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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Filler Column

We here at The Friday Challenge talked it over and agreed to delay the column originally scheduled to run on Monday, so as not to take attention away from Sunday evening's announcement of the winners in last week's contest. Then due to circumstances beyond human control the Monday-turned-Tuesday column was delayed further anyway, so this is the hastily hacked together filler column, in which we will attempt to deal with a number of smaller issues collectively.

First: as to the Friday Challenge itself, it may be sheer egotism on my part, but it seems apparent to me that we had better participation when I was not attempting to evade my duties as chief justice. Therefore, I now decree a slight modification to the as-yet-unposted modified rules: while winners have the option to propose and present a future challenge (preferably, but not necessarily, the following week's challenge), this is purely optional and not a requirement. Furthermore, while everyone's input and comments re the submitted entries are read and valued (more so than you know), especially the opinions of the original presenter (if any), I will resume operating in my role as judge, jury, executioner (if/when needed), sole arbiter, final authority beyond which there is no appeal, and intermittent source of terrifying caprice and imperious whim.

Is everyone okay with this?

Second: in case you haven't taken a peek there lately, the shelves in the closet behind Door #3 have been partially replenished. What's listed there now is only about half of what's in-stock and waiting to be listed there, but this should give you something to work with.

Third: we've also accumulated quite a pile of review copies—these being bound uncorrected page proof copies of the sort publishers send out in order to seed and fertilize the astroturf. Rather than put these behind Door #3, we've decided to stack them on the floor next to The Assignment Desk. The stack isn't visible yet—it should become so by Friday—and if you see something there that interests you, you're welcome to take it, first-come, first-served. Here's the catch: if you take one of these review copies, you are implicitly agreeing to at least attempt to read the thing, and then write a column about it. (The column can be about any topic even slightly related to the book in question.) Fair enough?

Fourth: in response to Arisia's questions re the fair use of famous names, I was going to write a short column reexamining Al Capp v. Joan Baez. After looking into it, though, I decided instead to assign the Wikipedia article on Al Capp as homework. If you don't know who Al Capp was, or only vaguely remember him, this is well worth reading. Any guy who could argue that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was a waste of taxpayer money and Sesame Street actually makes kids less literate can't be all bad.

If you want just the executive summary: Al Capp was the cartoonist who for 40 years wrote and drew the comic strip Li'l Abner, an at times savagely satirical daily strip that spawned a large body of American idioms. ("Schmooze," "skunk works," and "kickapoo joy juice," to name just a few.) In the 1960s Capp introduced an annoying new character, the prototypical limousine liberal, Joanie Phoanie, a tone-deaf but fabulously rich and clueless folk singer.

Joan Baez promptly took umbrage, of course, and threatened litigation. I still remember Capp's defense, which was (paraphrasing from memory now), "Joan Baez is petite, brunette, and has a beautiful voice. Joanie Phoanie is tall, blond, buxom, and tone-deaf. If Miss Baez sees that image as a reflection of herself, she has some serious issues."

Hint: never attempt to try your case in the papers if you're going up against a master satirist. Especially if he's one who for forty years has been helping to sell those papers.

And finally, we get to the Fifth point: as longtime readers know, I'm addicted to 24, even though I know it's pure cerebral junk food. Last night, though, I just about blew Dr. Pepper out of my nose when it was revealed that the bad guys' dreaded bio-weapon was "fast-acting weaponized prion disease."

Tempting as it is to riff on the total idiocy of that idea this morning, I'll forgo the pleasure. Instead—well, okay, so it looks like this really is the final season of 24, as Jack Bauer has been exposed to and infected with an incurable, non-transmissable (!), prion-based bioweapon that is 100-percent fatal within 24 hours, which means the show has just turned into D.O.A. and Jack has but 8 hours left in which to save the world before he croaks. If only he could take Janeane Garofalo with him when he goes...

Never mind that. For some time now I've been thinking of another series I wanted to run here; let's call it, oh, "How to write fiction involving weapons and violence without sounding like a complete moron." (I'll come up with a better title later.)

Is there any interest in this topic?

Your thoughts and comments, s'il vous plait.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

And the winner is...

We had a lot of fun judging the entries in the 3/20/09 Friday Challenge. It's always much more enjoyable and productive for us when we can get together as a group, have some coffee or tea (Honest! Just coffee or tea!), pass around the entries, trade opinions, and read the good bits at each other.

That's what took out Henry's entry early in the running. "Lightning Fishing" is a wonderful tall-tale in the finest Southern story-telling tradition, but there are only so many times you can read "great, great, many-greats grandpappy" out-loud before you start to get a little, well, cranky. Very close, but not a winner this week.

Next up, in Tom we feel we finally have found a worthy adversary for Vidad's near-legendary overkill. "The Myth of King Ozimand" was awesome. We really wish you'd found the time to finish the artwork and present the story as you so obviously intended to do. As it stands, it's a great storyboard and a great start towards a story, but this week it's up against some fully realized entries, and doesn't make it to the medal round.

Chgowiz is the New Guy this week, and he asked us to be gentle as we evaluated "The Creation Myth." That wasn't necessary. As devoted fans of Big Science and high-energy physics, we thought it was enormously cool to reverse the polarity on all the apocalyptic talk that's been going around the Internet lately and turn the story of the activation of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the search for the Higgs boson (the so-called "God particle") into a creation myth. The first nine paragraphs really grabbed us and pulled us in. The jarring shift in point-of-view in the tenth paragraph threw us, though, and then the final paragraph broke the spell. This is the start of a good sci-fi story, but only the start, and the "it was all just a dream" ending both comes too soon and doesn't work. Great try, though, and you should consider reworking this one and making it much longer.

Jamsco presented us with a poser this week. "One Little Word" is pretty clearly Christian Fantasy, not myth. It seems like a good story—we really wish Guy Stewart had weighed-in on this one, as he seems to have a better handle on what is acceptable in the current Christian Fantasy market than we do—but we wouldn't touch the theological questions in this one with a ten-foot battle lance. Can even a demon repent and be saved? Sorry, that's above our pay grade. But in any case the assignment here was to create a new myth, and as it was almost written in the Gospel According to Rufus, "God really hates it when people call it Christian 'mythology'," so we're going to have to pass on this one.

KTown's entry, "The Man of the Moon", reopened a long-running discussion. We have seen a lot of very good work go by in the years we've been doing the Friday Challenge, and sadly, most of this work ultimately has been devoured by Otogu. People write great starts of stories but never finish them; people write great first drafts but then never polish them. This isn't precisely tragic: after all, the point here is to get you to write regularly, not to write pieces you can turn directly into commercial sales. That's why this isn't a closed, members-only, must-sign-an-NDA-and-a-waiver-before-you-can-even-take-a-peek workshop.

But all the same, it sometimes sucks, to see a great start like this and know that it will probably never lead to a finished story. We want to see the rest of this story! And so from time to time we get the notion to go back through the years of Friday Challenge winners and solicit contributions for a Best of The Friday Challenge anthology.

It would be hopelessly unsellable, of course. We'd be lucky to move 500 copies. But all the same, it would be fun to do, and it would give us an excuse to badger KTown with the question, "How soon can we see the rest of this one?!"

And thus we were down to WaterBoy's entry, "The Four Sisters", and Torainfor's entry, "How the Bull and the Bear Learnt to Take Turns, and lo, mighty was the struggle to choose between these two! Both were wonderful stories; both were made to be read aloud. I personally was slightly miffed by Torainfor's entry, as I had "write a modern 'Just So' story" on the schedule for an upcoming Friday Challenge and now I have to push it back by a few weeks. "The Four Sisters" gets a slight edge, as it's both a good, fun, perfectly paced story and really nails the assignment right on the nose. But "How the Bull and the Bear Learnt to Take Turns" is just such an utter delight to read aloud!

So in the end, we decided to split the difference and call it a tie. WaterBoy and Torainfor, you're this week's winners! Come on down and claim your prizes!

And with that Herculean task finally completed, we put away the coffee cups and broke out the cognac...

WCA Reminder

Just a reminder that the weekly meeting of Were-Creatures Anonymous will be held at 7pm Central time this evening in the Community Room on the 13th floor of the Rampant Loon Media building. All Friends of Lon are invited to share fellowship, conversation, and non-sanguinary beverages.

WCA Meetings are open to the public, and while each weekly meeting typically has a featured speaker, all attendees are invited to participate in the often very lively commentary session that follows the presentation.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Open Mic Saturday

G'morning all, and welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently: when is it coming out and where can we find it? In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Or what else is on your mind, that you feel like discussing with the group here?

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 3/27/09

It is said that somewhere in the far east, in the mist-shrouded K'themai Isles, there stands a great temple, built by the now-vanished K'bab peoples and dedicated to Otogu the Insatiable, Devourer of Days. In the heart of this temple there squats a grotesque giant idol, purportedly depicting Otogu himself, and while the idol is gilded with purest gold, the visage is that of a vast, flabby, and revoltingly toad-like creature, miserable with constipation. For though he consumes ceaselessly, despite all his straining, in the end, Otogu produces frustratingly little.

The K'bab legends as they have filtered down through the ages say Otogu is forever hungry because he feeds on nothing more substantial than time itself, and so is never satisfied. Further, the legends hold that in the very end, Otogu will consume every last moment of every day, and in final desperation turn on himself, beginning with his own left foot and consuming even his own body until utterly nothing remains. And thus will the world end, although right up until the final seconds, Mankind will be too busy working to notice that it's happening.

The K'bab peoples are long gone, now; their myth of Otogu, barely remembered. Jungle has reclaimed the once mighty but now nameless city, save for the weed-strewn courtyard and the vine-covered temple mound. The first white man to see the temple, the daringly brave but severely navigationally challenged pioneering aviator Wrong-Way Wojciechowski, thought it a magnificent ruin as he flew over, but was never able to find it again. Twenty years later the eminent archaeologist Professor Herr Doctor Arvid Morgenstern, working from Wojciechowski's journal, was able to rediscover the temple and reach it on the ground, but he sent out just one brief, cryptic, and sadly direction-free message before disappearing forever into the hungry maw of the mysterious green jungle. In his message, Professor Morgenstern claimed to have found proof that the temple was not in fact a ruin, but merely incomplete. According to Morgenstern, the K'bab simply had never found the time to finish the blessed thing, but they'd always meant to get back to it Real Soon Now...

The mighty Wright Cyclone engine of the tiny biplane roared like a giant basso profundo insect, so Cote Hanger had to turn around in the front cockpit and shout to make himself heard. "I said, Holy Cow! It's really there!"

Ace Pilot Cliff Hanger, at the controls in the aft cockpit of the Betty V, merely grinned. "I told you so, little brother!"

"But how?" Cote shouted back. "No one's been able to make sense of Woja— Wojie— Wrong-Way's navigational notes for more than a quarter of a century! What's the secret?"

"It was easy!" Cliff grinned again. "Once I figured out that they're written in Reverse Polish Notation!" He pulled his flying goggles back down over his eyes. "Now, hang on! We're going to land!"

Cote's eyes went wide with alarm as he looked again at the weed-strewn ancient courtyard before the vine-covered temple mound. "Uh, Cliff? I know you always said you could land the Betty V on a postage stamp, but aren't you forgetting what happened to Bettys One through Four?"

"Hang on!" Cliff shouted, as he threw the tiny biplane into a steep dive. "And think of the rubies! Professor Morgenstern's last message said the idol's eyes are rubies the size of Packard hubcaps!"

Oh, wait a minute. Cliff Hanger was for the 1/30/09 Friday Challenge. Let me get back to you on this....

And the winner is...
In an effort to get caught up, we turn first to the 3/13/09 Friday Challenge, which those of you with long memories no doubt remember was to at least make a promising start towards a sci-fi rewrite of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Torainfor: "Gael of Drey L" is, as I've come to expect from you, beautiful work. The writing is superb; the SF stage dressings seem genuinely original (and yet just a bit evocative of Andre Norton at her best); and the sheer amount of invention you pack into this short story is a delight. The moral point is terrific: the company psychologist takes Gael up the virtual summit and shows her all the riches she could have, but in the end, she chooses to resist temptation and remain herself. It's taken a lot of other writers a lot longer to express the same point and not do so half as powerfully.

Where this one falls down for me is at the very end, when you club me with the quote from Tolkien. I hadn't sussed the Galadriel parallel up to this point, and to smack me in the face with it in the last line seems to undercut much of the rest of the story. You've put a punchline on a story that not only does not need a punchline but is in fact stronger without one, and for me, that leaves a sour aftertaste.

Al: I really don't know what to say about "Deus ex Mickina". It was daft, it was funny, and it definitely explores some sort of high frontier of weirdness. Entertaining, but not a winner this week.

Arisia: "The Heart of Happiness" is a nice idea, nicely told, but the story would benefit from more showing and less telling. I think it also may have suffered because I kept expecting it to turn into Cyril Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag" — which, thankfully, it didn't, but there were enough similarities that I had the expectation all the same. If you've never read that one, you should track it and down and read it, just for comparison's sake.

Henry: "Heart of Dorkness" isn't quite what I had in mind when I posed the challenge, but it works, and it still has me laughing a week after I first read it. It's going to take me some time before I get tired of this one, and I could definitely see this one being reprinted in con program books for years to come.

So in the end I was down to Henry or Torainfor, and this time around, humor takes the cake. Henry, you're this last week's winner, so come on down and claim your prize.

Now, as for the 3/20/09 Friday Challenge...
Turning now to the 3/20/09 Friday Challenge, "Myths R Us," the entries received as of the totally arbitrary cutoff point are:

Chgowiz, "The Creation Myth"

Torainfor, "How the Bull and the Bear Learnt To Take Turns"

Henry, "Lightning Fishing"

Tom, "The Myth of King Ozimand"

Jamsco, "One Little Word"

WaterBoy, "The Four Sisters"

KTown, "The Man of the Moon"

As always, even if you haven't entered this week's Challenge you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites, with the winner to be announced on Sunday. Really.

Finally, we get around to this week's Friday Challenge!
This week's challenge comes to us courtesy of Will Keizer, who not only suggested the challenge but also was kind enough to send us some copies of his new CD, Pictures in the Dark, to give away as prizes. I don't quite know what to say about the CD—my lack of musical taste is legendary; I am, after all, the guy who absolutely hated Prince's demo tape and got thrown out of the Columbia Records west coast A&R office for telling the suits there that Eddie Money's "Baby, Hold On" totally sucked—

Given all that, Pictures in the Dark sounds good to me. The guitar work is superb; the arrangements tight and interesting; the songs pleasant, although evocative of someone I can't quite place at the moment. (At first I was thinking David Gray, but then I went back and listened to some David Gray for reference and decided I had no idea where that initial comparison had come from.) I recommend going over to Keizer's site and listening to the tunes he's got posted in order to get a taste for it. I think my favorite tracks are "Circles" and "Summer's End."

But I wander far off-topic. Without further blathering, then, I'll turn the microphone over to Will Keizer.
It was Fifty Years Ago today...

Everyone knows The Beatles changed everything. It could be argued their influence even reaches out past music, into culture itself. Maybe that’s a given.

But what if it had never happened? What if The Beatles had never had a hit, or never even existed at all?

The angle is up to you. What went wrong? Did John Lennon fall and break his neck on the toilet seat cover he occasionally wore at early performances? Did Pete Best remain with the band, thus relegating the Ringo-less group to only minor regional success? Did Paul McCartney tell Brian Epstein to sod off when he told the band to give up the blue jeans and leather jackets look and start wearing Carnaby Street "Mod" fashions? Or did George Martin give in to his first reaction, and get up and walk out in the middle of their first audition for EMI Records?

And what would have been the impact on history? Would John Lennon still be alive today, still living with his first wife, retired after a lifetime of working in Liverpool and enjoying a decent relationship with Julian and the grandkids? Would we all have been spared Yoko Ono, or for that matter, Austin Powers? Would R&B and Doo-Wop music have remained in fashion? Would the famous competition between the Beach Boys and The Beatles have instead been between the Beach Boys and Dion and The Belmonts? Could there even be such a thing as Doo-Wop Progressive Metal?

(Hmm. I'll have to hold on to that one. And take some Dramamine.)

Essays, satires, and fictionalized accounts are all welcome, as well as whatever else your demented minds might conjure. Personally, I'd love to see a story written in the style of the late Bane, about the bloody Death Row Records-type feud between the Beatles and the Stones...

As always, we're busking for spare change and playing by the totally groovy and not fully understood rules of the Friday Challenge. You, my fellow Rock and Rollers, are in contention for whatever lies behind the newly renovated Door #3, as well as the newly released album by yours truly. The deadline for entries is midnight Thursday, April 2nd.

Now, ready? Steady? Well a-one, two, a-onetwothree—

Let's rock!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

And the winner is...

Still to be announced, with further commentary. But at the moment I'm still swamped by OTOGU. (Other Things Of Greater Urgency. Add that one to the lexicon. Vidad, I expect a fully developed story explaining the myth of Otogu no later than Thursday midnight.)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, Part 6: Self-Publishing

You've written your comic book. You've found an artist to draw it. The whole thing is finished. You're ready to see your book sitting on the shelves of comic book stores through out the country. All you need now is for me to tell you the secret handshake and you'll have your "in" with a publisher.

Unfortunately, no one ever taught me the secret handshake. Maybe you can meet some pro at a convention who can teach it to you. Or, I can tell you the not-so-secret secret about the comic book industry. Ready? Here it is.

Self-publishing is a reasonable path to success in the comic book industry.

Every now and then, you might read about someone who self-publishes their novel and enjoys actual success. The comic book industry is filled with examples. Take me, for instance. I enjoyed what would charitably be called minor success self-publishing. But that success was sufficient to publish 36 issues of the Southern Knights, a dozen issues of the X-Thieves and earn about $30,000. (No, I never earned enough to be self supporting as a comic book writer, but I earned a lot more money than most professional writers earn in their careers.)

In the interest of fairness, I should also say that my self publishing partner, David Willis, and I officially self-published only the first seven issues of the Southern Knights. After that, we hooked up with David Anthony Kraft (DAK to all his friends), who was self-publishing the magazine Comics Interview. We remained involved in the publicity side of publishing, leaving the tedious parts of publishing to DAK.

Back to actual self publishing now. What follows are things you need to consider. These are broadly stated ideas, not the exact details. If you choose to go this route, you'll still have a lot of work ahead of you. My hope is that this column will narrow your focus.

You've decided you're going to self publish your comic book. What should you do first? I'd suggest you start searching for a printer. There are lots of printers in the U.S. and some of them even specialize in comic books. Any printer will be able to give you a current price list for printing your comic book. Unless things have changed, two prices will be given to you; the price for the first 1000 copies followed by the price for each 1000 copies beyond that. The price for the first 1000 copies includes the cost of setting up the printing press to print your comic. After the first 1000 copies, the only real costs of printing are paper, ink and electricity. Expect the initial 1000 copies to cost about 10 times as much as each subsequent 1000 copies.

Now that you've got an idea how much it's going to cost to print the books, you get to make a wild guess at the price of the comic book. When you sell to the direct comic book market through comic book distributors (well, distributor, now that Diamond Comics Distributor has cornered the market), expect to be paid 40% of your book's cover price. You have to make sure you select a price that's high enough to keep you from going broke but low enough that people will be willing to pay for your comic. I'd recommend doing some research on current comic books sales and making your best guess from there. If you price too low, you don't have to go through with printing the book. Simply explain what happened to the distributor and ask if you could be allowed to solicit the book again with a new price. If they say no, prepare to either stop now or to lose a lot of money printing the book.

Now that you've selected a price for the book, you actually contact Diamond. They've got a web page, so it shouldn't be hard to get in touch with them. I'd also suggest searching for other comic book distributors. Some of them do still exist, mostly specializing in independent comic book publishers (you, in other words). Ask the distributors what they need from you to solicit the book. Ask what you can give to them to help them sell the book. Remember, the distributor wants your book to sell. That's how they make money. They will work with you.

One thing you should definitely be prepared to do is send an electronic copy of your completed comic book to the distributors. Back in the late 1980s, black and white comic books became all the rage. There are reasons for it that I'll discuss another time, but distributors were happily soliciting orders for any black and white book. Comic book stores were happily buying large numbers of these books sight unseen. Comic books that looked as if they had been produced in a middle school study hall sold tens of thousands of copies and then just sat on shelves. That's why you send electronic copies to people, so they can see that you have a product that can actually sell.

While this all going on, be confident things will work out. Start working on your second issue while you wait for orders to come in from the distributors.

Once you've received orders from all the distributors who solicited your comic book, contact that printer and have them print the comic book. Most printers only promise to get within a certain percentage of your order. It was 10% when I was dealing directly with printers. Perhaps technology has changed that but I recommend you ask in advance. In general, the printer will go over your total order, not under it, and will charge you for the overrun. In other words, if you order 5000 copies, expect as many as 5500 and be prepared to pay for all 5500 copies.

At this point, it's time to box the books and ship them to the distributors. Most printers will do this chore for you. They'll charge you for it but it's well worth your while to pay for it. Trust me, sitting around counting out thousands of copies of a comic book, packing them in boxes, hauling them to UPS (or where ever) and having them shipped is well worth avoiding.

Finally, print invoices for the distributors and mail them. A standard payment term for this sort of thing is "2 10, net 30." Translated, that means the distributor can take a 2% discount provided they send payment within 10 days of receiving the invoice. Otherwise the full invoice amount is due within 30 days.

You will have someone attempt to take the 2% discount without meeting the 10 day deadline. Politely inform them that they did not meet the terms of the invoice and include a new invoice for the missing 2%. Once again, someone will try to get you to let them have the discount anyway. It's your choice how much of a hard line you take with them. On the one hand, you need them more than they need you. On the other hand, if you allow the discount once expect to have them continue taking the discount without meeting the terms. If you're tempted to shrug it off as not a big deal -- after all, you're only talking $20 on an invoice of $1000 -- remember that $20 is a much larger percentage of your budget than it is theirs.

By now, your second issue should be complete or well on its way to completion. Start the whole process over again.

As I said, this is just a broad brush over the business aspects of self-publishing a comic book. Please don't hesitate to post questions asking for more details. Also, please let me know other topics associated with self-publishing comic books you'd like me to discuss.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

WCA Reminder

Just a reminder that the weekly meeting of Were-Creatures Anonymous will be held at 7pm Central time this evening in the Community Room on the 13th floor of the Rampant Loon Media building. All Friends of Lon are invited to share fellowship, conversation, and non-sanguinary beverages.

WCA Meetings are open to the public, and while each weekly meeting typically has a featured speaker, all attendees are invited to participate in the often very lively commentary session that follows the presentation.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Open Mic Saturday

G'morning all, and welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently: when is it coming out and where can we find it?

In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Me, I'm going to gracelessly evade the question and point you to some interesting articles and factoids. In sheer business news, Amazon has unveiled the Kindle 2, which is considerably slimmer and better-designed than the original and also includes a rudimentary form of built-in text-to-speech, so actually being able to read is now optional. The Kindle 2 remains locked into Amazon's proprietary file format, however, so in a counter-move, Google and Sony have announced an agreement to release some 600,000 titles in the Open ePub format. Given that Google has been making a serious effort to scan and digitize everything printed everywhere, copyright be damned, this should prove interesting. Also, if you're one of those iPhone cultists, you should be delighted to learn that both Google and Amazon have announced versions of their respective ebook readers for the iPhone. I really can't see—I mean, I literally can't see—reading screen after screen of tiny text on an iPhone, but if I younger, I'd be investing in corrective lens and hearing-aid makers. Those are the growth markets of the 21st century, my friends. In the future, there will be millions upon millions of myopic and near-deaf iPhone and iPod users, urgently demanding that somebody do something to save them from themselves, and oh, there will be money to be made.

Speaking of the future, the BBC asked four leading British SF writers (Arthur C. Clarke being dead and all) to answer the question, Can science fiction keep up with modern science? The answers are worth reading, if only to see a few paragraphs from old friend Ian Watson, who is always charming and a delight.

Also on the BBC, Bruce Sterling does a scattershot interview that is none the less interesting. Either Sterling is my evil doppelganger or I'm his, and I've often sometimes thought he now is how I would have turned out, had I taken myself excruciatingly seriously thirty years ago. One thing we're in full agreement on, though, is this:
[...but] he is worried that his novel-writing days may soon be at an end.

"I am not sure I am going to be allowed to do it. American publishing is in distress. The book stores are going, the big centralised publishers are very heavily indebted and they are small sections of the centralised American media apparatus that have lost social credibility."

He adds: "People don't pay attention to novels. The socially important parts of American communication are not taking part in novels. You can write them but they are not changing public discourse.

"You can also say that everybody in society has moved up a notch and everybody just wants the executive summary."
And so we merrily progress along our path to being a post-literate culture...

In other business news, Barnes & Nobles bought ebook publisher Fictionwise, for whatever that's worth. Slightly less than 16 million dollars, apparently.

Finally, I just have to close by sharing this photo of the Helix Nebula, which lies about 700 L.Y. away in the constellation of Aquarius, and which was taken by the La Silla observatory in Chile. Some people are starting to call this astronomical formation "The Eye of God," for obvious reasons.

Thank goodness La Silla had red-eye reduction turned on when they took the snap.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 3/20/09

It's the first day of Spring—which of course means we got a fresh layer of snow overnight. "Spring" has a whole different meaning up here in the great white north.

Along with the light dusting of snow, we also received a light turnout for the 3/13/09 Friday Challenge, aka, "The Sci-Fi Rewrite of Heart of Darkness." Maybe it was an insufficiently challenging challenge. Maybe it was overwhelming. Maybe too many of you are still suffering the after-effects of having been forced to read this one in high school by some totally inept Language Arts instructor who then proceeded to beat every last bit of life out of the story in the subsequent discussion.

Whatever the cause, the entries in contention for this week's prize are:

Henry: "Heart of Dorkness"

Arisia: "The Heart of Happiness"

Al, The Camera Breaker: "Deus Ex Mickina"

Torainfor: "Gael of Drey L"

As always, even if you haven't submitted an entry you're invited to read, comment on, and vote your for favorite, with the winner to be announced on Sunday.

As for this week's challenge: after thinking it over, previous winner Al decided he wanted to try presenting a challenge after all, so I now turn the microphone over to Al.

"This week's Friday Challenge is... Myths R Us!

"In ancient times, myths were the way we passed on lessons and learning. The stories of half-god heroes taking down horrible monsters would provide kids with role models. Joseph Campbell had quite a few cool things to say about myths--most of which really aren't relevant to this Challenge, unfortunately.

"In modern times, myth has been replaced by Hollywood. We don't read anymore about Bellerophon riding Pegasus to slay the Chimera; we watch Luke Skywalker riding his X-Wing to destroy the Death Star...which has to make you wonder if there are really only about seventeen useable plots out there and they just get re-written for each genre and each generation.

"Mythological heroes and villains are always larger than life. They are quite often the children of deities, like Hercules, Theseus, and Liv Tyler. You'd never hear a myth about Joe Schmoe, the illiterate sandalmaker from Santa Fe...unless, of course, Joe was the illegitimate offspring of messenger god Mercury and Madonna, and awakens to his destiny when he dreams about building silvery winged slippers with metal points in the front.

"A myth has one major requirement and one optional element. First and foremost, the myth has to carry a moral. "Never get involved in a land war in Central Asia" was likely a popular one, as was "when your uncle tells you not to fly too close to the sun with wings made of feathers and wax, LISTEN TO HIM!"

"As an added bonus, myths explain some fact of nature around us. That light in the sky every day? That's not a huge flaming ball of gas...it's a guy driving a chariot across the sky on wheels of fire. Those huge blasts of light and noise that come blasting out of thunderstorms? They aren't electricity, they're a vengeful deity taking pot-shots at the mortals who annoyed him.

"So, your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to write a myth. It must have characters who are larger than life. It must teach a lesson or carry a moral of some kind. Bonus points if it also explains something about how the world works, like the mysteries of the blooms of spring, why the moon changes shape, or why the stars haven't fallen out of the sky now that Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State.

"As always, we are playing by the ancient, nebulous and diaphanous rules of the Friday Challenge, carved into stone millennia ago by the god of the pub-crawl, whose mysterious name is revealed only to those who have survived to the sixth stop and the eighteenth shot of tequila. The lucky winner will get to cross the River Styx, which lies behind Door #1, kill the nine-headed dragon/Doberman crossbreed behind Door #2, rescue the maiden princess from the half-man half-Javelina Pigotaur behind Door #3, and finally discover the ultimate treasure behind Door #4--guarded by three legions of animated skeletons, unfortunately."

[~brb adds: Or you could just have a look here.]

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, Part 5: Writing the Full Script

by Henry Vogel

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Welcome to part five of writing for comic books.

As promised, today we'll look at writing a full script for a comic book. Full scripts are more common now than when I was writing comic books. Panel descriptions from big name writers may end up reading like movie set descriptions with all but the most minor details spelled out. Comic book publishers tend to prefer full scripts because a writer's submission can be edited all at once.

As full scripts are much longer than complete plots, I'm only going going to expand sections of the story into a full script. There is only one rule of thumb for writing a full script. Each caption, word balloon and thought balloon is uniquely numbered, with the numbering starting at one for each page. I'm not really sure why this is done, though I can think of one possible answer. Numbering does help differentiate between panel descriptions and dialogue, narrowing the letterer's focus to only the text that applies to them.

I'll be approaching the full script the same way I did the complete plot. I'll post the single line description of the page from the outline, expand it into a full script for the page then add any comments I have afterwards in italics. Most of my comments on the story appeared in part four so I doubt I'll have many comments to add.

Southern Knights 1 – City Search script

1. The Knights are fighting two battlemechs at I-85 and I-295.

Splash page
The scene is the interchange between I-85 and I-285 as you enter Atlanta heading south on I-85. Check here for an aerial photo of the interchange:
The fight is happening beyond the bottom left corner of the photo. Traffic is backed up in all lanes and all across the distant overpasses. Two battlemechs (check out an example of one here: http://media.moddb.com/cache/images/mods/1/9/8528/thumb_620x2000/67761.jpg) are battling the Southern Knights about a quarter of a mile from the overpasses. Empty cars are tumbled around the fight, leaving a sort of ring in which the Knights and the two mechs are fighting. Mech 1, the closer of the two, is firing machine guns at civilians who are fleeing the area. Dragon is throwing himself between the machine gun fire and the civilians. Kristin is helping protect civilians by stacking smashed cars between them and the mechs. Electrode is flying around Mech 2 and firing electrical bolts at it. The bolts are being reflected by Mech 2's armor. On the ground, Connie has crept close to the feet of Mech 2. Away from both mechs, waves of mystical energy are gathering around Aramis.

Caption 1: On the best of days, rush hour in Atlanta is hazardous. Today's events have left Atlanta's commuters wishing for some old fashioned road rage!

Title 2: City Search

Sound FX (Mech 2) 3: Rat tat tat tat tat tat tat

Dragon 4: Flee mortals! Flee while the metal monstrosity is concentrating on me!

Credits (vertical, leaving commas out) 5: Writer - Henry Vogel, Artist - Who Knows, Letterer - M. S. Powerpoint

First, I should have included links to the photos in the plot in part four. It only crossed my mind to do that today. Second, I suspect I would end up with more dialogue after seeing the artwork from the plot. That's primarily because it's how I'm used to writing comic books. Without knowing what the art will look like, my dialogue will probably be sparser than normal. Also, this is fight dialogue rather than normal dialogue. Check the comments below page 2 for more on the difference between the types of dialogue.

2. Some Knights fight, some work to get bystanders to safety.

Page 2
Panel 1
Aramis fires a bolt of mystical energy at Mech 1. The bold flashes in front of the mech's cockpit, temperarily blinding the mech pilot. Meanwhile, Kristin has found a somewhat crumpled minivan with a family of four still in inside it.

Aramis 1: You cannot hit what you cannot see!

Driver of minivan 2: Help us! We're trapped!

Kristin 3: I'll have you out in a jiffy. I'm afraid you're going to need a new minivan, though.

Driver 4: Just get us out!

Panel 2
Kristin has peeled the roof of the minivan off like the top of a sardine can. The family of four -- father, mother, son about 10, daughter about 8 -- are climbing out through the now open roof. Off to Kristin's side, Dragon breaths flame at Mech 1, keeping the mech's attention on him. Add an inset panel showing a temperature gauge from the mech's cockpit. Dragon's flames have caused the mech to heat up alarmingly.

Kristin 5: Go, go, go! Run while Dragon has that...thing... distracted.

Boy 6: It's a battlemech, ma'am.

Mother 7: Randy, don't talk, run!

Boy 8: But I want her autograph!

Kristin 9: After the fight, Randy. Now, listen to your mother and run!

Panel 3
As the family of four dodges between cars, running away from the fight, Kristin flings the ripped off roof of the minivan at Mech 1, sort of like a big, heavy frisbee with sharp metal edges. The minivan roof knocks Mech 1 off balance.

Kristin 10: Chew on that, you bastard!

Father 11: This way, kids! Hurry!

Sound FX from roof hitting the mech 12: KRANG!

Want to know a big secret about writing comic books versus drawing them? Artists generally love fight scenes because of the big, sweeping action. It's also usually easier for an artist to sell a page of original art if it has a fight scene. Writers, on the other hand, generally hate writing dialogue for fight scenes because it's so unrealistic. Let's be frank, other than necessary communication for teamwork, who talks a lot during a fight? Only superheroes and supervillains. Spider-Man doesn't need to communicate with anyone else, so why doesn't he just shut up and fight? Because that would be boring. It's much more entertaining to have a wise cracking hero and a stuffed shirt villain, neither of whom can keep their mouths shut during a fight. But it can be downright painful to write that kind of dialogue!

We're going to skip to the end of the fight, now. Summing up the fight, the Knights win but Kristin uses one of the cars to intercept some missiles.

9. A bystander whose car was trashed in the fight blames Kristin for the loss.

Page 9
Panel 1
As TV news crews descend on the scene, a thin man with thining hair and a scraggly beard confronts Kristin. The man is obviously angry. Kristin, on the other hand, appears to be in a good mood, having won the fight without any civilian casualties. A TV camera is trained on Kristin from about 15 feet away. A smartly dressed female reporter is watching everything. This is Tina Preston.

Man 1: Hey, you! Do you know what you did?

Kristin 2: What? Is someone hurt or trapped? Lead me to-

Man 3: No, you idiot! You destroyed my car!

Kristin 4: I don't know what-

Man 5: Don't act all innocent, blondie! You purposefully threw my car in front of those missiles! It got blasted into a million pieces!

Panel 2
Kristin is now just as angry as man confronting her. Both of them are getting up into each other's faces. The man is pointing off panel (at another car). In the background, Dragon transforms into Mark Dagon and the TV camera continues taping Kristin's confrontation.

Kristin 6: And I saved your ass by doing that!

Man 7: By destroying my car! Why couldn't you throw that stupid minivan? It was already junk.

Kristin 8: It wasn't handy when I needed to throw a car! Would you be happier if I'd picked through the cars carefully?

Kristin 9: This one? No, it can be fixed. This car? No, it looks too new. How about this one? No-

Kristin 10: Boom! The missiles hit and you end up dead!

Panel 3
Mark Dagon pushes in between the man and Kristin. He is facing Kristin. In the background, the TV camera is still rolling and Electrode is landing nearby.

Man 11: You'd be toast, too, little lady. You destroyed my car just to save yourself!

Kristin 12: I'm invulnerable, you moron! The missiles could have hit me right in the chest and all I'd have to do was change clothes!

Mark 13: That's enough, both of you! Kristin, walk away from this guy. Let David and me handle him.

Kristin 14: Are you crazy, Mark? Let me knock some sense into-

Mark 15: Walk. Away. Now!

Man 16: You superheroes are a menace to society!

Panel 4
Still furious, Kristin has turned and is walking away. Mark has turned to the irate man and is trying to calm him down. He's been joined by David/Electrode, who has shut down his powers. David is making placating gestures to the man. In the background, the TV news camera is following Kristin.

David 17: Please calm down, sir. I'm sure we can solve the problem if we-

Man 17: Can you put my car back together again?

Mark 18: Kristin used his car to intercept those missiles. It's sort of scattered all over the area.

Man 20: Exactly! That car was less than a year old!

David 21: I believe I see the problem. Rest assured, sir, that the Southern Knights are required by law to carry very heavy duty insurance for just such situations.

Panel 5
Tina , the smartly dressed reporter from panel 1, is directing the camera man by pointing at Kristin. Kristin, still looking angry, is stalking out into the area in which the fight originally took place.

Tina 22: Tell me you're getting this!

Cameraman 23: I'm getting it!

Kristin 24: Menace to society? Idiot!

10. Kristin stalks away muttering about what Atlanta would do if the Knights left.

Page 10
Panel 1
An angry Kristin has picked up a car door that was laying on the ground and is easly tearing it in half. The TV camera is still recording her every move.

Kristin 1: Where does he think he'd be if it wasn't for us? Dead and spattered all over I-85, that's where!

Kristin 2: This city ought to thank God every day that they've got the Knights here to protect them!

Panel 2
Kristin casually tosses the pieces of door forty or fifty feet away (but still within the fight zone -- no one is nearby). As usual, the TV camera is still trained on her.

Kristin 3: What would they have done if we weren't around? Died. All of them!

Kristin 4: What would they do if we put our lives first, huh? That's what I want to know!

Kristin 5: What would they do if we just got up and left Atlanta?

Panel 3
Kristin continues her tirade. Connie is approaching. The TV camera is still rolling.

Kristin 6: You know, it would serve them right if we left! I'll be a lot of cities would give a lot to get the Southern Knights!

Connie 7: Kristin? What's going on?

Panel 4
Pretty much the same as panel 3 except Connie closer.

Kristin 8: Atlanta gets us for free and this is the thanks we get? Why do we even bother to stay here?

Connie 9: Kristin, calm down! You're almost shouting.

Kristin 10: Huh? Was I saying all that out loud?

Connie 11: Oh yeah, you were plenty loud. What's got you so upset?

Panel 5
Close up of the reporter and the cameraman. The cameraman In the distance, Connie is giving Kristin a hug.

Tina 12: Tell me her rant came in loud and clear!

Cameraman 13: Got a directional mic on the camera, Tina. It'll be clear.

Tina 14: Great! Let's film a quick wrap up then head back to the studio.

Panel 6
Tina, looking cooly professional, is looking right into the camera.

Cameraman 15: I'm set. Start when you're ready.

Tina 16: Disaster was narrowly avoided this afternoon as a pair of rampaging war machines were subdued by the Southern Knights. But that is not the real story here. The real story, as you will see, came after the battle. The real story is what the Southern Knights, Atlanta's heroes, truly think of the city that adores them.

See the difference between the dialogue on pages 9 and 10 compared to the dialogue on pages 1 and 2? The "fight dialogue" mainly serves to fill some space and slow down the reader's pace. Without fight dialogue, the reader would fly through the pages of fighting, finish the comic book in about 10 minutes and probably feel as if they didn't get good value for their money. Meanwhile, the dialogue on pages 9 and 10 is character driven and much more interesting to write (and read, I hope).

While I've only expanded four pages to a full script, you can see just how much longer a full script is than a plot. Further, I'm pretty sure my full script is far less detailed than ones you'd get from writers such as Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore.

The dialogue I've written is just a first draft. If I had been writing an entire full script for an issue of the comic book, I would treat it no differently than any other story. I'd complete the script, give it a quick read for typos then set it aside for at least one night. With a little distance from the actual writing, I'd come back to the script and try to read it from a reader's perspective. I'd look for all the normal things writers look for; characters speaking out of character, descriptions that don't convey what I have in mind, awkward grammer and misspellings/typos in the part of the script the letterer will be putting on the page.

It's important to remember that letterers are paid to transfer to the comic book page the exact words the writer has written. They may think the script is wrong but it's up to writers and editors to get the script right. Changing the script at that point is a Very Bad Thing from the letterer's point of view. So make sure your script says exactly what you want it to say and in the way you want it said.

Next time out, I'll discuss breaking into the comic book field and also explain why self published comic books are far more likely to sell than self published books.

Have you got any questions concerning the series so far or any questions you'd like me to answer next week?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

And the winner is...

Mea culpa. Torainfor sent this in on-time, but I got bogged down by other things and didn't get it posted Sunday evening.
First things first: the chocolate chip cookies were to be delivered to my doorstep--not your stories. The only ones I received were handed to me by my rent-a-kid (only child of friends same age as my son). But she didn't write a story this week. Although she could have. She's not quite eight, but she's in fourth grade.

Funny how all three stories had dreams.

Oh, BTW, my fuzzy bunny slippers were yellow.

Lady Quill: Oh, I so want to pick this one! The story was so gripping. And you integrated the objects so smoothly. But then it ended. And I didn't get it.

Vidad: I'm sorry. I was unaware of the ability of a list of random things to completely randomize your plot process. If surrealism had been in the list of things looked for...yeah. Poor Bingo.

Al: How did you know my grandmother grew roses? Loved it. Wonderful. You win. Even though you didn't give me cookies.

Ergo, the winner of the 3/6/09 Friday Challenge is Al, although I still don't have Door #3 up and working, so you'll just have to hold that thought in mind for a few more days.

Some meditations on the First Rule...

Meanwhile, Henry is providing me with an excellent excuse to bring up this topic. While I've phrased it in many slightly different ways over the years, owing mostly to my both never formally codifying it and my rarely feeling like taking the time and trouble to look up the way I stated it the last time I cited it whenever I want to cite it again, I usually put it something like this:
The First Rule of Being A Professional Writer is:
Paying work on deadline always takes priority.

This, along with carpal tunnel syndrome, is an occupational hazard. Writers are always tempted to steal time from other projects and commitments in order to "just jot a few notes" about that really interesting idea for a story that occurred to them while they were commuting in to work this morning. As a result, they are forever looking up from their jottings to note with some surprise that it's already 10 o'clock, and they still haven't started doing what they're being paid to do today.

Don't try this at home, folks, and don't try it in school (some of my college lecture notes had the most amazing marginal notations), and especially, don't try this at work. This is one of those self-defeating behaviors that greatly contributes to the popular perception that writers are flakes, or at least always walking around with their heads in the clouds and never fully in the here and now. When you're a full-time professional writer, it's bad enough; as a creative person, the siren call of the project you haven't fully envisioned and started yet is always much stronger than the nagging obligation of the one you just have to finish and deliver.

But this temptation can be even more destructive for the aspiring writer, who's not working as a full-time writer but still trying to carve the time to write out of his or her life. Edgar Rice Burroughs may once have written that he became a bestselling novelist only because he'd been fired from every other job he'd ever had, and that may sound terribly romantic in some demented way, but as it was happening it must have worked a certain hardship on Mrs. Burroughs and the kids.

Which brings us in a roundabout way to the rarely stated Zero Rule, which remains rarely stated because I've never found a sufficiently pithy way to state it. The gist of it is that the writing life can be incredibly toxic to marriages and families—again, because the writer is never fully in the here and now, but always has some bit of his or her mind off somewhere else, and always has that itch to steal a little time to just jot a few notes.

All I can say to this is: resist the temptation. Whenever you make commitments to your family, keep them. In the long run, it's much better to have good relationships with your spouse and your children than to have an award-winning out-of-print book listed on your curriculum vitae. Trust me on this one.

Sorry for the inconvenience...

Just a minor editorial note here: sorry for the recent absence of content. I had Other Commitments that consumed most of my weekend and it didn't occur to me that Henry might be in the same position. I should have anticipated this possibility and had a column or two in reserve; if nothing else, I've got a pile of questions here from Leterren that need to be answered, and any one or two of them would make a good column. I promise to be more conscientious about this as we move forward. There are other slight adjustments I need to make in the way I'm running this show—

But there is not time to explain them now, so they'll have to be explained later.

Speaking of Opportunities...

Four interesting items have come in over the transom in the past few days, two of which I can talk about. The first is from Lady Quill:
Hey Bruce, when I was posting my Saturday update, it occurred to me that a writer's group is a good place to recruit writers. I'm the managing editor for Brighthub.com, Google Channel.. I know Friday Challenge is a fiction group, but I know there a few geeks in the mix and frankly I'm desperate for a couple of GOOD tech writers who will do their jobs and write quality articles. The pay is fairly low.. $10 per short article (300- 500 words), but they do pay on-time, and it looks good on a writing resume. Writers can write for more than one channel, so that helps increase potential income a bit.

My point?? May I post this to thefridaychallenge?

And.. along the technical writing lines.. I have need for a writer who can write short articles explaining various Google services on a more technical level. Currently, I have a lot of "how to" articles, but not much for the technically savvy. If you know JavaScript, all the better. It's a paying gig -- pay is not great, but it's regular and on time, and there is the potential to write for other channels, as well. Shoot me an email for details.

Know anyone who might be interested? Thanks!
The Lady then kindly provides her real name and phone number, but this being a public blog, I'll omit them. If you're interested in either of these writing gigs, post a note here or drop an email to Lady Quill.

The second comes in from old chum Mike Finley, who used to bill himself as America's Best-Loved Business Writer but lately is billing himself as America's Best-Loved Unemployed Business Writer:
As you may or may not know, I was one of over a million Americans to lose their jobs in the first three months of this year. I have been busy trying to get a new one, but as you can guess the pickings are pretty slim.

That being the case, I decided to start a new online column on the subject of getting laid off, and the psychological experiences we are all having, whether we are doing the laying or the one getting laid.

The column is available at this link: http://www.examiner.com/x-4930-Minneapolis-Unemployment-Examiner.

It's not the greatest deal in the world; in fact, it's a form of pyramid sales. The Examiner hires hundreds of writers like me in every city, sells the ads on the basis of Google search data, and isn't really that interested in doing journalism or creating a good experience for readers.

But I am, and this is one of the few offers that has come my way in the last three months. And the topic interests me (a lot), so I have written a few articles, and I am inviting you to take a look, or to refer the place to friends and colleagues who are out of work, or are afraid they may soon be..

Some of the juicier article titles:

Laid off: the 5 stages of grief
Have big banks apologized to the unemployed?
Perfecting your elevator speech while falling 17 stories
Chronicles of the unemployed: bizarre layoff stories

This email is my stab at viral marketing. If you click on one of my stories, or tell your friends about them, I will be most grateful. Also, if you know of anyone looking for a good writer/editor, put in a good word for me. Thanks.

So there you go, Mike; you have been plugged. Which no doubt is much better than being served.

Finally, since it is St. Patrick's Day...

I was going to relate a brief but highly amusing story involving copious quantities of green beer and one of the seedier punk-rock nightclubs I used to hang out in some thirty-plus years ago, but I'm out of time now. Paying work calls.

Have fun tonight, stay safe, and if you have to choose, stay safe.


Monday, March 16, 2009

First Rule delays Writing for Comic Books

I spent the time I planned to spend writing part five of Writing for Comic Books brushing up on some technical skills in preparation for an interview this morning. Come back Tuesday morning for the new column.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Open Mic Saturday

Welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently: when is it coming out and where can we find it?

In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 3/13/09

Light turnout this time. As of the deadline we have but three entries in the 3/6/09 Friday Challenge. In the order received, these are:

Lady Quill: "Mysteries Unfolding"

Al: "Waking the Dead"

Vidad: "Speechless"

As always, even if you did not submit an entry, you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites, with the winner to be announced Sunday.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge: for the past few days I've been thinking much about Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I'd like to say that this is owing to my recent discovery of the Ria Press web site, which features a nicely formatted PDF of Heart of Darkness amongst its collection of free downloadable public-domain books, but it's more likely some insidious side-effect of my having had substantial exposure recently to an R&D project with the code name of "Congo."

Whatever the cause, that's the starting point for this week's challenge. If you've never read Heart of Darkness, now is a good time to do so; if you distrust PDF files from unknown sources, you can always get a clean text copy from Project Gutenberg. It's a short novella—36 pages in formatted PDF—and while the story last impinged on the public consciousness in the form of the movie, Apocalypse Now, it occurs to me that Coppola's film came out decades ago, and in any case this story is just begging for an updated and modern sci-fi rewrite.

Hence this week's assignment. I want you to think about, plot out, and make at least a promising start towards writing a modern, updated, 21st century (or later) good clanking hard sci-fi remake of Heart of Darkness.

What's your angle? Are Data, Wesley, and a bunch of redshirts taking a rickety old Galileo-class shuttlecraft to Arglebargle IV, to find the remote outpost of the legendary Admiral Sulu, who's reportedly gone native? Or are you and your three fav BFFs cruising down Alameda in a '62 low-rider Impala convertible, into the deadly Heart of Compton? Is John Kerry taking a Swift boat up the modern-day Congo River, to have an experience that will no doubt be seared, seared into his memory?

Or how about this: maybe we are the primitive and superstitious natives, and a party of E.T.s have come here, searching for one of their own who's gone native and is using his/her/its advanced technology to set his/her/itself up as a god?

Anyway, the Challenge is issued; you now have one week to come up with a response. The deadline is midnight Central time, Thursday, March 19. Good luck.

And remember: "The horror! The horror!"

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Breaking News!

Elders of Zion to Retire:
The Elders of Zion, the venerable and shadowy Jewish organization that controls the international banking industry, news media and Hollywood, has announced that it is disbanding so that members can retire to Florida and live out their golden years on the golf course.

“We had a good run,” said one senior Elder, reminiscing over old photographs of world leaders in his musty, wood-paneled office at an undisclosed location. “Maybe we ran the world for just a little too long. Anyway, now it’s Obama’s problem.”

Read the rest...

Deadline Reminder

Just a quick reminder that the deadline for the 3/6/09 Friday Challenge is midnight tonight.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Social Notworking

Wow. If I were a TV newscaster with an advanced degree in Triteness Studies I'd say that Old Man Winter has returned for one last blast, except that this is Minnesota, and we're due for at least two more good snowstorms before it's all over for the season. (Here in Minnesota, we just look at that note on the calendar that says that Spring starts next week and laugh. Bitterly.)

Driving home in near whiteout conditions last night was exciting enough, but this morning it was -5˚ F with a windchill of around 25 below. An hour ago there was an amazingly beautiful full Moon just setting through the bare trees off to the west, and The Kid made a valiant effort but somehow managed to get out the door on-time and catch his school bus anyway, so now I'm just a few minutes away from hitching up the huskies and beginning my own trek across the windswept, frozen tundra. If you've never seen the wind literally sweeping the loose and dusty snow in great waves across the snowbound prairie, you have missed one of Nature's truly beautiful, and yet insanely cold, sights.

(Outside my window, the dark-eyed juncos squabble at the bird feeder. "Har-ry! You said it was Spring!" "Madge, I swear, if we ever get back to Florida, I'm gonna kill that travel agent.")

Therefore, in place of the column I'd originally planned for this morning, I just want to toss out a few questions about social networking.

This began yesterday, when one of my daughters discovered that I also am on LinkedIn, and asked for a link—and then asked the killer question: "Now what?"

I don't know. While I'm on LinkedIn, I never use it for anything, except to provide the occasional job reference for a former co-worker or to give a somewhat friendly nod and brief answer to a writer or editor I never really knew all that well and haven't talked to in years. I have another old friend who's been trying for some time to get me to open a Facebook account, and while she's been most persistent, I can't see the point in it.

Am I the only fan of Disney's Bambi who thinks we need to revive that fine old neologism, "twitterpated", to describe those twits addicted to Twitter? Another old friend, who used to be a fine writer and wrote an interesting blog, now just posts long lists of his daily "tweets." While it does have a certain pathological interest, being reminiscent of Kurtz's fevered mutterings, it really does strike me as being just so much word salad.

Ergo, today's question. What "social networks" do you belong to, and do you find any of them truly to be useful?

The lines are open...

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Watchmen - A Review

by Henry Vogel

Note: This review appears in place of Writing for Comic Books, Part Five. Part Five will appear next Monday.

People have been attempting to bring the Watchmen to the silver screen for more than 20 years. Something like half a dozen different directors have been attached to the project at one time or another. Scripts have been written and rewritten. Rumors have the original cast including Robin Williams, Jamie Lee Curtis, Gary Busey and Kevin Costner. When the movie finally hit the big screen, it had been in production longer than its director and six of the seven main actors had been in the film industry.

Was it worth the wait? In a word, yes.

In true comic book fashion, the movie opens with a fight scene. An aging, cigar-chomping man is just settling in to watch TV when his door is kicked in. The old guy puts up one heck of a fight, punching through a marble wall, getting back up after falls that would have broken the back of a normal man and finally being thrown through a window to fall hundreds of feet to his death. The credits haven't even rolled yet and I have a problem with the movie.

I'm not giving anything away by telling you that the old guy is a former masked hero, the Comedian. Throughout both the graphic novel and the movie, the term used is always "masked hero." There's a good reason for it. Much of the appeal of the story is that these are normal people; well-trained normal people in top physical condition, but still normal people. They cannot punch through marble walls. If they tried, the only thing breaking would be their hand. Any fall that would break a normal man's back would break their backs as well.

So I have a problem with the opening fight scene. It paints the two men as superhuman when they're not. As the credits start to roll, I have to wonder if director Zack Snyder could have totally missed something so basic. Over the next two hours and forty minutes, he shows me that my concern is unfounded. Zack Snyder knows what made the Watchmen work as a graphic novel. He makes it work as a movie, too.

The movie leaves out parts of the graphic novel. The sidewalk newsstand, an important location in the graphic novel, is hardly shown in the movie. The Black Freighter comic book within a comic book is not part of the movie at all. (Word is it will be included in the DVD release of the movie.) Not having these dark scenes, along with several other minor scenes, does not detract from the already quite dark story.

The story mixes current events with flashbacks that set the scene for the beginning of the movie. In flashbacks, we meet the Comedian and learn he is a ruthless, amoral man who does most of his work for the government. In the opening scene, you wonder what he has done to be savagely beaten and thrown through a window to fall to his death. By the end of the movie, you wonder why someone didn't do it earlier.

As the movie progresses, we discover none of the major characters, these former masked heroes, are particularly heroic. Rorschach is truly a psychopath, albeit one with a rigid code of honor. Nite Owl lacks self-confidence except when he's wearing his costume. Silk Spectre was only a masked heroine because her mother, the original Silk Spectre, expected her to be one. Dr. Manhattan, the only true super-powered character, is so powerful he is forgetting what it is to be human. Only Ozymandias, popularly considered the smartest man in the world, is successful in life.

This collection of anti-heroes is part of the attraction the Watchmen has. When the graphic novel was first released, anti-heroes were not that common in comic books. Oh, you had your heroes with bad attitudes, such as Wolverine, but you could always count on them to "do the right thing" when the chips were down. Even Batman, then-recently cast as a bit of an anti-hero in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, followed the unwritten rules of the masked hero. So the Watchmen took comic book readers places they had not been before. And the movie takes us to those same places, even if anti-heroes aren't particularly new in movies.

Spoiler warning: If you don't want to know what happens in the movie, skip down to "End Spoiler" and read from there.

For those who haven't read the graphic novel, it is set during Richard Nixon's fifth term as president. Nixon maintained power easily after he sent Dr. Manhattan to win the war in Vietnam. He does this in a matter of weeks. As a result of a backlash against masked heroes, Congress passed the Keene Act in 1977, outlawing masked vigilantes, making an exception for government operatives Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian. In the mid-eighties, with the world on the brink of nuclear war, someone begins attacking masked heroes. We already know the Comedian plunged to his death after losing a fight to an unknown assailant. Sudden, surprising revelations concerning Dr. Manhattan cause him to exile himself to Mars. An assassin tries to shoot the former Ozymandias, who revealed himself to be multi-billionaire Adrian Veidt when he hung up his mask. Already suspicious of a conspiracy, Rorschach tries to draw his former partner, the Nite Owl, back into costume to help find the person behind the attacks. Rorschach fails to draw the Nite Owl out and is soon framed for the murder of a former masked villain, captured, and placed in prison.

If it sounds confusing so far, I'm not surprised. This build-up is complex and I'm just touching on the surface.

The scenes while Rorschach is in prison are some of the most disturbing in the movie. They also provide the movie's best line. Many of the men in the prison were put there by Rorschach and every one of them wants to be the one to take Rorschach down now that he's locked in with them. The first prisoner to make an attempt on Rorschach's life gets a face full of boiling oil. As the guards rush to subdue and remove Rorschach, he yells to the stunned prisoners, "You think I'm locked up in here with you. I'm not. You're locked in here with me!" Prophetic lines, as later, more-violent scenes demonstrate.

While all of this is going on, we find out what it really takes to get the Nite Owl back in costume. It turns out to be impotence, which is about as blatant an indication of Nite Owl's "regular" life as you can have. Nite Owl can only find the confidence necessary to have sex with the woman of his dreams, the current Silk Spectre, by first indulging in some adolescent male power fantasies. His confidence restored by getting some action both in and out of his costume, he convinces Silk Spectre to help him break Rorschach out of prison so they can all figure out who's targeting former masked heroes.

This brings us to the end game where Rorschach and Nite Owl discover who is behind the conspiracy and go to confront him. This is also where the movie takes its single greatest divergence from the graphic novel. And this is where I have to issue a second spoiler warning to those who have read the graphic novel and haven't seen the movie yet. Skip to the spoiler ending if you don't want to know the changes in advance.

In the end, all of our remaining major characters converge on Antarctica, where Adrian Veidt has built his very own fortress of solitude. Because, yes, Veidt is behind the attacks. Veidt does this to protect his secret project: a project that will result in the deaths of millions of people yet bring about world peace in the end.

The graphic novel featured a genetically designed "alien" which was teleported to the center of New York city. The teleportation kills the "alien" but not before it releases a deadly psychic wave that wipes out half the city. Horrified by this great, new threat, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. immediately resolve all of their differences, combining their vast resources to prepare for the next alien attack.

I have always thought this was far and away the weakest part of the story; so weak that it undermines the rest of the story. As we've seen since 9/11, the world's sympathy is a very fickle thing indeed. While the original ending could result in lessened hostility, I can't imagine it would last more than a few years. Unless Veidt kept killing millions of people by producing fake aliens and teleporting them into cities, horror would lose its edge, memories would fade, normalcy would return. I also can't believe that scientists wouldn't eventually be able to figure out the "alien" should have been stamped "Made on Earth."

Because of the involved backstory required for the teleporting alien, Snyder went a different route. In the movie, Veidt works closely with Dr. Manhattan to produce energy generators capable of replicating Dr. Manhattan's vast power. Veidt plants four of these generators in cities around the globe, including New York and Moscow. When they detonate, killing even more millions than the teleporting alien, energy readings lead everyone to believe Dr. Manhattan attacked all four cities. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. start serious peace negotiations and everything is going to be wonderful. But we never really get told why this works. Do the great powers of the earth believe Dr. Manhattan blasted four cities as a warning against what he'll do if the great powers don't straighten up? That's the best guess I've got. And it does beat the teleporting fake alien approach all the Hell, if you ask me.

End Spoiler

As with 300, Zack Snyder utilized computerized special effects to successfully bring to life a story Terry Gilliam considered unfilmable. Snyder's cast strongly resembles the characters as originally drawn, which should please the fans of the graphic novel. In fact, once past the opening fight scene, I only had one big issue with the Syder's presentation, and that issue was Dr. Manhattan's voice. In the graphic novel, Dr. Manhattan had special speech balloons, double lined and colored blue, giving readers the impression that Dr. Manhattan had a strong voice. In the movie, Dr. Manhattan's voice was soft and slightly high-pitched. Nothing like the voice of a being of near godlike power.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed the movie. I believe any fan of the graphic novel will enjoy it also. If you never read the graphic novel, it's a chancier call, but if the story intrigues you at all, I'd say give it a look.

Henry Vogel is a former comic book writer who currently makes his living as a software tester and storyteller. He posts his writing, entirely fictional, at Tales and Telling. He's also one of the prime movers behind The Curse of the Were-Weasel. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

And the winner is...

Since Vidad presented the challenge, he gets first crack at picking the winner. Vidad writes:
Boy... some good stuff here. Not quite as black as I expected, though.

A-Town Andy: Funny. Reminds me of the old sci-fi movies where Venus is populated with scantily clad babes.

Henry: Brilliantly philosophical.

Tom: Very nihilistic. Women are property and the main character is disgustingly amoral.

Jamsco: Meticulously done. Ecclesiastes is a personal favorite read. Good way to illustrate Nihilism.

Arisia: Nice work. You should read some of Larry Niven's "Known Space" stories, if you haven't already.

Ben-El: Wonderful! Suicide is good. I like suicide. It's my favorite.

KTown: Great start, thanks for jumping in last-minute. Now... what happens next?

WaterBoy: Ah! Revenge! Sweet, sweet revenge to wash down the bitterness of betrayal!

James T. Kirk: Come on. Picard was twice the nihilist you'll ever be.

But... who to pick? If I was really going to judge, I think I'm torn between Ben-El, Henry and WaterBoy.

However, in the spirit of this challenge, my choice is:
"Why did anyone bother? You're all going to die before too long, and no one will remember the words you spew into cyberspace. What do you win? Nothing. No one wins this week."

After which Vidad went on to add:
"From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish. Silence! In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now... 16 years old!"

Given this stunning proof of the painful truth that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely—and in Vidad's case, with astonishing rapidity—we felt it necessary to step in and overrule him. WaterBoy, you're hereby declared this week's winner! Come on down and collect...

Er, ah, oops, we forgot. The contents of the Door #2 storage locker were eaten by an enormous mutant star goat at roughly the same time as we switched web hosts, and the Door #3 storage locker has not been brought online yet. Give us another day or two to take care of that, would you? Thanks.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Open Mic Saturday

Welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently: when is it coming out and where can we find it?

In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 3/6/09

The entries received for the 2/27/09 Friday Challenge are:

Atown Andy: "Nihilists in Space, Chapter 1"

Henry: "Nihilists In Spaaaaaaaaaaaaace!"

Tom: "Hell"

Jamsco: "Old Story"

Arisia: "The Nihilist Ranger"

Ben-El: "Ex Nihilo Venit"

KTown: "Oneirovore, Act 1"

WaterBoy: "Veteran of the Psychic Wars"

As always, even if you haven't submitted an entry you're encouraged to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites, with the winner to be announced Sunday night.

And now without further ado, I turn the microphone over to last week's winner, torainfor.

Last night, I caught a cooking show called "Chopped" wherein the contestants create dishes out of random things like coconut, donuts, and old carburetors. In that spirit, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a story containing the following elements:

- A pair of slippers
- A flock of multi-colored birds
- A shooting star
- A deadline
- Your favorite grandparent*

(* If you don't have a favorite grandparent, you can use one of mine: a short, fiery sarcastic woman; a round German woman; a tall, quiet Irishman (really!); or a merchant marine.)

Stories will be judged on all the normal stuff (grammar, arc, character development, how well I catch your literary references, the amount and quality of chocolate chip cookies that arrive at my doorstep) as well as the integration of the aforementioned items.

You're writing for what's behind Door #3 because I think the goat behind Door #1 ate everything behind Door #2. Deadline is, as always, Thursday at midnight.

Good luck,

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Word Count

This is one of those fiddly technical details that everyone seems to talk about but no one ever bothers to explain. A publisher's guidelines might say, "We're looking for stories in the 1,500- to 3,000 word range," but just how short or long is that, and how do you determine whether your story meets the criteria? Go through your manuscript line-by-line and count every word?

No, nonsense, ridiculous. This is the 21st century. We have robots to do that for us—or in my case, Microsoft Word 2007. Ah, here it is, on the Review tab: "Word Count." Beauty. I simply type in my first line—
It was a wet and cold day.
Click "Word Count," and Voila! Seven words. At ten-cents a word, I just made seventy cents. Cool! Next line—
"Contrarily, it's supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!" exclaimed Mary Poppins enthusiastically.
Hmm. According to Ms Word, that line is also worth only a mere seventy cents, even though it required far more work to write. (I had to go look up the correct spelling of "supercali"-whatever.) Obviously, I have a financial incentive here to write entire stories in baby-talk.

Or wait a minute: oh, wow, stroke of genius! I'll make my main character stutter! That will immediately double the value of his every line of dialog! Excuse me while I g- g- go write myself a L- L- L-, L- Lexus!

It doesn't work that way, of course. Well, yes, perhaps there are financial incentives to write entire novels in baby-talk, but word count isn't one of them. Rather, as with so many other aspects of the writing trade, to understand word count, you must think back to the technology of a century ago.

What is word count? It's a measure of how long the story is. Why does this matter? Because it determines how much space the story will take up in print. Why does space matter? Because it determines how many pages it will occupy, which determines how the presses and bindery need to be set-up for this issue, which determines how much paper you need to buy, which determines how much it will cost to mail the completed magazine, and so on, and so on. And remember, you can't just arbitrarily add two pages to an issue if you get a really great but slightly long story, because in the world of web presses, the finished page count always has to be an even multiple of 8.

This is why the old-line publishers always kept a library of stock illustrations and dingbats on-hand and bought lots of tiny "filler" pieces. In an ideal world, you sold all empty space to advertisers. In the real world, you spackled over the holes with whatever was handy.

As I said, old tech. This isn't really an issue today, when modern page layout software enables you to compress a longish story by shrinking the font to 10.5 points instead of your customary 11 or pad a shortish story by adding an extra .2-point of leading between the lines, but traditions die hard. So how do you form a reasonable estimate of how much space your story will take up in print?

"Reasonable estimate" is the key. In print, it's not the literal number of words that matter but the occupied horizontal, and more importantly, vertical space. An 'm' takes up more space than an 'n', a dash (—) more space than a hyphen (-), and a laconic single-word line of dialog as much vertical space as a full line of hysterical babbling. How can you as a writer make any sense of it?

Enter the concept of the print word.

It's simple, really, but again, it's a relic of old tech. The convention is that in English, in print, a "word" is six-characters long—and that means every character, including punctuation and blank spaces. So on an old 10-pitch ("pica") typewriter, all you had to do was set your margins at 10 and 73, always hit Return when the end-of-line bell dinged and rarely hyphenate words at the ends of lines, and Voila! Your average line length was 10 print words. Double-space your copy, leaving one-inch margins below the "slug" line at the top of the page and the bottom of the page, and you ended up with 25 lines per page of copy. Ten words per line times 25 lines per page; your average page was 250 print words. Four manuscript pages equal 1,000 words: a 3,000-word short story is 12 pages in manuscript and a 100,000-word novel is 400 pages. (All these numbers are approximate, of course. When writing short stories, always round to the nearest hundred. When writing a novel, always round to the nearest thousand. And don't sweat precision too much, as no matter what you think the word count is, the publisher will tell you what the word count was after it's too late for you to change your mind.)

Similarly, if you write in standard news or dramatic script format in 10-pitch Courier font, one manuscript page also turns out to be, on average, one minute of air or running time. (David Gerrold tells a wonderful story in one of his books about writing a Star Trek script on a borrowed typewriter, only to realize after it was done that he'd been using a 12-pitch ("elite") machine and had to cut his script by 1/6th at the last possible moment.)

"Fine," you say. "You're a relic. No doubt your house is full of typewriters." (As a matter of fact, it is, but that's another story.) "So how do we who live in the modern world estimate word count?"

My preferred technique is to set up my word processing program to emulate as closely as possible the appearance of an old-style typescript page: one-inch margins, Courier 10-point font, monospaced if the program will let me, and double-spaced lines with widow and orphan control shut off, so that nothing is automatically moved from one page to the next or previous, and then to take my best guess based on the finished manuscript page count. If that sounds like too much work for you or your word processing program won't let you do that, you can always go back to Ms Word's "Word Count" option.

Ignore the literal word count, though, and take the "Characters (with spaces)" value and divide by six. For example, in our original two sentences:
It was a wet and cold day.
That one is 26 characters long, including punctuation and spaces, which rounds down to 4 print words long, or forty cents at a dime a word. On the other hand the loquacious Ms Poppins—
"Contrarily, it's supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!" exclaimed Mary Poppins enthusiastically.
Weighs in at a remarkable 95 characters, or 16 print words—or more importantly, at a buck-sixty, which seems like a much better number!

There is a flaw in this technique. It doesn't account for the fact that in print, every new line is considered 10 print words, no matter how short the actual line may be. But at least it's a better approximation than Ms Word's literal "Word Count" number.

Any questions or comments?
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