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Saturday, July 31, 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 whose son's letter started with several lines of how mean his mother was and she never let him do anything and he hated her. She didn't care. At least he was writing!

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 7/30/10

Bruce Bethke provides us all with the coolest wallpaper ever created for writers. Get it here...

Kersley Fitzgerald gets allegorical and brings us all along for the ride (apparently, we are in Kansas, Toto). Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel unloads on pet peeves and devils in details an generally produces his shortest column ever for the Friday Challenge. He promises to do better this coming week. When he's on vacation. Join the discussion...

The Friday Challange
convention plans undergo a radical shift as we make plans to attend Dragon*Con in Atlanta. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu asks what kind of crazy things you do to get time to read new novels you've been anxiously waiting for. Join the discussion...

Triton is the winner of the "Dilbert Days of Summer" challenge and Tom wins the "Fly Me to the Moon" challenge. Kersley Fitzgerald discovers the hidden connection between weather and a novel's setting, and the inmates discuss the view from their respective locations in the asylum. All this and more, this week in THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE.

Now for latest Friday Challenge:

"The Same Thing We Do Every Night, Pinkie"
We have eleven entries for the 7/23/10 lesser Friday Challenge! Here they are, in approximately the order in which they were submitted:

Arisia, "Yellow"

Triton, "Old Grudge, Modern Vengeance"

Tom, "Monologue"

Arvid Macenion, "Mwahahahahaha!!"

Miko, "987-6687"

Carmine Vrill, "Alexander" (drop.io, password "challenge")

Waterboy, "The Death of MegaUltraSuperHeroMan"

General Nils, "Disaster On Teh_Interwebz"

ApolloKioku, "For the History Books..."

Davey Dickson, "The Blind Eagle and Master Evilstein" (drop.io, password "challenge")

Al, "Cadet E and the Baron"

We've got four newcomers today! Carmine Vrill, General Nils, ApolloKioku, and Davey Dickson. Welcome one and all!

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 our next Friday Challenge, we turn the microphone over to Kersley:

"What is in a name?"

A good title can make or break a story or book. Twilight would never have become so popular had it been called 544 Pages of Over-Wrought Teenage Angst and Sparkly Vampires. Sometimes, a title can even inspire a story. And that's your challenge this week. Take this title and make up the story:

"The Rabbi, the Nun, the Talking Dog, and Everything"

All we ask is that the title make sense within the context of your story.

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, August 5.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Critical Thinking: Allegory

So, we’re driving across Kansas yesterday (Oh, come on. It’s not that bad! You’ve obviously never driven through Wyoming.) and we’re listening to a radio dramatization that the Creature got me for Mother’s Day. We’ll, they’re listening. I’m trying to read the National Geographic. Every once in a while, Maj Tom looks over at me and says, “What does that mean?” I stare at him blankly in a less-than-polite attempt to remind him I’m not listening, I’m trying to read, and the radio’s on too loud. He turns back to the road, and I continue learning about whale fossils in the Egyptian desert.

He says it one last time, and I finally realize what he’s really saying. We’re listening to the Narnia book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Of course many people, creatures, and events in the Narnia books are metaphors, and he’s asking what the metaphor is in a particular scene. Since I’m not listening, I can’t really tell him, and we go on to the ends of our respective stories.

Some say that life cannot be understood by dry facts, but only through story. If that’s the case, metaphor goes a long way in developing and revealing that story. The dawn of an empire; the rising tide of a movement; the death of a civilization are metaphors that compare one thing (an empire or a movement) to something seemingly different (a dawn and a tide) but which hold hidden similarities.

Calling Jesus “the Lion of Judah” is a metaphor. If that image were to be extended, say by creating a lion who has many Christ-like features over the course of seven books and naming him Aslan, that’s an allegory. Allegories have a way of revealing truth without being quite so obnoxious about it. They can inspire, scold, and provide insight that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. And they are very, very popular in religious writing.

When I first heard about the book Thirsty, I was intrigued. Nina Parker is a recently divorced woman who has just been released from rehab for her out-of-control drinking. She returns home to live with her sister and meets her sister’s new neighbor—a vampire.

I grew up around the specter of alcoholism, and I was interested to see how Tracey Bateman would compare the two. Eh. As my friend says, it was a good try. And it was a great idea. To take a market buster like vampires and try to tie them into a serious societal ill was genius, I think. I think the problem was actually too much real world and not enough allegory. Maybe you could do better?

Away We Go is the story of Verona and Burt and their coming baby. They’ve moved closer to Burt’s parents to have the support of family as they raise their new child. Months before the due date, his parents decide to move to Belgium. Verona’s parents died many years before in a car crash, and both her and Burt’s jobs can be done anywhere. So they decide to travel the country to visit friends and see where the best place is to raise their growing family.

They visit Verona’s former boss in Arizona who yells at her kids and acts like life is one big party. Burt’s old family friend lives in Wisconsin where her husband spends all day in a huge family bed with the kids and they don’t use strollers because “why would you want to push your baby away from you?” Friends in Canada have a warm, loving, rainbow of a family and still find time to have a warm, loving relationship. In their inability to conceive, they’ve adopted several children, but she still longs to have a child naturally and lives in regret. Down in Florida, Burt’s brother barely hangs on as he raises his daughter after his wife’s sudden departure.

I think it was about here that I realized this movie isn’t about Verona and Burt deciding if they want to live in Phoenix or Madison or Montreal. It was about deciding how they want to raise their family. What kind of parents they want to be. Their final decision is based on a memory that allows them to follow an ideal while molding their future to their own individuality. Very sweet movie; two thumbs up.

There are a million and a half allegorical stories out there, many of which fly right over my head and hover somewhere around the ceiling fan. The Catcher in the Rye. The Last Unicorn. The Road. But there are also stories out there that seem like allegory but aren’t. Richard Adams didn't write Watership Down to be anything more than the stories he told his girls. The Lord of the Rings touches on environmentalism and the horrors of war, but Tolkien was adamant that it was not allegory for either of the world wars. Parts may have been inspired by his time in the trenches, but he did not mean for Hitler to be equated with Sauron.

I’ve attempted a couple of allegories. “Gael of Drey L” originated with the challenge we did a while back on “The Heart of Darkness.” I was trying to show that we have a bit of all Joseph Conrad’s characters in us—the money-maker, the altruist, the adventurer, the scheming executive. In “Holy Cats” I was trying to get at how only the approval of our Maker can free us from the desperate search for meaning. I don’t know how successful either of them were.

And that’s a big thing about allegory. Any story is a partnership between the storyteller and the audience. Especially in allegory, the audience is liable to read into it things the author may not have intended. But that’s the nature of any communication and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. If your story gives personal meaning to the reader—that’s what you’re going for.

What’s your favorite allegorical story? Have you tried to write one? How did it turn out? If you have a link to it, go ahead and post it so we can check it out.

And remember: writing is like the fields of Kansas. You must plow through your fertile imagination to nourish the kernel of inspiration that’s violently harvested then turned into the creamed corn of your readers’ personal experience.

Or not.

Kersley Fitzgerald appologizes for the lateness of the article. And is really craving creamed corn right now.

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, "The Same Thing We Do Every Night, Pinkie", is tonight at midnight, Central time. As I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time, those of you who have to snowdog their entry (Friday Challenge terminology for posting 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 is no greater Friday Challenge at this time.

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.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

Way back on May 1 of 2002, Lois McMaster Bujold's novel Diplomatic Immunity was released. At the time, it was the latest in her long-running Vorkosigan series; hands down, my absolute favorite series of books. I bought the book the day it was released and practically inhaled it, finishing it within a day or two. Since then, Bujold has turned her eye writing fantasy where, to my utter lack of surprise, she has proven to be extremely talented, as well. (I've recently gotten my wife reading her fantasy novels and Bujold is now her favorite author, as well.) But much as I've enjoyed Bujold's fantasy novels, I've really missed reading about Miles Vorkosigan.

That's what will make November 2 of this year so special. Cryoburn, the first new Vorkosigan novel in eight years, will be released that day. I'm going to be sorely tempted to take November 3 off from work just to read the book. The thing is, it wouldn't be the first time I'd have taken a day off to read a new novel.

Seventeen years ago, I scheduled to take April 3, 1993, off from work so I could read the Star Wars novel, The Last Command, the third book in Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy. (This was back when there were very few original Star Wars novels.) I ended up getting laid off the day before the book came out, so I suddenly had plenty of time to read the book.

Two years later, I took March 2, 1995, off to read Fisherman's Hope, the fourth book in David Feintuch's Seafort Saga.

I'd like to say that I took a day off to read Headcrash by some guy named Bethke, but I didn't know about the book until I found it at a local book store during my lunch hour. So I read it at work, instead.

In a country where so few people read for pleasure, using a vacation day to read a newly released novel raised eyebrows even among my friends who did read for pleasure. I guess this is just another reason why I am a geek.

So, just what kind of abnormal things have you done to get more time to read a newly released novel?

Let the arguments begin!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Shift in Plans: The Friday Challenge Is Going to Dragon*Con in Atlanta

All of you are, no doubt, aware of my plans to draw as many of you as possible to Raleigh for ReConstruction, the North American Science Fiction Convention. Well, those plans have pretty thoroughly fallen through for various reasons, some related to work for various people, some related to the low anticipated turn out for ReConstruction; around 750, less than half of what I thought we'd see. Let this be a lesson to future convention planners. Never schedule your convention for the exact same dates as an established, larger convention; GenCon in this case.

Faced with these issues, we've decided to aim for Dragon*Con in Atlanta, instead. The convention runs from Friday, September 3, through Monday, September 6. This is Labor Day weekend, so many of us will already have Monday off. Mrs. ~brb has already scheduled his flight and booked a hotel for the ~brb family. Arisia will now attend Dragon*Con instead of ReConstruction. M and I will still attend ReConstruction -- it's in our backyard, after all. I will definitely attend Dragon*Con and M is hoping to join us, as well. Vidad has told me that Dragon*Con is far more likely for him than ReConstruction was (he had some lame excuse about the birth of his latest child being right about the time of the Raleigh convention).

Memberships to Dragon*Con are a flat $100, even if you register at the door on Friday. You can still preregister for the convention, you just won't get a discount for doing so. I strongly recommend you preregister if you are going to attend, as the line for registration at the door is usually painfully slow.

Most of us still haven't reserved hotel space, so if you going to be able to come, this is the time to get in on the planning to combine forces and reduce hotel costs.

So, who thinks they'll be able to join us?

Ruminations of an Old Goat

When creating new characters, writers are good at coming up with the important things that make up the character. Honesty, bravery, occupation, general skills, sexual orientation; these are among the characteristics we all choose when creating characters. But there are other things to consider, as well. Smaller things that take a stock character and transform him into a person.

For example, Roger Zelazny always wrote down three things about his major characters that he never revealed in a story. This helped Zelazny get to know his character better and could also end up affecting decisions the character would make during the story. Just because you never use it in a story doesn't mean it isn't useful.

One thing I like to do is figure out pet peeves for my characters. These are simple little irritants that can have a major effect on how we react to other people and to the various situations life throws at us. Here are a few of my pet peeves as examples.

Misused grammar tends to irritate me to the point of offering an unasked for correction. Some prime offenders are when a person says they "played good," asks if they can borrow "fifty cent," or uses "irregardless" instead of "regardless." I've gotten better about issuing immediate corrections, but they still irk me no end.

I used to get bugged when people took the last of the coffee at work and didn't start another pot. Whether the person was just too lazy or figured their time was too valuable, I can't say, but I'm positive there's a special place in Hell for those people. Recently, though, they installed one of those machines that brews a single cup almost instantly, so this pet peeve is dormant (it'll never be dead and buried until I retire).

I've got a lot more pet peeves than these two, but they'll do for examples. If you had character with any of these pet peeves, it wouldn't be particularly hard to work in a scene in which your character had to deal with one of his pet peeves. Introducing the pet peeve rounds out your character, makes them appear more real to the reader. You don't have to spend a lot of time coming up with these, in fact you can simply decide on one while you're writing about the character. The old saying is, "The devil is in the details." Pet peeves can be one of those little details that help bring your characters to life.

Short column for this week, people. I'll try for something longer next week.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

And the winners are...

With all the work he's been putting into getting the first issue of Stupefying Stories off to the printers, Bruce hasn't able to weigh in on the two most recent challenges. This is why there are extra judges!

Let's start with the "Dilbert Days of Summer" Friday Challenge:


Kersley says: M beautifully exemplified the tediousness these "time-saving" computer contraptions often force us to endure.

Henry says: The minute I read you had one interface that was supposed to work with multiple languages, I knew trouble was coming. I've done just enough testing of this kind of thing to know it's a bad business. Yet you fixed it. Manually. In Notepad. Very Dilbertesque!


Kersley says: Triton showed the ridiculous things organizations often inflict on their employees.

Henry says: Man, you hit all the tropes in your story; only the Big Company is allowed to fix the problem, it's for the children, and the basic useless collection of jobs one can can find in governments of all levels. The sense of futility and the aura of defeat was well conveyed. I could see that as a week-long series of Dilbert strips.

Kersley votes: Triton for the win.

Henry votes: Both entries were very Dilbertish and entertaining, but I lean ever so slightly towards Triton's entry.

So Triton, you're last week's winner! Come on down to select your prize!

Now for the "Fly Me To the Moon" Friday Challenge:

M, "Ava Maria"

Kersley says: Cute, but misses the point. I can't really tell what it's supposed to be. Is it a story or a mini-drama/advert? The info-dump would work with the advert, and the guy getting sick on his honeymoon would work with a story, but both together make it a curious, indefinable thing.

Henry says: I can't wait to read the next 4000 words of the story, even if it isn't exactly what we were looking for in the challenge. However, you have Stan mentioning brochures a lot, which does work in the aim in a roundabout way. Stan really has a thing for brochures, I might add. Of course, the story is incomplete, making it virtually impossible to judge the full story. Hm, are you going to slowly but surely write enough Stan and Bliss stories to fill a novel?

Tom, "Come and See the Solar System"

Kersley says: Speaking of different. Still not ad copy, but you definitely stuck to the: "Regardless of what your tourist destination is, your job is to convince the rest of the Friday Challengers and the judges that your destination is the place to be" guidance. I love that it's in the POV of a probably-not-human. What does it mean that I'm tempted to answer the call?

Henry says: Very creepy and not in the least likely to convince me to come to visit Pluto. I like how you handled this piece quite a lot, even if not also exactly what we were looking for with this challenge. Nicely done.

Arvid Macenion, "Welcome to Mimas Final"

Kersley says: Again with the mystery. This one does try harder to get its reader to visit the place--which is ironic since it reads even less like an advert than M's. Here, the info-dump is historical background.

Henry says: Another interesting entry, presenting an historical site / amusement park of the future. We just a little slice of this future time, but it's enough to provide quite a few details. The biggest problem was that you went from "showing" to "telling" when your character thought about the war. I think that might have been better handled by having the tour guide give the general overview where it would have been more natural. Many tours include information you'd hope your average person should know; they include the information because the far too many average people don't know. Other than that, this is a good piece.

Kersley votes: Although M's and Arvid's could be more easily changed into what I thought this challenge was about, Tom's is the strongest. I vote for Tom.

Henry votes: So, all three entries are sorely lacking in actual ad copy. So, let's toss that requirement aside and judge all of the entries based solely on their merits. M's entry is off to a good start, but it's only a start. Arvid's entry is intriguing but features too much direct info dump that pulls the reader away from the story. Tom's entry creeps me out entirely, thoroughly convincing me to never, ever go to the research station on Pluto. But Tom's entry is also a well-written attempt by an obviously insane individual to lure someone to their location. So, Tom gets my vote this week.

Tom is the winner of the "Fly Me To the Moon" Friday Challenge! Come on down and selection your prize!

Congratulations to both winners!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Open Mic Saturday

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

Or what else is on your mind, that you feel like sharing with the group here?

~brb interrupting here, to announce an exciting new offer: be the first on your friends list to download the all-new STUPEFYING STORIES wallpaper! Be the envy of all your writer friends!

From The Friday Challenge

It's cool! It's exciting! It's motivational! It's inspirational! It will make you a better writer, improve your love life, and give you whiter teeth and fresher breath while you sleep!* Best of all, it's absolutely free!

STUPEFYING STORIES desktop wallpaper
#1 in a series: "Scribbler's Desk" | fullsize | 1680 | 1400 | 1280 | 600

* DISCLAIMER: Or maybe not

Fitz of Distraction

Kersley Fitzgerald is trying not to whine about the week of temps in the 90s knowing that most of you fine hobbitses have seen much worse over the last month or so. Although she'll never understand why Vidad is voluntarily moving to Florida. That's just crazy.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 7/23/10

Bruce Bethke passes around all sorts of credit for putting together the first issue of Stupefying Stories. Unsurprisingly, he fails to credit the person most responsible for bringing the magazine to life; himself. Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald
reviews Ray Bradbury's Green Town trilogy and finds it holds together quite well. Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel remembers his short stint as a science fiction editor, describes the strange circumstances that led to the magazine's demise, and mourns a lost friend. Join the discussion...

Guy Stewart
offers up story ideas 26 - 50 in his attempt to draw 100 story ideas from a single non-fiction book on AIDS. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu asks the question, "Who are the heirs to Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and Hogan. Join the discussion...

Work on the first issue of Stupefying Stories delays the announcement of the winner of the "Dilbert Days of Summer" challenge, Kersley Fitzgerald shows why writers should develop their own style of writing, and the inmates discuss the view from their respective locations in the asylum. All this and more, this week in THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE.

Now for latest Friday Challenge:

"Fly Me to the Moon"
We have the following entries for the 7/16/10 lesser Friday Challenge:

M, "Ave Maria" (drop.io - password "challenge")

Tom, "Come and See the Solar System"

Arvid Macenion, "Welcome to Mimas Final" (drop.io)

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 our next Friday Challenge:

"The Same Thing We Do Every Night, Pinkie..."

We now turn the microphone over to Al:

"He starts monologuing! He starts like, this prepared speech about how feeble I am compared to him, how inevitable my defeat is, how the world will soon be his, yadda yadda yadda..." --FroZone, The Incredibles


Now's your chance. Prepare to indulge your Inner Super-Villain! Reveal your super-secret plot to take over the world--or, at least, corner the market on the specific brand of paper used to print the world's supply of comic books and toilet paper.

The more intricate (and therefore convoluted), the better. Details count, of course. Bonus points for describing how your plot is specifically customized for taking down your arch-nemesis, whosoever that might be. And even more points for actually having said arch-enemy properly ensnared as a captive audience!

Maniacal evil laugh totally and completely optional.

So, hop to it, people! The world won't conquer itself!

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 29.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, Fly Me To The Moon, is tonight at midnight, Central time. As I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time, those of you who have to snowdog their entry (Friday Challenge terminology for posting 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 is no greater Friday Challenge at this time.

We also apologize for not having named the winner of the previous Friday Challenge. The ruling Troika has been busy trying to get the first issue of Stupefying Stories ready for printing and we're afraid naming the winner slipped through the cracks. We'll name last week's winner at the same time we name this week's winner.

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 Green Town Trilogy

Before Elizabeth Moon, but after Anne McCaffrey; before J.K. Rowling, but after Tolkien and Lewis; before Kipling, but after the Chuck Jones cartoons; right around the same time as Spider Robinson, there was Ray Bradbury.

Have you ever stuck with an author because you didn’t understand the writing so it made you feel smart to read it? I think that’s one of the reasons I read Bradbury. That and I could never seem to remember the stories when I finished—just the impressions they gave me.

Although my favorites are probably The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, summer always makes me think of Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. I just found out that the sequel to Dandelion Wine came out a couple of years ago—fifty-plus years after the original. So I decided to read the Green Town, Illinois, trilogy to see what I could see.

Dandelion Wine was as sweet and dark and poignant as I remembered. Twelve-year old Douglas Spaulding has just started summer vacation. At an age when a month lasts a year and a season a lifetime, he begins his adventure with a shocking revelation that defines his entire life: he is alive.

Heady stuff for a twelve-year old, especially when the next great revelation is that, someday, he will die. Surrounded by his wise and practical younger brother, Tom, and his wise and philosophical grandfather, Douglas makes his way through new tennis shoes that fit his feet like clouds and the deep, dark ravine where the Lonely One lies in wait for another woman to kill. He and his friends visit the ancient Col Freeleigh, a time-machine of a story teller who spends his last days calling to Mexico City just to hear the bustle. Across town, William Forrester, a young journalist, spends his afternoons with old Miss Helen Loomis and discovers the cruelty of fate in sending him to his soul mate seventy years too late.

All three books are about time and its passage. Dandelion Wine is about seeing death, accepting it when it’s time, and living until then. POVs switch back and forth from Douglas to the adults around him, weaving experiences. The experiences and the truths they reveal weigh heavily on the twelve-year old. Heavy enough to smother. He’s saved by the fact that the same world that tries to crush you also provides life in the form of fresh air and papayas and lakes and sunsets. As John Eldredge says, beauty matters.

One of the problems I have when I get back to a Bradbury book is trying to figure out what’s real, what’s metaphor, and what’s the imagination of the characters. I should know by now that although the themes are metaphor, the scenes are all real. Mrs. Goodwater really did use witchcraft to secure her position in the Honeysuckle Ladies Lodge. Mr. Auffman really did build a Happiness Machine—even if it had the opposite effect of what he intended. And Grandpa really did harvest the summer sun and air and bottle it into elixirs that sit in the cellar in anticipation of future frigid winter days.

More than fifty years later, Dandelion’s sequel, Farewell Summer drops all the fantasy. It’s a hot October, a year later. Douglas is thirteen and wants to remain so forever, but a dream about a lone voyage on a ship reminds him he will die. He sees the grouchy old bachelor men in control of the school board and chafes against their attempts to bottle him up in rules and homework and long hours at his desk. As if they want him dead years before he’ll see the grave.

The old men see Douglas and his friends and seethe. How dare they be so young and free and full of energy? Their job, as they see it, is to wear down their youth with confinement until they can be sent off to a good war.

Douglas, his brother, and their friends try to figure out ways to stop the old men and stop time in the process. Who would ever want to be older than thirteen? They carve the old men’s faces in pumpkins, quit eating so they won’t grow, and sabotage the clock in the town square so it can’t count down the hours. Watching the old men play chess under the trees, Douglas knows exactly what they’re doing. They’re not moving little pieces of ivory around; they’re arranging and controlling and sacrificing the boys’ lives.

As it turns out, Douglas is right. Not in a magical way—there’s very little fantasy in Farewell Summer. But old Col Quartermain has made it his life’s work to control the wild boys. In one last-ditch effort, he throws a birthday party for Douglas’s classmate, a girl named Lisabell. He forces the boys to celebrate aging.

It doesn’t have the effect he intended. Douglas sees past the cake to the girl and gets his first glimpse of an immortality that includes growing up, growing old, and going on. Quartermain sees it, too, for the first time in a great many years. He sees his own foolishness in striving for an old, bitter, crippled immortality. With no heirs to pass on his name or his face, he passes on something else to Douglas, knowing he’ll live through the boy.

Throughout it all, Grandfather remains the voice of reason. Bradbury admits as much in the afterward, where he gives homage to the wise old people he’d grown up with.

Something Wicked This Way Comes was written after Dandelion Wine but long before Farewell Summer. It’s set in the same town with completely different characters. The themes are similar to Farewell Summer, but include much more fantasy than even Dandelion Wine.

Jim Nightshade is as dark in spirit as his name. He lives with his mother and a desperate desire to be older—old enough to not be afraid. Next door, Will Halloway is as bright as the sun and content with his life. His mother is the ultimate mother. His father is an older, greyer man who frequently retreats to the safe stacks of the local library. Trouble comes into town in the form of the Cooger & Dark Pandemonium Shadow Show—a carnival that appears on the outside to be perfectly normal, but actually feeds on the fears and desires of its most desperate attendees.

Jim and Will know there’s something wrong with the carnival. They can sense the evil in the house of mirrors, and they’ve seen Mr. Cooger step onto the carousel a young boy and step off a man grown. But they’re still drawn to it—Jim by the promise of growing older, and Will by a desire to protect the town and his friend.

Will’s father, Charles, old at fifty-four, also sees the evil and endeavors to avoid it. But when it hunts down his son, he finds a strength he thought was long gone. A life in him that has nothing to do with immortality or passing on a legacy; a fierceness he’d only read about in the books of his beloved library.

Although I’ve read this book several times before, I can never seem to remember what it’s about until I read it again. What surprised me about the story this time was how light triumphs over dark. Not just Charles and Mr. Dark, but Jim and Will. We have turned the dark, tortured stranger into a hero and the nice guy into a powerless wreck. But Will does save Jim, time and again. Even as Jim precedes Will in the fascinations they’ll both inevitably grow into, Will does what he can to make sure Jim doesn’t get ahead of himself or drift off into areas best left alone.

I find both Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked difficult to read. The prose is very rich. Not chocolate-torte-rich. More like bleu-cheese-rich. In describing the town at night, Bradbury writes:

It seemed when the first stroke of nine banged from the big courthouse clock all the lights were on and business humming in the shops. But by the time the last stroke of nine shook everyone’s fillings in his teeth, the barbers had yanked off the sheets, powdered the customers, trotted them forth; the druggist’s fount had stopped fizzing like a nest of snakes, the insect neons everywhere had ceased buzzing, and the vast glittering acreage of the dime store with its ten billion metal, glass and paper oddments waiting to be fished over, suddenly blacked out. Shades slithered, doors boomed, keys rattled their bones in locks, people fled with hordes of torn newspaper mice nibbling their heels.

It’s hard to read more than a couple of chapters without taking time to let it digest. It’s cool, and descriptive, but tough to chew.

Farewell Summer is a much easier read. It’s still descriptive—in describing Douglas hitting Quartermain with his bike, he writes, “…his bike hit a nightmare scarecrow that was flung to the ground as he pumped off, wailing, staring back at one more murder strewn on the walk,”—but easier to read. And the POVs are much tighter. I don’t know if that was a conscience choice or just an alteration in writing style over the years.

It’s mid-July; still plenty of time to read. If you’re looking for summer books (even if two are set in October), I recommend the Green Town trilogy. If you find them too rich and philosophical, there’s always Twilight.

And now for something completely different, here's the Toad the Wet Sprocket song that always reminds me of Douglas and Will. Although, I always imagined Doug and Will had much shorter hair.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

by Allan Davis

We lost yet another Master last week. Rest in Peace, James P. Hogan.

We've already lost the Big Three, the Original Geek Trifecta, Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. We lost Forward a few years ago.

Look, I don't want to call for the Nuclear Football, push the Really Big Button, and relaunch the eternal definitional flamewar over what, exactly, constitutes "Real Science Fiction,"but for the sake of this particular discussion, I'm going to temporarily define "Real Science Fiction" as "that style of writing, especially with regard to hard science content, as best typified by the collected works of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Forward...and Hogan."

And having said that, I will then ask the question "Who's left? Who writes "Real Science Fiction" today?"

Let the arguments begin...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Where Do You Get Your Ideas - Part 2

by Guy Stewart

Some months ago, I promised Bruce I’d write an article if he gave me a book. Rather than the usual “review” thing, I challenged myself and told him I’d not only write an article, I’d generate one hundred science fiction or fantasy ideas from said book. Then I’d throw them into the ether and see if anything came of them.

Ahem…just so you know, I failed my challenge.

The book Bruce sent me was an uncorrected proof of Jonathan Engel’s THE EPIDEMIC: A Global History of AIDS. Among other reasons for my interest was the fact that my brother-in-law Dan had AIDS for over a decade, and yes, I wrote what I meant, he had AIDS. No, I do not mean he was HIV positive. I mean, he had AIDS, full blown with symptoms and various and sundry opportunistic infections that come with an AIDS compromised immune system. Because he was part of a massive research program through the University of Minnesota, and because he never gave up and was determined to beat the demon, Dan survived his AIDS infection. He got it through a blood transfusion because of some accident or another in the mid-1980s. Dan has been a hemophiliac since conception.

The book intrigued me and though I tried for an even 100 ideas, all I have to offer you is an odd 75 that were sparked by reading this book. Because I don’t want to overwhelm you (or bore you) with all 75 at once, I’ll give it to you in three parts. This is part 2 (Part 1 is here)

I’d give a bit of history, but if you don’t know anything about Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, then go here (no matter what you think of Wikipedia, I contend that it’s a good place to START.)

All right then, to continue:

Idea # 26 – If “90 percent of gay men engaged in anal intercourse in the previous six months knew that condom us would diminish their exposure to AIDS” and “over 65% of them had engaged in unprotected sex during that period” (and these “results correlate with experiences of servicemen in WWI and WWII…”) what does this say about our methodology in educating not ONLY responsible sex…BUT THE REGULAR EDUCATION OF ALL HUMANITY. What if a real paradigm shift took place?

#27 – “condoms, when used properly…were impermeable to HIV…in vaginal intercourse”… “leaving researchers unsure of the efficacy of condoms in retarding the spread of HIV during anal intercourse.” Like all Humanity, condom makers went on a rampage passing out condoms and telling everyone it was the only way to stop AIDS…when it wasn’t. What if they had simply said they didn’t know? Where would the epidemic be today?

#28 – Regarding a testing regime…“Overall, the counsel argued, precise knowledge of the disease must supersede virtually all other considerations if an immense catastrophe was to be thwarted.” “Reagan…refrained from issuing a binding injunction.” But this provoked a massive gay march and the ACLU sued the government for $ 1 billion. All legislation was repealed. Conversely, a sorcerer enraged by his perceptions of a government that doesn’t care, curses Reagan and the assassin does not miss…

#29 – “Patients would need to be quarantined for life…” It didn’t happen, but if it DID and cities grew up around these quarantine zones. How did the face of North America change? How did the face of Africa change when witch doctors joined forces to lift every curse ever placed on the land, air and water?

#30 – The health crisis the Democrats are trying to solve in 2010 was started by them in 1986: “Democratic Washington, DC was the first to pass a law….against testing or anti-AIDS discrimination in any form…insurers were prohibited from testing, inquiring, or in any other way adjusting insurance premiums based on HIV status…insurers stopped offering individual policies entirely…” What if testing had been mandated from that point onward? Sketch the life and conflicts of an insurance adjustor in the early 21st Century that resulted from that decision.

#31 – “Like the GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) and Whitman-Walker, both Shanti and the AIDS Foundation had transformed themselves from informal community groups to sophisticated bureaucracies in the space of half a decade.” What if there was ONE shady character who embezzled $38 million from these organizations? What is the life of his executive secretary like?

#32 – “…ACT UP and the Lavender Hill Mob alienated the preponderance of people who witnessed their actions, possibly damaging the cause of AIDS more than it helped.” An urban sorcerer like Matthew Swift (A MADNESS OF ANGELS) becomes part of ACT UP and using soporific magic, calmed those actions…

#33 – “…1983 as the AIDS Medical Foundation…by Memorial Sloan-Kettering researcher Mathilde Krim, along with her husband United Artists chairman Arthur Krim…driving force behind GMHC...” What if these two met the ACT UP and Lavender Hill Mob and, unidentified, were targets of their “actions”?

#34 – “…while in most cases the drugs and regimens they found were worthless, the mere act of seeking seemed to assuage the need for action.” ONE of the drugs, while unable to cure or slow down AIDS, became known as the Seeker’s Cure, giving an almost beatific sense to the victim’s life. Conversely, rather than a drug, an incantation that does the same is discovered written on the walls of a London subway and begins to appear the world over.

#35 – “The tenor of drug regulation changed…with thalidomide…marketed broadly…was prescribed to over 20,000 Americans between 1958 and 1961, including 624 pregnant women…gave birth to hundreds of severely deformed babies, causing public outcry…” What if thalidomide and the Elixir Sulfanilamide (1937 – antibiotics in antifreeze given to children…) – which created the FDA never happened. Until 2007. Prior to that, tens of thousands of “AIDS cures” were put on the market. Predict the results and write a story about a “survivor”.

#36 – Same situation as above, however in the early stages of research into Children’s Antifreeze Flavored Syrup (1937) and the Tuskeegee Syphilis experiments (1932-1972), whistleblowers from the future exposed the whole thing before kids and men died and ushered in the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which birthed the FDA as a Work Projects Act employing thousands…and you take it from there.

#37 – “…the FDA…in 1987 formalized a system of accelerated trails in those situations where drugs could potentially remedy a life-threatening disease.” But say this never happened. Instead: “Besides being generally ineffective, many of these early drugs and interventions were actually harmful…contain toxic doses of lead…herpes and HIV…painful and damaging side-effects…” THIS happened on a gigantic scale, the government was blamed for the unconscionable murder of tens of thousands of AIDS patients.

#38 – What if “gay playwright and activist Larry Kramer” and a founder of ACT UP who wrote in the mid-1980s, “After three years, you have established only a system of waste, chaos and uselessness…” had DIED in the first wave of AIDS infections?

#39 – “Warned NIH researcher Fauci, ‘If you want to get the drug earlier to people, they’ve got to understand that the risk of toxic side effects is going to increase proportionately to the time that you give it earlier.’” A ‘wonder drug’ pushed through looks as though it’s a cure but small amounts that accumulate in the brain turn the person into an undead zombie who can pass AIDS to anyone it bites.

#40 – “One stunning statistic that came to light at this time was that 9 percent of all street children (“runaways”) [in New York and LA] were HIV positive by 1988, having contracted the disease through either childhood prostitution, drug use, or some combination thereof.” What if this number was 46%?

#41 – “The ‘shooting galleries’ where the [600,000] needle sharing [addicts] were not places where drugs were generally sold. Rather, addicts bought the drugs on the street and retreated into the galleries – often abandoned apartments in derelict buildings…Shooting galleries were most common in the poorest areas…” What if the number was 1,600,000 and, damning ACLU protests, the military intervened, clearing out and blowing up galleries everywhere, beginning and ending The War on Drugs of 1988-1991.

#42 – In 2020, a “Kramer”, wealthy, addicted – and HIV+ – and a son of a prominent televangelist , gets “religion” and travels back in time and initiates the arrest of or kills early, identified AIDS carriers.

#43 – “For nearly all the drug addicts at risk to AIDS exposure, the virus was of less concern than servicing their drug habits. Fear of a death a half-dozen years or more in the future paled in comparison with the driving need to get the next heroin injection or crack hit.” A descendant of several AIDS survivors whose blood carries powerful immune agents, travels back in time to change it all.

#44 – “Private [insurance] payers estimated that by 1989 they were paying nearly 50% of all medical costs associate with AIDS (versus the usual 34%), driving most to cut benefits for AIDS, exclude those who had the disease, or in the absence of information about disease status [it was illegal to ask] find proxies by which to exclude AIDS victims.” A being who lives on pain, terror – and in particular the despair associated with AIDS – is also an insurance actuarial mathematician and uses his job to locate…meals. What if you were a compassionate Christian and found out about this…creature. What would YOU do?

#45 – “…[in 1991] the usually liberal editor of the NEJM, Marcia Angell [wrote] ‘I believe that on balance, systematic tracing and notification of the sexual partners of HIV-infected persons and screening of pregnant women, newborns, hospitalized patients and health care professionals are warranted.’…Many people, including virtually all active members of AIDS activist organizations, gay community groups and civil rights groups rejected the proposal… ‘an erosion of civil rights and privacy protections could simply not be justified’” Place this belief system in Europe at the inception of the Black Death and write the story from the viewpoint of a Sister of Mercy who works with lepers.

#46 – “More acceptable than mandated testing to federal lawmakers and regulators was spending on education and outreach, which had been funded at increasing levels through the 1980s.” Americans have a fundamentally religious belief that education will solve all of our problems. But what if that belief grew into a REAL religion during the early years of the AIDS epidemic – the Church of the Education of Humanity? How would a former disciple be treated who saw reality and questioned the tenets of the new faith?

#47 – By the early 1990s, “One unexpected consequence of the strange patterns of AIDS was a housing crisis for patients. AIDS patients died slowly, often living two years or more after contracting the disease…AIDS patients found themselves on the street, and frequently even beyond the help of local shelters, which refused to allow them in. Their Orwellian plight seemed beyond the reach of social service safety nets.” What if AIDS was treated without emotional hyperbole and US citizens (and remember, the rest of the planet was suffering from AIDS as well) and other world citizens actually discussed the plight online and with an hyperbole filter, came to consensus (special interest groups were blocked as were people with known special interest affiliations). Just normal people talked…

#48 – Alternately, wily politicians on both sides of the political spectrum purchased a tract of land in central Arizona, perpetual funding and any variance they wanted and constructed a 1.5 million inhabitant, 21st Century AIDS colony staffed by volunteer doctors and health personnel and sealed off from the rest of the country (as well as protected by USAF jets to prevent nuking). What is the view from the inside? What is the view from the outside? Call the story “Colonizing Humanity”…

#49 – “A sort of nationally epiphany followed in the wake of [Magic] Johnson’s announcement [in the fall of 1991 that he was HIV-positive], and millions who had seen AIDS as beyond their purview and concern suddenly regarded the disease as a legitimate threat.” What is Magic had just curled up and slunk away?

#50 – While gay activists claimed slight, prejudice and Christian intolerance of their lifestyle and plight, “…the numbers simply did not support these harsh judgments. Whatever Bush’s personal feelings may have been toward gays, drug users, or AIDS victims generally, his POLICIES had favored AIDS to an unprecedented degree in the history of US health and research programs…the administration had raised its funding…by some 170% since 1988, with a projected $2.1 billion to be spent…AIDS spending topped all other diseases…120,000 AIDS patients annually [received] $20,000 per each death in 1992 versus $5000 for diabetes, $4000 for cancer, and $1000 or less for heart disease…” What if vindictive rhetoric had given way to FACT and COOPERATION rather than partisan name-calling? Where would the fight against AIDS be today? What if a democratic coven of witches had cursed Bush, bringing him down BEFORE his policies had been put in place?

So there you have it, 25 more ideas – I’m not taking votes on whether they are good, bad, or indifferent. They are simply here for your delectation. If they spark a different idea, cool! If a viable story comes from any of these ideas, I ask that you include my name in some form (forward, backward, first name, middle name, curse of power, name of a cow or pet rat, whatever) – oh, and let me know about it, too; I’d sort of like to keep track of what grows from these seeds.

All quotes above are from THE EPIDEMIC: A Global History of AIDS © 2006 Jonathan Engle. The following pages of the Uncorrected Proof are referenced:

#26 – p 85 ; #27 – p 86 ; #28 – p 93 , #29 – p 96 ; #30 – p 99 ; #31 – p 104 ; #32 – p 111 ; #33 – p 115 + 109 ; #34 – p 127 ; #35 – p 131-132 ; #36 – p 132; #37 – p 133; #38 – p 136 + 6 ; #39 – p 137 ; #40 – p 149 ; #41 – p 151 ; #42 – p 152 + 110 ; #43 – p 153 ; #44 – p 176; #45 – p 182; #46 – p 185 ; #47 – p 186 ; #48 – p 186-187 ; #49 – p 190 ; #50 – p 191-192

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Thirty-two years ago the world of science fiction magazines was a vastly different place than it is today. One year after the release of Star Wars, we seemed to be in the midst of an explosion of science fiction magazines. Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine had begun publishing within the previous year or two, immediately joining Analog, Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as a sales leader in the field. Galileo was another new magazine in the field, struggling to find market share and Omni magazine, with the marketing muscle and deep pockets of Penthouse magazine, was about to debut.

This list doesn't even take into the smaller, long-running fanzines such as Algol, Space and Time (still published today online), and Locus (considered by many to be the place for science fiction news). These magazines, and a handful of others like them, were called fanzines but had more in common with the prozines than they did with your average fanzine. They had slick covers and some big name writers appearing within their pages.

With what appeared to be a growing market for science fiction magazines, my old friend Stephen Gregg and I thought there was room for yet another science fiction magazine. Stephen ran a newsstand in Clemson, SC, and I was his first employee. Our tastes in science fiction varied widely but when we both liked something the book almost always proved successful. This seemed like a great basis for co-editing a magazine and Stephen had even previously edited a fanzine by the name of Eternity Science Fiction. Over dinner one night, we hammered out the idea of bringing back Eternity with the aim to become a professional zine.

Having made the decision, we alerted the world and waited for stories to come in. Alerting the world meant getting listed in the various books and magazines that come out annually with information on various professional writing markets. While waiting for new stuff to come along, we also sent letters to everyone currently listed in the SFWA directory. This would probably get people irritated at you these days, but it worked well enough in 1978.

We got submissions from some lesser names in the organization as well as from Andrew J. Offutt and even Roger Zelazny. Stephen was a huge Zelazny fan, so he made sure to contact him. As a result of Stephen's contact with him, Zelazny dusted off an old character, Dilvish the Damned, and wrote a new short story about him -- which he submitted to us. (A year later, a new Dilvish novel was announced. When it was published, Zelazny dedicated the novel to Stephen, for getting him thinking about the character again. We thought this was quite cool.) We also landed Orson Scott Card, who had just won the John Campbell award as the best new writer in science fiction, to review books for us. All in all, we thought we were off to a good start.

Once the world knew we existed, it was time to start working on making the magazine look good. Previously, Stephen had produced the magazine using a typewriter. We knew we needed to look professional, which meant having right-justified lines. These days it's easy to get right-justification; simply tell your publishing software to right-justify the lines and you're set. Back them, variable spacing was not so easy to pull off. We bought a used IBM Selectric II typewriter, which was specially designed to handle right-justified lines, for a bargain basement price of $400 (about $1300 today). To produce the justified lines, one of us would have to type a line from the story until we reached a certain number of characters. Then we'd type the same line again, with the Selectric II varying the spacing so the lines were right-justified. The machine tended to get confused if you made and corrected too many typos when typing either of the lines, so you had to type carefully both times or risk having the justification fouled up. If you figure an issue of our magazine had about 65,000 words in it, we'd end up having to type 130,000 words just to get the type properly justified.

Once all of the stories and columns had been run through the Selectric II, it was time to layout the magazine. Again, these days that kind of thing is handled mostly by publishing software. I'm not saying it's easy, but it's a lot easier than doing the layout manually. To manually layout a magazine, you cut out the columns of justified text and paste them onto a sheet of paper, usually graph paper so you could align things just right. Manually laying out an issue of the magazine was just as tedious as you might think it was. A lot of time was spent fiddling with parts of stories, trying to get everything to work out right and not leave white space on a page. It's sort of like putting together a puzzle except you don't know what pieces fit where and you don't have a picture of the finished product to use as a guide.

All told, it was a lot of work to produce a single issue of the magazine. Note that I didn't even mention reading through the slush pile in hopes of finding something worth buying. Still, when the first issue of the magazine appeared, we felt it had all been worth the effort. Sales didn't exactly set the world on fire, but we felt we were off to a good start. Several months later, we published our second issue and were quite pleased with it, as well, though sales were not increasing. Our third issue was going to be our best issue yet, with the new Zelazny story, an interview with Zelazny, the Andrew J. Offutt story, and a new story from Orson Scott Card. After lots of the drudge work I described above, we finally had the third issue typeset, laid out, and ready to go to the publisher. The plan was for Stephen to take the issue to printers one afternoon while I covered for him at the newsstand. I showed up at the newsstand that afternoon, ready to take over and excited to have the third issue going to the printer. But it was not to be.

Stephen had brought the laid out magazine with him to work, planning to go straight to the printers from the store. I would have done the same thing, had I been in his place. He left the folder with the magazine layouts in his car and opened the store. A few hours later, he discovered someone had broken into his car; the only time it ever happened during the 25 years he ran the store. The thief had rifled through the glove compartment and taken anything that might remotely be of value, including the folder holding our third issue. Of course, once the thief stopped to check what he had stolen, he probably cursed up a storm and threw the laid out third issue into the nearest dumpster. In the slim hopes that we would get lucky, we did check the dumpsters in the general area of the newsstand. We did not get lucky. With neither of us quite able to face reproducing all the work that went into making the third issue -- and also recognizing that our sales weren't likely to ever make the magazine much more than a slick-looking fanzine -- we agreed to call it quits.

On the face of it, it sounds as if I didn't get that much out of my brief stint as an editor. That's not true. I learned enough about self-publishing that, four years later, I started writing and co-publishing a comic book with a good friend of mine. That effort proved much more successful, yet it probably wouldn't have happened had it not been for Eternity Science Fiction.

I sincerely hope my second foray into the magazine biz, albeit in a somewhat different role, will last far longer and be far more successful than my first one. Most of all, though, I regret my friend Stephen will not be around to see this new magazine; one I believe he would have greatly enjoyed reading. Stephen passed away five years ago. He was only 52.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

No column again this week, as I am up to my eyebrows in all the last-nanosecond work required to get STUPEFYING STORIES #1: "IT CAME FROM THE SLUSHPILE" off to the printers on-schedule. But I do want to take this opportunity right now to publicly thank Henry Vogel and Kersley Fitzgerald, for their absolutely indispensable assistance in getting all this together—without Henry's insight and Kersley's remarkable organizing skills, this would still be only a fuzzy vision, and not something that's rapidly approaching a concrete reality; my wife, Karen Bethke, for extra proofreading assistance, for taking care of all the mundane things around the house that have needed doing while I've been barricaded inside my office working on this, and for patience above and beyond the call of spousal duty; and an especially loud "THANK YOU!" to Vidad MaGoodn, for creating lots of really terrific artwork on very short notice and with at-times really poor direction.

And of course, a heartfelt "Thank you" to the people who really made all this possible, namely, the dozen authors who wrote the terrific stories that make up this book. You are what this is all about, folks; bringing well-deserved attention to some of the remarkable talents that I have seen emerge over the course of the five-plus years that I've been running this thing. Without you, and your willingness to take risks and develop your skills—and without all the other people who participate in this site, reading, commenting, sometimes trying a challenge, and sometimes only reading and commenting privately—this site would not only not exist, it would have no reason for existing.

So one more time: let's have a big round of applause for Kersley, Henry, Vidad, Karen, the authors, and everyone else who has contributed to making the first FRIDAY CHALLENGE anthology, "IT CAME FROM THE SLUSHPILE," a reality.

And now I've got to get back to work and finish this thing.


P.S. Huh. Whadaya know. I guess I did have a column in me this morning after all.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Open Mic Saturday

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

Or what else is on your mind, that you feel like sharing with the group here?

Fitz of Distraction

Kersley Fitzgerald is an accidental cartoonist who thinks Ray Bradbury's spinach dip writing is delicious in small doses but threatens to clog your arteries in bulk.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 7/16/10

Kersley Fitzgerald delves into writers and the conditions under which they can actually write. Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel discusses dreams and the work required to make your dreams a reality. Join the discussion...

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit suggests reading history as preparation for writing, while cautioning that the old saying "history is written by the victors" doesn't begin to cover the truth. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu broaches the question on everyone's mind; new Predator or original Predator? Join the discussion...

Also, various columns and comics didn't appear due to ISP problems and trips out of town, Bandit takes the win in the July 4, 2050, greater Friday Challenge, Al wins the Road Trip lesser Friday Challenge, and the inmates discuss the view from their respective locations in the asylum. All this and more, this week in THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE.

Now for latest Friday Challenge:

"The Dilbert Days of Summer"
We have the following entries for the 7/08/10 lesser Friday Challenge:

M, "Friday Challenge entry"

Triton, "The Dilbert Days of Summer"

Unfortunately, snowdog didn't take my hint and write up the events that inspired the Dilbert comic strip and we can't count the comic strip since Scott Adams gets credit for it. So, it's down to M and Triton this week.

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 our next Friday Challenge:

"Fly Me to the Moon"

Space travel is no longer the province of governments and the solar system has been opened for exploration and exploitation. Explorers may go first, but those looking to make a buck off of the wonders of the solar system are never far behind. As space travel becomes as common as air travel was in the early 21st century, tourist spots open all over the solar system. You've been assigned to write ad copy for a new tourist destination somewhere in the solar system; you choose the spot.

Tout the wonders of your location, be it super low gravity on the moon or the wonder of watching Jupiter rise from one its moons to the thrills of flying through the asteroid belt. Is yours a luxurious destination for the rich, a fascinating family destination, or something that gets the adrenalin running? Regardless of what your tourist destination is, your job is to convince the rest of the Friday Challengers and the judges that your destination is the place to be.

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 22.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, The Dilbert Days of Summer, is tonight at midnight, Central time. As I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time, those of you who have to snowdog their entry (Friday Challenge terminology for posting 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 is no greater Friday Challenge at this time.

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

I have a friend who can’t write during the school year.

She just can’t. She’s tried. Her three kids (one high schooler, one middle schooler, one fifth grader) are safely ensconced away in their classes. Her husband is consumed by long hours in his high school guidance counselor’s office. But she’s a special education aide. She physically can’t find the time to write between work and homework and what have you. Her novel was half-finished and the remainder was plotted out, ready to go. All she needed was time.

She was so looking forward to summer. Sure her three kids and her husband will be in the house, but so will she, for once. I don’t know how it’s going. I don’t know if she’s found the peace and time she needs, or if she’s been attacked by other obligations.

Once she’s finished, she’s hoping for a quick sale. It’s historical Christian romance—a pretty hot market. And she’s a good writer with personal history in the setting. It’d be a nice addiction to her Sp.Ed. aide income.

Another friend of mine only has two boys, seven and six, but the seven-year old has ADHD. She’s a stay at home mom, non-home-schooler. She writes at night, when the house is quiet and the chorus of “mommymommymommymommy” is temporarily stilled. Then she wakes up early and exhausted and tries to keep the two creatures entertained.

She’s written two novels already that her agent can’t find homes for. A lot of editors said, “I love this, I just need to find a place for it,” and then never called again. The only books she’s sold have been those co-authored with her mother, a respected author in her genre.

Another in our circle is a casual writer. She’s good, and she likes writing, but there are other things she likes more. She’s a part-time graphic designer with a seven-year old girl and a three-year old boy. Her husband works odd hours. She spends most of her non-working/non-kid time mentoring teen writers, both in her home and online. I’ve seen her pull out a thousand words in half an hour, but her husband’s schedule has been such that she hasn’t been able to come to writers’ group. She blames this on her lack of output—if she had a reason to write, she would.

She’s sold short stories to a few online magazines, but she’s not really in it for the money. She had an entire novel in the can for months before a friend practically forced her to shop it around. It seems to be in her nature to find more value in helping teens than looking for more money.

My output varies. I go through a season of typing every spare minute of the day, then a season of forgetting that I’m supposed to be a writer. I planned on taking the summer off from novels, instead focusing on queries, short stories, and the Creature. Word-count-wise, it hasn’t been a very productive summer; I’m stuck on two novellas, and I’ve written only one short story in the past few months.

But I think the decision to concentrate on short stories for a while was a good one. Get a rejection letter for a short story, and you feel like you’ve wasted a month. Get one for a novel, and that’s a good year down the drain.

And, sometimes, that rejection doesn’t come. Remember that story I talked about earlier, that I couldn’t wait for you to read and tear apart? It’s up. My first paid writing gig. A whopping $25. But the encouragement is priceless, eh?

I didn’t think I could write short stories. I had written two novels and one NaNoWriMo when I decided I needed to figure out how. That’s when I found the old Ranting Room. It was exactly what I was looking for. Writing prompts, feedback, even an occasional win. The Stupefying projects are raspberries on the chocolate cake. More than enough encouragement to saddle up to the laptop again and try to figure out where the heck those two novellas are going.

I read a lot of blogs for writers—maybe too many. The tone out there is so desperate. As if, if you don’t sell a million copies of your debut novel in three days you’re a failure. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like a modest income—drafting work’s been slow, lately, and Maj Tom’s retirement gets closer every day. But I’m determined not to freak out. I do best, anyway, when I approach a new adventure slowly enough to get my bearings. Digital Dragon, Mindflights, Stupefying Stories—next stop, Analog!

As soon as I find time to finish those stinkin’ novellas.

What are you working on? What encourages you to write? What environment do you like to write in?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

...and once more, back to the cinematic sausage factory. Predators—the latest sequel/remake/installment in the long-running "Predalien" series, and following hot on the heavily clawed feet of Predator, Predator 2, Aliens Versus Predators, Aliens Versus Predators: Requiem, Aliens and Predators Versus Terminators, Predators, Aliens, and Terminators Versus Wall Street Bankers—debuted last weekend.

Okay, let's have a show of hands. Who saw it? Who wanted to see it? Who really, really, meant to go see it, but instead got sidetracked by something far more exciting—say, oh, changing the air freshener in your car?

I must admit that I liked the original Predator, as being a better-than-average early Schwarzenegger movie, and liked it even more after Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota. Predator 2 was okay, too, in a gonzo over-the-top kind of way, and I've seen AVP more times than I really care to think about, mostly because for some reason The Kid became a Lance Henriksen fan for a while. (I cannot explain that one at all. Then again, I cannot adequately explain why I'm an Al Leong fan, either.)

But, let's be honest with ourselves for just a moment. Does this premise really have any more steam left in it? And if you are one of the fortunate few who saw it in a movie theater in the past few days: on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being "don't miss it right now" and 1 being "don't even bother getting the DVD next winter on dollar night," how do you rate it?

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? Better yet, have you got an idea for a UGF challenge you'd like to see? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

by Bruce Bethke

I've been thinking a lot about history lately. Not about any piece of history in particular, but as a more metaphysical sort of question: just what exactly is history?

Yes, I know the standard answer: "The story of what happened as written by the winners." There is a significant amount of truth in this cliché, although "as written and read by the survivors" might be more accurate. One of the recurring motifs throughout history is the attempt to control history itself, in part by controlling literacy itself. A king is overthrown; the first thing we do is clarify our claim to his throne by burning his chronicles and killing his scribes. (Or in our mercy, we may choose only to blind them and cut out their tongues.) A city is taken; we burns its library, chisel the names of the previous owners off the stelae, and erect new monuments to our own glory. (Or more likely rename the existing monuments, as it saves time and money and in a generation or two no one will remember the old names anyway.) A troublesome province erupts in revolt again; this time we decide to really settle the issue, and so we level their temple, slaughter those of their population who stand and fight, conduct a διασπορά to scatter the survivors, ban the public use of their language, scratch the name "Judea" off our maps, and rename the entire region "Syria Palestina," in an attempt to erase even the memory of those bothersome people.

This is the pattern, again and again. The wonder of ancient history isn't the amount of sleuthing and scholarship required to reveal it, but that any of it survives at all. In 642, for example, the army of Amr ibn al-Ās conquered Egypt, and Amr installed his ex-wife's second husband(!), Umar, as sultan in Alexandria, where Umar ordered the books in the legendary Library of Alexandria burned to heat his bath water, on the grounds that anything those books contained that was already in the Quran was superfluous and anything that was not was heretical.

Or did he? Later historians say that story was pure libel, concocted to inflame Christian Europe against Islam. Even later historians say the libel was a libel, concocted to inflame Protestants against Catholics, and the original story was true. Delve into European and Middle Eastern history in any detail, and pretty soon you'll realize that the entire thing is just one giant mass of parochial and temporal libels and counter-libels: Christians libeling Moslems, Catholics libeling Eastern Orthodox, Protestants libeling Catholics, French libeling Germans, Venetians libeling Genoans, big-endians libeling little-endians—and everybody libels the Jews. It didn't take the advent of modern atheism for this to happen: most of what most modern college-educated Americans imagine they know of the "bloody history" of the Roman Catholic church is at root based in Lutheran and Anglican libels of the Papists, dating back to the time of the Reformation.

Nor are things any clearer if you leave Europe and look at the rest of the world. In the mountainous regions of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, for example, there live a people that generations of modern scholars have called the montagnards—or if they were striving to be correct, the Mèo—apparently never realizing that "montagnards" was the name the French colonists gave to the Hmong and "Mèo" was the even more insulting name the Vietnamese called them. So if even the best-funded and well-intentioned of modern scholars working within the context of living memory can't get such a simple thing right, what hope do we have for understanding what really happened five hundred, or a thousand, or two thousand years ago?

The take-away for writers this morning, then, is this: yes, read history. Read lots of history. To create realistic imaginary worlds, base your fantastic cultures on historical models. But always remember: when you read history, the only time when there is an absolute consensus on a given point is when no other primary source has survived to contest the case.

Monday, July 12, 2010

And the winner of the Road Trip challenge is finally announced!

We're sorry this is running late, but we finally have our results for the Road Trip Friday Challenge!

Kersley says: Are the goosebumps on my arms because of the story or the smoothie I'm drinking? Writing's a little rough, but I love how you exemplified that so much of a road trip is dependent on the car.

Henry says: Welcome to the Friday Challenge! Yours was a fun entry, particularly since I remember that car (barely). I could easily see yellow Pintos zipping around you as I read it. For future entries, I'd recommend using new lines to start a new person's dialogue. It makes the entry easier to read and makes it clear the person speaking has changed.

Bruce says: Welcome aboard. I hope we don't scare you off. I really like the look of your blog, by the way. Is that a standard template or a customized one?

As for your story: you had me going there. Unlike Henry I don't object to the violations of standard dialog typography conventions, as it serves the purpose well in this case. This one had a light and breezy feeling that read like a diary account or a blog entry. I completely bought into the credibility of this story, and it wasn't until they picked up Grandma and got back onto I-95 heading north that I realized: "Oh, this is fiction. It's a Phantom Pinto and she's being stalked by her youthful self." Maybe it was the cold chills and the goosebumps, but something tipped me off, and after that it was just a matter of seeing whether the story led to the conclusion I expected -- which it did. Maybe you could have telegraphed the ending a little less heavily, but then again, maybe that's just me, and everyone else was fine with it. [Question to the gallery: was that ending too heavily foreshadowed, or did it work for you?]

All the same, you have a great narrative style and this story was a delight to read. Thanks for sharing it, and I hope we can continue to look forward to reading your writing.

Kersley says: Clever, descriptive. The line "but invoking the sudden fear that there might be is a little game the conscience plays lest it go entirely unheeded" edges into telling. Not a story, of course, but it rings true.

Henry says: Speaking as a Martian, I found your descriptions quite interesting. Short skirts were not in vogue during my dating days, so I had to use more imagination than recollection. Good musings on what our subconscious mind might cause us to do, too. The piece seemed less about the road trip than the Venusian, but none of the events could have happened unless the Martian was driving a car, so you qualify.

Bruce says: Oooh, I don't know if the women will get this one, but for me the soundtrack to this one was "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights." You have captured the Man's Dilemma perfectly. Is she actually asleep, or merely pretending to be asleep and sprawling her body in a provocative pose so as to encourage me to make the first move? If I touch her thigh, will she whisper "Yes" or scream "Date Rape?" There are some lines you do not cross, indeed.

Kersley says: How can you start like that and then just drop it? You don't love us, do you?

Henry says: Obviously, this is the start of something, though it's not apparent what yet. I enjoyed what was there, but you didn't get to the road trip. And, tell us the truth, this is going to be a depressing story once you finish, isn't it?

Bruce says: This was a great, nasty, beginning to a horrible post-Apocalyptic story. Have you read "The Road," by Cormac McCarthy? It reminded me of that. I'd have to see the rest of this one in order to have a more fully formed opinion, but it's an opening that hits me where I live and makes me want to peek fearfully at the rest of the story. Keep it going, if you're so inclined, but be forewarned: it's hard to keep this level of bleakness up for any length of time unless you suffer from clinical depression.

Kersley says: I love this. Especially the repetition of the steps and road.

Henry says: I got tired just reading your story and can only imagine how it felt to actually make that round trip two and a half times. I'm pretty sure this story is further proof of the fact that the male members of your family are simply not wired to be on time for anything. Even when you plan carefully in advance, some mysterious force causes you to forget something and end running late. Great story!

Bruce says: I just love this one. Your use of repetition is especially skillful; I can just see every wretched step of this journey, down and up, down and up. This one would be absolutely terrific if read/performed live. In fact, if Vidad and KTown ever check in again, I'd love to see you three get together and use your photos and a few seconds of carefully shot video (hand slapping the passport down on a desk, etc.) to turn this one into a YouTube short.

Kersley says: The last time we took the pass out of Vail, we were delayed by an RV that caught on fire and burned to its frame. Love the pictures.

Henry says: You know you've got a good story when you can include idiot drivers who end up wrecking, getting a jump start from a policeman, great scenery, unexpected snowstorms, non-working telephones, and a snow-covered friend at a bus station. Great photos, too!

Bruce says: But as you've probably guessed by my switching the order around, I have to go with Al's story as the winner this week. It's got everything: a bad idea to begin with ("he's going to sleep on our couch for a few weeks until he gets on his feet"); compounded by bad advice ("Don't take highway 40"); some good strong schadenfreude (the tale of the crashed Mustang); an idyll amidst sweeping vistas and natural grandeur in Utah; interrupted suddenly by the terrible grinding roar of reality coming crashing down ("I didn't drive from Flagstaff. I drove from Phoenix [...] And I wasn't going to Denver, either. I was going to Colorado Springs"]; a race against time, compounded by growing complications (the pay phones not working, the snowstorm, the bus station closing at midnight); a dramatic climax (pulling into the Co Springs parking lot at three in the morning and finding Paul there, covered with snow); and then the uplifting they-emerge-blinking-into-the-dawn-of-a-new-day ending. Roland Emmerich could make a two-and-a-half-hour film out of this one, and totally stiff you on the writer's share of the net. I love it.

Kersley votes: It's a toss-up between Al and Arvid. I'm going to go with Al, though. It had the ramblingness of a road trip and the photos didn't hurt.

Henry votes: All of the stories had their strong points, but Al's works best for me. He captured the "feel" of a road trip perfectly and gave us some great photos, too. So my vote goes to Al this week.

Bruce votes: Al gets my vote for this win this week.

That makes it unanimous! Al, you're this week's winner. Come on down and select your prize from behind Door #3.
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