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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Open Mic Saturday

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

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



As a fiction writer I've been kind of swamped this week and so have made no progress on the novel, but I do have two announcements. The first is that I finally got the long-promised new banner posted yesterday, and then the multitalented Vidad MaGoodn promptly did some fine-tuning that made it much better. Thanks, Vidad!

The second is that ten days ago I contacted the editors of F&SF, Analog, and Asimov's, and asked two questions:
1. Do you consider posting a partial or complete work-in-progress on a website for the purposes of critique to be a "prior publication" that would disqualify the finished story from being considered for publication?

2: Does it make a difference to you if the critique site is a password-protected members-only site?
The results are coming in. Answers in the Comments section, so that Google doesn't find them and broadcast them to the world.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 2/27/09

We got clobbered with a snowstorm last night and had a good deal of digging-out to do, so I'm clicking the Post button a bit later than usual this morning. We have a really strong field of entries this week, including two—well, I'll just have to explain them when I come to them.

In approximately LIFO order, then, the entries in consideration for the 2/20/09 Friday Challenge are:

torainfor: untitled

Arisia: "Johnny and Megan"

snowdog: "The Kiln"

the bandit: "Hansel and Gretel v. Agatha Hexe"

Henry: "Mr. Fox"

Ben-El: "Snow White and the Red Queen"

KTown: "A Sleeping Beauty"

Jen Stuck: "Leda and The Pigeons"

And then, in something completely new to the Friday Challenge, we've received the following non-entries, which their respective authors do not want considered for judging but are hoping you'll enjoy reading all the same.

Arisia: "Another Kind of Pain"

Imnay Udosay: "The Supermodel's New Clothes"

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

And now, without further ado, I turn the microphone over to Vidad.



This turned out more philosophical than I originally intended, but here’s my challenge, with a rather lengthy set-up. (In advance, I apologize for the fact that this challenge doesn’t involve headless romances, bees, were-seals, Counselor Troi, politics, clogs, the Eighties, or all of the above. Feel free to work them in, however.)

In case you missed it, many of the luminaries of science fiction were devout humanists. People like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (not to mention Gene Roddenberry) had glorious visions of a human future, where man had overcome his superstitious past and learned to work together in the furthering of his evolution.

As a child, my dad instilled in me a wide knowledge of worldviews. If I remember correctly, there are basically three root views.

1. Naturalism (The material world is all there is. There is no spiritual realm. All can be explained by natural processes.)

2. Pantheism (All is spiritual and interconnected, we are all one, everything is God.)

3. Theism (There are both physical and spiritual realms. An infinite and personal God created the laws of nature and the material world. The spiritual is eternal, the physical temporary.

Or… more simply put:

1. Sorry… there is no God, monkey-boy!

2. Shirley MacLaine is God, and so are you, your houseplants, and everything else.

3. God is out there and might be mad. Do you:
A. Bow to Mecca?
B. Put on a Yarmulke?
C. Worship Satan and hope he’ll protect you?
D. Follow Jesus?
E. Do all of the above to cover all your bases (or backside) and hope for the best? (Final exam after death!)

Humanism, of course, falls under category #1. It’s a confusingly positive spin on a set of underlying assumptions about life. (Note: I’m using the term in the current sense, which is inherently secular. This is the Humanism of the “Humanist Manifesto” and not the early humanism of someone like Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.) Seriously, though… why is it so dang positive? There’s no belief in God, an afterlife, the human soul, etc. We are the result of randomness, born of chance, of no inherent worth, un-designed, living in a universe that’s going to burn away into the ultraviolet…

Enter Hari Seldon!

Through Science, he charts the course of history! For the moment, things are cool! Don’t think too hard about the beginning or the end, and you’re good! The Foundation is saved (though in difficulty… thanks to The Mule! Oh no!).

Or maybe you prefer 2001 – where a previously evolved race cares enough about us to erect a giant black thing on the moon, like a monolithic rest stop lighting our way to the stars (and incomprehensible film sequences).

Since many pages of sci-fi have been written about Man’s glorious future and perhaps eventual evolution towards a Naturalistic Godhood of some sort… I had an idea. And it became…

This Week’s Friday Challenge.

Here’s the challenge! Divorce sci-fi from Humanism! That’s right. Go ahead, throw Humanism’s clothing out on the lawn and take away its visitation rights! I’m not asking you to write a Theistic/Religious/Christian/Mormon/Deistic sci-fi tale… oh no, that’s been done before with varying degrees of effectiveness. (A few of particular note would be “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr., “Out of the Silent Planet” by C. S. Lewis, and “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeline L’Engle)

No, I’m asking you to take a DIFFERENT tack on Worldview Option #1. We’re going over to the dark side!

This challenge is now officially titled:

NIHILISTS IN SPACE!

Why bother being positive? I mean REALLY? Take some H-bombs to the FREAKIN’ stars, man! Only the strong survive! (Darwinism works in space too, right?)

I expect lots of grim, death-oriented, jack-booted Wagnerian awesomeness. Time to bust out your inner √úbermensch!

(Alternately, if you’re feeling squishy, give us your best take on Worldview Option #2. It might make the Oprah Book Club selection… you never know! Zen Buddhists in space? Is your rocket an illusion? Is space an illusion? Is this challenge an illusion?)

The deadline is Thursday, March 5th by Midnight CST.

Paint it black!

-Vidad

Thursday, February 26, 2009

How's Business?

by Don Blyly
Uncle Hugo's Science Fiction Bookstore


While the major chains were down by double digits for the fourth quarter, we were slightly up for the fourth quarter. Amazingly, in spite of the extremely cold January, we were also up slightly in January, although many days we lost money by being open. Some customers commented about being more concerned about helping local businesses stay in business during hard economic times. (I’ve noticed the same thing about my purchasing habits, especially regarding restaurants that I would hate to see go out of business during the recession.) But several other customers commented that the chains had cut back their stock of books so drastically that the customers had to come to us instead of buying from their local chain stores. In early December, after reading several industry reports on how severely Borders had cut back their inventory, I drove out to one of the local Borders. At first glance, they seemed to have a lot of books; but then I notice that they only had one title from our hardcover top ten science fiction/fantasy bestsellers of the month before, and only three of our top ten mass market science fiction/fantasy bestsellers. I’ve heard from several people that the chains have cut back their inventory even more since Christmas, but I haven’t had time to drive around and form my own opinion.

As sales dropped like crazy at the chains, they didn’t have the cash to pay their bills to the publishers, so they started returning books to a greater extent than ever before and trimming back the quantities they had previously ordered of forthcoming books. The publishers still have to meet their payrolls and pay their printing bills, so they’ve become more aggressive at trying to squeeze more money out of the little guys (like the Uncles) and have canceled some books, increased the prices on other books, and pushed the release dates of others farther into the future, so that their printing expenses will be more in line with their expected cash flows. As the number of titles released per month goes down, it takes longer to clear the inventory of purchased manuscripts, so they are buying fewer new manuscripts and probably offering smaller advances on average. All of this makes good business sense, but makes life rough on everybody, including authors who are not bestsellers and readers waiting for the next book in a series.

The information about new titles for the newsletter comes primarily from the publishers’ catalogs, although sometimes we also go to websites for smaller publishers that don’t send catalogs to us. Usually we also check a few of the titles against the website of our national book wholesaler, Baker & Taylor, where there’s reason to think that our information might be questionable. For the last issue of the newsletter, we started checking a few titles and found so many changes that we eventually checked every single title against the Baker & Taylor website. Nearly 20% of the titles had either a price change or a release date change or both after the publishers sent out the catalogs, and many more titles were changed or canceled after the newsletter was published. This issue we are also checking every title against the wholesaler’s website, but expect that there will be more changes after we go to press.



Don Blyly is the owner of Uncle Hugo's Science Fiction Bookstore, the oldest surviving science fiction specialty bookstore in the United States. This excerpt is posted by the kind permission of Mr. Blyly. If you would like to read the remainder of this editorial, which goes into some detail about Mr. Blyly's recent adventures with the Minneapolis property tax assessor, fire marshal, and anti-graffiti squad, you'll find it here.

Uncle Hugo's Science Fiction Bookstore shares its building with Uncle Edgar's Mystery Bookstore. For more information about upcoming events or to inquire about the availability of signed, rare, or out-of-print SF, Fantasy, or Mystery books, visit their web site.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

H. Beam Piper: The Most Influential Writer You've Never Heard Of

by Guy Stewart


I first stumbled across Little Fuzzy when I was 21 years old. The story seemed like a straightforward gosh-wow adventure of the kind promoted by Analog (nee Astounding) editor John W. Campbell. I’d been reading Analog since I was thirteen, checking out the magazines from the library. This was the science fiction I knew and loved! Little Fuzzy led me to the rest of Piper’s books, and I devoured them, too.

I didn’t know it then, but Piper’s books changed me forever. It me took another thirty years to figure out why.

At one time or another, I’ve owned all of Piper’s books. (Except for Murder in the Gunroom — ‘cause I didn’t read "that mystery stuff" any more!) I’ve read a few of the biographies, garnering enough information to know that he was a private man and that no one really knows why he took his own life in November of 1964. These biographies typically point out his influence on science fiction writers like Ursula K. LeGuin, Jerry Pournelle, Charles Stross, Elizabeth Bear, Michael McCollum, and Robert Adams. Few of them miss the fact that Piper was setting women up as talented, intriguing and strong characters long before it became "politically correct" to do so.

You would think all of this would cause the meteoric rise of this once-forgotten writer. In the 1981 edition of Federation, a collection of some of his short stories and part of his Terro-Human Future History, in the introduction, biographer John Carr predicted, "With the availability Piper’s short stories...we should see a reevaluation of Piper’s work and stature within the SF field."

Sadly, this never happened, and while most of his books remain extant, there was never a consequent elevation of his name among signature writers like Harry Harrison, Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson, and even his close friend, Jerry Pournelle. He remains obscure and mostly known for the insufferably cute aliens he created that he called "Fuzzies." Artists depicted them as only barely this side of Teddy bears in terminal cuteness.

But in my experience, I think we missed the biggest of Piper’s boats because we have so integrated the idea and taken for granted Piper’s biggest contribution to the SF canon. I propose that Piper created a meme— (a term coined by Richard Dawkins, it refers to an information virus similar to a gene, but informational rather than genetic) —when he titled the novel that eventually became Fuzzy Sapiens.

Fuzzy Sapiens bore a very different title when it was published in 1964. A sequel to Little Fuzzy, it continued the story of Jack Holloway and Little Fuzzy, the intensely adorable alien creature that Jack discovers has a Human-equivalent intelligence. His discovery totally changes the status of the corporation that owns the planet Zarathustra, for whom he does prospecting work. Obviously in an attempt by Piper’s publishers to strengthen the "cute factor" of the original illustration, they tipped their hat to the original title, but made it far too subtle for people like — say, ME, when I was 22.

The Other Human Race, Piper’s original title, carried an extremely subtle implication; so subtle that it seems to have escaped notice. Star Trek adopted the meme whole and eventually had to "logically" explain why everyone (except the Horta) in Rodenberry’s universe looked like Humans. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Chase" panspermia by an ancient humanoid race is the explanation. Piper’s meme finds its way into the movie Mission to Mars (2000), where the idea of the "humanness of all aliens" forms the basis of the aliens who built the Face on Mars: we are their descendants and it is implied that there may be others also. While Klingons find the idea of calling everyone "human" to be racist (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), the idea nonetheless that aliens will just be "humans in rubber masks" is one SF writers continually struggle to shed.

Rather than fight it, Piper embraced it, and promoted it. Based on the original title, his Fuzzies were simply the OTHER Human race. The packaging was different, but the essence was the same.

Therein lay H. Beam Piper’s greatest legacy and the reason his work should come up to your attention. He created the idea that no matter how "alien" a life form may seem, it is an extension of our essential humanness—or if you feel like being politically correct ahead of time, we can say that we are an extension of Little Fuzzy’s essential Fuzziness.

Implicit in this concept is the possibility of understanding anyone we meet out there. Beyond smarmy Trek, Piper calls us to understand the aliens of Independence Day rather than to visit genocide on them, cheering afterward. He calls us to find the right white flag to wave before the Martians before we drop the bomb on them. He calls us to go back and try to figure out what Solaris is saying rather than giving up.

To my mind, this is H. Beam Piper’s enduring bequest—and why he is the most influential writer you’ve never heard of.



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.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, Part 3: Starting to Write

by Henry Vogel
Part One | Part Two

Welcome to part three of writing for comic books. This is the part where we actually begin to do some writing. But before we do, there is one other thing to consider. Once you're actually writing a comic book, you'll already know the answer to the question I ask below, and once you've gotten into the writing, you'll automatically take it into consideration with every issue you write.


What kind of comic book are you writing?
This question is not about the genre you're writing for. It doesn't matter whether you're writing a superhero, fantasy, romance, or mystery comic book. It does matter whether you're writing an ongoing series, such as The Amazing Spider-Man, or a limited series, such as The Watchmen.

If you're writing an ongoing series, chances are you'll have first-time readers for every issue. You can't count on those readers knowing anything about your characters or your setting. What does that mean to you? It means you have to briefly introduce your characters in every issue.

If you've ever read The Amazing Spider-Man for any length of time, you've probably noticed that Aunt May was always referred to as "frail" either in a caption or one of Peter Parker's thought-bubbles. Far more often than not, you'll find a quick reference to Uncle Ben being killed in a robbery attempt. On the splash page of every issue you'll find an abbreviated recap of how Peter became Spider-Man.

If that kind of thing is considered necessary for a character as well-known as Spider-Man, you'll definitely want something similar for any original, ongoing series you write. In part one I mentioned writing The Southern Knights. If you haven't known me for a couple of decades, chances are you have no idea who the Southern Knights are. That's why we added the following text on our splash pages very early in the series:
David Shenk - alias Electrode - Atlanta's first and foremost protector. Connie Ronnin - wielder of the psychic sword. Dragon - the last of his race, able to assume the human guise of Mark Dagon. Kristin Austin - petite, but endowed with incredible strength. Together, they are the Southern Knights!
It's a fairly short bit of text but it gives a new reader a surprising amount of information that will make following the story easier. Just by reading it you learn the setting, Atlanta; the names of the main characters; and the aliases of the characters who have them. You also learn a bit about their powers. You may not know what a "psychic sword" is but the first time you see a woman wielding a sword, you know it's Connie. If you see a small woman picking up a car and throwing it, you know it's Kristin.

What if you're writing a limited series? Chances are the people who pick up an issue have also picked up any previous issues. Like most people, comic book fans want to read a story from the beginning. That simplifies things, as you don't have to keep introducing your characters each issue. On the other hand, you do want to make sure your readers remember what was going on in previous issues. In this case, a handy Our Story So Far bit on the inside cover will take care of things just fine. It's not unheard of to use this approach in an ongoing series if the series has a long and complex storyline. One of my favorite comics, Fables, uses that approach.

To answer my own question, we're going to be writing a story for the Southern Knights, meaning it's expected to be an ongoing series.


What are we going to write?
Considering where this column is appearing, you're probably already a writer. You know that coming up with story ideas is generally the easiest part of writing, so I'm not going to try to give you any tips for coming up with good ideas. I am going to explain where the idea for my story came from.

This idea was for a planned return to print for The Southern Knights. It didn't happen, but that's another story. Most ongoing comic book titles, and certainly all superhero titles, start off with an "origin" issue in which the heroes gain their powers or meet each other for the first time. This gives the writer the perfect excuse to explain a lot about the characters to the readers without having a lot of sentences that begin with "As you know..."

That wasn't going to work for the Knights. Their origin issue came out in 1982 and their last appearance in print form was in 1993. And, as the "big" thing to explain about a superhero is his or her power, the obvious way to start things off was with a big fight scene. Starting with a big action scene also gets your story off with a bang and sometimes helps attract new readers to your comic book.

So, who are the Knights fighting? I needed something that would allow each member of the team to show off his or her powers. After a bit of thinking, I chose a couple of big human-controlled robots—battlemechs for those who are fans of the Battletech universe. They are big, strong, not very mobile, and come with lots of different weapons I can use to show off powers.

Where are they fighting? I wanted something iconic to Atlanta and capable of putting lots of innocent people in danger. Anyone who has ever driven south into Atlanta on I-85 would recognize where I-85 and I-285 intersect. It's one of those modern-art-looking interchanges with a half-dozen overpasses crisscrossing all over the place. At rush hour, it's also 12 lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Why are the big robots attacking? I don't know nor do I care. This is an intro fight that is probably never going to figure into any future stories. It's like the opening gambit in a Bond movie, in that sense.

Okay, I've got the gist of the fight scene, but that's hardly a story. I was actually on a business trip when all of this came up. That meant I was staying in a hotel that shoved a newspaper under my door every morning. It just so happened that the sports page that morning had featured a story about professional sports franchises threatening to move to another city if their current city didn't cough up big bucks for a new stadium or some other stupid concession. Since the economic impact of a sports franchise on a city is minimal, keeping the franchise is always about a city's image. But why limit that to sports teams? If even a crappy NFL franchise helps a city's image, what would a good superhero team do for it? And if cities would line up to offer all sorts of concessions for a sports franchise, wouldn't they be even more interested in a superhero team that could make their city safer?

Okay, so I've got a warped imagination. But I really liked the idea. What would Atlanta do if they thought the Southern Knights were looking to relocate to another city? And what would other cities offer to get their own superhero team?

So, we've got the basics of our story: a big fight that segues into a lot of cities bidding against each other trying to land a superhero "franchise."

Now we're ready to write that plot or full script, right? Not quite. This next bit of advice is something that I learned from one of my editors. It's not a required step, but I found it helped a lot. It's sort of like a story outline, although specifically aimed at the comic book format. The idea is take a regular sheet of notebook paper, number the lines from one to whatever the last page of the book will be, and then write a single sentence summarizing what happens on that page.

Most comic book stories are 22 pages long. The publisher who wanted to bring back the Knights published 28-page stories. Here is the 28-line "outline" for the story:

1. The Knights are fighting two battlemechs at I-85 and I-295.
2. Some Knights fight, some work to get bystanders to safety.
3. A missile is launched, Dragon and Kristin save the day.
4. Flying circles around a mech, Electrode shorts out some controls.
5. Connie uses her sword to deal with the pilot of the damaged mech.
6. Aramis under Electrode's guidance, levitates then drops the other mech.
Note to column readers: Aramis joined the team long after the intro blurb was written. He's a sorcerer.
7. The other mech is overheating so Kristin throws it far from the highway.
8. Electrode causes the mech to overheat and explode.
9. A bystander whose car was trashed in the fight blames Kristin for the loss.
10. Kristin stalks away muttering about what Atlanta would do if the Knights left.
11. Kristin's comments turn up on the nightly news as "Knights leaving Atlanta?"
12. Reporter gives brief overview of the Knights time in Atlanta.
13. Overview continues, includes more detailed character introductions.
14. Reporter editorializes about how Atlanta has welcomed the Knights.
15. Scenes of post-fight destruction are shown as reporter hopes Knights do leave.
16. Story is front page news, Knights figure it will blow over.
17. Representative from Miami pitches his city as a great place to fight crime.
18. Charlotte representative shows up and pitches for his city.
19. Raleigh-Durham offers high tech facilities and great basketball.
20. Orlando arrives with Disney characters but Knights have had enough.
21. Knights make everyone leave and Bryan (grounds keeper) puts up "Keep Out" signs.
22. Morning newspaper reports "Knights Favor Denver". Huh? Bryan got irritated and blurted out first city that came to mind to a reporter.
23. Denver mayor calls, delegation is being prepared. Knights realize something must be done.
24. Knights meet Atlanta city officials who think Knights want "concessions" to stay.
25. Kristin literally shakes some sense into a particularly angry councilman.
26. Big news conference to announce Knights are staying.
27. Reporter who started it all badgers Knights to find out what city is giving Knights to stay.
28. Knights put reporter in her place. Everyone is happy except the reporter.

So, that's the general story. And here's a quick confession; the story is padded. I'm used to writing 22-page stories. What you've got up there is a 22-page story padded out to make 28 pages.

Next week we'll turn the outline into the plot I was going to send to the artist. The week after that, we'll turn parts of it into a full script.

I hope you all learned a bit more about writing comic books this week. As usual, please don't hesitate to post any questions you have.



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

Sunday, February 22, 2009

And the winner is...

As problems go, this was a nice problem to have. All the entries in the 2/13/09 Friday Challenge were good. All we needed to do was separate the good from the great, and the great from the really great, and then the really great from the truly outstanding. Simple, right?

Wrong. Actually, this turned out to be quite a tough problem, and we spent hours this weekend re-reading the entries and arguing over their respective merits.

Before I get to the results, though, I first want to say a few words about how surprised I was that every single one of you chose to set your story in the ST:TNG continuity. There was no explicit requirement that you do so; Trek Classic, Enterprise, Voyager, and Deep Yawn 9 were all fair game, and I don't see how anyone who has ever heard William Shatner perform "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" could pass up the opportunity to do something with that. Yes, the correct word is "perform." Whatever that bizarre stream of modulated noise is that emanates from Shatner's buccal cavity, it is definitely not singing. I've heard singing before. You can't fool me.

Nonetheless, all of you chose to set your stories in the Star Trek: The Next Generation continuity, and I have to wonder whether this is merely a generational thing, as this was the flavor of Star Trek you grew up with, or if there is some other reason why you identify this particular Star Trek series as being the one most desperately in need of rock 'n' roll. Does anyone have any theories?

While you ruminate over that idea, let's get on with the results.

First off, Vidad: for that one you deserve a "special" achievement award, and there's no point in arguing, chum; you're gonna get it. No, you have no choice in this matter. Your "special" achievement award has already been selected and will be showing up in your mailbox shortly. Incoming!

Next up, Rigel Kent: while a part of me is still muttering, "The horror! The horror!", on further reflection, the ending is weak. The story up to that point is quite good, although you need to pay more attention to tense as you keep switching between past and present, and I really liked Ensign Danzig's dialog. But the last paragraphs are a punchline that turn the whole thing into a joke, and for me, this week, that just didn't work. There is a stronger, better ending for this one waiting to be written, although I don't know what it might be.

Ben-El: I heard a distinct whooshing sound as parts of this one went right over my head. I really liked it right up to the moment when the Enterprise exploded, but the epilogue baffled me. I think I might know what you were driving at in that last scene, but mostly I'm confused.

One minor note: when you make your sigma character a musician named Orpheus and you kill a girl in the opening scene, you've set up an expectation, and you either need to tie into the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice or at least work against it. If that was not your intent, perhaps this was not the best possible name for that character.

Al: a nice concept, and after reading your comments, I like what you were intending to do here. I really like the idea of your Starfleet psych evaluation sticking to you, as Robert Metzger once said, "like crap to a baby blanket," and I like the idea of this whole wonderful technotopian system being dependent on the competence, or Office Space-like lack thereof, of some under-assistant mailroom flunkie, second-class. I like the way Riker manages to pull out a rough approximation of a happy ending out of the situation, but ultimately, this one just felt underdeveloped and rushed. I can't put my finger on what precisely needs to be changed or developed further. While your intentions were great, it's execution that counts, and in that regard this one just felt... thin.

Good idea, though.

Jamsco: this is another of those ones that just wasn't quite developed enough. The idea is decently interesting: at first I thought this was going to turn into Close Encounters, but when it turned into Star Trek IV only with the ST:TNG crew instead of Kirk and the gang and rock musicians instead of humpback whales, I was amused. But it just seemed too short, too thin, and too neatly wrapped up, too quickly. I wanted to see them arrive in the future and suddenly discover that 115V 60Hz AC power has been obsolete for centuries. I wanted to see the drummer get drunk and suddenly teleport out with three groupies from Hong Kong. I wanted to see... More of everything, basically. It's too short.

Henry: this one has a really creepy subtext that I really like a lot. Of all the entries, I think this one has the most potential to be de-Trekked and rewritten into something that might actually be a sellable story.

I keep feeling there's some analogy to home-schooling or something on that order here. In a world where everyone uses teleporters, what's it like to be one of the few who doesn't use them? When you go through a teleporter, and presumably have the exact position and state of every atom in your body mapped and turned into information that is transmitted, what might you lose, and how would you ever know that you'd lost it? What happens to the original you? How do you know that "they" (whoever it is that operates the teleporters) are actually transmitting true and unaltered information, and not editing or simplifying it en route? As someone who spends a fair amount of time mucking about with Fourier transformations and compression algorithms, I'm keenly aware that information is not the actual thing it describes, and that data is routinely simplified to improve the speed and ease of handling it. When you go through a transporter, what part of you is lost to rounding errors?

As I said, there's a lot in this one to think about, and I think it might be worth "de-Trekking" this one and exploring these ideas further.

Leatherwing: as I said in my comments on your site, back in the day it was joked that DEVO drummer Alan Myers was in fact a robot, and when Data took up the drums I really expected him to end up wearing a yellow plastic suit with a red flowerpot on his head. It was a crime to put him in the story without having him perform "Mr. Roboto," I envisioned Troi's big solo as being something from Grace Slick's repertoire, and I'm not really sure that "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was the best possible choice for the final number. (I think either "We're Not Gonna Take It" from Tommy or "My Generation" would have been a better choice, just to bring it full-circle, musically.) But all in all...

Mike and the Mrs: on the other hand, I laughed out loud at this one, repeatedly. A Ferengi karaoke bar? I believe I've just seen a vision of Musician's Hell. And it's hilarious.

So in the end, that's where we got stuck. I insisted Leatherwing's entry was the best story; Karen insisted Mike and the Mrs's entry was the most entertaining. We would probably still be arguing over it if Karen hadn't said, "Okay, it's late and I want to go to bed, so let's call it a tie."

Thus, it's a tie. Leatherwing and Mike and the Mrs, come on down and claim your prizes!

Me, I think I'm going to go pull my old Gibson SG out of its case, tune it up, and see if my fingers aren't still good for a few minutes of strumming.

Think I'll start out with "Summertime Blues."

WCA Reminder

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

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

Rock and Roll and Utopia: An Addendum

by KTown


Why is there no Rock and Roll in the Utopian future? Turns out this is an interesting question that I think has an actual answer; some of it was touched on in the other articles and comments but I thought it would be a useful exercise to lay it out on the table and take a closer, more curious look at it.

Rock & Roll is antithetical to the humanist Utopia.

As I thought about it, several profound, contrasting qualities of Rock & Roll (henceforth Rock) and the Utopian futures of Science Fiction made themselves obvious to me.

But first another question: I think most would agree that the vision of a Utopian future is a Godless one. Well, says the voice in the back of my head, Rock is Godless, too, right? At least that’s what the Church told us. Seems like Rock and Utopia should get along just fine.

There is a difference, though. Utopia says there is no God whereas Rock, instead of denying God, flips Him the bird. And occasionally, in a desperate plea, says, “Are you real? Prove it.”

No, this is not a sermon. Bear with me.

What happens in Utopia? Perfect peace. Prosperity. Passivity.

Lethargy?

By the 1950s, America had become Christendom’s Utopia and the Church reacted to Rock like one would react to a horribly disfigured sewer rat; first with complete disgust, and then with attempted extermination. It couldn’t believe what it was suddenly having to live with.

I know many might not appreciate the religious language in this short essay but it’s just a good example of the sort of dynamic I’m talking about.

What am I talking about?

Utopia vs. Rock

For the sake of argument, let’s remove the moral implications out of Rock. Depravity is not implicit in the music as an art form. To the point…

Rock is personal expression – Utopia is collective thinking.

For Utopia to exist, all members must think generally the same way. This is one of the reasons religion cannot be included. It’s much too divisive. I mean, imagine all the people living life in peace.

In Utopia, whether it’s Communism or Star Trek, all members must have the same basic mind.

Rock on the other hand doesn’t care what you think. It’s going to speak its mind and you can just go screw yourself if you don’t like it. Utopia relies on societal pressure to make sure you conform with your brothers and sisters.

Rock is rebellion – Utopia is conformity or adherence to Law.

This is where the religious freak, because, as you know, “rebellion is bound up in the heart of a child” and “is as the sin of witchcraft.” But this is completely different from the kind of rebellion we’re talking about. A general heart attitude of rebellion against those trying to instruct you or rebelling just for the hell of it is one thing, and yes, some Rock does tout that attitude, but this article is about why there is no Rock in Utopia. So my point is, when authorities become oppressive or evil, it is our duty to resist; to rebel. I cannot imagine one humanist Utopia that would not be oppressive.

Rock is a great way to express pain or chaos – Utopia is allowed no pain or chaos.

Reading the Old Testament reveals much pain and chaos, a good portion of it initiated by God Himself. I’m not being facetious when I say God is the maker of Rock and Roll. This is why the God of the Old Testament is so repulsive to the new Atheists (Utopians). They cannot imagine a God who rocks. For that matter, neither can many Christians.

“This is our God, a mighty warrior, dressed for battle.” God, on occasion, makes trouble. It almost sounds like I’m saying God has more in common with Rock than He does with those religious types who try to create their churchy Utopia here on Earth.

Rock wants to raise some hell – Utopia doesn’t say the word, “hell”.

Ok, this is a stretch but walk it out with me. What is hell? It is eternal punishment for the enemies of God. This makes Hell the ultimate dystopia. Why does Rock work so well in dystopian visions of the future? Because it’s the soundtrack of God’s wrath! Uhh, maybe.

A few more…

Rock is noisy – Utopia is quiet.

Rock is divisive – Utopia is homogenized.

Rock is high energy – Utopia is subdued.

Rock is freedom – Utopia is control.

Utopia on this Earth is impossible because human nature cannot bear it. We crave freedom. We want to express that freedom in our own creative way. Some of us are loud, some quiet. The closest we could get to Utopia is a general respect for one another, despite our differences.

But that is not what Utopians desire. They demand conformity. They demand that you think the same way they do, act the way they do, and want the same things they do. Unfortunately, church people are just as guilty of this as leftist, environmentalist, vegans.

So knowing that a Humanist Utopia on Earth is not possible, the only question left is…

Will there be Rock & Roll in Heaven (the only possible Utopia)?

I sure as hell hope so.




KTown is a media professional, musician, and occasional copywriter who recently left his agency job to move his family back to the beautiful, frozen North hoping to make his own way. He now spends most of his time wandering aimlessly around Appleton, eating at Taco John's and going to the movies.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Open Mic Saturday

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

Remember, in order to have success stories to share, you must first write something, and then you must finish what you write.

So, what sort of progress did you make on your writing this week?

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 2/20/09

Having read over the entries in the 2/13/09 Friday Challenge, I don't know what to say, except to say that some of you people have some serious issues. That, and I'm still laughing. Without further ado then, the entries received this week are:

Leatherwing: "Talkin' 'Bout My Next Generation"

Jamsco: "Third Thursday Ogden: Bulwark In the 24th"

Mike and the Mrs.: "Open-Mike Night at Arg'Ehbels's Bar"
Caution: If this was a CD, it would carry an advisory sticker warning parents about the lyrics. Thank you, Tipper Gore.

Vidad: "Sulu Rocks"

Henry: "Transported"

Ben-El: "Don't Metal With Rock Folk: Or "Usher III""

Al: "Pikers and Rikers and Jazz, Oh My..."

Rigel Kent: "New ensign, same as the old ensign"

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

On a technical note: this week we received one entry via the new mail-in method and it seems to have worked well, so we'll continue using it. Please remember that the new email address is slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com. We're making some technical changes over on the Rampant Loon side of the house and email addresses associated with the brucebethke.com domain may be unreliable while we're getting some issues sorted out.

And now for this week's Friday Challenge, I turn the microphone over to my esteemed colleague, world-famous author, economist, and bon vivant, Vox Day.



One of the strange things about writing fiction is that while the general ideas often come easily, putting the actual specifics down on paper—or more accurately, onscreen—tends to be rather more difficult. When writing my first non-fiction book, I was amazed to discover how much easier than writing fiction it was. Whenever I started to hit a roadblock, it was pretty easy to blow it away by whanging some sort of relevant quote or statistic into the text, which would often get me rolling right along again.

My thought is that limiting the topic to an enclosed space should make it a bit easier to keep the literary currents sparking. I think this may, in part, account for the popularity of rewriting classic tales among the authorial set, since there's no real reason that a Tanith Lee or Neil Gaiman has any need of dearth of original ideas. Of course, it's also kind of fun. Consider the fiendish pleasure Lee must have taken in turning the charming Cinderella motif into a demonic revenge tale in "When the Clock Strikes".

Hence today's challenge, which is to write your own spin on a classic fairy tale, in the creative spirit if not necessarily the horrific vein of Lee's "Red as Blood" or Gaiman's "Snow, Glass, Apple." I don't pretend to know the rules or what the prize might be, but assume they are the usual as I shall adjudicate the challenge with all the blissfully assured ignorance of a celebrity judge on a reality show. The deadline is midnight Central time, Thursday, February 26th.

~VD

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Why it's so hard to write sci-fi, Part #9,317

In loving memory of Keith Laumer, DARPA wants to put AI systems capable of introspection, metacognition, and "computational metareasoning" into 70-ton armored fighting vehicles.

"Cower in terror before me, fleshy ones!"

Star Trek: The Smug Generation

by Snowdog

CLEMENS: Any place that doesn't stock a good cigar doesn't rank high in my book.

TROI: If you must have one, I'm sure we could replicate it for you.

CLEMENS (pained): You think one of those—imitations—could take the place of a hand-wrapped Havana?

TROI (mildly): I wouldn't know...

CLEMENS: That's the problem I see here... all this technology... it only serves to take away life's simple pleasures. You don't even let a man open a door for a lady.

TROI: I think what we've gained outweighs anything that might have been lost...

"Time's Arrow, Part II, Episode 601"


It wasn't the fact that Star Trek: The Next Generation took place in an unlikely future where mankind had erected a sterile, boring utopia that made the show insufferable; rather, it was the writers' use of that politically correct paradise to establish a moral superiority over lesser-evolved cultures and races. The show wields its utopia like a blunt instrument to silence dissent among unruly characters and wayward viewers. The above exchange between that nighttime fantasy of every thirteen-year-old boy, Counselor Deanna Troi, and one Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens illustrates this point to near perfection, although one must hear actress Marina Sirtis' reading of the last line to fully appreciate the level of smugness.

Despite this little disagreement, ST:TNG is quick to adopt Clemens as its own by making him fret over the way humanity had acted in his day and hopeful that we have evolved in the 24th century. Not to worry, Mr. Twain; mankind has indeed evolved into a sort of "personkind," where the differences between genders are nothing more than distribution of body mass and a dubious second-season beard on the Enterprise's first mate.
DATA: (I have an) understanding the Prime Directive, sir.

PICARD: Which is, unfortunately, what this is about. By our standards, the customs here and code of honor are the same kind of pompous, strutting charades that endangered our own species a few centuries ago. We evolved out of it because no one else imposed their own... (stops; shakes head ruefully) Sorry, that became a speech.

TROI: You're the captain, sir. You're entitled...

"Code Of Honor" Ep 104


Apparently, as Troi aptly demonstrates, 24th century humankind hasn't quite evolved beyond ass-kissing. So, one might ask, in what kind of paradise do Captain Picard and his intrepid crew reside? Surely, it must be a magnificent place to be far superior to virtually every other society in the known universe.

The references to this utopia are scattered throughout the series and at times read like a wish-list for leftist ideologues. The Trek Utopia is godless:
RIKER: We have a problem.

PICARD: The contamination?

RIKER: It's worse than we suspected. The Mintakans are beginning to believe in a god—

----------

PICARD: Your own reports describe how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned all belief in the supernatural. And now you're asking me to sabotage that achievement... send them back into the Dark Ages of fear and superstition.

"Who Watches the Watchers", Ep 304


The Trek Utopia is, of course, Pro-Choice, though hidden slightly by the choice itself in this instance:
TROI: Captain, do whatever you feel is necessary to protect the ship and the crew... but know this. I am going to have this baby.

     (Everyone reacts, then:)

PICARD: I believe that ends the discussion.

"The Child" Ep 201


There is no Death Penalty:
LIATOR: Do you execute criminals?

PICARD: No... not any longer, that is.

RIVAN: You did once?

PICARD: ...Yes, some people then felt it was necessary. But we've learned how to detect the seeds of criminal behavior... Capital punishment is no longer justified in our world as a deterrent.

"Justice" Ep 108


Meat no longer comes from cows and pigs:
RIKER: ...Lieutenant Yar was... confused. We no longer enslave animals for food purposes.

BADAR N'D'D: But we have seen humans eat meat!

     (The Antican grins -- a terrifying display of long, sharp fangs.)

RIKER: You've seen something as fresh and tasty as living meat, but inorganically materialized out of patterns used by our transporters.

"Lonely Among Us" Ep 107


There's not even any bad weather in Utopia:
DATA: (Cont'd) Their home was destroyed during a tornado.

PICARD: A tornado? Why wasn't it dissipated by the Weather Modification Net?

"True Q", Ep 606


Don't doubt it! Trek Utopia is a truly wondrous place!
PICARD: (having traveled to the past) No. He's a man with vision. He can see beyond the problems that surround us. He knows there's a better future out there for everyone... a future where crime, poverty and war are things of the past... a future where we reach out and seek our destiny in the stars. (beat) I believe in that future, too, Ruby. I believe in it in every fiber of my being. And I'm telling you... if we don't launch that warp ship tomorrow, there's a very good chance that future will never happen.

Star Trek: First Contact


And I think we can agree that Jean-Luc Picard had every right to that smug, condescending smirk that often graced his features throughout the seven-season run of ST:TNG. His culture, having eliminated god, disease, war, poverty, and bad weather, would be ready to face all challenges that lay ahead.

Except, of course, cancellation.
"I'd like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way."

Buzz Aldrin, after landing on the moon





Snowdog is a systems analyst who lists writing among his less-expensive hobbies. Once a story is subdued and dragged from his labyrinthian 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.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Proposed Rules Change

It's been proposed that the winner of one week's Friday Challenge be made the presenter and primary judge of the next week's challenge. I think this is a good idea but that it should be optional, as it might otherwise intimidate people into not entering in the first place.

Your thoughts, comments, and suggestions?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, Part 2: Nuts and Bolts

by Henry Vogel


Last week I tried to give you an idea of what it's like to be a comic book writer. Today I'm going to start on the actual nuts and bolts of writing a comic book.

Writing a comic book has more in common with writing a screenplay than it does writing a novel. In both cases, the writer is providing descriptions of the action that will be created by others. Where a novelist has to describe everything to his readers, the comic book writer merely has to describe things to his artist. If he and the artist tend to think alike, those descriptions can be fairly minimal. There are two methods comic book writers use to present their stories to the artists: full script, and plot first.

Full Script
Back in the old days, this was also called "DC style" as DC Comics required full scripts from their writers. These days I suspect most comic books are written using this format. In a full script, the writer describes the scene for each panel then follows the description with the captions, thoughts and dialogue that are to appear in the panel. I'll provide an example in a later column, but if you want a quick look now, go here.

The advantage to writing a full script is that you're finished with that issue of the comic book once you finish with the script. The next time the writer sees his work is when the completed issue is delivered. That's also the disadvantage to this approach.

If the artist failed to draw something you felt was important, you won't know about it in time to request any changes. You may also have written a caption or some dialogue that describes what is plainly evident through the artwork. A panel might end up with artwork showing Superman flying out a window and have a caption that reads, "Superman flew out of the window." Describing the artwork is very bad form in modern comic books. It was more common in the past when action descriptions were not very detailed and writers included captions like that just in case the artist failed to draw what they expected. Full scripts, at least the ones from the high-stature writers, tend to be much more detailed these days, avoiding such issues.

Plot First
Back in the old days, this was called "Marvel style." To the best of my knowledge, Stan Lee developed this approach because it allowed him to write faster than the full script approach. "Plot first" is just what it sounds like. The writer prepares a plot for the artist, describing the action in brief terms. If dialogue is included, it's just to give the artist the gist of what's being said so the artist can better convey emotions. As the artist completes pages, he mails them to the writer in batches of six to eight pages (or whatever number of pages you and the artist agree upon). The writer then prepares the script—captions, thoughts and dialogue—using the completed pages as a guide. Back when I was writing, the artwork and script were then sent to the letterer, who would write the script directly on the pages. Now that lettering is handled by computer after the pages are inked, full-sized photocopies of the pages are sent to the writer while the actual pages are sent to the inker.

The advantage to this approach is that the writer gets to see the comic book pages before scripting them. In the rare case where the artist missed something, it's not too late to have some changes made. More importantly, the artwork can inspire the writer's script. Sometimes that's because the artwork evokes emotions that really spark the writer's imagination. Sometimes that's because the artist left a lot more white space than the writer anticipated, forcing him to fill that space with text to avoid having a page of the comic book look nearly blank. I've faced both of these situations numerous times and produced some of my best scripting as a result.

The disadvantage to this approach is that there's an extra step in the process. That means there's an extra chance for something to go wrong. If the writer is working on another project, completion of the script may be delayed. Back when the artwork and script went to the letterer and then to the inker, any delay in completing the script would also delay the completion of the comic book. Now that artwork can go straight to inking, with lettering added by computer, the writer has a little more breathing-room to complete the script.

So, which approach should you use? If you're writing the comic book for a publishing company, that decision will likely be made for you by the company. These days, most comic book companies prefer full scripts. Full scripts are much easier for editors as they can deal with the writer's entire contribution to the comic book at one time. If you're working on your own, either to self-publish or web-publish, use the system that works best for you and your artist.

For what it's worth, I have always preferred the plot first method, writing full scripts only when working for a comic book publisher who required it. My reasoning is simple; I'm lazy. It's much easier for me to write up a plot and then write the script as artwork arrives than it is to write a full script. But I also prefer the plot first method because I have been inspired by the artwork to produce better scripts than I would have produced otherwise.

Next week I'll cover some things every comic book writer must consider and we'll actually begin the job of writing an issue of a comic book.

Any questions?


Part Three, coming Monday, 2/23/09



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

Sunday, February 15, 2009

And the winner is...

Oof. Judging the 2/13/09 Friday Challenge was tough, as we had a lot of really good entries this time. But much as I'd like to put off the decision until tomorrow, I can't, so:

torainfor: Superb writing, as always. Of all the entries I think you did the best job of making the Kalmari seem alien, and not merely like humans who just happen to have a certain squiddish quality. I especially liked the business of having them be better adapted to low-G than humans, and having the maguffin in the bag be a child's toy and not what he thought he'd packed was a brilliant piece of misdirection.

Ben-El: I'm not sure what to say about this one. Duke Nukem and I have history, and it's hard to separate my thoughts about your story from that. It's terrific, in a demented, macho, over-the-top kind of way. But...

Leterren: I liked the pathos very much. Style-wise, this seems like it could use a good tightening-up edit, but the moral point is potent. The narrator's decision to try to save the Kalmari seems insufficiently supported—there's obviously some kind of epiphany that takes place here, but it seems only hinted at, not shown—and then his decision at the end to turn over his notes to his commander seems like a surrender. But there is a tremendous lot of potential in this story, and I'd like to see it after another pass.

Which is not to say that I'm recommending you rewrite it. That might be a wasted effort, as I'm afraid most editors would probably reject it as being too much like "Enemy Mine." But you definitely have some good ideas and I look forward to your future work.

Chandler: Very nicely written, with some brilliant description, but I'm still puzzling over the C. S. Lewis reference. Is this the crashed pilot's dying hallucination, or what? Overall, I'm afraid I just don't get this one.

Giraffe: This one had a distinctly 1940s Astounding/1950s Galaxy vibe to it. Very good, economical writing and a very clever little Droid Friday, but the "rebooting the species with a new Adam and Eve" plot was done to death fifty years ago, and then minced into little pieces, and then jumped up and down on with hobnail boots, and then made into a couple of forgettable episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. I'm afraid that no matter how you approach it or how good your story otherwise is, this is one of those ideas that's permanently tainted, and as soon as an editor begins to suspect that that's where the story is going—which I did at about the halfway point—it's dead, Jim.

Henry: What can I say? I mean, besides MORE COWBELL!

And that, I think is the big problem with this story: that it's impossible to read those lyrics now without thinking of that Saturday Night Live skit. Which is a pity, as it torpedoes what is otherwise a good, strong, professional story. I wish I had an idea for getting around this problem, but I'm afraid I don't.

Euthyphro: What torainfor and Henry said. It's close, it's funny, but it would benefit from a tightening-up edit. I think I caught a contact buzz just from reading this one.

Al: What everybody else said. Good story, well-told. There's something a little too precious about "Martian speed metal," and much as I'd like to believe people will still be listening to Tommy centuries in the future, I have my doubts. I can't even get my kids to listen to it. But overall, a good read, and I really like the way you managed to pull out a happy ending.

KTown: And this is my last, "what everyone else said." Just about the time I was really getting into this story, you chopped it off like the back-end of an AMC Gremlin. Where's the rest of the story? This one is great, but it's only about two-thirds of the tale. It needs an ending.

This, by the way, is a good thing. Remember Lucas's Law: "Always leave 'em begging for more and complaining that you finished too soon, not complaining that you went on too long and begging you to stop already." While that's generally good advice, it actually is possible to finish too soon, and I'm afraid that's what's happened here.

Vidad: I liked almost everything about this one. I liked the shift in the temporal point of view, to its being a story from years ago being told by grandpa to an impatient child. I liked the shift in polarity: the horrible, voracious, all-devouring monsters are us! I liked the little inside jokes. ("You’d be amazed how durable those life support systems used to be. Not like the cold equations-style stuff they use today.") I even liked the horrid pun at the ending, which was a brilliant reversal of Richard Matheson's classic Twilight Zone horror-punchline, "It's a cookbook!"

In fact, the more I think about this one, the more I want to remove that "almost" qualifier in the first paragraph. Torainfor, Henry, and Al all wrote really strong contenders this week that made the final round, and if KTown's story had had an ending it might have won, but in the end I have to go with the one that made me laugh out loud, and that was Vidad's "Necessity." So Vidad: congratulations, you're our winner this week! Now come on down and claim your prize!

WCA Reminder

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

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

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day & The Writer's Marriage

One of my all-time favorite ever single-panel cartoons was published nearly forty years ago, in the 8/8/1970 issue of The New Yorker. It's by the legendary George Booth (well, legendary to New Yorker readers, anyway), and it shows a rather scruffy-looking guy sitting on the porch of a house, leaning on a typewriter, with a most amazing expression on his face and a woman standing next to him, holding a plate upon which is a sandwich. The woman is saying:
"I've got an idea for a story: Gus and Ethel live on Long Island, on the North Shore. He works sixteen hours a day writing fiction. Ethel never goes out, never does anything except fix Gus sandwiches and in the end she becomes a nympho-lesbo-killer-whore. Here’s your sandwich."
If you want to see a blurry and watermarked thumbnail of the cartoon, you'll find it here. (I actually looked into getting the rights to display the image on this site, but The Cartoon Bank wants considerably more for that than I'm able to spend. Here's hoping Booth, who is still alive, is getting a cut of the action.)

Like a pearl, the best humor always has a grain of uncomfortable truth at its core, and this cartoon packs an uncomfortable truth the size of a kidney stone. We writers tend to think of ourselves as loners, but the truth is that your writing career, whether you recognize it or not, is a partnership.

Ladies, admit it: if it weren't for that guy who's working to keep a roof over your head and provide the medical insurance, you'd never be able to spend anywhere near as much time writing as you do. Gents, admit it: if it weren't for that woman who's keeping the house together and keeping the kids out of your hair, you wouldn't be able to write, either. Those of you with alternative and/or non-traditional living arrangements: it's none of my business and I don't care, so substitute gender-specific nouns as required to describe your situation.

But all of you, admit this: unless you are a hermit, a lighthouse keeper, a committed single for life, or a college student still sponging off your parents, there is an Other Person in your life who makes it possible for you to find the time in which you write.

So while it's tempting to dismiss today as being just St. Hallmark's Day, the feast day of the patron saint of useless marketeers, it does serve a useful purpose. On this one day, at least, you should knock off writing early, get off the Internet, shut down your computer, and go do something special with your Ethel.

Remember, a writing career is a partnership. So give your silent partner some recognition today, okay?

Some updates on posting comments

Because of the comments on comment limits in yesterday's post, JS-Kit's remarkably proactive customer support folks contacted me, to tell me the per-post limit is going up to 10KB in about two weeks and that permanent links to individual posts in threads are in QA now and coming soon. I'm still slightly stunned by the first part of this, though. They contacted me. This never happens. Don't these people understand how the software technical support escalation chain traditionally works?

Step 1. Deny that there's a problem.

Step 2. Admit that the customer may be experiencing what appears to be a problem, but state that your technicians are unable to replicate it.

Step 3. Admit that the customer actually has a problem, but say it's because they're using an old version and they need to download and install the latest version. Ideally, sell them the upgrade.

Step 4. Blame the customer's hardware and tell them they need to upgrade or replace the most expensive part of it.

Step 5. Blame Microsoft.

I'm sure I've missed a few steps in the chain of escalation, but this is the gist of it. Any steps you'd add or technical support horror stories you'd like to share?

In the meantime, I'm going to go have another cup of coffee and bask in the wonder of it all. JS-Kit technical supported contacted me, proactively. Wow...

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 2/13/09

Wow! Very nice turnout for the 2/6/09 Friday Challenge, including entries from quite a few first-timers this week. Congrats, WaterBoy; your challenge obviously struck some sparks!

In approximately FIFO order, the contestants are:

Torainfor, untitled

Ben-El, "Nuke 'em"

Leterren, "Silence"

Chandler, "On crash-landing and conversing with an alien"

Giraffe, "Squid!!"

Henry, "The Talisman"

Euthyphro, "Starship Boozer"

Vidad, "Necessity"

Al, "Intervention"

KTown, "Music of the Night"

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

On a related note, it turns out the JS-Kit comment engine imposes a 3,000-byte limit on posts, as KTown found to his considerable discomfort, and despite having read the entire JS-Kit administrator's manual from front to back I still can't find any way to change that limit, to link to individual comments, or even to link to a particular page of comments on a long thread. Ergo it looks like posting entries as comments is not a viable long-term solution.

This time around I've taken the liberty of consolidating KTown's entry into a single post, but I don't want to get into the habit of doing that. It provides too many opportunities for me to slip up and mangle someone's entry in the process, and KTown, if I've done that to yours, please let me know and I'll fix it ASAP. But I think the better long-term solution for the blogless might be to have you email your entries to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com (plain text only, please, no PDF or Microsoft Word files), and then we can turn them into bloggerel and post them on this site, much as we do with the stories in the Story Morgue. (And speaking of which, you've got just three days left to comment on Quill.)

Any comments or suggestions re this idea?



Now, as for this week's challenge: by popular demand—well, by Ben-El's and Rigel's demand, anyway—I'm going to defer the challenge originally scheduled for today and instead continue with the twin themes of "I wanna rock!" and "Let's All Dump on Star Trek." Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to bring rock 'n' roll to the universe of Star Trek.

(Didja ever notice, despite all the bars and lounges in all the ST TV shows and movies, no one ever dances in Star Trek? I mean, excluding Data and Dr. Crusher's big gay ballroom-dance number?)

So what's your story? How do you bring rock 'n' roll into the most sterile and boring sci-fi future outside of THX-1138? Are you playing in a Disaster Area tribute band? On the road with the licensed touring company of Arcturan Pink Floyd? A translator, stuck with the job of trying to make sense of the Dark Side of the Moon liner notes in a universe where gravitationally locked moons are a distinct rarity? A go-go dancer with a USO show touring all the Federation forward bases on the Romulan frontier? Or are you some poor schmuck bass player in a lounge band on the Ferengi casino circuit, trapped between a bunch of drunken Klingons on your left who are shouting "FREEBIRD!" and a bunch of equally drunken Gorns on your right who have assured you that they definitely will kill you if they ever hear "Freebird" again?

Or perhaps it's all a mystery to you, as the last thing you remember is hitting that big power chord at the start of your big show at Woodstock III, and then a short-circuit in the light show opened up a chronosynclastic infundibulum and sucked you five centuries into the future. Or maybe it was the acid. You're really hoping it was the acid.

Personally, I keep envisioning myself as being in a blues band that through some combined caprice of fate and an idiotic booking manager has wound up as the house band at a summer resort on Andoria, where "summer" means it's only -10 degrees at high noon and everybody has blue skin. I think this is some kind of barely suppressed memory of my having been the sound tech in a band that got stuck in a hotel in Appleton, Wisconsin, during a three-day blizzard. Or maybe it was that time we got snowed into the only motel in Julesberg, Colorado, with the members of 38 Special...

Never mind. There are stories, and then there are stories that you don't need to know. Thanks for not asking.

Anyway, that's the challenge for this week. As always, we're playing by the ever-changing rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever is behind Door #2—which list, I now notice, is very badly out of date, so I'd better update it. The deadline is midnight Central time, Thursday, 2/19/09.

So... Are you ready to rock?

I said, ARE YOU READY TO ROCK?!

WELL HELLO, T'PAAAAANGK'K'!NSKWXXIDNRG!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hark! Utopians! I Wanna Rock!

by Chris Naron


It's hard for me to admit that I was at one time a Star Trek fan, but in my defense, I wasn't quite aware of the levels of fandom that existed above me. Everyone has their thing, and that's cool. But even Star Trek fans have to admit that it gets way out of hand.

Where's the line, you ask? The line, for me, isn't dressing up like a Klingon or getting married at the Star Trek thing they have in Las Vegas. Some chicks actually look better as Klingons, and if I could have gotten married in a Mississippi State Bulldogs uniform—pads and all—I would have. No, for me, the line is where you stop enjoying the Star Trek universe for the adventure and imagination and start believing in its Utopian vision.

I could never buy the notion of an Earth united internally and with distant planets for one simple reason: such a future never includes rock and roll.

Mind you, I'm not saying that the writers of Star Trek don't include rock and roll in their stories. Star Trek: First Contact included some Steppenwolf and Roy Orbison, but the sight of Zefram Cochrane dancing to the latter's Ooby Dooby would make me long for a future without rock myself. Barring those exceptions, the utopian vision of Star Trek does not include rock. Jazz and classical, yes. But in a perfect society, no one wants to rock.

There are plenty of other examples, of course. In the Logan's Run utopia, really bad music seems to rule the future. Not surprisingly, Jerry Goldsmith composed the soundtracks for both Logan's Run and Star Trek: First Contact. The man is a great composer, but a rocker he is not. And I'm not really commenting on the soundtracks as much as whether or not these sci-fi universes with utopian themes include rock music. In Star Trek, for instance, it's assumed that Classical and Jazz survive as art forms enjoyed by the characters. For rock, such is not the case.

Interestingly, dystopian visions often do include rock, but mostly in the soundtrack. Movies like the animated Heavy Metal and the 1980 version of Flash Gordon make great use of hard rock and metal bands for their soundtracks, but the characters don't play the stuff. (Now, at this point I must admit that my knowledge of sci-fi movies is fairly limited, so if my assertions are off in that technically there are movies where the characters play rock music, I'm more than willing to accept it. However, the main point I'm making is that Utopian visions in sci-fi do not include rock. Obscure examples in obscure movies do not necessarily contradict this point.)

So if we can concede that rock isn't a part of sci-fi's more optimistic visions, why is this the case?

Perhaps the world outgrows rock. Musical fashions come and go, so it's not far-fetched that hundreds of years from now, people will have no desire to express themselves in power chords, growling vocals, and skull-splitting drumbeats. Hmm, could be. I think it's more likely that the writers of these visions assume that in a future where we've finally achieved harmony and equality, there will be no need for aggressive, sexual, violent, and passionate music. Well, at least not the kind of passionate music produced by the masses. In the future, everyone is an elite. Their tastes are all refined beyond that which might cause one to bang one's head.

In the Star Trek vision, music is just another excuse to show how much more emotionally and intellectually developed the characters are than us. Data plays classical tunes to perfection on his violin, giving another character an excuse to bloviate about how important emotions are when playing a piece of music. Data doesn't have emotions, you see. I bet if he cranked out Randy Rhodes' solo from Revelation Mother Earth to perfection, no one would whine about his lack of emotions. Or, when Commander Riker plays his jazz trombone, I guess we're supposed to marvel at his intergalactic street cred. Is he trying to impress black people or white people? Someone ought to tell him that Geordi La Forge is the whitest man in the galaxy.

It's a shame, too. There's no fictional race better suited to carry heavy metal music to the rest of the universe than the Klingons. Their whole planet is an Iron Maiden video. I'll wager that the whole unpleasantness between the Klingons and the Federation could have been solved much sooner had they contacted Earth in the mid- to late-1980s, when hair metal was its height. They would have recognized the look at least, and even if hair metal wasn't hard enough for them, Thrash and Speed Metal were coming into their own. You can't tell me a Klingon wouldn't have been right at home at a Megadeth show. Heck, come to think of it, even Vulcans would have loved Dream Theater and Rush. Very logical stuff.

Finally, I know there is one obvious exception to the "No Rock in Utopia" rule: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. You thought I forgot, but I didn't. While the plot of Bill and Ted centers around a peaceful and prosperous future that owes its very existence to rock and roll, I don't think it is considered to be serious science fiction. But ask yourself: would you rather live in Bill and Ted's future, or Star Trek's?

Wedgies for those who answer incorrectly.



Chris Naron is a professional educator who writes about politics, pop culture, religion and being an enlightened parasite at mindcleaner.us.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Writing for Comic Books - Part 1

by Henry Vogel


Last summer I wrote a short comic book script for my entry in ~brb's "Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor meet" Friday Challenge. I received some questions about writing comics in general and ~brb asked if I'd be willing to write a column or two for The Ranting Room on the subject. Of course I said "Sure!" and then never quite completed a single column. This time, I've committed to a schedule of a column each Monday for the next several weeks. Welcome to the first column.

So, who am I to be offering advice on writing comic books? During the 1980s, I co-created and wrote two independent comic books, the Southern Knights and the Aristocratic Xtraterrestrial Time Traveling Thieves (X-Thieves for short). Back then "independent" meant that the book wasn't published by Marvel or DC. I also landed some other writing, including two issues of a three-issue run of Voltron and several issues of a spy series from a publisher who folded before a single issue was published. I also have a very small claim to fame as the first comic book professional to show up online. Back then "online" meant the Usenet and my fame now resides solely in an online FAQ for rec.arts.comics. If you're really curious, follow the link and search for my name. It's not on par with coining the word "cyberpunk" but what is?

Before we take a look at the nuts and bolts of actually writing a comic book, let's consider why you would even want to be a comic book writer. Strange question from a guy who wrote comics, right? Not necessarily.

First and foremost, comic books are a visual medium. Unless your name is Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman or someone else of their stature, that means the artist will get most of the credit for the story.

True story 1: David Kraft, who was my publisher for the majority of my comic book writing career, had a long run as the writer of The Defenders for Marvel. During that run, there was a six-issue extended story that was quite popular. If you look up that six-issue run in the Overstreet Price Guide you'll find the six issues are worth twice what the issues before and after them are worth. The Price Guide attributes the increase in value to the artist, Keith Giffen. Since Giffen was the artist for the dozen or so issues both before and after the extended story, why aren't those issues equally as valuable?

True Story 2: I've lost track of the number of times I would say, "I write comic books" or "I used to write comic books" and immediately be asked, "Oh, you draw comic books?" This happens at least eight out of ten times the subject comes up with someone who doesn't read comic books. I always correct them gently (it happens a lot during job interviews), saying I can't draw beyond basic stick figures. Half the time, the person then says, "Hmph. I didn't know anybody wrote those."

If you don't think your ego can handle this kind of benign neglect, stay away from the comic book field. So my very first bit of advice for budding comic book writers is this:

If your story idea will work as a novel just as well as a comic book, write a novel. Even superhero stories, which once appeared solely in comic books, are appearing as novels. While some of those books feature Spider-Man or Batman, meaning you have to have connections with Marvel or DC to be assigned the novel, more and more original titles are showing up. A recent example is Soon I Will Be Invincible, which I quite enjoyed. If you fail to sell it to a novel publisher, you can always consider comic books again.

As I'm not sure how much my audience knows about creating comic books, I'm going to close this column by listing each contributor to a comic book along with a brief description of what they do.

The writer writes the plot and the script. Sometimes plotting and scripting are separate jobs, sometimes not. I'll be going into that in more detail in later columns.

The penciller draws the actual comic book pages based on the plot sent by the writer. Despite the arrival of high-end computers for artists, this is still done almost entirely on bristol board specifically designed to match the dimensions of a comic book. The artist I've worked with more than any other says he doubts this will ever change. It's also worth noting that artists can't sell original comic book pages if they only exist in a virtual sense. A page featuring a popular character in action can bring a quite high price.

The inker, also sometimes called a finisher, completes the artwork by applying ink to the penciled artwork. The inker also adds texture to the artwork and corrects mistakes made by the penciller. Some people think an inker does nothing more than trace the work done by the "real" artist. Those people are badly mistaken as a talented inker can salvage a poorly drawn book and greatly enhance a well-drawn one.

The letterer used to write the comic book script directly on the comic book pages. This is one task I'm certain is done almost exclusively on the computer now. Lettering used to take place after pencils and before inks. No longer. Now the artwork is scanned and the lettering added virtually.

Finally, if the comic book is to be published in color, the colorist adds color to the finished product. Even before computers came on the scene, the colorist's work was virtual. I can't claim to know anything more about coloring than that. I expect the job is a lot easier with computers, though.

I realize I haven't actually described how to go about writing a comic book yet. This column should serve to set some expectations about what it's like to have written comic books. Next Monday I'll get started on the nuts and bolts.


Part Two: "Nuts and Bolts,"coming Monday, 2/16/09



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

Sunday, February 8, 2009

And the winner is...

Thanks to everyone who entered my first Friday Challenge! I enjoyed reading all of the entries and the comments on the entries. Without further ado, on to the entries!

Vidad - What can I say about Vidad's entry? It was well written, strange, warped, funny and wildly off topic. All par for the course for Vidad! I am also pleased to learn there are strange, robotic women whose sole duty is guaranteeing the purity of my Friday Challenges. But strange, robotic, Friday Challenge guarding women would drop their tops and reveal a pair of .38s, not shotguns. A missed pulp trope if ever there was one.

Giraffe - You gave us a well written send up to all the standard pulp tropes. Only Doctor Darkness stays true to his pulp nature, including taking the time to deal with Cote personally. The handsome yet bumbling hero with the unassuming yet competent sidekick who does most of the actual work has probably been done enough times that it's become a trope for pulp send ups. That's not a criticism, that's just a way of explaining why your entry just barely sneaks into the pulp genre. And, from Cote's point of view, you could even be said to have given us a happy ending.

Arisia - I'd never have thought of a French fashionista as a pulp villain. Perhaps that's because I'm just a typical geek and not fashionable in the least. The final confrontation between Cliff and Doctor Darkness was physical and handled with a fist to the chin. You also got the little details right, such as Sopwith Camels and Spads or the publication runs for Vogue and Elle magazine. (Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know Elle didn't appear on newstands until 1945.) I enjoyed your entry but Cliff and Cote didn't hang quite as often as a cliffhanger requires.

Waterboy - Let's check the style sheet for Waterboy's entry. Danger at every turn? Check. Improbable escape for the villain to setup the final, minion free confrontation? Check. Alliterative descriptions such as sickening sibling and mad maniac? Check. An airship filled with flamable gas? Check. The stalwart hero who sends those he cares about to safety while risking his own life? Check. A villain hoist by his own petard? Check. Certain death for the hero averted by an improbable rescue? Check. Cousin Cloze Hanger? Uh, that one was unexpected! Plucky heroine falls into the arms of the handsome hero at the end? Check. The only criticism I have for your entry is that you depended on the airship hitting an air pocket too many times. Other than that, your entry was spot on! You're this week's winner!

Come on down and select your prize, Waterboy!

WCA Reminder

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

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

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 2/6/09

In response to the 1/30/09 Friday Challenge, we received the following entries:

Giraffe: untitled

Vidad: "Non Semper Aurem Facilem Habet Felicitas"

WaterBoy and Arisia also contributed entries, but wrote them in the Comments attached to the original post, and I just now notice that unlike HaloScan, JS-Kit does not provide permanent links to individual comments. I'm sure there must be a toggle somewhere that will switch this feature on, but until I find it, I'll have to ask you to open the original post, and then scroll down in the comments until you find WaterBoy's and Arisia's entries. Apologies for the inconvenience.

As always, even if you have not entered the contest this week, we invite you to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite(s). The winner(s) will be announced Sunday evening.

I now turn the microphone over to WaterBoy.



War. It has been with Mankind throughout our history and followed us into space as we began expanding into the rest of the galaxy, inevitably encountering other sentient life. The current strife involves the Kalmari, a race of tentacled beings who have begun raiding human outposts on the fringe of disputed territory.

You are a scout assigned to reconnoiter outposts with which communications have been lost. Your commander is only willing to risk a single scout on each trip to minimize additional losses, so you are alone on your trip through space. If you fail to report back, Sector Command will assume the outpost is lost and reposition forces accordingly.

Your next assignment is to the airless moon orbiting Epsilon Gamma III, a military outpost close to the ever-shifting boundary between Human and Kalmari territory. In the tradition of scouts everywhere, you take your favorite ________ with you to pass the time and keep you occupied on the journey. Unfortunately, the space in the cargo bay for a personal bag is a small tube 1 meter in length and 75cm in diameter, while mass is restricted to 25kg.

Arriving at the barren moon, you start to lock-in on the landing beacon when a flash of light off your starboard viewport catches your eye, a split-second before the onboard sensors announce the presence of a Kalmari cruiser firing its charged-particle cannon at you. Desperately you manuever your own weapons around to confront the enemy and fire, just as another pulse flashes out to strike you dead-on, flooding the ship with an immense power surge that fries your communicator and knocks out or damages almost every other system. Your ship now crippled, you seek out the landing strip at the outpost and prepare for a crash landing, donning your helmet and locking it airtight onto your survival suit. But you also notice that your
counterattack was successful, as the Kalmari ship tumbles in pieces towards the surface below you.

After a harried yet ultimately successful landing, you grab your emergency kit and personal bag from the cargo bay and head toward the main airlock, as your ship silently dies. A quick recon of the outpost, which is arranged like a spiderweb, shows that the weapons, crew, and communications modules are all destroyed, and the tunnels connecting them are shut off behind airtight steel pressure doors. The power plant, air generator, water extractor, warehouse and hydroponics mods are all intact. There is no sign of the crew or their ship.

Now what? You are utterly alone, stranded on this remote moon with no communications and little chance of rescue while the war rages. What do you do? And what was the object in the bag you brought with you?



As always, we are playing by the loosely enforced Official Rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever is behind Door #2. The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, 2/12/09.
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