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Monday, May 31, 2010

Announcement of the winner's postponed until Tuesday...

Due to holiday travel, houses full of company, and traffic jams in Wisconsin, the judges must postpone the announcement of the winner of the Land Before ZIP Codes Friday Challenge.

The judges are sorry for the delay and hope you all understand.

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Sometimes, pictures speak far more eloquently than words.

Arlington National Cemetery:

Ardennes American Cemetery:

Cambridge American Cemetery:

Florence American Cemetery:

Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery:

Normandy American Cemetery:

I am awed and humbled by the courage and sacrifice represented by each of those small headstones. On this Memorial Day, please set aside a moment to reflect on all those who died serving our country.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

I don't know if you're going to give me a lifelong ban on teh interwebs for posting this or just kill me wit teh death in my sleep, but I couldn't help but to pass it on. Either way, I hope you appreciate my sacrifice for you.

And the winner is...

I know you're all hoping for an announcement concerning the Land Before ZIP Codes, but this isn't it. The holiday weekend has cut into the judges' time, so that announcement will be made on Monday. That leaves Cliff Clavin in the 25th Century, for which we are prepared to announce a winner.

Ernest T. Scribbler
Henry says:
This is an amusing entry, from the play off of moron to the sense of virility brought by a hair piece. And I suppose a Klingon might gain some status wearing a member of a race officially designated "Enemy of the Klingon Empire" on his head. But would any Klingon admit to needing to restore his sense of virility? On the other hand, would Cliff Clavin realize this? So many questions from such a short entry; it makes my head hurt. Nicely done.

Bruce says:
"Scribbler" whoever he or she really is -- I suppose I could look it up, but am disinclined -- made me laugh.

Kersley will be heard from at the end (applies to all three entries).

Henry says:
Criticizing Klingon drinks in a Klingon bar is just the right kind of foolish for Cliff. But I can see him getting the Klingons intrigued about tequila. Or, more correctly, desperate to get their hands on some to show that they are mightier drinkers than the puny humans. Playing both on the Klingon self-image of tough and mighty warriors works just right for Cliff in the 25th century.

Bruce says:
Avery's was entertaining, too.

Henry says:
The story of Mike the chicken sounded strangely possible, so I Googled it. And apparently it is true. This is the kind of stuff that Cliff Clavin would have carried around in his head for decades, waiting for just the right moment to toss out. I can readily see him using this story in some way, though for a know-it-all he obviously didn't know enough to not call himself chicken around a bunch of Klingons. Good research on a real Clavinism.

Bruce says:
Miko's story makes me depressed to admit that yes, I've known about Mike the headless chicken for years, but never found an excuse to use the story.

And the winner is...
The judges enjoyed all of the entries this week and could easily see any of the three them being selected by the judges. In the end, the judging of this challenge was pretty subjective.

Henry says: For me, the story that struck the purest chord is Avery's "A Warrior's Drink." He gets my vote this week.

Bruce says: I defer to your judgment. I'm okay with picking any of them.

Kersley says: My vote's for Avery. It just seems particularly appropriate. Although the other two are funny, as well.

So, Avery, you're this week's winner! Come on down and select your prize from behind Door #3.

And remember to check back tomorrow evening to see who wins the Land Before ZIP Codes challenge.

Saturday, May 29, 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 regularly gets headaches when comparing writing advice with real-live published novels.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 5/28/10

This week in The Friday Challenge
Guest columnist Sarah Pottenger delivers the sort of nuts-and-bolts column on the mechanics of writing that we so often promise but so rarely run. Do you need some simple, easy to remember, and clearly illustrated examples of when and when not to use commas? Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel reminds us that the clock is ticking and it's barely two months until NASFIC: the North American Science Fiction Convention, which is a sort of back-up WorldCon that's held whenever the official WorldCon is overseas. This year NASFIC is being held in Henry's current home town of Raleigh, North Carolina, so he wants to know: who's going? Who still needs to find a hotel room? Where shall we all arrange to meet? And who's bringing the potato salad? Join the discussion...

Speaking of ticking crocks, both Lost and 24 have finally, at long, long, last, reached the end, and so Ultimate Geek Fu asks the only question that could possibly be asked under these circumstances: was it good for you? Join the discussion...

In one graceful leap, Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit bounds from Greco-Roman galley warfare to computational fluid dynamics. Do you really want to write a scene in which the captain of the Starship Insolvent bellows the command, "RAMMING SPEED!"? Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke indulges in some introspection about this site and concludes that running The Friday Challenge is very much like planting a garden. Nice metaphor and all that, but if such is truly the case, what's he planning to do with all that cow manure? Join the discussion...

Miko takes the win in the 5/14/10 Friday Challenge, "Invasion of the Ring-Stealing, Satellite-Snatching Mechanical Zombies From Outer Space!", but surprisingly, not without some debate. Join the discussion...

Also, Kersley Fitzgerald explains time management as applied to writers, Google gets weird on us, and the inmates discuss the view from their respective places in the asylum. All this and more, this week in, The Friday Challenge!

The Land Before ZIP Codes
We realize you're all waiting for a decision, but the question of which of the four entries won last month's Greater Challenge, "The Land Before ZIP Codes," is still pending, as there is some heated debate going on behind the scenes. Wow! This is work. No wonder professional editors use form rejections! In the meantime, if you'd like to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite among the submitted entries, please do so. Your comments might help us to resolve our collective mind.

tlhutlh Daq Qapla'
Regarding the 5/21/10 Friday Challenge, "tlhutlh Daq Qapla'" (or for those who don't speak Klingon, "Cliff Clavin in the 25th Century"), as of the deadline we have received the following entries:

Ernest T. Scribbler, "The Other Trouble with Tribbles"

Avery, "A Warrior's Drink"

Miko, "A Headless Chicken"

If we've missed any entry, or if anyone snowdogs in an entry after I've written this post, please let us know and we'll fix it ASAP. As always, remember that even if you didn't submit 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 entry. Writers thrive on knowing that someone else out there is actually reading their words. (And cookies. They also thrive on cookies.)

The winner will be announced on Sunday.

Geek Confessional
For this week's Friday Challenge, I've drawn inspiration from a magazine I just recently discovered: Home Power, a resource dedicated to small-scale renewable energy, sustainable living, and "living off the grid." Particularly, in a recent issue there was a wonderful, step-by-step, how-to article by a guy who had, using simple tools and common equipment, taken apart and rebuilt the battery pack in his 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid. "I saved more than a thousand dollars over having the dealer do it!" the author crowed.

Buried deeper in the article was his in-hindsight-only step #1: "Find a place where you can park the car and leave it for two months, because you won't be able to move it again until you're finished." That two month figure was not the result of sloth or slop; that's how long it actually took him to tear the battery pack down to its component nickel-metal hydride cells, and then to test, refurbish, and reassemble it, one cell at a time.

I can only stand in awe. I have never done anything even halfway near as obsessive and pointless. True, I have spent an entire Saturday afternoon repairing a ten-dollar coffee pot that I could have replaced with a fifteen-minute trip to K-Mart, and I do know more about the inner workings of typewriters than any sane person living in the 21st century should ever have to know. And yes, my preferred daily driver is, weather and Lucas Electrics permitting, a 35-year-old Triumph, when it would make far more sense to own a Miata or a Z3.

This, I have decided, is a significant identifying trait of GPD (geek personality disorder): the urge to spend hours tinkering with something you could more easily and cheaply replace, just to see if you can fix it. It's universal; it transcends time and place; that's redundant. There is a wonderful scene in an early Vonnegut novel—Player Piano, I think—in which, during a break in the action, the engineers-turned-revolutionaries start tinkering with a broken Orange Julius machine; not because any of them is thirsty, or because they even like Orange Julius, but just to see if they can get it working again. I'm convinced that no matter what the technology is, there is someone who really enjoys puttering and tinkering with it, no matter how long it takes, just to see if they can get it working the way it's either supposed to or used to.

And that is what we're looking for this week. What's your best story of the time you spent a whole day fixing a five-dollar radio, or wrenching on a lawnmower that should have been junked ten years ago, or debugging a program it would have made far more sense to erase and reinstall? Or, if you're not the puttering and fixing type, tell us why you never fix things, or share with us your most aggrataining* story of a friend, relative, or co-worker with serious GPD.

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 one is midnight Central time, Thursday, June 3rd.

Have fun!

* Aggrataining: simultaneously aggravating and entertaining, of course

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, tlhutlh Daq Qapla' (aka Cliff Clavin in the 25th Century), 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!

There is no current greater Friday Challenge.

For those unfamiliar with the Friday Challenges, lesser challenges run for a week. Entries are generally expected to be well less than 1000 words though that is most definitely not a rule or requirement. Greater challenges run for three weeks. Entries may be of any length, but we generally expect more than 1000 words. Again, that is not a rule or requirement.

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: Commas!

Guest columnist
Sarah Pottenger


You know how if you stare at a word long enough, it stops looking real? Well, you're going to see the word “comma” so much in this article that it'll seem like a term out of a sci-fi story. But you'll get some education along the way.

It has come to my attention that there is a widespread epidemic of comma misuse. Since there is no rhyme or reason to it, I saw the need for a comprehensive article on when and how to use commas.

(In case you're interested, I'm drawing from the book Rules for Writers, by Diana Hacker. If you struggle at all with the technical side of writing, I strongly suggest you peruse HyperGrammar.com and/or consider picking up a grammar handbook.)

Why Do We Need Commas?

Punctuation = clarity. Commas (and other punctuation) are clues to the reader as to how each sentence is to be read and what each sentence means. Without commas, parts of a sentence can crash into each other, which leads to misunderstandings.

Confusing: If you cook Sarah will do the dishes.
Confusing: While we were eating a mountain lion approached our campsite.

If you add commas in the correct places, the meaning becomes clear. Sarah is no longer being cooked, and no one is eating the mountain lion.

Rule #1: The Conjunction Rule

Use a comma BEFORE a coordinating conjunction joining independent clauses.

When a coordinating conjunction connects two or more independent clauses—word groups that could stand alone as separate sentences—a comma must precede it. There are seven coordinating conjunctions in English: and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet.

Example: Her name is Rebekah, but everyone calls her Fern.

Exception: If the two independent clauses are short (that's both of them, everyone) and there is no danger of misreading, the comma may be omitted.

Example: The plane took off and we were on our way.

Do NOT uses a comma to separate coordinate word groups that are NOT independent clauses.

Example: Part of my job is to teach you how to write better and follow rules.

Rule #2: The Introductory Rule

Use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase.

The most common introductory word groups are clauses and phrases functioning as adverbs—telling when, where, how, why, or under what conditions the main action of the sentence occurred.

Example: When David was ready to eat, his bird jumped onto the table.

Without the comma, readers may have David eating his bird. The comma signals that his bird is the subject of a new clause, not part of the introductory one.

Exception: The comma may be omitted after a short adverb clause or phrase if there is no danger of misreading.

Example: In no time Jessica reached the end.

Sentences also frequently begin with phrases describing the noun or pronoun immediately following them. The comma tells readers that they are about to learn the identity of the person or thing described; therefore, the comma is usually required even when the phrase is short.

Example: Knowing that she couldn't outrun a car, Elsie took to the fields.
Example: Excited about the move, Nikki began packing her books.

The commas tell readers that they are about to hear the nouns described: Elsie and Nikki.

Rule #3: The Series Rule

Use a comma between all items in a series.

When three or more items are presented in a series, those items should be separated from one another with commas.

Example: At the Shafers', one can order fillet of rattlesnake, bison burgers, or pickled eel.

Although some writers view the comma between the last two items as optional, most experts advise using the comma because leaving it out can result in ambiguity or confusion.

Example: Kate willed me all of her property, books and costumes.
Kate willed me all of her property, books, and costumes.

Did Kate will her property and her books and her costumes—or simply her property, consisting of books and costumes? If the former meaning is intended, a comma is necessary to prevent confusion.

Rule #4: The Adjective Rule

Use a comma between coordinate adjectives not joined by and.

When two or more adjectives each modify a noun separately, they are coordinate.

Example: As she gets older, Leah is becoming a strong, confident, independent woman.

Adjectives are coordinate if they can be joined with and (strong and confident and independent) or if they can be scrambled (an independent, strong, confident woman).

Adjectives that do not modify the noun separately are cumulative, and no commas are used between them.

Example: Three large gray shapes moved slowly toward Amanda.

You can't insert the word and between cumulative adjectives (three and large and gray shapes). Nor can you scramble them (gray three large shapes).

Example of Coordinate Adjectives: Jordan is a warm, gentle, affectionate person.
Example of Cumulative Adjectives: Michelle ordered a rich chocolate layer cake.

Next week: More Commas!

While Kersley is not licensed to use commas without direct adult supervision, Sarah Pottenger is. She is a long-time mentor at the teen writer's forum The Clean Place, a five-time winner of NaNoWriMo, a sci fi fan and writer, and a hater of peas. This article first appeared on The Clean Place.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

It's been a big week for couch potatoes and TV junkies all across America. On Sunday, Lost finally wrapped it up, closed the show, and struck the tent after.... Heck, I don't know. I stopped watching years ago. Likewise, on Monday, Jack Bauer finally reached the final, final, no kidding this time it's really final, end of his last tick... tock... tick... BOOM!

Series finales are weird things. Most American TV series never get to a planned ending, they just sort of crap out, go "on hiatus," get shuffled around the schedule to ever more obscure time slots, and finally, quietly, are put out of their misery and canceled. Other series drag on for years longer than they should: i.e., M*A*S*H, which lasted about four times longer than the war it was supposedly set during. But then, once in a very great while, a series does actually manage to make it to some sort of graceful and planned final episode.

Hence today's question. If you watched either the Lost or 24 series finale: was it good for you? Did you feel the final episode was worth all those years you devoted to watching the show?

And if you didn't watch either, here's the backup question. What, in your humble opinion, is the all-time best final episode of a series ever broadcast?

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, May 25, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

by Bruce Bethke

How do you fight a ship? Not the men on the ship; the solution to that mystery has been known for millennia. You get close enough to the other ship to fling across whatever you might have handy: rocks, spears, arrows—during the Battle of Lepanto some crews of Ottoman Janissaries were reduced to pelting the Holy League crews with oranges—being quite aware that by definition, when the enemy is within range, so are you. Then, when you've sufficiently reduced your enemy's ability to resist, you attempt to board, and take the ship at sword's point.

But to use the ship itself as a weapon: that takes discipline and cohesion. Ben-Hur to the contrary, the Greeks and Romans found that only crews of free men could be trusted to throw their backs into the oars and commit their all to ramming the other ship, in hopes of holing its hull and sinking it. After all, succeed too well and you might find your own ship too firmly entangled in a sinking enemy to escape.

The Romans came up with the innovation of the detachable ram, which could be cut away in an emergency. The Romans also came up with the corvus, a hinged ramp that could be dropped onto an enemy's ship to grapple onto it and ease boarding, and later, the Byzantine Romans came up with "Greek fire," a sort of bellows-powered flamethrower that was so secret its actual composition has been lost to history, and its powers have thus become near magical in subsequent retellings. And such was the state of the art, for a thousand years or more.

Our histories and traditions come largely from the English and the other northern and western Europeans, and our focus tends to be on the North Sea and Atlantic. In the Mediterranean, galleys remained the dominant means of projecting naval power far longer than anyone seems to realize. When cannons appeared, experienced galley warfare men immediately recognized them as being even better fighting beaks and rams, and mounted formidable batteries on the bows of their ships—batteries that fired in a forward direction only, and could be aimed only by maneuvering the entire ship. A Northern European sailor would never think that cutting down the bow of his ship and making it nose-heavy was a good idea.

The galley, and subsequent evolutionary developments (galliots, galleasses, and so on), ever more heavily up-gunned on the bow, remained in use in the Mediterranean and Black seas for centuries. The last great fleet action between galleys, the Battle of Lepanto, was fought in 1571 between the forces of the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire, and it's safe to say its outcome changed the history of the world, although our Northern European-derived history seems blissfully unaware of it. The last significant galley action was fought in 1717. The French commissioned their last first-line Mediterranean fleet galleass in 1720.

By that time, of course, the forces of history and technical evolution had eclipsed what had once been the state of the art. On the Atlantic coast, where oared craft larger than longboats were close to useless, designers had long since hit on the idea of deep-hulled and seaworthy ships driven by ever-larger sets of sails, packing batteries of somewhat aimable guns that fired from the broad side of the ship, rather than from the bow. When these two met—well, sometimes the galley won, because of its superior maneuverability in calm winds and shallow water. But more often the broadside ship shot the galley to pieces long before the galley was able to bring its heavy battery of forward-firing 24- and 36-pounders into play. In June of 1684, the frigate Le Bon single-handedly took on and defeated thirty-five galleys in a single action.

The age of the galley was done, but strangely, the idea of the ram lingered on for centuries longer. In a lot of important respects the C.S.S. Hunley was a galley equipped with a ram, and any Roman or Ottoman commander transported through time would have immediately recognized it. When steam replaced sail the idea of the ram once again came into vogue, and every important European navy built at least one. While the British ram Thunder Child features prominent (if briefly) in The War of the Worlds, it appears the Italian Affondatore was the only one ever actually used in combat for its designed purpose. At the Battle of Lissa, against the Austrian fleet, she succeeded only in damaging herself so badly that she foundered and sank two days later.

Nonetheless, the idea persisted, and persists to the this day. In the early days of the jet age Northrop designed and built the XP-79, a magnesium-plate near-supersonic "flying wing" fighter that was intended to slice through enemy aircraft. The pilot rode in what's best described as "Flexible Flyer" position, and whether the idea would have worked in practice remains a mystery as the sole prototype went out of control and augured in fifteen minutes into its only test flight.

It probably would not have worked. After a century of driving automobiles, we know far more now about the fluid dynamics of collisions that we used to. When a vehicle comes to a sudden stop, everything within it still has an inertia of its own and wants to continue in motion. The observation that most casualties in car accidents were caused not by the initial collision, but by the secondary collision of the occupant with the interior, led first to redesigned dashboards, then to seat belts, and in time to airbags. After a few decades of collecting data on airbag-involved collisions, though, it's now apparent that that is still not enough. We can build a vehicle that can survive the sudden decceleration of impact without going to pieces. We can immobilize the occupant's musculoskeletal structure. But the fluids within the occupant's body still have an inertia all their own, and want to continue to follow their own trajectory, at their own velocity.

Back in the 1930s or early '40s Isaac Asimov wrote and published a short story about space warfare that revolved around ramships. In typically smug Asimovian fashion the good guys won because the bad guys were so abysmally ignorant of history that they didn't recognize the ships' fighting beaks for what they were. As a spectacular means of committing suicide ramming a ship at relativistic speeds would have few equals, particularly if you wanted to reduce your crewmembers to red goo on the forward bulkheads or liquefy their brains inside their skulls. But if you're writing a space combat scene and thinking of going Greco-Roman retro, think it over, and then find a better way.

Perhaps you could have them board the enemy ship, and start a swordfight...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

ReConStruction, aka the Occasional North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFIC), is coming up fast, with the opening date of August 5 being slightly more than two months away. Held only when the World Science Fiction Convention is being held outside of North America, NASFIC is likely to be the largest convention dedicated solely to science fiction in the U.S. this year and it's being held in downtown Raleigh, NC, my current hometown. If you scan the Membership List, you'll even find that two Vogels -- the Boy and me -- are listed as attending members. Adult memberships are up to $120.00 while youth and child rates remain unchanged.

As if having the chance to meet me wasn't enough, the convention has a long list of well known attendees, among them David Gerrold (tentative), Joe Haldeman, Sharron Lee, Steve Miller, Robert Sawyer, Stanley Schmidt, Mark Van Name and Lawrence Watt-Evans. I only listed the people whose names I immediately recognized. I'm equally sure my geek cred has been damaged because of the large number of people I didn't recognize. I'm surprised Orson Scott Card isn't on the list, seeing as he lives just down the road in Greensboro, NC. And I'm hoping Lois McMaster Bujold or Elizabeth Moon will be on the list by the time the convention starts.

The web site for the convention is still very short on details, but I found the same thing last time I took a look at the web site for Worldcon. After consideration, this seems reasonable. The convention committee for a rotating convention such as this has to contact and arrange everything within a fairly short period of time. Permanent conventions maintain regular relationships and can probably copy/paste a fair bit of information from one year to the next. I remain confident the event will be worth attending.

And that brings me around to who from the Friday Challenge will be there. I have not kept a list, which will change after this column, but I know the Bethke household is expected to be represented by Bruce, Karen, and the Kid. Vidad and his lovely wife, Rachel, have been planning to come from Tennessee. I'm assuming M, who lives only slightly farther from the convention site than I do, will be attending, though verification of that would be nice. And doesn't Avery live in that area, too? If so, perhaps we'll see him, as well. I know Arisia and Torainfor would both like to attend, but weren't sure they'd be able to do so at last check. And that's about all my memory can bring up. In the comments, could you folks let me know if you'll be attending or not? This time I'll keep a list! As scattered around the country and the world as we all are, this may be the best chance to meet many of your fellow Challengers in person.

At last check, which was at 5:00 PM on Sunday, both of the convention hotels -- the Marriott and the Sheraton -- had rooms. Note that the Marriott is listed as both the main hotel and the party hotel. If you're hoping for quiet at night, I strongly recommend you aim for the Sheraton (or a hotel unaffiliated with the convention). And for those looking to keep costs down, I have floor space at my house and permission from my wife to have people sleep on it during the convention. Floor space is free, but we need to know how many people to expect. Just include that information when you tell us whether you'll be attending or not.

The convention could also be a good time to promote Stupefying Stories and, for those who have stories appear in the first issue, perhaps even sign some autographs!

Eight months have passed since I first discovered that Raleigh would be hosting NASFIC. The wait is nearly over for the largest gathering of Friday Challengers ever held. I hope you'll be one of them.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

And the winner is...

Well yes, of course, obviously, Miko wins this week's challenge, "Invasion of the Ring-Stealing, Satellite-Snatching Mechanical Zombies From Outer Space!", there being no other entries to compete against. All the same, I have to express my utter disappointment with his entry, "The Shocking Truth Behind Strange Incidents in Space!" The specific challenge was as follows:
Your challenge is to write the first few paragraphs of a tabloid news story "explaining" how all of this ties together. Feel free to invent experts to quote or even attribute fake quotes to real people. If you don't want to delve into tabloid journalism, take whatever approach you prefer -- crackpot blog post, flash fiction, a story from a staid, traditional newspaper running something they can't believe is true, or whatever tickles your fancy -- while still giving a single explanation for all of these events.
Now, I don't know about any of the rest of you, but I was really expecting to see some great, gonzo, totally over the top hilarity, right up there with some of the unsolicited papers submitted to the NASA Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program. But instead Miko let me down, and left me with the feeling that I was reading a completely serious NY Times op-ed piece, perhaps by Paul Krugman, excepting for a few moment when he seemed to channeling for George Will.

Kersley similarly found that "it reads as an editorial, not a news item. Not that there's anything wrong with that."

No, of course not. Nothing wrong with that at all. As we all know, the hypothetical firewall between editorial and news writing was erased by Walter Cronkite in 1967, and 43 years later, most people have still yet to notice the difference.

Henry, on the other hand, was feeling more generous. He said, "The challenge was to write the first few paragraphs of a tabloid news story and I think you did a great job with it. Your entry was more of a cross between a news story and an editorial, but I see that so often from all forms of media that it seems to have become the journalistic norm. I particularly liked the authoritative tone you used when dismissing such trivial notions as scientific observation, evidence, and logic. I can't imagine how this entry wouldn't have been a contender even if half a dozen others had entered. Well done."

I, on the other hand, can imagine such a thing. I can imagine lots of things, even without the peyote. And just don't even get me started on absinthe...

At which point I lost my ability to keep going with a straight face. Yeah, good job, Miko. This would have been a contender even with competition. My two suggestions are that when you're writing this sort of piece, you either amp up the hysteria from time to time by gratuitously putting certain words in ALL-CAPITAL LETTERS, to achieve the effect of a spittle-spewing LUNATIC! (More exclamation points ALWAYS HELP!) Or else cut back on your use of "scare quotes," because they break up the rhythm. A seemingly calm and rational person arguing for an utterly insane point is usually the more effective way to do satire.

Anyway, my $.02. Good job. Congrats on the win, even if it was by default.

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

...and twelve hours and some hundredweight of black dirt and mulch later, I've finally gotten back to work on this column. Tomatoes are finicky things, notoriously unwilling to compromise when you want to write and they want to be planted. They have a way of communicating "Plant Now or Watch Us Die!" very succinctly, dramatically, and effectively.

I'm trying something new this year. This time I've mulched between the rows very heavily with ground-up cocoa bean shells. I'm told this is a great way to keep the weeds down without resorting to chemicals, and that by next year the shells will have decomposed fully and enriched the soil. My observation of the moment is that my garden now looks and smells exactly like a giant bowl of Cocoa Pebbles.

Stay tuned for more news as it develops.

The Friday Challenge, I've decided, is something that I continue to do for much the same reason as I plant a garden every year. No, not because hope has once again triumphed over experience, but because I enjoy watching things grow. I love the organic energy of it all; the variability, the chances and the surprises. Predictability bores me. I love to tinker, to experiment, to try new things, even if they're only very tiny new things. What if we try romano beans over here this year, and a row of bell peppers over there?

Predictability, of course, is essential to having a commercially successful career. Fans and publishers love it when you produce exactly the same thing over and over again, like clockwork, a new book just like your last book every six months or a year. If, after Headcrash, I'd listened to all the people in the industry who told me, "Loved the book! Now write me a funny vampire novel! And then a funny fantasy!" no doubt I could have had an at least decently lucrative writing career.

No doubt I would have been bored out of my mind, too. I hate to repeat myself. Sometimes, unfortunately, this character trait manifests as a self-defeating and pig-headed resistance to doing what to everyone else is the obvious next thing to do. Had I not had so many people telling me the obvious thing to do in 1997 was to write a funny vampire novel, I probably would have finished Royal Blood, and who knows what it might have done for my career. Had I not had so many people telling me the obvious thing to do in 1985 was to write lots more cyberpunk stories...

Nah. I still wouldn't have written them. Too much political orthodoxy required to get into the magazines that were big into publishing those sorts of stories at that time.

There is an obvious way to launch a new science fiction magazine, and that is why, while it might look like one, STUPEFYING STORIES is not a science fiction magazine. Look, no offense, but if I was trying to launch a new commercial magazine, I would not be writing it up here. Instead I'd be burning up the phone lines to Gene Wolfe, Jane Yolen, David Brin, and Lois McMaster Bujold, to start with, trying to convince them that they owed me just one more favor. Then I'd make a big announcement in the SFWA Forum, which would give me, in the downtime between hustling potential investors and advertisers, the chance to sift through the same six- or eight-hundred trunk stories that were rejected by Analog three years ago and Strange Horizons last year. Might I even find a few goodies that Stan Schmidt and Susan Groppi missed?

Nope. Not interested.

That would be the obvious thing to do, the safe and smart thing to do—if I was trying to launch a new magazine, and build up its readership, and make gobs of money publishing and selling it.

But that's not what I'm trying to do here. Instead, think of STUPEFYING STORIES as a seedbed, in a hothouse. What I'm hoping to do here is to plant a few half-wild talents, and maybe, with luck, some of them will grow strong enough to be transplanted to bigger gardens, where they'll really flourish. Silly, strange, and not at all the obvious and predictable thing to do, I know.

But personally, I can't wait to see what germinates.

Saturday, May 22, 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 can't figure out what's the deal with this comic. She drew it ages ago, but can't find it posted anywhere. Forgive her if it's a repeat.

Friday, May 21, 2010

More Google Weirdness

Okay, this is strange. Is anyone else getting stopped occasionally by a message saying you need a UID and password to get into The Friday Challenge?

Of course, I don't know how you'd see this post and respond, if you did...

The Friday Challenge - 5/21/2010

This Week in The Friday Challenge
Bruce Bethke announces the utterly logical and yet still quite possibly insane outcome of five years of accumulated Friday Challenges: STUPEFYING STORIES. Is this a brilliant idea whose time has at last come or have we just plain gone nuts? Join the discussion...

Then, in a valiant attempt to make it all seem eminently sensible, Kersley Fitzgerald elaborates further on the concept and lays out submission criteria. Join the discussion...


Kersley Fitzgerald reviews three books for us; two fiction and one about getting inside the head of your kid. Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel ruminates about six years of coaching youth soccer, which no doubt gave him vital training for his promotion from Tabby Wrangler to Chief Feline Officer. But what will he do with all that spare time, now? Join the discussion...

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit was preempted by a stampede of dinosaurs, some of whom spoke Latin but most of whom spoke Fortran. Very strange. However, this is not the time or place for that discussion.

Ultimate Geek Fu opens speculation for the setting of the next Star Trek TV series and Sean gives us our challenge for this week. Surprised, Sean? Join the discussion...

Also, Kersley Fitz shows what really motivates writers to write that first novel, the inmates discuss the view from their respective places in the asylum, Miko wins the Short Attention Span Friday Challenge, and Bruce finally gets off his duff and announces, in typically long-winded and roundabout way, the grand prize in the current Greater Challenge, "The Land Before ZIP Codes." All this and more, this week in, The Friday Challenge!

Now let's take a look at the entries for this week's challenges.

Invasion of the Ring-Stealing, Satellite-Snatching Mechanical Zombies From Outer Space!
As of the deadline, it looks like Miko wins by default, as we have received only the following entry:

Miko, "The Shocking Truth Behind the Strange Incidents in Space!"

If we've overlooked anyone or if you're still planning to snowdog in an entry this morning, let us know. But right now, it looks like Miko has an uncontested win.

So let's hope everyone who did not enter the lesser challenge didn't do so because they were too busy working on an entry for the greater challenge! Jumping over to that bin—ah, this is more like it...

The Land Before ZIP Codes
As of the deadline, we have the following entries vying for the coveted featured spot in the very first issue of STUPEFYING STORIES:

Miko, ""Speak Not of the Future""

Guy Stewart, "The Block Party Solution" (drop.io)

The Bandit, "Catachronism"

M, "----"(drop.io)

Much better.

Okay, you know how this works. 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.

The winner of the lesser challenge, "Invasion of the Ring-Stealing, Satellite-Snatching Mechanical Zombies From Outer Space!," will be announced on Sunday, assuming someone else snowdogs in and such an announcement is needed. The winner for the greater challenge, "The Land Before ZIP Codes," will be announced once the judges have had ample time to review and discuss all the entries, which we expect will take about a week.

And now, for this week's Friday Challenge, which comes to us courtesy of Sean...

tlhutlh Daq Qapla'

Sometimes, you just want to go to a place where everybody knows your bat'hlet tournament record. In a certain city on the Klingon home world, on the blue-collar lower east side of town, that place is tlhutlh Daq Qapla': a friendly (by Klingon standards) little neighborhood tavern owned by m'aS, a former Krat' Maloo' Kensa player turned recovering bloodwineaholic. m'aS runs the place with the aid of his somewhat addled former coach and two waitresses; one who is his lust interest and the other who is just a wise-cracking jabwI'. It's a quiet place; a fun place; a gathering place for civil servants, barflys, the almost-weres and the coulda-beens—the sort of people we would call lovable losers, except that among Klingons, there are no losers.

Tonight is a special night, though. It's the series pilot, and in it, m'aS unveils his latest victory. He has, at great risk and expense, smuggled in a cargo pod taken from an ancient derelict freighter found on the fringes of Federation space. Within it there is an assortment, perfectly preserved by the deep cold of space, of the finest warrior's beverages ever made on old pre-Federation Earth: Budweiser. Coors. Even Rolling Rock. And then, as the patrons drink their way through the cargo container, they make an incredible discovery: far in the back, frozen solid, and yet somehow, incredibly, still alive, they find an astonishing source of ancient human wisdom! Yes, it's—

Cliff Clavin in the 25th Century!

And that is your challenge for this week. Cliff was never a man to be at a loss for words, even if he had no clue what he was talking about. (Some say he was the great-great-great-grandfather of Harcourt Fenton Mudd.) Obviously, being thawed out and revived in an alien bar is something he would take fully in-stride. Your challenge is to write a Clavinism suitable for this time and place. (If you don't know what a Clavinism is, we'll explain it in the comments.)

As always, we're playing by the loosely enforced official rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #3. You have one week to come up with a Clavinism that trumps all others and reduces the Klingon Empire to quivering jelly, terrified by the awesome wisdom and intelligence they have unwittingly unleashed.

Have fun with this one.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, Invasion of the Ring-Stealing, Satellite-Snatching Mechanical Zombies From Outer Space, 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!

The deadline for the current greater Friday Challenge, The Land Before Zip Codes is also tonight at midnight.

For those unfamiliar with the Friday Challenges, lesser challenges run for a week. Entries are generally expected to be well less than 1000 words though that is most definitely not a rule or requirement. Greater challenges run for three weeks. Entries may be of any length, but we generally expect more than 1000 words. Again, that is not a rule or requirement.

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: Book Review

Kersley Fitzgerald

Growing up Weightless
John M. Ford; Spectra; 1993

Matt Ronay is a teenager living on the moon. He’s quickly approaching the age at which he should decide on a job, but, despite living in an exotic, dangerous environment that Earth-dwellers spend fortunes to visit, all he dreams of is a berth in a space ship. He just doesn’t know how to get there.

There’s more that he doesn’t know—including whether he should join the local theater professionally or hope for something better. He doesn’t know that his father Albin, a bureaucrat responsible for the Moon’s water supply, understands and loves him enough to walk softly around the volatile teen. And he is so un-self-aware, in that way that teens are, that he has no idea he is the glue that holds his band of genius friends together in relative harmony. As he strives to find a life far away, he’s oblivious to how much his friends and family value him.

The writing mixes languid meandering with utter confusion. The part about Albin’s job was pretty much over my head; all that needed to be related was that his job was not what he had wished for when he was younger. I think any hard sci fi tends to go a little overboard on the tech at the expense of the story. And it threw out a point that I diligently followed as a lead to the story’s climax—a point that turned out to be so inconsequential that, not only did it have nothing to do with plot, it wasn’t even an intentional red herring.

For all that, the story is very sweet, and the characterizations ring true. The kids are brilliant and responsible even in their rebellion. The adults are mired in ambiguous politics and responsibilities and learn to look to the kids to remember the spark they once had. I liked this book, and hope the Creature will, too, when he’s older.

For Parents Only: Getting Inside the Head of Your Kid

Shaunti Feldhahn, Lisa A. Rice; Multnomah Books; 2007

Shaunti Feldhahn is a conservative commentator and former Wall Street data analyst. I’ve enjoyed her book For Women Only, which provided insight into Major Tom, and For Men Only, which provided insight into…me. While she confers with counselors and medical professionals for insight and interpretation, her field is data analysis. She surveys her target (in this case, teens), and crunches numbers.

I found this book to be incredibly encouraging. We recently took a 15-yo friend on vacation with us. She’s very mature and incredibly low maintenance. It wasn’t until we got back that her mom told us her school had suffered a tragic loss that had hit our friend very hard. We didn’t have a clue. Teens are so good at hiding how they really feel—especially when they’re not sure how they feel in the first place. This book draws back the veil, a bit, to show not only what they’re feeling, but what they need from their parents.

I’ve already started using some of what I’ve learned from this book with the eight year old. As someone who has to see how to interact with people before I understand it, I very much appreciated the insights into this alien land.

The Girl Who Could Fly
Victoria Forester; Square Fish; 2010

So, the Creature’s school had a book fair. He was terribly excited. So I gave him a ten and told him he had to spend it on BOOKS—not gigantic pens with huge hands on the end. He came back with an alternate history for himself and The Girl Who Could Fly, which he intends to give to his teacher.

I snagged it first. You may have heard me talk about Thunderbird, my WIP#4 (or is it #5?). Thunderbird is about Sana, a girl whose mom keeps her separated from their small village because she’s different. Throughout the course of the book, the girl grows wings and strives to be accepted for who she is.

The Girl Who Could Fly is the story of Piper McCloud, a girl whose parents keep her separated from their small town because she’s different. Throughout the course of the book, the girl learns to fly and strives to be accepted for who she is.

Other than that, they have very little similarities.

The Girl Who Could Fly is cute. Piper is a strong and sweet character who keeps the humor going. The setting is possibly in the Mid West, but it felt like the farm from Babe. I think the action may be consistent enough to keep even the Creature interested.

From a writing standpoint, there was one glitch that kind of got me. The story was such that a great deal of the climax had to be expressed in a POV other than Piper’s. This wouldn’t have been so jarring had the alternate POV character had more of a voice throughout the story. (He had some, but not enough to warrant taking over the apex of the story.)

But it’s a cute story.

I just hope publishers think Thunderbird is different enough.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Stupefying Entries

There is some confusion as to the submission process for the anthology book Stupefying Stories (and that's just among the acquisitions editors). I hope this will clear some things up and make others murkier. And I trust that if this isn't correct, Sir ~brb will either delete the post or edit it to within an inch of its life or leave five consecutive comments culminating in a profoundly thoughtful thesis on the place of fanfic in the speculative fiction genre. (I'm gonna guess he's against it.)

How to submit:
1. If your story was submitted to a contest at The Friday Challenge, submit the link of the story to kersley dot fitz at yahoo dot com
2. If your story was submitted to a contest at the old Ranting Room, submit the link of the story to tabby dot wrangler at gmail dot com
3. If your story hasn't been submitted to a contest but you love it and you want to submit it, send it to tabby dot wrangler at gmail dot com
4. If you can't remember if you submitted it or you can't remember if you submitted it to the Ranting Room or The Friday Challenge, send it to tabby dot wrangler at gmail dot com

What to submit:

Sci fi
or Fantasy
or Alternate History
or Superhero
or Supernatural
or Supernatural Romance
or Horror
or Magical Realism
or Contemporary Fantasy
or Steampunk
or Cyberpunk (TM)
or Dystopia
or Utopia
or Speculative Spiritual
or Post-Apocalyptic-Amish-Vampire-Romance
or Anything Else
or Whatever It Is That Vidad Writes

Do Not Submit:

Type: prose or poetry
Word Count: I'm gonna go out on a limb and say 15,000 for a limit, but, truth be told, we'll read anything
Previously Published: So doesn't matter
Gender: It would probably be best if you had a gender, but it's not necessary
Contributor to the Friday Challenge or the Ranting Room: Preferable, but not necessary
Story previously submitted to the Friday Challenge or the Ranting Room: Are you not getting this? We are desperate for stories! Stop worrying about it and submit the stupid thing. If we don't want it, we'll tell you in as gentle terms as possible.

If you have any questions that were not answered in this hodgepodge, leave them in the comment section and I'll answer them. Or, at least, make something up that sounds vaguely plausible.

Ultimate Geek Fu

The traditional 2009 - 2010 TV season is winding down and science fiction hasn't exactly set the small screen on fire. Heroes, Flash Forward, and Seeker have all been canceled (though Seeker fans are mounting a drive to save the show). Conversely, after narrowly avoiding cancellation after season two, Chuck has proven to be a minor lifeline for NBC and has already been renewed for a fourth season. Fringe continues to do well enough to earn a third season and, despite a several month break between episodes four and five, V will also be back next season. And, of course, Lost has two more episodes before it's gone for good.

Are we gaining anything to replace those shows that have been canceled or completed their run? Um, not a lot. Fox has Terra Nova as a midseason replacement. It's an adventure show about a family that settles prehistoric Earth. It features dinosaurs and is being produced by Stephen Speilberg.

Most intriguing, though not for the upcoming TV season, is that two former Star Trek writers are interested in bringing Star Trek back to the small screen. Bryan Fuller, known for many quirky shows including Pushing Daisies (an entertaining, off-beat show I didn't discover until it had already been canceled), has spoken for years about his interest in bringing back Trek. As he is more of a fan of the original series, he says he would be most interested in producing a series that had the same sense of fun and adventure as the original, rather than continuing with the staid and somewhat cold Next Gen approach.

The other former writer who would be interested in doing a new Star Trek show is Ron Moore, best known for revamping Battlestar Galactica. He also said he thought J.J. Abrams had a very good handle on the show, leading me to believe he's much less likely to push for the new series.

The biggest stumbling block to a new Star Trek series is the rights. Over the years, the rights to certain parts of the Star Trek continuity have been spread amongst two or three different production companies. Paramount still holds a lot of the rights, but not all of them. Lawyers will have to be involved, so Roddenberry only knows how long it will take before a new series can air.

But let's pretend we've killed all the lawyers and the Trekkers and Trekkies have finally convinced someone to produce a brand new Star Trek series. What should the setting be? Should it take place in the same time as the original series, perhaps on a different ship? Should the series use last year's movie as a jumping off point? Should it continue from either Next Gen or DS9? Or should it go somewhere else entirely?

Let the arguments begin!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

...was delayed by a dinosaur stampede but will post later this morning.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Hercules had his twelve labors and so did I. Mine began with a phone call which, like a fool, I answered.

"Hello?" I said.

"May I speak to Henry Vogel, please?" said the man on the other end.

"Speaking," I replied with that sinking feeling you get when you're sure you're speaking to a telemarketer.

"I'm calling from CASL [Capital Area Soccer League]. Soccer practice is about to start but the coach for your son's team was transferred to a new job in Atlanta. We're looking for parents of players to fill in as coach for this season."

Okay, it wasn't a telemarketer. Over the following six years, there would be times when I would fervently wish it had been. That's because my reply was, "Yes, I'll volunteer to coach."

This was recreational league, after all, where the rules specified equal playing time for all players, regardless of ability or skill. It seemed like it would be a lark, a way to be more involved with the team and the Boy. And much of the time it was that. On the other hand, one thing you learn quickly when you're a volunteer coach for your son is that your son doesn't treat you the way the other players do. To them, I was Coach Henry, the guy who set the line-up and made the substitutions, the guy who ran practices and was totally in charge of just how much of practice would be fun and how much would be drills. You know how your children seem to behave better when they're visiting a friend's house than when they're at home? Well, everyone else's kids behave better while at soccer practice, too.

But my kid? To him, I was Dad. Just because I was coaching didn't mean he had to treat me any differently than he would at home. That meant arguments when I set drills the Boy didn't want to do, complaints when I subbed him out of a game too quickly or not quickly enough, and other generally irritating behavior. It's my guilty secret that I took solace when I saw the children of other coaches behaving the same as the Boy.

Our soccer seasons last eight games and there are two for each school year, fall and spring. After coaching that first year, I told CASL that I was glad I'd been able to help when they needed a coach, but that I really wasn't that good of a coach. I told them I was going to step aside and let another parent, one with more soccer knowledge and skill, take over. Apparently, the soccer league only hunted around for coaches when the teams and schedule were already set if a coach discovered he couldn't fulfill his commitment. Since I was telling them this at the end of the spring season, they told me the team would be broken up and the players parceled out to the remaining teams. I didn't want to be the person responsible for breaking up a team of kids who had played together for more than two years! In other words, I agreed to keep coaching until I could find someone to take over for me.

Do you have any idea just how many parents have both the time and inclination to coach a youth soccer team? So many that I spent the next five years coaching the team. I did have a couple of parents who helped out at practice, one of whom even agreed to be head coach for a year provided I stayed on as assistant coach. That was it.

It took me a while to figure out why none of the other parents stepped up to take over as coach. It wasn't my vast knowledge of soccer nor my all the wins we racked up. I played a little intramural soccer in college and knew the basic rules, nothing more. And wins? Well, we always managed one or two every season but only posted three winning seasons among the twelve I coached. No, it wasn't my coaching skills that kept the parents from stepping forward. It was that, with a handful of exceptions, their children were happy with me as their coach because they had fun being on the team.

I let them cut up a bit during practice and didn't spend every minute of practice making them run boring drills. Before games, I told them that if they gave me their best effort, I would be satisfied. I'd watch the kids go out and give me their best and we'd have more fun losing 6 - 1 than the other team did winning by that score. I had kids come to the team having voluntarily left teams that routinely won three quarters of their games. These were kids who were good players and who played hard, yet left their old team because the coach or the other players would criticize every mistake. Everyone likes to win, but the "win at all costs" attitude found on some teams was ridiculous. Some of the coaches had obviously forgotten that "recreational league" was supposed to be fun.

My single most memorable moment as a coach came right after one of those overly competitive teams had kicked the crap out of us. I think the final score was in the neighborhood of 11 - 2, but I'm not sure. The kids were all busy grabbing their post-game snacks when an elderly couple walked up to me. It turned out they were the grandparents of a kid who had scored five goals on us by himself. It seems they came to all of his games and, over the years, had formed certain opinions of the various coaches. They told me all of that before telling me that I was a wonderful coach because I let my kids have fun and pointed out the good things each player had done.

It was moments like that and the wordless compliments the parents paid to me each season when they selected to have their child return to my team during the registration process that kept me coaching. That, and keeping the same team going for the Boy. But with the kids entering high school in the fall, rec league organization changes. Teams are no longer composed of players from the same age group, as they have been up to this point. My team and all of the teams we've played against for years will be disbanded, the players placed into a pool and then randomly assigned to new teams. The team my son has been part of since he was six will be no more. Being part of that team was extremely important to him. In the fall he won't be able to be part of that team, so he won't be playing next season.

Last Saturday, my team took the field for the last time. With temperatures nearing ninety degrees, with no wind and less shade, we faced off against a team that beat us 6 - 1 earlier in the season. We fell behind 2 - 0 in the first half and then 3 - 1 in the second half. But my kids rallied for a 3 - 3 tie and a final season record of 1 - 6 - 1 (so, yes, the tie felt like a win to us). And that was it. After six years, twelve seasons, and ninety-six games, I walked off the soccer field for the last time, my twelve labors at an end. Then the Boy and I went for a celebratory ice cream cone.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

And the winner is...

Four challengers gave us six entries from which to choose our winner for Short Attention Span Theater. Without further ado, let's take a look at the entries:

M, "Better Off Ed"
Sally (aka Beth, aka Kersley):
I thought Better Off Ed would make a cool scene, but I didn't see a story in it.

I can definitely see a young Bruce Willis in this role. Can we clone him or something? This would make a good pilot episode, but it would be a very expensive series to make, what with all the pyrotechnics and having to blow the living sh!t out of some new venue every week. Let's see, this week a hospital; so what's next week? A police station? A strip mall? A Starbucks? I think if every episode involved demolishing a Starbucks, you could have great repeat viewership.

This reminded me of a high class variant of a popular TV show in the movie Idiocracy called "Ow! My Balls!" which featured a guy being filmed kicking other guys in the groin. But can you really setup and the deliver a comedic, impressive explosion in only four minutes?

M, "Stink-Eye Nellie"
Sally (aka Beth, aka You Know Who I Mean):
Nelly Bleigh, on the other hand, would totally work as long as the card game was in the show.

It's horrible, awful, and utterly wonderful. What you've written would make great book jacket copy. I have trouble envisioning how this story could be shortened to Hanna-Barbera cartoon length, but I'm sure if I watched a few more episodes of Scooby Doo, I'd understand. Also, I am utterly incapable of understanding the appeal of watching other people play poker on TV, but I know that the Texas Hold-Em shows draw large and loyal audiences. Focus the show on card playing -- make it sort of a mini Casino Royale -- and I think this bugger might work.

After reading the description to this "show," I'd love to see you take a crack at some pulp fiction-style detective stories. You've just got a wonderful way with words that would lend itself beautifully to that genre. I'm picturing this as an eight minute adventure show, giving Nellie just enough time to get into and out of compromising positions. And, hey, what more can one ask for from their entertainment?

Ben-El, "Better Off Wed"
Better off Wed sounds like the background for a show, but not the episode.

A one-line throwaway joke. Sign Charlie Sheen to play the lead and you've got a hit on your hands.

I agree with ~brb, this is a natural for Charlie Sheen. And this probably is a great setup for a four minute comedy show. Four minutes ought to be just enough time to show Pete learning yet another new lesson about life as a divorcee. But the challenge was to give us an episode, not a setting.

Ben-El, "Hawt Cuisine"
Hawt Cuisine needs more than just a clever punch line.

Never underestimate the selling power of sex. I could definitely see this one as a long-running daytime series. This one really fits the entire idea of fitting an entire romantic comedy in the space of an over-long commercial.

It's got food! It's got sex! What happens when the Mix Master blends them together? Great setup, fun progression, and a pun to top it all off. I like this idea a lot. Now, how long before we can buy Hawt Cuisine: The Book of Hot Cooking and Hotter Sex! Yummy!

Avery, "Unequivocal"
Unequivocal would make a great novel or series. I couldn't tell just how much would be put into an eight-minute episode.

This is way, way too long to be the story for an 8-minute drama. This could, however, work as the story arc for an entire season. You watch a lot of BBC period dramas, don't you?

I agree with ~brb on this one. It's got way too much stuff to cover to fit into eight minutes but it's got a heck of a lot of potential for a modern length series. Give this a steampunk setting and start writing the novel now. Seriously.

Miko, "My Favorite Venusian"
My Favorite Venusian would work.

Reminds me of this remora I met at WorldCon in Glasgow. The babe attached herself to me just long enough to get into a publisher's private party, and then, "Oh, look! There's Harlan Ellison!"

I don't know how this could be made into a series. Would we follow the guy, as he has a series of dismal bar encounters with different women every week, or the babe, as she suckers in a different guy each week -- or how about this: what if we see *both* of them every week, but he makes such an insignificant impression on her that *he* is the only one who remembers that they met last week? That could really make the title work.

Wow, in four minutes we get a beginning, middle and end. Great setup and payoff, too. I don't have the con babe memory that ~brb has, I do have the cheerleader-who-got-me-to-write-all-her-COBOL-programs memory. When I finally got wise -- about halfway through the semester -- she found another sap and got the rest of her software written by him. Good times...

The Wrap Up
My vote's for Stink-eye Nellie. I could see this being a cohesive story told in eight minutes.

And so, after reading all of the entries, and all of the other readers' comments, and then rereading the original challenge: "Your challenge is to write the story for one of these short attention span TV episodes. You do not have to write the script, just the story. We're talking something that will make flash fiction look long-winded. As with any story, you must have a beginning, a middle, and an end."

I cast my vote for Miko, because "My Favorite Venusian" has an actual story that could be developed further, and is not simply a series of double entendres and punchlines.

Honorable mention to Avery for "Unequivocal," as think this would make a good story arc for a season-long plot, which could conceivable be told in 8-minute installments.

After reading through the entries again while putting together this column, I narrowed my selections down to "Stink-Eye Nellie," "Hawt Cuisine," and "My Favorite Venusian." I seriously love Avery's setup for "Unequivocal" but, unlike ~brb, just can't quite see that playing out in eight minute installments. From the three finalists, I have to go with "My Favorite Venusian" by Miko. That give Miko's entry two votes to one for M's "Stink-Eye Nellie." So,Miko is this week's winner!

Miko, come on down and collect your prize from behind Door #3!

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

I've been waffling, flolloping, and equivocating over whether to announce this for some weeks now, so I guess it's finally time to just bite the bullet, throw it over the transom, run it up the flagpole, insert hackneyed cliché here, and see how people react. And the thing I have to announce is—

Well, you remember how I said the grand prize in the "The Land Before ZIP Codes" was going to be something really exceptionally cool, but I wasn't ready to announce it just yet? This, my friends, is the announcement that at least two or three of you have been eagerly waiting for. Coming July 1st, The Friday Challenge, in conjunction with Rampant Loon Press, is alarmed excited to announce the long-awaited debut of—

What? Why? Now that, my friends, is a long, long, story—but we don't have time for that now, so here's the short version. In a sense, it all starts with Amazing Stories. I mean, not in the sense of Amazing (founded in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback, the man who invented the term "science fiction" and for whom the Hugo Awards are named) being the seminal magazine that spawned all the other legendary pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, and the careers of all the writers who rose to prominence in those decades, or even in the sense of Amazing being the magazine that spawned my career, which it was. I mean, literally, it starts with Amazing Stories—and the last time it went bankrupt, back in 2000-something. Having a rather strong sentimental attachment to the title, I just couldn't stand to see it vanish forever from the market, so I quietly pulled together a group of backers, and we began working on a plan to buy the magazine and resuscitate it one more time, this time with yours truly as interim editor-in-chief...

And then we gave up. Because, although we crunched the numbers six ways from Sunday, the conclusion was inescapable: there was just no way to make money by reviving that magazine.

Now, a true visionary would have stuck with it anyway, secure in the belief that pure genius and chutzpah could overcome that tiny obstacle and make Amazing Stories once more the shining beacon of brilliance it was imagined to be back in the First Great Depression. But thankfully we had no true visionaries in our group, so we just shook hands, filed the business plan under 'S' for Stupid, and went our separate ways. My way eventually took me into the blogosphere, thence to The Ranting Room, and ultimately to here, now, today, and The Friday Challenge.

Where in a sense I've been playing editor-in-chief for at least the past year and a half anyway, and more like five years, if you count all the larval development that took place over in The Ranting Room.

So why STUPEFYING STORIES, of all names? That, my friends, is yet another story—about a five-thousand-word story, and I'll share it with you another time. But the gist of it is that just about every other possible combination of astounding, amazing, astonishing, incredible, thrilling, wonder, etc., etc., was used back in the 1930s, and the trademark is still owned by some successor corporation today. I, however, have owned 'Stupefying Stories' since the 1980s. It originally was slated to be the title of a 'Best of' yours truly anthology that never happened. Then it was going to be a parody anthology.

And then I decided, oh, what the heck. I've been wanting to do some kind of Friday Challenge fiction showcase since the incept date of this site. As long as I'm going to take the plunge into the madness of small-press publishing anyway, why not invite some friends along for the ride?

Hence, STUPEFYING STORIES. We're not launching a new semi-pro magazine here; Lord knows, the world doesn't need another one of those. It's not really a magazine in any case. It will be more like a trade paperback book in form and appearance, and there are sound reasons for calling it an 'anthology series' or 'bookazine' or something on that order. We're planning to release four in the next year: in July 2010, October 2010, January 2011, and April 2011, respectively, and after that what happens next is anyone's guess. We don't expect to make any money off this thing. The best we're hoping for is not to lose an outrageous amount of money, and along the way to give the Rampant Loon staff some desperately needed hands-on experience with generating print, Kindle, iBook, and Open ePub deliverables from common source. Our friends over at The Internet Review of Science Fiction were running a thousand-bucks-a-month deficit when they finally decided to fold the tents and close the show. We can't afford to get anywhere near that burn rate, and if we do, we'll pull the plug.

But in the meantime, herewith, today, we officially announce the launch of STUPEFYING STORIES. What we want to publish first and foremost are stories that have previously appeared as entries in The Friday Challenge or on our predecessor site, The Ranting Room, and frankly, this is where we can use your help. A heck of a lot of good material has come through these two sites in the past five years and we're having trouble sifting through it all and finding the ones we want to publish. (The recent disappearance of HaloScan and all its comment archives has not helped things any.)

So as the old Voör'ta!gâean saying goes, "Two eyes are good, but dozens are better, and many tentacles make spaö'nag the g'g!vúnět." (To which of course the traditional rejoinder is a hearty, "Spa fon!") If you have the time, and the inclination—or a keen memory, or even a story or two tucked away that you meant to enter in a Friday Challenge but never quite got around to posting, or a promising half-story that wasn't a winner but that you've since finished—the floodgates are officially open and we're looking for content!

We don't know where this is going. This may actually be successful; more likely it will turn out to be a face-plant and a money pit. But if in the judgment of history it turns out that STUPEFYING STORIES was the springboard that launched two or three notable writing careers, then that will be an ending worthy of a song.

Oh yeah, at the top of this column I promised to announce the grand prize in the "The Land Before ZIP Codes" challenge, didn't I? Well, the winning entry will be the featured story in the July STUPEFYING STORIES, of course.

And if that doesn't get you motivated, nothing will!

Saturday, May 15, 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 hasn't written that vampire Amish romance, either.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 5/14/10

This Week in The Friday Challenge
Henry Vogel gets painfully serious about the challenges of raising teenagers in the Internet age. Where is the line between responsible parenthood and trying too hard to protect your children from the dangers and temptations of the world? Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald continues her discussion of point-of-view and the sacred duties of the science fiction writer, leading into an interesting eye's-on exercise. How many POV errors can you find in this single scene? Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke gives it a pass this week, being trapped in the clammy clutches of OTOGU. However, the April "Folk Tales of the Final Frontier" challenge wraps up with the longest "And the winner is..." we've ever produced, so there's no shortage of stuff to read. Beating out stiff competition, newcomer Anton Gully takes the win with his delightful entry, "Assault and Buttery." Or, if you just feel like commenting, you can join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu broaches an almost heretical idea: sometimes the movie is better than the book. How many movies can you name that were improvements over the books they were based on? Join the discussion...

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit is still paddling around in the Bronze Age, discussing the positive attributes of empires and trying to discover gunpowder. Was Ben-Hur merely anti-Roman propaganda? Join the discussion...

Also, Kersley Fitz stumbles onto the terrible truth about publishing (read at your own risk!), the inmates discuss the view from their respective places in the asylum, we bid a sad farewell to legendary artist Frank Frazetta, and just when you thought it was safe to go outside, the entire Earth is menaced by a zombie satellite. All this and more, this week in, The Friday Challenge!

Gentle Nudge: "The Land Before ZIP Codes"
Just a gentle reminder that the deadline for the current Greater Challenge, "The Land Before ZIP Codes", is Friday, May 21.

Short Attention Span Theater
This week's Lesser Challenge is "Short Attention Span Theater". As of the deadline, we have received the following entries. (If we've missed anybody, please let us know and we'll fix it ASAP.)

M, "Better Off Ed"
M, "Stink-Eye Nellie"
Ben-El, "Better Off Wed"
Ben-El, "Hawt Cuisine"
Avery, "Unequivocal"
Miko, "My Favorite Venusian"

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.

The winner will be announced on Sunday. And now, on to this week's Friday Challenge...

Invasion of the Ring-Stealing, Satellite-Snatching Mechanical Zombies From Outer Space

This week's Friday Challenge is, as they say, ripped from the headlines. Specifically, these headlines:
Problem Detected with Voyager 2 Spacecraft at Edge of Solar System

"NASA has commanded the famed Voyager 2 probe to send only information on its health and status after spotting a puzzling change in the spacecraft's pattern of communication from the edge of the solar system.

"The 33-year-old Voyager 2 spacecraft, which is currently 8.6 billion miles (13.8 billion km) from Earth, is apparently still in good health, according to the latest engineering data received on May 1. But Voyager 2's flight data system, which formats information before beaming it back to Earth, has experienced a hiccup that altered the pattern in which it sends updates home.

"Because of that pattern change, mission managers can no longer decode the science data beamed to Earth from Voyager 2..."
Okay, that in itself is no cause for alarm. Frankly, it's amazing the old bird is still working at all. But then, if you look at the next headline:
Jupiter has lost one of its iconic red stripes and scientists are baffled as to why

"The largest planet in our solar system is usually dominated by two dark bands in its atmosphere, with one in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere.

"However, the most recent images taken by amateur astronomers have revealed the lower stripe known as the Southern Equatorial Belt has disappeared leaving the southern half of the planet looking unusually bare.

"The band was present in at the end of last year before Jupiter ducked behind the Sun on its orbit. However, when it emerged three months later the belt had disappeared..."
And then there's this:
'Zombie' satellite runs amok in Earth's orbit

An attempt to shut down the electronics payload of the out-of-control communications satellite Galaxy 15 has failed, leaving the satellite - which ceased responding to ground commands last month - still in its uncontrolled "zombiesat" drift toward orbits occupied by other spacecraft, the satellite's fleet operator Intelsat said Tuesday.

Galaxy 15 is closing in on the geostationary orbital slot occupied by another C-band satellite, the AMC-11 spacecraft operated by SES World Skies, and with its stuck-on communications payload will be in a position to cause potentially severe interference with the SES satellite during a two-week period starting around May 23, according to Intelsat and SES estimates.

The unsuccessful attempt to shut down the so-called "zombiesat" – a satellite industry term for failed satellites in orbit - occurred on Monday.

And finally:
Aliens 'hijack' Nasa's Voyager 2 spacecraft, claims expert

Hartwig Hausdorf, a German academic, believes that the reason Voyager 2, an unmanned probe that has been in space since 1977, is sending strange messages that are confusing scientists, is because it has been taken over by extraterrestrial life.

Since its launch, Voyager 2 has been sending streams of data back to Earth for study by scientists, but on April 22, 2010, that stream of information suddenly changed.

Nasa claimed that a software problem with the flight data system was the cause but Mr Hausdorf believes it could be the work of aliens.

This is because all other parts of the spacecraft appear to be functioning fine.

He told the German newspaper Bild: "It seems almost as if someone has reprogrammed or hijacked the probe – thus perhaps we do not yet know the whole truth.”

Why has all of this happened in just the last few days? What do these strange phenomenon have in common? Does this portend good or evil for the planet-bound people of the Earth? Are extraterrestrials trying to give us the secrets of the universe or do they just want our women? Folks, it's time to put on your National Enquirer thinking caps and explain all of this because inquiring minds want to know!

Your challenge is to write the first few paragraphs of a tabloid news story "explaining" how all of this ties together. Feel free to invent experts to quote or even attribute fake quotes to real people. If you don't want to delve into tabloid journalism, take whatever approach you prefer -- crackpot blog post, flash fiction, a story from a staid, traditional newspaper running something they can't believe is true, or whatever tickles your fancy -- while still giving a single explanation for all of these events. Your editor has ordered you to have the story ready no later than midnight, May 20.

As always, we are playing by the loosely enforced official rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever is behind Door #3. In a moment of staggeringly poor planning on our part we've made the deadline of this also the crack of dawn on Friday, May 21, so we'll be multitasking like crazy next weekend.
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