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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Deadline Reminder

Just a quick reminder here that the deadline for the 4/24/09 Friday Challenge, "The Day After The Day The Earth Stood Still," is midnight tonight, Central time.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu


Okay, show of hands here, and let's be honest. Who's planning to go see X-Men Origins: Wolverine this weekend?

And by the way, how are you doing with the subject in general? Is it just me, or is anyone else here starting to get just a teensy bit overloaded on big-budget action movies adapted from Marvel comic books? I mean, X-Men, Spider-Man, More X-Men, More Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, The Fantastic 4, Even More X-Men, Yet More Spider-Man, The Fantastic 4.1, The Incredible Hulk Returns Again, Iron-Man — okay, so I actually liked the first Punisher movie — I mean the first new Punisher movie, not the first-first Punisher, that steaming heap from twenty years ago that starred Dolph Lundgren — but honestly, what's next? Captain America, The Movie?

I shouldn't say that. It's probably already in pre-production.

So that's the topic for today. Movies Made From Marvel Comic Books: Good, Bad, Ugly, or Enough Already? What's the best one they've made, and which one in a just universe would have gotten everyone involved with it flogged in the public square?

Let the arguments begin.

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll put it in the queue.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, part 10: Publicizing on the Web & Dealing With Success (or Failure)

by Henry Vogel

Welcome to part 10 of Writing for Comic Books. I'm going to cover two topics today, publicizing your comic book on the web and what to do if you comic book becomes a big success or if it fails to develop a following.

Publicizing on the Web
Before I delve into this subject, please take everything I say in the section with a grain of salt. Better yet, take it with an entire salt shaker of salt. The world wide web did not exist when I was writing comic books. None of what I'm about to write is based on experience. What I'm writing is what I think would be a good approach to publicizing your comic book on the web, nothing more.

First, establish a domain name for your comic book, mycomicbooktitle.com, and put up a web page advertising your book. I'd recommend doing this as early as possible, even if you have very little to put up on the site. At the earliest opportunity, I'd put up character concept drawings along with musings from the writer about the characters. Eventually, you'll want to post the artwork you'll use as the comic book cover. I'd also post the first five or six pages of the finished comic book. Include the domain name in all of your correspondence, including press releases.

Next, find the popular comic book news sites, such as Newsarama and Comic Book Resources. Not only should you send press releases to sites such as these and consider advertising on them, you should also join their forums and actively begin promoting your book within the forums. There is a risk of trolls with this approach, so plan to keep your temper in check. A flame war with trolls will cost you far more than you'll gain. Keeping your head and responding professionally to all messages will show that you are serious about your comic book.

Another avenue to consider is sites such as Drive Thru Comics. These sites sell digital copies of comic books. Not only is this a cheap way of making past issues of your comic available for new readers, you may be able to offer the first half of your first issue as a free download, allowing readers to try your book before spending money on it.

Dealing With Success (or Failure)
The first issue of your comic book has been released and is on comic book store shelves! Exciting? Absolutely. Nerve wracking? Again, absolutely. Now that your book is out, will it find an audience? Will sales improve or drop off? Will there be enough interest to even justify a second issue?

I'm going to answer the second question first. Sales for issue two will almost certainly be lower than sales for issue one. Comic book retailers, with good reason, expect first issues to sell well. Some people make a habit of buying any first issue that looks at least halfway professional. If the book becomes "hot" they'll have an investment copy on hand. Some people will buy your first issue and not like it enough to buy the second issue. The store owner has to take those people into consideration when placing orders for the second issue. Also, unless your book is published quarterly (or even less frequently), the store owner has to place his order for issue two before he even knows how well issue one will sell. Expect retailers to be conservative.

This is where we look at question three; are the orders sufficient to justify a second issue. You'll only be able to make that decision when you know how many copies of the second issue were ordered, the cost of printing that many copies and the revenue you'll earn selling them. If you're going to lose money publishing the second issue, this is where you have a decision to make. Look at your finances and figure out just how much money you're willing to put into this project. I can't offer any advice here because only you know how much money you can afford to lose.

But, hey, what if sales are great and stores are placing reorders with the distributor? First, congratulations! Your book is selling well and comic book store owners have noticed the sales. This bodes well for your second issue, certainly, but should you reprint your first issue? The short answer is probably not. If the distributor contacts you to see if you have more copies available for sale, it might be worth your while to reprint your book. Again, you'll have to balance the number of copies the distributor wants against the cost of printing and shipping the books. If you'll break even on the reprint and if the distributor can wait until you can have the book reprinted, go for it. You'll make the distributor happy, the retailers happy and, one hopes, readers happy. If you'll lose money with a reprint, simply tell the distributor you'd lose money with the reprint. I'd follow up by telling the distributor the minimum number of copies you'd have to sell to make the reprint worth your while. Chances are they won't increase their order, but stranger things have happened.

In the long run, very few comic books are reprinted. Most have an initial print run and that's it. If the book is successful, the publisher usually solicits orders for a trade paperback collection of several issues. Typically, six issues are gathered into a single collection. There are people who prefer to read collections rather than single issues. I'm one of them. You miss out on the "investment" potential of the individual issues but usually end up paying less than you would have paid to buy the individual issues. Retailers keep these books on the shelves longer than individual issues and you may even be able to develop a market in regular bookstores.

Wrapping It Up
I originally expected to write no more than five columns in this series. I've doubled that with the help of suggestions from some of you. In ten columns, we've gone from planning a comic book to soliciting for the second issue. I honestly can't think of anything else that's left to cover. Ten is a good, round number to use as a wrap up.

Thanks for all of the positive comments and thoughtful questions!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

And the winner is...

Tom writes:
Thanks again for picking my story last week. [...] I suppose I have to divulge my actual identity and real mail address...
Yes, you do, assuming you want to claim a prize, but it's not anything to worry about. I suppose a clever person could actually collect this information, build a database, and use it for some nefarious purpose, but fortunately, I'm not that clever. I don't even keep track of who wins from week to week or whether they've claimed prizes, and barely remember to get prizes mailed out in a moderately timely fashion, so if you've won in recent weeks and have yet to receive your prize, kindly jog my memory.

I'll tell you one thing, though: if we ever get to the point where I have to file 1099's for every winner, I'm quitting.

No risk of that happening any time soon, though. And so with that issue out of the way, we move on to the results of the 4/17/09 Friday Challenge.

This has been a fun one to judge, but also real work. We received eight entries this time around, and there was not a weak entry in the bunch and only one short one. As a result we've been reading, re-reading, and discussing the entries all evening, as well as weighing readers' comments, but at last, we've come to some decisions.

Torainfor gifted us with two superb entries this week, "Icehawk's Destiny" and "Otogu's Curse." I laughed all the way through "Icehawk's Destiny," as it turned into This Old House From Hell and just kept piling it on. "Otogu's Curse," on the other hand, was very sweet, very true, and deserves to reach a wider audience, but I don't know how to go about doing that. Fine work, as always, and a pleasure to read.

Ben-El submitted "The Berlin Wall Shall Not Fall—Waitaminute That's Not Right," and I'm dealing with it next mostly because it's the shortest. It's well-written, it's funny, but it turns into fairly thin political joke, and then cuts off too quickly. Good effort, but not good enough to make the medal round.

WaterBoy gets the coveted "Most Like What I Would Have Written" nod for "Barbarian's Burden," particularly the second ending. As I've said many times before, considering my career trajectory, this is perhaps not a good thing. I groaned at the hideous puns—Hyena's Port, King Chun, the Claven Cliffs—I laughed at the big news that everyone in town was talking about, wrongly; I loved the way the Monkey's Paw of K'Bab actually turned out to be useful for something; I was relieved that after using it, Icehawk did not develop a strange craving for bananas. As a story, the first ending is definitely the stronger of the two, but if I'd written this, I'd probably have used the second ending. And I'd have received a lot of rejection letters saying, "Very funny, but not strong enough."

Henry, Henry, Henry, what am I going to do with you? "Slay the Princess, Rescue the Dragon, And—" was great fun, to the point where I was reading the good bits out loud, much to the annoyance of my fellow judges, but in the end there was just a little too much sniggering self-awareness, and of course, the solution to the problem of the Sorceress who has great power because she has never known a man was horribly politically incorrect. This story definitely would have sold in the 1960s through the early 1980s—Roger Zelazny would have approved of the solution to the "marry the dragon" problem, too—and it might even have gotten through as late as the early 1990s, provided you made Icehawk more overtly Schwarzeneggerian, but it would provoke shrill cries of outrage from a small but disproportionately influential portion of the audience today, and I'm probably risking those same cries of outrage just by typifying that portion of the audience as "shrill."

Sigh. I miss the days when Free Speech applied to everyone, and not just to the favored classes.

Tom, "Icehawk's Ill Omen" was wild, weird, and wonderfully inventive. The bit ending with, "I guess that's why everyone has guard dogs and not guard cats" got the read-aloud treatment, too. In the end, this was in our top three, but it seemed as if the gryphon scene just went on too long, and the evil-little-girl-who-turns-into-a-hideous-serpent-monster-in-the-final-battle was a scene we've just plain seen too many times. (When will someone write an evil little girl or evil women who, in the final battle, turns into an even more horribly cute and insipid girl/woman?)

As I said, it made the top three, but we were still trying to pare the list down, so this is the one that didn't make the cut.

Al, your take on "Icehawk's Destiny" was silly, funny, at times groan-inducing—"Snitter" was a wonderful, thoroughly evil, and excruciatingly topical invention—and it had a great ending. We kept saying, "It's too lightweight," but then kept reminding ourselves that Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore have made entire careers out of writing stories exactly like this one.

In the final cut, though, The Bandit took the prize with, "The Third Knot." There are things wrong with this story. It needs a really good copy-edit. The final fight scene in the dungeon needs some major work. But given all that, this is the one that most impressed us with the way you spun a major-length, serious story out of the original idea, and found a wealth of new ideas in there that we never saw. Disira is an intriguing character; the death of the princess serves an actual plot purpose; Icehawk is transformed from a cocky hero into a useful pawn in the hands of powers that he barely comprehends; and the Seer is actually the greatest villain, which is something we'd never considered. Very nicely done.

So that's how it stands. The Bandit wins, with Honorable Mention going to Al.

And congrats to everyone who participated! This is the sort of response that makes running The Friday Challenge fun and keeps us doing it. Thanks, everybody!

Saturday, April 25, 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?

This deserves to get bumped to the front. Rhon writes:
I ran across an interesting writing challenge this morning but I didn't know if The Friday Challenge group would be interested or where to post it on the blog. [...]

Neil Gaiman writes about collaborating on the book, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, and how he got involved. He wrote stories to go with some of the photos during the shoot and they're included in the book. They have several photos that didn't make it into the book. The challenge is to write stories to go with them or, shoot your own photos and write a story. The best will get some "stuff":
"The creators of the best photos and stories will get some cool STUFF — we’re not sure exactly what yet, but I’ll wager it will include some photography, some music, some books, and some things that Neil Gaiman has scribbled all over."
It doesn't appear to have a deadline right now but I'm sure they will remedy that soon.
Okay folks, so Neil Gaiman is looking for stories to go with his photos? This is what you've been training for. Go clean 'em out!

Writer's Block

by Kersley Fitz

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 4/24/09

Wow. Good turnout for the 4/17/09 Friday Challenge. You'd best start reading soon, because we have an abundance of good stories to consider. As of the deadline, we've received:

Torainfor: "Icehawk's Destiny"

Torainfor: "Otogu's Curse"

[There's nothing in the rules that says you're limited to one entry per week. Should there be?]

Tom: "Icehawk's Ill Omen"

Henry: "Slay the Princess, Rescue the Dragon, and—"

Al: "Icehawk's Destiny"

Ben-El: "The Berlin Wall Shall Not Fall—Waitaminute That's Not Right"

The Bandit: "The Third Knot"

WaterBoy: "Barbarian's Burden"

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

Now, as for this week's challenge.
They came. They saw. They slaughtered. Millions died in their genocidal first strike. But somehow, by the grace of some unknown miracle, that strike failed, humanity survived, and now we know the truth.

They're out there. They're watching us. They'll exterminate us, if they can. Their agents can pass for human. And they've left behind billions of their nanorobotic murder machines.

The Day After The Day The Earth Stood Still

What Would Jack Bauer Do?

Okay, the Jack Bauer part is optional. If you don't like that choice, pick someone else, or feel free to make up your own sci-fi action hero. Captain Kirk, Lieutenant Ripley, Ash, Riddick, Ollie North, President Whitmore — or what the heck, maybe this is exactly the sort of job for which they've been saving that secret clone of George S. Patton they've been keeping in that hidden lab in the basement of the Pentagon all these years. The only choice that's right out is Chuck Norris, as he would make it too easy.

They point is, we're humans. They tried to wipe us out. Despite the whining of some ideologically suspect appeasers who want to surrender, apologize to the universe for our existence, and go all green and stuff (and who knows, maybe those eco-defeatists are actually alien agents in disguise, hmm?), we got to where we are today at the top of the food chain by burning the forests, eating the bears, skinning the lions, and boiling the whales down for lamp oil. There is just no way we're going to embrace defeat and take this lying down.

As always, we're playing by the intermittently enforced official rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever is behind Door #3. The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, April 30.

And remember: payback is a dish best served by a cold bitch.

Or something like that.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

War-gaming 2012: The New Republic of Texas

I made a mistake the other day. The silverbacks over on Vox's site were having a good old time, thumping their chests, throwing leaves in the air, and snorting and bellowing about how great things were going to be once Texas seceded from the Union. And I, as is my nature, just couldn't resist posting one little line, tweaking the cowboys and suggesting that perhaps this time it might not exactly be 1836 all over again.

My mistake. Big mistake. Okay kids, you can knock off the hate mail now. Insulting Minnesota and Minnesotans doesn't get any traction with me anyway; I'm not from here in the first place and my loyalty to this state is purely mercenary. I live and work here because I'm well-paid to do so, and, trying to get back on-topic, I've been thinking and writing—and occasionally getting well-paid for my thinking and writing—about Post-American History for more than 20 years now.

So let's go back to using our forebrains, and try to war-game this out. Assuming Texas actually can and does secede, and the rest of the United States does not overtly attempt to prevent its leaving: what happens next?

Here's what I've got so far.
  • I call this scenario, 2012: The New Republic of Texas, to put it in the short-term near-future. If I was writing this as a pitch for a publisher I'd call it 2015, just to buffer the publisher's usual 1- to 2-year lag time and give the book a longer shelf-life. The events herein can take place any time between 2011 and 2016.

  • Important word: overtly. Don't forget it.

  • Following the Texan Declaration of Independence, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham, speaking in New York, frames the soon-to-be-famous Rodham Doctrine, officially severing all ties between the United States of America and the Republic of Texas. Expatriate commentator Vox Day, writing from the safety of a bank vault in Switzerland, observes that Ms Rodham could have saved everyone a lot of time by simply saying, "Oh yeah? Well, we didn't want your stinky state in our country anyway! F*** Texas!"

  • The New Republic of Texas immediately secures its southern border along the Rio Grande River. In a display of schadenfreude almost two hundred years in the making, the state of Oklahoma immediately petitions Congress to secure its southern border, along the Red River, and this time Congress responds with remarkable speed and overwhelming funding. The Red River Wall is completed in record time.

  • The trouble starts in the rough country, between El Paso and Big Bend. With a violence not seen since the days of Pancho Villa (that would be 1916, for those of you who learned history in public schools), bloody cross-border raids into Texas wreak terrible havoc. Women stampeded, cattle raped; the Texans are outraged. The Mexican government disavows any responsibility and blames it all on the Juarez cartel.

  • Somewhere near Taos, a small group of highly spiritually attuned New Age American psychics detects a tremor in the force, so profound it momentarily interrupts their conversation and almost causes them to spill their shiraz. Then they resume talking about themselves and their latest book-signings and gallery openings.

  • To stem the flow of refugees north, Oklahoma asks for and gets permission to blow the I-35 bridge and put gunboats on Lake Texoma. Marietta becomes a key forward firebase destined to join Khe Sanh and Falluja in the annals of American history.

  • Throughout the next months, the cross-border raids increase in violence and extend east, eventually all the way to Brownsville. The Mexican government disavows any responsibility and blames it all on the Gulf Cartel. President Yomama, alarmed by the spreading violence, order six battalions of the newly formed Civilian Homeland Security Corps to New Orleans. This first operational deployment of the CHSC yields mixed results: two battalions desert and stay in New Orleans, at least until all the liquor stores have been looted and their hold over the local narcotics trade has been consolidated, but four battalions do eventually straggle along in fairly good order in the general direction of Lake Charles.

  • In a firefight near Laredo, Texas Rangers score their first significant victory over the border raiders. More importantly, in this fight they seize incontrovertible evidence that the raiders are neither narcoterrorists nor renegade Mexican federales, but rather Venezuelan troops of the Che Guevara brigade, equipped with advanced Chinese weaponry.

  • Being unrecognized but having been given provisional NGO status, the Texans go to the UN and demand intervention. In response, the Mexican ambassador whimpers and simpers and asks how anyone could expect poor suffering Mexico to do anything, given the norteamericanos' insatiable appetite for illegal drugs, and besides, those aren't terrorists, they're freedom fighters, waging war to liberate their brown brothers from the oppressive tyranny of the cowboy-booted white Texans. The UN General Assembly, being fully capable of believing in two diametrically opposed things at the same time without the least hint of cognitive dissonance, passes a resolution equating Texanism to Zionism and supporting the right of self-determination for persons of indio-hispanic ancestry living in Texas.

  • Rigoberta Menchú publishes, I, Rigoberta Menchú, Again, describing her years underground with the Che Guevara Brigade, fighting against the terrible racist Texans. Despite accusations that she was provably in New York or London during most of the time period described in the book, it spends twelve weeks at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, wins her another Nobel Prize, and becomes required reading in all American public schools.

  • At the Durban III conference, Texans are declared to be "just like white South Africans, only with even funnier accents." Throughout North American and Europe, college students protest, riot, and demand that everyone everywhere divest from and boycott Texas.

  • Bono holds a charity concert in Dubai, to raise awareness and money for the suffering Mexicans in Texas.

  • The UN Security Council, alarmed by the way events are rapidly spinning out of control, votes unanimously to intervene. Two companies of Pakistani peacekeepers on full UN expense account are dispatched to Puerto Vallarta to secure and protect the hotel bars, and an absolute embargo on all arms and potential war materiel is imposed—on Texas. Elements of the French and Russian navies are dispatched to the Gulf of Mexico, where they enthusiastically enforce the blockade of the Texan gulf coast ports.

Okay, that's all I've got so far.

Your move.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

They Just Don't Write 'Em Like That Any More

Okay, in recent weeks we've been talking a lot about comic books, and it occurs to me that the discussion has been shaped largely by the products of DC and Marvel, with an occasional nod to Dark Horse, Malibu, or of course, Slave Labor Graphics.

But that's hardly the history of comics, only the roll-call of the survivors. Over the decades many titles, characters, companies, and entire genres have come and gone, sometimes leaving behind little except the vague memory that once, there was a Charlton Comics.

So that's today's question. If you had it in your power, what one comic book—excluding Southern Knights, Henry—would you bring back from the Great Pulp Beyond? Blackhawk? Metal Men? Magnus, Robot Fighter? Casper, The Friendly Ghost? Howard the Duck? Dial H for Hero? What is the most obscure and, in your opinion, unfairly overlooked, comic book or character that you can think of?

Let the arguments begin.

ULTIMATE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Ultimate Geek Fu," and we'll work it into the queue.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Recommended Missing: The Day The Earth Stood Still

by Bruce Bethke

It's not often a movie makes me glad I blew off paying work, but the recent DVD release of last year's remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still does just that. In spades.

But first, some background.

Last Fall, I pitched a webzine on the idea of running a comparative review of this version, the 1951 version, and the original 1940 short story upon which both were ostensibly based, "Farewell to the Master," by Harry Bates. The editor I pitched the idea to liked it and gave me the assignment, but then something else came up and I missed the movie on opening weekend. Two weeks later, when my schedule had finally cleared enough that I could get back to the project, I found it had already vanished from the local cineplex.

Disappointed, I blew off the assignment, and resigned myself to catching the movie later, when it came out on DVD. Last Friday I finally got the chance to do so, and now that I have seen this movie in all its bluish-tinged CGI glory, I can say with complete confidence that the 2008 remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still is—oh, how shall I say this?

It stinks? It sucks? It stinsucks? I'm not certain, but I believe a new word may be required in order to describe just how bad this movie is. There was very little reason to remake this movie in the first place, and absolutely no reason to butcher the story so very badly in the process. Clearly, Michael Bay Syndrome is far more widespread than previously believed.

How does this movie stinsuck? Let me count the ways.

1. Can we have a moratorium on movies shot entirely through blue filters in order to make them look cold and creepy? It's been done. And done. And done some more. Enough already.

2. John Cleese, standing in for Sam Jaffe, who in turn stood in for Albert Einstein in the 1951 version, is absolutely squandered in this film. If you're going to put John Cleese in a movie and put his name in big letters in the credits, give him something to do.

3. It's The Phantom Menace problem all over again. In the big climactic scene, bluish-tinged CGI bugs attack bluish-tinged CGI soldiers defending a bluish-tinged CGI city while Jennifer Connelly cowers in a tunnel and screams and the Secretary of Defense watches it all on a TV screen and gapes in either horror or boredom, I can't tell which. And we, the audience, are supposed to care.

4. Speaking of those CGI bugs, in this version, CGI G.O.R.T. is at least thirty feet tall, considerably more fluid, and, it turns out, composed entirely of nanoscopic robo-cockroaches. In the grand finale, and in a sequence probably close enough to Michael Crichton's Prey to be actionable, CGI G.O.R.T. dissolves into a vast swarm of CGI nanobugs who devour their way from bluish-tinged CGI New Jersey to bluish-tinged CGI New York, presumably killing millions in the process. Gee, what a shame. Good thing they were only CGI.

5. But about those people and those nanobugs. We've seen people pixellate into nothingness before, in The Mummy, War of the Worlds, X-Men III, and probably plenty more movies that blessedly, I forget now. Surely the CGI software that does that effect is paid-for by now, and we can give it a rest. But if you're damned and determined to use that effect anyway: when the nanoroaches start by devouring someone's legs, shouldn't he, like, fall down?

Or when a swarm of flying nanolocusts descends upon some poor hapless schmuck and pixellates away his skin, where all the sensitive nerve endings are, shouldn't he, like, scream? Before all his intestines fall out on the floor?

6. In the original novella—oh, never mind the original novella, I can get carried away writing about the original novella, so I've deleted that entire digression. In the 1951 movie version, Klaatu is a compassionate and sympathetic character, come to Earth to warn humanity to give up our nuclear weapons before it's too late. In the 2008 version, Klaatu is not here to warn us: he's here to oversee the collection of an ark full of biological specimens, before he exterminates humanity. Isn't this exactly the same thing the unspeakably evil Dr. Totenkopf, the villain of Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow, was trying to do? And yet this time around, the filmmakers expect the audience to feel sympathy for Keanu Reeves' Klaatu?

Sorry, Charlie, no deal. Kill this Klaatu. Kill him soon. Kill him a lot.

7. Oh, yeah, forgot to mention. In the 1951 version, Klaatu comes here because of nuclear weapons. In the 2008 version, Klaatu comes here because of—get this—global warming. See, his mission is to fill up his space ark with samples of all of Earth's genetic diversity, after which he's going to exterminate humanity (apparently, our genetic diversity doesn't count), and then restore Earth to its Eden-like pre-Homo sapiens state. (Hey, Klaatu! Better play it safe and whack all the great apes, too. No telling what they might evolve into in another few million years!)

You know, every time I run into some ninny who earnestly believes that Earth would be a peaceful paradise if it just weren't for all those pesky humans messing up the place, I want to take them camping. In the Rockies, or Alaska, or maybe the Sierra Nevadas. Yes, they have to wear the necklace of pork chops. The reason why will become clear shortly.

8. Finally, and this is the big one: in this movie, there is no frickin' day on which no frickin' Earth stands still! The entire focus of the original 1951 movie was on leading up to the title event, in which Klaatu demonstrates his capabilities and the seriousness of the situation by shutting down all electrical activity on Earth for one hour. In the 1951 film, it's a powerful and dramatic scene, but it wasn't until 9/12/2001 that I really understood how terrifying a silent city could be.

No such scene in this movie. No such dramatic peak. Nothing of the kind. The title event does not happen in the 2008 version, thereby making the title completely meaningless.

Anyway, that's my short list. I could go on and on, but this will do for now.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

And the winner is...

...going to be announced at the end. So, if you can't wait, skip to the bottom. I'm also going to take this opportunity to announce an additional prize for this challenge. Along with the prize Bruce is going to send, I'm going to also send a copy of a comic book I've written to the four of you who entered. Send your mailing address to Bruce using the email address behind Door #3. Bruce, could you please forward those to me so I can send the extra prize? Oh, and the winner should select from behind Door #3 as usual.

Tom - You wrote a good comic book plot and used one of the formats I described in my comic book columns! I could picture the panels as I read your plot. One thing I think you'll find if you attempt to draw the story is that you don't have 28 pages worth of material in the plot. You could spread it out to 28 pages if some of your pages have only a few panels. After writing a few issues of a comic book, you'll get the hang of planning enough story to fill your pages without padding. In general, I think it would be better to put in too much story to begin with, as the story can always be pared down. But the bottom line is that you're on the right track and wrote a very good plot.

Snowdog - When I first read the title to your story, I read ElectroChick. I was confused for the first couple of paragraphs before I read the title again. As with everyone else, when I read "Electrohick" I was wondering if it was a joke or not. I came down on the side of joke. I love the idea of a guy who thinks his power is to turn electrical devices against himself. Wacky and fun, though I can't help wondering what ElectroChick's story would have been! (Call this your "more cowbell" moment.) Nicely done.

Al - I have often thought that earthly immortality would be more of a curse than a blessing. After two or three lifetimes of watching those you love age and die, I can only believe the sense of isolation would begin to drive you mad. You've found a purpose for your immortal character, a purpose that I think would be interesting to follow through several stories. Your story left me thinking, which is high praise.

KTown - Who wouldn't want to be able to levitate? I certainly wouldn't find heights quite so intimidating (okay, terrifying) if I could levitate. There were several things I really liked about your story. First, the guy had to figure out how his power worked. That's something most comic book stories (mine included) simply skip. Second, he managed to work out a way to sort of, kind of, more or less fly. Third, your "save the day" moment was handled in the same low key manner as the rest of the story. Finally, you carefully considered the limitations to Gil's power and showed how he worked to overcome them.

This is the point where I have to actually make a decision and it's a tough one. In the end, I'm going to go with KTown edging out Tom and Al at the wire. Great job, everybody! KTown, come on down and select your prize! And to the rest of you, don't forget to send your mailing address to Bruce so he can forward them on to me!

Follow-up: Breaking News

In an astonishing example of great minds thinking alike, we follow up on Sean's recent critique of The Transformers: The Movie with this late-breaking news:
Michael Bay Signs $50M Deal To F*** Up 'ThunderCats'
It's from The Onion, of course: the only American newspaper that consistently dares to print the truth.

Saturday, April 18, 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?

Writer's Block

by Kersley Fitz

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 4/17/09

As of the deadline we have four entries in the 4/10/09 Friday Challenge. In no particular order, the entries are:

Tom, "The Prophet, Issue 1"

Snowdog, "Electrohick"

Al, "Chld of the Storm: Redemption"

   [Ed. note: yes, that's "chld." I don't name 'em, folks, I only post the links.]

KTown, "Floating to Milwaukee"

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

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge...
Icehawk the Barbarian would never admit to feeling fear, but his mood as he traced the ancient, rock-strewn path through the barren wilderness was...unsettled. Once again, his wanderings had brought him back to this place: to the domain of the Seer, the Prophetess, the Mad Spinner of Fate. And once again he would rather be walking this path as a warrior, with a sword in one hand and an ax in the other, than like a peddler, with a large black box under one arm and a small white sack thrown over the other shoulder.

Dusk had fallen by the time he crested the last ridge. The rock-strewn valley below was already in deep shadow, but a weird, flickering light emanated from within the ruins of the Temple of Otogu. The unearthly light was as nothing, though, compared to the stench that assailed his nostrils as his footsteps drew him closer. It was a complex, many-layered, ever-shifting reek composed of a great many foul and unspeakable things: of rot, and corruption; of scorched flesh, and burnt offerings; of bitter potions, and vile philters; and of many, many, cats, badly housebroken.

Icehawk paused a moment, at the foot of the great ruined stone staircase—

But it was already too late. She stood there, at the top of the stairs, in tattered rags and long, greasy, tangled gray hair, smiling at him with blackened stubs of teeth. "Welcome, Icehawk, great warrior of the north!"

"You—you knew I was coming?"

"Of course. I'm a Seer. And you have brought my price?"

"I thought you were a Seer."

"It's more fun this way. Have you brought my price?"

Icehawk juggled the black box and the white sack awkwardly, then held forth the black box. "Oh Great Priestess of Otogu!" he cried. "Behold, I bring you a flawless black kitten, without a single white hair, sealed for seven days within a black box without a single hole!"

The Seer nodded, smiling. "I see. And is the kitten alive or dead?"

Icehawk considered the box nervously. "I, er—"

"Is the kitten alive or dead?"

Icehawk grimmaced. "Well, it stopped yowling about four days ago, but without air holes—"

The Seer grinned that ghastly, gummy, black-stubbed grin again. "The point is, you don't know for certain, do you?"

"Well, not as such..."

"Perfect!" She pointed to the sack. "And in the sack?"

Icehawk juggled the black box and white sack again, and then held forth the white sack. "Oh Great Priestess of Otogu!" he cried again. "Behold, I bring you a flawless white dove, without a single dark feather, whose feet have never touched the ground!"

"Perfect!" She darted down the stairs, snatched the sack from Icehawk's hand, and started back up. "Come along!" Halfway up the stairs she paused, to turn and look back at Icehawk, who still stood at the foot of the stairs with the black box in his hands and a puzzled expression on his face. "Oh, just dump it over there with the other ones." She pointed to the stack of reeking black boxes that Icehawk hadn't noticed before off to the side of the stairs. He tossed the box on the heap and followed her.

The interior of the ruined temple was thick with smoke and stink, lit by many guttering candles and a small fireplace, and crawling with cats. The Seer set the white sack on the altar, thrust her hand inside, and pulled out the white dove. "Ooh, how beautiful!" she exclaimed, as she examined the struggling, blinking bird. "Not a flaw, not a mark on it!" She held the bird high before the fire, as if reenacting some ancient and forgotten ritual.

"Look, my pretties! Mommy's got dinner!" And in one swift motion she twisted the dove's head off, slapped the carcass down on the altar, and disemboweled it with a small stone knife. With no further regard for the bird she cast the small feathered corpse aside, where it was immediately seized upon and fought over by a gathering crowd of cats.

Icehawk was dumbfounded. "I went through all that just to feed your cats? What about my destiny?"

"Oh, that's clear enough," said the Seer, as she prodded the entrails on the altar with a grimy finger. "You must slay the princess, rescue the dragon, and—"

Icehawk found an expression beyond dumbfounded. "Excuse me?"

The Seer looked up. "What?"

"Don't you mean, 'slay the dragon, rescue the princess?'"

"If I'd meant that, I'd have said it. No, it's all right here." She turned back to the entrails. "Slay the princess, rescue the dragon, and—"

"Are you sure you're reading that right?"

"Read it yourself. Plain as day." The seer tapped the pancreas. "Slay the princess." She batted a cat away from the liver. "Rescue the dragon." She stirred the intestines with her finger. "And—"

And what?

That's this week's challenge: where does the story go from here?

As always, we're playing by the loosely enforced rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #3. The deadline is midnight Central time, Thursday, April 23.

Now it's time to get clever, my mighty wordy warriors, so seek ye out the Charmed Helm of Cunning Cleverness!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Deadline Reminder

Just a quick reminder here that the deadline for the 4/10/09 Friday Challenge is midnight tonight, Central time.

Ultimate Geek Fu


Torainfor asks:
Am I the only one here who watched the American Life on Mars? If so, am I the only one that liked the ending? I know it was contrived and cliche, but I really liked it...
I'm afraid I never got into that series. I caught it a couple of times, and got some good laughs from it — "Hey, I used to drive one of those!" "Hey, I used to own an ugly polyester sportscoat like that!"

(Karen: "You still do, honey. It's in the back of the closet, on the far right side. Can I give it to Goodwill now?")

But in all, I just never got into the series enough to watch it regularly, much less to realize it was coming to an end.

This brings up today's question, though. TV series inevitably end. Even The Guiding Light is finally coming to an end, after 72 continuous years (!) on the air. Sometimes a series just vanishes overnight, like Firefly, because it got canceled and cut from the broadcast schedule. Other times, though, the series comes to a controlled conclusion, either because that's what the show's creators planned all along or because the networks at least gave them the time to bring it in for a controlled crash-landing.

Considering all the TV series you've ever watched to the bitter end, then: what was your favorite series ending of all time, or conversely, what was the worst series ending ever? For example, I still hate the ending of the Enterprise series, because in the end, after three or four years of uneven but generally entertaining shows, it all turned out to be a holodeck simulation.

Let the arguments begin.

Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll work it into the queue.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Render Unto Caesar Day

For those few who may be wondering: the next installment of Ultimate Geek Fu was scheduled for today, but then Sean's piece on The Transformers: The Movie came in and it was too good not to use right away. Ultimate Geek Fu continues tomorrow.

As for that other ongoing series, I decided to soft-pedal it this week, today being National Render Unto Caesar Day and all. Since the Department of Homeland Security apparently decided last week that people who own guns and believe in Constitutional government are a threat to national security—and not just that, but a greater threat to national security than those 200 or so young Somali-American men who are traveling on American passports and have gone back to the old country to spend their quarter abroad on Jihad Studies—I felt it best not to present any opportunities to be misinterpreted this week.

By the way, I don't own any guns any more. It was terrible; duck hunting accident last fall. Nearly sank the boat, had to throw everything overboard to survive. Deep water, treacherous currents, muddy bottom. No chance of ever finding or recovering them. Heartbreaking, really.

Speaking of taxes, though, some of the most eye-opening things learned in my years as a successful freelance writer were the tax implications of being self-employed. As a salaried employee, so much is masked by payroll withholding. As a money-maker freelancer, you're essentially running a sole proprietorship, and as a sole proprietor, you not only have to file and pay quarterly, you pay both the employee and employer portions of Social Security. In other words, your Social Security tax load doubles.

I'll say this much: if we didn't have automatic payroll withholding, and if everyone had to figure their taxes and write a check to the Treasury every three months, a lot more people would be a lot more concerned about what the government is doing with that money.

Will the real Optimus Prime please stand up?

by Sean

What constitutes a classic movie? In my mind there are two types of classics. You have the movies that are critically acclaimed and receive thoughtful praise by those who consider themselves experts in the area of cinema, and then there is the other type: the one much more personal. These movies rarely receive the praise they deserve by gatekeepers of fine art, but nonetheless touch people and become one of those binding threads among friends.

I’m here today to offer a tribute to one of my personal classics: a film that should have been a landmark in modern animation, but through poor marketing and even poorer box office returns got tossed aside into the dustbin of failed sure-fire hits. I’m speaking of the 1986 animated film, The Transformers: The Movie.

The colossal failure of this movie still puzzles me to this day. There are few men I know from my generation who don’t think of this movie fondly. This should have been a hit based on the built-in market alone. Perhaps that was its doom. Boys of my generation lived during the golden age of after-school cartoons. Unlike my parents who had some cartoons on the weekend and my son who has access to non-stop cartoons around the clock via Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and the Internet, we were only able to get our action fix for a glorious period of a few hours after school. Saturday morning cartoons were a plus but did not match the power-packed combination of such classics as He-Man, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, and of course, Transformers.

Now, our parents knew these were just half-hour-long commercials for the much more lucrative toys. Perhaps the thought that our regular fix of cartoons nearly broke the bank come birthday and Christmas time and the thought of what an 84-minute dose of pure Transformer fury would do their pocketbook was too much to bear. It’s either that, or the movie company and the general viewing public had their heads up their collective rears. You be the judge.

What made this movie special is that it there was no reason to believe that something special was about to be unleashed. The Transformers, like all of our favorite afternoon cartoons, had shoddy animation, decent but not great acting, and each episode followed the same basic premise: the bad guys come up with a new plan to vanquish the good guys and take over whatever it is they are after, the good guys foil the plan, and then the bad guys run away cursing the good guys and vowing revenge. No one ever dies and the good guys always win.

That all changed with this movie. While The Transformers: The Movie did introduce a new set of characters, this movie never felt like a commercial. The characters all had depth and soul. Yes, I am talking about giant transforming robots. This movie also introduced real gravity to the situation by introducing the death of beloved characters into the equation. This was heavy stuff for a kid.

At this point I should probably provide a synopsis of the story. I could, but I won’t. The plot is a little too complicated to summarize in just a few sentences. If you want to read a synopsis, I suggest going to this page on IMDB.com.

This is the key to what made the film so great. The story went much deeper than the normal cartoon affair. You had near annihilation of the Autobot race; you had the unwilling and hated Megatron making a Faustian deal to save his own life; and you had the giant planet-eating robot who was the main enemy, yet how do you defeat what is essentially a force of nature?

Now I mentioned how serious this movie was. Yes there were some light-hearted moments, usually involving the Dinobots (who I still detest), but overall the tone of the film is way darker than anything that has preceded it and most that have followed. I knew I was in for a ride in the very beginning of the movie, when Megatron and his minions hijack an Autobot ship and kill everyone on board. When one autobot that still has some life in him reaches out for Megatron’s leg and begs for mercy for his fellow Autobots, Megatron’s response still send shudders down my spine. He looks down at the fallen robot and says with a sneer, “Such heroic nonsense,” and then blasts him at close range with his blaster. Are you kidding me? I had never witnessed anything so murderous in my life.

And then they kill the one character I would never in a million years have been killed: Optimus Prime. This would have been like killing off John Wayne in the first ten minutes of True Grit. I could see some of the minor characters getting knocked off, but you just don’t mess with Optimus Prime.

Well, they did. You watch the journey of Hot Rod as he leaves his childish ways and accepts his destiny as the chosen leader of the Autobots, and the devastation as Ultra Magnus wants to save his people but can’t, because he is not the prophesied leader. You see Megatron make a deal with a devil and how he chafes under the rule of someone else. These were serious story lines; much more serious than what we usually followed.

Much like how Big Trouble in Little China (another of my personal classics) tried to introduce mainstream American audiences to the Hong Kong style of martial arts films, The Transformers: The Movie introduced mainstream America to Japanese anime. This was better-looking than any other American cartoon at the time. The care and work that went into the film is on display throughout. This aspect of it alone should make The Transformers: The Movie more than just a personal classic.

A movie just isn’t complete without a soundtrack that fits what’s going on in the movie. The The Transformers: The Movie soundtrack is no exception. Nearly every song fits as if it was made for this film, with the only real clunker being Weird Al’s “Dare To Be Stupid”. There isn’t a fan of this movie that doesn’t have the specific scenes play out in his head when he hears Stan Bush sing, “You got the touch,” or think that he could save the universe too as long as Stan keep on crooning, “Dare to keep all your dreams alive!”.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I love this movie. And if you are pondering actually dusting off the only copy at the local video store and giving it a spin, consider this: it has a great story, great acting, great animation, and great animation, and for a cartoon 23 years old it still holds up. Plus there’s a cuss word in it, which made it feel so rebellious to us youngsters.

I recommend it not only for the nostalgia, but because it deserves a bigger audience. The Transformers: The Movie deserves to take it’s proper place in the realm of sci-fi classics.

Sean the Wereseal lives in Arizona and blogs about life, the universe, and heavy metal at The Mean Streets of Apache Junction. A regular contributor to The Curse of the Were-Weasel, Sean is also the author of the cult classic, "Lost Chapter from Stranger in a Stranger Land.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, Part 9: Advertising Your Comic Book in Magazines

This is a topic I intended to write about earlier. I discovered I knew less than I thought I'd known about the subject so postponed this column until I could do some research. What I'm going to be writing about today is just how I would approach print ads if I were publishing a comic book. Print ads were the only source of publicity back when I was "in the business."

Previews is published monthly by Diamond Comics Distributors and it lists everything that Diamond carries. Absolutely everything. If Diamond solicits orders for your comic book, it will appear in Previews, though it may be little more than a title, brief description of the book and the price. Comic book retailers use the magazine to place their orders with Diamond. The products ordered are expected to ship two months later, meaning the April issue of lists products shipping in June. Retailers aren't the only ones who read the magazine. Comic book fans can buy the latest issue of Previews and learn all about up coming releases. Put another way, any advertisement you place in Previews will be seen by every comic book retailer and their best customers. At the absolute least, you should work with Diamond to make sure their listing for your comic book is as striking as possible. If you can swing a full page ad to run near your listing, all the better. The pages in Previews are very large, so it's possible to reproduce pages from your comic book along with advertising text and graphics in a single page ad.

Wizard is an independently produced comic book magazine. At the absolute least, you should send them a press release concerning your comic book. Send a PDF of your first issue to the editorial staff along with the press release. Magazines regularly devote space to covering new comics and new publishers, so simply by sending the PDF you might get some free publicity. Of course, you'll also want to find out how much it costs to run print ads in Wizard.

The Comics Buyers Guide is the longest running comic book publication. It used to be a weekly newspaper about all things comic book related but has since changed to a monthly magazine. The CGB should be approached in the same manner as Wizard. I suspect ad space will be less expensive in the CBG than most of the other magazines. I always found the CBG quite easy to approach and work with back when I was writing comic books. (It doesn't hurt that the late editor of the magazine, Don Thompson, wrote some of the most favorable reviews of my work.)

Next, there's The Comics Journal. Before choosing to advertise in this magazine, I'd strongly recommend picking up an issue and also checking out the comic books published by Fantagraphics Books, the magazine's publishers. The Comics Journal does not approach comic books the same way the other magazines do. Unless there's been a major shift in attitudes in the last few years, they're not exactly into superheroes or most of the books from the big publishers. If your comic book is more in line with the books published by Fantagraphics, I'd say it would be well worth your while to approach The Comics Journal with news releases and for advertising. Otherwise, I think you'd be wasting your promotional efforts on an audience that isn't looking for what you're publishing.

Last, but definitely not least, there's Comic Shop News, which is published weekly, is so inexpensive many retailers give copies to customers and is aimed at producing that impulse buy right in the store. Further more, their website lists full color ads for as low as $79. With a weekly circulation of around 60,000 copies, CSN is likely to be your second best bet for print advertising after Previews (and maybe first if ad space in Previews is out of your budget). Each issue is no more than a dozen pages, so don't expect any kind of reviews from the magazine. However, they do have a news website where more coverage may be found, so there's no reason not to send news releases and a PDF of your book.

Note: While I recommend sending PDFs and the like to the magazines, you should always contact the magazine to find out whether they'll accept attachments before you actually send any. Not only is it good netiquette, the magazine staff will appreciate your professionalism.

There may be more comic book magazines out there than the five I've listed. If so, they're keeping a very low profile on the web. A quick trip to a good comic book store to scan the magazine shelves is a good idea. You never know what you'll find. You might even have a chance to speak to store owner. If so, ask where he (comic book store owners are almost always male) gets his comic book news and what kind of promotional material would catch his eye.

As always, post any questions you have in the comments section. I'm also still interested in ideas for further columns.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

And the winner is...


I suppose you want more than that, huh?

Okay, Jamsco, "Two in Cold Water" was wonderfully, horribly, awful. It's hard to write a bad story intentionally, but you did, and I can see why Torainfor and Henry voted for it. It is really funny, in an, "Oh my God, it just keeps getting worse," kind of way. But I have to side with Snowdog here. I don't think I've ever disparaged anyone's doing research. I do a heck of a lot of it myself. When I go off on the "write what you know" dictum, I'm not advocating writing from ignorance; I'm just objecting to the sort of whining, trivial, self-absorbed navel gazing I've read far too much of from would-be writers who adhere to the WWYK received wisdom with the tenacity of a frightened remora.

Very funny, but not a winner this week.

Henry, thanks for giving as a peek into that hellish alternate universe in which "write what you know" absolutely applies:
"Ah, I have just the thing!" she said. "Have you read anything by J. R. R. Tolkien?"

"Never heard of him," I replied.

"Then let me recommend his Professor of English Literature trilogy," she said. "It's all about the fourteen years Tolkien spent teaching English Literature at Oxford!"
Have you ever read The Practice Effect by David Brin? It's a funny little novel about a fellow from Earth who gets sent to an alternate world where "practice makes perfect" actually works, and I think you might enjoy it.

Torainfor: you, of course, refute my entire argument, and do so brilliantly. You've pasted a collage together with wonderful, deft, strokes and carefully cropped family snapshots. There is not one word wasted here; not a single line that doesn't contribute to the whole.

And that, I think, is what makes the difference. Too much of the WWYK-induced prose I've seen is just pointless noodling, words splattered on the page by people whose lives mean nothing to themselves and who therefore they feel WWYK is a license to try to capture their meaninglessness and put it on display, in expectation that others will applaud their bleakness and lack of direction. You, on the other hand, are clearly working towards a point:
It seems like my entire life is filled with what I don’t know. I swim in the uncertainty...
This piece has a powerful narrative arc, and builds to an emotional climax that's fully supported. Brilliantly done.

P.S. Forget imported Parmesan, though. Try Sarvecchio.

Arisia: I react to this one as only someone who's spent nights hunkered down in the shelter, trying to keep the kids from seeing how frightened I am, waiting for the tornado to pass, can. Good story. Very powerful stuff. You really put me right into your shoes in this one. Or perhaps back into my own shoes.

Tom: But tempting as it was to pick Torainfor or Arisia, I've got to go with Tom this week. This one really hits me where I live, for reasons I'd rather not go into at the moment. The first part of it was a terrific head-fake, that both had me thinking it was going in one direction and got me really hungry for a steak!

But then that radical shift in direction in the second half, and the disturbing ambiguity regarding the nature of his change — am I the only one who keyed on that? Anyway, the story really resonated with me, and gave me a cold chill that's still with me hours later, so in a week with some very strong entries, I've got to go with this one. Tom, you're our winner this week, so pop on over to Door #3 and select your prize.

P.S. Special bonus award this week to Snowdog, not just for being the only one who wrote a song, but for writing a good song, too. KTown, Vidad, I expect you two to get together with Snowdog, lay down the tracks, and get it up on YouTube pronto. Let us know when it's posted.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Writer's Block

by Kersley Fitz

Open Mic Saturday

Saturday Morning, 6 a.m.

In the soft gray and pink of false dawn, Spring slinks back into the north country. There is a light frost on the grass in the cow pasture and a thin skin of ice on the water in a misremembered bucket, but the air is full of bird song. The robins are back. The ducks are back. The geese are back. In the pond, the herons and snowy egrets are back. Dead brown leaves still cling to some of the more conservative red oaks, but the lusty liberal maples are bursting with buds and dripping with sap, and in the front yard red tongues of tulip sprouts are thrusting up through the dirty yellow carpet of last Fall's dead grass.

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, April 10, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 4/10/09

One last thought regarding music. Classical piano lessons starting at age 7. Six years of studying composition and theory in university. Two and a half years of developing electronic music hardware and software.

Vs. more than one million page views in one month. More than four thousand ratings, more than three thousand comments, rated four and a half stars. "Favorited" more than eleven thousand times.


"I'm On a Boat"

WARNING! This music video is not work safe. Or child safe. Or parent safe. Or anybody safe, for that matter. Turn the volume way down. Better yet, don't even watch it at all.

Well, okay. You have been warned.

Turning now to the 4/3/09 Friday Challenge, as of the deadline we've received the following entries.

Torainfor, untitled
Henry, "Writing What You Know"
Snowdog, "Wanna Be An Idol (Sucking Up To Simon)"
Tom, "Melting Away"
Arisia, "Tornado at Work"
Jamsco, "Two In Cold Water"

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

For today's Friday Challenge, I now turn the microphone over to Henry.

Hi everybody. I've spent the last two months writing regularly about writing comic books. It's time to see who's been paying attention! No, I'm not going to require you to write a comic book plot or a full comic book script, though you're certainly welcome to use that approach. A short story will be just fine.

Here's the challenge: write about someone who has a super power of some kind, but who also lives in our current world. In other words, after your character gets bitten by a radioactive critter (or however they get their power) your character is not going to suddenly find him- or herself in a world filled with super villains.

So, what does your character do with his or her super powers?

For example, let's say your character has vast telepathic powers. Will he become the most feared political interviewer in the world? Or will he set out to become the greatest Jeopardy champion of all time? It's up to you how you choose to do this. We will keep the standard superhero trope of the secret identity. In other words, your character must try to keep his or her power secret.

Make up any super powers you want. Combine as many as you like. If you feel like writing an "origin" for the powers, take any approach you want. (Hint: the traditional approach is some kind of accident involving radioactive elements, a mutation, or a gift from a powerful alien race.)

To make this challenge more interesting, we're playing for a bound page proof copy of the graphic novel, Into the Volcano, a really good looking and well-reviewed book for children in the 9 to 13 age range by Caldecott award-winner Don Wood -- or the usual choice of something from behind Door #3. The deadline is midnight Central time, Thursday, April 16.

So, ready? Then begin! "A strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth as an infant, crash-landed in a toxic waste dump, and upon crawling out of the wreckage was immediately bitten by radioactive mutant caribou, Friday Challenge Man..."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Deadline Reminder

Just a quick reminder here that the deadline for the 4/3/09 Friday Challenge is midnight tonight, Central time.

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

Part 3: Backstory and Prequel Disease

White Rabbit writes:
>Next, consider the economics...

This is really an interesting point. I must admit that I always wanted to know how resources (i.e. funds) were allocated in the world of Star Trek, especially when they claim to be beyond capitalism. Maybe that's why I loved the Ferengi so much!

Still, are you really suggesting to write about how star ships are really funded? Like..., write about what happens in a budget committee...a future budget committee? I think you could run some risks there as a writer. For instance, too much of that could get boring.... very much like modern day budget committees. Not to mention that the editor would get out a red pen and cross it out, and then fill in the margin with..."replace with Ferrell alien sex cooking class matting ritual." Not that the committee's fiscal review wasn't good. It's just that the mating ritual is where the money is.

Don't get me wrong. I would ---LOVE--- to see SF writing that takes reality into account. It just seems that reality doesn't get rewarded much these days.
No, don't write about the budget meeting. But definitely, think about it, so that later on you understand why in the big fight scene Admiral Heroic can't suddenly be leading a fleet of a thousand brand-new state-of-the-art starcruisers into the Epic Battle—or if he can, then you have some idea of what the society that produced those starcruisers had to sacrifice in order to do so.

As a writer you are under no obligation to put everything you research or think about on-stage. In fact, some of the worst fiction I've read has been written by writers who clearly knew their subject, researched it thoroughly, thought about it a lot, and then put every last thought they had on the page, in hopes that their readers would appreciate how much effort they'd put into their homework.

Do your research. Think it through. Work out the parameters. But then put all of that into the backstory: the common history your characters share and have no reason to discuss in detail, but only use as common touchstones and reveal in passing.
They clinked mugs in a toast. The akavit sloshed onto Remmel's prosthetic hand. Blorkmann winced, and started looking around for something to wipe up the mess. "Sorry."

Remmel shrugged. "Don't worry, it's waterproof." He set his mug down and ran the hand through it's range-of-motion diagnostic. "Finest kind. A gift from her majesty; I received it at the Battle of Denev."

Blorkmann stopped short. "You were at Denev?"

Remmel nodded. "Aye. And a glorious clusterflop it was."
Does the reader need to know anything more about the Battle of Denev, the war that led up to it, the astropolitical strategy behind it, or the machinations of her majesty's courtiers and advisors? Not if the story is about Remmel and what he does with his hand.

But you as the writer need to have given some thought to this, just so you can keep it all straight and understand your characters' situations, motivations, and options.

The worst form of "showing everything you've been thinking" is the prequel. Readers are bright. If you give them a rough form for the backstory and a few juicy details, they'll fill in the rest from their own imaginations, and odds are they'll think of things you never even dreamed of. If you later develop a desire to go back and write another story or novel that fills in all the blanks, resist the urge. There's very little chance your efforts will improve on the semi-story that's been floating around in the back of your reader's imagination for the last few years.

Prequels always suck. Don't write them.

...to be continued...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Get Your Geek On

No book or movie review this week, for the simple reason that no one volunteered to write one. (Although if you think this is something you'd like to try, please take a look at The Assignment Desk, where among other things we list the free review copies we currently have on hand. More titles are being added all the time.)

Instead, in eager anticipation of next month's release of Star Trek, we are today launching the first in a series of totally fanboy discussions, plumbing the depths of absolute übergeekdom. In this series, we propose to examine the questions of absolutely no consequence whatsoever that drive sci-fi fans nuts. Appropriate enough, then, we begin with:

Why Do The Star Wars Prequels Suck So Badly?
There's no arguing the central issue. The original three Star Wars movies were, in sequence, great, even better, and good enough. Then, a bantha's age later, LucasFilm finally came out with the prequels, and there were, in sequence, awful, getting better, and thank God at least it's over.


Some say it's because the original Star Wars was blessed with a uniquely seredipitous cast: Sir Alec Guinness, who could read the phone book and make it sound like Shakespeare, and a trio of young and relatively unknown actors—Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford—who had the almost magical gift of being able to read Lucas's clunky dialog and make it sound exciting.

Others say it was a demonstration of the blind squirrel-and-acorn principle: that Star Wars was great precisely because it was a relatively low-budget film shot on a short schedule, and had Lucas had all the time and money he wanted, the original film would have been much worse and the sequels never would have happened. As evidence they cite the reissued "Special Editions," and we must admit, that's a convincing argument.

A third faction hews to a more plot-driven point, arguing that the prequels collectively couldn't help but be a bummer, because they tell stories of tragedy, downfall, and the collapse of the Republic, and most importantly, we already know how it all ends.

Our theory is that in making the prequels, George Lucas, whether accidentally or intentionally, left out one critical character. Sure, Luke Skywalker is the nominal focus of the original movies, a young man of great power and destiny and all that with his mythic qualities shamelessly lifted straight out of Joseph Campbell. But in our opinion the real hero of the original Star Wars series was Han Solo, and what makes the prequels so bad is that there is no equivalent human-scale Han Solo-type character in them. Further, it is our opinion that had Lucas wanted to make an interesting and engaging pre-Star Wars movie, he would have been far better advised to ignore the Jedi and Sith and focus instead on Jango and Boba Fett.

Let the arguments begin.

Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll work it into the queue.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

Part 2: Building the TCS Insolvent

In Part 1, AJW308 gave us all some good advice: "The trick here is not to parrot any sci-fi we've seen." The hard part when writing space opera is to pay adequate homage to the hoary tropes of the genre and yet still bring something seemingly fresh to the table. SF writers often being latent engineers, the usual temptation is to do this by really working over the science angle and trying to think of something that's just a few steps beyond today's state of the art, that no one else has thought of and used already. Going back to Jules Verne's Robur the Conqueror or H. G. Wells' The War in the Air, it seems every generation produces at least one writer who has "really done the math and figured it all out," and a generation later, every one of those writers is in turn cursed to seem terribly quaint.
Hey, Bertie! That Kaiser's fleet of invincible armored zeppelins sure brought America to her knees, didn't it?
There is always the possibility of a game-changer. Yesterday's wild speculation has a way of becoming tomorrow's mundane fact, and there's always the possibility we might discover something tomorrow that rewrites the rule book next week. Magnetic monopoles, for example: there's something the existence of which is consistently predicted by theoretical physics, and yet no one's ever actually seen or made one, but if we ever do see or make one the ramifications will be staggering.

Still, I think it's worth parroting one particular and famous hunk of sci-fi we've all seen:
Space... The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations—
And do what? Sell them something? Buy something from them? Conquer and enslave them? Eat them? Find out if they have any groovy drugs? Con them into trading us their unused continent in exchange for a small box full of shiny beads and Snickers bars?

Oh, I see; we're just going out there to meet them, understand them, and appreciate their diversity. And you want me to wear a red shirt and possibly die a horrible death just so you can do that. Yeah, right, thanks for the offer, if anyone wants me I'll be in the holodeck. Computer, begin program, Planet of the Nymphomaniac Cheerleaders, chapter two.

When brainstorming about your space warship, then, don't begin by thinking of Einstein and Newton. Instead, think of the vons: von Clausewitz, von Mises, and von Hayek. Von Clausewitz laid down the first principle:
War is only politics conducted by other means.
Governments don't build warships just for the fun of it. They build them to serve a political purpose, and this purpose, however badly it may be misperceived by the people making the decisions, determines almost everything else that follows. What is the political reason for your space warship's existence? To show off the government's wealth and power? To remind the more remote districts that they're still under the royal thumb? To scare the heck out of the potential enemy in the next war? To remind the losers in the last war not to try that again? Or is it being built simply to generate lots of well-paid jobs in Senator Featherbed's home state?

Next, consider the economics. No matter whether the state of the art is a trireme, a 100-gun square-rigger, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, or a mighty space dreadnought, all great warships throughout the ages have shared three common characteristics: they're hellaciously expensive to build, even more hellaciously expensive to operate, and the money to do this has to come from somewhere. Even in the most insane and despotic Galactic Empire, His Exalted Immortal Majestic Omnimpotency Emperor Squalidus the First can't simply decree that the finest warship ever shall be built. He's got to tax somebody, rob somebody, starve somebody, or at least give up the solid gold toilets in his favorite concubine's summer palace in order to fund it.

Thus we return to Clausewitz in reciprocal form, and remember that Politics is only feudal warfare conducted by other means. For be they in the Senate, the Parliament, or the Conclave of Worlds, the sorts of turf battles that take place over the funding for major government programs are terrible to behold, and not things to be witnessed by the weak of stomach.

And all of this happens long before some poor grunt out on the frontier actually has to use the latest McNamara's Nightmare in combat, of course...

...to be continued...

Monday, April 6, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, Part 8: The Differences Between Writing Comics and Writing Prose

In the comments section of last week's column, WaterBoy asked if I would discuss the different approaches required to write for the various comic book genres. I don't know how well I could have discussed the different approaches, but I was to going to try that today. Along the way, I ended up going in an unintended, though probably more useful, direction.

What are the comic book genres and how do the comic book genres differ from their prose cousins? At one point, I would have said that the superhero genre was the only genre found in comic books but not in novels. A few minutes at any bookstore will show that superheroes aren't just for comic books any more. Besides the novels featuring traditional superheroes such as Spider-Man and Batman, more and more novels are being published featuring characters never before seen in comic books. The most recent such book I've read (well, listened to as an audio book) is Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. I've also seen a book about a therapist who works exclusively with superheroes, though I cannot remember the title or author. There are many more examples.

Given that comic books and traditional prose touch on all the same genres, perhaps it would be better to discuss the general differences between writing comic books and writing prose. I've never written a novel, but you all know I've written plenty of short stories. I'll be contrasting how I approach writing a short story to writing a comic book.

Comic books, like movies, are a visual medium. Two people just sitting at a table and talking through out the entire comic book is likely to be boring. Yes, I know that this was done in a movie but I wouldn't recommend trying it in a comic book without a truly amazing script. However, "action" doesn't have mean page after page of fights and car chases. You can make a visually interesting character development scene by applying some imagination.

In one issue of the Southern Knights, I used a backyard cookout as the setting for a character development scene. I made sure the backyard had a swimming pool so the characters were wearing bathing suits. (Based on my fan mail, that made my female readers just as happy as my male readers.) While two characters were talking, the background had other characters diving or flipping burgers. None of the action was exactly exciting, but it was much more visually interesting than a typical "talking heads" scene.

This doesn't mean you can't use talking heads every now and then. It just means you should use them sparingly.

Suspension of Disbelief
Reading science fiction is said to require a willing suspension of disbelief. Within reason, science fiction fans are quite willing to suspend their disbelief. There are limits beyond which even science fiction fans are unwilling to go, at least where traditional prose is concerned. Comic book fans may have limits to their suspension of disbelief, but those limits do not restrict a comic book writer's imagination very much.

As an example, let's use the story we developed in the third, fourth and fifth columns. The story opens with the Southern Knights battling against two Battlemech style walking weapons of mass destruction. In the third column, I wrote the following:
Why are the big robots attacking? I don't know nor do I care.
Just think about that. The "big robots" that are attacking represent an amazingly advanced technology. They would require vast resources -- money, manpower and manufacturing -- to create. We're talking about rich first-world government resource levels here. Even if you assume some major criminal organization could manage to create something like the mechs, why in God's name would they attack Atlanta, GA? Despite that, no reader would have even wondered where the mechs came from, much less their motivation for attacking Atlanta. We're not talking about a mere suspension of disbelief. This is more like the complete removal of the part of the brain that governs disbelief.

Want another example? Superman takes off the tights and cape, puts on a suit and a pair of glasses then goes to work at a newspaper. Despite being surrounded by intrepid investigative reporters, not one of them sees through this "disguise."

Comic book readers are sticklers about certain things. If a writer messes with the a character's continuity, they'll scream bloody murder. But they won't get particularly worked up about "reality" as long as your book is internally consistent.

A Picture Really Is Worth 1000 Words
Consider the following lines from my Friday Challenge short story The Nomod:
"That's enough, Guard," I said sharply. "You may wait outside the office. I'll call should this man start to get any of your ideas."
The line conveys the character's tone and emotion without any problems. How would you write that same line for a comic book?

Sure, you can write the same words spoken by the character. They'll work just fine in a word balloon. What you cannot write in a comic book are the words "...I said sharply." Exactly how do you convey to the reader the same tone and emotion in a comic book? You don't. Your artist does. Sure, your plot or script will tell the artist that the character is speaking sharply, but passing that tone and emotion on the reader is completely out of your control. I suppose you could have the character who was spoken to respond with something along the lines of "There's no need to speak so sharply!" or have a caption that reads "The sharp words stung the guard's ears." Frankly, both of those options suck.

When writing comic books, you simply cannot identify all of the emotions and tones that a prose writer conveys with a simple word or two. Your script would be clunky and rather irritating to read if you tried. You can get away with describing tone and emotions every now and then, but it's got to be natural. Something like "Don't take that tone with me, young man!" or "Are you always this sarcastic?" are fine every now and then. But only every now and then. Other than working with a really good artist -- always recommended -- what can you do to convey tone and emotion?

First, avoid subtle emotions as much as possible. There's little chance your artist will be able to convey such subtlety and we've already discussed the pitfalls of trying to describe emotions in a comic book script. I'm not saying subtle emotions are impossible to convey in a comic book, but prepare for confused readers if the subtly is vital to the plot.

Second, write your script to isolate lines when a specific tone is required. Let's take a look at the line from The Nomod, this time written for a comic book script.
Tanner 1: That's enough, Guard!

Tanner 2: You may wait outside the office. I'll call should this man start to get any of your ideas.
By separating Tanner's lines into two word balloons, I can call attention to the sharply spoken line. As the two words balloons are directed to the same character and involve the same subject, you imply a difference in tone between the two word balloons. Most readers will automatically read the sharp tone into the first word balloon because that tone fits their real life experiences.

Third, emphasize words and use punctuation to your advantage. Consider the two lines below. (Note that I'm using bold text for emphasis as that's the way it is handled in comic books.)
Oh dear, how dreadful.

Oh dear, how dreadful!

In the first example, the emphasis on "dear" and the simple period at the end should imply sarcasm to your readers. At the very least, the lack of an exclamation point will indicate the statement doesn't really mean what the words say. In the second example, the emphasis on "dreadful" implies that something dreadful did happen. The exclamation point implies real sincerity.

Emphasis and punctuation are wonderful tools if used properly. At times, they even put the lie to my earlier statement that you cannot convey emotion with your script. Still, the easiest way to convey emotion is to make sure you're working with a very good artist!

Well, here's another column that didn't end up going as I had planned. I hope you found it useful. As usual, post any questions you may have in the comments. Suggestions for future columns will continue to be welcome, as well.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

And the winner is...

Tough call this week. Two really good ideas, and both really well-written. The difference between them comes down to splitting hairs.

Arisia: This time around "The Yellow Time Machine" gets the coveted "most like what I would have written" comment. This is not necessarily a good thing, as my—er, um, checkered career proves—but in this case it is, as the story of my own that it most reminds me of, "The Single-Bullet Theory," sold less than three months after I wrote it and appeared as the lead story in the April 1993 issue of Amazing Stories. I'm sure if I went back over this one with my editor's hat on I'd find some trivial things to ding, but the concept is clever and the execution is superb. Great work.

Snowdog: On the other hand, "Drummer Girl" hits me right in some emotional soft spot I didn't even know I had. The thought of Karen Carpenter still being alive today appeals to me in a way I can't adequately describe; that list of alternate Beatles song titles makes me think of the Rutles, which thought is always "guaranteed to raise a smile;" and the idea of Karen Carpenter having a PR-fueled faux feud with Chrissy Hynde was pure genius. In fact, in my mind right now I'm hearing Karen singing a slightly down-tempo, slightly smoother and jazzier cover of "Back on the Chain Gang," and it's choking me up.

Whoa. Tough call. For me, "Drummer Girl" has the stronger emotional hook, but "The Yellow Time Machine" scores higher on technical points.

By a slender margin, then, I'm calling it for Arisia. But since Will Keizer was kind enough to send over two copies of his CD, I'm awarding Snowdog a special "Damn, that was close" consolation prize.
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