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Monday, November 30, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Another week has passed and I have finally started watching The Prisoner. I've only managed to watch the first two episodes but can already see many differences between the original and the new version. Bear in mind that it's been over 20 years since I watched the original series, so please forgive me if my memory is faulty. Call me on it, but also forgive me.

The new version takes itself far more seriously than the original did. The original had a sense of fun about it that is entirely missing from this new version. I believe a lot of that stems from the very different approaches taken by Number 6 in the two versions. In the original, with some obvious exceptions, Number 6 plays by the rules of the Village. Essentially, he studies what Number 2 is trying to do and then beats Number 2 at his own game. This always led to Number 2 being replaced after each episode, yielding the recurring line "I am the new Number 2." By the end of the episode, Number 6 would have gotten the better of Number 2, paving the way for yet another new Number 2.

Alas, it appears you don't hire Ian McKellan to be only the first of several men to play Number 2. Instead of Number 6 maintaining his sense of self as we had in the original, we've got Number 6 showing signs of doubt and confusion. Yes, he's trying to figure out what's going on, but he's going about it in the tried and true manner of an action hero. This Number 6 reacts to Number 2 rather than making Number 2 react to him. He sneaks around asking questions on the sly, regularly slips off to areas that are supposed to be off limits and has flashbacks from his last night in New York.

And we all know flashbacks are just what we need to complete the story, right? After all, it works well on Lost (which it does), so it ought to work just great on The Prisoner, too? Through the flashbacks, we discover that Number 6 worked for some mysterious corporation as an analyst. Of course. This is the 21st century. We're beyond secret agents, right? Government is our friend and, as Ian McKellan has so recently told us in interviews, capitalism and corporations are enemies of the people. Or perhaps he was just feeding the publicity machine for The Prisoner, though I rather doubt it. Anyway, we slowly build up a back story for what Number 6 was doing prior to coming to the Village. I assume we'll learn more as the story progresses, until we know the full story. Yet we managed to enjoy all 17 of the original series without learning anything more about Number 6's background than what was shown in the title sequence at the beginning of each episode. If a bit of mystery was perfectly acceptable to TV audiences in the late 1960s, why is it assumed the supposedly more sophisticated 21st century TV audiences will be unable to handle it?

The new version has something else that the original didn't have; fear. Everyone in the Village fears Number 2, who is rarely seen without some big, beefy bodyguards close by. We've also got some other Hollywood staples -- explosions, guns and even a hand grenade that Number 2 seems to enjoy playing with every now and then. I don't recall ever seeing weapons in the original series. There were no bodyguards for Number 2 nor did anything blow up. The only "weapon" was Rover, the strange bouncing ball that kept anyone from going beyond the boundaries of the Village. Rover, at least, is still around in the new series. But the modern Rover doesn't just subdue people, it also kills them.

There was no attempt made in the original series to deny the existence of anything outside of the Village. The subject may not have come up very often, but there was no attempt to convince Number 6 that the Village was all that existed in the known world. Further more, there was a distinct feeling in the original that everyone except Number 6 was "in" on the plan. Anyone who confided in Number 6 would, in the end, turn out to have been acting on behalf of that episode's Number 2. In the new version, you get the idea that most of the people in the Village have played the same part Number 6 is playing. Their sense of reality is warped and they question what they think is real. It's almost as if the Village is a miniature version of North Korea or something. Paranoia is found everywhere, even among those who are supposedly part of the "staff" of the Village. This modern version of the Village, after watching two episodes, seems quite unlike the original Village.

There's one other thing I feel I have to mention. Perhaps future episodes will explain how this was done, but the current version of the Village has also had something flat out impossible happen. Number 6, along with two other people, went out of the village, which is in a desert, and found their way to the ocean. They actually get their feet wet, so it wasn't just an illusion or mirage. Later in the same episode, Number 6 leads the woman doctor out to show her what he's found. When he gets to the top of the dune which previously overlooked the ocean, all we see is more desert. In the original, nothing this impossible ever happened. I hope I'll receive a satisfactory explanation for the disappearing ocean in a later episode. But even if I do, that scene yanked me right out of the show by the sheer impossibility of it all.

Lest you think I hate the new version, let me say that's not the case. I won't really be able to judge the series until I finish watching it all, but I am both intrigued about where they're going and concerned about what I'll find when we get there. I find myself wishing the producers, directors and writers had brought more than the basic idea of the original series into the new series. And I wonder what Patrick McGoohan would have thought of the remake had he lived to see it aired. Maybe I'll have a guess once I finish watching the series.

In the meantime, be seeing you.

Monday morning follow up:

Well, I watched the third episode last night after writing this column. I still won't say I hate the new version. At least, not yet. But if things don't improve dramatically in the second half of the series, I probably will end up hating it. The third episode spent almost as much time showing with the points of view of other characters as it did showing Number 6's point of view. The original series stayed with Number 6's point of view through out, helping to build the character's sense of isolation. The approach the new series is taking does the exact opposite, as the person who seems most isolated is Number 2. That's a complete perversion of McGoohan's original vision for The Prisoner.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Family Matters

Zombie Girl
Today I want to introduce you to an old friend, Mike Finley. Mike and I go way back, but the most important association is that for a stretch of years we were neighbors, and his daughter, Daniele, and my daughter, Nica, were inseparable.

Daniele is the one on left. Just look at that impish smile. Daniele was a natural-born ringleader. One day last summer Nica and I were sitting out on the deck, having a cold beer and talking about the old neighborhood, and Nica said, "Dad? How come all of my stories about Daniele end with, '...and we made such a mess, and Mom got so mad!'?"

For a time, Daniele was as likely to be at our house as Nica was to be at theirs. Emily used to baby-sit them both. But everything changes, eventually, and in time the Finley-Frazins moved one way and we moved another. Nica and Daniele stayed in touch for a few years, but slowly drifted apart until the wisp of contact was gone.

Daniele was always the instigator; the mover and shaker; the sparkplug and the one in charge. As a young adult she developed a chronic, painful, and ultimately debilitating medical condition, and when the surgery to correct it failed, she apparently decided to take charge one more time. On Tuesday, August 18, 2009, after putting her affairs in order, seeing or otherwise contacting many of her friends, going to a concert, and calling her father, she went back to her apartment, and downed a lethal combination of prescription medications and alcohol.

People react to tragedy in many wildly different ways. I am dealing with my grief for Emily by shutting out the outside world and focusing on my family. Mike and Rachel reacted to Daniele's suicide by creating The Daniele Frazin Finley Foundation, dedicated to suicide prevention. To raise money for the foundation, Mike wrote a graphic novella, Zombie Girl.

And that is why I've added Zombie Girl to the Department of Gratuitous Plugs in the right column. No, it's not a comic strip, and no, I'm still refusing to take paid advertising on this site. I will use the Department of Gratuitous Plugs to support the causes and people I believe in, and while I still don't seem to be able to do much to help Mike and Rachel, this is at least something.

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, November 28, 2009

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?

Fitz of Distraction


Come on, guys, I'm running out of ideas! Send in inspirations for Fitz of Distraction to kersley.fitz at yahoo dot com.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Deadline Reminder

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Oh, and the deadline for the current Friday Challenge, the Second Annual Thanksgiving Challenge, is next Thursday at midnight, Central time. For those who have to snowdog their entry (i.e. post an entry past the deadline), you still have a full week 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!

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.

Critical Thinking

Seriously? It's Thanksgiving and you're reading The Friday Challenge? Modified First Rule*, people!

How's your NaNo going?

* The First Rule being that paid work trumps Friday Challenge activities. The Modified First Rule being that family trumps all. You know, unless your significant other is sprawled on the couch, watching football with one hand tucked carefully into the waistband of a pair of pants whose top button has been mercifully unbuttoned. And that the aforementioned waistband isn't yours...

Kersley Fitzgerald is currently (barring any unforeseen events such as snow storms or zombies) at her in-laws, being grateful her husband agreed to bring along his work laptop, her in-laws live five hundred miles away (although she's resolved to be less snarky about that whole situation), and all you fine hobbitses.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

Bullets Can't Stop Them!!!
This week's Ultimate Geek Fu is, as they say, ripped from the headlines. Specifically, from this absolutely legit and perfectly serious headline, which appeared recently in the London Telegraph:

Japanese fishing trawler sunk by giant jellyfish

Yeah, but was it a radioactive giant jellyfish?

Giant monsters have a long and time-honored lineage. Before there was King Kong there was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, where free-range dinosaurs snacked on unwary jungle explorers. Before the big monkey and his lizardly contemporaries there was that giant squid that tried to make a light seafood dinner of the Nautilus in Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and before the mighty malignant calimari, there was (perhaps) that monster snake large enough to swallow a donkey whole in The Swiss Family Robinson. (Although there also seems to be some question as to whether the snake was actually in the original novel, or was instead introduced by one of the later translators.) From there we pass from the domain of movies and published fiction and into the realm of myth and legend, and variously trace our beasties back to Echidna, Leviathan, or a multiplicity of dragons, pagan gods, and primal titans, depending on where in the world you live.

But never mind all that. Today, we're interested in contemporary giant monsters, and particularly, in post-1945 giant atomic monsters.

Who's the best? Who's the worst? Two falls out of three, could King Kong really take Godzilla? And was Roland Emmerich's 1998 reimagining of Godzilla merely a travesty, or something far, far worse?

I will confess to having a deep-seated and inexplicable fondness for kaiju eiga, and to owning far more examples of movie megacheese than anyone other than the late Forrest J Ackerman* might admit to having. I do in fact own the complete works of Gamera, and have been known to haul out and re-watch Godzilla: Final Wars from time to time, probably for the same reason that I occasionally pig-out on a box of Ding-Dongs or a jumbo bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos. But for my money, the all-time best giant atomic monster is Them.

No, not Van Morrison's old band. I mean, THEM!

And I do mean for my money, as I just put in an order for this treasure. So what I want to know now is: which junk-food giant monster movie is your secret, guilty pleasure?

Let the arguments begin.

* P.S. As I wrote this, I was astonished to discover that today (Tuesday, 11/24/09) is the 93rd anniversary of the birth of Forrest J Ackerman, gentleman, scholar, fan extraordinaire, and the guy who coined the term, "sci-fi." More germane to this discussion, Forry also was the founder, editor, and for many years chief writer of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the magazine that back in the days before video rentals introduced many a misguided youth such as myself to the squeamish joys of horror movies. If you don't feel up to admitting to having a fondness for Attack of the Crab Monsters, perhaps you might have a favorite memory of FMF that you would like to share.

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.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

I had originally intended to post a review of the new version of The Prisoner this week. Unfortunately, I haven't found the time to sit down and watch the show. That's not entirely true, as I managed to find time to watch the first three episodes of A&E's Hornblower with the Boy. But I've been trying to get the Boy to watch Hornblower -- which is an excellent series even if it isn't fully faithful to the books -- for a couple of years now. When he finally agreed on Saturday night, all thoughts of The Prisoner vanished. Maybe next week.

Back in the 1960s, when I was a boy, science fiction movies could be set in the far flung future of the 1990s or even all the way into the 21st century! While man hadn't landed on the moon yet, the Apollo program was in full swing and seemed only a matter of time before we'd get there. I assumed we'd have permanent colonies on the moon by the year 2000. I was positive that people would be able to fly around using their own jet packs in the year 2000. But most of all, I was sure I would own a flying car by the year 2000.

It's nearly 2010, a year in which I doubt we'll make contact, and I still don't have a flying car. What happened to the glorious, high-tech world of tomorrow I was promised back in the '60s?

What actually happened was a failure of vision. Not a failure of vision on the part of those who invented and built our current world of tomorrow but on those who dreamed the world of tomorrow 40+ years ago.

We failed because we looked for Big Things that would be Blatantly Obvious for all to see. It wasn't really unreasonable for us to dream that way, considering the 20th century had been filled with Big Inventions that would have shocked and amazed people from the 19th century. The inventions that changed the world couldn't be hidden from sight. Automobiles and airplanes and diesel locomotives and towering skyscrapers dominated the landscape of the 20th century and changed our world in ways those of us born in the latter half of the 20th century just can't imagine.

Electricity powered the world, turning pushing back the darkness with light, fighting summer heat with cool air, washing and drying our clothes and making food preservation so easy that populations no longer have to live close to farm land.

Such big changes made us think the future would hold even bigger changes. But when the changes came, they came in increasingly smaller packages.

When I started college in 1975, Clemson University had an IBM-360, a very powerful mainframe computer for its day. The computer boasted a full sixteen megabytes of memory! We geeks were mighty impressed with that, I can tell you. The mainframe took up a huge, climate controlled room all by itself. But thirty-four years later, I'm typing this column on a laptop computer with 192 times the memory of that mainframe, a faster processor than the mainframe and an interface undreamed of by anyone back then.

Tomorrow, when I drive to work, I'll spend the trip to listening to an audio book comprised of computer files stored on device smaller than a pack of cigarettes. That device has a two inch screen capable of showing a sharper, more vibrant color picture than anything in existence back in the '60s. And the book I'm listening to? I downloaded it at home using this same laptop; no paper catalog, no writing and mailing a check, no waiting four to six weeks for delivery. I bought it and got it all within a matter of minutes.

It dawns on me as I write all of this that virtually everything I've mentioned provides some form of entertainment, even the laptop. As a nation, we have more leisure time than our ancestors could have ever dreamed possible. Our need to entertain ourselves has obviously pushed the development of technology to fill that need. Perhaps it's simply a case of self-absorption on our part, this ever increasing need for entertainment. Perhaps it's simply an aspect of humanity that hasn't applied to the wider population until now. I can't say. But I can say it was the Big Things that helped our ancestors create the economy that allows us these indulgences.

I think I shouldn't have claimed a failure of vision kept us from predicting how the world of tomorrow would develop. It was more of a failure to imagine how our vision would change. Instead of a colony on the moon and missions to Mars, we can carry around dozens of movies and hundreds of CDs on devices that fit in our pockets. We've got the communicators from Star Trek, even if we don't have interstellar space travel. We've got hand-held computers and things simply undreamed of by previous generations.

But I hope there's an alternate universe where the world of tomorrow is the one the boy I was expected to see when he grew up. I'd love to visit that world, if just for a few moments; to see buildings climbing nearly into space, to watch passenger shuttle flights take off for orbiting space stations and to see people flying around using personal jet packs. And maybe to visit a car dealership.

Because I still want my flying car.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Miscellaneous Stuff and Nonsense

The Old Goat is taking the day off, so in place of his ruminations I'm dumping the accumulated contents of the idea buffer. I wanted to call this column "Phenomenon, Comments & Notes" but it seems Smithsonian magazine has a permanent lock on that title.

First up on the docket: after two weeks of seeing this billboard every morning on my way into work, I'm convinced that not one in one hundred commuters is reading the ad as its makers intended. It was simply the wrong campaign to launch in Minnesota during deer season.

Many people think Minnesota only has two seasons: baseball and football. We do in fact have four: fishing, deer, duck, and turkey. Turkey season in particular has seen a tremendous growth in popularity in recent years, as Minnesotans by the tens of thousands take to the distant fields and deep forests in pursuit of the wily and elusive wild turkey.

Aahh, I got your Mr. Wily and Elusive right here. Honestly, the stupid things are starting to become as obnoxious and ubiquitous as squirrels.

And yet the wild ones are (it is claimed) the MENSA members of the avian world, at as least compared to the domesticated ones. A friend who had a far more agrarian childhood than mine tells the story of her neighbor, who kept a flock of turkeys in a pen surrounded by only a three-foot-high fence. Apparently turkeys instinctively try to fly up to low branches to roost at night, but a three-foot-high fence is as much lift as the tubby domestic ones can manage, and so they'd all roost on the top wire of the fence at night.

The problem came in the morning, when the turkeys woke up and immediately fell forward, to plop onto the ground outside of their pen. Rather than seizing their freedom, though, they would then just spend the day standing by the fence, gazing wistfully at the food and water inside the pen and neither figuring out how to get back into the pen on their own nor gaining any weight. Any efforts to round up the wide-awake turkeys and force them back into the pen only resulted in a turkey stampede, of course, and so as a result, my friend's neighbor hired her and gave her her first paying job.

The trick, as she explains it, is that if you come along just after sunset and do it just right, you can grab a sleeping turkey, lift it off the wire, turn it around, and put it back onto the wire, all without waking the thing up. Then in the morning, when the turkey wakes up and falls forward, it plops into the pen: problem solved. And this is why, to this day, my friend lists "Professional Turkey Turner" as the first job on her curriculum vitae.

Is the story true? Who cares. It's a good story, at least as she tells it. But speaking of good stories, I must say, I'm feeling a bit like Han Solo at the beginning of Return of the Jedi here. I'm out of it for a few weeks, and all of the sudden everybody is acting different. I can't believe that not one of you submitted an entry for the 11/13/09 Friday Challenge. Jeepers, how could you not come up with a sport that could easily be made far more entertaining? I mean, take bowling. Please. Take golf. Didn't any of you see Happy Gilmour? Dodgeball? Balls of Fury? (Okay, scratch that last one; apparently no one saw it.) Caddyshack? Entire film careers have been built on telling stories that make "serious" sports considerably more entertaining than they really are.

I'm not angry; I'm just disappointed. So while I'm most concerned with your writing good entries for the 11/20/09 Friday Challenge, I also want you to remember this one, and think about it in the weeks ahead, because we're going to be presenting this challenge again, most likely next Spring. Because in addition to being disappointed, I'm also lazy.

Speaking of sports, parasports, near-sports, and myGodhowcanyoucallthata sports, this past week we discovered an entirely new and apparently hot-selling category of fiction that previously had escaped our attention: NASCAR romances.

I am not making this up. In fact, I am so not making this up, I've got a book here on my desk as I write this, A NASCAR Holiday, which—really, I am not making this up—is a collection of Christmas-themed NASCAR romances.

Okay, who wants to review it? Any takers? First one to speak up gets it. Don't everybody crowd in at once.

Also new on the review heap: Teaching the Trivium: Christian Homeschooling in a Classical Style, by Harvey & Laurie Bluedorn. I know we have quite a few homeschoolers, former homeschoolers, and hope-to-be homeschoolers in the crowd, so I'd like to place this one in a good home. Does anyone want to take a shot at reviewing it, or better yet, using it? Again, we have one copy only, so ask for this one only if you think you'll be reasonably serious about digging into it.

And finally on this subject, a minor apology: I've gotten behind in recent weeks and have a sizable mound of new books here waiting to be posted on both the Door #3 and Assignment Desk lists. Stay tuned for more details.

Finally overall, I want to take a brief moment now to allow myself a small modicum of smugness. Last May I wrote a short review of the latest Star Trek movie in which I posed an important question:
There are so many things I like about this movie that I don't have time this morning to catalog them all. At the same time, there are a few things that really bother me; for example, in this new Enterprise, is the engineering section supposed to be a brewery or a sewage treatment plant?
With the release of the movie on DVD this past week, I not only was able to watch and enjoy the movie again—and yes, it does hold up on repeat viewing—but also able to browse through all the extras on the two-disc DVD set and learn that the engineering section scenes were in fact all shot in an Anheuser-Busch brewery in Van Nuys. So both guesses were right!

And th- th- that's all, folks.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Family Matters

Rethinking the First Rule
Henry threw me an interesting curve last Monday:
For those who are new to the site, the First Rule states that family comes before everything and paying work comes before everything but family. Okay, maybe I rewrote the First Rule somewhat, but that's how I'm applying it these days. Anyway, family time is delaying my Monday column until Tuesday this week.
Is this true? Do I really need to rethink the First Rule, or is there previously undiscovered Zeroth Rule waiting to be formulated? (I've spent thirty years working in computer software. Yes, of course I always count integers this way: 0, 1, 2, 3...)

Asimov did that. Sometime in the early 1970s he published a short story in which a couple of his robots secretly formulated their own Zeroth Law, which was something on the order of, "A robot shall not tolerate the existence of any other robot that makes humans question the inviolability of the Three Laws."

Or something like that. To tell the truth, the story, like most Asimov stories, struck me as being enormously cool when I was a teenager and shallow tripe by the time I was 25, so I got rid of the anthology it appeared in and didn't bother to think of it again until just now.

But back to the initial question: do I really need to rethink the First Rule? To develop my answer, I went back and took another look through the old Ranting Room site, where I used and expressed the First Rule many times over the years. The expression tended to drift and contract a bit over time. In LIFO order:
"Paying work on deadline always comes first."
"Paying work on deadline always takes priority."
"Paying work on deadline always takes precedence."
"Paying work on deadline always takes precedence over fun."
"The money always flows to the writer."
Huh? Where'd that last one come from? Oh, wait, that's the First Rule of Dealing With Agents.

And then it struck me: Eureka! (Followed immediately by Eurema!—and speaking of great short stories, go find and read "Eurema's Dam," by R. A. Lafferty. It's light-years better than ninety-five percent of Asimov's robish stories.)

Without thinking, I'd truncated it. The correct formulation is: "The First Rule of Being a Professional Writer is: Paying work on deadline always comes first."

Nested sets, folks. This is only one First Rule, from a subset of a much larger instruction set. For example, there's also the First Rule of Being a Good Technical Writer: "You are a lens. You stand between the user and the information he or she requires. Your sole purpose is to make that information clearer and easier to use."

Or how about the First Rule of Being a Journalist, which was pounded into my head decades ago in J-school? "It doesn't matter if it's perfect. What matters is if it's done on-time. We can always correct or retract it later."

I suppose there's also a First Rule of Being a Blogger. I shudder to think of what it might be. That might make a good Friday Challenge, though, so let's chuck that thought into the Idea Bin for now and move on.

Having reconsidered it, then, I stand by my current draft specification of the First Rule of Being a Professional Writer: "Paying work on deadline always comes first." However, and this is a big however, the Rules of Being a Professional Writer are subordinate to a greater set of rules: let's call them, say, The Rules of Being a Decent Human Being?

I don't know. I never thought about it much before. That's one of the problems with being a professional writer: you tend to spend your waking hours with your nose so close to the [ paper | screen | monitor | grindstone | ideation process ] that you forget to step back from time to time, to take both a deep breath and a larger view of your life. Worse, it's very easy for a writer—especially a published, award-winning writer—to develop the conceit that he or she is somehow exempt from the rules for the common people, as he or she answers to a higher calling. So what are The Rules of Being a Decent Human Being?

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, November 21, 2009

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?

Fitz of Distraction


For Dianna Gay, creator and moderator of The Clean Place--a writing mentoring forum for teens.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 11/20/09

It looks like the sports challenge was rather a dud. Maybe I should have given fewer details in the examples, leaving room for some of you to take the basics and run with them. Or, maybe it just wasn't the right challenge at the right time. These things happen. So, let's move onto the new challenge.

"The Second Annual Thanksgiving Challenge"

Holidays and traditions go together. As with the Halloween challenge, Bruce issued the Thanksgiving challenge to us last year. Now that we're running the challenge again, it gets to become a tradition! And, to show full respect for the tradition, I'm even running Bruce's exact wording for last year's challenge:

Give us your best Thanksgiving Holiday story. It can be factual; it can be fiction. It can be funny, heartwarming, serious, or horrible. Tell us about the time your Cousin Ramapithecus went into the kitchen, said, "Mm-mm, smells delicious!" and ate the giblets and gizzard you'd boiled up for the dog. Tell us about Uncle Slosh, who shows up every year and shouts, "Everyone can relax! I brought the turkey!" and then whips out his personal quart of Wild Turkey, with no clue as to how unfunny or obnoxious that has become. Tell us about the time Auntie Promiscua had just a little too much rosé and proceeded to provide the family with Way Too Much Detailed Information about her personal life, or about that Most Romantic Thanksgiving Ever, when you and your college sweetheart were on your way to meet her folks but instead spent the holiday stuck in a Greyhound bus station during a blizzard, eating cold turkey sandwiches from a vending machine. Whatever your story is, if it has even a vague and tangential connection to the Thanksgiving holiday, we want to hear it.

As usual, we're playing by the semi-official rules of the Friday Challenge. We're playing for your choice from behind Door #3. This is a two week challenge, so you've got until midnight on December 3 to write an entry.

Now, shake off that tryptophan-induced lethargy and get started!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge, Now That's Entertainment, 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!

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.

Critical Thinking: How to Write a Book

I was once asked how I write a book. Not because I’m some great and holy guru, but because I’ve managed to do it. As of this date, I have two pretty much finished, one almost finished, and two first drafts completed (one rougher than the other). Oh, and 40k down on this year’s NaNo (which marks the two-year anniversary of my writing delusion).

What? No, of course not. Why would any of them be published?

Anyway. I have also read numerous books and articles and websites and interviews about the best way to write a novel. All of them are different. Some say to sit down and write. Some say to develop a thorough, chapter-by-chapter plot line. Others recommend writing down all the major scenes in your head on 3x5 cards and shuffling them around until they make a story. I have friends who polish every chapter as they write it, loath to ever visit it again, and those who get the words on the page and think about maybe going over stuff later. It is said that Tolkien would start writing until he came to a bit he didn’t like. Then he would rewrite the entire thing. And he didn’t even have a thumb drive.

Here, in general, is my process.

- Come up with an idea
- Mull it over for a while
- Realize it’s never going to be a story if I don’t actually write the story
- Start writing
- Remember I have to have characters to have a story
- Take some random thing I’ve read or heard and try to fit it in (Dirigibles? Pharisees? The Boneyard?)
- Write some more
- Research some stuff
- Come up with a good climax
- Tell myself I’m not allowed to write the good climax until I get there
- If I’m writing multiple viewpoints, head to Jeff Gerke’s website (See Tip #71)
- Plug viewpoints and recommended number of pages into an Excel spreadsheet
- Wiggle out some of the plot; add to spreadsheet
- Research some more
- Consider dedicating the book to Wikipedia
- Realize I need a lot more in the first scene
- Pick up more random inspiration (Hadron Collider? Lattes? My brother’s tattoo of his ex’s dog in a space suit? Alton Brown has his refrigerator Velcro—I have story Velcro.)
- Write, plot, search for inspiration, rinse and repeat
- Remember there’s supposed to be a character arc
- Add character arc
- Write, plot, search for inspiration, rinse and repeat
- Finish first draft
- Realize it’s only 65,000 words and I wanted 95,000
- Add another plotline which may include another POV character
- Realize I have no villain
- Add a villain
- Realize the villain needs a voice
- Add another POV thread for villain
- Realize the story now has 109,000 words
- Edit the poop out of it
- Realize the story now has 112,000 words
- Send it to my readers (people who actually read)
- Read their reviews
- Realize they sent back absolutely nothing helpful
- Take pages to writers’ group
- Try to figure out if the published Christian-historical-romance author’s distressingly adamant advice is specific to her particular genre or specific to getting published
- Catch her comment that she doesn’t like SciFi
- Despite the fact her husband is published in the field
- Decide she doesn’t know what she’s talking about
- Mess around with chapter breaks
- Sit on it

I have not always used this method. For my first book, I just wrote, finished it, then read books on how books are supposed to go. The story had no antagonist, no story arc, and very little tension. Just a setting and some characters based on real people and then the characters did some stuff. This last novel (excluding NaNo), I had to write a proposal first, so all the chapters were outlined ahead of time. I updated the outline as I wrote, but it stayed pretty much the same.

To outline or not to outline. That’s a tricky question. Outlining helps quell writer’s block. Outlining forces you to sit down and think about a cohesive storyline and the characters required to live through it. But I also find it leads me to rush things, explore less. Then again, editing a free-form first draft can be absolute murder. Moving chapters around, figuring out who should do what when…madness! I’m reading the Harry Potter books again, preparing for the final movies. JKR’s writing is so tight. She plotted all seven books together, allowing for tweaking as she went on. There’s no fluff. No inflated word count. Every line is relevant to the story as a whole. That would be very hard to accomplish without outlining first, I think. Then again, you discover some interesting things when you’re not paying attention to where you’re going.

I think, regarding extensive preparation, I would say to prepare in your weakest area. If you're writing in an unfamiliar setting, research it. If you're a character-based writer, get a grip on the plot or the action. If you're plot-based, sit down and think about your characters. I don't know about you, but I don't generally get caught up on my strength (characters, alas), but, when I'm tooling around, upping the word count, it definitely helps to have a road map for my weakness (action, alas!).

What’s the madness to your method? What tricks do you use to encourage yourself to keep at it when you’re 55k down and losing steam and why did your MC just do that? Do you complete personality tests on all your characters before you start, or just scribble on a napkin? Do you draw diagrams and maps and contemplate what font you’d like your name to appear in on the front cover? What would you like to try but have always been too chicken?

No, really, if you have a review of a book or would like to write an essay on writing or authors that wouldn't quite fit into Ultimate Geek Fu, by all means. Send it in to slushpile@gmail.com

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

Mine Is Bigger Than Yours Is

For a slight change of pace this week we're going to turn away from our usual media-related SF topics and go almost live to SuperComputing '09, in Portland, Oregon, where earlier this week it was announced that "Jaguar," the Cray XT5 system at Oak Ridge National Laboratories, has just been named The Most Powerful Computing System in the World by the keepers of the highly regarded Top 500 list. And so, in calm and sober recognition of this serious scientific achievement, we'd just like to take a brief moment now to say—



Actually, finally hitting the #1 position is more a marketing triumph than anything else. For one thing, the Top 500 list only goes back to 1993, and so none of the great old Cray systems of yore were ever ranked until they were already well into their cyberdotage. For another, the list only ranks known systems, and there are Others of which we may not speak, so thanks for not asking. Most importantly, though, the Top 500 list is based on the LINPACK benchmark, and we're generally of the opinion that the HPC Challenge is a far more meaningful measure of total system performance. However, trying to communicate this latter point is like to trying to explain why the Formula One circuit is a far better measure of car and driver performance than the Indy 500, and so for the moment, we'll just take our win and smile.

However (again), this also got me thinking: here we are, well into the 21st century, with a plethora of systems now clocking in at well over a petaflop and ten petaflop systems in the readily foreseeable future. So today, let's talk about... computers.

As in science fictional computers. As in big, giant, evil computers, scheming to take over the world. As in, what is the coolest computer you ever ran across in SF? Colossus? Deep Thought? Wintermute? Or conversely, what's the dumbest computer you ever ran across?

Me, I keep coming back to SkyNet as the clearest recent example of the latter:
John Connor: By the time Skynet became self-aware it had spread into millions of computer servers across the planet. Ordinary computers in office buildings, dorm rooms; everywhere. It was software; in cyberspace. There was no system core; it could not be shutdown...

It could not be shut down. Yeah. Right.

Then again, it would be a crime to overlook any artificial intelligence that ever had to match wits with James T. Kirk:
Scotty: Captain! The M-Five Multitronic Computer has taken over complete control of the ship! I cannah shut it down!

Kirk: M-Five?

M5: (sfx: clattering relays) Working...

Kirk: I order you to solve this problem. Calculate the square root of pi divided by zero.

M5: Working... Does not compute! Does not compute! DOES NOT COMPUTE!

(sfx: ZAP!) (pyro: flashpot behind M5 prop)

Scotty: (amazed) Captain! It worked! The M-Five -- it's dead!

Spock: Fascinating. Captain, how did you know that forcing M-Five to solve that equation would cause a catastrophic system failure?

Kirk: It's an old Earth technique, Spock, called the "Blue Screen of Death." It was first tested on the Aegis-class guided missile cruiser U.S.S. Yorktown, back in the late 20th Century. You can look it up in the history tapes, under Windows NT.

Spock: Indeed.

Kirk: Now, isn't it about time for McCoy to interject some dumb-ass joke, so that we can all exit laughing, no matter how many people have just been killed?

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.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

In my column two weeks ago, I mentioned the movie Disney's A Christmas Carol and how the Boy was interested in seeing the movie. Well, he and I went to the movie Saturday night. Before I review the movie, let me tell you a bit about what A Christmas Carol means me.

Simply put, I love the story. It's got greed, love, death, tragedy and redemption all rolled into one neat little package. As a sideline, I've read that A Christmas Carol and the poem A Visit From Saint Nicolas (aka The Night Before Christmas) are responsible for changing Christmas from a holiday that was only somewhat observed to the kind of Christmas celebrations I remember as a child. (There's no way I would lay the over-commercialized festival of buying that we have today at the feet of the authors of these two stories.)

I enjoy watching various movie versions of A Christmas Carol and own several. Of them all, the 1980s TV version staring George C. Scott as Scrooge is my absolute favorite. The 1951 musical version with Alistair Sim, usually referred to by the title Scrooge, is another good one. While I don't go out of my way to watch it, I even liked Bill Murray's Scrooged. I had really looked forward to Patrick Stewart's turn as Scrooge, but found myself disappointed with it compared to George C. Scott's performance. When the Christmas season rolls around (and it most definitely does not "roll around" until after Thanksgiving!), I will watch any of these versions if I find them being broadcast on TV. At some point prior to Christmas Day, I have to pull out my DVD of Scott's version and watch it. It just doesn't feel like Christmas until I do.

With all of that in mind, here's my review of Disney's A Christmas Carol.

To use one of the Boy's favorite words, meh.

Well, I'll be back next week with- what's that? You want details? Oh, all right.

This version was creating using motion-capture for the people and computer animation for everything else. Motion-capturing is also the method used to create Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The actor wears a special suit with lots of sensors. The actor's movements are picked up by the computer then a computer designed body is added. This supposedly results in more realistic movement for the computer animated characters while allowing the director to have complete control over the look of pretty much everything in the movie.

Despite my underwhelming response to the movie, it did have some high points. The computer animated depiction of Dickens' London was truly wonderful to behold. Without the physical restrictions of a live action movie, the animators went all out on the city and it showed. Jim Carrey did a reasonable job as Scrooge and Colin Firth did a good job as Fred, Scrooge's nephew, despite having less screen time than normal for A Christmas Carol. And that leads me directly into things I didn't care for so much.

The really important parts of the story, Scrooge's time with the spirits, his reclamation and subsequent embracing of the Christmas spirit felt very rushed to me. There were two significant exceptions to this, but I'll come to them in a bit. The movie swirls from the boarding school to Fezziwig's to Belle releasing Scrooge from their engagement and back to Scrooge's bedroom in just a matter of minutes. The time with Christmas Present rushes by quickly except where the animators chose to show off with special effects that seem to drag on and on but add nothing to the story. The animators truly get carried away with the spirit of Christmas Yet to Come. It was here that the movie truly went awry.

When you're making a movie based on a story done many, many times before, I can see how a director or scriptwriter might look for some way to make their version stand out from those that came before it. They departed from the story from the very beginning by starting with a scene of Scrooge at the undertakers, paying for Marley's burial. The scene shows Scrooge struggling to pay the two coins to the undertaker before snatching up the pennies on Marley's eyes. We get it. Scrooge is a miser. Duh. For well over one hundred years, people have managed to figure out that same fact without a scene to throw it in their faces. They figured it out well enough that "scrooge" has come to mean "a miserly person." In a movie that I felt was rushing through the story, five minutes were wasted on this new scene. If only this was the worst of it...

I can only assume the script adviser for this movie was someone who knows nothing about movies but a lot about what he thinks people want to see. I imagine a gathering of some of Hollywood's finest minds as they try to figure out just which Hollywood movie staple would turn A Christmas Carol from a traditional holiday movie in a Hollywood blockbuster! I imagine them pacing around a conference room table until suddenly one of them shouts, "I've got it! Let's add...a chase scene!"

I wish I could say I'm joking about that. In a scene that seems to go on forever, two demonic horses pulling a pitch black hearse chase Scrooge through the streets of London. Lots of stupid stuff happens, including having Scrooge shrink down to rat-size. Eventually, the chase ends and the movie rushes toward its end. There's another scene, just before Scrooge wakes up in his room, during which he falls, seemingly forever, into a grave and toward an open casket.

I was also irritated that the closing narration was handled by Bob Cratchit rather than Scrooge's nephew, Fred. But I'm a purist and this may not bother you.

My recommendation, should you care for it, is to avoid this version of A Christmas Carol all together. It's too shallow for older children and adults and too scary for young children who might appreciate the fast pace. Buy the George C. Scott version on DVD, instead. It'll cost less and you'll enjoy it far more.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat - delayed due to First Rule

For those who are new to the site, the First Rule states that family comes before everything and paying work comes before everything but family. Okay, maybe I rewrote the First Rule somewhat, but that's how I'm applying it these days. Anyway, family time is delaying my Monday column until Tuesday this week.

See you tomorrow!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

And the winner is...

This has turned out to be a really busy weekend, so busy I'm only just starting to write this two hours before it's supposed to be posted! Good stuff all around, as usual, folks. So let's take a look at this week's entries.

torainfor - "Aliens" was an interesting story, more for the details of military postings than for any aliens. I'm not entirely sure there ever were aliens; unless this was the first chapter of an "I dreamed of an alien invasion except it wasn't a dream" sort of story. As others have noted, the point of view was hard to zero in on. Other than that, it was very entertaining, captivating and well written.

Practical Mystic - Your story was an interesting take on the somewhat traditional idea that aliens contacting mankind will spell the beginning of the end for religious belief. While the story didn't seem rushed, this idea seems too large to be handled in such as short story. We don't learn exactly how God told the aliens about earth. I think some sort of information concerning the aliens' beliefs and what formed them is needed to make this one work. We don't know what drives the deep faith of the aliens are nor how widespread that faith is among their people. From the bit at the end concerning atheists among the aliens, I get the idea that the aliens are more faithful than humans. But there must still be some leap of faith required or our oh-so-logical main character should at least consider the existence of God. For me, the story doesn't work quite as intended because we learn too little of the aliens' faith and nothing concerning why the main character utterly rejected the aliens' faith.

miko - I don't read nearly as many short stories as I used to, but I have never run across a story even remotely like yours. You develop the story well and present the material to us in a good and believable manner. The story is almost entirely dialogue, but it works quite well. I have only one quibble and that's the sentence that began, "As you know..." There's just something about those three words that just get my hackles up. The readers don't know it, so just scrap those three words and go with the rest of the sentence as is. The last line is a bit jarring as it suddenly gives the reader insight into the motives of the aliens. I'm not quite sure how to fix that. It may also just be my opinion. And, from the comments, I see that my assumption that we got the aliens' point of view may not be correct. Hm...

Al - "Technology, Advanced" was more of a vignette than a short story. It was well written, but the important part of the story -- that Fred would ignore the "Prime Directive" and help out of the humans -- was obvious from the point Fred first saw a crime being committed. There was a bit of a surprise right at the end concerning the alien race and the bit about seeing everyone dressed as cops was a neat touch, but the "alien with powers beyond our mortal ken" has been used a lot.

Lady Quill - From one of your comments, I see that this is supposed to be the beginning of a children's story. I think you've done a great job of getting inside a child's head and presenting the story in the way a child would see things. That's not so easy to do, especially with a child as young as Sammy. I'd say you're off to a good start with the story and would be interested in reading what comes next. I definitely hope you can find the time to finish it!

The voting in the comments shows a strong preference for miko's story. He garnered three votes to one each for Al and Practical Mystic. While it's not against the Friday Challenge rules, in the two years I've been entering challenges I don't ever recall the same person winning two challenges in a row. Since miko won last week, I'm strongly tempted to give the win to someone else this week. The thing is, I agree with the majority of the voters. So, regardless of tradition, I'm declaring miko the winner for this week. Miko, come on down and collect your prize from behind Door #3!

Playing the Numbers

This week's FAMILY MATTERS column was preempted several days ago by a kitchen accident of the stupid kind followed by a trip to the Emergency Room for stitches. (What? Stitches? This is the 21st Century! Can't they like, superglue it or stick my hand in the Heal-O-Matic or something?) Having thus spent the past several days becoming reacquainted with the importance of having functional opposable thumbs and the difficulties of using Windows without them, I've decided to skip expounding upon relationship issues this week and instead share the following, which grew out of an email exchange that thankfully can be transferred without much further thumbage.

As aspiring but unpublished writer asks:
This is just impossible. There are so many writers competing to get into publication and so few markets. How do you manage to rise above the crowd? And how in the world do editors manage to wade through all the crap they must have to read?
Actually, it's not that difficult. The following numbers are gleaned from conversations had with a number of major magazine editors back in the late 1980s but still should be reasonably indicative.

In an average month, Joe Editor, head honcho at Stupefying Stories Magazine, receives 600 manuscripts and publishes eight. How does he bridge the gap between the two numbers?
  • 100 manuscripts are rejected on receipt, because they're either

    • addressed to the previous editor who quit five years ago, thus indicating that the writer has not looked at a recent issue of the magazine

    • addressed to "Ms Jeo Edtori," and if the writer can't even get that much right, what hope is there for the rest of the manuscript?

    • addressed in crayon, or submitted in an envelope covered with cutie-poo pony and butterfly stickers, in the apparent and misplaced hope that this will somehow draw attention (it does, but not the sort of attention you want)

    • or have a return address indicating the submission is from a known crank or jerk that Mr. Editor would never in a million years publish even if he or she was the last living writer on Earth or any of the nearer planets

  • 100 manuscripts are rejected based on the first line of the cover letter, which begins, "I know you don't usually publish stories about..." and then goes on to describe a topic that, yes, Stupefying Stories never publishes stories about.

  • 100 manuscripts are rejected based on the rest of the cover letter, which either describes the submission in such tedious detail as to remove all desire to read the manuscript or else includes palpable bullshit or even threats. (Yes, people have been known to send cover letters that include lines like, "My good friend Gordon Dickson read this story last week and said you'd really love it," [Gordie died in 2001], or "Don't even TRY to steal my story because I have COPYRIGHTED it and I have a VERY GOOD LAWYER!!!!")

  • 100 manuscripts are rejected based on the first page of the manuscript, which either shows that the writer has no knowledge of standard manuscript format, thinks a hideously overused cliché is a marvelously original title, has sent a stained and shopworn wad of paper that's obviously been bouncing around for awhile, or is simply so bad a writer as to be beyond all hope of redemption.

  • 100 manuscripts are rejected based on the first two pages of the manuscript, which are decently written but such an obvious setup for a "twist" or "pun" ending that Mr. Editor jumps to the last page and—yup, sure enough, the narrator *is* a lobster in an aquarium in a seafood restaurant! And given that the whole story hinges on keeping this fact hidden from the reader until the very end, this is also where Mr. Editor's interest ends.
Which leaves Joe Editor with a considerably more manageable stack of 100 manuscripts, in which to find the eight that are well-written, interesting, the right length, and not too much like something he already has in inventory to be worth buying. And if he has the budget for it he'll probably end up buying ten manuscripts, just in case next month's batch of submissions only includes four acceptable stories.

So there: that doesn't look so daunting now, does it?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fitz of Distraction


Kersley Fitzgerald lives in Colorado Springs. This cartoon is loosely based on Evangline Denmark's experience at a writers' conference this year. (Yeah--she's that pretty in real life.)

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, November 13, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 11/13/09

We've got five entries this week for our alien invasion / first contact challenge. Before going on to the entries, I would request people who use drop.io to post their entry either include their name in the document title or include a byline in the entry itself. It helps everyone -- me, especially -- keep the entries straight. Now, on to the entries:

torainfor - Aliens!

Practical Mystic - They

miko - Sitting on Dynamite

Lady Quill - First Contact (drop.io)

Al - Technology, Advanced (drop.io)

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.

"Now That's Entertainment!"

Have you ever stopped to think about what causes a previously obscure sport to suddenly become a popular spectator sport? For example, volleyball has been around for over a century. Sure, during the Olympics and when the U.S. had a good team, you could find volleyball on TV, though rarely during prime time.

But what if you move volleyball from an indoor court to the beach? And what if you reduce the number of players from six to two? You end up with a sport that beach bums and surfer dudes might watch, nothing more. Guys still don't find it entertaining to tune and watch other guys play volleyball, beach or not. And everyone knows virtually no one tunes in to watch women play any team sport.

Then, inspiration! Have the women play in bikinis! Suddenly, women's beach volleyball is worth televising in prime time during the Olympics. Suddenly, men can actually name some women who play beach volleyball even though they can't name a single man who plays it.

What's all this have to do with the challenge this week? Well, in a way, it describes the challenge. What we want you to do is think of a sport. Any sport will do. Then, write how you would "improve" the sport so it becomes a popular TV spectator sport.

For example, you could change NASCAR races by requiring the cars to tow a boat and trailer, have two whiny kids in the backseat asking "Are we there yet?" and a wife in the front passenger seat asking "Why are you always turning left? We're just going in circles!"

Or how about changing fencing rules so the bouts are held in a renaissance tavern, complete with tables, chairs, beer mugs and a chandelier? Then make it a team sport with, say, four fencers per side. "One for all and all for one!"

Now that's entertainment!

Your entry can be in any form you prefer. Write a short story. Write a new set of rules. Write a simple outline about your changes. Feel free to explain how your changes will lead to good TV ratings or just leave that to our imagination. You get extra points if sports purists will be outraged by your changes.

As usual, we're playing by the loose-but-not-entirely-non-existent rules of the Friday Challenge. The winner will get to choose a prize from behind Door #3.

Ready? Set. Go!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge, Aliens Have Invaded Pleasantville, 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!

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.

Finally, miko, you still haven't sent me your selection from behind Door #3 for winning the previous challenge.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu


Over the years, a number of writers have tried to assume the mantle Robert A. Heinlein left neatly hanging on a hook after he wrote his last juvenile novel, Podkayne of Mars (1963). [For the purist, POM wasn’t “actually” a juvenile, as it had a female protagonist with a little brother playing a minor role. Those same purists will tell you that Have Space Suit, Will Travel was the last juvenile Heinlein wrote in 1958. Purist or not, he was out of the juvie biz by 1963.]

The big question is, “Why would anyone want to assume that juvie mantle?”

The answer might be, “Only a few people, stuck in the fifties really do. We need SF written for TODAY’S teens! We need a SF Harry Potter!”

Others might reply, “Reading Heinlein was what brought me into science fiction when I was a kid! We need more books like that today, to bring teens into science fiction!”

But the really amazing consensus seems to say, “Why do we need kids to read SF? They’re all busy with their ipods and twitters and texting and crap. They don’t read anymore, so what’s the fuss?”

Hmmm…Let’s leave that “kids don’t read so why do we need to entice them into SF” thread for a later time and return to the Heinlein fray…

Just because no one has collected Heinlein’s juvie mantle, doesn’t mean people haven’t tried. There is a long and prestigious list of authors who have attempted to write the “Heinlein juvenile”. This list includes Roger Macbride Allen, David Brin, Orson Scott Card, John Christopher, Sheila Finch, Alan Dean Foster, David Gerrold, Margaret Peterson Haddix, James P. Hogan, Nancy Kress, Anne McCaffrey, Paul Melko, Jerry Pournelle, Charles Sheffield, William Sleator and Scott Westerfeld. While none of them has succeeded (in my humble opinion), some have created new niches for themselves in the backpack of your average teen.

Anne McCaffrey’s books are stocked in my high school and local public libraries. I occasionally see copies floating out and about on the desk as I walk the tables during labs or tests. No one will argue that the Harper Hall books are teen lit; some might argue that the other books weren’t WRITTEN for teens, but it’s a fact that Lessa was a teen in Dragonflight – and as it turns out, exactly the kind of teen Heinlein was wont to create. Right? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

The quintessential Heinlein teen novel is of course Orson Scott Card’s Ender's Game (and its neverending sequels). Every young male who reads SF has read EG and quite a few young ladies have read it as well. When I do Young Author’s Conferences and I ask for a show of hands of the people who have read EG, there is a virtual sea from seventh grade on up. Card clearly scored a hit, and if we had to award the mantle right now, it would go to him. Ah…but not yet, and not for sure.

A recent arrival on the scene is English young adult horror/SF/fantasy writer, Scott Westerfeld with his books, Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras. They clearly and grimly depict a dystopian world where everyone must conform to a mandated form of beauty. These books float off the shelves of bookstores and rarely remain in libraries for long. He’s clearly in the running to take up Heinlein’s mantle. But does he have what it takes?

Alan Dean Foster created Flinx and his minidrag Pip and while many of the books are about a teenaged Flinx, they aren’t necessarily FOR teens – though teens are invited to read them. He’s a good candidate for the Heinlein juvie mantle…maybe.

Margaret Peterson Haddix, author of the creepy, dystopian world inhabited by the Hidden – third children of families forbidden to have more than two children certainly leads the younger teen crowd into a grim future reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. But in this world there is hope and human nature being what it is, there are many Thirds. The series details escape and eventual revolution. Another good candidate…most likely…

Last of all is John Christopher. An Englishman like Westerfeld, he created The Tripod Trilogy in 1967 and 1968 (and then added a fourth, a series prequel twenty years later). His books depict a grim world of alien domination and environmental alteration to alien needs. These are still on the shelf as well. I rarely see these books floating about, but they’re there.

As for the others, a quick check at your neighborhood chain bookstore information desk will show that virtually none of the others has books that remain available to the buying public – let alone the browsing teen. Clearly, their works didn’t take.

Which brings me to my thesis: What makes a Heinlein juvenile? After exhaustive study and remembering, behold! We find in Heinlein’s books:

1) Stories that flow naturally

2) Worlds altered but clearly recognizable to the teens of the “readers time

3) TEENS are allowed to make hard, understandable choices

4) Teens were teens, doing the best they could in an adult world

5) Every character had a personal, recognizable struggle; i.e. they wanted friends, wanted to fit in, wanted to look good, wanted to be normal, wanted to play games/sports

6) They live in a world that has a huge background and they play out their tiny, personal story against that, not really expecting to change the adult world, but not overwhelmed by it, either

7) His characters were willing to challenge authority respectfully and repeatedly (Heinlein also managed to keep his personal bitterness out of the stories)

8) There is hope as well as unexpected futures revealed

The books that have disappeared from teen backpacks (and Heinlein’s HAVE NOT yet) violated one or more – or ALL – of the boundaries Heinlein used when writing his juvies. Perhaps the greatest violations show teens without choices and part of a huge, universe-changing story line. Teens may DREAM of taking over the world, but they don’t believe they can. Witness your average high school: if 2000 students decided to do ANYTHINGriot, walk out, not do their homework, skip class, make paper airplanes and throw them down the hallways all day long – there isn’t a thing in the world the 100 adults in the building could ACTUALLY do to stop them.

Adult control of teens in school is a fiction maintained by adolescent self-absorption.

So given all of this, on whom do I bestow Heinlein’s juvie mantle? While Card, Christopher, Foster, Haddix, McCaffrey, and Westerfeld have much to commend them (besides any teen being able to FIND their books without going “back to the geek section” of Science Fiction and Fantasy of their neighborhood megabookstore), each fails a bit here and a bit there.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to find out how none of them completely “pass” the Heinlein test, but suffice it to say that the cabal of writers who are creating teen-oriented SF today are the ones who are sculpting that most nebulous thing: the REAL New Wave of science fiction readers and writers.

Let the arguments begin!

Guy Stewart has sold fiction to Analog, as well as to Christian and youth-oriented magazines. He blogs about Christianity, Faith, Science Fiction, and Writing at faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com.

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, November 9, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Even before our son was able to understand what we saying, my wife and I would hold him in our laps and read books to him. An early favorite was Goodnight Moon. I had never heard of it until friends gave us a copy, but it turns out to have been around at least 10 years longer than I have.

By the time the Boy was two, his favorite books were Stop Train, Stop, a Thomas the Tank Engine story (though not one of the original stories) and an electronic Star Wars book that made all sorts of sounds and even played the music the Cantina Band was playing in the original movie. The Boy called them the "doot band." (If you don't understand why, trying singing the cantina music entirely with the word "doot.")

By the time the Boy was three, he had decided to make it tough to get him to go to sleep. We'd read books, turn out the light and leave. He would follow within 15 seconds. When we made him stay in his room, he would stay awake singing or talking to himself. He would do this even if my wife and I were already in bed. We decided we would turn out the lights before reading to him, making him lay down while we read from a book illuminated with one of those book lights you see at bookstores. That helped, though the light worked against us.

By the time the Boy was four, I decided that we weren't even going to use the book light. That meant I either had to memorize the books we'd been reading and retell them exactly as written (any parent can tell that children will notice if you get just one word wrong) or I had to make up stories to tell. I chose to make up new stories.

Those early stories would feature the Boy as the main character, though I added a four foot-tall dragon named Roger as his regular companion in the stories. These adventures featured such things as the Great Broom Race, rescuing a princess from a giant, saving Dreamland and even going up against space pirates. The Boy got to redirect the plots and suggest ways to solve problems. Thus the giant was convinced to release the princess by giving him books and the space pirates were defeated in a particularly nasty bout of thumb-wrestling.

Along with the stories featuring the Boy, I also managed to work in a few stories featuring other children. Of those stories, I consider half a dozen or so to be good enough to try to sell to a children's magazine or picture book publisher. Among those stories, my favorite is called "I'm in Charge!" It's about a ten year-old prince who gets to be in charge of the kingdom while his parents are away. Letting the power go to his, the prince throws people in the dungeon -- starting with the Royal Tutor when the tutor wouldn't cancel the prince's lessons -- until he ends up with everyone in the dungeon except himself. In the end, the prince learns he needs other people to make the kingdom run smoothly. Fortunately, that one was also a favorite with the Boy.

Skip forward to when the Boy was seven and starting second grade. At "meet the teacher night" we parents could sign up to come into the class one Friday afternoons and read books to the kids. I love doing this kind of thing (and really miss it now the Boy and the Foster Boy are in the eighth grade and parents are no longer invited into the classroom). Unfortunately, the earliest date available by the time I got to the sign up sheet was December 5. I signed up for it and prepared to wait impatiently for the months to pass.

December finally arrived and, as fate would have it, my wife and I had a conference with the teach on December 3. After discussing the Boy, his grades and his behavior, I asked the teacher a question about my reading date two days later.

Looking surprised that I was asking about reading, the teacher said, "I'm so proud of you for remembering! All the other fathers have to be reminded by their wives."

My wife said, "You don't understand. He's been looking forward to this since school started."

I discussed with the Boy what books take to class. He agreed to let me bring The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish by Neil Gaiman with art by Dave McKean. He liked the story well enough but it was my favorite of all of his picture books. (Also check out Wolves in the Walls by the same team.) I asked what book the Boy wanted me to take. Instead of a book, he asked me to tell "I'm in Charge!"

December 5 finally arrived. Armed with the book and snacks (something else we parents were supposed to bring), I arrived at the classroom. The children gathered around and the Boy got to come up and sit next to me. I read the book, having some success at keeping the attention of the children. Still, there was just enough restlessness for me to know that, like the Boy, they didn't enjoy the story as much as I did.

Putting the book aside, I said, "This is a story I made up to tell to my son. He wanted me to tell it to you."

With that, I launched into "I'm in Charge!," doing different voices for the characters (I did that when reading the book, too) and acting out some of the simpler character actions. Here's the thing -- the children kept their attention riveted on me. There was no fiddling, no interrupting to ask if they could have another juice box, no whispered comments. In fact, the children were so quiet they got the attention of the teacher. She stopped doing paperwork and listened and watched as well. Even better, and totally unbeknownst to me, the Boy, sitting beside me, was mimicking my every action.

As I finished the story, the children just sat there for about fifteen seconds before exploding with comments and even applause. Before I left, the teacher told me she had never seen the children so rapt and quiet, including when she was teaching.

Telling "I'm in Charge!" to the Boy's second grade class was the first time I felt like a storyteller. Fortunately, it wasn't the last.
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