point when you are no longer telling the story the author set out in the first place or when you are telling a whole new story. That latter camp is where Across Five Aprils finds itself. The characters are weak at best, the acting reminds me of a class project I might have shot on a weekend when I was in 8th grade and the plot is convoluted. The book, while is simple at times, at least has a clear and concise plot that is easy to follow.

In other words – it is terrible.

There are always going to be differences between the source material and the movie, but finding that balance is the trick. All of the Harry Potter films toe that fine line and, I think, come away for the better. Are they the same as the books? No. But, do they work as a movie and tell much of the same story? Oh yeah. As a companion to the books, they work amazingly. They get the key plot points dead-on and don’t mess with those who have longed to see their beloved characters on screen.

Not every book can be made into an effective movie. Well, at least that’s what I thought when I read World War Z. As a direct adaptation, it would have been unmakable as a film, but tweaking the plot and giving the story a main protagonist made for a very effective movie.

I get a kick out of watching movies with my daughter after she’s read the book first. This summer we watched the two Percy Jackson movies. She polished off the PJ books back at the end of last school year and was eagerly anticipating the new movie all summer. We watched it and the entire time I got, “Well, he wasn’t supposed to look like that!” or “They didn’t do that in the book,” or “Wait…that’s not what they did in the book.”

At a certain point we all need to step back and separate books from their movie adaptations, but filmmakers also need to sometimes do a better job of recognizing if the source material is better than the stuff they are filming.

 

What if?

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They could be the two best words to a writer.

What if?

I don’t consider myself to be a seasoned pro by any means, but looking back at my writing so far, it has all stemmed from a simple question of “what if?”

  • What if the girl in the casket isn’t really dead?
  • What if the perfect baseball game had a secret behind it?
  • What if the insecticide not only killed the ants, but then made them zombies?

That’s the question, isn’t it? What if…

Just insert an infinite number of scenarios after those two simple words. To be fair, the answer isn’t always the story, either. I’ll come up with the answer to the question, but often times, it changes throughout the journey. The infallible answer I’d stumbled upon after the initial question is suddenly not the solution I was looking for. That’s where the twists and turns come in to play – the action needed to move the narrative along.

The way I see it, there is no end to the stories that can be written as long as we keeping asking, “What if?”

So….what’s your “what if?”