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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Deadline Reminder - You Still Have a Week

You still have two one week before entries are due for the Christmas Story challenge. Have a happy New Year and drive safely if you'll be out and about on New Year's Eve!

Critical Thinking - Story

I seem to be getting hit over the head by the concept of story, lately—~brb’s article on family Christmas stories included.

I can be very post modern in my thinking. I am a latchkey-kid-dysfunctional-family-(non-abusive)-20-years-old-in-the-Pac-NW-grunge-era-Gen-Xer. There were strong characters in my family, but not a strong sense of history. Lots of stories, but few actually told to my generation. I should have known I was in trouble the year I came home to my mom’s for Christmas just to be told we would not be allowed to open stockings before everyone else got up. I was devastated! We always opened stockings first thing. A couple of toys, a package of hot cocoa, an orange or a banana, and a small box of sugar cereal (the only time of year we could trade our Cheerios for Chocolate-Covered-Sugar-Bombs). All this, discarded, like the wrapping paper around a pair of my great-aunt’s slippers.

Yeah. I was 34. Horrified because I had to wait an hour to open my stocking. Because, apparently, early-morning stocking-opening was the apex of my family’s Christmas story.

Or, at least, it was in my mind.

This year, under the tree (yes, we did open stockings first because it’s my house and I said so!), I got Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Don is a broken-family-VW-Bus-road-trip-find-yourself-navel-gazing-Gen-Xer, and I hate him. He always seems to eloquently say exactly what I couldn’t even identify I believed. What’s even worse is that he’s from Texas. But he lives in Portland, now, so that’s all right.

He’s written several memoirs—which is kind of interesting considering he’s a year younger than me. Anyway, some guys called him up and said they wanted to make a movie based on one of his books. Don’s a contemplative, non-fiction writer. He didn’t know from story-arch. He quickly came to realize that, although some parts of his life had been interesting to live through, as a whole it was rather boring. He started to think that the most interesting, meaningful lives were those that had a story to tell—and drew others into that story.

This isn’t necessarily a new concept. John Eldredge talks about kids needing to be brought into their family’s past. Just this summer, my friend traveled to Africa to meet his extended family. His mom is a white American. His birth-father, whom he never met, was Nigerian. My friend never did find his half-sister, but the aunts and uncles and great-grands and cousins made for a real pancake moment.

I can see this in my family. My aunt, whose mother took her two kids and left her abusive husband, took her two kids and left her abusive husband. Shortly after, she married Slim, thirty years her senior, because he pulled her out of a snow bank and she needed a babysitter.

Uncle Slim, who died just this year in his 90s, was a real, honest-to-Pete cowboy. He ran away from home at thirteen and immediately fell in with cattle rustlers. Jumped a train to escape a posse. Fought Indians in the Dakotas. Thought that a life without a small herd of cattle was a life not worth living.

My older cousin dove into this story head-first and never looked back. Barrel-racing, 4-H, milking cows, and keeping sheep—she knew her place. And she’s passed it on to her son and daughter. Her daughter races cars, barrel-races, and was Homecoming Queen. My cousin’s son is getting attention from big names for his dirt-track racing. (Yes. This is the cousin who reads NASCAR romances.)

But the same story didn’t fit her younger sister. She really couldn’t care less about cows. My aunt worked long hours sixty miles away. All else was horses, a small town, and boys. Pregnant at fifteen. Drugs. High-school drop-out.

A family friend picked her up, drove her to rehab, and invited her into a better story. She married a great guy, had more kids—found her place. She did her niece’s hair and make-up for the Homecoming Parade. (The queen’s mother was busy washing the horse.)

I didn’t really have that and, as a good Gen-Xer, didn’t think I needed it. Holidays are fine examples. Due to snow in Seattle, our Christmas last year was a last-minute ski trip. I don’t ski. I stayed in the lodge the whole time, writing. It was the most relaxing Christmas of my entire life, and I wondered why they couldn’t all be like that.

This year, the in-laws came with a car-full of presents and 130 cumulative years of expectations. They don’t even fill stockings!

So, I was sitting in church Sunday, ignoring the message, trying to figure out why we bother with the hoopla. Why kill ourselves getting presents and cooking way-too-much food that we’ll regret eating, anyway?

The thought came to me—because we wouldn’t make that big a deal over each other without it. All the self-imposed drama binds us together, writes our story. More importantly, writes the Boy’s story. (He’s the only grandchild on both sides.)

Donald Miller mentions this responsibility to continue to create our story. After he thought about his own story arch, or lack thereof, he created a foundation to promote mentoring for fatherless kids.

In his book he talks about a friend whose daughter had fallen in with a bad crowd and was falling even deeper. Don mentioned it sounded like she was living a bad story. He didn’t exactly know what he meant by this, but the dad did. He realized his daughter was living the most interesting story available to her, and it was his job to provide her with an alternative. So he went out and committed his family to raise $25,000 to build an orphanage in Mexico. After a brief period of shock and awe, the daughter—and the surprise wife—embraced this new story.

I think Catholics, with their liturgical year and rhythmic holy days, have a better grasp of this than fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants Evangelicals. I’d never even gone to a church that celebrated Advent until I was 31. You can argue about the exact role of liturgy in salvation, but you have to admit it does invite practitioners into a story that started long before them and will continue on.

My little post-modern soul is beginning to see a need for a story. One that fits our family. One that’s flexible enough to change as we, and our interests, grow. One that reflects the Great Story we’re all invited into. For many years, our story has run on without deliberation—save for the Needs of the Air Force and our own high-maintenance socio/emotional states. The military bit will disappear in eighteen short months, about the time the Boy turns ten. If we are smart, we will already have a future story loosely plotted for him to wiggle around in, find his place. If we’re not smart, the world will provide one for him.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

As I wrote to start off my "Old Goat" column on Monday, this year has passed by amazingly quickly. It's sort of odd writing that because at times this year has seemed like a slow motion slog simply to get from one hour to the next. I'm still not sure how minutes, hours and days can pass so slowly yet months and the year can pass so quickly. Regardless, welcome to the final Ultimate Geek Fu column of 2009.

Here at Geek Fu Central, we sometimes find ourselves scrambling to come up with a topic for the weekly column. Actually, we usually find ourselves scrambling to come up with a topic. This week is no different. Still, I did manage to find something to write about it. It's up to you to decide if that's a good thing or not.

This is the week when everyone seems to be doing year end retrospectives. This seems like a perfectly fine idea for Geek Fu, as well. The thing is, I'm not planning to look back on world developments or, for the most part, anything that affected very many people. Though there were some truly serious and, worse, truly tragic events that affected some or all of us here at the Friday Challenge, this isn't the place to discuss those events. I intend to keep this column on the light side. I intend on presenting, with great pride, my personal geek highlights for 2009. Settle back and prepare to be awed and amazed by the accomplishments of a true master of Geek Fu!

All of my truly geeky accomplishments center around this site.

First, about eight months after being asked, I finally delivered on my promise to Bruce to write columns about writing comic books (Part 1 is here, if you're interested and haven't read the columns). Not only did I manage, with some very helpful suggestions from you readers, to write a dozen columns on the subject, I also found myself realizing consciously certain aspects of the art of comic book writing that had previously resided only in my subconscious.

Two of my major geeky accomplishments were entries in Friday Challenges. The first came at a time when I was in need of a bit of a pick-me-up, having lost my job the week before. That was the Heart of Darkness challenge, where Bruce asked us to "make at least a promising start towards writing a modern, updated, 21st century (or later) good clanking hard sci-fi remake of Heart of Darkness." I didn't do that. Instead of a sci-fi remake, I wrote "Heart of Dorkness," my attempt at using the same writing conventions Conrad used, except mine was about a D&D player relating the story of a game of D&D played at a convention. It was fun to write and, despite not really satisfying the challenge, was the winner for that week.

Two months later, the geekiness that is the "Heart of Dorkness" was completely overshadowed by my other treasured geek Friday Challenge accomplishment. Bruce gave us all a wonderful lead-in to write a new John Carter of Mars story. I'm a big fan of the books so knew I just had to do justice to the challenge. As I finished up the 5000 word short story, "John Carter and the Bronze Men in Mars," I felt I had delivered my single best challenge entry to date, trying my best to emulate Edgar Rice Burroughs' writing style. But many times it's hard to judge your own writing, so I asked a friend and fellow John Carter fan to read the story. He told me if he hadn't known I was the author, he could have easily believe it was written by Burroughs. Rubbing my hands together while laughing maniacally, I envisioned my entry crushing all others in the Friday Challenge! Only, no one else even entered that week. Sigh... Obviously my Geek Fu scared off the rest of you.

The year held some other truly geeky highlights. The role playing game I run set in the Firefly 'Verse reached a climax when, after three years of regular gaming sessions, the characters finally caught up with their arch enemy, looked him right in the eyes and then put a bullet between those same eyes. (He was a really bad guy and definitely had it coming.) I got goosebumps watching the new Star Trek movie. This has definitely been my most successful year on the storytelling circuit. And I had my first short story publishing, albeit in a non-paying market.

As you can see, my Geek Fu has been powerful this year. Do you dare step forward and pit your puny Geek Fu against mine?

Let the arguments begin!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

This is my final column of 2009. Where did the year go? For that matter, where did the entire first decade of the 2000s go? It seems only a short time ago I was working hard to make sure the world didn't come to an end because of the Y2K bug yet suddenly find myself a few days short of the year we make contact.

By the way, I never used the phrase "Y2K bug" in my work. Why? Because it wasn't a bug! A bug is a mistake in the code. Using two digit years was a choice made by guys who never imagined their programs would be in use 30+ years later and who didn't have cheap, plentiful computer storage space like we do now. Sorry, just wanted to get that out of my system. Oh, and the world wasn't in danger of coming to an end, either. Prior to the current "climate change" junk, that was the biggest hoax pulled on an unsuspecting public.

Let's get back to 2010, the year we make contact. It's obvious we're not going to be sending any expeditions to other planets in 2010. If we're going to make contact with someone, they're going to have to come to earth. I hope you'll forgive me if I don't hold my breath waiting for that to happen. But if man did meet aliens, what would they be like? Science fiction has struggled with that idea for longer than science fiction has been recognized as a genre.

The earliest alien invasion story I know of is H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. I think most of us know the gist of the story. The Martians land, put together their tripods, grab their heat rays and the empire of man ends in a matter of days. Wells wasn't writing about aliens, though. He was writing social commentary about just how fragile civilization was. Mankind spent thousands of years building what the Martians destroyed in the blink of an eye. The Martians do not appear as characters, leaving the reader to define the race. In the end, we see them as highly intelligent and vastly cruel because those are the attributes we'd give to humans who did the same thing.

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about alien races, particularly those of Barsoom, aka Mars. Burroughs' aliens weren't really alien, though. They were simply humans with some superficial biological differences or, in the case of the green Martians, they were tall, multi-limbed, green, cruel humans. And, when you stop to think about it, a whole lot of science fiction stories feature aliens who are simply different-looking humans.

A surprising number of pioneering names in science fiction either never wrote about aliens or only rarely wrote about them. It's been a long, long time since I read anything by Isaac Asimov, but most of his novels feature a vast, sprawling human empire without an alien race to be found. I sometimes wonder if Asimov didn't create his three laws of robotics so he could have an "alien race" that was logical, created to fit into human society yet distinctly non-human. Yes, Asimov did create an actual alien race in The Gods Themselves but that's the only truly alien race I recall him creating.

In his early works, Robert Heinlein had some alien races. He rarely used his Venusians, but Heinlein's Martians featured prominently in a couple of his books; Double Star and, without even appearing once, Stranger in a Strange Land. Oddly enough, I don't recall the Martians playing any real part in the novel Red Planet. Though his Venusians and Martians were not simply humans in another form, Heinlein never used those races as major characters. Most often Heinlein simply avoided writing about aliens at all.

As both Asimov and Heinlein were hitting their stride as writers, science fiction was showing up on the big screen, too. While some of the movies were quite good for their time, I don't recall seeing any truly alien aliens. Generally, you had aliens who had built something incredible and left -- Forbidden Planet -- or aliens who attacked earth without warning -- Earth Versus the Flying Saucers -- or aliens who were nearly godlike in comparison to us -- The Day the Earth Stood Still (the real one, not the crap remake).

The 1960s ushered in the "new wave" of science fiction but I never was quite sure what the critics meant by that. Maybe they meant the writing was getting better? I don't know. A quick check of the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel doesn't show too many novels featuring aliens. Of the 10 Hugo award winning novels, only Way Station, Clifford Simak's 1964 winner, and This Immortal, Roger Zelazny's 1966 winner, feature any non-human characters. The aliens in Way Station were minor characters and came across as different-looking humans rather than truly alien. Having never read This Immortal, I can't comment on Zelazny's aliens. I have read a lot of Zelazny, though, I recall only a few aliens, all of whom seemed to fit the "different-looking human" mold.

We fare a bit better with the Nebula, which was first awarded in 1965. Out of five awards in the 1960s, two went to novels with aliens; Delany's The Einstein Intersection and Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Major characters in both books were aliens. Actually, all of the characters in Delany's book were aliens. Alas, I never could get into The Left Hand of Darkness and could never get past the first Delany novel I ever tried to read, Dahlgren. So I can't comment on just how alien the aliens are in these two books.

Meanwhile, movies and television did not give us any particularly alien aliens. Star Trek abounded with aliens, but they were all recognizable as variant humans. I honestly can't think of anything else on the screen that featured aliens in large roles.

I'm going to skip forward to the present because there's just too much between the 1960s and now. Suffice it to say, it remains rare to run across truly alien aliens in either print or on the screen (large or small). Of all of the aliens I've read about in the last 30 to 40 years, I think John Ringo's Posleen, first seen in A Hymn Before Battle are the most truly alien race I've run across in a novel. I've only read the first book in the series, though, so perhaps that changed. But it's worth noting that none of the aliens are actual characters in the book. Ringo can simply give us a glimpse of the aliens' behavior without bothering to explain or rationalize it.

On the screen, both large and small, alien races have continued to fall into the same three categories I listed above, though I suppose I should add primitive-yet-superior-to-humans tree-huggers now that Avatar has been released.

The point of all of this is that most people think of aliens when they think of science fiction. Yet how often do aliens actually show up in science fiction? One of my all-time favorite authors, Lois McMaster Bujold, hasn't had a single alien in any of her novels. David Weber writes of vast, star-spanning empires but not of aliens. He did write about aliens in the four book Prince Roger series he wrote with John Ringo, but unlike the Posleen, many of the characters in the four novels are aliens. Those aliens were no more "alien" than the green Martians Burroughs wrote about nearly 100 years ago.

And let's be honest, this all makes sense. It's not easy to have truly alien characters while still writing a coherent story. So let me end with a question for you. Have you ever run across a truly alien character in a science fiction book/movie/TV show and was the book/movie/show worth the time you spent on it?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Family Matters

This is my last Family Matters column. I'm wrapping it up for a multitude of reasons. First off, it's now been three months since my daughter died. Am I healed, recovered, over it? Not a chance; not by a long shot. I know that someday there will come a day without crying, but that day is still a long way off. I also know that I dread that day's coming and will in a perverse way resent it when it finally arrives. Grief has been my constant companion for these past three months. It will seem somehow disloyal to Emily to let it go.

But for now, I have grown tired of showing my grief in public, and most of all of receiving advice from clueless people who feel the need to regurgitate some fatuous piece of pseudo-advice they once read in a magazine or heard on TV from someone who had in turn once read a paraphrase of something from Kübler-Ross's book. It doesn't help any, and some of the things certain well-meaning dolts have told me have only made me really angry. Seriously, of all the delusions people are prone to, the idea that reading a magazine article (or more likely, watching a PBS program) about something and somehow believing this has conferred both meaningful authority in the subject area and the obligation to dispense advice is one of the most noxious. Sometimes—often times, I suspect—the most helpful thing you can do is shut up and listen.

But that seems a rare quality in our species, so rather than remain open for more probably well-meant but ultimately aggravating advice, I am taking my grief private, and reserving it for close family and friends. The topic is now off the table.

Which meanders in a roundabout way to my second topic, which is the morality (legitimacy? advisability?) of using your own family as source material for writing. As some of you may have noticed, a few Sundays ago I stopped right smack in the middle of a multi-part series about my family's history. What stopped me was the discovery that certain things I thought were true weren't, and other things I knew to be true weren't common knowledge, even among my siblings.

To some extent, I blame this on my maternal grandmother. She was an artist—a lousy one, but an artist nonetheless—who was continually reinventing herself and not much into fidelity in any sense of the word. I was middle-aged before I realized that three different women's names in the family history were all merely my grandmother in different phases as she swooped into and out of my mother's life. (I never actually saw the broomstick, but back in the 1960's the temptation to ignore her name d'jour and simply call her "Endora" was almost too strong to resist.)

I'd always believed my desire to write came from my Dad, who was a bookish man and some sort of frustrated history professor. Lately I've grown to suspect it actually comes from my maternal grandmother, who quite possibly was a pathological liar, or at least was never one to be afraid to enhance, embroider, alter, omit, elide, or sometimes even completely rewrite the story as suited her whims and needs of the moment. And granted, there can be good money and worldwide fame in claiming lies fabricated out of whole cloth as your personal history: as evidence, consider Binjamin Wilkomirski, Herman Rosenblat, James Frey, Misha Defonseca, and Margaret Seltzer, just for starters. If you play it right there might even be a Nobel Peace Prize in it for you, or at least a tenure-track assistant professorship at some podunk out-state Midwestern college.

But as for the rest of us, who have to continue to live and interact with our families even after the written work is published...

Change the names, disguise the details, and call it fiction.

Saturday, December 26, 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


Kersley Fitzgerald is an accidental cartoonist who would like to wish all the fine hobbitses--as well as the distinctively hirsute elves--a very merry Boxing Day.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas with the Folks

This column first appeared on 22 December 2004. Since then it's become my tradition to rerun it every Christmas Eve, and despite this year's having been a true "anno horribili," I stand by it, ironies and all. From ours to yours, may you and your family enjoy a truly Merry Christmas, and here's hoping you're looking forward to a happy and prosperous New Year.

For all of my life, Christmas has meant going back home to visit the folks. Great-Grandmother Grace was the matriarch of a large family: when my father got together with his brothers and sisters and all their children — and later, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren — the scene of the disturbance was always a glorious tumult of cousins, nieces, nephews, babies, laughter, noise, music, food, shredded wrapping paper strewn absolutely everywhere, and box upon box of chocolate-covered cherries.

This year, it will be different. Grandma Grace died long ago, of course. Even my father died years ago. Last year we buried the last of his siblings, and a month later, we buried the first of mine. Funerals have long since overtaken weddings in my family, and those who remain of my cousins and brothers are scattered far and wide across the continent. We buried one cousin's daughter last summer — car accident, far too young — and it's only through the grace of God and the vigilance of an overworked guardian angel that my sister's son, the hard-drinking Harley rider, has managed to hold his position at one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel floating in a puddle of 90-weight gear oil.

On my in-law's side, the story is much the same. Last spring we buried my wife's mother, a fine lady who lived for her children and cooked like a genius, and now the nuclear family that she glued together with pasta and marinara sauce is slowly drifting apart. Brothers and sisters have children; children have jobs and fiancés; what once was a close-knit family is slowly coming apart at the seams, unraveled by the gentle but persistent tugging of competing commitments and obligations. So this year, things will be different. This year we are not going anywhere to visit anyone.

This year, we are the folks that children are coming home to visit.

I am not ready to be this old. I'm not ready to become part of the Parents generation, as if I had a choice. But one of my daughters lives half a continent away and can't get the time off work to make the trip home for the holidays. Another will be coming home for a few days and may bring her fiancé, but then they'll probably leave to spend a few days with his family. The third will be staying at the house a bit longer, but she's really planning to spend most of her vacation hanging out with her high school friends.

We're lucky. We still have The Kid: the 9-year-old late-life surprise who keeps us young and reminds his older sisters that they're not quite ready to start families of their own, yet. So we'll haul out the camcorder, watch him tear into the presents, and record every happy shriek and bit of shredded wrapping paper for posterity.

For posterity?

Yes, exactly. Among other things, my father was a dedicated amateur photographer. I have very few pictures of him, because he was always the one behind the camera. For more than twenty years he lugged his Bell & Howell 8mm movie camera — and a blinding bank of photoflood lights — to all of Great-Grandma's Christmas riots, and got everything he could down on tiny 3-minute spools of Kodak film. Sometime in the early 1970s he got the urge to edit these spools together into one epic production, compressing twenty-plus years of family Christmasses into one half-hour of grainy footage.

A few years ago I transferred that film to video and dubbed in a soundtrack — Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong and the like — then mailed copies to my surviving cousins and siblings. I kept a copy for myself, of course.

Ergo, this Christmas Eve, my wife and I will share presents, eggnog, and warmest wishes with our children. We'll hug the older ones goodbye and remind them to drive carefully as they head out to resume the social lives they've graciously put on-hold in order to spend a few hours with us. We'll open a present or two with The Kid, and put him to bed.

Then we'll crack a bottle of Merlot, put Dad's Christmas movie into the VCR, and spend half an hour with a family that exists now only in memory and on faded Kodacolor. We'll drink a toast or two to those who have left us far too soon: Louise. Carlone. Julie. Myrtle. Tom. Ray. Arnold. Bucky. Frances.

And then, at midnight, we will drink a toast in celebration, remembering that joy and grief come together in an inseparable package, that life does not last forever but love does, and that this is the night that the God we believe in — who so loved this little world He made for us that He took our mortal form upon Himself — this is the night that Christ, our saviour, was born to live among us, to share our lives, and to tell us that, while time may separate us from those we love, we won't be separated forever.

And you know, when you get down to it, it is a wonderful life.


Deadline Reminder - You Still Have Two Weeks

You still have two weeks before entries are due for the Christmas Story challenge. Meanwhile, we at the Friday Challenge hope you and yours have a very merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

Over the years, I've received enough Christmas gifts to fill a small house. Or maybe even a large house. My father, were he still here to comment, might even go as far as to suggest I've received enough gifts to fill a small warehouse. In my defense, I would like to point out that Friday will be Christmas number 53 for me, so don't think I got everything all at once!

The thing is, I can't tell you what most of those gifts were. Some of them have stuck with me, of course. I definitely remember the really cool pedal-power firetruck I got when I was three. Three years later I got a nifty Marx (the toy company, not the failed economic theorist) rocket launching play set, complete with spring-loaded rockets that launched into the air and a model of the old X-15 suborbital rocket plane. Along the way, I got the usual assortment of footballs, record albums (for you young'uns, records were what we used to play music back in the days before CDs), board games and toys of all description. Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, I even got a BB gun one year. Unlike Ralphie, I did not and do not think the BB gun was the best Christmas present I ever received.

I loved the coolest Christmas present I ever received so much that I asked for, and received, it three times. What was that coolest Christmas present ever? An electric slot car race set!

I can imagine most of your faces right now, screwed up in confusion as you wonder, "What they heck is a slot car race set?" Bruce is old enough that he probably remembers them, but I came prepared to explain this to the rest of you.

First, here is a photo of a slot car track:

See those silver lines running through the track? They carry electrical current to the race cars. Each silver line is actually two strips of metal, one to carry the current to the car and one to carry it away. In between the strips is the slot that gives slot car racing its name. The slot is used to guide the cars around the track while also keeping the car's electrical contacts on the two strips of metal. In other words, the track steers the car, not you. What you do is control the speed of the car by controlling the amount of electricity flowing through the metal strips. More electricity equals more speed and vice versa. The challenge comes from handling the turns as the only thing holding the car on the track and the car's guide in the slot is gravity. Go too fast through the turns and the car goes flying off the track. While you run to put your car back on the track, your opponent(s) keep going, leaving you in their dust.

Slot car sets come in several different sizes, or scales. You've probably seen HO, or 1/87, scale. I find this scale too small as the cars can't be as detailed as I prefer. HO cars are also so fast for their size that they're almost blurs on the track. Then there's 1/24 scale, which is so big it takes a lot of space to setup and is also really expensive. Most home slot car racers generally stick with 1/32 scale. That's what is pictured above. The cars are large enough to show details but small enough that a nice track can be setup in a space eight feet by four feet. The price also falls in between the prices of the other two scales.

By the way, I have enough track to reproduce the track in the picture, except mine would be two lanes instead of four. (All track pieces have two lanes. To make a four lane track takes a whole lot of two lane track pieces.)

Even reading my own description of slot car racing, it doesn't sound that exciting. So just trust me when I say it was so much fun that I didn't give it up when they went out of style in the late '60s. I didn't even give slot car racing up after growing up. Shortly after the Boy was born, I discovered that slot cars were making a comeback. As my mother had given away all my slot car stuff when we moved when I was 16, I'd suffered without for over 20 years. Much to my wife's dismay, I dropped a couple of hundred dollars on a new race set and the addiction began again. Don't even ask how much more I've spent since then! Mind you, the Boy really enjoyed playing with the slot cars, too. And they've been a big hit at several of his birthday parties, sometimes even out-drawing the video games.

So, what's all this got to do with Geek Fu? Come on! A grown man playing around with slot car race sets? I mean, just how geeky can you get? Okay, not as geeky as, say, getting an "official" Star Trek Starfleet uniform and wearing it around town, but it's still pretty darned geeky.

What about you? What's the geekiest Christmas gift you've ever gotten that you just absolutely loved?

Was it geekier than my slot car sets?

Was it geekier than getting an authentic replica of the jacket Luke Skywalker wore on Degobah in The Empire Strikes Back? Oh, wait, maybe that's my geekiest Christmas gift ever...

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, December 21, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Way back in 1995, I was working in tech support. If you've never worked tech support before, the job involves taking phone calls from people who made the mistake of buying and attempting to use the software you've been hired to support. Virtually every call begins negatively -- because people rarely call tech support to tell them how well the software is working -- and many times can go downhill from there. Given the negative feelings running around the department, it's not that surprising the book Microserfs by Douglas Coupland was a big hit with us.

"Hey, look!" we'd say. "Those people have it just as bad as we do! That's cool."

Misery definitely loves company.

The thing about Microserfs is that it was one of the few books available which was set in the IT industry. I'm pretty sure I enjoyed at least as much for that as for anything else in the story. That got me to searching for other books with a solid IT setting. In case you didn't know, there weren't that many to be found in 1995. But by a combination of luck of regular searching, I managed to find another one. The book was Headcrash. The author was Bruce Bethke.

I zipped through Headcrash, which turned out to be a hit among the science fiction fans in tech support. Having thoroughly enjoyed Headcrash, I went looking for other books by Bethke. This was before the days of Amazon.com, so my searches met with little success at the time. Eventually, I managed to find a copy of Rebel Moon from Amazon.com. That was five years after I read Headcrash. I still remembered his name and was interested in reading books by him. (Alas, Rebel Moon was lost before I could read it, when we moved to Raleigh a few weeks after it arrived.)

Skip forward to 2005, the year I discovered sfsite.com, a science fiction review web site. One feature maintained on the site was a list of authors' web sites. I think the list is gone now, but four years ago there were plenty of sites listed. I scanned through the list looking for authors whose books I had read. The list was alphabetical, of course, so I can across Bethke fairly quickly. The link took me to brucebethke.com and, from there, to The Ranting Room.

I lurked around The Ranting Room for a couple of years. I read posts from Bruce and was pleasantly surprised to discover someone who shared many of the same opinions I shared. He periodically discussed his son, who seemed to be a year or two older than my son, forging another one-way connection when his experiences with his son turned out to be eerily similar to my experiences with my son. I even tried to follow this Friday Challenge thing Bruce ran each week. As I still wasn't reading the site full time, that proved more difficult that I care to admit these days.

Finally, in late 2007, I got tired of lurking. I'm still not sure why I got tired of it, but I did. On November 16, I made my first post, an entry in the current Friday Challenge. I kept coming back regularly after that, to see how my entry had done. Of course, the first time I entered a Friday Challenge it turned out to be during a busy time for Bruce. When he finally announced a winner three or four weeks later, he had to announce winners for at least two other challenges at the same time. And I won the challenge with my very first entry.

I was tempted to retire from Friday Challenges with an undefeated record. But I had found the whole business, even the waiting, to be rather fun. So I stuck around, mostly lurking but making the occasional comment. I didn't enter another Friday Challenge until the middle of January, 2008. I lost, but I had fun again. I began entering more often. I'd begun making some connections to people on the site, among them Vidad, Al (who started entering shortly after I did) and Passinthrough. I was enjoying myself and starting to feel as if I were part of the community. It was that feeling of community that gave me the courage to post my entry in the "worst job you've ever held" Friday Challenge.

Reading all of the other entries in that challenge was a lot of fun. They were all light, breezy and funny. Then there was my entry. At the time, I was struggling mightily with my foster son. While I didn't really think being a foster father counted as a job, at the time it was the worst situation I'd ever been in. I wrote of my pain at being rejected by a child and sorrow at what the child was doing to my family and me. It wasn't easy to write and I expect it wasn't particularly pleasant to read. I ended up winning that challenge that week, though that wasn't why I had written the entry. I wrote it because I desperately needed to bare my soul to people I felt would be understanding. They were, pouring out support. I was bleeding and the people of the Friday Challenge bandaged my wounds. Of particular solace were messages I exchanged privately with Bruce.

That one event marked a shift in my connection with The Ranting Room. I'd even go as far as to say it marked a shift in my life. I had found the one place online that helped heal me. I know this sounds trite and I don't want to anyone to think I had no support in person. I had plenty of that. But the closer I felt to the people in The Ranting Room, the more I wanted to be involved in it. Writing, even when your subject has nothing to do with your problems, is healing. At the very least, it allows your mind to go somewhere else, far away from your problems, if just for a little while. And all along, I slowly got to know the people who read and commented on my writing.

That is the real benefit I've gotten from The Ranting Room and, now, The Friday Challenge. I've formed truly close friendships with people all over the country; people I wouldn't have met without these two sites. My only regret is that I can't simply call any of you and suggest we meet for dinner. Compared to what I have gained, it's not much of a regret.

I can honestly say my life is much better because of these two sites. It's why I am so dedicated to this site. I want it to be here the next time someone like me stumbles across it, so it can help change their life, too.

Bruce, I know you didn't write Headcrash for me. But 14 years after I read it, I'm going to pretend like you did. Without that novel, I'd never have found The Ranting Room. And without The Ranting Room and The Friday Challenge, I believe I'd still be bleeding inside.

My Christmas will be all the merrier because of all of you. So, merry Christmas to you, one and all! When I give thanks for my blessings, each of you are counted among them.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

And the winner is...

My, my, I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed doing this. However, since Henry had already written up his comments before I stepped in and asserted authority, I'm mostly going to loot shamelessly from his work.

Henry writes: Torainfor wrote a full story for this challenge, with a nice intro to setup our main character and the interesting idea that Santa provides the military with hi-tech goodies to keep them from destroying his workshop again. There's a neat bit with the whole NORAD Santa track, something I remember watching as a young lad. The story acknowledges Rickover's accidental destruction of Santa's village and is a natural progression from that accident to the current day. The whole military attitude came off quite well and certainly seems authentic to someone who's been a civilian his whole life. The writing was light and breezy and struck just the right tone through out. Excellent work.

To which I'll add: I enjoyed this one a lot. I even laughed out-loud at the bit of scene-setting business on page four: "Don't believe what you've seen in Stargate or WarGames—Hollywood has a much bigger set budget than NORAD." Yup. Nailed that one spot-on. This was definitely the most complete and fully developed of the entries, although there were times I felt as if I was reading a rough draft, as some of the transitions were a bit confusing.

However, the assignment was to sketch out an awful made-for-TV movie based on the idea, and this one, good as it is, doesn't meet the requirement.

Next, Henry writes: Miko's entry is really interesting and seems likely to eventually get to the actual challenge. But he doesn't get there with this entry. I love the ideas and wonder just how much, if any, of the submarine jargon he's gotten right. I've got a friend who spent 20 years in the navy, most of that in boomers, who could tell me if I really needed to know. As much as I enjoyed reading the entry and as much as I'd love to read what comes next, I can't judge a fragment of the story. Good stuff, just not what we're looking for this week.

Again, I find myself agreeing with Henry's assessment. This is the beginning of a really engaging story, and I really want to know what comes next. But in the context of this particular challenge, it simply isn't what we are looking for.

Henry writes: Waterboy's entry—which he still probably doesn't believe is an entry—really does get the spirit of what we were looking for with this challenge. It's got schmaltz, a silly scheme to deliver toys, a great explanation for the NORAD Santa track and a Christmas romance between the admiral and an officer on his staff. As Waterboy says, real military people would be appalled at this whole thing. That probably means Hollywood is in the process of developing something similar to this right now! The only extra bit of silliness I could add to this would be if the XO [is a single mother] with a little boy who has some handicap that is healed by the magic of the Christmas Kiss. Either that, or have Rickover and the XO adopt an orphan who was being raised by the elves. For a toss-away idea, Waterboy really hit all the right notes!

Wow. Henry and I and congruent three-for-three. My only added comment is in the [square brackets], above.

Henry writes: Arisia gives us a new entry in the Christmas Cannon; the Wishing Ones. Not only do we have a Christmas quest to find craft-elves to replace those lost in the disaster, we get the quest for the Wishing Ones; a quest that will give the writers all the time they need to hit just the right Christmas schmaltz notes with scenes of the homeless and orphans and the joy Christmas brings to one and all. Finally, we get what every good Christmas special requires: product placement! And, as this special is shown on TV, Starbucks starts a new ad campaign: "The official coffee of Christmas!" Again, just the right notes are hit and I'm positive the Wishing Ones would soon be considered as much a part of Christmas as that reindeer with the glowing nose.

Nothing to add to this one, either.

Finally, Henry writes: The bandit has obviously been paying attention to Climategate, which makes me happy all by itself. I'm also extremely impressed at how much he's gotten from my little toss-away bit about Christmas coal and carbon credits. Honestly, I could see this story being written by a reporter from the AP. The failure to question the authority of the global warming alarmists is distressingly accurate. The ridiculous claims by said alarmists are right in line with what I'd expect were this a real story. From beginning to end, the entry is spot on. Unfortunately, it's spot onto a topic that only tangentially touches the actual challenge. Judged solely on its merits as a satire news article, I'd probably go with this entry to win, but we have to judge based on more than that. Great entry, regardless.

I am tempted. I am sorely tempted...

Henry writes: "In looking over the voting thus far, there were two votes for Waterboy, one for Arisia and one for the bandit. I admit to being torn. I love the bandit's entry but can't select it because it didn't really respond to the challenge. If Miko's story were complete, I could see selecting it as the winner. Arisia's is neat and I can see a whole line of Wishing One action figures (collect them all!) and homeless shelter play sets to go with them. Waterboy's almost-an-entry really hits the right notes—thus the two votes. Finally, torainfor's story is quite good and certainly the most complete entry that also stayed with the topic.

"In the end, I lean towards Waterboy for coming up with an idea that actually does make the Star Wars Christmas Special look downright artistic in comparison. But I think the bandit deserves special mention for the best parody I've seen in a long time."

And in a real breakthrough, I find myself not only agreeing with Henry five-for-five, but also with the results of the expressed votes. Torainfor wrote a great, self-contained story; Miko's entry has me wishing I could see what comes next and how these characters' stories develop. Arisia as usual introduces some interesting ideas that make me want to see what would result if she really turned her imagination loose, and the bandit's entry is very, very tempting.

But in the end, I have to pick Waterboy as this week's winner, because he did the best job of sticking to the assigned topic, which was to write a pitch for an awful made-for-TV Christmas movie, and the one he's sketched out certainly would be truly, wonderfully, shamelessly awful. The only thing missing is a song-and-dance number featuring a chorus line of CGI penguins. (Never mind that penguins live at the South Pole; this is for TV.) Ergo, Waterboy, come on down and claim your prize!

Honorable Mention goes to The Bandit—and something from the prize bin as well, because, well, what the heck: it's Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, 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


Kersley Fitzgerald is an accidental cartoonist who wonders if she's posted this one before. But it's one of her favorites, so there you go.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 12/18/2009

When I was just getting started entering Friday Challenges, we had all sorts of strange and wacky challenges. I remember such fun challenges as the Squirrel Diet, the sequel to The Lord of the Rings (entries for which featured such fascinating ideas as the Dark Segue Riders and an all-midget Kiss tribute band) and the Star Trek death scene you always wanted to see but never would. Lots of fun and laughs were had with all of those challenges. With the current challenge, I hope we'll see more of the wackiness which made the Friday Challenge so addicting that I'm still here two years later. So let's take a look at the entries and see whether my hopes have come true.

torainfor - Secret Santa (drop.io)

Miko - Somewhere Else

Waterboy - The Idea He Couldn't Give Away (make sure to read his two posts below for the complete pitch (and blame me for the title))

Arisia - The Even Shorter Than She Thought Entry

the bandit - Scientists Dreaming of a "Green" Christmas

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.

Silent Night, Story Night...

I'm sure it hasn't escaped the attention of anyone out there that a major holiday is just seven days away. More than any other holiday, Christmas brings out the storyteller in people. Stories about Christmas abound.

The power of Christmas redeems lost souls and brings joy to cold and joyless hearts.

A right jolly old elf defies the forces of No Fun to bring toys and happiness to children the world over.

Charlie Brown utterly fails to find meaning in our commercialized Christmas. Then, in what must be counted among the most moving two minutes ever shown on television, Linus reminds him of the true meaning of the Christmas.

Rudolph finds out what it's like to be the shiny-nosed geek among reindeer jocks, only to become popular when his nose proves useful. (That's right, kids, you never become popular for who you are. You become popular when you become a jock like the rest of the herd.)

Parents tell stories of their childhood Christmas celebrations to their own children. Grandparents tell the same stories, but with all the embarrassing bits left in.

And, of course, the story is told of the young couple in the manger stable and the birth of the Son of God.

Now it's your turn to join the vast multitudes of writers who have written all of those Christmas stories. The challenge is to write a Christmas story. Any Christmas story. The only requirement for the story is that Christmas must be central to the story. It must be a story that could only occur on or around Christmas. Tell us how your grandmother saved Christmas with just cotton balls and glue. Or tell us how your great aunt Nellie's teeth got wrapped up with your sister's toy. Or just make up a brand new story about family or Jesus or Santa or whoever; as long as Christmas is central to the story.

We here at the Friday Challenge headquarters know that this is a big assignment, particularly in face of two major holidays separated by only seven days. Therefore, the Christmas challenge has an extra long deadline. You will have three weeks to write your story. That's right, you have until midnight, CST, on January 7, 2010, to post an entry.

To further encourage you to enter, this is the second Friday Challenge that will feature a cash prize. That's right, our sponsors at K&B Booksellers are putting up another $50 for the winner of this challenge.

So don't just sit there! Get started writing!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Critical Thinking

I went to B&N yesterday because I needed to kill time. (Like I needed an excuse?) Found a couple of books I'd like to have and texted them to Maj Tom. Then bought him a CD set of Louis L'Amour stories narrated by country singers. He's read so much of my stuff, plus stuff I've been handing him, lately, that I wanted to thank him by letting him listen to westerns on his drive to work.

(BTW: I handed him the gift K&B sent him. Although otherwise a man very much in touch with his feelings, a childhood trauma (something about underwear in his stocking) has left him unable to react to gifts. Although he did hold a grudge for five years when I bought him the wrong leather jacket for Christmas, three months after we'd started dating. Anyway, he opened the package and said, "Oh, wow. The original Shane." Then he proceeded to tell me about the movie for fifteen minutes. For him, that's weeping in delight.)

At any rate, I stood before the two bookcases in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section marked "Recent Releases." This is what I found:

Swords and Sandals and Sorcerers: 45%
Vampires and Zombies (or, in one case, "Xombies"): 45%
Near-future cyberbunk--I mean--cyberpunk: 9.9%
Hot-woman-in-a-tight-spacesuit-space-opera (cus, apparently that's a genre): 0.1%
Hard SciFi: 0%
Military SciFi: 0%

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to convince me and all the other hobbitses (and hirsute elves) that our sci fi endeavors are not in vain and there really is no need for us to give up this writing gig and learn how to be goat farmers.

Kersley Fitzgerald is a wannabe author who sometimes wonders the exact nature of the livestock regulations within her city limits.

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge, How Admiral Hyman Rickover Saved Christmas, is today at midnight, Central time. As I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time, those of you who have to snowdog their entry (i.e. post an entry past the deadline) have until early Friday morning to get your entry in. If you post much past 6:00 AM Central time, you'll be in danger of missing the deadline. 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 "challenge" to login as a guest.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

James Cameron's new movie, Avatar, opens in two days. Without even considering the movie's plot, people are claiming the movie is going to change the industry. The claims are based on the techniques developed to film it. What I know about movies is no more than any movie buff knows, but I doubt Avatar will change the industry.

Movies have been around since the late 1800s. Those earliest movies, including Fred Ott's Sneeze -- which was part of Edison Labs first Kinetoscope demonstration -- didn't change the industry. They created it. As poor quality as those first movies were, they must rank among the most important movies of all time since you cannot have a movie industry without movies.

Within a short time, the era of the silent movie had begun. These movies went from novelties, such as the sneeze, to short films that included many characteristics of movies today. These included plots and trick (now special) effects. Frenchman Georges Méliès is credited with creating many of the narrative elements and camera effects, all in movies running for only two to five minutes. But we're talking more about people than movies, so let's move forward a bit.

By all accounts I've read, Birth of a Nation, despite all of its racial issues, is considered the first modern motion picture. Released in 1915, the movie pioneered a wide array of dramatic techniques still in use today. Despite protests by the NAACP, the movie raked in millions at the box office and set the bar against which movies would be judged for years to come.

While techniques continued to develop over the next dozen years, the next industry-changing movie was The Jazz Singer. It was the first movie in which the actors actually talked and sang in synchronization with the images on the screen. The success of the movie surprised many movie executives, especially H. M. Warner, famous for asking, "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" Anyone who has seen the movie Dancing Singing in the Rain has been shown some of the difficulties encountered by movie studies as they switched from silent movies to talkies. There's no doubt, The Jazz Singer changed the industry in a very big way.

Shortly after the era of talking movies began, the era of color movies began with the introduction of the Technicolor process. While that was another industry-changer, the change is due to the process rather than the movies filmed using it. The Viking in 1928, Redskin in 1929 and The Mysterious Island, also in 1929, are the earliest Technicolor movies. I've never heard of these movies and suspect only die-hard movie history buffs have. Sorry, movies I've never heard of can't be considered industry-changing movies. Later, more famous Technicolor movies such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind put millions of backsides in theater seats, but they simply built on what came before rather than changing the industry.

However, a full color movie from 1937 was an industry-changer. Scoring as the first feature-length cell-animated film ever, the first feature-length animated film made in the U.S. and the first full color feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs created the animated film market. Definitely an industry-changer.

In my opinion, four decades would pass before the next industry-changing film came along. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of excellent movies produced in that 40 year period; including Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Sound of Music and The Godfather. Yes, I know I left out a lot of truly excellent movies, but I don't feel like quoting a list when this is really just a bridging paragraph to get from Snow White to Star Wars.

And you knew we were going to get to Star Wars at some point. Not only did it revolutionize movie special effects, it was the first true blockbuster movie that was not based on pre-existing material such as a novel, a play or a fairy tale. All I know about film editing is that a poorly edited film usually feels too long and boring or too short and confusing to me. But the editing in Star Wars produced and array of split second scene shifts, involving a multitude of points of view. The breathless pace of the movie made other films of the day seem almost plodding in comparison. I don't think it's possible to explain to anyone who was born after Star Wars just how much the industry changed when the movie was released.

Once again, many excellent movies were released in the years after Star Wars, but it wasn't until the 1995 release of Pixar's Toy Story that I think we had our next game-changer. Toy Story was to computer animation was Snow White was to cell animation. You need merely look at the dominance of computer animated movies over the last 14 years to see just how much changed when Toy Story was released.

Part of me wants to label The Lord of the Rings as another industry-changing movie. It certainly was a bar-raising movie series and it did have some nifty new special effects, but those changes seem to me to be a natural progression rather than a major shift. The movies are amazingly good, but they didn't change the industry.

And that brings us to Avatar and its supposedly industry-changing techniques. Will the movie truly change the industry or will we simply look back at it as the first movie using a newer method of using computer animation? As I haven't seen the movie, I can't say. But I will predict that it will not be the kind of industry-changing film that Snow White or Star Wars were simply because I suspect it's plot will irritate the hell out of too many potential viewers.

But that's just my opinion. Now, 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, December 15, 2009

1984 + 25

Good news! Construction crews have finally finished widening and modernizing the Route 1 bridge over the Delaware River which separates New Jersey from Pennsylvania. The Trenton on-ramp that I use every morning on my way to work now has its own lane for a pleasant, relatively worry-free merge into the harried Philly-bound traffic. The state has also spent a great deal of money to update the toll station with multiple lanes, all sporting bright computer controlled signs to guide you safely into your choice of taxation methods.

No, wait. They aren't quite finished. One of the EZPass lanes is closed this morning. The crew is hard at work installing--ah, of course, cameras.

As a frequent flyer of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I'm quite used to seeing a lens aimed at my face as I exit onto the final leg of my hour-long journey to the salt mines. I often take that moment to examine the back of my Ford's sun visor in vain hopes that my obscured face will at least annoy some bureaucrat, if not get me out of a ticket some day.

These new cameras are different, though. They're mounted on poles and aimed at a downward angle so as to peek into the cab of my truck! As I sit and wait for the orange foam-padded gate to rise and allow me through the EZPass lane, two of these silent intruders gaze into my lap and that of my non-existent passenger like unsubtle voyeurs. "Your papers, please comrade?"

I have such fond memories of living in America before it was moved out from under me and replaced with George Orwell's Oceania.

On that note, I have a confession to make: Until last year, I had never actually read 1984. Yes, I know. As a lame defense, I offer that, having heard it quoted --no, strike that-- having heard it referred to so often, I felt that I had read it by some sort of literary osmosis. After all, who doesn't know about Big Brother and his surveillance state? To be honest, I suspect I knew the story about as well as most of those who throw around the word "Orwellian".

Last year, when I finally did get around to slipping the audio book into my truck's CD player, I discovered a deep, dark story that filled me with both fascination and dread. The level of detail that George Orwell puts into his description of an all-knowing totalitarian state is nothing short of mind-boggling. His characters seem to breathe with life and realism. Eventually, I found myself caring about what happened to Winston and Julia which is the highest compliment I can pay an author.

It took some time to nail down that sense of dread as the story of Winston's interrogation unfolded. It is, after all, just an old tale written as a warning against a regime that has begun to fade into dim history. The book’s own title dates its contents. As a year, 1984 came and went, but the biggest news story involving the Soviet Union was that they had decided to boycott the Summer Olympics. A quarter-century has passed. Orwell was wrong in his prediction. Game over.

Yet, there it is, the strange feeling in my gut that it could all still happen somehow. In 2009, the book is no longer a warning against the expansion of communism and the Soviet Empire. If the vision Orwell describes were to happen, it would occur in the West, probably with the United States marching proudly at the fore proclaiming her citizens safe from terrorism, drugs, and firearms.

In the year 1984, technology hadn't advanced to the point where everyone could be watched 24/7, and for this, we should be thankful. One can imagine what the Soviets might have done with 2009 technology. Today, webcams are everywhere. Some of the more advanced surveillance cameras can detect the sound of a gunshot or recognize the face of a wanted criminal and alert the police. If that isn't enough, most people carry their own video camera embedded in a cell phone. Good communists would need only publish another's crimes against the Party on YouTube to get the attention of authorities. Orwell's nightmare would have almost certainly come to at least partial fruition had the Soviets held out for another couple of decades.

Probably the scariest thing about the novel is that, despite its dire warnings about the evils of totalitarianism, its conclusions seem somehow inevitable. While we decry the U.S. Government's latest intrusions into our privacy, our leaders know we will ultimately calm down into the herd of passive sheep they've come to know. We see the danger in Orwell's 1984, but like the Millennium Falcon to the Death Star, we're somehow unable to stop moving toward it. The twin tractor beams of perceived safety and false security drag us relentlessly closer.

Endless war? Check. Government encouraging citizens to spy on fellow citizens? Check. Cameras everywhere? Check. Government-controlled education? Check. Government-controlled medical care? Partial credit. And is there any better example of Doublethink than the Fairness Doctrine, a regulation that protects free speech by stifling it? Many politicians would love to saddle us with that again.

This isn't to say that any one political party is responsible for our descent into a surveillance empire. If the Democrats aren't trying to control our speech, then the Republicans are trying to listen to it.

My HP notebook has a camera recessed into the frame of the display. It's a functioning "telescreen" which is staring back at me even as I type.

Ever closer.

Han: “Chewie, lock in auxiliary power!”

Obi-Wan: “You can’t win, but there are alternatives to fighting.”

Snowdog is a systems analyst who lists writing among his less-expensive hobbies. Once a story is subdued and dragged from his labyrinthine mind, it is often left on the doorstep of the Snowdog's Den with a note that reads "Feed me!" He also enjoys performing fiction for unsuspecting passersby in Trenton, NJ.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Do you have any idea how hard it is to write a column while sitting in the same room with two boys intent on calling each other's attention to everything they bring up on their computer screens? Particularly difficult to tune out is the Boy, who insists on calling everyone's attention to anything even remotely amusing he brings up on his screen. Case in point:

Boy: Dee! Dee! [That's the foster Boy's nickname.]

Foster Boy: Huh?

Boy: Look!

Five seconds pass without Dee looking.

Boy: Dee! Look!

Foster Boy: Hold your horses.

This goes on for two minutes before Dee finally looks at Brandt's computer screen. Printed next to a photo of Darth Vader are the words, "A guy can only be called 'Annie' so many times before he cracks." This is but an example of how things have gone for the last hour in this room. It dawns on me that this is why I haven't even started writing the modern sword-swinging epic science fiction adventure I want to write.

I realize I could attempt to crack down on this, order them to be quiet or yell at them until they subside to a furious silence. But they aren't going to be in the house forever and I'm told I'll miss the noise when they move out in a few years. I'm confident I will miss it as I've already found myself waxing nostalgic for times when the Boy was three or four. I miss the Boy's quest to own every Hot Wheels car ever produced. I miss the days when all but the worst hurts could be healed with an ice cream cone. I miss being asked to tell or read stories. I miss being welcomed into classrooms by both the teachers and the students.

The Boy is only 13, the Foster Boy only 14, and I'm already feeling like this. Sigh... In twenty years, I can imagine myself continuously bugging them to call or visit; particularly if there are grandchildren.

By the way, the scene above (Boy: Dee! Dee!) has repeated itself at least ten times in the time it has taken me to write this far. I think I'll take a break and come back when it's quieter.

One hour spent watching White Christmas on TV later...

The boys are in bed. Quiet has descended on the computer room. Now I can write in peace. If only I could figure out what to write about.

I'll be honest and admit that I knew this would happen every now and then when writing this weekly column. I try to avoid politics as this isn't a political site. The old Ranting Room was different. Named for a heavily political virtual location in Bruce's award winning novel Headcrash, it only makes sense that the Ranting Room allow for some ranting. But this is the Friday Challenge site, which is all about writing challenges and, apparently, writing the periodic column that doesn't say anything but uses up hundreds of words not saying it.

Now, if I was going to write about politics, I'd have spent the last several weeks writing about Climategate. Those of you who read Vox's site probably already know about Climategate. Those of you who depend on major newspapers, television networks or news sites may not have heard a thing about it. But this isn't a political site, so I'll just tell you to Google "climategate" and start reading. Or go to one of my favorite sites, junkscience.com, and read up on it there.

No politics, huh? Right...

Where was I? Oh yes, trying to figure out how to use up another couple of hundred words before putting this baby to bed. I'm guessing columns like this one aren't going to help me build a large audience.

Ah! I've thought of a topic to use to finish off this week's column!

Anyone who's watched much TV at all this weekend has probably seen ads and trailers for the upcoming movie Avatar. Produced by James Cameron of Terminator fame, Avatar is said to be the single most expensive movie ever produced. The reports I read hinted at an overall cost of $500 million. Put another way, there is no way the movie will earn back its production costs in the theater. But the same report said only 40% of a movie's eventual earnings come from the theater release these days. The majority of the earnings come from DVD sales and, for a select few movies, merchandising.

Avatar is one of those movies that will bring in merchandising bucks. The action figures (aka "dolls for boys") have been available at stores for several weeks now and they look pretty good. But I can't imagine spending money on toys for a movie I haven't seen unless it's based on an existing property, such as Firefly or Star Trek. It would also help if what little I know about the movie's plot wasn't cringe-inducing.

Bearing in mind that I haven't seen the movie, it has all the appearances of the latest in a line of movies where the humans are the greedy bad guys, the noble primitives live in total harmony with their planet's environment and corporations and the military make humans behave worse than normal. The actual images from the movie truly do look fantastic and part of me really does want to go see the movie in a theater so I can appreciate the all those wonderful visuals on the big screen.

But, unless the boys desperately want to see the movie, I'll wait until I talk to some people who have actually seen the movie. If I find out my fears aren't as thoroughly grounds as I think, perhaps I'll drop some bucks on the movie.

I'm hoping that turns out to be the case, not only because I love going to movies. I haven't added any new toys to my desk at work in months!

Henry is a software tester and storyteller who lives in Raleigh, NC. He's held all the normal jobs people hold prior to settling into a career, including grocery store bag boy, general laborer, pizza deliverer, dishwasher, newspaper deliverer, retail sales and comic book writer. Please note that flying cars were not mentioned once in this column.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

And the winner is...

The entries for the Letter to Santa challenge were as widely divergent as possible, given only four entries and what I thought to be the somewhat restricting nature of the challenge. Let's take a look at the entries

Miko wrote a heartfelt and touching letter from a young boy asking for his Great Grammy to get what she really wants. This is more poignant because, though the boy does not realize it, he is asking Santa to let his great grandmother die. The letter was just the right length with a great "little boy" final note thanking, under duress, Santa for the sweater. Excellent stuff.

Arisia entered a poem I'm guessing is at least somewhat autobiographical. With great economy of words, she gives us all the background necessary to understand the writer's past life and the simple, though life-sustaining, things she wants from her current life. A poem such as What I Want could have easily become preachy, yet it does not. It could have become pedantic, yet it does not. The poem stays true to its message, presenting it simply, starkly and effectively. That's impressive in itself. It's also the entry in least compliance with the challenge, but it gets close enough to be a valid entry.

Next up is the bandit's more traditional letter to Santa, though this time from an adult rather than a child. He also scores as the winner of this week's coveted Suck Up Award for including a sleigh ride request for me. I can thoroughly sympathize with Jakeb, having had a difficult time even landing interviews when I unemployed last spring. I liked Jakeb's willingness to start at the bottom and work his way up. Even better, I like Jakeb using Santa's own "Naughty and Nice" list as a further example of Jakeb's sterling character. Most of all, I liked Jakeb's use of rhyme; something I think Santa would appreciate. Jakeb's letter finishes on the requisite positive note, suggesting a time for the interview but offering to make an appointment if the suggested time doesn't work. I find the cover letter far more difficult to write than the resume, as you have to strike just the right positive note without tumbling over into bragging. The bandit does a great job of maintaining that balance. Very good stuff, despite the bandit's "first draft" protestations.

Finally, there Vidad. What can we say about Vidad that hasn't been said in the past? We've already suggested counseling. We've already discussed his appalling lack of sanity. We've already plotted to send assassins for hire to knock him- Ahem. Pay no attention to that last bit, Vidad. Just a bit of pre-Christmas humor. Ha ha! Just make sure you're the only one in the family to answer the door today. Seriously, now, Vidad continues to display an amazing range of talents, providing yet another reason why we all dispi- um, love him and look forward to his off-beat entries. And, boy, is Messin Wit Da Phat Man right up there among the most off-beat entries he's ever had. The only other armed Santa I recall is the one in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I suspect only Vidad could have read this week's challenge and come up with a roof top firefight. Laugh out loud funny and surprisingly easy to listen to for rap, this is everything we've learned to expect from Vidad in his more...creative...moments.

So, who wins this week? A quick read through the comments didn't help since I'm not entirely sure any of you actually voted. torainfor seems to have voted for Vidad, but she may have also been dangling the vote in front of him to draw him into the "huggy-jacket." That's the closest thing we have to a vote. Fortunately for all of you, voting is not a requirement to be a Friday Challenger. I suppose I could even take your failure to vote for a winner as a vote of confidence in your Supreme Leader wit and wisdom. But Bruce isn't judging this contest, so you'll have to settle for the opinion of the Temporary Assistant Supreme Leader. And the TASL had a tough time choosing a winner this week.

It's now been three hours since I wrote everything that came before this line. I've been thinking about this week's winner and also fixing a broken toilet. After multiple trips to the hardware store due to some poor selections on my part and incomplete advice on a sales associate's part and after spending far more time than necessary trying to worm my way around the toilet to replace the shut-off valve, I have had plenty of time to put this week's entries into perspective. Rest assured, my irritatingly long repair job didn't affect my decision, it just gave me lots of time with nothing else to do but think on the issue.

After contorting my aging body in ways it is no longer willing to contort, you'd think that humor would win the day. And I must admit that I was sorely (ha!) tempted to pick Vidad's entry this week. It was over-the-top fun and still makes me laugh out loud. But it's not really a letter to Santa. No, this week I'm picking the bandit's "rough first draft" letter requesting a job interview with Santa. Not only did it hit all the right notes for an actual letter, he also worked some nice rhyming. So, bandit, you're this week's winner! Come on down and make your selection from what's behind Door #3.

Saturday, December 12, 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


Kersley Fitzgerald is an accidental cartoonist who still wonders why The World's Most Neurotic Dog (TM) loves frozen beans.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 12/11/09

It seems we have a fairly naughty group here, based on the number of letters to Santa we've received. It looks like there's going to be lumps of coal in a lot of stockings and you know you don't want that! Just think of the carbon offsets you'll have to buy from Al Gore before you can even think of burning the coal. It probably won't be long before he gets a bill passed requiring carbon offsets merely to own a lump of coal, even if you don't burn it. After all, coal represents potential carbon dioxide and that's almost as bad as actual carbon dioxide!

There do appear to be a few of you who were good this year and deserving of a visit from Saint Nick.

Miko - Great Grammy

Arisia - What I Want

the bandit - Letter to Santa

Vidad - Messin Wit Da Phat Man (mp3 posted to 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, concocted and presented by ~brb.

At last, the story can be told...
On 30 July 1958 the nuclear attack submarine USS Skate (SSN-578) set sail from her home port of New London, Connecticut, and bent her course north by east, on a secret mission to sail under the Arctic ice pack. According to official government sources the purpose of this voyage, as announced afterwards in press releases and newsreels, was to conduct scientific research in the Arctic ocean, and the sub rosa purpose, as leaked considerably later, was to test the theory that a properly designed and equipped submarine could surface through the Arctic ice, and be in good position to launch nuclear missiles at targets in Russia. During the next ten days the Skate surfaced successfully through the ice nine times, and then headed to Norway, to put into Bergen on 23 August.

At least, that's the official story...

Thanks to a recent Freedom Of Information Act lawsuit, we now know the terrible truth: that there was also a disastrous, nay, tragic, tenth surfacing. On 10 August 1958, at precisely 10-hundred-fourteen hours Greenwich Mean Time, the Skate surfaced precisely under the North Pole.

The resulting loss of elven life was appalling. Entire clans of toymakers were wiped out in a single blow. Craft specialties that had been preserved unchanged since Roman times were lost forever as the shattered remnants of Santa's Workshop plunged to the icy ocean floor, and the entire subspecies of Rangifer tarandus aeronautica became extinct in the blink of an eye.

The Navy tried desperately to undo the damage. The Skate returned to the North Pole in the winter of 1958-59 to see what could be salvaged—

And with that as the background, here is this week's Friday Challenge. I want you to write a pitch, outline, or script treatment for the made-for-TV movie special:

"How Admiral Hyman Rickover Saved Christmas"

("Brought to you by the U.S. Navy!")

Lay it on thick, folks, and don't spare the schmaltz. Pathos, bathos, shameless sentimentalism, brainless pandering; whatever you got, throw it in. In this field it simply is not possible to aim too low: the Brown Standard here is the Star Wars Holiday Special, ("Guest starring Bea Arthur, Art Carney, and Jefferson Starship!") which is so unspeakably awful it is being shown next Wednesday in a Toys for Tots fundraiser at the Bryant Lake Bowl, Minneapolis's home to all things surreal, tragically hip, or ironically postmodern.

So go ahead; get it out of your system; give us a story that makes Elmo Saves Christmas look like Shakespeare and the Star Wars Holiday Special look like A Christmas Carol in comparison. You'll feel better afterwards.

As always, we're playing by the loosely enforced official rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #3. The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, December 17.

Now get those sleigh bells jingling!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge, Letters to Santa, is today at midnight, Central time. As I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time, those of you who have to snowdog their entry (i.e. post an entry past the deadline) have until early Friday morning to get your entry in. If you post much past 6:00 AM Central time, you'll be in danger of missing the deadline. 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 "challenge" to login as a guest.

Critical Thinking: The Chapter-by-Chapter Synopsis

It seems that every agent and editor has a different list of what they would like to see in an author’s query package. Many require a synopsis of the novel, chapter by chapter. And many authors, who have spent the last several months attempting to bulk up their word count, have a problem with this. How do you condense page upon page of eloquent prose into a few down-and-dirty lines? What about poetry? What about description?

Forget about it. The agent doesn’t want it and you don’t need it.

A chapter-by-chapter synopsis is simply that: a very short rundown of each chapter. Everything I’ve ever known about chapter synopses I learned from my writers’ group. Here are the basics:

- One paragraph per chapter.
- Label each paragraph with “Chapter 1” (or 2, or 78, or…you know).
- All action is written in present tense. (Use your judgment on this. If the action relates to something in the past, use past tense. Eg.: “Ethyl walks into the room, looking for Fred, then remembers she’d drowned him in pudding the day before.”)
- The first time each significant character is mentioned, the name is in all caps.
- No more than five sentences for each chapter. (Yes, you can do it!)
- Basic, plot-related information only.
- Reveal your ending. This is not the place to attempt to whet an agent’s appetite. This is the place to give them an over-all idea of your story without forcing them to actually read it.
- Don’t forget to cover the character arc.

My writing career in my earlier days was strictly limited to Air Force performance reports and awards packages. There are great similarities between these and the synopsis—mainly brevity and density. Well, and creativity. Every sentence should be vital to the description of the story. To stick to the five-sentence limit, you’re going to want to indulge in run-on sentences that cover everything and attempt to reveal the cleverness and down-right likability of the author not to mention the state of conflict in the Middle East and Henry’s obsession with flying cars. Don’t.

For illustration, I’m going to use the first paragraph of my first NaNo novel, Joshuwu Bradley: Rocket Scientist. You can find it here.

The synopsis for this chapter is:

Chapter One:
JOSHUWU BRADLEY, eight years old, stands on the viewing deck of the space station Hokkaido, orbiting the planet Kerulen. He and his friends Charlie and Tippy, who live on the station, are watching the starship carrier, Onslow, which has just returned from war. After a long commander’s call, Joshuwu and his dad, TRIK, race to their room on the Hokkaido to meet Joshuwu’s mom, CAR, who has been stationed on the carrier as a fighter pilot.

- Note that Charlie and Tippy’s names are not in caps. That’s because they play minor roles in only a couple of chapters in the book. The detail that they live on the station is important because the story quickly transitions to planet-side, then to the Onslow, and this reveals why they’re not mentioned in those chapters.
- There’s no mention of the “black laser-blast scars along her flanks,” just that the ship is returning from war. Although the shape and appearance of the ship adds to the mood of the story and later helps the reader understand where Joshuwu is in the ship, they aren’t germane to the plot.
- The last two sentences do get into some perfect participle thingies, the exactedness of which I’ve long forgotten. In the last sentence, since Car is still assigned to the Onslow, it could just as easily have said, “…CAR, who is stationed on the carrier…”
- The synopsis is actually incredibly dry reading. As a kids’ book, the chapters are a little shorter, so it only took three sentences to get the gist.

Here’s another chapter synopsis:

Chapter Four: Joshuwu, Car, and Trik hike to a waterfall with their friends Snoh and Kano, their daughter Tres and son Saulie. Joshuwu proves his ability to hold his breath longer than anyone other than his dad. The adults jump off a high cliff into the pool at the base of the waterfall. Joshuwu wants to try, and Car supports his decision despite Trik’s misgivings. Although Joshuwu slips the first time, landing on his back and getting the wind knocked out of him, he tries again and successfully jumps into the pool.

- “Joshuwu proves his ability to hold his breath...” Yeah, believe it or not, this is relevant to the climax of the story, several chapters down the line. It shows the agent how the story builds, how important information is slowly revealed. Although the “other than his dad” isn’t relevant; it could have just said, “…hold his breath a very long time.”
- Part of the arc of the story includes the difficulties military families face when a deployed parent returns. Dynamics change when one parent has been gone for an extended period of time. In a previous chapter, Joshuwu and Car had problems relating. This shows Car’s truer personality and the trust she has in her son. Her confidence is validated when Joshuwu is successful, and he takes her confidence with him as he faces other challenges.
- Again, although Tres stars in the unwritten, un-outlined sequel, she and her family are only in Joshuwu’s story for a couple of chapters, so their names are not capitalized.
- The last sentence is getting a little run-onny, but you do only get five sentences.

One more:

Chapter Seven: Joshuwu, Trik, and Car fly to Cook Island. Trik and Joshuwu drive to Car’s office where they catch up with her former crew chief, Senior Master Sergeant BERNIE MASTERS. While Trik waits for Car, Bernie takes Joshuwu to “The Boneyard” where the GROUP stores obsolete and unneeded aircraft. Bernie teaches Joshuwu about propeller-driven aircraft and several types of jet engines. They meet Car and Trik for lunch, and Car briefly goes over how a jet engine is similar to a rocket.

This book is actually half-novel, half-textbook. Throughout, Joshuwu learns about things like jet engines, Amelia Earhart, and thermal lift near an east-facing mountain range. One sentence, “Bernie teaches Joshuwu about propeller-driven aircraft and several types of jet engines,” encompasses several pages worth of text. But the agent doesn’t need to know that turbo-jets are so loud they’re only allowed over water, or that the C-130 is one of the most agile airframes in the history of air flight. Condns!

The chapter-by-chapter outline is one way to plot your book before you write it. Pick out three to five plot-significant items for each chapter. It will show you story flow; give you an idea where to add to ensure the plot makes sense. If you’re writing a traditional three-act structure, it will help you time things out so your climax doesn’t come too late or your point of no return too early. You can see the entire book in front of you at once, making it easier to determine if scenes need to be switched around. And, if you update it while you write, your synopsis will be done when your book is.

If you have a synopsis you’d like us to tear apart—I mean, edit—stick it on your blog or the drop.io (code word challenge) and leave a comment indicating you’ve done so.

If you are an expert at the sell—the fifty-word attention grabber or the clever cover sheet—please write an article and send it in to slushpile at thefridaychallenge dot com. Like Bono said, “I come from a long line of salesmen on my mother’s side…” but I ain’t one of them.

Kersley Fitzgerald is a wanna-be author whose then-six-year-old son thought Joshua was spelled "Joshuwu."
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