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Sunday, January 31, 2010

And the winner is...

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
Let's review the terms of the 1/22/10 challenge, shall we?
This week's challenge is simple: I want you to visualize a setting. Not who is in the scene; not what happens there. It can be the general setting for your story or just the backdrop for a key scene; where it starts, where it passes through, or where it ends. Indoors or outdoors; real or imaginary; as broad as from horizon to horizon or as constricted as the two square feet in front of your face. Just close your eyes for a minute, and really see that setting in your mind's eye.

And now I want you to describe that setting, and bring it to life for the rest of us. Keep it brief. A paragraph will do; 500 words will be too long. Help us to us see what you see.
Turning now to the entries we received

Okay, waitaminnit: first I need to make one general comment about this week's entries before I start getting into specifics. Folks, one of these days we are going to have to have a serious talk about the use of passive voice. While I am no Strunk & White purist, and while grammar was not a part of this challenge and ultimately does not factor into our judgments, what is it about visualizing a scene that makes so many people slip so quickly and completely into passive voice? "Blue was the color, and backwards ran sentences until reeled the mind." Augh! Enough, Master Yoda!


And with that out of my system, we turn to this week's entries. Tackling them in FIFO order:

Patrick Henry: Henry had some trouble picturing the roiling of the clouds. He felt things were pretty clear to begin with, but then clouds rolled down in locks and then were vortexes, and he couldn't really zero in on the image. He said that if it's a transformation, it would be a good idea to call it such so your readers know something different is coming.
     I'm going to get self-referential. The first lines of the challenge were, "I want you to visualize a setting. Not who is in the scene; not what happens there." I can visualize what you're describing fairly well (I think), but what you're describing is an action scene. You do a good job of putting the narrative "I" into something out of a Spielberg movie—man, something huge is just starting to happen up in the sky!—but all I know about where it's happening is that this guy is laying on the pavement in a hardware store parking lot, and I have no sense of anything else about it. Is this hardware store in Texas in summer or in Minnesota in winter? I'd like to know, but the information isn't there.

The Bandit: I don't know if we're going to call it the Overkill or Overachiever Award, but we're definitely going to name it after you. Of "A Drift on a Bay," Henry says that you're obviously describing a very large area, which works against you. Your descriptions of each of the elements of the land, including the metaphors, are quite good, but the land is so widespread I can't really picture it in my mind.
     I'll add that I got vertigo while reading this one. You're constantly popping up to the ten-mile-high level, and then dropping down to the ground—and then whoops, we're ten miles high again! The individual bits of descriptive language are good, but you need to zoom-in once and then stay zoomed-in. If this were for a story, I'd tell you to throw out the first two paragraphs, because it really starts with the third paragraph.

As for "Winter Has Come," this one works much better, setting the scene outside before taking us inside to a very specific location. We were able to picture the tower, the motes in the beam of light and even the woman's pale skin compared to the white shroud. Good stuff.

As for "The Yard," we pictured the two fences and what grew around them quite well, but the rest of the yard isn't as thoroughly described. The white boulders and the bees are good, but we can't tell if the yard is mostly brush or grass or covered in trees. Just a bit more description and this one could have a contender.

Finally, as for "The Apartment:" this one is right on target. We can picture the place quite well. We get the feeling of a college student's apartment, or maybe a lone hacker's place, which leads us to wonder just how much of this is imagined. In any case, very nicely done!

Watkinson: You evoke the heat and desolation of the desert quite well. Henry said he had to go get a drink of water after reading your entry, while I was thinking, "Oh, what I'd give for a cold beer!" Which, considering that it's been subzero here for most of the week, is a remarkably effective feat of suggestion.
     The bandit was bothered by there being trees for the eagles and crows to roost in. I've seen enough scrawny twisted half-dead trees in the desert to be unfazed by that, but was mildly concerned by their being eagles and crows. Is that an Australian thing? On this continent they'd be vultures or buzzards—or perhaps magpies, but I've never known magpies to eat carrion.
     Anyway, a very effective piece.

Torainfor: We want to visit this bookstore! We like the steampunk feel of the mechanisms (especially the mice!) and can get a feel for the different rooms, but it seems like something is missing, and the umbrella business is slightly baffling. Henry says it's his personal bias kicking in, but he's always noticed that bookstores such as this one always seem to have their own distinctive smell, and seems to think an olfactory cue would really put him into the scene. As for me, I keep thinking this feels like I've just wandered into some previously unexplored corner of Oz, and I want to know more about it. Very good work, as always.

Miko: All you need are clouds scurrying past the moon and the lonely howl of a wolf to have the perfect horror story scene. It's a bit overdone, as all neo-Lovecraftian work always is, but as it is you've succeeded in describing a truly creepy scene, and you've managed to do so without trotting out any of the standard props and cliches. You get extra points for working in "sartorial splendor" and for getting both "indolently" and "insolent" into the same sentence; after some discussion, we decided the points would be added, not deducted. Henry concludes by saying, "It's definitely not the kind of place I want to visit after dark!" while I wouldn't mind doing so, but I'd probably swap out my usual Remington Golden Saber loads for Winchester Silvertips, just for extra insurance.

Arisia: A very interesting and amazingly lush description which, despite only describing the colors to be seen within the room, left both of us with clear, but different, visions. At first the title led us to believe the room was a place where a person might go to reflect and consider, but then we realized it was the reflection of the light and the colors that named the room. Good stuff!

Therefore, after due examination and discussion of the entries, it is the considered opinion of the judges that the winner this week is—

Miko, with Honorable Mention going to Arisia. So Miko and Arisia, come on down and claim your prizes!

And to everyone else: thanks for participating, and don't forget, the next Friday Challenge, "Wii for Geezers," is already in progress, and the deadline is Thursday.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

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


Why, yes. There are calendars available. Thank you for asking! Email kersley.fitz at yahoo dot com and don't forget your address.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 1/29/10

This week in The Friday Challenge...
Henry Vogel discusses a few of his verbal pet peeves, updates us on ReConstruction, introduces his new favorite online comic strip, asks why geeks in general look down on team and spectator sports, decries the dearth of new SF releases in his local bookstore, and begs for better cell phone commercials—in short, it's the sort of scattershot ADHD-inspired column you'd expect from someone who was trying to write a column while watching the NFC Championship game on TV. Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke dishes up his first impressions of the new Apple iPad. Is it a big fat iPhone, a cool new toy, or the stake in the heart that will kill off independent bookstores? Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu needs to catch its breath after last week's discussion of 24, so we take up the topic of NBC's recently uncanceled again action-comedy-spy-superhero-whatever series, Chuck. Why are all female spies sexy beauties with brains? And What Would Maxwell Smart Do? Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald takes us on a story-by-story tour of the latest issues of Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction. Is it true that Christianity and SF don't mix? Join the discussion...

Also, Kersley explains the difference between science fiction and fantasy (2010 calendars are may still be available!), the inmates discuss the views from their respective places in the asylum, Bruce Bethke discusses the just-concluded Minnesota Vikings football season and all the missed opportunities, The Loft Literary Center issues a cattle call for university faculty available to teach at a conference on writing science fiction and fantasy (actual professionally published writers of the stuff need not apply), and Watkinson is the winner of the 1/15/10 Friday Challenge, "What's in a name?"

With all of that said, we move on to new business.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
As you might remember, the 1/22/10 challenge was to write a description of a setting in 500 words or less. As of the deadline, we have received the following entries:

Patrick Henry, untitled
The Bandit, "A Drift on a Bay"
The Bandit, "Winter Has Come" (and now we all know the bandit's posting handle on The Twisting Nether Gazette, heh heh heh!)
The Bandit, "Settings #3 & #4"
Watkinson, "The Friday Challenge - A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"
Torainfor, "Steam Punk Bookstore"
Miko, "Spectral Shadows"
Arisia, "The Room of Reflection"

If I've missed anyone's entry, please let me know. I must admit to being a little disappointed that Vidad did not spot the obvious Hemingway reference and turn in a paragraph of truly awful Imitation Hemingway in response, but so be it.

As always, even if you haven't submitted an entry this week—even if you've never submitted 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, January 31.

And now for this week's challenge.

Wii for Geezers
We were in a nursing home recently—never mind why, it's not a happy story—and one of the things that astonished us was to see all the geezers eagerly queuing up for their turn at Wii Bowling. The assistants explained that they love it; it's a game they understand, being Wii it doesn't require actual upper-body strength, and it fits in well with their often-limited range of motion.

So that got us thinking: why should the kids have all the fun? There is an enormous untapped market of seasoned citizens out there that is being completely ignored by today's game makers. They have the leisure time. They have the money—or if they don't, the government will give it to them to buy their votes. They have short memory spans, so every day the game will seem exciting and fresh all over again. After the obvious Wii Shuffleboard and Wii Miniature Golf, what other games really need to be in the Wii CodgerSports product line?

That's your assignment for this week. Imagine a Wii game that could be played pleasurably by your 92-year-old grandmother, and then name it and sell the idea to the rest of us.

As always, we're playing by the badly out-of-date Official Rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever is behind equally badly out-of-date Door #3. The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, February 4.

And also as always: remember, the objective here is to have fun!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cattle Call

This just in:

The Loft Literary Center, the nation's largest independent literary arts center is organizing a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Conference. We are looking to invite university faculty who teach courses in this genre to teach at the conference.

I understand you are interested in this genre. Could you share some background on whether you've taught science fiction / fantasy courses and/or have publications in the area? If yes and if you have prior teaching experience, we would like to invite you to be a part of the conference. We are still in the planning stage and do not have the dates set yet. If you are interested in getting on board, I will keep you informed about further developments and you can then submit a proposal to teach a class at the conference.

Please feel free to email me with questions at bghelani@loft.org

All best,
Binal Ghelani
Education Intern - The Loft Literary Center
Sorry, no, I'm not qualified to teach the stuff. I only write it.

Critical Thinking: Review

I recently had minor surgery and spent one glorious week escaping the land of “should” and “must” and luxuriating in the land of “can’t” and “shouldn’t.” Where working out and weekly appointments gave way to naps and…more naps. No dinners to make, no bus stop runs to be had. Just long, leisurely hours with books, magazines, and the laptop, interspersed with quick trips to Starbucks for breakfast.

I learned some things. Maj. Tom has a delightful bedside manner and is most content when allowed to slightly indulge in his natural obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Lasagna has just the right slime-quotient to relieve a breathing tube-scratched throat. And if you tell a boy, “They took out a girl-part,” he will turn slightly green and stare at the toes of his shoes; but if you tell him, “They took out a girl-part and replaced it with a small nuclear power pack,” he’ll look you in the eye and say, “Oh, cool.”

Before the procedure, I indulged in a B&N run. Here’s what I found.

Analog, March 2010

Christianity and sci fi don’t mix! Sci fi editors will not accept anything vaguely defensive of the nasty evangelical right!

Hogswallop. Analog, March 2010, first story—Shane Tourtellotte’s “Of One Mind.” I swear half of you fine hobbitses have already discussed this very scenario. Brain manipulation is possible; extremism can be cut out of a person’s psyche. As soon as we’ve run out of terrorists, we’ll use it on the religious right. And the protagonist thinks this is a bad thing. What’s the world coming to?!

(For more infrequent readers, that was irony.)

Then there was an article on isotopes I didn’t have the wherewithal to follow. I pretend to be a hard SF writer, but I’m just as happy to resort to handwavium when the research bores me.

“Encounter in a Yellow Wood,” about keeping your focus on long-range plans, was poignant to this Oregon-grown, tree-canoodling soul. “Locked In” was creepy. “Ten Thousand Monkeys” argues that no amount of typewriter-endowed monkeys could turn out anything half as readable as your local cat. “Dr. Skenner’s Special Animals” was cute. (How does one provide veterinarian care for a genetically designed dragon?) “Narrow World,” about an isolated ecology evolved on a freeway strip, read like the best of Friday Challenges. And “Hub of the Matter” displayed an optimistic, rah-rah view of humanity and its potential I’ve not seen since…the last time I watched Doctor Who.

Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2010

Christianity and sci fi don’t mix! Sci fi editors will not accept anything vaguely defensive of the nasty evangelical right!

Pshaw! F&SF, Jan/Feb 2010, Charles DeLint’s “Books to Look For;” review of Dean Koontz. I can’t do this justice, so I’ll just show you:

…one of the things that’s intrigued me in reading his more recent books is the spirituality that has come to underlie many of the stories in the past six or seven years. It has its basis in Christianity but bears little relation to the more strident elements that are usually presented to us by way of radio shows, TV evangelists, and the news whenever some particularly provocative quote can make a headline.

The truth is that the followers of most religions go about the practice of their faith in a much less confrontational manner. It’s the militant element that gets the press because they make better headlines. Unfortunately, that leaves those of us on the outside with a distorted view of what it’s actually about. And probably embarrasses the believers who follow their religion’s actual tenets, rather than distortions pulled out of context from their holy texts.
[Page 29]

(Yeah, I’m quoting a book review from a magazine in a book review in a blog. But I thought that was pretty encouraging.)

“The Long Retreat” was either a speculative story about two infinite kingdoms at war or a commentary on our two-party political system. “Bait”—I like the world of families going and hunting fairy creatures, but…you’ll just have to read it. There was inappropriate creepiness toward the end. I think “Writers of the Future” is an important editorial on the act of writing, but I’m not sure I’m clever enough to know what exactly Charles Oberndorf was trying to say. Maybe just that it’s our responsibility as authors to present the world with possible futures to strive for instead of encouraging loyalty to the status quo. Something miko commented on just last week.

“Songwood” is a sweet romance between a gargoyle and the figurehead of the ship he’s stowed away on. “Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” is a near-future memoir, as convoluted and unreliable as memory itself. But it boasts one setting that might have won this week’s challenge: a greenhouse, set in the middle of a field, whose windows are made entirely of 19th century photographic images developed on sheets of glass.

“The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales,” by Seven Popkes, could not be more different. A delightful series of shorts illuminating the truth behind the stories of Snow White, Cinderella, and others. Not as polished as James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, but equally as subversive.

Kate Wilhelm’s “The Late Night Train” was so much like Jim Aiken’s “Leaving the Station” (Asimov’s, Dec. 2009) that at first I thought they were written by the same author. But the abusive, stroke-incapacitated farmer, his tremulous wife, and their decrepit farmhouse made me wonder if Wilhelm actually knew Maj. Tom’s grandparents. The ending was a little confusing (was it the daughter or the mother?), but this one hit really close to home.

Lucius Shepherd, in “Films,” points out that District 9 is eminently more understandable if you have intimate knowledge of the current state of affairs in South Africa and not just the Mandellian bliss of years ago. Dean Whitlock’s “Nanosferatu” is a politically correct revenge fantasy that could have been longer.

Finally, “City of the Dog” by John Langan. The long, descriptive, dense sentences remind me of the bandit, or another friend of mine who writes super-natural romances as if modern-day Boulder were akin to Jane Austin. Unfortunately, Langan doesn’t quite pull it off. “Arms crossed over the oversize Army greatcoat that was some anonymous Soviet officer’s contribution to her wardrobe, my girlfriend hurried back to me.” “Trying not to make too much of the coincidence, I pushed my way through to the bar, where I shouted for a Macallan I couldn’t really afford, but that earned me a respectful nod from the bartender’s shaven head.” All well and good, and the narrative character was an English major, but it comes across as uneven, especially when juxtaposed with the dialogue. Especially the dialogue of the roommate which switches from things like, “How the driver didn’t roll right over me and the animal gripping my arm, I chalk up to his caffeine-enhanced reflexes…Had it been any other vehicle, my would-be consumer might have stood its ground…” to “Shut up,” and back again.

Then there’s the second act—an overlong, rambling, needless info dump, the gist of which was already covered. (Okay, his girlfriend cheated on him so he moved to Albany to be with her and room with the guy she cheated with. Moving on…) Which is sad, because the rest of the story is a good little horror story almost worthy of vidad. I just wish vidad and the bandit had written it.

Kersley Fitzgerald is a real-live, paid, stinkin' author. Please don't take that to mean she knows what she's talking about in any review of another writer's work.

Apple's iPad - First Impressions

With great expectations and grand hoopla, the Apple iPad was unveiled yesterday. Remarkably, world peace did not break out immediately and the planets did not hiccup even slightly as they continued to turn in their eternal courses.

Having once had a professional association with Apple and having lived through many such breakthrough Apple announcements in the past thirty years, my first reaction was, "Meh. It's a big fat iPhone." Which engaged me in so many offline discussions that I feel compelled to summarize them here.

I have one friend who's convinced that the iPad is the most revolutionary thing since the invention of the universe. (For the record, he felt the same way about the Segway.) Another can't wait to get his mitts on the SDK because he's convinced he's going to make a fortune writing apps for it. (Just like you did for the Newton and the iPhone? How's that working out for you?) A third, who surprisingly is a die-hard long-time member of the Evangelical Mac congregation, considers it, "really cute but basically useless."

Me, I've looked at the specs, and I see that it has a built-in mic, built-in speakers, a headphone jack, a SIM socket, support for DRM, always-on 3G wifi, and Bluetooth—and more surprisingly, no support for Java or Flash.

So first off: yes, it will function like a big fat iPhone, if that's how you want to use it. You will be able to use it as a speaker phone, if you must, but most people will use it with a Bluetooth headset.
Off-topic Sidebar:Now that my office is downtown, that's one of my newly discovered joys. When you see some scuzzy-looking fellow standing in a skyway corridor facing the wall and talking to himself, it's no longer possible to tell whether he's a crazy homeless guy or an IT professional with a Bluetooth headset. Hence my proposed solution to the homeless problem: give 'em all Bluetooth headsets. Then everyone can get back to politely ignoring them.
Back to the iPad. The single most interesting thing about it to me, though, is that Apple has already made deals with Penguin, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan, and McGraw-Hill to provide books in ePub format for the (what else) iBooks app.

So figure the product announcement is now, actual deliveries start in three months, and for the next six months Apple's highly vaunted institutional sales force is going to be pounding down doors and signing exclusive deals with universities all over the country. Come next Fall, incoming students at many major universities will be "strongly encouraged" to buy an iPad (at the usual healthy student discount to ease the pain, but who cares since it's all daddy's or student loan money anyway) and "lease" their textbooks from the iBookstore (or more likely some cross-licensing deal with the U bookstore). Then, thanks to the magic of DRM and always-on 3G connectivity, at the end of the semester the "old" textbooks will simply disappear from the student's iPad, making room for next semester's textbooks, and the student will get a little message thanking him or her for being so green and saying how many trees and landfills have been saved and how much the student's carbon footprint has been reduced by using iBooks.

And over at Macmillan and McGraw-Hill there will be much rejoicing, for the profit-crippling used textbook resale market will effectively cease to exist, and over at Amazon.com there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, for a very significant share of the independent bookstore business revolves around brokering and reselling used college textbooks.

Your thoughts, comments, and observations, s'il vous plait?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu


Last week we discussed 24, a "realistic" action show. This week, we turn to action-comedy.

On Monday, September 24, 2007, Chuck Bartowski first appeared on television screens. At his own birthday party, he was hiding in his room hoping to avoid his sister's attempts to help him find a girlfriend. She dragged him out and introduced him to several attractive young women. Alas for his well-meaning, meddling older sister, Chuck regaled the women with the sad story of his lost college girlfriend. Along the we also learn that Chuck is a college drop out, works at the Burbank, California, Buy More store and is part of the Nerd Herd (did Best Buy pay for this kind of publicity?). The message is clear; Chuck is a capital 'L' Loser.

But all of that is about to change. More or less...

Chuck's old college roommate, now a top agent with the CIA, steals the "Intersect," getting himself killed (or so we thought at the time) before he can get away with it. His killer turns out to be none other than Jayne Co- I mean, Adam Baldwin (not related to the other, irritatingly political Baldwins, btw). Baldwin's character is John Casey who is a lot like Jayne except, well, Casey is smart. And he works for the NSA. Unfortunately for Casey, Chuck's roomie manages to use a wireless connection to email the Intersect to Chuck before expiring. Chuck opens the email and is hit with a barrage of graphic images that flash on his screen, through his optic nerves and into his brain. It takes a very long time. Chuck opens the email shortly after his party and is unable to move or look away until 7:00 AM the next morning.

Wait a minute! This vast collection of graphic data was sent to Chuck in a matter of seconds on a wireless connection using a hand held device slightly larger than an iPhone? Anyone who has sent a graphics intensive email knows it won't transmit in under 10 seconds, especially using a wireless connection! But, hey, file transmission times on TV only make a difference if the plot requires realistic transmission times to build tension. Let's give them a pass on this one.

But what is this "Intersect" that turns Chuck from a geek into a spy, from a Loser into merely a loser? The Intersect was supposed to be a computer that could make all sorts of amazing connections using data images from all over the world. Now that the Intersect is stuck in Chuck's head (and has been wiped from all other locations), Chuck gets to make those amazing connections. If Chuck sees something or someone from one of the images stuck in his brain, he "flashes" and sees the connections, learns who the bad guy really is or what he's really after.

Having the Intersect in his head makes Chuck valuable, so valuable a CIA agent and an NSA agent are assigned to protect him and act on his flashes. The NSA agent, of course, is tough, no nonsense, no emotion Casey. The CIA agent is Sarah Walker, a beautiful blond just the right age to be Chuck's girlfriend.

To round out the not-quite sitcom setup, Chuck lives with his sister and her fiancé, neither of whom know Chuck has become a spy. Since all the world's bad guys keep wandering through Burbank, Chuck keeps his job at the Buy More as his "cover." Casey gets a job in the same store while Sarah works at a nearby frozen yogurt place (or something like that).

Each episode features some crisis at the Buy More that only Chuck can solve plus some threat to the free world that only Chuck can identify. The writers get the same tension Spider-Man suffers from all the time; how do you balance your real life with your secret life while also keeping your friends and family from discovering your secret life? Plus there is the added tension because Chuck has no spy training but has to be along on the spy missions in case he flashes on something.

More than most TV shows, Chuck takes a lot of willing suspension of disbelief. If you let yourself get caught up in just how preposterous the Intersect is or how ludicrous the cover stories are or start wondering how Chuck, Casey and Sarah manage to successfully hold down regular jobs while also slipping off to do spy stuff all the time, you won't be able to enjoy the show at all. And it is an enjoyable action-comedy, one my whole family has fun watching.

On the ironic side, Chuck was almost canceled after its second season. Only a massive fan effort kept the show afloat. NBC reluctantly agreed to a third season, but not until March of 2010. Then NBC got a look at the ratings of all of its new shows for 2009. Suddenly, Chuck looked a lot better; so good that NBC brought it back in January with back-to-back episodes on Sunday night followed by another episode in the show's normal Monday time slot.

But things have changed for season three. Now Chuck has the new, improved Intersect in his head. Not only can he flash on all the same stuff he used to flash on, he can also flash on new skills. One minute, you've got the bumbling Chuck who needs Casey and Sarah then, flash, you've got kung fu Chuck or swordsman Chuck or mariachi Chuck. For me, the jury is still out on this new, improved Intersect. Yes, it can be funny when Chuck goes from wimp to superhero in the blink of an eye, but that's going to lose its appeal pretty quickly. But maybe the writers will surprise us.

And maybe Hannah, the new woman in Chuck's life who was introduced this week, won't turn out to be yet another undercover agent trying to capture the Intersect. But I'm not holding my breath.

Which Chuck do you prefer? Or do you even like Chuck at all? Why are all female spies sexy beauties with brains? Have you ever seen a show that required more willing suspension of disbelief? And what would James Bond do with the Intersect in his head? What Maxwell Smart do with it, for that matter?

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, January 25, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Time for some random thoughts.

Why is it that so many geeks look down on spectator sports? Other than "fine arts" types, geeks are the people I've found most likely to think spectator sports are stupid, as are the people who play them and enjoy them. I suspect it has something to do with geeks having been at the bottom of the high school "food chain" with the jocks at the top (and, in my experience, generally more than willing to lord that over the geeks). The one thing I can readily say is that most of my geek friends couldn't care less about sports. Maybe they just didn't grow up in a small, college town where, as a kid, part of your identity was wrapped up in how well the college's sports teams were doing.

By the way, having used the phrase "couldn't care less," why is this phrase so rarely used correctly? In speech and in writing, most people will use, "I could care less." Since they really mean they simply don't care about something, they should use "couldn't." This is one of my major pet peeves.

Another is hearing someone say, "It's a mute point." What the heck is a mute point? Is it a point that doesn't talk? What they actually want is "moot," as in, "It's a moot point." I realize this is primarily an issue of not picking up the minor difference in pronunciation between "moot" and "mute," but it still irks me when I hear the incorrect word used.

Oh, and I know most of us here know how to spell, but what is it about the word "lose" that makes it so tough to spell correctly? Yeah, I know, "lose" is one of those many exceptions in the English language, but it's a word I learned how to spell correctly when I was eight. Surely it's not asking too much of the kids of today that they manage to learn how to spell it correctly by the time they get out of high school? Or do they even teach kids to spell in school any more?

The web page for ReConStruction -- aka the North American Science Fiction Convention -- has been changed. The new look is much nicer, though there isn't any more information than there was before. The only actual change I could find was that attending memberships have gone up $15 to $110. Youth memberships (ages 13 - 24) are still $95. Children (ages 7 - 12) are $30. Children six and younger get in for free. The site doesn't list when prices will go up next but I'm sure they will go up as the convention draws nearer.

I was looking through the science fiction section at the local Barnes & Noble today. What's with all the fantasy these days? I know fantasy has been gaining in popularity since the '70s, but the sheer volume of fantasy and urban fantasy showing up on the shelves is daunting. It seems the only new science fiction coming out these days is military science fiction. I like military science fiction, but I'd be interested in reading something else, too. But back to fantasy; is it so much more popular because so few people care about or even seem to understand science? That's my best guess...

I just finished reading the latest collection for the online comic The Order of the Stick. If you've never played D&D, you'll probably miss a fair bit of the humor, but if you have any interest in creating comics, give the strip a look. The reason you should give it a look is for the artwork. The entire strip is done with stick figure art. Yes, it's fancy for stick figure art, but it is still pretty simple. The thing is, the artist conveys a wide range of emotions using that simple artwork. I just mention this in case those of you with actual artistic talent want to try the same approach. I don't have even that much artistic talent...

I've been watching the Vikings-Saints game while writing this. One thing through out the broadcast is just how bad cell phone commercials are. You'd think someone could come up with something better than the stupid "coverage" war between AT&T and Verizon. The other providers barely do better. Surely someone besides me should be able to think of mixing cell phones and the old Star Trek communicators in a commercial. Come on, guys, Shatner's still alive. Put him in a uniform, give him one of those communicators used in the original show and then have some young ensign show Captain Kirk up by using his iPhone or Android or something. Off hand, I can think of several different "plots," especially if they could sign Nimoy, too.

Next week I promise a single topic column.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

And the winner is...

Oog, that was ghastly. Did I say I could move ten million Vikings chokers? I meant twenty million.

But with the game safely out of my misery, it's time now to turn to this week's entries. As you no doubt remember, the challenge this time around was to write a brief character sketch, starting from nothing more than a name. I'm really pleased to see that we got seven entries this time, including entries from a lot of people who haven't given it a try in a while. Tackling the list in no particular order:

Athor Pel: your robotic Mendacious Smith is obviously a storyteller, although not in quite the same way that Henry is a storyteller. We like that he uses his ability to lie—in fact, his programmed compulsion to lie—to good effect and without hurting others, but on the other hand, we seem to remember that there is an old Asimov story that follows much the same line. A robot with an overly strong First Law bias becomes a pathological liar, in order to avoid ever hurting anyone's feelings, and the... Well, it's an Asimov story, so you can guess. Anyway, this is a good idea, but not strong enough to be a winner this week.

Ben-El: we like the physical descriptions and the idea of the character having a nemesis who is his mirror image, and the woman they both pine for makes us snicker. But overall your character sketch was just too sketchy. We feel certain there's a fun idea lurking in there and waiting to be told, we just don't get enough information to know what it is.

Snowdog: Not content to write simply a character sketch, you've given us an entire short-short story, or as Guy might call it, flash fiction. It's an interesting idea that the character creates living creatures by describing them. Henry wants to know if he can bend causality to the extent of making events happen as well, and thinks it would be pretty cool to be the scriptwriter for your own life, while I vaguely recall an old Twilight Zone episode in which a character with similar abilities turned his life into a hellish horror. This was fun to read, and very well done, but in the final analysis what you wrote was also way above and beyond the scope of this challenge.

Torainfor: Not the approach we expected, living down his father's reputation, but it was interesting and exceptionally well-written, as usual. However, we felt that Junior could have been named just about anything, as the name really applies more to his father. We suspect that Mendacious, Jr. would have tried to live down his father's reputation even if his name was "Bob."

Watkinson: We got a really great feeling for your character in just a few short paragraphs and we like how you spun it. Henry pointed out a run-on sentence or two, but they weren't horrible and in any case this was simply a character sketch, so grammar and spelling don't matter. We liked your approach quite a bit and feel that the story this character has to tell has quite a lot of strong potential.

Miko: We find it interesting that you alone chose to give us physical details about his appearance. Ben-El came close, with a few words about how he dresses, but everyone else concentrated on his interior life, his history, and his psychological makeup. Yours is a nice interpretation. We already feel strong sympathy for the lad in just two paragraphs. Henry points out that you also have a run-on sentence in there, but as we said above, that's not a big deal in a character sketch. Good job.

Passinthrough: You and Miko seem to have hit on similar ideas for the reason behind your character's name. Henry envisions him becoming a writer, while I thought he was a natural for going into politics. In either case, they're obvious professional choices for someone who has trouble telling the truth, and we'd like to see you develop this further. Very nice!

Therefore, after having read and re-read all of the entries, and after taking into account all of the reader comments—we don't feel bound by them, but we do take them into account—it is considered opinion of the judges that the winner this week is Watkinson, with Honorable Mention going to Passinthrough. So Watkinson and Passinthrough, contact us to claim your prizes.

And to everyone else: thanks for participating, and don't forget, the next Friday Challenge, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," is already in progress, and the deadline is Thursday.

Are you ready for some f'ball?

Well, here we are: the penultimate games of the season. Are you ready for some American rules, licensed and franchised, non-rugby, non-soccer, football?

Who are your picks today? Why?

Me, I rarely comment on football in public, for much the same reason as I rarely comment on religion. If Saint Thomas Aquinas—or in this case, Saint Vincenzio d'Lombardi—could not convince you that some of your most closely held beliefs are wrong, what hope do I have? Last Friday was "Team Spirit" day in the office. People kept asking me why I wasn't wearing my team colors. I told them my Packers jersey was in the wash.

It's true. I may live in Minnesota, but I've never been a Vikings fan, and I'm not about to convert now. I am not much of a football fan at all, honestly, but as much as I am one, I'm a true-green Packers fan. I grew up on Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst, Colby cheese, and watching Bart Starr play in Milwaukee County Stadium. I know the difference between Thuringer and summer sausage; between a lager and a pilsner; between Ray Nitschke and Paul Hornung; between a Holstein and a Bechstein. As one of my old professional bios used to say I really did work for a while in the Usinger sausage factory, where I learned the grim truth of Bismarck's famous aphorism—and as you might expect, it was years before I could bring myself to eat braunschweiger again.

All the same, here we are, going into the championship round, and I find my feelings strangely mixed today. On the one hand I find myself surreptitiously hoping the Vikings will win, and then go on to win the Super Bowl, just so that The Curse of Fran Tarkenton will finally be lifted. Besides, I will take a certain sadistic delight in knowing that the Vikes finally managed to pull it off—but only by hiring two ex-Packers.

On the other hand, if they win today, then I know team owner Zygi Wilf will be down at the state capitol tomorrow, demanding that the taxpayers of Minnnesota cough up a billion bucks to build him a new stadium or else he'll move the team to Los Angeles. For owning an antitrust-exempted major league sports franchise truly is the closest thing to having a license to commit legalized extortion available today, short of being a government agency.

In the final analysis, then, I guess that is why even today I remain a Packers fan. I've seen the Packers be truly great; I've seen them really suck. When they're great I don't get too excited because I know that pretty soon they will suck again; when they suck I don't get depressed, because I know that sooner or later they will be great again. But in good times and bad, winning seasons and "rebuilding" years, no matter what happens on or off the field, I know one thing remains true: the Packers will never demand that the taxpayers of Wisconsin build them a new stadium or else they'll sell the franchise down the river.

Can you say the same thing, Vikings fans?

Addendum: After further reflection (and lunch), I find that when I look back at this amazing season, I mostly see the missed opportunities. Not on the field; I'm talking about in merchandising. While this year's Vikings have not yet done anything rising to the high-water mark set by the 2005 squad with their legendary "booze, hookers, coke, and digital cameras on a boat" party, and the associated souvenir T-shirt—

—there were so many other careless missteps that just a moment's extra thought would have corrected. The failure to market a white #4 Favre jersey with "Your Team Name Here" on it, and a corresponding collection of stick-on velcro team logo patches. The failure to market a horned Viking helmet not with the traditional "Helga" braids, but with an attached Jared Allen mullet. Demoting backup quarterback John David Booty to the practice squad: what red-blooded American high school or college girl would not want to be seen right now wearing a pair of purple and gold warm-up pants with the name "BOOTY" plastered across the upper buttocks region in letters six inches high?

And for the ladies, the crowning touch, and one I could sell a million of if I had 'em today and probably ten million in the next two weeks. Envision a tasteful purple collar, trimmed in white lace, with a tiny golden Vikings emblem on the front.

Yes. It's the official Vikings choker...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

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 and purposeful sci fi writer. Please don't hold her brief forays into fantasy against her. They meant nothing. She was thinking about space ships the whole time!

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 1/22/10

This week in The Friday Challenge...
Henry Vogel introduces his new Total Immersion Theory of literary criticism. What's better: writing qua writing that stuns you with its sheer brilliance and style, or writing that effectively sublimates out of existence, leaving you completely submerged in the world of the story? Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke comes in three days late with his explanation of writer's dues and the paying thereof, but we decide to run it anyway, just to get it out of the queue. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu slaps around the latest season of 24, stabs it in the kneecap with a ballpoint pen, and never even gives a thought to reading it its Miranda rights. Is Jack Bauer really just the John McClane from an evil parallel mirror universe, or is there something more sinister at work here? Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald bends time and space to take us on a tour of a wonderful place that no longer exists; her Grandmother's bookstore. For all that writers talk about the importance of ideas and words there is a strangely tactile pleasure to be found in holding a physical book that e-books are hard pressed to match. Join the discussion...

Also, Kersley explains the terrible truth about writer's block (2010 calendars are may still be available!), the inmates discuss the views from their respective places in the asylum, and with all of that said, we move on to new business.

Who is Mendacious Smith?
As you might remember, last week's challenge was to write a brief character sketch of a named but otherwise unknown and undescribed character: Mendacious Smith. As of the deadline, we have received the following entries:

Torainfor, "Friday Challenge: Mendacious Smith"
Watkinson, "The Friday Challenge: Mendacious Smith"
Snowdog, "Who is Mendacious Smith?"
Miko, "Who is Mendacious Smith?"
Passinthrough, "Smith"
Ben-El, "Mendacious Smith"
Athor Pel, "Mendacious Smith"

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, January 24.

And now for this week's challenge.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
A few weeks ago Kersley Fitzgerald gave us a terrific column on the way that the setting itself can function as a character in a story. Rather than recapitulate her words here, I want you to take a minute now to go back and re-read that column: link.

Back so soon? Are you sure you read it?

Okay, that's better.

This week's challenge is simple: I want you to visualize a setting. Not who is in the scene; not what happens there. It can be the general setting for your story or just the backdrop for a key scene; where it starts, where it passes through, or where it ends. Indoors or outdoors; real or imaginary; as broad as from horizon to horizon or as constricted as the two square feet in front of your face. Just close your eyes for a minute, and really see that setting in your mind's eye.

And now I want you to describe that setting, and bring it to life for the rest of us. Keep it brief. A paragraph will do; 500 words will be too long. Help us to us see what you see.

As always, we're playing by the badly out-of-date Official Rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever is behind equally badly out-of-date Door #3. The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, January 28.

And also as always, remember: the objective here is to have fun!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge, What's In a Name, is tonight 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 Bookstore

The white, square building sat under the ancient oak tree with all the grace of an over-grown utility shed. Inside, fans futility circulated the dim, hot air. Racks and shelves ran the length of the room, holding tightly to nursing books, rubber finger-tips, and cigarettes. In the back office, the bookkeeper hummed to herself. A clerk straightened the magazines, slipping out the “Women’s Day” to read later. And behind the desk stood the third Musketeer. Late forties/early fifties; five-foot-four; dark hair rapidly showing its inevitable progression to bright white; pale blue eyes peering out of black, sharp-rimmed glasses. Eyes that could cut you to shreds one minute and claim you as her own the next. Margaret May Fitzgerald. My grandmother.

Peggy started working at “The U,” as she called it, long before I was born. She took no guff from anyone. She sparred with priests, supported a nun in following her heart to leave her orders, and “adopted” half the male students that walked through the door. One of whom arranged the flowers for my wedding and, later, her funeral. She was a life-long Protestant who fiercely defended her Catholic friends. On one occasion, she took the purchase of a student who hailed from a culture that didn’t respect women as much as she would have liked. She rang up his items and told him the total. He removed the money from his wallet and threw it on the ground behind the counter. She calmly picked it up, made change, and threw his coins on the floor beside him. That was the only time he ever gave her any problems.

During the busy seasons, she called on her family to help out. Mom and her sister both worked there. And I remember a story my dad told me, about how he opened a box of textbooks with a box knife. But the shipper hadn’t packed the books properly. They weren’t stacked in columns with a protective piece of cardboard on top—they were lined, spine-up. I don’t know how many spines he cut through, or what exactly grandma said to him, but he walked around her gingerly their whole lives.

Mom would bring us to that dark, dusty, austere room. I remember sitting in that back office, on top of the safe, entertaining Betty and Dorothy—the other two grande dames of the bookstore. Even then, I don’t think I could tell them apart by name, just by their roles. One was the “Cookie Bear” and gave us cookies. The other was the “Cookie Monster” and tried to steal them away.

Peggy retired shortly after, and our visits came to a standstill. The old, square, white building was replaced by the expansive Pilot House, complete with a restaurant, campus security offices, and a large lobby. I didn’t enter again until August of 1988.

From the time I was very small, I had three goals. I was going to live with gramma and grampa. I was going to the University of Portland. And I was going to work at Buster Brown shoes in Janzten Beach. Buster Brown was long gone by the time I was of working age, but I made the other two.

When I signed up for the work-study program, and they asked me where I wanted to work, it seemed like a no-brainer. I showed up during the Rush, the busiest time of year. Dorothy and Betty were still there—and I still couldn’t tell them apart—as was the safe. Everything else was different. The dark, cramped room had been replaced by tall ceilings, plenty of light—a fireplace, for Pete’s sake. I didn’t much like running the cash register, but I loved unloading books from their cardboard carriers, stamping the prices onto the first page with charcoal, and making neat stacks on the shelves. Everything else intimidated me—the established employees, the manager with his frustrated, New York sigh, and all the people. People everywhere—students searching for books, parents looking for clothes, instructors demanding to know where their orders were. Over all, however, was the sense that more than the employees or the manager, certainly more than the students, and even, perhaps, more than the long-standing professors, this bookstore was mine.

Yeah, that lasted until the Rush was over and the manager didn’t need me anymore.

But I was back for good at the end of the semester. They’d changed the desks around, the manager was always re-arranging, and I didn’t like it. Yet another alteration to a place that I didn’t think needed it. Over the next two-and-a-half years, I learned the ropes well enough. When to vacuum, how to do returns (which I still hold is the reason my signature is so illegible), which regular insisted on the unfiltered cigarettes and which took only the Marlboro hardpack.

I learned that teachers’ summer conference attendees were annoying. And that they apparently come from places without clean tap water. Truck drivers liked delivering there because the good looking co-eds helped unload the boxes. Working on a Tuesday was a great way out of wearing the ROTC uniform until class. And that Betty is the bottle-blonde with cracked hands from years of shuffling paper who vacations in Alaska and Antarctica, while Dorothy orders the candy, buys us Mint Milanos every Friday, and reads “Women’s Day” the moment the new magazines come in.

I was there the day another clerk spilled her cup of coffee on a pile of freshly-unpacked sweatshirts—while a district supervisor was talking with the manager. And I was there when the manager, horrified, found “The Kama-Sutra Pop-Up Book” in the boxes of trade books the company regularly sent for us to unload from their inventory. And one Saturday, just once, when a soccer game caused an unexpected throng to clean us out of snacks, I got the combination to the safe to dig out some quarters.

I have explained, countless times, why used books don’t earn much money back (it depends on if the professor ordered it again for the next semester, if the publisher has a new edition, if the moon is properly aligned with Betelguese…). I have lamented over the price of engineering paper—until I found out the manager took a loss on every package. And I, perhaps single-handedly, kept Dorothy’s supply of king-sized Mr. Goodbars from stagnating on the shelf.

There was something about the place in winter. You’d take your breaks in front of that fireplace, drinking something hot from the Cove and sneaking chapters from a trade book off the rack. It was comforting to know my world extended beyond the Engineering Building and the ROTC rooms in the basement of Kenna Hall. More than those, more than the brick carved with my great-uncle’s name set in the WWII memorial, this place had history for me. Even with the new building filled with plaid flannel boxers and Salvador Dali prints.

The bookstore was the last place I saw my grandfather alive. He and grandma came in to see me, having just returned from a trip. He hugged me. Three days later, he was dead of a massive heart attack. I moved back in with grandma within a week.

I agonized over the decision to quit. Unlike many students, I lived in the neighborhood year-round and kept my job over the summers. But my grades were horrid and, living with my grandma two blocks away, I didn’t really need the money. I told the manager I’d be back for Christmas break. When I returned, three months later, he simply said, “I don’t think we need you.” My heart was broken.

Four years later, I married Tom. He’d spent summers working at the campus bookstore in his hometown. At the time, his dad worked there, and his mom filled in during Rush. Strange to meet a family just as familiar with Missouri Book Services and Yellow trucking as much as I was.

Grandma died several years ago, but we went back to Portland this summer to see my brother and some friends. We carved out time to show the Creature my school and stopped by the bookstore. I got a blue sweatshirt, Tom got some golf balls. The Creature picked out his own calculator. They’ve expanded the store into the lobby of the Pilot House. Everything was rearranged. Betty and Dorothy have long since retired. Even the safe is gone. I read it’s now in a museum in the basement of one of the dorms.

Not that I would want them to go back to that squat, white, square building with the dim fluorescent lights and the useless fans—I do like the fireplace. I just wished they’d asked us.

Kersley Fitzgerald is a wanna-be writer in Colorado Springs. At the occasion of this typing, her husband is registering her son for a third year of baseball. Kersley isn't sure how she feels about this. While she appreciates not falling into the genre of "soccer-mom," her alma mater is known for its soccer program, not having a football team for the last sixty years.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu


Okay folks, a simple one this week. The new season of 24 has begun. Did you catch the two-hour premiere last Sunday? What did you think of it?

For my money the series has not merely jumped the shark, it's jumped the shark while performing a flawless triple salchow and a toe loop. I've watched 24 with fannish dedication for years, but last Sunday evening Otogu called, and I was happy to answer. I think I cleaned the bathroom instead.
SFX:      cell phone rings, Jack answers.
BAUER:    Bauer.
BUCHANAN: Jack, this is Bill. What's your ETA?
BAUER:    Damned if I know. I'm still stuck on in
          a traffic jam on highway 5.
          (off mike) C'MON DAMMIT, MOVE!
As to why this is in Ultimate Geek Fu: let's face it. Jack Bauer is a superhero, and probably close kin to Frank Castle. He never eats, he never sleeps, he never misses when he shoots, he never catches a quick nap or even yawns, he takes abuse and wounds no human could tolerate and bounces back an hour later, he never has to go to the bathroom; and the most amazing thing to anyone who's ever lived in Los Angeles, he never once gets stuck in traffic.
SFX:      cell phone rings,  Jack answers.
BAUER:    Bauer.
CHLOE:    Jack, this is Chloe. Where are you?
BAUER:    Stuck in the drive-through at the Del Taco 
          on Pico. I dunno, I think they had to go
          kill a cow or something.
Worse, in the last season he contracted "fast-acting weaponized prion disease", and then—of course—received the cure with scant minutes to spare. Which for me, at least, blew away the last thin scrim of whatever meager verisimilitude the show may once have possessed.
SFX:      cell phone rings,  Jack answers.
BAUER:    Bauer.
BUCHANAN: Jack, this is Bill. Where are you?
          We need you!
So that's today's topic: Jack Bauer and the new season 24, or if you haven't watched it, 24 in general. Good, bad, ugly, or fugly?

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, January 19, 2010

On Dues, and the Paying Thereof

We SF writers are a strange lot. When someone new comes along and makes a grand entrance we pay good lip service to appreciating his or her success, but the moment the back turns, the long needles come out. "This Rowling chick; she's not doing anything that Diane Duane didn't do first." (Or Jane Yolen. Or Eva Ibbotson.) "She didn't pay her dues." Implicit in this argument is a streak of purest playground whine: it isn't fair. She doesn't deserve to be the winner. There but for the curse of a fickle Fate go I. WAAAAAH!

It seems we like our grapes sour, with a side of schadenfreude. Why?

One thing I can say for certain is that even this whine about someone else's lack of originality is nothing original. I've heard it many times before: about Cormac McCarthy's The Road; about Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale; about Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Writing in Inferno, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle reserved a special place in Hell for Kurt Vonnegut, ostensibly for theological reasons but mostly because he wrote novels that used science fiction tropes without being one of us. When Neuromancer first broke big there was a faction whining that Gibson hadn't done anything that John Brunner and Alfred Bester hadn't already done years before, and better; luckily for Bill there was another faction already publishing in Asimov's that argued that yes indeedy, Bill Gibson was a true original, who had sprung fully formed from the brow of Campbell to show us all the New True Way. (At the time Norman Spinrad argued quite seriously in the pages of Asimov's that this new subgenre a-borning shouldn't even be called "cyberpunk," but rather "Neuromantic" fiction, because it all began with Neuromancer, and Gibson was the Alpha and the Omega.)

My own sour grapes? Call it that, if you like. But right now I'm thinking about Charlaine Harris and all the opprobrium that's been heaped lately on the paranormal romance genre in general and Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books in particular. "She's not doing anything that Elaine Bergstrom—" (or Lucius Shepard, or Fred Saberhagen, or Brian Aldiss) "—didn't do first, and better. She's not that special. She didn't pay her dues."

If you mean her SFWA dues, no, of course not. Harris is a mystery writer. She had eleven published novels under her belt before she struck pure gold with Dead Until Dark. She paid her dues in the MWA.

Undeserved overnight success, I've observed, comes most often to someone else, and then only looks like it's "overnight" because the carping critics haven't been paying attention and can't be bothered to do research. When Headcrash came out—after fifteen years of my writing seriously, and ten years of my publishing short stories professionally, and two previous novels under my byline—there were reviewers who complained about my overnight success, and how dare I make fun of the sacred tropes of cyberpunk, and who was I, anyway? After all, they'd never heard of me before, because I wasn't publishing consistently in the one magazine they read.

Sour grapes again? Okay, let's instead talk about Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. When that book first came out in the U.S. I read one wonderfully awful venomous review—by a writer I know, so I won't name him—who heaped several bushel-baskets of steaming, reeking scorn on this Adams fellow, for having had the temerity to make fun of science fiction tropes without having paid his dues. The reviewer was blissfully unaware of Adams' long stint as a writer and story editor for the Dr. Who TV series and equally unaware that the HHGG was already a successful BBC radio series. Adams had never published any short stories in the American pulp magazines that he read, therefore, quod erat demonstrandum...

Vox Day has a quote in the footer on his site:
Success comes most swiftly and completely not to the greatest or perhaps even to the ablest men, but to those whose gifts are most completely in harmony with the taste of their times.
I've asked him for the source of that quote, but since he's still unable to supply it, I'll instead conclude with a quote from my own personal source of all that is good and true, The Tao of Jack Burton:
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Many years ago, when I was in college, I was totally immersed in a novel when a friend dropped by for a visit. He had to knock on the dorm room door three times and then call out my name before he broke through the spell the novel had cast over me. Apologizing for taking so long to answer, I explained that I had been completely immersed in the book. "You know how it is when a book draws you in so thoroughly you don't see the words any more, just the events described with the words," I said.

My friend looked at me quizzically and said, "I don't know what you're talking about."

Despite being a voracious reader, my friend had never totally escaped into a book before. I was stunned, having assumed this kind of thing always happened while reading good novels.

I remembered this story while thinking about what makes some books take off and sell well while other, better written, books languish on the shelves. Why is it that long-time master wordsmiths with publishing credits a mile long will be outsold by first time novelists who barely qualify as apprentice wordsmiths?

Before going any further, let me be the first to admit that there are people who love books for the exquisite craftsmanship of the author. They savor every sentence, thrilled by the way the author uses exactly the right words. They love how these lovely sentences build beautiful paragraphs, chapters and entire novels. Finishing the novel, they bask in admiration of the author who composed such a perfect work.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course. I appreciate a well written novel as much as most people, perhaps even more than most. But I will put aside the best written book ever published if I cannot totally immerse myself in the story. If the words don't disappear, the best wordsmith ever born will fail to capture my attention. And this, I think, is part of the problem people have with novelists who hit the big time with their first sale. Not only have these upstarts not "paid their dues," they also hit it big with a book that doesn't meet those people's minimum writing standards.

Here's the not-so-big secret I've discovered about novels; the words are there to convey the story. If the words can do that without getting in the way of the story, they've done their job. Perhaps other words may have done the job a bit better, but the words used are entirely serviceable. Put another way, if I can immerse myself in a story without the words jarring me out of that immersion, I'm a happy reader.

There are people who forget, or at least tend to discount, this not-so-big secret. They select each and every word with delicate care, as if putting together a jigsaw puzzle; each word having an exact place with no other word able to replace it. But while the words fit together beautifully, the story is an afterthought. It drags, isn't really a story or it's predictable. Essentially, the reader is immersed in words rather than the story.

Let me pick an example from the early 1900s, 1912 to be exact. In my experience, most bookstores -- including used bookstores -- will have some books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs was one of those writers who never "paid his dues." He sold his very first novel, A Princess of Mars (initially published under the title Under the Moons of Mars) and never looked back. We're two years shy of the 100th anniversary of the publication of that book and I can still find it on bookstore shelves. Burroughs would probably have been surprised if anyone told him his works would still be print a century after they were written. Many contemporary authors of his, true wordsmiths as discussed above, would have been appalled had they been told the same thing. Burroughs' works sold and continue to sell because the words don't get in the way of the story. They draw the reader in until he actually sees the deserts of Barsoom roamed by John Carter or the jungles of Africa ruled by Tarzan.

There's a reason apprentices start with simple, straight-forward tasks. They have to learn the skills necessary to produce something of use and value before they can begin learning how to produce art.

Until a writer has sold a story or two, it's a safe bet the writer is an apprentice wordsmith. His task is to learn to use words to tell a solid story without embellishments. He must learn to write stories in which people can immerse themselves. He must learn to write so his words don't get in the way of his stories. Once he's mastered that, assuming his stories are entertaining, he'll be on his way.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

And the winner is...

Actually, tonight we're going to name winners, plural.

But before we get to that: from time to time, people ask us how it is that we pick the winning entries. What are our criteria, which metrics do we use, what weighting do we assign to — okay, so they also ask what possesses us to do this in this first place, and who the heck do we think we are anyway, and who died and made us emperor, and a whole host of other questions as well, some flattering and some less so. The key thing to remember here is that the Friday Challenge is a judged contest, and while we do pay attention to your comments and the crude barometer of the voting widget, at the end of the week, it is our professional judgment that we use to make the call.

We actually take this considerably more seriously than you might think, and the use of the editorial "we" is not merely a conceit. Ideally we get the entire Rampant Loon staff together, either in person or by electronically, to read and discuss the submissions, and then to reach consensus based primarily on what we would choose to publish, if some wonderfully magnanimous person were to lose his or her mind temporarily and give us the startup budget we need to launch that periodical publication we've been dreaming about starting for years.

And with that said, we turn now to the outstanding challenges.

First, Miko is the clear winner of the lesser challenge, A Two-Bit Inspiration, for his entry, "The Johnson Sandwich." So Miko, come on down and claim your prize!

Now, as for the 12/18/09 Christmas Story challenge, this was the subject of considerable and prolonged debate, but in the end, here are our conclusions.

Miko's entry, "A Christmas Offering," was a lot of fun, particularly with trying to figure out who he was referring to with the various obfuscated names. We also believe he was recounting a bit of an artistic journey wherein he learns one of those lessons all writers must learn; that when you put especially clever things in your story, your readers are apt to miss them entirely for the simple reason their mind isn't in the same place as yours. This story isn't first one to feature a cast drawn from the Friday Challenge regulars, but previous entries pre-dated Miko's arrival. While it's fun when these stories crop-up, in the end, it was really too much of an inside joke to make the final cut.

Passingthrough's entry, "Christmas Tree Hunting," was yet another look into a world so different from our own experience. Henry wouldn't even know where to start looking for a "wild" Christmas tree in the Raleigh area, and while we in the Minnesota office have no shortage of vast pine and spruce forests, we also have a very active state forestry department and DNR that would no doubt look dimly on our harvesting one free-lance. Henry, being a Southerner, also wonders about the wisdom of just heading off cross-country over snow-covered ground, while we Northerners would never do that, as based on past experience we know that that is the fastest possible way to discover unmarked swamps and sloughs. One notable difference between this and previous stories is that passinthrough herself seems to be somewhat less than thrilled with this particular adventure, and oddly, that makes the story more engaging. All in all, a wonderful recollection and a good read.

Patrick Henry, a first-time entrant, gave us the most difficult time with, "Christmas 1948." This heart-tugging story of a young girl whose mother dies on Christmas Eve is, well, heart-tugging, all right, and it clearly was the reader poll favorite. But the story suffers from some presentation problems: most notably, that we can't tell if this is supposed to be told in the voice and vocabulary of an 8-year-old girl or if it's from the P.O.V. of an adult remembering what happened when she was a child. In any case it slips and slides between what seem to us to be the two points of view or narrative voices, and the grammatical jumps shake us right out of the story. We liked the father's words to his children in the ending—they were direct, and yet simple enough for a child to understand, conveying the father's loss and the mother's wishes—but in the final cut, we couldn't help but feel that we'd seen this made-for-TV movie or heard this country song before. There is a recycled feel to this one that we just couldn't get past. You've got some good concepts, Patrick, but work on your control of character voice and try to find something more original to say in your next story.

Which brings us around to Torainfor's entry, "Sinead's Christmas Wish." We honestly can't understand why this one didn't top the reader poll. Is it too difficult to use drop.io, or was this one simply too long to read online?

In any case, this story shows us once again that Torainfor has a truly amazing imagination, along with an encyclopedic knowledge of folklore. All four judges found this story to be well-written and a compelling read, even though it is also far and away the longest Friday Challenge entry ever submitted! Sinead is an interesting character; we enjoyed the back-and-forth between Sinead and Glowfeather; we also snickered at the close working relationship between a certain film and theme-park company and the wee folk, even if the company's current management isn't as trustworthy as the founder was. The story felt rushed towards the ending — not surprising, considering how long it turned out to be — and there is definitely a strong deus ex machina in the next-to-last scene, but all in all, the story was a fun romp through Christmas-associated myths and legends around the world. Henry thought the ending seemed a tiny bit pat, but sometimes small demonstrations of affection can help open one's eyes.

So as you've no doubt guessed by now, we declare "Sinhead's Christmas Wish" to be the winner of the 2009 Christmas Story Challenge!

As for everyone else, thanks for participating, and keep on trying!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

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 fears she'll soon be an accidental non-cartoonist as she's running out of inspiration. Send in your stories (or half-stories, or one-line blurbs) for Fitz of Distraction to kersley.fitz at yahoo dot com. Please?

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 1/15/10

This week in The Friday Challenge...
Henry Vogel reviews Avatar. Is James Cameron's latest billion-dollar money machine a ground-breaking new cinematic experience with an important ecological message or merely the most expensive Captain Planet cartoon ever made? Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke talks about the language of science fiction clichés and introduces the Turkey City Lexicon in, "And now, a few words about words." Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu continues the exploration of unobtanium, adamantium, and all the other physically impossible substances that have been powering the plots of SF stories ever since Edgar Rice Burroughs discovered Ninth Rays. Join the discussion...

Guy Stewart reviews The Comet's Curse by Dom Testa and unloads a broadside of buck and ball. Is this an insightful critique or merely an overflowing basket of sour grapes? Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald treats us to another too-true-for-comfort cartoon (2010 calendars are still available!), the inmates discuss the view from their places in the asylum, and there are still 29 hours left in which to read the entries in the 12/18/09 Christmas Story Challenge and vote for your favorite. Remember, this time we're not merely playing for the sheer egoboo of winning the Friday Challenge, but for a handsome suitable-for-framing certificate and a cash prize of $50.00 USD!

And now, on to new business.

A Two-Bit Inspiration
As you might remember, last week's challenge was to pick a state—it doesn't have to be the state in which you live—and write a one-paragraph pitch describing the far more appropriate engraving that should be on the back of that state's quarter. As of the deadline, we have received the following entries:

Miko, "Johnson Sandwich"
Miko, "Truth in Propaganda"


[SFX: sound of crickets, chirping]

(Oh dear. If I've missed anybody, let me know, but right now it looks like Miko wins by default. I hate it when that happens.)

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, January 17.

And now for this week's challenge.

What's in a name?
As we come to the end of Unobtanium Week here in the Friday Challenge, I want to take a few minutes now to talk about one of the worst of the many self-inflicted handicaps that can afflict a writer: joke names. We writers are by nature people who indulge in wordplay and truly savor a well-prepared bon mot; words may be our tools, but they're also our toys. Tragically, this trait far too often manifests itself as the temptation to slip what seems to you at the time to be a very sly inside joke into your story, in the form of a clever place or character name. I'm certain Ian Fleming felt he was terribly clever when he named the female antagonist in Goldfinger, "Pussy Galore."

But consider the results. Nothing turns a serious story into comedy—or worse, self-parody—faster than a joke name. A generation later, the clever innuendo and double entendre that was once Ms Galore has decayed into the ham-handed thudding of Alotta Fagina and Ivana Humpalot. Thanks a lot, Ian.

So don't do it. Unless you aspire to be the next Mel Brooks and think a character named "Prince Valium" is an absolute scream, don't do it. If you find you cannot resist the temptation to name your leading authority figure Queen Tubbalhaard, dig deep within your soul to find the strength to resist even harder, or else you'll soon find yourself writing a scene in which Queen Tubbalhaard orders Prince Yusles Jherkov to take command of the fastest ship in the kingdom and set sail immediately for the Isles of Langerhans.

Take it from the guy who once snuck "Sir Epididymis" into a story: it may seem like fun while you're writing it, but sooner or later, you will really regret it.

But then as I was working on this riff, an idea came to me, as if in a whisper on the wind from my Muse, and the idea came to me in the form of a name:

Mendacious Smith

And that, my friends, is this week's Friday Challenge. Who is Mendacious Smith? Somehow I can already see him/her/it being the focus a shared-world anthology: The Ballad of Mendacious Smith. (Of course, I also thought a story about John Carter returning to Earth in the late 20th century entitled "The Warlord of Barstool" would sell, and you can see where that got me.)

Maybe later we can revisit this character, and begin to hear some of the stories of Mendacious Smith. But this week's challenge is simply to write a brief character sketch that reveals some telling details about just who Mendacious Smith may be. (Or may not: at this point, you might want to consider looking up the definition of "mendacious.")

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, January 21.

And also as always: have fun!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge, A Two-Bit Inspiration, is tonight 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.

Finally, a reminder that you have until noon Central time, Saturday, January 16, to vote for your favorite entry in the Christmas Story Challenge. Remember, this time we're not only playing for the sheer glory of winning the Friday Challenge, but also for a cash prize of $50.00 USD. So let's see some serious ballot-box stuffing, folks!

Critical Thinking: Slice of PIE

Guest article by Guy Stewart

Slice of PIE: Science Fiction for Teens - The Comet's Curse by Dom Testa

We are part of our past in everything we do and are. Most of us recognize and acknowledge this.

For example, the science fiction I write comes out of forty years of reading. Starting in sixth grade with The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin, I moved on to Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein by the time I was in junior high. This past spring, I read Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko and even more recently, Rift in the Sky by Julie Czerneda.

The Jesus I believe in was prophesied thousands of years ago, long before He was born on Earth in order that we could live forever in Heaven. I am a believer just as the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Billy Graham and the band SWITCHFOOT were before me and along with me.

People have been alarmed by the “dumbing down” of kids in school for years. John Taylor Gatto laid out the phenomenon with crystal clear logic in his book, Dumbing us Down written nearly 20 years ago.

Why all this background?

Because there are few things that irritate me more than people who act as if they have discovered something new. There are even fewer things that make me steaming mad as when someone acting like they've discovered something new appears to make no effort to credit others – and then produces a bad product which they hawk on the virtue of "celebrity credibility".

We’ve all seen it. At its worse, you get Linus Pauling’s book Vitamin C, The Common Cold and the Flu in which he advocates massive doses of vitamin C in order to ward off these common diseases. His authority? Two Nobel Prizes. But you have to dig to find out that one was a Nobel Peace Prize - laudatory but has nothing to do with the healing powers of vitamin C. The other was a Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for his research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances". While this is impressive, it has little to do with the effect of vitamin C on colds and flu. He was neither qualified nor knowledgeable enough to make the claims he made. At its best you get Jamie Lee Curtis writing cute books for kids.

So I’ve found another person to add to this pantheon: Dom Testa. A twenty-year radio personality in Denver, he wrote The Comet's Curse and self-published it and two other novels. The story delineates the adventures of a group of 251 teenagers aboard a starship escaping a plague on Earth induced by the planet’s passage through the tail of a comet and effecting ONLY people over 18 with an ultimately lethal respiratory infection. The books were recently picked up by Tor and published with new covers and typesetting. COMET is the first of a six part series called THE GALAHAD books.

I love teen fiction. I write teen fiction. I typically promote teen fiction to my students, and I am ESPECIALLY excited about good teen science fiction. Among the books I’ve recently touted are Scott Westerfeld’s Pretties series; Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (haven’t read its sequel yet, Catching Fire) and the classic series, The White Mountains by John Christopher. I have also been a tireless advocate for critical thinking among teens and preteens. I’ve been a classroom teacher for 28 years, Science Teacher of the Year and a writer and guidance counselor.

And along comes Dom Testa with his message: don’t act like you’re stupid, teens! Good message. I agree. I’ve preached it for decades. His website and interviews make it sound like he discovered the concept and is alone in encouraging teens to not act like they’re stupid. And he’s making headlines! VOYA used him as a guest speaker earlier last year. His website is extensive and while it’s encouraging, it grants little credit to those of us who have invested our lives in living and working with teens – while he was a radio show host (which, BTW, isn’t even aimed at teens. The demographic of station KIMN which hosts his Dom and Jane Morning Show in Denver is “Hot Adult Contemporary”).

Worst of all, the first book The Comet's Curse is written in a less-than-stellar style. Filled with the tropes beginning writers of SF assume are “new ideas” – planet-wide plague, interstellar escape mission, artificial intelligence, genius teens, interstellar colonization – Testa doesn’t even manage eloquent writing. Rough sentences like: “He was amazed at the deception, how the gentle appearance concealed the despair that weaved it way throughout the population.” (p 173) and “Tears returned to Channy’s eyes, the emotion of the incident still evident on her face.” (p 217) will hardly endear his work to English teachers in America. The ancillary inclusion of cultureless Canadians, Mexicans and Swedes on the GALAHAD’s leadership Council won’t take this book to the top of the Foreign Rights sales list, either. But because he’s a “Celebrity”, has a slick website and a well-managed and funded marketing campaign, other, much better books for teens will be lost in the glitter of this media blitz. The only thing we’ll see is how great Dom Testa is and how worthy he and his books are of praise. The people who came before him (he never once mentions reading SF as a kid or an adult) and those whose lives are spent “in the trenches” with teens will continue to work hard – and without an advertising campaign.

Guy Stewart is a science teacher and writer in Minnesota. You can find his Possibly Irritating Essays here.
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