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Friday, April 30, 2010

Public Service Announcement

Asimov's is now accepting electron submissions.

(Did anyone else wonder why the most preeminent science fiction magazines only accepted dead trees?)

The Friday Challenge - 4/30/10

This Week in The Friday Challenge

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award News!
Challenger Guy Stewart makes it to the Final Fifty in this very lucrative annual contest for aspiring novelists! While around here it's joy mixed with tears as our beloved Kersley Fitz was eliminated in this round, the Official Mood of the Week is Congratulations, Guy! Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel gets cranking on the subject of Kids These Days and the joys of embarrassing your teenagers in public. Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald discusses the challenges involved in writing both short stories and novels set in the same world. Assumed common knowledge is fine if you've already got fans following the series, but how much backstory is enough, or too much? What problems do you come across when writing a short story affiliated with a novel or series? What do you do to make the shorter plot successful? Can you write an autonomous short story based in a rich, complex setting? How many times can you use the word "story" in one article? Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke at last explains the true meaning of OTOGU, and begins to wonder whether science fiction has become a fossil form, hopelessly trapped in the 20th century. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu, in a guest post by Allan Davis, introduces the Encyclopedia Obscura and asks, what is the most ridiculously obscure and useless bit of geek trivia you know? Join the discussion...

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit accidentally nukes last week's post (but don't worry, it's been recovered via a fascinating exercise in Forensic Googleology) and continues bravely forward nonetheless, to discuss this situation: a Roman trireme commander, a Viking king, and a Maori chieftain walk into a seedy waterfront dive... Join the discussion...

Also, Kersley Fitzgerald gets upstaged by Major Tom, the inmates discuss the views from their respective places in the asylum, and the Pentagon unveils further proof that "PowerPoint makes us stupid". All this and more, this week in—The Friday Challenge!

Folk Tales of the Final Frontier
In response to this month's Greater Challenge, Folk Tales of the Final Frontier, we have received the following astonishing outpouring of entries. If we've missed any, please let us know and we'll fix it ASAP.

Watkinson, "Ali and the Phorty"
Anton Gully, "Assault and Buttery"
Miko, "Transcendence Gate"
WaterBoy, "The Three Little Hew-mons"
Allan Davis, "The Girl, The Box, and Entropy"
The Bandit, "A Squadron with One Pull"
Topher, "A Modern P.I.N.O.C.C.I.O."
Topher, "Red Hood courier"
M, "Olive Drab"
Avery, "Afterthought & A Glow Worm"

(These last two entries are in the drop box. The password is "challenge" and you'll have to scroll down to the bottom to find them. Hmm. Some of the stuff in the drop box is getting pretty old. Perhaps we should clean the fridge? Let us know.)

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 favorites. Don't be shy about leaving comments on the writers' sites, too. Writers thrive on knowing that someone out there is reading their words.

As this is a Greater Challenge, the ruling troika will be taking a week to read and judge the entries, with the winner to be announced next week.

And now, on to the latest challenge...

The Land Before ZIP Codes
How it happened, you're not entirely sure. Maybe it involved the Large Hadron Collider. Maybe God was in the mood for a practical joke. Or perhaps it was simply one of those rare, never-to-be-duplicated freak interactions that sometimes takes place between your iPod, your Blackberry, a stray cosmic string, a Starbucks Venti Mocha Valencia, and that large uncharted deposit of unstable handwavium located precisely 23.7° to your northeast. All you know for certain is that one moment, you were doing whatever it is you normally do on a Friday morning, and then there was a sudden strange flash of light and a roar of white noise—

And the next thing you knew, you found yourself standing, alone, in a strange apartment.

Make that a very strange, cramped, and somewhat smelly little studio apartment, littered with cigarette butts, dirty socks, an unmade Murphy bed, the remains of several unfinished meals, and mounds upon mounds of books and magazines—whoa, make that the mother-lode of vintage science fiction paperbacks and pulp magazines! But then, as you look around more and begin to get your bearings, it starts to sink in: where's the television? And that huge thing with the CONELRAD markings on it squatting on the nightstand next to the bed; is that an AM radio? And next to it, the big, clunky, black, ancient rotary dial telephone—with a plate in the center of the dial that gives the phone number as being BR-3 1212?

A suspicion is dawning: a good long look around the apartment and out the window at the street scene below confirms it. Somehow you have been catapulted back through time exactly fifty years, to the morning of Saturday, April 30, 1960. Worse, by some caprice of a mad Fate you have been deposited in the South Bronx, in the shabby, cold-water, rent-controlled residence of one Ernest T. Scribbler, failed science fiction writer. Another look out the window convinces you that you'd best not attempt to leave the apartment until you're a lot more confident that you can safely blend in, or at least until you've found some period clothing that fits—whatever "fits" means in 1960.

No television. You switch the radio on, but it doesn't seem to be working. The door has been locked from the outside. Either Mr. Scribbler left in a hurry or he was a real slob, but there appears to be enough unspoiled and canned food in the kitchenette to last you awhile, if necessary. The one solid piece of furniture in the place is a desk; the wall behind the desk is papered with years of accumulated rejection slips. On the desk is a battered old Remington typewriter, and scrolled into the typewriter is something that begins as a cover letter but ends as a suicide note.

The letter is addressed to legendary magazine editor Rex Manly, for whom in our time the annual Manly Memorial Award For Best New Writer is named. Frustrated by years of fruitless efforts, it appears that Mr. Scribbler has decided not to send his latest magnum opus to Stupefying Stories magazine after all, but instead to go take a long walk, and then perhaps to go jump off the Hell Gate Bridge.

It's all right there. Mr. Scribbler's latest five-thousand-word manuscript, which a quick read of the first page reveals, is awful. A stamped, manuscript-sized envelope already addressed to Rex Manly at Stupefying Stories, along with the obligatory SASE. Plenty of blank typing paper. The typewriter seems like a rather baroque device, but you're pretty certain you can figure out how to operate it. You know everything that is going to happen for the next 50 years. Here is your chance to write the 5,000-word science fiction story that will change history, or at least, that might save one man's life.

What is that story?

As always, we are playing by the loosely enforced official rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for—well, we're not quite ready to announce that, just yet. But trust us, we've got a really terrific prize on the line this time, and this is a Greater Challenge, so you have until the crack of dawn on Friday, May 21, to submit your entry, with judging to take place in the week following and the winner to be announced on Friday, May 28.

More details to follow. But for now: good luck and happy writing!


As some have already noted, we have been (happily) overwhelmed by the number of entries in the Folk Tales of the Final Frontier Friday Challenge! The normal 7:00 AM CDT post with the entries and the new Friday Challenge is running a bit late as a result. Give us an extra hour or two to get everything together and posted.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current greater Friday Challenge, Folks Tales of the Final Frontier, is tonight at midnight, Central time. As I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time, those of you who have to snowdog your 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

by Kersley Fitzgerald
My first published story (not purchased, mind you, just published) is based in the same universe as one of my half-finished novels. It's a rich setting. Not because of the locale, as most everything occurs on run-of-the-mill spaceships and stations and random planets. But historically and technically. In the novel, I employed a “dumb puppet” to learn the ropes as a surrogate for the reader. A short story doesn't give you that kind of time, unless you want half your word count to go toward back-story. Not really a good idea.

The story was published in The Cross and the Cosmos, an emag affiliated with Jeff Gerke's Marcher Lord Press. The Anomaly is the sister-forum for fans and wanna-bes, and I've been active since before I came across you good hobbitses. One of the Anomaly regulars has been good enough to post reviews of the upstart magazine's stories. Here's a portion of what he said about “Christmas Time.”

...an important part of the sci-fi element seems particularly unlikely. The inhabitants of this future universe seem to be able to travel throughout time fairly easily, and the limits of this ability are not clearly defined. Despite its crucial role to the whole point of the story, the time-travel element actually doesn't effect [sic] the course of the plot very significantly. I'm not sure whether or not this produces an undesirable effect. The background of the story feels a little peculiar with such advanced, paradoxical science fiction themes appearing alongside many features that are more-or-less exactly the same as in real life.

I see his point. Not that the back-story isn't full and rich and complete, but that it's impossible to get from the short story. By that, I mean impossible to fit into a short story. It involves genetic gifts, trans-dimensional nano-organisms, and thousands (if not millions) of years of winding, ridiculously complex alternate time-lines. It took three books (one not written yet) to initialize and one to flesh out. All that was required to know about the shorter story's plot was that a family is attempting to travel through time and space to reach family for Christmas—and then they get a bit lost. Time travel, space travel, even the presence of Christianity in a space-opera setting are established in another (unpublished) venue. But there's no word count available to answer all the readers' questions in the short story format.

This problem is by no means uncommon. I finally got around to reading Stephen Baxter's "The Ice Line" in the February 2010 edition of Asimov's. It is a sequel to "The Ice War" (Asimov's, September 2008) and loosely related to the novel Anti-Ice.

It reads like a piece of a larger whole. Even the narrator refers to other people and events outside the scope of the particular story. And yet, I'm not sure these particular characters show up anywhere else. It makes for ambiguous reading; I never knew if I was missing vital information or if anything extraneous was unnecessary.

I recently reread Anne McCaffrey's “The Girl Who Heard Dragons.” (The Girl Who Heard Dragons, Tor, 1994) It's set on Pern, and for most readers, that would be enough information. But those unfamiliar with the world know nothing of Thread or Pernese dragons. Familiarity with the setting is imperative to understand what's going on. What's a “Weyrleader” or a “Lord Holder”? What are the caverns of Igen? And why does the arrival of the character “Lessa” seem to bring out such sentimentality in the author?

Anne does use quite a bit of back-story in “The Girl,” but it's mostly directly related to the characters, not the culture and environment of Pern. The story, as well as “The Smallest Dragonboy” (Get off the Unicorn, Del Rey, 1987), is obvious written as a sort of gift for loyal readers. Perhaps with hope that the stories will be compelling enough to draw new readers to her novels.

This works if you're a real-life-famous author, but what about the rest of us? I think the key is what I tried to do: explain the minimum of the setting/environment/unusual tech that's required for the story, then make the story as independent of the background novels as possible. Not that events and characters can't cross over, but they should be as fully formed as necessary within the short story. We can't rely on the expertise of a loyal readership; the story has to be about the story and the characters.

And the purpose of the story is different. We're not rewarding our fans with a little gift, we're trying to drum up interest in the little-known bigger picture—and in our names as authors. An even bigger reason to concentrate on story over setting.

That's just my take. What problems do you come across when writing a short story affiliated with a novel or series? What do you do to make the shorter plot successful? Can you write an autonomous short story based in a rich, complex setting? How many times can I use the word "story" in one article?

Kersley Fitzgerald is writing this article on her brand new computer, as the mother board on the old one unceremoniously died (most likely due to dust and dog hair). Maj Tom is in the next room, watching Matthew McConaughey slay dragons. There's something surreal about that whole scenario.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

Congratulations, Guy Stewart, for making it through to the semifinals! Top 50 out of 2500. Carry the Friday Challenge torch proudly!

[~brb: Originally posted by kersley.fitz @5:54 PM 4/27/2010, but I'm using my nearly godlike site-owner powers to bump it back to the top. Congratulations, Guy!]

PowerPoint Update

Considering our recent discussions, this one is just too good not to pass along:
'When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war:' US generals given baffling PowerPoint presentation to try to explain Afghanistan mess
Actually, at least one man understands it perfectly:
'PowerPoint makes us stupid,' [General James N. Mattis] growled at a military conference in North Carolina.

Ultimate Geek Fu

Encyclogeekia Obscura
Guest Post by Al

One of the hallmarks of the true geek is a trivia collection.

Every geek seems to have a knack—or is it a curse?—for remembering bits and pieces of odd information. Where does this strange ability come from? Is it a natural, inborn element of the geek brain, or something honed and practiced over the years? Are those trivial factoids lovingly adopted into the creases and folds of gray matter—or are they alien invaders, taking root and festering no matter what the brain's owner may have wanted?

Yes, I do think it's a natural tendency of the geek brain to connect to obscure data and refuse to let go. For some, it might be movies (as in, "I saw Star Wars twenty-five times in it's original theatrical run; I can still rattle off the dialog and can definitely say that Han fired first, the lightsabers looked fake when pointed at the camera, and Grand Moff Tarkin had to tell Darth Vader when it was okay to pretend to talk."), while for others, it's television ("Did anyone notice that Kirk was talking to the alien babe right before the commercial break...and putting his boots back on right after the commercial break...?")

Some geeks track better with music, or even a combination of music and movies. Now, getting a song stuck in your head for a short while is bad enough, but when the song is still there thirty years later, what can you possibly do about it...? (The theme song for the old Buck Rogers movie and TV show was called Suspension, and includes the words "Who am I, where am I, what will I be, where am I going, and what will I see...")

If you grew up on a steady diet of comic books, then certain super-hero factoids crawl into your mind and take up residence; anyone remember Captain America turning in his shield, putting on another costume, and then tripping over his own cape...?

But, probably the most common of all is the literature geek—the geek who can offer, in a single breath, the names of the three trolls Bilbo encountered, the name of Lancelot's castle, the first names of Sulu and Uhura (BEFORE the reboot), and the name of the speaker who would not eat Green Eggs and Ham.

So what are some of the most obscure, off-beat, deep-dark secret factoids that have crawled into your brains and made themselves at home? Are you a literature geek, or a movie geek, or some other bizarre hybrid cross-breed variety? Have you met any other geeks whose Geek Obscura skillset was actually frightening (like the guy from summer camp who could not only answer any Lord of the Rings question imaginable, he could tell you the PAGE NUMBER the answer came from)...?

And finally...how many of you can remember what TILTOWAIT does...?

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, April 27, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

by Bruce Bethke

As a species, we humans are clever, devious, greedy, and treacherous monkeys. In unfamiliar situations we seem to be capable of working through the four-variable equation—speed, power, defense, cost—almost by instinct. If we see that we can steal something and get away quickly before anyone else notices, we steal. If we think we can overpower one of our fellow humans and take something without fear of serious and immediate repercussions, we take. If we find ourselves in that rarest of situations, in a meeting on equal terms, we negotiate and trade, even as we watch for a hidden advantage. History presents very few examples of violent conflicts between peoples who perceive themselves to be equally powerful and on equally secure footing.

Those who extol the innate nobility of primitive man or the innocent generosity of children really should spend more time around both before they open their mouths and theorize so much. Civilization and morality are very thin veneers, readily stripped away and discarded as soon as no one's watching, unless they are backed up by very serious power. If confronted by greater power, we monkeys can be counted upon to fawn obsequiously and retreat quickly, even as we plan to come back later with more friends and bigger sticks.

More friends. Meaning more arms, to carry more sticks and throw more rocks. For most of history, the nature of conflict has been shaped simply by the available arm and leg muscles. Land and sea warfare diverge because on land, everything must move on feet, either those of humans or of draft animals, while on water there are no draft animals, and human legs have enough trouble keeping themselves afloat and alive. Thus everything must be made to float on a construction of some sort, and the four-variable equation comes down to a simple choice: sails or paddles?

Wind power is cheap: it requires relatively few men to handle the ship, is decently fast if the weather cooperates, and is a relatively safe way to transport yourself and your possessions, compared to the hazards of traveling on foot through lands filled with your loving species-mates. Arm power is reliably faster and more powerful, but expensive: you must feed and provide for a large crew, and Ben-Hur to the contrary, most naval powers preferred to crew their galleys with free men, as free men could be counted on to fight for their ship and their fellows. Besides, if you fill your boat with men who row or paddle for hours on end and feed them adequately, by the time you arrive where you're going, your crew will have great upper-body strength.

Hence the solution, in any society sufficiently sophisticated to have a division of labor, is to create two fleets: a slow fleet under sail, to carry on trade, and a swift fleet under arms, to protect that trade. Especially in the Mediterranean, you must protect your seaborne trade and coastal towns from those hated and feared people on the other side of the sea, who the ancient Greeks, no strangers to piracy themselves, named "barbarians," because they had trouble pronouncing "Berbers." And this old Greek name lives on, down through the ages, to the Barbary Coast and the Barbary Corsairs, who were the scourge of the Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic until Thomas Jefferson sent the United States Marines sailing to the shores of Tripoli.

But we're getting ahead of the story. For the moment, let's focus on the balance as it teetered for millennia: sails vs arms. Pull a Roman trireme commander, a Viking king, or a Maori war-canoe chieftain out of their respective times and places and exchange them and they would instantly understand each others' boats. Call it a galley or a longboat, if you like, but the war canoe remained the dominant manifestation of naval power for more than twenty centuries.

And then came the gun...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

As I was wandering through a local bookstore Sunday morning, a book title caught my eye. The book was The Dumbest Generation. It had a lengthy subtitle that told you the author, Mark Bauerlein, blames the digital age for the stupidity of the youngest generation and suggests you shouldn't trust anyone under 30. For an old guy like me, I do find it amusing that the generation that first told us not to trust anyone over 30 has, now that they're well over 30, turned that around. But mainly I was amused to find this latest salvo in the on-going war between the generations.

I haven't read the book, so I really can't comment on the author's arguments. But the title, alone, reminds of my childhood when it was common knowledge that television was destroying the intellectual curiosity of the youth of the day. I'm confident that my grandparents generation were certain that radio was going to destroy my parents' generation.

At times, I wonder if technology's greatest gift to mankind is that it provides a handy excuse for parents who are irritated that their teenage children are acting like teenagers. In ancient times, what excuse did parents use when their children hit puberty and started being disrespectful and lazy and otherwise setting up for the end of civilization as they knew it. Did they blame that radical poet, Homer, or the teachers of the day?

"Stop listening to that Socrates fellow, Junior," ancient times Dad might have said. "His teachings will rot your brain!" Actually, they probably did say that. The Greeks did sentence Socrates to death for his teachings, after all.

As the parent of boys aged 13 and 14, I understand how parents wonder what has happened to the sweet, innocent child they had just a year or two ago. For a kid who's 13, those 13 years have literally been a lifetime. For a guy who is about to turn 53, it's a completely different matter. It was only a few short years ago that my son loved sitting in my lap while I read books to him or laying in bed listening as I made up stories for him. Trips to the toy store were high points for his week, particularly if he got to get a Hot Wheels car. While he still likes getting an ice cream cone, ice cream is no longer the cure-all it was just a few years ago. The jokes he found funny now result in rolled eyes and a sighed, "Daaaaaaaad!"

Throw in some convenient, rose-colored memories of how I acted when I was a teenager and I, like many parents, am perfectly ready to find a handy excuse for why my kids are suddenly acting as they are. Perhaps it helps that I was around to watch all seven of my nieces hit puberty and listen to my sisters complain about the evil spirits that had possessed their daughters. Whatever the reason, I'm not looking for a reason why the boys are suddenly acting differently. Instead, I'm trying to explain to them that what seems as if it was ages ago for them seems as if it was yesterday to me. They're changing faster than I can keep up (there's your real future shock). That's why I'm bound to embarrass them from time to time.

Accidentally embarrass them, I mean. All bets are off the first time they bring home a girlfriend.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

It is said that somewhere in the Far East, in the mist-shrouded K'themai Isles, there stands a great temple, built by the now-vanished K'bab peoples and dedicated to Otogu the Insatiable, Devourer of Days. In the heart of this temple there squats a grotesque giant idol, purportedly depicting Otogu himself, and while the idol is gilded with purest gold, the visage is that of a vast, flabby, and revoltingly toad-like creature, miserable with constipation. For though he consumes ceaselessly, despite all his straining, in the end, Otogu produces frustratingly little.

The K'bab legends as they have filtered down through the ages say Otogu is forever hungry because he feeds on nothing more substantial than time itself, and so is never satisfied. Further, the legends hold that in the very end Otogu will consume every last moment of every day, and in final desperation turn on himself, beginning with his own left foot and consuming even his own body until utterly nothing remains. And thus will the world end, although right up until the final seconds, Mankind will be too busy working to notice what's happening.

The K'bab peoples are long gone, now; their myth of Otogu, barely remembered. Jungle has reclaimed the once mighty but now nameless city, save for the weed-strewn courtyard and the vine-covered temple mound. The first white man to see the temple, the daringly brave but severely navigationally challenged pioneering aviator Wrong-Way Wojciechowski, thought it a magnificent ruin as he flew over, but was never able to find it again. Twenty years later the eminent archaeologist Professor Herr Doctor Arvid Morgenstern, working from Wojciechowski's journal, was able to rediscover the temple and reach it on the ground, but he sent out just one brief, cryptic, and sadly direction-free message before disappearing forever into the hungry maw of the mysterious green jungle. In his message, Professor Morgenstern claimed to have found proof that the temple was not in fact a ruin, but merely incomplete. According to Morgenstern the K'bab had just plain never found the time to finish the blessed thing, but they'd always meant to get back to work on it Real Soon Now...

A lesser writer, of course, would be content to say, "I got interrupted by Other Things Of Greater Urgency yesterday afternoon and that's why I'm scrambling to finish and post this column late on Sunday morning."

Of Challenges Large and Small
First up, I want to thank everyone who jumped into Friday's discussion. Your comments have contributed much-needed clarity and helped me/us refocus on just what we're trying to accomplish here. Thanks especially to WaterBoy, for jogging my memory. I needed that. Today is seven months to the day since my daughter died, and to be honest, I have trouble remembering what life was like before then, much less what I was doing or what worked well or didn't work at all. Some days the world before September 25th seems like dim memories from a previous life. I have lost track of a lot of details.

Thanks, one and all, for helping me to remember. The weekly Lesser Challenges will continue, and this coming Friday we'll be announcing the next Greater Challenge—and oh boy, have we got a doozy of a grand prize on the line for you this time!

Nope. Not gonna tell. Not even gonna hint. You're just gonna hafta wait....

The Dead Hand of John W. Campbell, Jr.
The Kid got a new assignment in school this week; he has to read and report on a science fiction novel. You'd think I'd be overjoyed, but—

He was given a choice: I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov; Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; or The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton—or as I tend to think of them, 1950, 1953, and 1969. (And the Asimov book is a collection of short stories published in Astounding and Super Science {mostly} in 1940 and 1941, while the Bradbury book is an expansion of a novella first published in Galaxy in 1950.)

Don't get me wrong. I adore Bradbury and think his career is a model to emulate, believe it's a pathetic crime that Crichton is not considered one of the foremost SF writers of the 20th century, and know rather more than a little about Asimov's robots. I was happy when The Kid picked I, Robot, as it gave me an excuse to introduce him to the stories of John Sladek.

But don't you think it'd be possible to include just one book with less dust on it on a high school's advanced placement class's approved reading list? It wouldn't even need to be a book by a living author, although that would be nice; just, something slightly less than forty years old? After all, SF is supposed to be the literature of ideas, that looks to the future.

So why is our collective gaze so firmly fixed on the rearview mirror?

Finding books for The Kid was no problem: around our house it's not so much a matter of "do we have the book" as "can we find it" and "which edition would you like?" But as I was pulling books for him to read, I started pulling other books off the shelves as well. Groff Conklin's two definitive anthologies, The Best of Science Fiction and A Treasury of Science Fiction, the books generally credited with kicking off the post-WW2 SF boom, were published in 1946 and 1948 respectively, and are filled with stories from the 1920s through 1941. Robert Silverberg's anthology, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, which was used as a college textbook for years, has only one story written after 1959, and it's by Zelazny, and it stinks. Ellison's Dangerous Visions was first published in 1967—and I put it back on the shelf, because it hasn't aged well. "The door-sphincter irised open." How can you read that line and not laugh, now? Was the 1960's New Wave really only about writers working out their personal, political, and sexual problems in public, and finally getting the liberty to put "f-ck" and "sh-t" in a story and not have the editor change it to "frak" and "felgecarb?" Wow. What a giant leap for mankind.

Even the so-called revolution to which I contributed my little firecracker was thirty years ago—or as I put it, a lifetime ago, to answer those people who ask why I don't write now like I did when I was 25 years old.

No rhetorical question to end this segment. I'm just increasingly convinced that the genre is paralyzed by the long-dead hand of John W. Campbell, Jr., and the vast mass of inert material that's been built up over the past eighty years. Maybe it's time for someone to break that mold. Maybe it's time to declare the genre dead and move on. I don't know. Today.

Otogu Beckons
I've at least five more ideas in the queue this morning: a discussion of comparative writing group methods, some thoughts on "finding your voice," comments on books I've read lately, a preview of the other books now in the queue waiting to be read, some proposed tweaks in the site design, and questions about single-sourcing content to support the multiplicity of ebook formats now on the market. But I'm out of time to write this morning, and Otogu is grunting and snuffling loudly in the hall outside my office door.

Catch you later,

Saturday, April 24, 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 was only a little mad about Maj Tom getting published and a lot proud.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 4/23/10

This Week in The Friday Challenge
Kersley Fitzgerald reports from the Pikes Peak Mountain of Authors conference. How do you find an agent? How do you get published? Is it worth thinking about self-publishing? A bevy of authors, agents, and publishers share their experiences and opinions. Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel starts out talking about his dedication to the novels of Dick Francis and ends up on the forest moon of Endor. Sure, it may be the first page that gets an agent or publisher to look at your book—but is it the beginning or the ending of your book that leaves your readers wanting to read more? Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke bids a sad farewell to the hard drive of his favorite computer. Well, a tad drastic perhaps, but that's one way to deal with all the false starts that accumulate when you're suffering from a near-fatal case of writer's block. Join the discussion...

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit starts out intending to launch a serious discussion of the logistics of warfare at sea but barely makes it out of sight of Ngeremlengui. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu returns once again to the universe of Star Trek, to ask a question with monumental consequences: who are the two characters in all the time and space of Trek who never met, but really should have? Join the discussion...

Also, Kersley Fitzgerald explains how to deal neatly with a nearly insurmountable problem and the inmates discuss the view from their respective places in the asylum. Otherwise, it's been a quiet week here in The Friday Challenge—too quiet. Which leads to—

Is there PowerPoint in Hell?
As of the deadline, we have received exactly no entries in the 4/16/10 Friday Challenge, "Is there PowerPoint in Hell?"

Hmm. Was this simply that uninspiring of a challenge, or is there some larger issue at work here? Are we doing something wrong, with the changes we have instituted in recent months, or is it possible that after five years of running The Friday Challenge in one form or another we simply have used up our quotient of appeal? Do we need to add a Twitter stream or a Facebook page? Please, God, not a Twitter stream.

Let's talk.

Return of The Son of The Deadline Reminder
Rather than issue a lesser challenge this week, we'll just take this opportunity to remind you again that the deadline for the current greater Friday Challenge, Folks Tales of the Final Frontier, is Thursday, April 29. That's still plenty of time to write an entry, even if you haven't started yet!

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

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, PowerPoint in Hell, is tonight at midnight, Central time. As I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time, those of you who have to snowdog your 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!

The deadline for the current greater Friday Challenge, Folks Tales of the Final Frontier, is one week away, on April 29. That's still plenty of time to write an entry, even if you haven't started yet!

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: PPLD MoA

Pikes Peak Library District Mountain of Authors

Long title for a writers’ conference, but the conference is free. For some reason, I’ve seen ads for it the week before for the past three years—and then I’ve been able to actually go.

The first session’s speakers included an editor from a small local publishing house, a library employee who managed to sell his first book, and his agent. As you might imagine, they talked about the relationship between an author, an agent, and a publisher. Here are some things they said:

- Why get an agent? Because they’ll know where to send your book. After sending out a gazillion query letters, you might be able to get it published by a small house, but agents know the editors in the big houses and who exactly will be interested in it.
- It’s okay to query multiple agents, just make sure each query is written for the specific agency. It’s also good to mention a similar book they’ve represented; it shows you actually looked at their work and that you’d be a good fit for them. [OTOH, I had an editor say he wasn’t interested in Thunderbird because his house already had a book in the works that had a female character with wings. People are strange.]
- Free agent database websites (like agentquery.com) are not up to date. You can use them to find a possibility and then go to that agent’s website for better info. For good agent information, look at:
-- Literary Marketplace—your local library should have it if you don’t want to buy it, or find it online for $20/week or $400/year
-- publishersmarketplace.com—$20/month
-- Similar published books—look at the acknowledgements pages
-- Writers’ conferences—if there’s a session with a potential agent, go to it. Even if their website claims they’re not accepting new clients, they may open up to students that just paid to sit and listen to them talk for an hour.
- Awards and good reviews will get you attention, but new agents and publishers will look at sales.
- You can only sell a self-published book if it sold thousands of copies and if it did so within a short time period.
- New books get 5-6 weeks to ride the marketing wave before they get drowned out by newer titles.
- EPublishing is growing and will probably be the future, but right now it’s only 2-3% of the sales market.
- Agents can tell if you researched their company and their work or if you sent a form letter to a list of hundreds. Know the agent; know what kind of books they like to represent; don’t waste their time if they’re not a good fit. That makes them very angry.

In the second session, four published authors explained how to get published. We met Laura Reeve, a relatively new science fiction writer, Rod Summitt, mystery/romance, MJ Brett, a self-published author of historical fiction [actually, her stuff sounded really interesting], and Nancy Atherton who writes cooking/gardening/mystery books that are so cozy that I’m not sure anyone actually dies.

The first question was how to get published. Reeve said, simply, finish the book and get an agent. Especially for SF/F, there are so few major players out there that an agent is particularly good to have. Summitt said to use the Writers’ Market and expect lots of rejections.

As for biggest surprises, Reeve mentioned cover art. Her MC has short, brown hair. The illustration on the cover has a long-haired blonde. Summitt revealed that having a small publisher and no agent meant a lot of work for him; he is his marketing department. Brett, who started by fictionalizing the story of her mother-in-law’s life in East Germany, gave the quote of the conference: “It’s worth it to tell the truth.”

Opinion on market trends, and the following thereof, seemed to vary by personality, success of the author, and genre. Brett said to forgettaboutit and write what you love. Atherton (the most successful author) said, “Whenever you’re following a trend, you’re following.” Reeve had more practical advice for us hobbittses. Read a lot in your genre. Don’t necessarily write to the market, but aim your queries according to the market. Genre literature is commercial; by definition, it’s driven by popularity. LOCUS Magazine will give you insider information. It is easier to break into urban fantasy, military sci fi, or action/adventure sci fi. True fantasy and hard sci fi readers tend to stick to favorite authors. Oh, and fantasy outsells sci fi twice over.

Advice varied regarding critique groups. A good critique group will be helpful because you read your own writing as it should be read—not as it actually comes across. Critiquers will point out when you’re getting confusing or leaving something out. On the other hand, there’s a difference between good writing and good editing. A writer with a strong personal voice will find it extremely difficult to turn that voice off in order to objectively analyze another’s writing. They can proofread it, but not edit it.

[I find this to be true. I critique for a teenage writers’ forum, and I have a hard time telling when something is intentional due to voice and when it’s immature writing.]

Atherton had good guidance on writing a series—create a rich, flexible, comfortable world and you won’t get sick of sequels. Brett admonished us to get the details right. She mentioned a scene in a book she read to her high school class when she taught at a DoD school in Germany. The kids immediately tore the book apart because the street where the heroine was meeting the hero was, at that time, covered in rubble from the war. Brett also had one last word about self-publishing: only self-publish it if you already have a niche audience. And don’t do it if you’re young. If you’re young enough to wait eight years for Random House, do it.

The keynote speaker was Margaret Coel, a former journalist who has a successful mystery series based in an Arapaho Indian Reservation in Wind River Wyoming. Her talk was interesting, but mostly personal and anecdotal. Instead, I leave you with a recent blog entry from Elizabeth Moon wherein she explains that sometimes even successful authors get about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

Forty-plus years, hundreds of episodes, eleven feature-length movies—Star Trek is the geek fu gift that keeps on giving. As I was picking up the DVD of the latest movie from where it had been left it in the family room and putting it back on the shelf, it occurred to me: with this film, we've finally come full circle. Sarek probably holds the all-time record for being the non-crew character who has appeared in the most episodes and movies, and Scotty, McCoy, and Spock all got featured last-hurrah guest star shots in ST:TNG, but this latest movie truly closes the loop. At last, Spock has traveled back in time—not to become his own grandfather, but at least to sound, act, and look like him.

Which got me thinking: who else in the universe of Star Trek has never met, but really needs to? Captain Kirk and the Borg? Nah, no challenge. Kirk'd just toss off one of his patented sophomoric philosophical conundrums and watch their ugly heads explode. The Kardassians and the Gorn? Too bad they can't both lose. Captain Piccard and... Harcourt Fenton Mudd? Oh, yeah. Those poor sanctimonious TNG naifs would never know what hit 'em.

Okay, those are my choices. Who are yours?

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, April 20, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

by Bruce Bethke

Perhaps we should be classified as a semi-aquatic species. Our large brains and nimble hands enable us to make the tools we need to adapt to almost any environment, from equatorial desert to polar sea and from the bottom of the ocean to the hard vacuum of space, but in our natural form we thrive best in the littoral zones, in temperate to tropical climates.

And as any mother can tell you, put a boy near the water, and pretty soon he's in the water. And then on it, using anything that can be made to float. Where there are forests, we use logs. Deprive us of trees, and we use bundles of reeds, or animals hides stretched over frames, or even greased skins, tied tightly and inflated to make primitive pontoons. Pretty soon we're busy figuring out how to hollow out and reshape our logs, to make them float even better.

Put two of us on the water, and immediately we're in competition, to see who can go farther, faster, or knock the other guy off his log. Pretty soon one bright lad figures out that if he uses a stick to push off the bottom, he can move faster and maneuver better. Another realizes that if he sharpens one end of the stick, he can spear fish and eat better. A third realizes that if he specializes, and uses a wide stick for paddling and a thin stick for spearing, he can catch even more fish and eat better still. And then one very bright lad realizes that if he uses a stick to hold up something that can catch the wind, he can move fastest of all.

Which is right about the point when one of the first three lads realizes that if he uses his stick to knock that smartass off his raft, he can take it for himself. Which is roughly where things stood, for unknown tens of thousands of years.

There are times I marvel at just how thoroughly and yet unconsciously our species and our cultures have been shaped by water, and by the free energy we get from the solar convection cycle of evaporation, condensation, wind and rain. Where the rivers flow downhill with sufficient urgency we plant sawmills and grain mills, which in time grow up to become towns and cities. Where the rivers flow year-round they become highways, and where the winds are steady and predictable, we develop trade routes. A careless science fiction or fantasy writer might site cities and fortresses where they best suit his or her dramatic purposes, but out here in the real world, our cultures grow up along the banks of great rivers, or on the coasts of seas, or among the island chains of archipelagos.

We build our hulls from whatever we can find, and craft our sails from a bewildering variety of materials and in a remarkable variety of shapes. We make boats not for the curiosity of it all; not to explore, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no Ngeremlenguian has gone before; but to find new and bigger fish to catch, new markets to sell to, and new trade goods to bring home and sell for a handsome profit. And if fortune should lead us to find new lands where there are other people who are not as well-armed nor as warlike as ourselves? Then that, too, can be very, very profitable.

Which is approximately the way things stood, until... 1945?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

by Henry Vogel

Nearly thirty years ago, I discovered the mystery novels of jockey-turned-author Dick Francis. That summer, I hit all the local used book stores, tracking down every book Francis had written up to that point. Once I had read those, I was left waiting for him to release new books. Despite having a very limited book budget, Francis was one of only a handful of authors whose work I bought in hardback rather than waiting for the much less expensive paperback. For years, the arrival of his latest novel was a high point, with me diving into the book as soon as I got home from the bookstore. But, in 1990, things changed.

I picked up Longshot as soon as it was released and zipped through the book. I was really enjoying it, right up until the end. The main character solved the murder and had his confrontation with the murderer, just as you expect from this type of mystery. Francis wrote exactly one more paragraph and then ended the story. There was no reaction from the other characters in the book, not even any reaction from the main character other than relief at having survived the confrontation. The book just...stopped. The mystery was over but the story wasn't. Unfortunately, Francis's next two novels ended the same way; the mystery gets solved and one paragraph later the book ends. After three novels in a row like that, I not only stopped buying Dick Francis books in hardcover, I stopped reading his work.

If any of you saw the movie Air Force One, you've seen the same sort of thing happen. In the movie, Harrison Ford plays the president of the United States, pulling a Die Hard bit after terrorists take over Air Force One. In case you haven't seen it, I won't give away the ending, but just as soon as all the bad guys are dead and all the surviving good guys are safe, the movie ends. We don't see the president come home to either crowds cheering his bravery or questioning his actions when he gave in to terrorist demands (before killing them all, of course). Once again, the action is over and the movie ends. But the story is incomplete.

These are only two examples of something I've seen more and more over the last 20 years or so. Some authors and script writers seem to be getting lazy. They reach the end of their primary plot line and just end things right there. We, the readers and viewers, get cheated out of seeing how the resolution affects the characters we're supposed to care about.

Imagine if Luke Skywalker had blasted the Death Star, heard ghostly Obi-Wan say, "The force will be with you, always." and then the credits had rolled. Star Wars just wouldn't have been the same with the brief wrap up, including the award ceremony. Viewers would have felt cheated and, I suspect, the movie would have made far less money. It might have ended the franchise there and then.

What if, after Gollum had bitten off Frodo's ring finger and fallen into the fiery pits of Mount Doom, Tolkein had written something like, "And so the free peoples of the West were saved from Sauron's evil. The End." I suspect The Lord of the Rings would not have been chosen the greatest literary work of the 20th century, for one thing.

The point of all of the examples is to show that your story isn't over until your readers see how your characters react to the end of the main plot line. We all accept that major events will have an impact far exceeding what you can show at the end of your novel or screenplay, but we need to see at least the initial reaction from those characters.

We need to see Sam, the true hero of The Lord of the Rings, happily return to his life as a humble citizen of the Shire. We need to see Frodo, who had the most arduous burden of any in the Lord of the Rings, essentially broken under the weight of that burden.

We need to see Luke and Han recognized for their actions in the Battle of Yavin. We need to see Leia appearing truly regal. Most of all, we need to see R2-D2 fully functional again.

We buy books by an author because the main plot sounds interesting to us. We keep buying books from that author because he or she shows us not only the resolution of the plot line, but the resolution of the overall story.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

There's a hodge-podge of stuff in the hopper this morning, so if you don't mind, I'll just dive in and start flinging things out.

The Friday Challenge Fiction Showcase
After a three-month coma caused by the Curse of Otogu, the proposed fiction showcase has been once again been reanimated and is now lurching towards escape. One item of business that's come up as a result is that we'd like to contact Tom, who used to post here with some regularity and even won a challenge or two—particularly the "slay the princess, rescue the dragon" challenge. If I was really clever I'd maintain a list of the names and addresses of everyone who has ever won a challenge, but until now, I have intentionally resisted doing so. Ergo, Tom are you still lurking? Or does anyone else here know how to contact him? If so, drop me a line at slushpile at thefridaychallenge dot com.

Oops, I've done it again. Otogu. The Ben Richards Rule. Snowdogging. A First Rule situation. It occurs to me that over the past five years we've developed something of a private language here, and perhaps that inhibits clarity. Would an official Friday Challenge Lexicon help, and if so, can you think of any other terms that should be added to the list?

Assessing The Week in Review
We've been running the "This Week in The Friday Challenge" segment for some time now, so it's time to begin assessing the results. Do you read it? Do you find it helpful? Do you find yourself going back to older posts on occasion, or do you find that you pretty much stick to reading and commenting on today's—and perhaps yesterday's—post?

We're always interested in improving the readability and appeal of the site. If you were running the show, what is the one thing you would really like to see added to The Friday Challenge? (Yeah, I know, more and larger cash prizes every week. Dream on.)

On a related note: now that we've switched to alternating Greater and Lesser challenges, how is that working out for you? Are you finding that you are more or less motivated to participate from week to week?

Requiem for a Hard Drive
Well, it had to happen eventually. Earlier this week I had a burning idea for a new story and a little spare time in which to write fiction, so I whipped out the Serious Working laptop, hit the power button, and—rachety-rachety-whine-grind|CLUNK!—

No operating system found
Invalid drive specification
Abandon all hope, ye who login here

No, not Mr. Laptop. My no-longer quite so shiny nor quite so new Dell Lassitude is still plugging along, thanks to a recent keyboard transplant. The Serious Working laptop is an old Epson 486, which I used for serious writing work precisely because it was an old monochrome text-only DOS box that did one thing and only one thing well: it ran WordPerfect 5.1, which until this week was my word processing software of choice for serious work. No graphics, no email, no Internet; when I wanted to really focus on writing, in a monastic, sensory-deprivation sort of way, it's the machine I reached for.

And now it's toast.

No, of course I don't have a recent backup of the hard drive. This beast predated laptop CD burners, USB ports, or even 10Base-T ports. When I wanted to back it up, I had to haul my HP Colorado tape drive out of the closet, hook it up, and dedicate half a day to running and then verifying a backup tape. What a nuisance. It's been years.

I find myself feeling a strange ambivalence about this. On the one hand, nearly ten years of false starts, half-baked premises, and attempted novels that ultimately went nowhere have been wiped out in the blink of an eye. That's a hell of a lot of typing that didn't even get the meager dignity of going down the drain.

On the other hand, I've been struggling to find a way to break loose of my own past, reinvent myself as a writer, and possibly reboot my writing career. Perhaps all that's happened is that I've finally lost some useless weight, cleaned the fridge, gotten a new haircut, donated my old polyester pants to Goodwill, insert suitable metaphor here.

I'll let you know how it turns out.

After months of waffling, I've rejoined SFWA. I'll let you know how that turns out, too.

And that about wraps up the news for this week. Your thoughts, comments, and observations?


Saturday, April 17, 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 an intentional prologueist.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 4/16/10

This Week in The Friday Challenge
Henry Vogel takes a political turn and ventures off into a nightmarish near-future world where personal rights are paramount and absolute. Can you imagine how this would quickly become a world in which one person's obligation to work for the good of society is more important than society's obligation to allow the person to work for himself? Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald takes a moral turn and throws down a challenge: instead of ranting and spamming the web with diatribes about the failings of other people's parties, countries, or faiths, do you think you can be an effective representative of your own? More to the point, do you think you can work it into your fiction without getting preachy? Join the discussion...

Claymore reviews Teaching the Trivium: Christian Homeschooling in a Classical Style, by Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn. Are you interested in homeschooling? Are you looking for good reference materials and a good pedagogical technique? Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke, after months of empty promises, finally reveals the primary methodology that drives The Friday Challenge, and explains the difference between people who want to write and those who want to be writers. Well, huh. So that is what this site is all about? Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu asks a simple question with staggering theological implications: is there PowerPoint in Hell? Or is it PowerPoint that makes it Hell? Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald officially retires from Friday Challenge competition, not coincidentally with the announcement of her ascension to the ruling troika, and Miko and Rigel Kent end up a photo finish in the 4/2/10 Friday Challenge, "I'm in Love with My Car." The judges' ruling this week requires explanation of the rarely used Ben Richards Rule, but as for knowing what a troika is—I'm afraid that there, you're on your own, tovarich.

Also this week, Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit is rained out, Kersley Fitzgerald explains The Four Seasons of Writing, the inmates discuss the view from their respective locations in the asylum, and remarkably, despite overwhelming temptation, not one person reviews Ed Gein: The Musical (which features our very own KTown)!

The 4/9/10 Friday Challenge
Just a reminder that the 4/19/10 Friday Challenge, Folk Tales of the Final Frontier, is a Greater Challenge, and therefore the deadline is Thursday, 4/29/10. Consequently there are no entries awaiting judgment this week—which, frankly, is a great relief to us, as yesterday we also celebrated a joyous Render Unto Caesar Day.

For those of you who are not U.S. subjects: Render Unto Caesar Day is a sort of great national holiday, on which we celebrate all the many blessings that are rained down upon we unworthy plebeians by the Almighty FedGov, blessed be its name.

Or something like that.

Meanwhile, back in Hell...
This week's Friday Challenge is a direct spinoff from this week's Ultimate Geek Fu: Is There PowerPoint in Hell? We had some other ideas, but ultimately, this one promised to be too much fun to resist.

Kersley suggested doing either a Screwtape Letters-like scenario, in which an elder demon is coaching his young nephew on how to use PowerPoint to torment souls on Earth, or else perhaps a scenario in which someone thinks he's in The Meeting From Hell only to have it slowly dawn on him that he's died during the meeting, and is actually in Hell, and can't tell the difference. Henry ruminated a bit and proposed a challenge in which the object is to write the text for the first three to five slides in a "Welcome to Hell: Orientation for Damned Souls" presentation, while I put my best ideas into the Comments on the original thread.

So in the end, we decided to make this a wide-open challenge. PowerPoint. Hell. As long as your entry includes both elements, it's in. Go wild!

The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, 4/22/10. As always, we are playing by the highly aleatoric Official Rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever is behind Door #3, and especially as always, remember: the object here is to have fun!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current greater Friday Challenge, Folks Tales of the Final Frontier, is two weeks away, on April 29. There isn't a current lesser Friday Challenge (though that will change tomorrow).

Enjoy a weekend off from reading and critiquing!

Critical Thinking: Stand in the Place Where You Live

by: Kersley Fitzgerald

I went to a Catholic college, back in the day. I’m not Catholic, but it had AFROTC, a good engineering school, and my grandparents lived two blocks away.

I never used my degree. Post-graduation, what I’ve come to value most is Portland, the quarterly magazine. Catholics are more philosophical and contemplative than Protestants. Less strident in their writing (although equally self-congratulatory) and more thoughtful.

The first section, after the always-poignant personal essay by Brian Doyle, is letters. This latest edition included a letter responding to a previous issue’s article on Islam. The article apparently forwarded the belief that true Islam is a religion of peace. The letter refuted this.

In addition to quoting a few choice selections from the Koran encouraging the eradication of all Jews and Christians, the author presented as evidence that if true Islam is a religion of peace, then true Moslems would publically defend their faith against the extremist militants who have slandered it.

Who does speak for Islam? The author didn’t convince me that the fanatics don’t speak for the good Muslims too. We hear few if any arguments or pleading by good Muslims against their terrorist brethren.

Because all they have to fear is a Fatwa.

But it made me wonder, what do we have to fear?

Summer of ’87 I spent babysitting a cute little elementary school girl. Her mom worked full time. Her brother was in my class in high school, although in a completely different social group—I took honors classes; he took electronics. (And which is more useful all these years later?)

That summer there was a man in a white van kidnapping and molesting kids. One day I heard my charge’s brother and his friend discussing the situation—specifically what they would do to the sick bastard if given the opportunity.

It was the first time I’d heard anyone with a Y chromosome speak critically about a sexual crime. However they may feel about the issue, it’s one of the few times, yet (besides a particularly powerful Toad the Wet Sprocket song). Where are the men standing up and saying, “This is not true masculinity”? Truth be told, I have seen it in their actions, and some do speak. Just not within earshot, I suppose.

As I write this, the Pope is under investigation for his role in not properly dealing with a priest who joined the long list of those who used their position in the church to abuse kids. I’m sure that, behind closed doors, priests and church leaders have shown regret or disgust, but all I’ve heard from is a couple of nuns.

Well, until this Monday. While drawing cabinets, I listened to this last weekend’s edition of “This American Life.” They repeated the story of Patrick Wall, a Catholic monk who inadvertently found himself in the role of a “cleaner.” It was his job to go to churches that’d recently lost a priest due to less than honorable circumstances. He wasn’t told much about the situations or the men he’d come to replace, although he generally learned more as the congregation came for confession or counseling. He found himself in an impossible situation; his heart was to reach out and heal, but he was, in his words, a part of the defendant. A part of the institution under legal scrutiny for the crime. He eventually reached his breaking point when put in a leadership role over several priests. He was in his twenties, listening to priests’ confessions, when he had the epiphany—he was on the wrong side. He quit the priesthood and offered his expertise and knowledge to a law firm representing several victims. He married, had a girl, and, several years later, quit the Catholic Church.

I’m impressed with him, though, for standing up within the institution and declaring the truth. He shined the light on the abuses, yes, but his goal was not revenge or scandal but to return the church to its true nature—helping, not harming.

Not that drama is in any way unique to the Catholic Church. I could write books about Conservative Evangelicals. Yet there are those who rail against the machine while firmly entrenched within its cogs. The Southern Baptist preacher Michael Spencer (AKA: the Internet Monk), who sadly passed away after a four-month battle with brain cancer, constantly railed against “churchiosity” and tried to bring his denomination back to a “Jesus-shaped spirituality.” Our friend Alan Cross, another SBC preacher, willingly takes flack from conference leadership over his public criticism of their policies. He’s also working to get the church in the South to admit its historical failings of Black brothers and sisters.

But they’re the exceptions. Where are the voices of the Evangelical Right condemning the Westboro Baptist Cult? Or the militia in Michigan? Or the murder of the abortion doctor? Or televangelists? There’s a time to confront a friend or colleague privately. But there’s a time to defend the integrity of the organization that (ostensibly) embodies the tenets to which you ascribe.

We too often value and identify more with the organization than the tenets. This compromises our integrity and the effectiveness of the organization. And maybe you say compromise is essential. That you have to close your eyes occasionally to ensure support for larger issues. I think that’s just sad.

People are speaking out, but if the general public doesn’t hear, it’s not loud enough. One word, one acknowledgement that not all is right in the state of Denmark could be enough to soften the hearts of those on the outside. People who might be able to help, but won't if all they hear is defensiveness and excuses.

So why do I bring this up? Because if you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer of some sort. A communicator. Blessed with creativity and a strange sense of optimism. As such, you’re in a somewhat unique position to defend not your chosen organization, but the truth that you believe your organization has turned away from. Take a break from spamming your friends with diatribes of how [enter your least favorite politician here] is destroying the country, and talk about how your party could do things better. Stop ranting about the Middle East—or the French—and tell the world how you’re going to make your country better. Shut up about other people’s faith and be an effective representative of your own. Work it into your fiction; not in a message-driven plot way, but subtly and hopefully.

Like Hissa Hilal.

Kersley Fitzgerald comes from a politically dysfunctional family—half never saying anything about anything, half World's Poorest Ultra-Conservatives who talk too much and say too little. Is it any wonder she's so often confused?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

Is there PowerPoint in Hell?
I recently had the pleasure of recording a massive information dump by a cluster of experts in a particular highly technical and rather esoteric field, for the purpose of capturing images and knowledge to be repurposed later for web delivery. This information dump took the form of six hours of PowerPoint presentations—thankfully, spread out over several days—and after sitting (and standing, squirming, fidgeting, etc.) through these presentations, the following ideas seem painfully clear to me. If you are going to be preparing and delivering a PowerPoint presentation, please:

1. Have someone else read your slides before you present them, to catch the glaring tpyos and grammatical goobledy-gook you're too close to the presentation to see.

2. Read through all your own slides before you present them, so that your audience will not be alarmed when you seem surprised by something that pops up on the screen.

3. Speak loudly. Enunciate clearly.

4. Talk to your audience, not to the slides on the screen.

5. If it's a teleconference and people are listening in while running a copy of the presentation on their own computers, call out when you change slides.

6. If it's a teleconference, or if you have the only microphone in the room and are taking questions from the audience, repeat the question for the benefit of those listening in. Likewise, if you take a question from someone on the phone, repeat it for the benefit of the audience in the room. (This also buys you time to formulate an answer without having to blurt out a couple of err's and umm's.)

There, that's my short list. What would you add to it? And beyond that, I'd like to ask a rhetorical question: is there PowerPoint in Hell?

Or is it PowerPoint that makes it Hell?

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 or other ├╝bergeek issue? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue. I suppose if today's topic proves popular, pretty soon we'll be running a Linux help desk out of this column.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rain Delay

The column originally scheduled for this morning, "Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit," has been delayed by rain.

Or more precisely, by the line of violent thunderstorms that moved into our area at about 4 a.m., causing the dog to panic, start barking her fool head off, and try to crawl under our bed (something not easily done by a 75-pound Labrador), thereby causing me to hit the "off" switch on my alarm clock at 6 a.m. and then roll over and go back to sleep.

The column is rescheduled to run this evening later, weather and dog permitting.

Book Review: Teaching the Trivium


Teaching the Trivuim: Christian Homeschooling in a Classical Style, by Harvey & Laurie Bluedorn
Reviewed by Claymore
I don’t think I ever heard the word “Trivium” before reading this book, but Teaching the Trivium: Christian Homeschooling in a Classical Style explains it quite well. It explains a great many things. I read nearly the whole thing (it’s over 600 pages), and I thought my head was going to explode. Maybe I could absorb it more easily if I had received a classical education—but I didn’t, and now I need to remediate myself. I want to make sure my children get a solid education, and have the tools to teach themselves. We parents cannot know everything, but we can teach our kids the skills of learning, and that is what this book is all about.

Teaching the Trivium is a goldmine of information for homeschoolers and hope-to-be homeschoolers. The Bluedorns start by explaining what “classical” and “trivium” mean. Basically, their meaning of “classical” is what has good form, has lasting value, and which conforms to a Biblical Christian worldview. Trivium is a Latin word meaning “where three roads meet.” The Trivium model is:

A. Mastery of the facts (grammar, discovery, knowledge),
B. Mastery of their relationships (logic, reason, understanding),
C. Mastery of their uses and applications (rhetoric, application, wisdom).

Using a variety of sources and arguments, their case for homeschooling is very compelling, and places the responsibility of educating children squarely on the shoulders of the parents. Teaching our children is a God-given duty, not to be taken lightly, and children should be bound to their family, not to their peers. I particularly liked this little tidbit:
Thou wouldst not, deaf to Nature’s tenderest plea,
Turn him adrift upon the sea,
Nor say, - “Go thither”; - conscious that there lay
A brood of asps, or quicksands in this way;
Then only governed by the self-same rule
Of natural pity, send him not to school.
- William Cowper, 1785
Harvey & Laurie Bluedorn have put years of experience and tons of practical wisdom into this book. Written in a matter of fact, though not humorless way, there is excellent food for thought on many aspects of life. Like the Trivium model itself, the chapters follow a path of progressive elaboration - providing detailed advice on curriculum content, planning and execution of daily routines, and long term goals. I found the book to be educational, and it challenged me to do better as a parent/teacher.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

I'm going to get a bit political in this column, though all in the interests of giving you things to consider with your writing projects. Specifically, I'm going to be discussing an issue that's been in the news a fair bit lately -- personal rights.

All Americans reading this will be familiar with the rights recognized by the Constitution of the United States. I'm not going to list them all, but they include such rights as freedom of speech, freedom to congregate, freedom to petition the government, freedom of the press and the right to bear arms.

None of those rights are absolute. We all recognize that freedom of speech does not give one the right to slander another person. Nor does it give us to right to use free speech to defraud someone. Freedom of the press does not include freedom to libel another. The right to bear arms does not mean you can wander through your neighborhood firing off rounds whenever you feel like it. In other words, our rights also impose certain responsibilities upon us. What our rights do not do is impose anything on our fellow citizens.

I have the right to speak freely but you do not have to listen. I have the right to freedom of the press but you do not have to read anything I write nor does any publication have to print what I write. Put simply, responsible exercising of my rights does not put any kind of burden or obligation on you.

All of this seems pretty simple to understand, if you ask me. But one look at the news these days will show that simple isn't necessarily going to cut it any more. Specifically, there are those who claim that health care is a right. The same claim has been made concerning affordable housing. Admittedly, these rights aren't recognized by the Constitution but you will find them in the United Nations charter (along with the right to freedom of speech provided the speech does not contradict the aims of the United Nations). Many a science fiction novel has the United Nations ending up as the first world government, so using the U.N. charter isn't particularly far-fetched.

Consider the effect if health care and affordable housing achieve the status of personal rights. What effect would that have on society? Let's use health care as an example.

If I have a right to health care, then that implies that I may exercise that right at any time. As long as "health care" only means applying my own bandages and taking over-the-counter drugs, everything is fine. I can do those at any time, on my own time and in my own house. But that's not what is meant when someone says health care is a right. They mean that I have the right to have access to a doctor who will perform health care for me. In other words, they mean that I have the right to claim the time and labor of another person. If I have the right to health care, a doctor who refuses to see me for any reason -- such as having more patients than the doctor can see in a day or because the doctor needs sleep -- would be infringing on my right to health care. Further more, I could easily argue that a doctor who chooses to retire when no replacement doctor is available is denying me my right to health care. The same would apply to the doctor taking a vacation if it would affect my access to health care. After all, there isn't a right to take a vacation or to retire.

Once a government recognizes one right that imposes an obligation on another person, where do you stop? Sticking with health care, can you imagine a future where the right to health care has been established and then honed through law suits? Will there be a future where those with an aptitude for medicine -- perhaps determined through tests administered to children -- are required to study medicine and become doctors whether they want to or not?

Let's take it one step further. Can you imagine a future in which the most coveted jobs are menial ones because they are the only ones that allow you any kind of freedom to work? Can you imagine a world where people have the right to automotive care, computer service, home repairs and God only knows what else? Can you imagine a world in which the family mourns that their daughter must attend medical school yet rejoices that their son has landed a coveted job as a fry cook at Burger King?

Absurd? Certainly. But sometimes absurdity is required to establish that an idea is merely misguided. But even with that said, can you imagine a world in which one person's obligation to work for a society is considered more important than the society's obligation to allow the person to work for himself?

I can.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

And the winner is...

Oh, this is turning out even better than I'd hoped! Just one day into the New Weird Order and we're already butting heads! Tackling the entries in the 4/2/10 Friday Challenge, "I'm in Love With My Car," in FIFO order, then:

Kersley Fitzgerald, "Car Trouble"

Henry writes: A great, well-written story. I could picture the town and the old men and your mounting frustration as you waited for the mechanic. As a sideline, we southerners also appreciate the recognition that we're not all a bunch of racists down here. I enjoyed this one a lot.

Bruce writes: As always, a good story, superbly told. I could see these guys; hear them sucking their teeth as the rusty old gears of their brains turned over. (Or maybe I'm just projecting, because I've been through similar scenes so many times myself. Remind me to tell you my story of breaking down in Julesberg, Colorado—in a Toyota Corolla, in a March blizzard—sometime.) It's a shame you had to withdraw this one, but under the circumstances, I suppose...

Passinthrough, "Clementine"

Kersley writes: I love that this '67 is just waiting around for a transmission, ready to go back into service whenever someone fixes it up. And it brought me back to the day I got a flat in high school. Never had so much male attention before or since.

Henry writes: Even when everyone is telling personal stories, yours still give glimpses into a world different from mine. This time the world isn't quite as different, as I saw rural homes not that far from where I lived with their own bone piles. Yours is a good story about a girl and her car. As usual, your style of writing fits this kind of story perfectly.

Bruce writes: Oh, this brings back memories... Of my buddy Mike's '67 LeMans, and my police auction "Bluesmobile" (which was a '72 Plymouth Fury, but same idea), and of driving around Wisconsin looking for restorable vintage cars that had been sitting in or out back of barns for the past forty years. Y'know, if the interior isn't completely rotted out, and the rest of the body isn't totally gone to rust, I've got this buddy who rebuilds Hydramatic trannies just for the fun of it...

Never mind. Wonderful story, as always. Thanks for sharing it.

Rigel Kent, "And a Six-Pack Saved the Day"

Henry writes: I knew my fair share of rednecks growing up, so your solution to your problem was spot on, based on my experience! I really enjoyed the way you told the tale, too. The folksy, conversational manner works wonderfully. I'm pretty sure I even picked up the inflection you would have used had you told me the story in person. All around, a great entry.

Kersley writes: Fun style. It would have been smoother had you put the information in the flashbacks in the narrative—like the power steering pump and the light traffic—even George's name. I love the asides and the style. Tightening up the chronology of the story would make it even better. (Seriously? You had a six-pack in your truck in case you broke down?)

Bruce writes: Why, yes, of course. It's part of the standard breakdown survival kit in these parts. Blanket, matches, candle, flashlight, chocolate bars, in the winter a fifth of schnapps, and in the summer, at least a six-pack of beer. Don't want to risk getting dehydrated while you're waiting for help, doncha'know.

I loved this story. There are some cosmetic flaws that would need fixing if this was being done for publication, but I just laughed all the way through it. Very nicely told.

Watkinson, "The Bush Mechanic"

Kersley writes: Wait—I thought you were from Australia. This sounds like the U.S. The story needs some copyediting. (I see that you, like me, are not licensed to use commas without direct supervision.) Still, love the story. Is it lame to say that your story with Rigel's style would be outstanding? If so, forget I said it!

Henry writes: "I know this road like the back of my hand." Words guaranteed to come just before some kind of automotive disaster. Great story about an... interesting weekend, and, as you said, the best—and best-humored—bush mechanic around. This story could use some proofreading, but I'm not a grammar teacher. The story held together well and was quite entertaining.

Bruce writes: Ah yes, the classic Australian teenage lads' story: getting blind drunk, and then... getting blind drunk again. And again. It's amazing anyone ever remembers the endings of these stories, let alone survives them. And I would have more to say, except that being from Wisconsin, I have too many stories just like it in my own repertoire. Except that they usually involve pine trees. And someone's parents' car ending up sinking into a cattail swamp or mucky lake. And at least one freshly road-killed raccoon...

Miko, "Beating the Drums of Olds"

Henry writes: I did things the opposite of most people. I listed to your mp3 first and then read your story. The written story was a good entry, but your oral version just blows it away. You nailed this sucker from beginning to end. It sounded just like a guy having a beer with his buddies and recounting the story of the white boy with the sledge hammer. You've definitely got a talent for storytelling. If you enjoyed doing that story, I'd strongly recommend that you see if there is a storytelling organization or group in your area. I wish you lived somewhere near Raleigh so you could join the group I'm in. All in all, I loved it.

Kersley writes: "Olll-mobeel Cutlet?" "Whoop-de-doo-40?" Ha, ha, ha! I think if you listened to an hour of Uncle Remus, this one would be perfect. The drawl is a little inconsistent; I think speeding up the really slow bits just a little would even it out. Storywise, I'd keep to a general wrap-up after the sledge hammer incident. Adding on the details of the parking brake was a bit anti-climactic.

Bruce writes: I have little to add to everyone else's comments. Good story as written; great story as told. And with that, we picked a winner—

Which is when the fun really started. Like most of you who commented, we found it a tough call. Kersley and Henry picked Miko, with close runner-up going to Rigel. I picked Rigel, with close runner-up going to Miko, on the grounds that Kersley and Henry had been unduly influenced by the mp3. Comparing the written stories—

At which point Henry pointed out that we never made "written" a qualifying condition for entries, and if we had, we'd have been deprived of Kersley's delightful "How the Bear and the Bull Learnt to Take Turns," much less Vidad and KTown's nearly legendary "Heather Has Two Mommies, Three Daddies, A Pig's Spleen and a Baboon's Heart." Kersley then chimed in with a structural analysis of the two stories that, to be honest, got me thinking about pacing in a way I'd never considered before. So we hashed it back and forth some more, and I went back and re-read everyone else's comments.

And in the end decided, "Oh, what the heck." For the win, Miko and his "Olll-mobeel Cutlet," but I'm also going to invoke the rarely used Ben Richards Rule and award a second prize to Rigel Kent, for entering such a close runner-up as to make picking a winner a matter of splitting extremely fine hairs. So Miko and Rigel, come on down and claim your prizes!

And as for everyone else who entered or read and commented on the entries, thanks for participating, and remember, the 4/9/10 Friday Challenge, "Folk Tales of the Final Frontier", is already in progress!
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