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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fitz of Distraction


In honor of the L'Amour lovin' Major Tom's birthday today.

Calendars are still available. Email me at kersley.fitz at yahoo dot com. Have a Happy Halloween!

Open Mic Saturday

Good 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 sharing with the group here?

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 10/30/2009

Two weeks in the making!

Fifty dollars in prize money!

Fame and the respect of your peers!

And did I mention fifty dollars in prize money?

This is the moment you've all been waiting for! It's the announcement of the stories entered in the Second Annual Halloween Story Challenge; a challenge so important it requires two judges. Yes, Bruce and I will be reading your stories, discussing your stories and even choosing one of your stories as this week's winner.

This is easily the best Friday Challenge turnout I've ever seen. Interestingly, the Halloween challenge brought us 13 entries! Spooooooooooooooky. 15 entries, after the latest update. Not quite as interesting as before, but this total is about double what we normally consider a lot of entries.

Vidad - The Window and Tonsil (Twice the Vidad as a normal challenge; will any of us be sane after this?)

Al - Vidad's Brain, Creele's Halloween and Spore (Update: The last two were snowdogged in sometime after I originally posted this. I missed these when preparing the original post.)

Ben-El - Eye of the Storm

torainfor - Halloween

The Aardvark - Life...Don't Talk to Me About Life

Thinker Van Chan - Martuin's Fall

miko - All Hallows' Day

Arisia - S&M Vampire Girls

Topher - Last Hallow's Eve

Letteren - Specters of my Past and Future

passingthrough - Ghost Story

Jamison Scott - Halloween Newspaper Item

As always, even if you haven't submitted an entry this week—even if you never submit an entry in any week—you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite. Don't be shy about leaving feedback on the authors' sites, either. Writers thrive on knowing that someone out there is actually reading their words. The winner will be announced on Sunday.

And now for this week's challenge.

"Releasing Your Inner Child"

Last Christmas, I read a book on writing by Kate Wilhelm, science fiction author and long time teacher at the famous Clarion Science Fiction Workshop. The book was a combination of writing advice and personal history of the Clarion Workshop. It was a good read even if it didn't tell me much about writing that I hadn't managed to figure out for myself over the last 30 years of writing and telling stories. But one thing she wrote stood out to me.

"If you can tell stories that keep the attention of children, you can succeed as a writer." I'm paraphrasing that and, since I can't find the book right now, won't be getting the exact quote any time soon.

Even after 30 years of writing and telling stories, I found this line to be very encouraging. After all, I spend many hours every year telling stories to children who, for the most part, pay attention to the stories.

And Kate is right about telling stories to kids. They are amazing sticklers for details! Vidad read a story of mine to his four year old son and Perry caught a mistake neither Vidad nor I had caught. Kids are also easily distracted, so a story has to keep renewing their interest from beginning to end. If it doesn't, you end up with antsy, distracted kids; the bane of storytellers the world over!

So, this week's challenge is to write a children's story. It can be a folk tale, fairy tale, talking animal story, adventure story or anything else your heart desires. Just make sure it will entertain a child.

As usual, we're playing for what's behind Door #3.

You've got your assignment. Now get busy writing!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge, the Second Annual Halloween Story Challenge, is tonight at midnight, Central time. For those who have to snowdog their entry (i.e. post an entry past the deadline), you'll have a few hours to get your entry in before you have to worry about snowdogging as I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time. Take advantage of that time if you need it! And remember, this challenge is for the Friday Challenge cash prize (plus all the fame and glory that comes with winning the challenge each week)!

Also, remember you can post to the Friday Challenge Drop if you want to enter but don't want your entry available to everyone in the world with internet access. The password is the middle word in the link I've provided to the drop.

If you need some music to inspire a Halloween mood, you might want to check out Will Keizer's new Halloween CD, Angel in a Haunted House. You can purchase and download it from Amie Street. I'm listening to it as I write this and like it quite a bit. The MP3 CD costs $1.04 (the same it cost me Tuesday night), but the price goes up as more people purchase the CD. You can listen to the first minute of each track on the CD without buying, so check it out!

Critical Thinking - Kipling II

Although Kipling only wrote two stories that I would consider science fiction (see here), his influence over the genre was much more pervasive. Some authors and publishers took from him directly. Others more in an osmosis (osmosivity?) of his work. And there is at least one significant science fiction phenomenon that I'm not sure the authors even realized Kipling (and many of his contemporaries) believed in long ago.

Indirect exposition. I was reading Persuasion the other day (I'd left my Asimov's at home and needed something to read at Starbucks--wait that sounded defensive, didn't it? Yes I read Jane Austen! Her zombies are delightful!) and was struck by the narrative. So much info-dump! I think two long chapters passed with only a handful of quotes--and many of them were so removed, they were written in the third person. Compare that with "With the Night Mail." (You did read it, right?) Narrow point of view, ignorant POV character--perfect set-up for the show-not-tell. It seems so obvious, now, but back in the day it was a big thing.

Bildungsroman. (From Wikipedia) "...a coming-of-age kind of novel. It arose during the German Enlightenment, and in it, the author presents the psychological, moral and social shaping of the personality of a usually young main character (the protagonist)." Where do you want to start? Kim? Mowgli? Captains Courageous? The one that gets me: read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, then read Stalky and Co. Boarding schools taking boys, allowing them to refine their natural abilities, then sending them to war? Shoot, read Harry Potter, for that matter.

Military Fiction. Wars have been written about since the book of Genesis. When Kipling wrote, most such stories focused on heroes and their tragic and valiant battles. Kipling wrote about getting drunk and drummer boys and flirting with the girls. My kid's obsessed with Star Wars: Clone Wars. (I know, but what can you do?) I see a lot of Orth'ris, Learoyd, and Mulvaney in the story lines. (Well, not the getting drunk and chasing girls part.)

Story. I've noticed several references to Kipling in Elizabeth Moon's stories, so I emailed her and asked her why. She responded directly, sending her over the top in the list of "My Favorite Authors Whom I Don't Actually Know." This is what she said:

Kipling was, and is, one of my favorite writers--and as such, I'm sure he influenced me, though I can't define what, exactly, I took from him (the microscope cannot see itself.) He did so many things so well...he could write stories that still send chills down my back, or hilarious stories ("The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat" or "Bees" ) poking fun at pomposity or savage indictments of political stupidity and cultural blindness or gentle and charming stories of the English countryside. He could change styles (and wrote well in each he tried); he created characters as vivid as any in fiction; he wrote page-turners you can't put down as well as the perfect "warm summer afternoon in the shade" stories. While visiting friends across the country a few weeks ago, I found myself nabbing a Kipling off the shelf to read in bed at night...(_Plain Tales from the Hills_) At a point in my life when I'd read any horse story, no matter its quality, a chance encounter with "The Maltese Cat" showed me that a horse story could be brilliant. By then I'd read "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" (had me checking the bathroom for snakes for a month at least, and wishing for a mongoose) and later I found _Stalky & Co_...and the rest, or at least most of the rest. Much later I found a little paperback of _A Fleet in Being_, not fiction at all...and still inimitable Kipling in its vivid, crisp description of the Royal Navy at that period.

The Prime Directive. When Kipling wrote most of his India stories, he was between the ages of 17 and 23. He was a reporter for several journals, a member of the country club, a white man of the ruling class in a British colony. He arrived back in India in 1882, 23 years after Darwin's Origin of Species and "all that entailed." In 1899, he wrote "The White Man's Burden," explaining that it is the white man's responsibility to rule and care for the lesser creatures of the Earth.

Yeah, so he was a young, idiot racist*. He loved India, loved the people--but only if they remained "native." In The Jungle Book, he describes the Bandar-log--the monkeys--as having "no speech of his own, but use the stolen words which they overhear." Similarly, in "The Head of the District," he describes an educated Indian man as having merely "much curious book-knowledge of bump-suppers, cricket matches, hunting runs..."

(* Although Kipling had swastikas imprinted on the covers of many of his books, they were strictly pre-Nazi-era. They're actually backwards, a good-luck charm in Hindi. Once the Nazi's came along, he banished them from all further publications of his works. I have first editions of Puck of Pook's Hill (fun!) and The Light that Failed (depressing!) that have Indian swastikas on their covers.)

I was at a friend's birthday party a couple of years ago and met her son. He's a teacher up in Chicago. We were talking about the war and I mentioned I knew a woman who ran a school in the Kurdish region that taught Western thought and Christian values. My friend's son was horrified. Why would we want Middle-Eastern Muslims to learn our way of thought? How is it any better than theirs? He was attempting to display a kind of reverse-racism, but, in the end, shouldn't people be educated enough to choose their own path?

Distance in Fantasy. I don't know that that particular theme--a technologically-advanced race's responsibility to the more primitive races it encounters--has been explored sufficiently in science fiction. There are several cases of humans meeting emerging alien races and "sponsoring" them into space-farerdom. And then there's the whole Star Trek-hand's off thing. Are there books out there that explore the philosophical quandary, or do they all just make assumptions and press on to the battle scene?

Another theme I'd like to see more of is the whole colonial deal. Kipling was a huge colonialist--huge imperialist. Couldn't understand why everyone in England wasn't thoroughly educated on the British colonies. This tension could easily be explored in a sci fi novel.

And this is another major influence of Kipling's on science fiction--the ability to present a modern-day dilemma in a way that's just distant enough that modern audiences can consider the sides and ramifications without getting all up in arms about the context. Want to talk about gene therapy? Read "The Eye of Allah." How about the state of journalism? Try "A Matter of Fact." Want to talk about the environment? Watch Wall-E.

(Sources: Here, here, here, here (but don't believe the bit about him being a liberal and suspicious of the government), and this guy that nobody reads anymore.)

What can you say about Kersley Fitzgerald, really? She can make excellent baked apples, yet burns toast. She designed her tattoo on AutoCAD. She reads Jane Austen, Eugene Peterson, and Ben Bova. And she's going to continue telling you about her impending publication until you're sick to death and ask Vidad to write a story wherein she meets a terrible demise. Possibly by gerbil.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

'Tis the Season...

...for ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night. So of course there can be only one appropriate topic for this week's Ultimate Geek Fu, and that is:

What is the best Halloween movie ever made?

Yeah, we like 'em scary, but not too scary, and gross, but not too gross, so what's it gonna be? Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray, and Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters? Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas? Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry in the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu? Roman Polanski in Nastassja Kinski?

It's easy to scare an audience once: all you need to do is have someone jump out and yell BOO! But something more is needed if you're going to make a movie that's worth watching more than once. So what is the one cinematic product that you never get tired of watching every year, about this time, and why?

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 stuff it in the queue.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Back in November of 1996, a group of friends and I went to an opening day showing of Star Trek: First Contact. Even in a small city such as Greenville, SC, where I lived at the time, there were enough Star Trek and science fiction fans to sell out the showing. When the lights went out and the first preview trailer rolled, it was for some chick flick that not even most of the chicks in the audience, my wife included, had any interest in seeing. This was followed by the trailer for another chick flick, this one being the sequel to some other chick flick no one in the audience had seen. "Who picks these trailers?" I thought to myself, as the crowd grew more restless through the long, boring second trailer. I'm not trying to continue the stereotype of the Star Trek geek who never kisses a girl, but I thought someone, somewhere should have put just a tiny bit of thought into matching the previews with the actual movie. There was a third trailer of some kind, though I don't remember anything about it, and the crowd grew more restless. Then it all changed.

The fourth trailer began with a television set showing the original Star Wars, complete with the tinny music and sound effects you'd get from standard TV set speakers. The narrator said, "For an entire generation, people have experienced Star Wars the only way it's been possible; on a TV screen" as an X-Wing fighter flew toward the television screen. Then the X-Wing flew out of the television screen, growing until it filled the movie screen. At the same time, the theater's THX sound system kicked in with the famous Star Wars theme music and the famous sound effects of an X-Wing fighter flying past. I got goosebumps as I watched what I still consider the best constructed movie trailer ever made; the trailer for the special editions of the Star Wars trilogy.

It's the bit where the trailer gave me goosebumps that I want to talk about. Later, I reflected on the emotional power packed into that trailer. If I was someone else, maybe someone "normal," I might also have reflected on how silly it was for a grown man to get goosebumps watching the trailer for the Star Wars trilogy. Fortunately, I'm not "normal" and don't consider it odd to react that way to the trailer.

That all came back to me recently when one of the boys was watching another movie that had a goosebump moment for me. It got me thinking about what movie scenes really pack that kind of emotional punch for me. This is the short list of truly exceptional movies that hit me this way.

Outside of the amazing trailer I mentioned above, I get goosebumps during the medal ceremony at the end of the original Star Wars. Coming right on the heels of the climax of the movie, the music combines with the pomp, ceremony and a truly regal-looking Carrie Fisher to give me goosebumps. It doesn't matter how many times I watch the scene, it still has that effect on me.

Showing my comic book background, Superman:The Movie has a scene that never fails to give me goosebumps. It happens when Superman puts in his first appearance in Metropolis, catching Lois Lane as she plummets toward certain death with a casual, "Don't worry, I've got you miss." Holding Lois in his right arm, he catches the helicopter with his left hand, flying both back up to the roof of the Daily Planet building as the crowd below cheers and the soundtrack blares Superman's theme. It's just so damned heroic that it gets me every time.

How many of you have seen the animated movie The Iron Giant? If you haven't seen it, skip the rest of this paragraph until you have seen it. For any who are familiar with the book on which the movie is based, be aware that the movie is only loosely based on the book. In a rare twist for me, I prefer the movie version. The movie's climax, where the Iron Giant chooses to sacrifice himself to save everyone in Rockport, never fails to get me choked up. In this one scene, the theme of the movie -- that the Iron Giant is just as human as any of us -- comes to fruition. Then I choke up again when the film rushes across ice-covered Greenland to where the Iron Giant is slowly putting himself back together again. I still don't know how this movie failed to capture an audience.

By now, you'd probably expect some kind of reaction from me to one of the great geek movies of all time, The Lord of the Rings. You'd be right, too. Though there are plenty of emotional moments in those films, the single point that always gets to me is when Aragorn and all the lords and ladies gathered in Gondor bend a knee to four little hobbits. Perhaps we identify with the hobbits because it is the hobbits could most easily be us. They have no magical powers nor are mighty warriors. They simply keep on putting one foot in front of the other, moving slowly but surely toward their goal. It is right that the movers and shakers of Middle Earth bend their knees to the hobbits and, for me, it packs one of most powerful emotional punches of any movie I've ever seen.

To finish the geek trifecta, you know there has to be a Star Trek movie in here. Despite all the Star Trek movies that have been released, none of the first 10 of them had a goosebump moment. I enjoyed most of them and even have a couple that I watch every couple of years, but none of them really got me in the gut until the latest one. And the movie actually had two such moments. During the final battle, after the Romulan ship had warped away from earth with Kirk and Spock, I got goosebumps when the Enterprise warped into the system with all weapons blazing. The shot lasts for only a handful of seconds, but I expect I'll get goosebumps every time I see it in the future. But the really emotional moment came right at the end, as the Enterprise pulls away from the space dock, the original theme to Star Trek begins to play and Leonard Nimoy says, "Space, the final frontier..." In that moment, everything that Star Trek has ever meant to me -- and the original meant a lot to the young, socially outcast adolescent I once was -- came back in a rush of emotional that even had my eyes tearing up.

Now that I've laid my geeky soul bare, how about you? Are there any movies which "normal" people view as simple escapist entertainment that have this effect on you or am I just too geeky even for the geeks?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Recommended Missing

At last, a film that answers the question: if you gave $20 million to a bunch of Mad TV alumni, could they make a big-screen movie even worse than the worst film ever excreted either individually or collectively by any Saturday Night Live alumni?*

[* Currently believed to be It's Pat!, but this determination is open to debate.]

The answer, as you might expect, is a resounding, YES!

We rented this one only because we had a rent-one-get-one-free coupon and were looking for a few stupid, tasteless, mindless laughs. It delivered on the first two. I honestly cannot remember the last time I sat through a movie as consistently, wretchedly, tediously, miserably, oh-dear-God-please-make-it-stop unfunny as this one, but that's probably some sort of protective psychological reaction, much like the way women can't really remember what childbirth feels like or men can't clearly remember their colonoscopies. The sole bright spot in this movie was the first two minutes or so that Nicole Parker was on-screen in her role as a sort of demented Disney Princess, but she made us pay for this mild pleasure by delivering Amy Winehouse and Jessica Simpson impressions that were both hideous and witless.

Subtracting out those two minutes, that leaves 86 more minutes of unrelieved crap that seemed much, much longer. At an overall budget of $20 million, that comes out to be roughly $233,000 per minute, which suggests to me that Milorganite is terribly underpriced.

RATING: Zero Stars, only because I don't have negative stars.

Family Matters

What exactly is it that you do when you write? When asked, most writers would probably answer with something along the lines of, "I take inert jumbles of ideas, dreams, and inspirations and turn them into compelling reading." Or perhaps that's not precisely how you would phrase it, but however you would, I've noticed that most writers almost always omit one key ingredient.


Very few of us are gifted with the ability to just sit down at the keyboard, cold, and bang out good copy in one draft as fast as we can type. Good writing takes time: a lot of time. Thinking time, planning time, researching time, writing time, rewriting time, re-rewriting time; at my most productive, I've been able to produce 3,000 words of publishable copy a day. At my worst, I've spent all day sweating over a single paragraph and then thrown it out the next day and started all over again.

Where does this time come from?

Most of us, unfortunately, steal it from the rest of our lives. The habit probably starts in childhood: we daydream in school; we scribble notes and draw pictures in the margins of our class notes; we make up stories on the playground, call them games, and try to get the other kids to play along. Nascent writers always seem to live inside their own heads far more than other children do, and the gap between what's inside their heads and what they can externalize probably accounts for why they quickly develop a reputation for being "weird"—which in turn, of course, reinforces the desire to look even further inward, until eventually the lucky ones develop the communication skills to pull that interior life out of their heads and put it out on media, in a form others can assimilate and enjoy.

At least, I think they're the lucky ones. I may be wrong.

Absent electroshock, the habits developed in childhood stick with you through life. Writers are legendary for being indifferent college students who drop out, and for screwing off at work and thinking about writing when they should be working. Even Isaac Asimov once got fired for thinking about a story he was writing when he should have been thinking about work.

Again, the lucky ones learn to compartmentalize. (The really lucky ones become so successful so quickly that they never have to learn how to do anything but write, but let's leave the lottery winners out of this discussion for the moment.) It has taken me years, but I've learned to build rigid barriers between my work life and my writing life. This actually gives me a slight edge in my professional life, as I'm able to reserve all my natural egotism and arrogance for non-work hours, thus giving my co-workers and employers the illusion that I'm easy to get along with. But that also accounts for at least 50 daylight hours a week.

So where does the creative writing time come from?

I don't know about you, but as for me, I'm afraid that for most of the past thirty years I've stolen it from my family, in the form of evening and weekend hours. The thing is, I didn't even realize I was doing this until #2 Daughter called me on it. She was in college, and we were talking about life after college and careers and all that when she blurted out, "I don't want to be like you, Dad."

Say what?

"You're always working. Even when you're not working, you're thinking about working. I want to have a life, and a family, and friends."

She's right, of course, and so I have slowly learned to recompartmentalize my life. My writing time is now the hour or so before dawn, while the rest of the family is still asleep. Normally I monkey with the time stamps on these posts to make it appear that I'm far more organized than I really am. This morning I'm leaving the actual time stamp on this post, to illustrate the point. It took me about an hour and a half to write this post, including interruptions for biological necessities, letting the dog out, getting the coffee pot going, letting the dog back in, etc., etc., etc., etc. The chronic insomnia I've had for the past month helps, in a perverse way. (Don't worry. I'll make it up by taking a nap this afternoon, while the Vikings are losing to the Steelers.)

I don't know if these 1,000 words are meaningful, in any long-term metaphysical sense. But I do know that while you're busy writing, your children are busy having lives, with or without you in the picture. And the time you choose to take away from their lives now is time you don't get back later.

Let's talk.

FAMILY MATTERS posts at 7 a.m. each Sunday and is dedicated to serious discussions of marriage, family, children, human sexuality, and all the other things that writers ignore when they cocoon in their offices and try to create fiction. This series will run until we either run out of things to talk about, solve all the problems in the world, or you tell me to shut up and go get some professional therapy. If you have a question you'd like to ask or a topic you'd like to expound upon, send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com and we'll work it into the queue.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fitz of Distraction


What do you think of the new title? I gotta give this one to Guy and his daughter for the inspiration. Send your address, please, to kersley.fitz at yahoo dot com.

For a calendar of the comics, in this color scheme, tape a check for $6.50 to a new laptop computer and mail it to the above address. Or email me with your address and we'll see what we can do.

Kersley Fitzgerald is a not-so frustrated writer who will be published in a couple of weeks. Not that she's excited. Her husband's excited, too, but her boy has a fever and is much more interested in watching movies in bed, and the dog is...well, neurotic as always and doesn't see the point in getting published if it doesn't lead to peanuts or frozen vegetables. (Yes! She loves frozen vegetables. Told you she was strange.) See her stuff at http://sites.google.com/site/kersleyfitzgerald/home. (That's Kersley's stuff. To see the dog's stuff, go in the back yard.)

Open Mic Saturday

Good 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 sharing with the group here?

Friday, October 23, 2009

How to Find More Time and Live on Almost Nothing

Ah, domestic crises. Tonight, the washing machine appears to be broken and my wife is quite persistently letting me know it’s The Husband’s Job to fix things like that.

I’ve already fixed the dang thing a few times. This time, the leak appears to be internal. I hate to pay for stuff like that and I REALLY hate doing anything that relates to plumbing. It appears, by looking at my wife’s face, I need to do both. (Maybe I can put the kid’s plastic pool underneath the washer and stretch a few more washes out of it?)

Anyhow, now on to today’s topic. Time and money. I’ve often heard people complain that they can’t be a writer (or astronaut or ballerina or organ harvester) because they are unable to find the time.

“Really?” I ask, “What are you doing with your time?”

Usually the answer is something like, “Well, my job takes most of my time and when I’m off, I’m always doing family stuff.”

One of those two activities is really important. The other is less so.

Can you guess which one is “really important?” If you said “job,” then I would encourage you to go home, hit yourself in the head with a hammer, and while you’re recuperating, read stories to your kids UNTIL YOU LIKE IT, or alternately, until they beg you to go back to work.

Working a regular job is only necessary because you have to pay for the expenses of living. The way you’ve managed your finances makes a big difference in determining how many hours you have to work, whether you and your spouse both have to work, and whether you lie awake at night staring at the ceiling and wondering if your car will still be out front in the morning.

We’ve all heard that time is money, and generally, that’s true.

The key to freeing up time is to AVOID DEBT. Our nation is steeped in debt. Most Americans live way over their means. And a lot of the things we think are needs are actually just wants. Things like air conditioning, eating out, college educations for our kids, etc. (Listen, it’s not like kids even USE the degrees. How many people do you know that are actually working in the field they studied [other than doctors]?)

All we really need are food, shelter and clothing. Those aren’t that expensive, really. (And if you’re a good dumpster-diver, you’ll almost never need to buy food.)

If you live well beneath your means, you’ll be able to work less and spend more time on your writing. It’s very possible. You don’t need a big house, a new car or cable. If you want time to write, give some things up.

Now let’s say it’s impossible for you to cut back any more. Your income is low – your debts are painful – you’re addicted to cheese dip (I’m looking at you, Ktown) – you have a horrible allergy to rice – whatever.

Then you need to free up time elsewhere. The two biggest time-killers for most of us are TV and the Internet. We’ve all heard awful statistics about the zillions of hours we waste in front of the tube – and it’s true. In my case, I wasted lots of time on the internet. And no, I wasn’t looking up pictures of Albanian schoolgirls with camels or that sort of thing. Generally, I was doing a lot of random reading (researching survival crops, beneficial bacteria, chemical compounds, foreign nations in which I’d like to live, fermentation, Henry’s home address, economic theory, artists, anarcho-capitalism, etc.), laughing at the headlines on Fark and watching the price of gold go up and down. Now, thanks to the fact that I’m in an office with web access, I do all my random researching at the office (when I’m not working, of course.) Consequently, I’m able to spend more time at home writing. Of course, now if I want to numb my mind I don’t take the unhealthy option of watching Star Trek online. Instead, I drink gin and read novels.

I touched on the cheapness of food before. It really CAN be cheap. Beans in the crockpot with a bit of bacon and a bunch of salt and spices go a long way. And cabbages are amazingly cheap and healthy. So are eggs (eat the yolks raw – it gives you wings!) I’m blessed with a wife who doesn’t mind cooking from scratch, so we usually have fresh bread ($0.40 a loaf or less), hot soup ($0.25 a bowl), Thai curry ($1.00 a plate), etc. Not bad. I do occasionally splurge on Limburger and beer – but I avoid expensive processed convenience food almost completely.

Now, I’m not telling you to Live Life The Vidad Way. I know I’m a total skinflint. But I also value the time I get to spend writing and with my family rather than worrying about paying the bills.

It wasn’t that I used to lack time – it was that I hadn’t learned to use the time I had. I had to cut out some junk.

Is your writing worth the sacrifice?

(Conversely, is my marriage worth a washing machine? Of course… it’s just that… I haven’t found one cheap enough yet.)

Vidad is the evil twin of this guy who leads a really nice, moderately normal life. He doesn’t own a TV, likes to paint, plays a few instruments, has four children and a loving (and hot) wife. He has written zillions of scripts, played a recurring character in a nationally syndicated broadcast, and always has a bottle of Squid Brand fish sauce in his kitchen. His favorite authors, after God (who you pretty much have to read out of obligation), are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, Ray Bradbury, Sinclair Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ayn Rand, Oscar Wilde and Douglas Adams. Finally, thanks to Bruce Bethke’s encouragement, Vidad is getting darn close to finishing his debut novel “Cloning Ray.”

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge, the Second Annual Halloween Story Challenge, is midnight, Central time. Next Thursday. For those who have to snowdog their entry (i.e. post an entry past the deadline), you've still got a week before you have to worry about snowdogging. Take advantage of that time if you need it! And remember, this challenge is for the Friday Challenge cash prize (plus all the fame and glory that comes with winning the challenge each week)!

Also, remember you can post to the Friday Challenge Drop if you want to enter but don't want your entry available to everyone in the world with internet access. The password is the middle word in the link I've provided to the drop.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

Back To The Future: Why These Films Must Become The Archetype

Everything about these movies (released in 1985, 1989, and 1990) points to the necessity of making them the archetypical time travel story.

First of all, a TRUE time travel story must use a mechanism. Psychic travel, dream travel, fairy dust, or other, non-mechanical means of moving from one point in time to another cannot be substituted for the machine. This eliminates such movies as PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED and AUSTIN POWERS. HG Wells’ time traveler used a machine, of course, though he was not the first to do so – only the best remembered. Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown use a time machine that has been built into a DeLorean car. This deserves to become the archetype of all time machines because it was done with such class! No phone booths or weird special effects or tunnels for them! This is as all time machines should be.

Second, not only do Marty and Doc meddle with the “past” and the “future” but they manage both to change the “present” and the “past” (twice!) The movies cover all possible bases in the time travel genre as well as discussing alternate time lines (riffing off of the quantum mechanics PhD dissertation of Hugh Everett, “The Theory of Universal Wave Function” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Many-worlds_interpretation )) This same riff introduces as well, the necessity that every time travel movie must have at least an attempt at showing its root in real physics.

Third, Marty meets not only one of his own “present” selves, but his parents as well – more than once. (I know, it’s getting confusing!) He nearly causes himself to disappear from the time line by becoming the object of his adolescent mother’s hormone-mad and alcohol inflamed lust as well as watching himself help with the defeat of his father’s arch-nemesis, Biff Tannen – who is teenager, elderly man and scion of an industrial complex that would EXXON look like a tree-hugging, save-the-whales, environmentally friendly lobby group; and an automobile detailing blue-collar service employee. Biff also meets a younger version of himself as well to warn him of Marty or Dr. Brown’s possible appearance.

Fourth, the movies are confusing! This should be a prerequisite of all time travel stories. Certainly, THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT has this element, though there’s no apparent machine that causes the flipping back and forth through time. Star Trek’s FIRST CONTACT and THE VOYAGE HOME, while classics, do not meet this criteria either (as much as I’d love it if they did) – they are entirely too linear and are action adventure rather than “true” time travel. There needs to be a hint of mystery and confusion. USS Voyager’s Captain Janeway said it well: "Time travel. Ever since my first day in the job as a Starfleet Captain I swore I'd never let myself get caught in one of these god-forsaken paradoxes. The future is the past, the past is the future. It all gives me a headache." Janeway to Chakotay at Starling’s computer (“Future’s End”, part II)

Fifth, time travelers need to meet themselves or somehow threaten themselves in either the future or the past. BTTF does this in spades and all other movies are weaker for not doing it. It creates a sense of delicious “naughtiness”, so to speak, because which one of us hasn’t wanted at some time to alter some event in our past to give ourselves some future advantage. Marty McFly does this deliberately once – and is royally burned (the 1950-2000 SPORTS ALMANAC); accidentally once – (giving his dad self-confidence and the wherewithal to become a SF writer) and is royally rewarded (with a Toyota pickup, for starters); and again deliberately (saving Doc Brown in the Old West, then saving himself in the Old West as the (can you say “archetypical”?) Clint Eastwood good-guy gunslinger.

Sixth and last, the final stern resolution to never mess with time travel again. Of course, it’s clear that Dr. Brown does in fact mess with both the past and the future, but he doesn’t wreck anything. At least as far as we know, except marrying a woman who was supposed to have died in a wagon wreck and fathering two children who go on to…who knows? There is certainly room for another trilogy here. Which is of course, another thing that a good time travel movie should do – create the possibility of infinite futures.

I’m sure you’ll all agree with me, but if you don’t – let the arguments begin!

(For another list of the Ten Best Time Travel Movies of all time, go to: http://www.toptenz.net/top-ten-time-travel-movies.php

Guy Stewart is a husband, father of two adults, a science teacher and a writer of SF and realistic fiction for adults and young people. He writes early in the morning on weekends because that's the only time he has that doesn't cut into the rest of his life... He's had things published in magazines both paper and virtual and works hard to keep his blogsite up to date with new entries on Sundays and Thursdays. He's also the blogmaster for his church and helps at home with the care of two cats, a dog, a tank of fish and a pair of albino clawed frogs...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New Publisher Open for Submissions

Al kindly forwarded the following information to me:

"...yeah, I know, I'm giving myself competition I wouldn't have if I kept this to myself...

This is a friend of a friend...she's on the same Momwriters list that Yvette and I are on...and the genres she's looking for might be right up the alley of more than one FC Rampant Loon...so I refuse to keep it to myself. She just announced "We are again open for submissions!" in the mailing list."

I took a look at the site for company, Under the Moon, and think there is some good potential for sales from among our group. The link takes you directly to the submissions page. They're looking for stories as short as 5000 words in length and as long as a good-sized novel. Check them out!

And, while we're on the subject, let me also direct any who haven't discovered Duotrope Digest to check them out. Essentially, the site is a search engine for fiction and poetry publications. I discovered it a month or two ago. About the same time, Al (I think) posted about it in an "Open Mic Saturday" comment. Duotrope is an excellent source for publications, their pay rates and submission policies. Check it out!

Two Book Reviews

Reviews by Arisia
Art by Vidad

Perelandra by C. S. Lewis

Perelandra is the second book in Lewis' science fiction trilogy, and it takes place mostly on the planet Venus. It was written during World War II, prior to the discovery that Venus is actually not a very nice place to live or even visit, and therefore, Lewis still had free rein to envision it as a world of water, small floating islands, and only two small areas of “fixed” land, all covered with a protective layer of cloud.

Other than the invention of a whole planet, with weather, animals, plants, and people, the science in Perelandra is minimal, and mostly not explained. There is a space ship, but it is only briefly visible in the distance. It is the same ship described in more detail in the first book of the series, Out of the Silent Planet, and it meets its final end at the beginning of this story, when it deposits the evil Dr. Weston onto Venus.

~brb said that Perelandra is not mentioned as often as Out of the Silent Planet in discussions or lists of scifi literature, and the lack of much science, or at least space stuff, may be one of the reasons. The reviews quoted on the back of the dust jacket on my copy refer to it as a fantasy. I agree with that description, since the story is very much like Narnia for adults.

Dr. Elwin Ransom, a philologist, is transported to Venus from Earth by the eldila and finds there are two newly created humans there, a man and a woman, living in a beautiful paradise. Dr. Weston arrives at about the same time and begins to try to convince the woman to disobey Maleldil's command not to stay overnight on the fixed land. This is the story of Adam and Eve and the apple all over again, and Ransom is doing his best to prevent the same ending.

There are some interesting details to discover while reading Perelandra. Lewis paints a vivid picture of everyday life in England during WWII, along with many references to Christian interests, beliefs, and arguments prevalent at the time. He also brings in parts of his own life as a Cambridge professor of medieval and Renaissance literature and a friend of J. R. R. Tolkien.

The most striking thing about this book, however, is the amount and depth of the theology it contains. And not just plain theology, but beautifully poetical theology in prose format. The story and its surroundings are beautiful and poetical – after all, it is placed in paradise – but the theology is expressed so beautifully it takes your breath away.

Perelandra is a classic in many ways. If you haven't read it yet, you have a treasure awaiting you.

Havah by Tosca Lee

If you ever wondered what it was like for Eve before and after the apple event, this is your book. It begins when she first opens her eyes and ends when she closes them for the last time, about a thousand years later.

Lee does a great job at portraying innocence living in paradise. Even the words used to tell the story are beautiful. Poetry in prose format. Everything is in harmony with the two humans, wolves and bears are their companions, communicating without speaking, even plants are friendlier than we know them to be, and you can run barefoot at top speed without hurting your feet.

The interesting thing about this story is that Eve's reactions and her interpretations of events are a little different than you may have thought they would be from what you were taught in Sunday school. For example, when God promised that Adam and Eve's seed would crush the head of the serpent, Eve understood that to mean her first son would vanquish the serpent and let them back into the garden, where everything would be the same as it was before. That belief had a profound effect on her relationship with Adam and with Kayin, her first son.

Havah is not only very enjoyable, but it will make you think.

Arisia is a programmer/analyst for a manufacturer of concrete accessories and pipeline protection from rocks and bears. She lives in St. Louis on the Mississippi River bluff and still hasn't sold her house.

Monday, October 19, 2009

And the winner is...finally announced!

Before delving into this week's entries, now seems as good a time as any to discuss some of the loosely defined and mostly unwritten rules of the Friday Challenge. When reviewing entries, several of you wondered whether Vidad's entry was eligible or not, primarily because it wasn't really responding to the challenge. (Vidad was actually responding to the inspiration to the challenge, in case anyone was still wondering about that.) From the point of view of the Elders of the Site, it's up to each of you to decide eligibility for yourself. Give as much or as little weight to "Responded properly to the challenge" as you wish and vote accordingly.

Now, on to the entries!

Giraffe had me laughing with his entry concerning the threat posed by Di-Hydrogen Oxide. Somehow, despite being a big follower of junk science, I had managed to miss the various sites associated with this. Giraffe took things a bit further, though, when he extrapolated life on the moon from di-hydrogen oxide being essential to life. Very good stuff!

Practical Mystic kept referring the group as "Greenpeace" rather than "Greenspace," but I had the same problem writing the challenge lead-in. The brilliance of the entry came from the wonderful video of "loonius penguinuis" offered as proof of life on the moon. That, as the wonderful Stone-Baker hypothesis, which states, “Dude...if you like...drill on the moon...that's bad karma man. Gaia will be like...so...not cool with that and totally like...rain on everyone's parade man.” A very nice multimedia entry!

Vidad, as so often is the case, had an entry totally different than anyone else. The original inspiration for the challenge came from a comment to an online petition against NASA sending a bomb to the moon in hopes of finding water deep beneath the surface. Vidad's entry is all about the bombing and the response of the actual lunar citizens. It's an excellent cautionary tale showing how different cultures -- different species, in the story -- may react totally differently than you might expect. Great stuff, Vidad, and I agree that it ought to be published somewhere!

Ben-El entry wasn't a press conference rather than a press release. The sarcasm in the entry was great, carefully wording factual information to make it appear to have some meaning combined with sentences that seem as if they were created by the article generator Bruce linked to a week or two ago. Excellent!

miko shows us why we don't want him involved in any eco-freak activities. What's most sad is, based on what I've read, there are current members on the eco fringe who would be quite happy to see mankind wiped out. A very frightening, very convincing entry, miko!

torainfor goes Feng Shui on us while also educating us on the five natural elements from the Chinese point of view. Leaping from there to cultivating a forest in the Sea of Tranquility is wonderful, as is the idea of astral projecting your support of Greenspace's proposed ban to your senator. Short but sweet!

The three fan-favorite entries were from Vidad, miko and Giraffe. I thought all of the entries were quite good, but agree that those three were just a bit better than the other three. From those three, I'm going to go with the entry that made me laugh. So, Giraffe, you're our winner this week! Come on down and select your prize from behind Door #3.

Great work, everyone! Remember, there's no challenge next week as the current challenge isn't due until just before Halloween. Think spooky thoughts and write scary stories!

Writing for Radio - Part 2

Today I’m sitting in my little office at a media agency. I freelance here three days a week (the other two days I spend as a writing tutor at a Community College). They’re the same folks that first moved me away from my home in sunny, sunny, Florida.

I miss the sun. And the fact that in Florida, people are toned, tanned and generally nice to look at. Here in the Actual South, people are often fat, pale and loathsome. And that’s just in the beauty pageants. Try visiting WalMart. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Since writing my previous column, I’ve discovered Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.” I’d heard about “The Little Book” before, but I hadn’t ever seen it for sale at Goodwill, so I didn’t buy a copy. This last weekend, both happened.

This word-stripping, meaning-clarifying, style-shaping, grammar-fixing little tome contains excellent examples that expand far beyond my paltry thoughts on self-editing.

I highly recommend the “Elements” to any writer. At one point, I took it in hand and ran into the bathroom while my wife was showering, proclaiming my glee at having been proven right in a bit of writing esoterica.

“I knew it! I knew it! Remember, I told you that I just ‘knew’ it was a rule that you should always join two words acting as one adjective?”

Less enthusiastically, she replied, “Yes, I think so.”

“Strunk and White agree – here, listen to this!” I read her the passage.

“See! I was right!”

“I guess you were, dear. Would you mind getting me a towel?”

I paused for a moment. “Strunk and White say I don’t have to. It’s rule #45.” Then I ran away. And that response, ladies and gentlegeeks, was not what she expected. Therein lies the key to making a really excellent ad. You need to be surprising.

Of course, we’ve all heard the ads that contain lots of yelling, gunshots, chainsaws and abruptly-ending music (usually capped with the oh-so-clichéd “record needle scratch” sound effect). The monsters responsible are trying to surprise you. Most likely they’ll surprise you into turning off your radio. But… GOOD ad-creatures should make their works pleasantly surprising.

There’s a part of your mind that finishes sentences and guesses ahead at where music is going. That part needs to be surprised. Consider the little middle-school song:

Miss Mary had a tugboat, the tug boat had a bell. Miss Mary went to heaven and the tugboat went to – Hello operator, get
me number nine, and if you disconnect me, I’ll cut off your – Behind the ‘frigerator, there is a piece of glass, Miss Mary
sat upon it, and broke her little – Ask me no more questions…

We keep thinking a bad word is going to show up… but it never quite does. This amuses naughty children (like myself some years ago) to no end. The concept, however, carries over into adulthood. We like the unforeseen ending (Bill turns out to be a nice guy), the plot twist (for 20 years, Bill has secretly been married to his sister), the unexpected revelation (Bill and his sister are godless aliens, which makes their incest okay), and so forth.

An ad, like a good story, should do this. My particular favorite ads tell a tale that has no relation to the product at all. The recent Chester the Cheetah spots where they turn the previously wholesome (though annoying) character of Chester into a freakishly demonic familiar are a good example.

Cheetos: Chester the Cheetah - Holy Freakish Ad, Vidad!

That’s my kind of ad. Of course, it also make a couple of unfortunate suggestions.

1. People that eat Cheetos are jackasses
2. Cheetos are birdfeed

Does it surprise you? Yes. Does it sell Cheetos? Maybe not. But geez, it’s weird and funny. A better angle is to focus on the listener’s needs.

“Are you hungry? Would you like something mouth-watering? Are you sick of unhealthy snacks? Want something tasty
your kids will eat? Try MicroSquids today! Pop ‘em in the nuker and let the radiation create an instant flavor delight!”

Boring ads focus on you and your company. Giving your credentials may make you feel warm and fuzzy, but it often makes for a boring (though perhaps functional) ad.


“Hi, I’m Bob Wookie. For generations, my family has made the best malt liquor in America. Rich, sickly-sweet, and
smooth, there’s a reason the finest gas stations across the nation carry Wookie Malt.”

Fine. Great. But what does it do for ME? Try this:

“Hey – wanna forget your troubles tonight? Kill your guilt? Get some fly honeys to give you some sugar? Then grab
yourself a Wookie Malt and party on! Wookie Malt – the cheap way to feel good!”

That second ad is making me thirsty. I hope it does the same for you. I own a 51% stake in Wookie Malt. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go sell some bibles.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

And the winner is...

...going to be announced sometime on Monday.

Sorry, folks, it's been a really busy weekend and I haven't been able to give much time to selecting the winner.

Family Matters

It's been three weeks now since Emily died. People keep asking how I'm doing. The honest answer is terribly, but improving slowly.

At first it was purely minute-by-minute. Towards the end of the second week I made it up to hour-by-hour. Eventually I reached the point where I woke up one morning and did not immediately feel as if my chest was being caved-in by a 50-pound bag of grief.

My goal now is to make it up to one day at a time. If I can make it through one entire day without once collapsing into a sobbing wreck, I'll feel as if I've turned some kind of corner. It's amazing how little provocation it takes, really: how many tiny bits and things and fragments of memories you collect in a lifetime and how they're all just jumbled together in the recall box now and bouncing around completely out of control. Simply being in the breakfast cereal aisle in the grocery store is enough to do it, when you suddenly see a box on the shelves that you've probably walked past a hundred times before, but this time you remember it was her favorite brand when she was four years old.

Night is the worst time. Lately I've taken to staying up far too late, reading or watching television, just so that when I finally do go to bed I'm too tired to do anything but fall asleep. By about four a.m. my body apparently has had the minimum amount of sleep it absolutely requires, though, because that's when the floodgates of my subconscious open wide, and I wake up, to lie there in the dark, staring at the ceiling, replaying every decision I've made in the past thirty years and cataloging my failures as a father.

Ironically, about four weeks ago I was considering starting up a new series and calling it, "Family Matters." For my entire career I have struggled, usually unsuccessfully, to find the proper balance between my desire to write and the needs of my family. I am no authority on how to do it right, but since I've never been able to find much knowledgeable and useful help with the matter, I was thinking it was perhaps time to reopen the discussion and at least help others find ways to avoid doing some of the things I've done wrong.

Why does this seem necessary? Remember, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s I served two terms on the SFWA Board of Directors. In that capacity I got to know literally hundreds of professional writers on a first-name basis, and to learn far more about their personal lives than I'd ever really wanted.

By the end of my tenure on the Board, two things had really begun to disturb me: how toxic the writing life seemed to be to marriage and family, and how casually most writers seemed to accept this toxicity. It was almost as if it was an occupational requirement, or even a milestone on the road to success. "Okay, you've just sold your fifth novel. Time now for your first divorce. Ha ha, we put the fun in dysfunctional." Worse, I began to realize that I could count on the fingers of two hands all the writers I knew with intact families, and that most of the really successful male writers I knew were perfectly content to let their children be raised by their ex-wife's next man. Or woman. Or whatever.

I don't know all the right answers, or even that there are right answers. But I do know a problem when I see it.

People ask why so much of the fiction being published these days is at best family-neutral, if not downright family-hostile. Perhaps the problem isn't the fiction itself, or the editors who buy it, or the publishers who print it. Perhaps it's the writers.

Let's talk.

FAMILY MATTERS posts at 7 a.m. each Sunday and is dedicated to serious discussions of marriage, family, children, human sexuality, and all the other things that writers ignore when they cocoon in their offices and try to create fiction. This series will run until we either run out of things to talk about, solve all the problems in the world, or you tell me to shut up and go get some professional therapy. If you have a question you'd like to ask or a topic you'd like to expound upon, send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com and we'll work it into the queue.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Not Writer's Block



I've discovered that the title "Writer's Block" is already taken for a comic, so I'm in desperate need of a new name. Desperate because...

I'm making up a 2010 calendar of the comics. It should be available as soon as I have a new name. Cost would be about $6.50 which just covers printing and shipping.

Whoever comes up with the winning name will, of course, get a free calendar.

Email me at kersley.fitz at yahoo dot com if you'd like a calendar.


Open Mic Saturday

Good 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 sharing with the group here?

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Friday Challenge 10/16/2009

This challenge was so specific, I wasn't sure what kind of response we'd get this week, particularly after a long challenge such as we had last week. I'm pleased to report we had a good turn out! Here are the entries for this week:

Giraffe - Greenspace Moves to Prevent Di-Hydrogen Oxide Contamination


Vidad - The Gift (drop.io)

Ben-El - Philosophia Scientiae

miko - Greenspace Commences the Liquidation of Mankind

torainfor - Friday Challenge

If you didn't read the final paragraph of Thursday's deadline reminder, do so before reading Vidad's entry. It won't make much sense otherwise.

As always, even if you haven't submitted an entry this week—even if you never submit an entry in any week—you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite. Don't be shy about leaving feedback on the authors' sites, either. Writers thrive on knowing that someone out there is actually reading their words. The winner will be announced on Sunday.

And now for this week's challenge.

"The Halloween Story Challenge"
Welcome, ghosts and ghouls, vampires and werewolves, zombies and monsters of all shapes and sizes to The Second Annual Halloween Story Challenge! This one is wide open, with no word-count restrictions nor a lead-in story to work from. All you have to do is write a Halloween story.

It can be something funny, such as a glimpse of the inner workings of Vidad's brain.

It can be something weird, such as a glimpse of the inner workings of Vidad's brain.

It can be something grotesque, such as a glimpse of the inner workings of Vidad's brain.

It can even be something just downright scary, such as a glimpse of the inner workings of Vidad's brain.

Your cast may feature any or all of the standard Halloween creatures of the night, including Vidad's brain.

But this is not just any challenge. For this challenge, we're giving you two weeks to write your entry. And if that extra week doesn't give you extra motivation, perhaps this next bit will: we are putting up a special prize for the Halloween Challenge. Instead of something from behind Door #3, First Prize is $50 USD! Yes, this Halloween Challenge is the first-ever Friday Challenge with a cash prize! (Should the judges opt for any kind of punting, the cash prize will be split amongst the winners on an allocated basis, offer void where prohibited, etc., etc., yada yada yada..)

All right, folks, you've got your assignment! You've got your incentive! The deadline is midnight Central time, Thursday, October 29. Now, start writing!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Critical Thinking - Kipling 1

Rudyard Kipling was born in 1865 in Bombay, British India. His writings have influenced dozens of science fiction authors (more about that next week, hopefully), and there are two anthologies of his science fiction stories. But I’m going to have to go with Wikipedia on this one and say he only wrote two short stories that can categorically be considered sci fi.

The first is “With the Night Mail,” written for McClure’s magazine in 1904. (Although it wasn’t published until December of the next year. Just goes to show magazines have always been slow!) It’s told from the point of view of a journalist for the A.B.C.—the Aerial Board of Control. The year is 2000, and the unnamed narrator (which often suggests Kipling may have been assuming the role himself) is hitching a ride with the No. 162, a dirigible tasked with the nightly mail run between London and Quebec. While on its route, it encounters a sinking vessel, a massive electrical storm, and several other transports, both dirigible and submarine.

The second is “As Easy as A.B.C.,” written in 1912, and occurring in 2065, on my mother’s birthday, strangely enough. It transpires in the same universe as “With the Night Mail,” but the plot is more sociological than the technical bent of its predecessor. The A.B.C., which began as an international committee to regulate air travel, is now pretty much in charge of the whole world. “Transportation is Civilization, our motto runs.” A task force is sent to Chicago to defuse a politically volatile situation. After years of over-crowding and a horrible plague, people of the world are suspicious of crowds and the lack of privacy (which apparently means having to listen to anything they don’t agree with). Somehow, this developed into a fear of democracy. A group of about one-hundred “serviles” tries to convince the populace that voting and taking responsibility for one’s social leadership as a group is a good thing. The citizens not only disagree, they consider the whole thing a throw-back to a time of war and death. Crowds lead to mobs. Mobs lead to murder. The only safe recourse is to hole up on your own property and leave the leadership to the A.B.C.

First, the dirigibles. The first hot air balloon flew in 1783. The first rigid airship flew in the 1890s. In 1903, the Lebaudy brothers flew their airship 37 miles. A month later, the Wright Brothers showed up everybody with their powered heavier-than-air craft. Within a year, the Wright brothers flew 2.75 miles. I guess I can see why Kipling thought airships had more of a future than planes when he wrote "Night Mail" in 1904. Eight years later people were flying all over the place, but maybe he just liked steampunk.

Kipling mentions many innovations specific to dirigible flight. Light towers identify landmarks much like lighthouses at sea. “Cloudbreakers” clear clouds around the towers so pilots can see the lights. When faced with severe turbulence, crewmen don “inflaters” or “flickers”—rubber suits that inflate with air so you can be thrown about with minimal injury. Mark boats, large dirigibles that generally stay in one place over uninhabited areas, provide weather updates as well as a relatively safe mooring spot to ride out storms. Sanatorium ships with open-air decks cart consumptives to the cold, clean air of the Arctic in hopes of clearing their lungs. In “A.B.C.,” electrical currents paralyze people, preventing trespassing and other types of mischief. And field cultivators are remote control.

Then there’s the hand-wavium science. “Fleury’s gas” holds the airships aloft. Violent episodes of St. Elmo’s Fire endanger the ships when friction between the atmosphere and the skin of the vessels create electrical pyrotechnics. Shooting stars dissipate the excess electrical charge and can clear a storm within minutes.

Several other novelties proved more prophetic. Five years before Einstein laid down the foundation for the laser, a squadron of military airships scour a city with intense beams of light—“frozen lightening.” An airship boasts a real-time navigation chart—grandfather of the GPS. Acoustic warfare controls a crowd. Produce, meat, mail, and people are all transported by air on a regular basis. After the invention of celluloid, but before Plexiglas, “colloid” plates protect windows. And the A.B.C. board is equal-opportunity. The stories mention several times that women serve in leadership roles, although you don’t actually get to meet any.

Some social predictions went wide of the mark. A plague didn’t wipe out a great deal of the population. (Well, yet…) There are considerably more than 600 million people on the planet. Transportation regulation did not create a world government. But there are two quotes that I found interesting.

In “With the Night Mail,” Capt. Purnall looks down on the Cardiff-Bristol Double Lights (“those statelily inclined beams over Severnmouth”) and notes, “Our planet’s overlighted if anything.” I wonder if that’s the first recorded speculation of light pollution.

Another occurs in “As Easy as A.B.C.” and has not yet come true, but may. As justification for documenting the story, the journalist-narrator remarks, “One knows that easy communications nowadays, and lack of privacy in the past, have killed all curiosity among mankind, but as the Board's Official Reporter I am bound to tell my tale.” Reality TV, Facebook, blogs, Youtube…I wonder if we’ll ever get to this point.

With the Night MailNotes
As Easy as A.B.C.Notes

Be sure to check out the “ads,” original to the first printing of With the Night Mail.

Critical Thinking is a mostly-weekly article that is still trying to define itself. Probably more book/author analysis than Geek Fu. If you have something you think would fit, please attach it to a laptop computer loaded with the latest version of Microsoft Office and email it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with “Critical Thinking” in the subject line. (Yes, I have been listening to too much Car Talk.)

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge, The Greenspace Press Release, is midnight tonight, Central time. For those who have to snogdog their entry (i.e. post an entry past the deadline), note that it's 1:00 AM for me when the deadline comes. I'll be sleeping. This means snowdoggers have until at least 6:30 Central time before I'll be able to post the list of entries. Take advantage of that time if you need it!

Also, remember you can post to the Friday Challenge Drop if you want to enter but don't want your entry available to everyone in the world with internet access. The password is the middle word in the link I've provided to the drop.

For those wondering where this challenge came from, Bruce sent me a link to an online petition against NASA's plans to bomb the moon with a stated goal of finding out if there was ice beneath the surface. I started reading the comments and was properly amazed to discover one person who seriously questioned why NASA didn't just drill for the ice. Putting aside the issue of how one drills in a place with no people and no equipment, I commented that environmental groups would surely protest the drilling. Vidad, who also got the link, said it sounded like a Friday Challenge. Inspired, I wrote the lead-in to the press release challenge. I mention all of this so Vidad's entry will make some kind of sense to the rest of you.

I swear, that boy causes more trouble...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

Exeunt Omnes, Battlestar Galactica

We finally got around to watching the final twelve episodes (a.k.a., Season 4.5) of Battlestar Galactica recently. On DVD, of course; it's the only way to watch the thing. Is this to say we bought the boxed set? Don't make me laugh. Rented it? Not a chance.

No, we borrowed it from the library, which is why it took us so long to get around to reviewing it; there was a waiting list. And now, having watched it, we are quite content to return it to the library and let it pass it on to the next person on the waiting list. This is not a series that bears being enshrined and preserved in the permanent collection. I don't expect I'll ever feel the desire to watch it again.

This comment is not quite the slam it may appear to be. There have been plenty of other series like BSG that I've very much enjoyed watching in their time, but having watched, have never felt the desire to watch again: 24, Heroes, and Babylon 5 come immediately to mind. I guess this is what happens when the primary hook of the series is, "What happens next? And then next? AND THEN NEXT?"

Okay, so we now know what happens next all the way to the end of time, and then some. Therefore at this point I will begin slinging around spoilers galore, and if you plan on watching the show yourself and want to preserve some of the mystery, this is perhaps the point at which you should stop reading.

(Whisper: Are they gone yet?)

Right. Okay, first off, I want to say that I am decently pleased with the way they wrapped up the series. At the end of Season 4 they had a heckuva cliffhanger: Starbuck inexplicably back from the dead, civil war amongst the Cylons, a tentative alliance between the humans and the Cylon rebels, and Planet Earth found but turned out to be a millennia-dead radioactive cinder. They had a lot of questions to settle and long-simmering sidebar plots to wrap up in the final episodes, and for the most part, they did so quite well.

The festering mutiny in the fleet? Brought to a boil and lanced. Zarek's political machinations? The coup episodes are worth watching if only because they make it so gratifying to see Richard Hatch's character take his final bow in front of a firing squad. The big Götterdämmerung final battle with the Cylons that we've been waiting for since—well, ever since the series started? Okay, the setup was a little cheap and rushed, and I was really disappointed that Dean Stockwell got as short shrift in the end as did Boba Fett, but on the whole it was fun to see all those CGI techno-toys finally in all-out action. My deep inner geek was somewhat disappointed that Stockwell didn't turn out in the end to answer to some sort of ultimate giant Cylon supercomputer named "Ziggy," but that's probably too much of an inside joke.

(Speaking of inside jokes: as a longtime proponent of the mystical significance of "All Along the Watchtowers" [see "Jimi Plays Dead," Amazing Stories, October 1993], I was greatly relieved to see that that bit of business was not just some stupid throwaway joke.)

But I understand that there are some things in the final wrap-up that others have objected to. That in the final, final, final end, after the final battle, they wind up limping into the nearest star system and having the good luck to find a habitable planet already populated by genetically compatible primitive hominids, which turns out to be our Earth, 150,000 years ago? If you didn't know that BSG was saturated in "Chariots of the Gods" stuff from the very beginning, you weren't paying attention. After all, the very first lines of the original series were:
"There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans. That they may have been the architects of the great pyramids, or the lost civilizations of Lemuria or Atlantis..."
Personally I was a little disappointed to see that the final scene was not of Baltar sitting in a meadow, trying to teach the cavemen to play Scrabble while the five hundred and seventy-third meeting of the colonization committee of Fintlewoodlewix met in the background, but as I say so often, that's just me.

Speaking of Baltar, I also understand some were upset that Baltar, Number Six, and Kara Thrace turned out to be confused and benighted angels serving the will of a somewhat obtuse and uncommunicative God. Again, if you didn't know that this was in-store, you weren't paying attention, as this was a significant story element in the original series. And speaking of the original series, to prepare for writing this, I went back and watched...

Oh, never mind, I've gone on for far too long already. It's over; good show, but I'm glad it's over. They survived the Cylons, made it to a habitable planet, named it "Earth" in honor of their long-lost homeworld, uplifted the primitive hominids, and here we all are, 150,000 years later, still listening to "All Along the Watchtowers."

So could there possibly be anything less interesting than a spinoff series set on Caprica before the Cylon War?

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 stuff it in the queue.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Writing for Radio - Part 1

"Ruminations of an Old Goat" will not appear today. In it's place, we have the first of Vidad's "Writing for Radio" columns.

As I sit in my living room, drinking a Sam Adams and irritating my wife by typing rather than carrying on a conversation with her, I ponder the deep things of existence.

Not really.

No, instead I’m crafting (congealing? extruding?) an article on writing for radio.

Some of you may know about my Real Job™. I work as a producer, editor and writer of radio programs, spots, and various nuggets of disposable advertising. The sort of thing that DOESN’T get you movie rights, “alone time” with teenage girls in cat outfits (like The Aardvark’s job), or interviews with magazines. Even worse, I generally work in the non-profit realm, encouraging people to send Bibles overseas, donate to bloated organizations or buy books of dubious theological pedigree.

Some of what I do is worthwhile. Some isn’t. And some is probably going to make sure my eternal heavenly reward consists of nothing better than a condo on the edge of outer darkness. But it pays the bills. And writing, say, a thirty-second spot promoting a women’s event in Orlando may not be particularly stimulating – but (provided you believe in objective morality) it is certainly better than tasering children or eating live kittens.

When I was first hired in radio, it was as a promo writer for a national Christian radio program that shall remain unnamed. I was in college (studying art) and working at a thrift store. But I was also the homeschooled firstborn son of an author, a hard-core reader, and a neurotic speller. I met the producer of the program at a church event and he asked in passing if I knew any students of letters that might be interested in a part-time writing gig. I told him, “No, but I work on the school paper and I seem to write better than the Journalism majors there.” It was true. At this point, at the tender age of 18, I was the editor for the Arts and Entertainment section of the paper – which, incidentally, won an award while I was there (mostly because we had an excellent and hard-working editor-in-chief who went on to score a good job with the Miami Herald.)

I was hired after he reviewed my clippings. However, I quickly realized that I was entirely too wordy for radio. My boss had actually been trained in communication and had spent years working at various radio stations. He relentlessly picked apart my beautiful arabesques and pushed me to self-edit. During this period my favorite writer was Thomas Hardy. Yet Hardy is a very poor model for radio. Too wordy.

I learned the power of punchy. Shotgun language.

I fought against it all the way – yet now I can hardly write in complete sentences.

That’s the power of radio!

Look – if you were writing for print and had some space, you might promote a film thus:

“This Fall, soar into the magical world of Pink Zeppelin. Pink Zeppelin is the uplifting tale of a very large woman with a helium addiction – and the man who loves her. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll laugh again as you follow the heartwarming story of how an eating disorder and large quantities of gas bring a couple to new heights of romance. Bring a date, a bag of ding-dongs, a balloon and your hanky to ‘Pink Zeppelin!’”

Not too wordy, right? But for radio – it’s TOO MUCH!

Forget all those sentences and grammar and stuff. Do it like this:

“A man in love. A woman of substance. A romance in the sky. “Pink Zeppelin” - coming this fall.”

Keep ‘em guessing about the details. And if you really want to nail it home, do a call to action.

“A man in love. A woman of substance. A romance in the sky. “Pink Zeppelin” - coming this fall. Call now – 1-800-floating-lard. That’s 1-800, F-L-O-A-T-I-N-G-L-A-R-D. www.Floatinglard.com

See? Calls to action are always great. And if you want to make it special, do it a lot. In a thirty second spot you can put the darn phone number in 3 or 4 times, easily.

Try this:

“A man in love – 1-800-floatinglard. A woman of substance – 1-800-floatinglard. A romance in the sky. Again, that’s 1-800-F-L-O-A-T-I-N-G-L-A-R-D. “Pink Zeppelin” - coming this fall.” Visit us on the web at: www.floatinglard.com, that’s www.floatinglard.com.

Wow! It’s the Mona Lisa of ads! Seriously, though – the reason people repeat things so often in radio ads is to drive them home like a nail in your brain. According to Roy Williams (also known as the Wizard of Ads – sign up for his Monday Morning Memo and prepare to be intrigued), there are two ways to make someone remember something.

  1. Endless repetition
  2. Making it of utmost importance to them

The first we all recognize from advertising. The second is harder.

The 9/11 challenge we had recently is evidence of the second point. Everything stopped for most of us when we saw those towers fall. We remember every detail of that day – BECAUSE it impacted us to the core of our being.

Trust me, advertisers would probably blow up buildings to get you to buy their products. However, legalities make that difficult, leaving them with option #1 – endless repetition.

To re-cap, make things as tight as possible and don’t be afraid to repeat important details. My writing style has been greatly influenced by the thousands of scripts I’ve had to write under extreme time constraints, i.e., presenting a product in 30 seconds or less.

There are a few more things I’d like to say – but I’ll let them wait for a future column.

So call now! 1-800-VIDAD – that’s 1-800-V-I-D-A-D. Or on the web at: www.vidadfinallywroteacolumnfortheFC.com.

Vidad is the evil twin of this guy who leads a really nice, moderately normal life. He doesn’t own a TV, likes to paint, plays a few instruments, has four children and a loving (and hot) wife. He has written zillions of scripts, played a recurring character in a nationally syndicated broadcast, and always has a bottle of Squid Brand fish sauce in his kitchen. His favorite authors, after God (who you pretty much have to read out of obligation), are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, Ray Bradbury, Sinclair Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ayn Rand, Oscar Wilde and Douglas Adams. Finally, thanks to Bruce Bethke’s encouragement, Vidad is getting darn close to finishing his debut novel “Cloning Ray.”

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