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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

"Video games can never be art."

Thus proclaimed leading film critic Roger Ebert last April. I guess those of us who play video games should settle back and accept this as gospel. After all, Ebert is bound to have spent entire minutes looking at video games, perhaps even playing video games. This wealth of experience makes his opinion unimpeachable, at least as far as Ebert is concerned. And, really, he's not even using actual experience with video games to build his point. He simply watched a 15 minute video of a woman claiming video games already were art.

There is a part of me that is ready to simply ignore Ebert's opinions. Most of what I've read by Ebert that is unassociated with film has been poorly considered or, in the case of his political musings, mere regurgitation of left-wing pundits. But his defense of this opinion is so weak, I can't resist.
She [the woman in the video Ebert watched] begins by saying video games "already ARE art." Yet she concedes that I was correct when I wrote, "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets." To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on, but my point is clear.
Ebert's first big point here is that even video game people don't believe any video game compares to the works of the great masters. Wow. So, if a painting isn't worthy of serious comparison to the Mona Lisa, it's not art? If a poem isn't on par with the best of Robert Frost or Emily Dickenson, it's not art? Yet this is the standard to which Ebert insists on holding video games. Video games have only existed in public form for about 40 years. Last time I checked, thousands of years passed between the first cave paintings and the Mona Lisa. There is much that is artistic yet unable to stand even the briefest comparison to the work of the grand masters. So what if no video game can withstand that comparison? That doesn't mean the best video games cannot withstand comparison to lesser works of art.
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.
Is Ebert seriously arguing here that art has no rules? If that's the case, why does virtually every review of some "modern art" monstrosity eventually tell us how the artist "breaks all the rules" with his supposed work of art? Is he telling us that no competition can ever be art, because I could have sworn figure skating was supposed to be athletic artistry or artistic athleticism or something along those lines. And what about art contests? Are the paintings entered in those competitions not artwork while the competition is going on and then suddenly become artwork once there's no chance of winning?

I took part in a storytelling competition a few months ago and the judges awarded storytellers points in four categories, based on each storyteller's performance. I'll argue long and hard that storytelling is an art form, so what's the deal with points and a winner? Why can't art have an outcome? Is there some kind of rule against it? No, wait, art doesn't have rules, according to Ebert. Hm...

Also, I'd argue every movie ever made has had an objective. That objective might be to entertain, to make money, to deliver a message, or something else entirely; but films very definitely have objectives. Any artwork that does not have an objective is about as "artistic" as a paint-splattered drop cloth; a bunch of colors mixing with each other for no purpose whatsoever.

But Ebert's worst mistake comes when he wraps up his "arguments" claiming video games will never be art.
Toward the end of her presentation, she shows a visual with six circles, which represent, I gather, the components now forming for her brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.
"I rest my case." So, Ebert claims video games not only are not art but cannot be art simply because the creation of a video game involves departments such as Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. That list of departments reminds me of something else... I'm positive there's another popular form of media that has departments with similar, if not exactly the same, titles. Oh, of course! That other form of media is...movies! Oh, they may not have an Education department, and in movies "Executive Management" is called the "Executive Producer," but we're talking cosmetic differences here. Apparently, it's possible for art to be produced by a corporation provided Roger Ebert makes his living from the "art" in question; which leaves video games out in the cold.

I contend that the primary motivation for art is evoke emotions. Now, there's more to art than just that, but "art" that doesn't inspire some kind of emotion in you is an utter failure as art. Over the years, I've watched thousands of movies. Some of those movies included scenes during which the main character had to choose to sacrifice one of the supporting characters for the greater good. If such a scene is well written and well acted, it can be quite an emotionally powerful scene. But no movie affected me as much as when I faced with that same choice while playing the science fiction adventure video game Mass Effect. With two supporting characters in life-or-death situations, I had to choose which character was going to die. This had nothing to do with points or objectives or winning. It had to do with evoking emotions in a way impossible for a movie or a novel or any other form of artwork. Only a video game could actually put me in that situation. (Well, a pencil-and-paper role playing game could, also, but I rather doubt Ebert would be willing to call one of those "art," either.)

In the long run, I don't really care about Ebert's opinions (no, not even about movies), but I seriously hate it when people make such ignorantly sweeping pronouncements.

Let the arguments begin!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

And the winner is...

Occasionally even we in the Ruling Troika feel the need to snowdog something in. After two days of 'I thought you were going to do that' and such like, the judges have finally issued their findings in consideration of the 6/18/10 Friday Challenge, "Meet My Strange Family," the entries into which were listed in the 6/25/10 column.

First, our surprise celebrity Big Name Poet guest judge punked out ("Oh, you wanted that this week?"), so that simplifies matters considerably. Secondly, our announced guest judge and the creator of the illustration in question, Johnny Tank, writes:
My favorite was Nambwii's birthday however considering the poetry points I will have to choose the limerick by M: Alien Strumpet.
It had occurred to me that since our first contact about the drawing that you had assumed the character was female. I had no idea why. On studying my picture further I saw that anyone might mistake a certain area for a breast. That was not intended. The best I can describe it would be if you were to graft a AA battery onto a plastic fifty cent machine egg. That was my intention however I love to hear other peoples interpretations of my stuff. The stories and poems gave a lot more depth to things I don't really think about. I always thought of art helping to tell a story, not the other way around. This is a lesson I hope to play with more and I would love to supply artwork in the future.


Third, THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE founder and Executive Cat-Herder in Chief, Bruce Bethke, writes:
Friends, having read all of the entries -- in some cases, several times -- I have a painful confession to make. When it comes to music, I have remarkably keen senses of pitch, timbre, and dynamic range. When it comes to navigation, I have an innate sense of direction that never goes wrong and drives the people around me nuts. When it comes to color, I can see subtle gradations that escape the rest of my family. When it comes to dialog, I have an uncanny ability to hear what people *actually* say and how they deliver it, which has repeatedly gotten me into arguments with copy-editors.

When it comes to poetry, I am as tone-deaf as a rock.

I can tell the difference between a haiku and a limerick -- just barely -- and both of them from a sonnet, but that's about it. I liked Arvid's entry because it was a story, and thus I was back on solid ground. But as for all the rest of them...

Pick whichever you like best. *I* certainly can't produce any meaningful commentary on any of them.

My, this is getting easier by the moment. Turning now to our two surviving judges, Henry Vogel writes:
Avery - Of your two entries, I prefer the second one. I like the quick setting of the scene followed by the introduction of a new element, dancing. The second entry is more focused, tighter. I like it a lot.

M - "Java Step" is a neat little haiku about how we shamble along until coffee lightens our steps, but I'm more of a "There once was a girl from Nantucket" kind of guy. In other words, I liked your limerick better. It was amusing and was obviously based on the artwork. Shifting from "chick" to "strumpet" was a nice bit of creative license, too.

Miko - An interesting pair of entries. I find myself enjoying your channeling of Scribbler more than "Stride." I can't really say why, it just appeals to me more. Hm, that's not good enough. I like the image conveyed by "Scribbler's" entry more than the one from "Stride." It's still extremely subjective, but that's art for you. Interesting entries.

Sean - You don't enter for months on end and then we get three entries? Maybe we should aim for more poetry challenges so you can enter more often! And, now that you've pointed it out, I can see how the "chick" could also be considered a "pickle." I fear your first entry is merely a harbinger of taxes to come. Your second entry had me laughing out loud. Your third entry is the only one I've read thus far that even mentions the Weber Grill about to be crushed by the walking thing. Of the three entries, I liked the second one best. It may be directly derived from "Mary Had a Little Lamb," but it's a very clever derivation.

Arvid Macenion - Everyone else gives us short, quick-to-read entries. You give us a short story. What's up with that? No, not quite a short story. You give us a short story with all of the dialogue written in haiku! It's a sweet little story, though somewhat predictable; almost a given since the story was inspired by the artwork and my own experiences with little sisters. Very clever, nonetheless, with both the story and the haiku.

Waterboy - And now we have yet another interpretation of the thing in the robotic whatever -- a harpy. I like this one, too, as part of the haiku sets the scene and the other part completes the thought. One of the first things I thought of when I saw the drawing was the tripods from Wells' The War of the Worlds, so I guess I'm right there with you on death, destruction, and heat (or laser) rays. Nice.

All of these entries are perfect examples of everyone using the same inspiration to come up with totally divergent ideas. This is one of the endlessly fascinating things about THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE; something I enjoyed just as much when I was entering the challenges as now, when I'm judging them. My favorites among the eleven entries are Avery's second entry (the one with dancing), M's limerick, Sean's play on "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and Waterboy's death-by-laser. In the end, I'm going to go with my initial reaction to each of the entries, and I laughed out loud to Sean's nursery rhyme. So Sean gets my vote this week, though I'd be happy if any of my four finalists ended up winning.

Kersley Fitzgerald, who proposed this challenge in the first place, gets the penultimate word:
First off, it never occurred to me that this was a pickle.

M, Java Step: The concept is cute (and makes me wonder how long his stride is after his coffee), but the haiku needs work. It appears to be two phrases split so that the syllables sit where they should, instead of three distinct phrases.

Avery, Whistle: I like this one. Great imagery, and the last line seems to have a double meaning in that it seems like a casual warning, but if he fell on the city, it could be catastrophic.

M, Strumpet: Again with the cute concept that needs work on execution. I think in limericks the third and fourth lines should be directly related, not opposed (“but…”). Still, very cute!

Miko: This emphasizes why poetry frustrates me. Is “delight” being used as a noun, or an adjective? Is the creature a “delight,” or is it just taking delight in the stride? And yet, even more so than fiction writers, poets do not explain their work.

Scribbler: Very symbolic and dark and thought-provoking. And Tolkien-esque.

Sean, Taxes: This one’s awesome.

Sean, Little Cup: I could totally see my kid singing this to himself, crushing sand castles beneath a pickle stuffed in half a plastic Easter egg.

Sean, Weber Grill: It’s so cute and sweet and lovely and then BAM! It hits me over the head with pickle overlords. If we do more poetry challenges, do you promise to enter more often?

Avery, Dance: This is beautiful. So true on so many existential levels. Some people do fear us as we go about our lives. But they don’t understand that we’re living restrained, and if we were to more fully display our souls, it would be more terrifying and wonderful than they could imagine.

Arvid: So cute. I love how the creatures speak in Haiku and the names end in “wii.” And the story rings true.

Waterboy: Love the imagery, but the technical gets me again.

This is impossible! How can anyone choose?

After several days of non-contemplation, I’m going with Avery’s dance.

And thus after all that agonizing, we end up with a split decision: Sean and Avery, come on down, because you two have ended up in a tie for the win this week!

And as for everyone else: thanks for entering, and better luck next year, which if I have anything to say about it is the next time we'll be running a poetry challenge. (If it was up to Kersley, though, we'd run one monthly!)


Monday, June 28, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

What is it about fandom that makes it so appealing? I'm not just talking about science fiction fandom. I'm talking about any kind of fandom, from the fervent fan of the Green Bay Packers to the rabid fan of Call of Duty video games to genre fiction fandom. What is it that draws us in, makes us fans?

I found myself thinking about this last week as two sports teams I followed were striving for victory. One of those teams was the U.S. World Cup Soccer team. The other was the Clemson University baseball team and their unexpected run of success at the College World Series. Both teams were considered long shots to win the championship. Both teams roused emotions within me; excitement, hope, dread. Even though I was a fan of both teams, the "fannish" experience was very different for the two teams. It wasn't the stakes that caused the difference, it was the people.

At work and at home, lots of people followed the World Cup. The television in the break room played all the games. People would pause after getting their coffee and watch the World Cup for a while. When the U.S. was playing, people would come into the break room, even if they only had a minute or two to spare, just to check on the game. You could always find someone willing to talk about the World Cup, how the refs had screwed the U.S. out of two goals in group play, how the defense needed to pick things up if the U.S. was going to have any chance in the knock-out round, or whether the U.S. was even going to make it to the knock-out round. It didn't matter whether you knew the person you were talking to because you were both talking the same language.

Conversely, I'm the only ardent Clemson fan in my circle of friends and co-workers. No one I know was even aware that Clemson was playing in the College World Series, much less that they had reached the point where a single win would put them in championship series, a best of three series for the national championship. I was an isolated fan. Being unable to share my excitement and interest in Clemson's baseball team was truly frustrating.

And that's what fandom is all about; sharing your interest with others without worrying about nasty arguments or fear of condemnation. Two fans of the same thing can always find something interesting about which to talk.

Fans of the same sports teams can bask in the memory of past victories, moan about games lost, complain about selfish players, and weigh the prospects of the upcoming season. Science fiction fans can discuss their favorite authors, favorite books, introduce fellow fans to new authors, lament how fantasy is crowding out hard science fiction, and discuss the sociological and technical implications of the coming singularity. Fans of role playing games can compare the various game systems they prefer, tell of favorite adventures, talk about their first exposure to role playing games, and maybe even find a new role playing group with which to play.

Fandom allows us to connect with fellow fans in ways nothing else does. If you stop and think about it, you are likely to have a lot of interests in common with your fellow co-workers. Everyone is interested in their health, but no one wants to talk about that. Most everyone is interested in politics, but if you express the "wrong" opinion to someone you run the risk of alienating those same people for all time. (People who disagree with your political opinions but can debate those opinions reasonably and still treat you the same after the discussion are rare people indeed. I've only known a handful of them.) Many of us have mortgages and all of us have bills, but who would want to talk about those? Fandom gives us something fun to talk about.

I believe that is why so many of feel at home here at the Friday Challenge. We have the (mostly) shared fandom of science fiction and writing drawing us together. We have a place where people can reasonably disagree on many subjects, yet still value the connections with those with whom we disagree.

And that's the real reason I've been so excited about the North American Science Fiction Convention, aka ReConstruction. In just over a month, I'll finally be able to meet some of you in person and receive immediate responses to the things I say. I just hope I come across as well in person as I do when I'm writing and have the luxury of editing what I "say" before you read it.

Plus, ReConstruction will be a celebration of science fiction fandom. I'm guaranteed to have something in common with virtually everyone there. I can't wait to see what new friends I'll make.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

Today's word is, "sweltering."

S w e l t e r i n g.

Normally our rainiest months are April and May, and by late June we're starting to get into the high dog days of summer and the sort of weather that is punctuated by the occasional extremely violent thunderstorm, but otherwise leaves our lawns scorched brown turf by the end of July and helps the corn dry on the stalk in August and September. This year, however, we are getting somewhat more rain than usual. For example, Friday morning, before I left for work, I accidentally left this flowerpot out on the deck. It was empty when I put it there.

This is what it looks like this morning, with a 12-oz. can of Orange Crush to show scale. That is just the accumulated rainfall from the past 48 hours.

No tornado touchdowns or damaging hail in the immediate area this week, cross fingers, knock on wood, but all the same it's a little exciting when the tornado sirens go off and the EBS advises you to take shelter immediately, as happened Friday night. Saturday morning we emerged to find that we'd lost most of one of the maple trees in the storm, so I spent a good part of yesterday out in the yard with chainsaw, axe, and wheelbarrow, taking down the rest of it and clearing away the debris. I'd like to say that the many long hours of hot, sweaty, filthy and exhausting manual labor were in some way ennobling or invigorating. But I'd be lying.

In last week's column, I wrote about our strawberry patch. This week, instead of the traditional race to get to the ripe strawberries before the birds and garden slugs do, it's become a race to pick them before they turn into mold and slime on the vine. The rain and heat of the past week have turned our strawberry patch into a mat of dense green fungus, and my poor radishes have drowned, although the beans seem to be doing better than usual. The blackberries also seem to be enjoying the weather, and we were out in that part of the garden bright and early this morning, picking handfuls of berries so ripe they practically fell off at a touch. Breakfast this morning was late, but consisted of home-made, whole-grain, organically raised-blackberry muffins, fresh from the oven. (What? What's with all this hippie-speak? I thought this Bethke guy would be eating, oh, plastic and pills washed down with Red Bull, or something.)

Nah. At heart, I'm a gardener. There is something immensely gratifying about bringing food that you have grown yourself straight from the garden to the table. This probably also has something to do with why I find myself re-reading Candide every few years, and finding something new and delightful in it every time.

Recent Reading:
Speaking of reading, since the question has come up, here's what I've been reading lately, in no particular order.

First up, with A Taste of True Blood now on the market, the nice folks at BenBella Books asked me to write up a little something for their website, which necessitated my reading the entire book. It's always awkward reading your own stuff in print, as the Internal Editor is finally and fully unleashed. "You could have phrased this better, and you just missed making a really clever point right there, and as for that—" Aaah, shuddup. The book is good, decently entertaining, and at times surprisingly thoughtful. I liked some of the other essays a lot, and as always there were a couple of head-scratchers, but there were no real "boy, they must have been hard up for filler" moments, which was a relief. Would I recommend buying the book? Only if you're into the core subject matter. But still, I am not unproud of my little contribution to it.

After that, I'll just dive headlong into the unstable and untidy heap of books that have accumulated on the bookshelf next to my desk in the past six months. Oddly enough, looking at this heap, I still complain that I don't get enough time to read.

Cod: A Biography of the fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky. Fascinating combination of history, economics, and ecology. I wish I could get contracts to write books like these.

Sacagawea's Nickname: Essays on the American West, by Larry McMurtry. Just what it says. Very good stuff.

A Short History of Financial Euphoria, by John Kenneth Galbraith. Interesting history that falls apart when he tries to apply it to then-contemporary issues in the 1980s.

Pegasus Bridge, by Stephen Ambrose. I remain in awe of real-life heroism. The Longest Day did not do justice to Major John Howard and the men of the Sixth Airborne, and subsequent histories have not served justice to the upper-echelon morons who subsequently squandered the lives of this crack outfit.

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell. Orwell's first-person account of his experiences fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. If you've ever wondered why the Republicans lost, or how a British Socialist could learn to really hate Communists enough to write Animal Farm and 1984, this is the book to read.

Gunpowder, by Jack Kelly. More than you ever imagined it was possible to know about the history and making of the stuff.

Men-of-War: Life in Nelson's Navy, by Patrick O'Brian. A dandy little handbook to life aboard a warship in the age of fighting sail. This would seem to be the fruits of O'Brian's background research for his Aubrey/Maturhin books.

What They Don't Teach You At Film School, by Camille Landau and Tiare White. You can tell they're filmmakers; the title should be in film school, not at it. But I keep coming back to this one because, while it's ostensibly a book about low-budget film-making, it's really a terrific book about project management, group dynamics, and working effectively with creative people.

Phule's Company, by Robert Asprin. To be honest, I read this one because people kept telling me I was giving Asprin short shrift, and that I really needed to look past the Thieve's World and Myth, Inc. books. So I somehow worked up the determination to get past the cheesy cover art, and—lo and behold, this is a good book. Shame this series never developed a large fan following.

Crewel Lye, by Piers Anthony. To be honest... No, about nine pages in I put this one down and never felt any urge to reopen it. Look for a large pile of used Piers Anthony books to show up behind Door #3 shortly.

Ghost Ship, by Diane Carey. A.k.a., Star Trek: The Next Generation, Book #1. Following on the heels of J. M. Dillard's Bloodthirst, I read this one as research to continue developing my thesis that 95% of so-called hard science fiction is merely horror with sci-fi sets and props. Yup, this one was aptly named, because that's exactly what it is. Geordi LaForge can see dead people, Counselor Troi is making "empathic contacts" with histrionics worthy of any 19th century spirit medium, and Wesley Crusher saves the universe. Feh.

Marsbound, by Joe Haldeman. I can't figure this one out. I thought at first it was supposed to be aimed at the YA market, being a rather good first-person P.O.V. novel about an unwilling teenage girl who ships out with her family to become a Martian colonist, but then it turns very adult. I don't remember Podkayne ever talking about the speed, intensity, or frequency of her lover's orgasms. Maybe that's in the special author's original draft edition.

Currently reading:
Spacepower: What It Means To You, by Donald Cox and Michael Stoiko. Very serious 1958 think-tanky sort of book about the coming Space Age, with lots of charts and graphs and unintentionally hilarious but very expensive color plates depicting hypothetical UN spacecraft. Permanent colonies on Mars by 1995? Oops, missed that one. My biggest problem with this book, as with so many other old hardcovers, is that at some point it was stored in some damp and dark location such as a basement or garage where it was allowed to mildew badly, and it turns out that I am spectacularly allergic to the smell of mildew. So I can only read this book on sunny days when there is a steady breeze, so that I can read it outdoors.

Writing a Book that makes a Difference, by Philip Gerard. A wonderfully inspirational book for writers. My only complaint with this one is that it is so effective, I keep charging off half-cocked and have never actually finished reading it.

The Grand Strategy of The Roman Empire, by Edward N. Luttwak. Absolutely fascinating, but not exactly light reading. It's best taken in small portions, with ample time allowed for digestion before moving on to the next chapter.

Next in the Queue:
The Goblin Reservation, by Clifford D. Simak.

Never Gonna Read It:
The Organ Grinders, by Bill Fitzhugh. Started it; couldn't stay interested in it. The author has quite a rep. Anyone else want to take a whack at it? And while you're at it, to come up with a working thesis as to why this one is marketed as capital-L Literature, not science fiction?

A State of Disobedience, by Tom Kratman, (published August 2005). Free to good home; no time to play.
"Time: The near future. Place: The so-called United States of America. A Body Politic transformed into a bloody stage for partisan revenge and state-controlled terror. One President vying for dictatorial power. One mild-mannered governor determined to stop the madness, yet not sacrifice democracy in the process.

"Like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln before her Juanita Seguin (spoiler: the governor of Texas, not Alaska) is a leader slow to anger. But like them, once pushed to the limit, she is indomitable in her resolve—and relentless in the fight for freedom..."

Okay, who wants this one? Instead of making this a first-seen, first-grabbed proposition, let's make it a bit more interesting. If you think you want this book, post in the Comments your one-paragraph reason for why you should be the person selected to read and possibly review it. The winner will be announced on—oh, Wednesday morning, for a change.


Saturday, June 26, 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 would be content to have an agent to argue with, let alone an editor.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 6/25/10

Kersley Fitzgerald discusses using real people as the basis for your fictional characters. In particular, she delves into the perils and pitfalls of making the fictional character too much like the real person. Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke muses about the lazy days of summer, weather around the country, short growing seasons, and why following the latest writing trend isn't likely to end in a book contract. Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel explains why talent matters far less than dedication. Then, just to be sure he got his point across, he pounds on it a bit more. Now go write something. Or join the discussion...

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit traces the history of the mounted warrior, a military unit of incredible power through out much of human history, and how the military hung onto cavalry just a few decades longer than was practical. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu treats us to an excellent comparison between the original Karate Kid and the new Karate Kid. You know, the version without any actual karate in it? Join the discussion...

Also, Fitz of Distraction explains why you should keep your day job, Avery takes the win in the 6/11/10 Friday Challenge, "The Western Pitch" and the inmates discuss the view from their respective locations in the asylum. All this and more, this week in THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE.

"Meet My Strange Family"
Turning now to the 6/18/10 Friday Challenge, "Meet My Strange Family," as of the deadline we have received nine eleven entries! They are:

Avery, untitled #1

Avery, untitled #2

M, "Java Step"

M, untitled

Miko, "Stride"

Miko, "Exerpt from Scribbler's Forever Now" (same location as Stride, just below it)

Sean, untitled #1

Sean, untitled #2

Sean, untitled #3

Arvid Macenion, "Nambwii's Birthday"

Waterboy, untitled

If we've missed any entries, or if anyone has snowdogged in an entry after the deadline, please let us know so we can fix this list. As always, even if you haven't posted an entry this week—even if you never enter in any week—you are invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites. Don't be shy about leaving feedback on the writer's sites, either. Writers thrive on knowing that somewhere out there, someone is actually reading the words that they have written. The winner will be announced Sunday evening.

And now for this week's challenge, we turn the microphone over to Henry.

Folk Tales of the Electronic Frontier

Let me tell you a little story.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. Everyone knows his famous line about the small step and the giant leap. What fewer people know is his next line, "Good luck, Mr. Gorsky."

Confused, NASA officials tried to figure out who Mr. Gorsky was. He wasn't a Soviet cosmonaut nor a Soviet scientist. He held no position at NASA, not even as a janitor. He wasn't even one of Neil's former commanding officers, college instructors, or school teachers. When questioned, Neil refused to identify Mr. Gorsky, saying it was personal. This, of course, did not stop speculation, and Neil was regularly asked about Mr. Gorsky after speeches and during other public appearances. Every time he was asked, Neil politely refused to answer the question.

Then, in 1996, while Neil was taking questions after a speech in Florida and was again asked about Mr. Gorsky, he said, "I've been asked that question for the last 27 years and have always refused to answer. Well, Mr. and Mrs. Gorsky have both passed away and they had no children, so... The Gorsky's were our next door neighbors when I was growing up. One day, when I was nine, my brother and I were out in the yard throwing a baseball back and forth. My brother threw one over my head and into the Gorsky's yard. As I was picking the ball up, I overheard Mrs. Gorsky saying something to Mr. Gorsky. She said, 'You want oral sex? You'll get oral sex when the kid next door walks on the moon!'"

I loved this story. Truly and thoroughly loved it. I stumbled across it on the internet many years ago and took great pleasure in telling it to friends, family, and co-workers. I was really disappointed when I discovered it wasn't true. It was one of those folks tales for the electronic frontier, otherwise known of as an urban legend.

I'm sure most of you are familiar with some of the more famous urban legends. There's the guy who strapped JATO rocket to his car and ended up smashing into a mountain going a couple of hundred miles per hour. Then there's the one about rattlesnakes in the McDonald's ball pit. And who could forget about the poor guy waking up in a tub full ice with both his kidneys removed?

What do all of these stories have in common? They combine just enough details to imply reality with just enough imagination to grab our attention. The best of them have just enough of the ring of truth that people the world over forward emails recounting the urban legends to all their friends and family. Those of us who are less gullible always have snopes.com bookmarked in our browser.

As you've no doubt guessed by now, your challenge for this week is to write an urban legend. No topic nor person is out-of-bounds. Remember, though, that a true urban legend is rarely, if ever, graphic in its descriptions. You will lose major points if the judges can find your entry at snopes.com now. You'll score major points if your entry ends up on snopes.com sometime in the future. (That won't help you win next week, but it would still be pretty cool.)

As always, we're playing by the loosely enforced and rarely updated Official Rules of THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE, and playing for whatever is behind Door #3. The deadline for this one is midnight Central time, Thursday, July 1.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, Meet My Strange Family, 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 current greater Friday Challenge, July 4, 2050, isn't due until July 1.

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: Change the Names...

Kersley Fitzgerald

So, I got my very first proof the other day. It’s a short story an emag bought a few months ago. You haven’t seen it, yet. Only my writers’ group has. I’m pretty excited for you guys to read it and tear it apart. I’ll send out links to my ma and my sister and brother, and post about it on my pseudonym’s Facebook.

The problem is, I can’t post it to my personal Facebook account.

For his book Sh*t My Dad Says, Justin Halpern had his father read every word of his book before he sent it in. His father obliged, making honest (and colorful) comments, but supporting his son. Anne LaMott asks her son, Sam, before sending out anything she’s written about him. Anne’s also the author who says if you want to use something in your life that’s too sensitive, change the names and call it fiction.

The story that’s coming out took two months to think about and a couple of hours to write. I pulled from several different things that were going on around me. One of these was a reunion of sorts of grade school friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen since shortly after college, others since I was thirteen.

Some of the experiences there fit the story—made the story more circular, more relatable. What I should have done was take the emotion out of that experience and shift the setting beyond recognition. I could have created an entirely different situation and characters. Done that writer thing and create.

Instead, I changed the names and called it fiction. If anyone who was there read the story (and knew I was the author), I’m pretty sure they’d recognize themselves and the others.

Which might have been all right if I hadn’t also included the emotion behind the situation. But I did. I took those people, slightly altered, and that situation, barely altered, and included my judgments and emotional reactions. (The interpretation of their motivation given in the story is, of course, fiction.) And I told them neither about the story nor how I felt about seeing them again.

I don’t think it’s wrong to use personal experiences in your fictional writing. I think it makes it richer and more authentic. But, maybe I need to come up with some ground rules for myself.

  • It’s okay to base characters on real life people if you check with them before putting it out there and take their comments into consideration. Like the authors above.
  • It’s okay to base characters on real life people if the inspiration is superficial enough that no insult can be taken. In my first completed book, nearly all the main characters were based, to varying degrees, on friends. I gave the manuscript to the mom of the character I was most worried about it. She laughed through the whole thing, seeing her daughter’s personality shining through.
  • It’s okay to base characters on real life people if you alter them so much they wouldn’t even recognize themselves. Anne LaMott says this is easier to do if they’re self-absorbed and think they do no wrong.
  • I think it’s even okay to base unflattering characters on real life people if no one else can recognize them. The deal is, you have to be willing to step up if your inspiration finds you out.

Venue must be taken into consideration. Ironically, I get a lot more detailed in a blog, “friended” by several people I’ve never met or met only once, than I do in my personal Facebook account, which I limit to only people I know (or are married to Tom’s cousins, strangely enough). In a blog, read mostly by people who never meet the people I talk about, it becomes more about me and my experience and less about gossip or dragging people down. “E-quaintances” give and take advice and support without being distracted by the politics that invade any group dynamic. It’s like your mom telling you you’re the prettiest girl in school. Number one, she’s biased. Number two, she’s never actually seen Becky McCanna.

All that to say, I think it would have been all right to dissect my reaction to the reunion in a more limited setting. I certainly got personal in one of the stories I wrote for the Friday Challenge. So personal that you’ll never see it published. Ever. ‘Cus if my ma read it…let’s just say she’s never had to use my middle name because she can stuff all the venom in the world into just my first name.

But you're not likely to ever meet my mom.

One of the issues any writer needs to decide is how much do their stories belong to them? David Sedaris goes all out. I don’t think there’s a single dirty sock he’s afraid to air. And this issue isn’t restricted to writers, by any means. One might say that my third cousin, aged 72, died of natural causes. And yet, part of my story is to confess that he had a heart attack in a gay bath house in downtown Portland.

A DJ I listen to gave out a challenge on Monday. Don’t put people down behind their backs. If you have a problem and you want an honest opinion as to whether your point of view is whacked, go to someone you trust to be discreet and be vague. But, no matter how much someone hurt you, don’t talk bash your attacker—especially to another friend who knows them.

As someone who suppresses more than she expresses, I think this advice is good, but incomplete. I think you do need to work through things—I find it very difficult to heal from things in my past that have caused unwanted personality quirks without working through what happened. If I can get an accurate perspective on things, I’m more likely to be gracious instead of being a snot about it.

By using the experience so literally, I was bashing them to some extent. The feelings were too raw at the time I wrote it. And, not having seen them for so long, I certainly didn’t know enough to be able to interpret their actions with any kind of accuracy. I learned later that one of my old friends is bi-polar.

As she-who-is-non-confrontational, I don’t think I’ll do this again. Personal experiences can lead to passion and truth in writing but I’m supposed to be a creative writer. I should have been creative.

Kersley Fitzgerald sometimes laments that this is true, as her family provides a rich, storied source of dysfunction that just pleads to be converted into fiction.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ulitmate Geek Fu

by Kersley Fitzgerald

Sunday night I saw a brand new movie—the likes of which I’ve never seen before. It was a singularly unique experience. Completely original.

Maybe you’ve heard of it? The Karate Kid.

Strangely enough, it copies the title of a movie I remember from when I was a kid. A lot of the plot elements are similar as well—even some of the dialogue. And yet it was completely different.

For those of you younger than I care to admit, the original followed the escapades of Daniel Larusso, played by “Johnny” from The Outsiders, as he moves from Joiysie to L.A. for his mother’s job. He’s a charmer and almost immediately falls for a soccer player played by Chris from Adventures in Babysitting. In doing so, he comes against said heroine’s ex-boyfriend who is the head thug in a karate dojo called the Cobra Kais.

After “falling off his bike” (and landing on a Cobra Kai fist) for about the third time, Daniel is rescued by his new apartment complex’s handyman, Mr. Miyagi, played by Arnold from Happy Days. Mr. Miyagi agrees to go with Daniel to the dojo and ask the Cobra Kai’s sensei if he’ll tell his boys to lay off. In the course of the conversation, Mr. Miyagi agrees to train Daniel for an up-coming karate tournament. Daniel learns how to wax cars, stain fences, sand boardwalks, and paint houses, then learns how to block punches and kicks. In the meantime, he flirts with Elisabeth Shue and wanders around being charming and talking a lot.

This other, completely different, movie is about Dre Parker, played by Will Smith’s son, who moves from Detroit to Beijing because of his mom’s job. He meets a pretty violin player at his new school and gets picked on by the girl’s family friend, a kung fu expert, and his friends, more kung fu experts.

After “running into a pole” (and landing on a kung fu expert’s fist) for the third time, he’s rescued by his new apartment’s handyman, Mr. Han, played by Lee from Rush Hour. Mr. Han agrees to go with Dre to the kung fu school and talk to the boys’ teacher. In the course of the conversation, Mr. Han winds up agreeing to train Dre for a kung fu tournament. Dre learns how to hang up his coat, then learns how to block punches and kicks. In the meantime, he flirts with the cute violin player.

See? Totally different.

When the original Karate Kid aired in 1984, I was 14, two years younger than Daniel (and ten younger than Ralph Macchio). His mom was played by Randee Heller who, at 37, was the same age as my mom. Pat Morita was ancient at 52.

I am the same age as Tariji Henson, who plays Dre’s mom. Dre the character is 12, while Jaden Smith is close to the same age. Jackie Chan, dashing in a shorter haircut than I’m used to seeing him wear, is a fairly relatable 56.

So, as I sat in the darkened theater with my eight year old on my lap (it was cold), I have to say, yes, it was a completely different movie.

Instead of wondering if the boy would get the girl, I found myself wondering how Jada and Will encouraged Jaden to keep training. Instead of feeling for Daniel that the promised swimming pool at his new apartment complex is dry, I sigh with Dre’s mom in exasperation when Dre, once again, leaves his coat on the floor. And, instead of hoping the hero beats up the bad guy, I squeeze the Creature tighter as Mr. Han says he wants to call off the fight because he doesn’t want Dre to get hurt anymore.

Beyond the whole generational shift, though, this plot was richer for the adults in the audience. Mr. Miyagi didn’t really have a character arc. Daniel learned some poignant things about him, but he didn’t really change. He began as the all-knowing, slightly exasperated master of life and, save for a one-night bender, remained so throughout. Every interaction with Daniel was motivated by a desire to help him grow up. As Daniel’s charm worked its magic and his maturity grew, the two became friends, but it seemed to be more because Daniel wouldn’t go away, and not so much because Mr. Miyagi actually needed him.

Mr. Han had a beautiful, if clichéd, arc that paralleled Dre’s nicely. Mr. Han starts out reluctantly giving Dre the skills he needs to conquer his fear, but two-thirds of the way through the movie, Dre returns the favor. To me, it beautifully legitimized the life and strength of the twelve-year old kid. Not in a “Yes, honey, I know it hurts, let me kiss it and make it feel better” kind of way. But in a “I’ve been there, let me show you how to get back up” kind of way.

There were other, subtle differences in the characters that enriched the story. The sensei in the Cobra Kai dojo was a cartoon. A caricature missing only a black cloak and the Emperor’s shriveled hands. I understood the tension between Mr. Han and the kung fu instructor better in the second movie—and it only took a couple of looks. I could see why the bad teacher wanted Dre taken out, where in the original he honestly just came across as a jerk.

Acting was a different story. Nobody can combine teenage angst, moans of pain, and charm like Ralph Macchio. Jaden is a great rapper and an impressive dancer, but he was only about eleven when the movie was filmed. He will be a good actor, but he needs more experience before he’ll be able to do the quiet moments without making it look like the director’s at his elbow, telling him how to move.

I love Jackie Chan. I’m only half-joking when I say we named our kid after him. I’m trying to figure out if his performance was a bit stiff, or if he was just trying to portray a complex character while acting with an eleven year old. I think maybe he just seemed stiff in the first half of the movie because you don’t get to his “motivation” until the second half. I hope he does more dramatic roles. Pat Morita was, of course, excellent, but his character (grouchy old Japanese guy) was simpler.

The fighting was just as good. You probably know, Pat Morita had no martial arts experience before KK1—he was from California. Jackie Chan, on the other hand…but all he had to fight was a gang of junior high-aged boys. I found myself itching for a showdown between Jackie and the kung fu master. Not the point of the movie. But it would have been cool.

It was a good flick. We’ll probably own it. The Creature spent the next half hour trying out his kung fu moves. His mother explained that like gymnastics or Webelos, a martial art is something you do every single week, all year, and if he wanted to make that commitment, he’d need to give up Webelos. Also, you do get hit, and it does hurt.

I’m writing this on the deck of the golf club at the Academy, looking out over the Rockies, waiting for the Creature’s first golf lesson to end. As much as he’d like to be able to flip and kick and beat up kids bigger than him, I’m willing to bet he sticks with golf.

His mom, on the other hand is wondering where that old Tae Kwon Do uniform is…

Kersley Fitzgerald lives, writes, and watches movies in Colorado and is mostly over her youthful obsession with Ralph Macchio.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

by Bruce Bethke

For the better part of a millennium the merchantilist class, or ordo equester, furnished the backbone of the Roman economy and military. The upper class, or patricians, were too noble to dirty their hands with mere commerce and any rank less than senior command. The lower class, or plebians, were scarcely better than slaves themselves and useful only for infantry. Thus it fell to the members of the ordo equester, or equites, to conduct the day-to-day business of the Roman kingdom, Republic, and Empire in succession, growing things, making things, and moving and selling things, and providing the men and horses that gave strength to the army.

Except that a strange thing happened as the equites grew more affluent. In time, they grew less willing to send their own sons and horses to fight, and more willing to stay at home and pay their taxes so that plebians might be hired in their place and given government-owned horses. In time, the Empire grew so large and far-flung and the needs for manpower grew so vast that it became far more cost-effective to arm and train the plebians—and increasingly, foreigners—to fight on foot, and to reduce the cavalry to a fast and elite striking force. In time, the equestrians began to see themselves as the true nobility, and to build larger and better-walled estates even further out in the provinces, for which they hired their own guards and retainers who were provided with privately owned horses and increasingly, privately owned weapons.

In time, the Empire fell apart, and Latin disintegrated into local dialects, and the horses became cavallos in Italy, caballos in Spain, and chevals in France, and the men who rode and fought on them became caballeros, or chevaliers, or cavalry depending on where they lived, and what would in time be called the Age of Chivalry was born, although for most of the people who lived under feudalism life was nasty, filthy, brutal and short.

Why all this emphasis on horses?

Because an armed and trained man on a well-trained horse is a formidable weapons system, and a deadly menace to men on foot. A group of men on horseback, trained to act as a unit, can overwhelm a force of infantry many times their size, especially in an age when "foot soldiers" and "disorganized rabble of peasants" were interchangeable terms. Never mind the man on its back; the sight of a thousand-pound animal charging down on you is terrifying, especially if all you have to protect yourself is a pointed stick.

For some centuries a leisurely sort of arms race was carried on between cavalry and infantry, although it must have seemed terribly quick to the men directly involved. The pointed sticks became halberds and poleaxes; the cavalry upgraded their armor and went to longer lances and heavier swords. The infantry began to carry crossbows; the cavalry upgraded their armor again and began to armor the heads and breasts of their horses. The increased armor was heavier, so the breeders began producing larger horses, Percherons and the like, to carry the extra weight—but a larger horse also eats more, and so the cost of putting an armored fighting man on horseback in the field continued to escalate, even as the weapons, tactics, and training of the men on foot improved.

In the end, as always, it was a technological revolution that settled the question. The technology in question was the English longbow, which was the rapid-firing assault weapon of its day, and the Age of Chivalry ended decisively in the 14th Century with thousands of over-armored French knights, unhorsed and helpless as turtles on their backs, dead in the mud of Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. Yet even as they died, the next technological revolution was already waiting in the wings, as Crécy was the first known battle fought to the sound of primitive English cannons booming in the background, sometimes effectively.

Still, it would take another five centuries, and the hideous spectacle of the British Light Brigade charging dug-in Russian guns in the Crimean War and the French and Polish cavalry charging dug-in German machine guns in the First and Second World Wars, before the western world's military forces finally, collectively, gave up on the 2,000-year-old idea of the noble equestrians, and war horses became polo ponies and pets for rich children.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Many, many years ago, I read an interview with Mickey Mantle, the late star center fielder for the New York Yankees. Mantle was the son of a man whose dreams of baseball glory ended in the minor leagues. Mantle's father saw in his son the chance to achieve the dream of playing major league baseball. From the moment Mantle was old enough to hold a bat, his father or grandfather would spend hours on end throwing baseballs to him, teaching him to bat both right and left handed. They also spent many hours teaching Mantle how to field cleanly, throw strongly, and throw accurately. Looking back, Mantle admitted that most kids would have rebelled at spending so much time practicing baseball, but he loved every minute of it. Mantle eventually exceeded his father's dreams, not only reaching the major leagues but becoming a star on the most storied team in major league history and earning a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

Many famous athletes have similar stories. Tiger Woods' father had him playing golf at the age of three. Former tennis pro Jimmy Connors' mother had him swinging a tennis racket at the same age. The professional success of both men shows that neither one minded all of the practice necessary to make it really big.

For all three of these men, the dreams of sports glory started with their parents but became their dream, as well.

In contrast, a psychology instructor I had told of one of his childhood friends. Before the boy was 10, he was one of the top ranked tennis players in the state of Florida. The kid was a very talented tennis player, enjoyed going to tournaments, and liked having a high ranking. At the time, he didn't mind all the practice required to maintain that ranking. But by the time the boy was 14, he wasn't so thrilled with it. He wanted to do things with his friends, go on dates with girls, and generally do the same kind of thing your average 14 year old boy likes to do. That did not include spending hours every day practicing tennis. The boy told his father he wanted to drop all the practice and just play for fun.

The problem was, the boy's father really enjoyed having a son who was a top tennis player. The boy's father offered his son a boat if he kept playing and maintained his ranking. The boy played for a couple of more years but, at age 16, balked again. His father offered him a brand new car if he kept at it. Again the boy player for a while longer. Eventually, the boy headed off for college and no parental bribe could get him back onto the tennis court. Not only did the boy stop practicing and playing in tournaments, he stopped playing tennis entirely. The dream of tennis glory had been his father's, not his.

Why am I writing about these people? Well, let me toss out another story, then I'll get around to the point.

Very recently, I read about a study performed on college level music students. The students were divided into three groups. In the first group were those who were expected to achieve star status; famous soloists, first chair positions in orchestras, or conductors of major orchestras. The second group were those expected to be excellent musicians, holding down regular positions in big name orchestras or even lead positions in smaller orchestras. The third group was composed of those expected to be music teachers, marching band leaders, and other necessary support positions in the music business.

The musical habits and history of all of the students were gathered through detailed questionnaires with the goal of identifying what made some students future stars and other students future music teachers. All of the students were extremely talented, so there had to be other answers. Those answers proved surprisingly simple to find, once all of the data had been compiled.

The students in the first and second groups -- the future stars and excellent musicians -- practiced nearly twice as much as the third group. Further more, they designed their schedules around their practice time, making sure to practice when they were well rested and alert. In contrast, the students in third group made practicing the last thing they did during the day, when they were tired and much less alert. No one in any of the groups enjoyed practicing, but the top two groups considered it far more important to their success.

To find the difference between the first group and the second group, the researchers had to look at the students' musical history. The students in the first group had, invariably, chosen to take their music seriously at a much earlier age than the students in the second group. The students in the first group were putting aside serious time for practice at the age of 11 or 12. The students in the second group didn't get serious about practicing until they were in high school. By the time the students in both groups reached college, the students in the first group had put in twice as much practice time as the students in the second group.

Put simply, the most talented musician in the world will fail if they don't have dedication equal to their talent.

Now, what's my point with all of these stories? It's the not-so-surprising finding that those who show the most dedication in practicing their chosen craft, sport, or art tend to be those who find the most success. This applies to writing as well as to any other craft.

Professional writers all have stories of fans asking them, "What do I need to do to become a professional writer?" The writers always answer, "You write."

A look at the face of the fan asking the question shows that they don't care for the answer. They are, I suppose, looking for the secret handshake that tells publishers they're talking to a Professional Writer. Except, of course, there is no secret handshake. And, honestly, the answer "You write" isn't sufficient, either.

The answer should be, "You write. Then you write some more. And when you're finished writing, you write more. Then, when you're sick and tired of writing, you sit down and do some more writing."

While writers are fortunate in that there are no muscles to train as there are in sports and music, there is a brain to train. And the brain needs to practice writing just as much as muscles need to practice playing chords or swinging at a curve ball down and away from the batter.

To an extent, that's where the Friday Challenge comes in. Our aim is to get you writing and to get you thinking about ideas you might not have considered on your own. The writing you do for the Friday Challenge gives you some of the practice you need and feedback we hope will both help you learn and keep you focused when you start getting sick and tired of all of that writing. As with any teacher, we can help you toward your goal but ultimate success lies with you. Talent is great. Dedication is better.

So, why are still sitting here reading this column? Go write something!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

And the winner is...

Sorry for posting this so much later than usual, but as might be expected, this turned out to be a chaotic, family-intensive, and yet surprisingly pleasant day. Turning now to the entries in the 6/11/10 Friday Challenge, "The Western Pitch," the judges, after considered debate, have produced the following assessments.

Avery, "The Gunsmith"

Kersley: I don't know if this would be commercially successful. I see it being more dramatic and thoughtful than a bang-em-up exploderama. (Which actually sounds like a form of skin cancer.) But it's my favorite. It's unique, it has the potential to go in any direction, and the hero's a maintainer, of sorts. My people will call your people. We'll do lunch.

Henry: I think you've got a great idea for a History Channel series on the old west, gunfighters, and their equipment. I'm not sure how it would work as a film, though you could use "He's the fastest gunsmith in the west" as a tag line. Very nice!

Bruce: I hate to be the party pooper here, but there's a big problem with this idea. Now, I first want to say that I really like the concept. It makes me think of Doc Brown in Back to the Future III or John Astin's recurring character in "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr." and really appeals to the history buff and the proto-steampunk geek in me. After all, I am the sort of guy who actually took the time and trouble to find out that nickel-plated Merwyn Hulbert .44's were the preferred concealed-carry revolvers of Secret Service and Pinkerton agents in the post-Civil War period.

The problem here is, "The Gunsmith" is the title of a long-running and commercially successful Western novel series by J. R. Roberts, which has run on for 350 novels so far. ("Roberts" seems to write one a month and may be a corporate pseudonym.) So that certainly would seem to constitute legally significant prior art, and unless you either licensed the property or were very, very lucky, this is the sort of accident that could buy a lot of Hollywood lawyers' wives some very nice jewelry. This is not an insurmountable problem. There's plenty of precedent for optioning the rights to something just to keep the title and throw out everything else, (case in point, The Blade Runner, by Alan Nourse). But it's a major problem nonetheless.

Tom, "untitled zombie apocalypse pitch"

Kersley: I know that in capable hands this could be made into a winner; I'm just not feelin' the love. Sounds a bit like Red Dawn (Wolverines!) but with people who don't know what to do with guns.

Henry: As I understand it, many movie executives have to have ideas proposed to them couched in terms of existing, recent movies. (Only a fool would expect today's movie execs to know anything about movies made prior to the 1970s.) Given that, your pitch is just right. You invoke a bunch of Spielberg's movies to invoke ideas from those movies. I think your pitch loses focus when you get busy invoking movies, but I'm not a movie executive, either. Neat pitch.

Bruce: ARGH! I can't believe that both Kersley and Henry missed that this is all just a setup for that terrible pun: "...should I have my people call your people or will your people phone Holmes?"

WaterBoy, "Cody Wyatt, Star Marshall"

Kersley: Sounds like Judge Dredd meets Firefly. I think this one would be the most commercially viable--and the most expensive to produce.

Henry: I would totally go see Cody Wyatt, Star Marshall in the theaters! This is a great Bat Durtson pitch, right down to the spaceship that looks like a horse. (Check with Fox, they probably have a few unused models of Serenity from Firefly laying around. Use it as a jumping off point.) I don't know that you'd succeed in selling it, but I'd have thought Cowboys and Aliens would have been a tough sell and that movie has some big names associated with it. Fun stuff.

Bruce: I would love to see this one, but Judge Dredd is probably a bad association to make. (Although to my surprise, it turns out there is a new Judge Dredd movie in the works.) Firefly also was considered a flop, and Serenity only made it up to "cult favorite" status, as it flopped in the theaters (to great reviews) and didn't earn out until it came out on DVD. "Lone Ranger meets Outland meets CSI" would probably be better received. But I don't know if I can forgive you for throwing in the line, "Here comes da Judge." Suddenly I'm having terrible Flip Wilson flashbacks.

Arvid Macenion, "The Elevator Pitch"

Kersley: Cute story. I know what this reminds me of! The Highlander meets the latest TMNT!

Henry: It's a wonderful bit of flash fiction featuring a cowboy superhero, plots to take over the world, and ancient Navajo magic. It's like you've rolled five or six genres into one story; a story I think could work assuming "immortal" doesn't end up meaning "can't be hurt." Let me know when the movie is in production because I'd go see it.

Bruce: Hmm. It doesn't exactly meet the terms of the challenge. It's a story about an elevator pitch, rather than the elevator pitch itself, not that straying off the original challenge has ever stopped us before. It is a wonderful little story, though.

M, "Amish Vampire Cowboys"

Kersley: This would actually work--along the lines of Bubba Ho-Tep (which I have yet to see). Not a Spielberg movie, of course, but right up Bruce Campbell's alley.

Henry: Okay, so you didn't really want this one included in the challenge, but it's a weird, fun idea. Of course, Hopalong Cassidy and Lash La Rue beat you to the "good guy wears a black hat" bit. This idea is full of potential internal conflict. How do the vampires feed if they are true to Amish beliefs of non-violence? How do the cowboys arm themselves and deliver black-hatted justice while staying non-violent? This could be the definitive, break-out Amish action movie the world has been waiting for!

Bruce: No offense, but I'm kind of overloaded on vampires right now. Ever watch Sundown, one of the fine films of the late Keith David Carradine?

Kersley, "Louis' Revenge"

Bruce: Bwa-ha-ha! Thought I'd missed this one, didn't you? Personally, I think of all of these, this is the one that most desperately needs to be made. But first we'd have to raise the ghost of Rod Serling, because this is more like a Twilight Zone or Night Gallery than a movie.

And the ruling is...

Kersley: Avery's would win the awards at the film festivals. WaterBoy's would make (and cost) the most money. M's would have a cult following for decades. I would claim that Avery's is my favorite, but I would watch M's over and over.

My vote is still for Avery's.

Henry: I think Avery has the best idea and Arvid wrote the best overall entry, but I'd go see any of these movies provided none of them featured a giant mechanical spider. As for my selection for this week, I'm going to punt and call it a toss up between Avery and Arvid.

Bruce: I'm torn. I liked Arvid's story. It really was quite enjoyable. Looking at the reader comments, I see that the only one who picked a winner was Arisia, and she picked Arvid. I also really liked WaterBoy's entry, up until the last few lines. I think Arvid's entry actually could be pitched to Spielberg: after all, he did make Indiana Jones and The Stupid Crystal Skull Thingie, or whatever it was called.

But in the final cut, I've got to go with Avery. The name would have to change. The studio would have to hire extra lawyers to make sure Mr. Roberts' copyright toes were not trod upon. But I think this is the sort of idea that you actually could get someone like a Tom Selleck on-board, and I think this could be the foundation for a nice series of modest-budget cable or direct-to-video movies.

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

Another Sunday morning; another column. Already it's hot. The brassy sun beats down with barely a breath of wind for relief, and the dog has gone from seeking out spots of sun to lay in to seeking out spots of shade. Somewhere nearby a mourning dove is cooing. Down in the garden, the ripe strawberries are demanding to be picked. The plum trees are loaded with small, hard, green promises of plums to come, and we've got green tomatoes on some plants already, with blossoms on the rest. Summer comes fast and hard to the North Country. It's as if even the trees know: three months, and that's it. Four months, tops, and then after that, expect snow.

I lived in Southern California for a while, decades ago. Loved it; hated it. It's not so much a matter of missing the change of seasons as of missing a sense of time. Southern California feels like forever; like there's no sense of urgency because there will always be tomorrow. Hey, it's a nice day today. (But isn't it always a nice day?) Let's blow off work and go to the beach. It'll keep 'til mañana. Besides, you're going to be 22 years old forever.

Up here in the North Country, there's always a sub rosa awareness that the world makes no promises. Make hay while the sun shines. Use today, because tomorrow, it might be raining. Or snowing. Except in July, when it hails.

A line of tornadoes blew through the state last Thursday, bringing reports of baseball-sized hail in some places. People died. A small town northwest of here was simply wiped off the map. Tornadoes are freakish things; they can reduce one house to matchsticks and not scratch the paint on the house across the street. In Southern California you get earthquakes, which are, in a weird way, communal events. Everyone gets hit by the earthquake, and shares in the aftershocks. Besides, you can go years or even decades between big ones.

One summer, decades ago, when we lived further out in cow country, we had tornadoes once a week—every Wednesday evening, I think—for something like six weeks straight. One of the strangest things I've ever seen was a barn that had been hit by the previous night's a tornado. It was as if the building had simply exploded: the wreckage was scattered in small pieces over about a half-mile radius, including large sections of the heavy steel roof, which were crumpled and twisted as if made of aluminum foil. And yet the hay bales that had been stacked inside the barn were untouched, and as neatly stacked as they had been the day before. There simply was no longer a barn for them to be inside.

Maybe it's just life up here in the North Country. Maybe it's the age and mileage, or perhaps it's simply the events of the past year finally catching up with me. In any case I'm acutely aware of time this morning, mostly in the sense of realizing that there will never be enough of it. Not to write everything I want to write about; not to develop every idea for a story I've got squirreled away; not to read everything I want to read. I've barely enough time to do the things I must do these days, much less to get started on whittling down the list of things I want to do.

I had a great ambitious list of things I wanted to columnate about this morning: continuing last week's discussion of the roots of science fiction; presenting my thesis that there is a 20-year utopian/dystopian cycle that's been repeating in popular culture for the past two and a half centuries, of which science fiction is merely one form of outgrowth; talking about some books I've read recently; and presenting The Kid's thesis that the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Cyborg is actually a metal band music video, only without the music. (We got in 86 minutes of quality father/son time last night watching it, and laughed throughout the entire thing.)

If nothing else, I really wanted to write this morning about The Limits to Growth, a profoundly depressing eco-catastrophe book produced in 1972 by the Club of Rome think-tank. For it just so happens that I also have here a painfully serious and long out-of-print hardcover non-fiction book, produced in 1974 by a symposium of leading science fiction writers whose names you would instantly recognize, in which the authors collectively argue that if you aren't taking The Limits to Growth into account, you simply can't be writing serious hard science fiction.

After which it appears from history that the authors collectively did go off and write a whole lot of now-forgotten painfully self-important eco-catastrophe and overpopulation novels, while the readers ignored them and got busy rediscovering high fantasy and Conan the Barbarian. While the heavy-hitters were off plumbing the depths of dystopia, the market embraced Star Wars.

Today's short lesson, then: always bet against the trend. If everyone else is writing utopias, write a dystopia. If everyone else is bumming out, write something uplifting. There is no profit in being a me-too, and always a long-shot chance at producing the must-read book that will be seen as being on the cutting edge of the counter-trend. Here endeth the lesson.

And now, I've got to go pick strawberries.

Saturday, June 19, 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 speak Hawaiian Pidgin to save her life.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 6/18/10

Henry Vogel gets excruciatingly serious and brings a long-running real-life drama to a very unhappy close. How on Earth do you help someone who just plain doesn't want to be helped? Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald returns after three weeks' hiatus with much happier news: The Creature has discovered books! What sort of books make good summer reading for a nine-year-old? Join the discussion...

Guy Stewart checks in with a column in response to a challenge: how do you begin with a serious science-related nonfiction book and end up with one hundred possible ideas for a short story? Check out his first twenty-five, and see whether any of them might work for you. Join the discussion...

Arisia reports from The Gathering, which is both an annual celebration of the works of Ted Dekker and a sort of a writing workshop. Do you seek something more? Do you wonder how to work serious and honest spirituality into your fiction? Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke tries to answer what at first seems like a simple question: is THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE a science fiction writer's site? And just where exactly is that firm and clearly visible line that divides the world of science fiction from the rest of the universe of literature, anyway? Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu makes a startling discovery: there is a critically important character in the original Star Wars movie that is completely missing from the more recent prequels, and that absence leaves a huge vacuum. Care to guess the identity? Join the discussion...

Also, Fitz of Distraction explores the subject of the best day-job for an aspiring writer, Miko takes the win in the 6/4/10 Friday Challenge, "A Truly Fantastic Book Review," and the inmates discuss the view from their respective locations in the asylum. All this and more, this week in THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE.

"The Western Pitch"
Turning now to the 6/11/10 Friday Challenge, "The Western Pitch," as of the deadline we have received the following entries:

Avery, "The Gunsmith"

Tom, untitled

WaterBoy, "Cody Wyatt, Star Marshall"

Arvid Macenion, "The Elevator Pitch"

M, "Amish Vampire Cowboys"

If we've missed any entries, or if anyone has snowdogged in an entry after the deadline, please let us know so we can fix this list. As always, even if you haven't posted an entry this week—even if you never enter in any week—you are invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites. Don't be shy about leaving feedback on the writer's sites, either. Writers thrive on knowing that somewhere out there, someone is actually reading the words that they have written. The winner will be announced Sunday evening.

And now for this week's challenge, we turn the microphone over to Kersley Fitzgerald.

Meet My Strange Family

Interstellar chick
Giant robot pants on stilts
Nice day for a walk

My brother is an artist. My sister and I text each other in haiku. That caption, if you didn't recognize it, is an acceptable haiku.

This week's challenge is to write a short-short story about the above illustration, which was drawn by my brother, John Tank. Bonus points if your entry is in the form of a particularly clever haiku or limerick, although I'll be impressed by any kind of poem.

As always, we're playing by the loosely enforced and rarely updated 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 24.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, The Western Pitch, 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 current greater Friday Challenge, July 4, 2050, isn't due until July 1.

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: The Literary Evolution of a Boy

Something strange happened on the way to nine. The Creature gained an interest in books.

Not “interest” as in I tell him it’s time to go read and he goes off on his merrily, traipsing way with a smile in his heart. “Interest” as in he regularly pulls down Maj Tom’s large Calvin and Hobbes books and sits on the floor for an hour. “Interest” as in I say, “Come on, let’s go read a chapter of Harry Potter,” and he scrambles to the couch. “Interest” as in, after pouting and stomping, he sits down with The Dragon of Doom and reads for an hour—and is able to tell me what the story is about!

We went to the library Tuesday. The Creature will be nine in September. Tuesday, for the first time ever, he pulled down all chapter books; no picture books. In fact, it was last week that, for the first time ever, he took one chapter book. (“He took it” meaning I found it, showed it to him, and he allowed as to how it was all right.)

When lamenting to friends that the Creature had reading comprehension issues, their advice was near-universal—read him the Classics. Classics, here, typically means Lewis and Tolkien and Ingalls-Wilder. Well, we tried The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and he was bored to tears. We’ve also read Magic Treehouse—and I was bored to tears. I don’t know if we just hit the right age or what, but I started reading The Sorcerer’s Stone at the beginning of the summer and he is eating it up. Very few pictures; long chapters; doesn’t matter. Maybe his internal movie screen has finally developed the film.

I present, for your perusal, the literary evolution of a boy. Most of these books, I read to him first and then he started choosing them for his quiet reading time.

The first thing he would read to himself was probably Time for Tom and God Made You Special (which I had memorized at one point).

Next, we move on to Captain Underpants. What can you say about Captain Underpants? I think it’s funny. (Except the couple of books on snot. My allergies are too bad to appreciate two entire books dedicated to phlegm.)

Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot has the same author. I find it ironic that he went from George and Harold to Ricky. George and Harold are sarcastic and somewhat crude. Ricky’s very sweet, and the writing is simpler.

How to Train Your Dragon hits about here. I have yet to read How to be a Pirate, although he has. I consider that to be a bittersweet success.

Throughout the years, the Creature has picked up the odd Calvin and Hobbes book and looked through the pictures. But here we enter into hard-core C&H. I also introduced him to Liō (no; not the Libertarian International Organization) in the paper’s comic section. Over the last few months, this has led to an interest in all the comics, especially Sunday’s, of course, because they’re in color. Although, I don’t think he’s really gotten into the kids’ X-Men comic book I got for him. I think it’s still a little too over his head.

I got him Dragon of Doom last week because it had big type, a few pictures, and…well…dragons. He ate it up. I can’t even believe it! Tuesday I found two more in the series. He chose a book on Frankenstein and something else.

And then there’s Harry Potter. He checked out his first HP from school two years ago (despite the fact we have them all). Since it came out, he’s claimed that The Half-Blood Prince is his favorite book—although he’s never read it. We have friends who wouldn’t let their kids see The Lord of the Rings movies until they’d read the books. An admirable goal, but I didn’t think the kid would have the dedication to the books he’d need to get through them unless he watched the movies first. So I made this rule about HP, instead. While it is true he wants to read the book, now, so he can see the first movie, that hasn’t been his priority. Tuesday night we read the chapter on the Mirror of Erised where Harry sees his parents and Dumbledore admits his longing for socks. The Creature’s response? “That was a sweet and funny chapter.” I think this is the first multi-installment book I’ve read to him that he has not asked to quit.

These are his go-to books and series. He has had others from time to time that have caught his eye, but these are the stories he’ll pull down and read for himself. Granted, they are influenced by my preferences. I’m sure he sees my enthusiasm and is somewhat drawn to the things that make me happy in some primitive-sociological-survival way. But, sadly, the list does not include many of my favorites. Richard Scarry? He could take it or leave it. Shel Silverstein? He doesn’t really get it. Even Dr. Seuss is chosen only for special occasions. And, no, he has shown no interest in Kipling, although he will watch the Chuck Jones videos. (The Redwall books are on the shelf, waiting for a time when the thicknesses and font sizes aren’t quite so intimidating.)

This makes me think about my own attempt at writing for his age group. I need to pull that down and ask him what he thinks. He can track more than I thought he could, and he catches nuances I didn’t expect. I’m not surprised he’s attracted to humor, but I didn’t expect him to be so enthralled with tension in the story.

I’m just so glad he’s getting there, though. One friend told me her son didn’t click on reading comprehension until seventh grade. She spent eight years reading Narnia to him before he caught on. One biggie I’ve found is I’m not going to read a book to him that I find boring as well.

And I’m not going to make my almost-nine year old boy sit through Little House on the Prairie.

Kersley Fitzgerald actually wrote this article a week ago and has probably completed the first Harry Potter book with the Creature. She also apologizes to Google Reader users as she hit the wrong button on the 17th, so you got this article early.
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