Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Old Man Grows - Character Development

I was recently asked about the difference between character development and characterization.

Let's say a story begins with an old man...say a retired factory worker who is set in his ways and harbors long held biases about the roles of men and women in marriage. His wife becomes ill and dies at the beginning of the story. The man becomes lonely, but he's unwilling to share those feelings with others, instead becoming cranky and reclusive. When his only daughter comes out of the closet and tells him she is marrying her same-sex lover, he is outraged and disowns her. Months go by with him refusing to answer or return her phone calls. She finally gives up.

One day, our depressed old man suffers a massive heart attack. Paramedics use CPR to keep him alive until the hospital can take over and he survives. He deeply appreciates a young paramedic who provided him with hope and encourangement during the ambulance ride. After regaining his strength, the old man drops by the fire station to personally thank the young lady paramedic. His daughter and her new baby happen to be there visiting with her "spouse". The baby is beautiful and reminds him of his daughter when his wife first held her. This awkward moment causes the old man to reassess his prior values. Not long thereafter, he and his daughter's family take a trip together to Disneyland where someone directs a disparaging homosexual insult toward his daughter, her spouse and their young child. The old man comes to the defense of his "new" family and finds himself extolling the virtues of their love and commitment. He also comes to realize, he's not so lonely anymore.

Conflict drives stories. Why? Because it provides the tension that makes a story interesting. The old man's rigid value system resisted change...he even disowned his only daughter. Then, the baby broke through some invisible emotional barrier, causing the main character to undergo a fundamental change in his value system. That process of reacting to conflict is character development...and it was only made possible by the old man's initial characterization. Characterization is all the values and features of the character that will react to events in the story.

Pretty simple concept, huh? Then, why do so many writers struggle with the difference between character development and characterization?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

How to Drive a Dogsled (or Journey of a Manuscript)

Have you ever tried to drive a dogsled? Me, neither, but I think I’m learning.

It’s been over a year since I finished Jihad: The Breath of God. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

I spent a month obtaining reviews by some wonderful beta readers who gave me valuable feedback. They include a published author/English teacher, several genre-specific readers, a book club member and my wife who consumes novels like most women devour chocolates. These people provided honest feedback and I incorporated much of their suggested changes. A story that I thought was great, got even better. Thank you to my friends.

At this point, I felt the story was ready for the bright lights...just one more thing to check out. Since my story might have national security implications, I submitted portions of it to the FBI’s Office of Pre-Publication Review. They were cordial at first, but suddenly became distant. I sensed possible homeland security complications, so I went one step further and engaged the services of a literary attorney to protect me in case of trouble. She reviewed questionable excerpts and felt my story could withstand legal challenges. Still, I worried about government reaction to my story, but I have no control over that.

On a whim, I sent a copy of the “finished” manuscript to a friend who owns a video production company. He loved the it in one weekend...and said it would make a great movie. I authorized his company to develop the screenplay. He also has access to a Hollywood director who was the first assistant director on Titanic. According to my friend, this up-and-coming director is looking for the right story to direct for his first break-out movie and Jihad just might fit the bill. It’s been tough to see my baby dissected, repositioned and turned into a Frankenstein version with parts moved around to suit movie demands, but the screenwriter assures me that the changes are necessary. I discovered that the screenplay for the original Godfather movie is only 150 pages, (it’s one of my all time favorites) so who am I to question the process? I’m learning that screenwriting is like sausage making, best not viewed until it’s done. Besides, I am not in control of such things, so why worry about it?

At this point, I started the self-punishing stage of publication...querying literary agents. My first two queries got no interest, which did not bother me, because I did not begin my search for representation with my top choices...figured it would be best to swing the bat a few times before trying to hit a home run in my search for literary representation. I then decided to get some legal disclosure language for the beginning of my story, and during a conversation with my literary attorney, she expressed interest in my story...not a little interest, but strong interest. Turns out, she’s also a highly regarded literary agent. I suspended my query efforts to give her a chance to review the entire manuscript. She’s so busy that she uses sub-agents and technical readers who provide her with initial impressions. My manuscript hit a homerun with both her assistants. After her personal review, she offered me a contract. We signed about three weeks ago, and I have been completing a list of requirements for her that will help to build the best possible “pitch package” for publishers. I’m working for her now, jumping through hoops like a circus animal hoping for a reward treat. She’s in control of my future and my role is to help her achieve our goals in any way I can.

Last night, she called me at home to discuss where “we” are at in the process. She mentioned that two of her publishers have expressed a desire for fresh “thriller” material. She told them she has just what they need in my story and promised to contact them shortly. I AM SO HOPEFUL! But, I am again completely and utterly dependent on someone else for success. I feel like I’m barely hanging on to a wildly bouncing dogsled while the tough lead dog sets a blistering pace along a trail that I can barely see. I can only hang on and hope we get to the destination as fast as possible.

Have you picked up on the central theme yet to this blog?  CONTROL.  There comes a time when the writer surrenders control to the team. It's tough to do, after giving life to the story as a solitary accomplishment.

I’ve never driven a dogsled, but I suspect this publishing process might be pretty much the same. You, as an author, build your sled. Then you find the best dogs and tie them together, but everything depends on getting that special lead dog that knows the way. Finally, you shout “Mush” and hang on for dear life!

At this point in my journey, my lead dog is digging, the team is pulling and my sled seems sturdy enough to reach the destination village...the one that signifies my book is about to be released. When I step off those sturdy sled rails, knuckles white from clutching the dream, I’ll watch my great team enjoy the rewards for a completed journey. Lord, I hope there are no cracks in the ice ahead! LOL

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Nuclear Decision

Yeah, yeah, I know, I’ve been a lowly insurance broker for 34 years. What do I know about nuclear energy?

Does anyone grow up “hoping” to spend a lifetime selling insurance? I guess you might suffer that idea as a twisted nightmare, but nobody in high school dreams about becoming an insurance salesman. I was no different. I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. I thought I could design better technology and that nuclear energy would be a long term solution to my country’s energy needs. That was in 1967.

My life-path wandered along unmarked trails that led me from college, to Vietnam, into the mental health business, back to college, and then into thirty-four years of boredom, explaining insurance to sleepy-eyed people who didn’t really want to hear answers to questions they asked. Along the way, I studied the nuclear industry from top to bottom. I’d like to share that knowledge with you.

Hold your breath as long as you can. Did you make one minute? Maybe two minutes if you are really good. Look at your shoes. How old are they? Why aren’t you still wearing the same pair of shoes you bought ten years ago? Let’s up the ante. Who is the oldest living person you know? How old is the United States? (235 years, in case you didn’t know.) Now, let’s really go back in time.  How old is the Khufu pyramid in Egypt? (5,200 years old by most estimates)  When did the last ice age recede? (10,000 years ago)  Even the first vestiges of agrarian culture only started in Mesopotamia (Iraq) around 7000 years ago. Before that, humans wandered in small packs trying to find berries or kill deer.

“Okay, Dean...what the hell do pyramids, old shoes, ice ages and Neanderthals have to do with nuclear energy?”

Time.  Our country, indeed all of mankind, is on the brink of a giant leap of faith that involves time. Before I connect the time risk to the nuclear energy industry, let me explain a little about modern nuclear power plants.

All nuclear power plants have one thing in common. Heat from a radioactive core is used to turn turbines and produce vast amounts of electricity for civilization. These radioactive cores “consume” either Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239 in fuel rods (actually pellets inside tubes). Each pellet contains as much energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, almost 2000 pounds of coal or 150 gallons of oil. They do not “burn” like fossil fuels, sending vast amounts of particle and gaseous waste into the atmosphere. Instead, they simply emit various forms of radioactivity that generate heat to boil water for the turbines. And, all that radioactivity is safely contained inside the reactor core or in cooling ponds next to the facility. Sounds good so far, huh?

Buckle up your seat belt, because here come the stunners!

Nuclear power plants use enriched Uranium or Plutonium as the fissile (radioactive) material to generate heat. Enrichment means that the fuel pellets contain about 4% of the good stuff and a bunch of other inert material.  As the Uranium-235 undergoes fission, it decays into other elements, many of which continue to be radioactive. Iodine-131 is a good example of a nasty byproduct. It is highly radioactive but retains the chemical properties of the beneficial, non-radioactive version of iodine. Human bodies need iodine and store it in the thyroid gland. If radioactive iodine escapes from a reactor core, it will be concentrated in human thyroids. How would you like to have a little bundle of radioactivity right at the base of your throat?

Let’s talk about another byproduct. Strontium-90. Ever heard of it? How about milk? Ever heard your mother tell you to drink your milk so you will have strong bones and teeth? Strontium and the calcium you get from milk are the same chemically. Biologists call Strontium a “bone seeker” because your body will absorb it and deposit it in your bones, bone marrow and teeth. Its “half-life” is 28.8 years which means it will be sitting there for a long time pumping out radioactivity before it decays into non-threatening “daughter” elements.

How about this byproduct of reactors...Cesium-137? Do you like bananas? Ever eat one for the help with muscle cramps? Potassium and Cesium-137 act the same biochemically. Only difference, Potassium is not emitting radioactivity in your muscle tissue.

Did you think the information about these three byproducts of nuclear power plants is scary? You’re wrong.  The scary thing about these byproducts of radioactive decay is TIME! That’s right. The "half-life" of a radioactive isotope is the time it takes for half of the atoms in a sample to decay into lesser elements. Here are the half-life stats for the radioactive elements mentioned above:

Strontium-90:  28.8 takes 230 years to get below 1% of the original amount
Cesium-137:  30.2 years...242 years to get below 1%
Iodine-131:  8 days...64 days to get below 1% (but remember, this chemical has been concentrated by the thyroid creating much higher radiation dosage in a confined area)
Plutonium-239:  24,000 years...192,000 years to get below 1%
Uranium-235:  704,000,000 years...just to get half way.

These numbers show that radioactive isotopes either used in, or produced by, fission power generation facilities will remain dangerous for enormous periods of time.

The United States only had thirteen states 235 years ago. Consider all the changes since our founding. Can we trust future generations to safely contain Strontium-90 or Cesium-137 for the next 240 years? Is it even fair for us to impose such a burden on yet unborn generations? Also, nuclear reactors do not burn 100% of the radioactive fuel they contain. Fuel rods that are considered “spent” still contain huge amounts of radioactive Uranium and Plutonium and they are currently being “stored” in cooling ponds on the nuclear power plant facilities because we have no permanent storage place. President Obama says he wants more nuclear energy, but he ordered the only large-scale storage facility in the United States at Yucca Mountain to be closed. Are those power facility cooling ponds supposed to last 200,000+ years?

Now, for the kicker. Most nuclear power plants have a life expectancy of...are you sitting down...40 years!  So, if we are going to have a “long-term” nuclear energy policy we’ll be building hundreds of nuclear power plants over the next 200 years, 515 just to replace the 103 that we have now. Each one of them removes a few dozen acres of usable space for...let’s see...the last ice age was around 10,000 years ago, so my guess is that a couple more ice ages will come and pass before those “cooling ponds” become safe to stock fish.

My conclusion is clear. What do you think?