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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Notes 'n' Stuff

The regularly scheduled Tuesday column, Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit, was preempted at the last minute by a sudden and unexpected OTOGU storm. SGFP will return next week at its regularly scheduled time.

However, I want to take this opportunity to reiterate what I said when I first launched the column. SGFP is meant to be an open column. If you have an area of special interest or expertise related to the subject matter of this column—which, basically, is violence, and how to use it in fiction without looking like a total moron—then by all means, we would love to run your column! In fact, consider this note a cattle-call for SGFP columns.

(Hmm. Perhaps "cattle-call" isn't the right expression. What sort of call would work to lure in writers? "Free beer! Free beer!" No, not specific enough. You'd also get a lot of undesirable rough species. "Hey, look, is that Harlan Ellison?" Hmm, again. I need to think about this some more...)

Speaking which, I'd like to remind you that Ultimate Geek Fu is also an open column, and we're always looking for people who want to take the workload off us to suggest an idea for discussion. As...somebody promised they would do for tomorrow. Henry? Kersley? Do you remember who promised to write tomorrow's UGF?

Also on the subject of cattle calls: I know it seems like we just pushed #1 out the door—and in fact, we did just push #1 out the door—but beginning after Labor Day, we will be looking at submissions for Stupefying Stories #2, provisionally entitled "The Scare The Cr@p Out of You" issue but we'll likely change that. Got that? Horror stories, but not until after Labor Day.

And finally, one more fairly important item. Because of the Labor Day Holiday, K&B Booksellers will be shutting down from NOON Central Time tomorrow until 5 PM Central Time on Friday, September 3rd. Which means that during that time period, it will not be possible to place orders for copies of STUPEFYING STORIES.

Sorry for the inconvenience, but it's because of Amazon's operating rules, and we can explain more if needed. Suffice to say that we will resume business as usual on Friday evening.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

In 1954, the book Seduction of the Innocent, by Fredrick Wertham, was published. It's the earliest "scientific" attempt I know of which claimed a specific media was not healthy for children. Wertham held comic books to blame for increases in child delinquency, noting that a large number of delinquent children also read comic books. Of course, during the time Wertham performed his research, almost all children read comic books. Popular titles sold millions of copies each month. So many children read comic books that Wertham couldn't have gotten meaningful statistics from his study. He might as well have asked the children if they liked hamburgers andtried to draw the same conclusions about the local burger joint.

Wertham's book caught the imagination of parents and teachers looking for a scape goat concerning the behavior of their children. And that captured the attention of politicians, leading to congressional hearings and causing one elected legislator to proclaim that all comic book publishers were communists. The end results was the Comics Code Authority, which ruled comic book content for decades.

Under the code, heroes were heroic and villains paid the price for their crimes. The wide range of comic books published into the early fifties -- including romance, science fiction, and horror titles -- narrowed to superhero titles and innocuous titles such as the Archie line. But the Comics Code was voluntary and eventually one of the big two publishers released an issue without the Comics Code seal. Eventually, more and more titles were released without the seal until, in 2001, Marvel Comics broke from the Comics Code Authority entirely. By that time, I doubt very many of Marvel's titles would have received the Comics Code seal, anyway.

And that brings us to latest psychologist to study superheroes, Sharon Lamb. Dr. Lamb believes the superheroes of today are sending the wrong messages to the boys of today. That message, she says, is that boys can be macho, the superhero, or a slacker, the funny guy who doesn't really try to do anything in life. But things are worse than that, her study concludes, as most of today's superheroes are cynical, manipulative, quite willing to use and discard those around, and rarely heroic in the traditional sense.

Part of me wants to ask, "You had to perform a study to learn that?"

Anyone who paid any attention to developments within the comic book industry over the last 30 years could have seen this situation coming a mile away. There was great discontent among a fairly vocal group of comic book fans, moaning that Marvel and DC were publishing comic books for children. Those fans grew older yet the comic book stories continued to be aimed at the same level. For some reason, that vocal group of fans felt as it that was just wrong. Writer/artist John Byrne, in an interview, compared their complaints to an adult getting upset because there were no Hardy Boys stories written for adults.

The obvious solution to this situation was for that vocal group of fans to start publishing comic books aimed at adults. To their credit, they did just that. To their detriment, they continued to complain about the publishing habits of Marvel and DC. Eventually, writers and artists responded. The response was slow. We got Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Electra. We got V for Vendetta and The Watchmen. Once the door was open, new writers brought new, more adult, ideas to the medium and we got edgy heroes, angst-filled heroes, heroes who were different from villains only in who they targeted.

By the late 1990s, I saw fewer and fewer children in comic book stores and first began wondering where the next generation of comic book fans was going to come from. I've since learned the answer to that question. The next generation of comic book fans are reading manga -- Japanese comic books -- which they can find in large quantities at their local Barnes & Noble or Borders. But those kids aren't going to grow up to read American comics. They'll graduate to manga aimed at older readers, not to Spider-Man or Superman.

But the point of all of this is that today's superheroes send the wrong image to today's boys because they are intentionally written that way. The comic book industry courted the adult fan and, in the process, is in the process of losing the child who grew into that adult fan.

We won't have congressional hearings over Dr. Lamb's research. In fact, it will be a minor blip on the radar, at most. After all, we're inundated with studies telling us about all the myriad things that are bad for our children. Perhaps, if you choose to give credence to all of those psychological studies, you can stop your children from seeing, reading, or playing all of those supposedly unhealthy books, shows, and games. Or you could just lock your children in the basement until they reach adulthood, as it would amount to the same thing. I recommend taking the time to pay attention to what your child reads, watches, and plays, making sure your child understands that popular culture is not the same thing as real life.

It might mean unemployment for a few psychologists but I think good parenting is worth the risk.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

And the winner is...

In the matter of the 8/20/10 Friday Challenge, "The Sound of Summer Running (Void Where Prohibited By Law)", the winner, obviously and sadly by default, is Miko, given that "The Sound of 'Tweener Texting" was the only entry submitted.

Still, the raison d'être for the Friday Challenge is feedback and discussion, so we're going to have at it anyway.

Henry: Your story is almost the antithesis of Bradbury's original, and that is why it is so absolutely brilliant. Douglas wants the sneakers so badly he offers to work for them. Kaitlyn wants the cell phone so badly she whines, begs, and plays the divorced parent card. Douglas reacts just as we're told children reacted sixty years ago. Kaitlyn reacts just the way we know children react today. But there is a deeper tie between the sneakers and the cell phone with unlimited text messages, perhaps one that was unconscious or just a fortunate turn of circumstance. Both children want their world to be faster and more connected. We consider Douglas's "faster" and "connected" is considered more wholesome -- he wants to run faster and feel more connected to summer -- than Kaitlyn's "faster" and "connected," but both children want, essentially, the same thing. The story is well-written and would have been a strong contender even had we received half a dozen entries or more. Well done, indeed!

Bruce: What I found most interesting about this story were the reader reactions in Friday's comments. I even printed this one out and tried it out on a couple of twenty-somethings I know, just to do a sanity check. The results?

At first, my focus group said they hated this story. But then, on further discussion, they realized it wasn't the story they hated, but Kaitlyn. A little more discussion, and the truth started to slip out: they hated Kaitlyn because she was so true, and the truth hurts. Each of them knew a Kaitlyn, or could think of a time when they'd let their inner Kaitlyn come out and turn the screws on mom or dad.

Congratulations. Giving the reader a thrill, a laugh, or a fright is comparatively easy. Making them squirm because they see themselves reflected in an uncomfortable truth—without getting shrill or sanctimonious—is hard work. Good job.

Kersley: Pass.

And the winner is...

Miko, obviously.

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

We'd planned a whole lot of exciting changes for this week. The STUPEFYING STORIES site was finally going to go live; the long-neglected Rampant Loon site was going to get a badly needed makeover; I was even planning to make some subtle but significant changes to this site. Reality, however, has a way of making mincemeat of even the best-laid plans, and so in the end all I have to announce is this: the printed copies of STUPEFYING STORIES 1: "It Came From The Slushpile" are in, and they don't look half-bad.

The Kindle version isn't ready yet. M has convinced me that it's worth doing iBook and Nook versions, and he's generously volunteered his time and expertise, so we'll be charging ahead with that project Real Soon Now. We still don't have the Rampant Loon web store up and running, either—that, as well as the incipient iTunes shop, was devoured by Otogu—so in the meantime, to meet the (ahem!) raging demand, we've put the print version out on Amazon.com under the aegis of K&B Booksellers, at this link.

Ebook versions to follow shortly. This isn't exactly the big splash launch announcement we'd been hoping to do, not by a long shot. But we're learning.

Saturday, August 28, 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? Did you place a story in the Friday Challenge Rewrite Drop? 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?

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 8/27/10


Bruce Bethke again gives us a plethora of topics to discuss from Ray Bradbury’s ninetieth birthday to a Stupefying update to finding joy in writing by lowering your expectations—I mean, enjoying writing for writing’s sake. Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel continues the long-running debate as to the future of publishing. Join the discussion... then join this discussion…

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit asks the age-old question, what is more scary, the known, the unknown, or a house that automatically cleans up the remains of an irradiated dog and has burn silhouettes of the family on the outside wall? Join the discussion…

Ultimate Geek Fu asks which parody was worthy of its inspiration. Join the discussion...

Kerlsey Fitzgerald starts in a new semi-regular presentation, “Critique-al Thinking,” by ruthlessly eviscerating one of Henry’s short stories. Read the story, then join the discussion...

Guy Stewart takes the win in the 8/13/10 Friday Challenge with a dog tale. The inmates discuss the view from their respective locations in the asylum. All this and more, this week in THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE.

And now for the current challenge.

"The Sound of Summer Running (Void Where Prohibited By Law)"

Here are the entries for the 8/20/10 lesser Friday Challenge, in which we challenged you to take a quaint, nostalgic story about a boy and his shoes and show how completely unlikely it would be for anything so innocent and light to happen in today’s litigious world. Entries are presented in approximately the order in which they were received:

Miko, “The Sound of ‘Tweener Texting”

[Cue crickets]

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 new challenge.

"What I Did Last Summer"

It's the source of silly sitcom plots and the cliche assignment handed out at the beginning of school. Well, boys and girls, school is back in session at the Friday Challenge and your teachers want to know how you spent your summer vacation.

Did you battle zombies at your favorite hang out?

Maybe you solved a tricky, twisty murder mystery which had the police baffled?

Did you go to Disney World the discover and foil plans by the House of Mouse to take over the world?

Or perhaps you went to the beach and swam in the ocean? Far fetched, we know, but stranger things have happened.

So, tell us about your actual summer vacation, the summer vacation you wish you'd had, the summer vacation that would make a good blockbuster movie, or just about any summer vacation you wish to invent. Just do it by midnight on Thursday, September 2 or all is lost!

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 26.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, "The Sound of Summer Running (Void Where Prohibited By Law)", 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 less than 1000 words, though that is most definitely not a rule or requirement. If your muse instructs you to write far more than 1000 words, write on! 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

Happy Birthday, Ray Bradbury!

If you missed my post about my favorite summertime Bradbury reading, find it here.

Some time ago, I found an interview of Mr. Bradbury at the Point Loma Nazarene University's Writer's Symposium by the Sea. The long version is here. The shorter, here. (You can also find Anne Lamott, Eugene Peterson, Donald Miller, and many others.)

Critique-al Thinking

As you know, we're starting a new feature here at Critical Thinking--Critique-al Thinking? Post your ready-to-send-off-to-the-editor short stories at the drop.io (password: rewrite) designed for that purpose, and watch your fellow inmates rip them to shreds. (If you're lucky. If you're not, they'll shrug, give you an "Eh," and walk away.)

Some far-thinking individual (I'm guessing Henry) put up Guidelines for our little experiment. They are as follows:

For writers:

1) Be sure you want honest criticism of your story before you post it here. If you think criticism may hurt your feelings, you're not ready for this.

2) If you want all criticism delivered in a specific way, such as email, include those instructions as the first page of your document. Remember, you'll have to give an email address if you want people to respond by email. If you do not include instructions, all criticisms will be left as comments to your story.

3) Be civil to those who take time out of their daily schedules to read your story and offer you an opinion.

For critics:

1) Be civil. That doesn't mean you have to only say good things about a story, but flaws in the story can be discussed in a civil tone.

2) Be honest. Don't downplay or ignore flaws in a story for fear you'll hurt the writer's feelings (though remember rule 1 for critics).

My additions:

If the author does not leave an email address, critiquers can leave their comments by hitting the "More" button by the entry, then selecting "Leave a Comment." Or they can wait until I select a victim and disembowel it here in public. Either way, hopefully this will help us encourage each other as we strive toward that most noble goal of being published. Also, if you post a story, please edit at least two others. Not that there's a flood of stories being posted, but editing will help your writing as much as it helps the author's.

Without further ado, I present to you this week's victim. Read the story, assemble your thoughts, consider if you think my points fair or completely off-base, then leave your comments and suggestions either in the drop.io, or in the comments below. And writers, remember that every comment is someone's personal opinion. Unless the author is identified as "Stanley Schmidt," take all suggestions with a grain of salt and know that you are always ultimately responsible for your own story.

The Nomod
(are you ready for this?)

Nitnoid Stuff:

Page 1
- line three: change “couldn’t” to “and failing”; good truncated dialogue
- I squashed a surge of irritation at the cliché.
Explain specifics to show Tanner’s personality—does he hate clichés, or is he very precise and know that whistles aren’t clean?
- I looked at the nomod, “You’re not going to…
-- Comma should be a period.
-- I have the same problem—everybody “looks” or “turns.” Find a different way to put in the beat.
- I appreciate the use of repetition as a literary tool, but there are too many “get the ideas.”
- …but I expect I’ll be getting some new ones, too. That’s why you’re so scared of nomods, after all.
-- Awkward.

Page 2
- The Guard let go of the Nomod.
-- Tame. How about “shoved him into the chair”?
- Two more “looks”
- Paragraphs six and seven—figure out your standard for “guard” capitalization. You lower-cased it for the adjective in “guard phrases” and then capped it again for the non-specific group “Guards.” If that’s intentional, it’s all right.
- …knowing full well what he meant.
-- This sounds too submissive. Needs something else to keep up the patronizing air.

Page 3
- First paragraph, should the Guard be in quotes? Also, maybe italicize the “doesn’t”?
- Toward bottom: Slightly alarmed, I was about to call the Guard…
-- Could be better.

Page 4
- You seemed to have changed from italics to underlining.
- “Said” and “asked” are supposed to be the great invisible attributions. You could still use some actions to thin them out a bit.
- The boy looked puzzled, “Why would…
-- Comma should be a period.

Page 5
- “Yes Dr. Tanner,”
-- There should be a comma between the “Yes” and the “Dr. Tanner.”
- …looking dejected.
-- Show
- “Post-birth,” not “post birth.”

Page 6
- I thought she was the most beautiful girl on earth but I couldn’t…
-- Comma before the “but.”
- In the middle of the page, there’s a “nomd” instead of “nomod.”
- “As with the Guard, the children are-”
-- Change to m-dash, not n-dash.
- …edge of irritation…
-- While I appreciate your endeavor to “show, not tell” here, this is first person. He can say how he felt.

Page 7
- Middle paragraph: “Look Moore’s Law…”
-- “Look up Moore’s Law…”
- Middle paragraph: “thiry” --> “thirty.”

Page 8
- “…and we aren’t going to take it anymore.”
-- Seriously? He’s announcing the ruin of civilization as they know it by quoting Bat Benetar? :)
- The use of the words “ilk” and “ample” don’t feel particularly true to the nomod’s personality.
- Repeated use of words is more acceptable in dialogue than narrative, but there are still quite a few “evacuations”/“evacuates,” and “amples.”
- “We will do our best to minimize casualties, so when you receive…”
-- “We want to minimize casualties. When you receive…” Dialogue usually has choppier phrasing.
- Bottom: “While we tried to stop their attacks…”
-- Could be better. Also sounds defensive. We don’t “try to stop terrorist attacks,” we bomb the heck out of the Afghan mountains.

Page 9
- Needs to be fleshed out. Maybe those “nomod tykes” use their creativity to defeat the resistance, and the resistance stops fighting as they realized the fact they’re losing means they’ve won?
- Tanner’s change of heart needs to be fleshed out, as well. Sure they’re “inquisitive,” but in what specific ways are they helping humanity?

The Big Picture

The biggest issue I have is Tanner’s personality and motivation. Is he an amused, patronizing psychiatrist? He’s not an aggressive interrogator, because he gives the nomod the lead throughout the entire conversation.

- Bottom of page one, he asks the nomod if he’s going to get any ideas. It reads as a patronizing assurance for the guard, as well as an assumption of submission of the nomod.

- Top of page two, he speaks “sharply” to the Guard. Why? If he’s treating the Guard as a child, he may speak “sternly.” “Sharply” infers he’s not in as much control as he lets on.

- Just after, the nomod insults the Guard, and Tanner returns to patronizing him—while going along with the nomod’s joke.
-- If he is feeling as patronizing toward the nomod as he is toward the Guard, I’d think he’d make a comment in defense of the Guard—something to show his dominance over the nomod.
-- As written, Tanner is giving the balance of control to the nomod.

- Middle of page three, Tanner starts explaining Guard training to the nomod. What’s going on here? What was the purpose of this little meeting? If Tanner was supposed to be analyzing or interrogating the nomod, it appears to have flipped—the nomod is now questioning Tanner. Which would be fine if Tanner was trying to patronizingly convince the nomod that modifications were good. But he spends very little time justifying his work.

- “…knowing full well what he meant.” If Tanner is supposed to be patronizing, this needs to be elaborated on. As written, it sounds like Tanner’s intimidated.

- Page 3—“Are you suggesting there is something wrong with that?” is a classic passive-aggressive phrase, but doesn’t really mesh with an objective psychiatrist. It could be a lead-in for someone who’s trying to convince someone else, but, again, there’s no counter-point.

- Following him out to see the kids—confuses me even more. Is the nomod a prisoner undergoing psychiatric evaluation? If so, he wouldn’t go near the kids. Is the point for Tanner to try to change his mind? Then Tanner needs to be more aggressive in the rest of the encounter.

- Bottom of page five; if nomod’s being evaluated, the doc wouldn’t go into detail about himself. If nomod’s being turned, doc would spend more time elaborating how the modifications improved his own life.

- Bottom of page six; the “edge of irritation” again derails. It doesn’t match the arrogantly amused psychiatrist vibe or the nostalgia above. Too quick from patronizing to irritated. If he’s an interrogator or analyst for this big deal, I’d think he’d be able to keep the façade of control, even if his thoughts reveal growing misgivings.

- Bottom of page seven/top of page eight Tanner gets really threatened. I don’t get the whole “That’s preposterous! How dare you—” Have terrorists seriously never threatened them before? Why is Tanner personally threatened by a prisoner? If he has faith in the system, he’d believe the prisoner would never escape and never be a threat to anyone. He’s acting like he’s in the process of being captured by the nomod. Or, on a grander scale, Tanner could be outraged that any organization could threaten the mod organization, but again, if he believes in it so much, why is he afraid?

- Then he calls the Guard to take the nomod away—not because he has to rush away and warn the bosses, but because he’s emotionally unnerved. I could see him reacting that way if the nomod had actually caused him to doubt the efficacy/morality of what he was doing, but they’ve been talking about terrorist attacks.

It feels like the entire story is a set-up for the nomod to speak his peace. But he’s in hostile territory, surrounded by people who unthinkingly, vehemently disagree with him. Decide who Tanner is—even if he’s a cliché. Don’t be afraid to reveal the first-person’s thoughts and internal reactions directly. And thanks for affirming our decision not to give the Creature growth hormones!

Kersley Fitzgerald's mom's birthday is today. Happy Birthday, ma!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

This past weekend, the movie Vampires Suck surprised just about everyone by staking (!) its claim as the number two movie in the country. I assume this means that teenage girls will go see any movie about sparkly vampires, even if the movie is a parody of what they love. Either that or all the teenage boys went to laugh at what their girlfriends go crazy over.

This surprising showing by a parody movie got me thinking about parody movies in general. I suspect Vampires Suck is similar to most of these parody movies, in that they throw out a lot of stupid jokes, gross jokes, and blatantly sexual jokes, the vast majority of which aren't funny in the least. Still, if you throw enough stuff against the wall, some of it is going to stick. I can't imagine a whole lot of talent is required to write the script for one of those parody movies.

Still, there are some great parody movies out there; ones that show that the writers hold respect for the material satirized in their scripts. Ones that have coherent plots that form the basis for much of the parody. Ones which fans do not tire from watching again and again. My favorite of the truly great parody movies is Galaxy Quest, both a brilliant parody of and an homage to Star Trek. It's a movie that bears repeat viewing because there are some many good lines that you can't catch them all the first time through. The movie was well cast, well written, well presented, and was a gift to Star Trek fans.

The other great parody movie that comes to mind is Young Frankenstein, which is so faithful to its source material that Mel Brooks filmed it in black and white. While Brooks cast many of his regulars in the leading roles, the actors played those roles so well that I can't imagine anyone else doing similar justice to the roles.

Most impressive, perhaps, is the fact that both of these movies are accessible to people who have little or no familiarity with the source material. How often can you say that about a parody movie?

I'm certain some of you are already wondering when I'm going to finally mention Spaceballs. Okay, I mentioned it. I saw it in the theaters and just wasn't that thrilled with it. I haven't bothered to watch it again since. Am I wrong about Spaceballs? Has it somehow gotten funnier in the 20+ years since I saw it? Or is there some parody movie I've not mentioned that's superior to Galaxy Quest and Young Frankenstein? Tied with, actually, but I didn't mention Without a Clue because it's a Sherlock Holmes parody and has nothing to do with science fiction. Great parody, though.

Let the arguments begin!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

I was trying to keep Ray Bradbury Week going today with a discussion of Bradbury's use of horror and violence, so I sat down last night with a big pile of paperbacks. Beginning with The Martian Chronicles, I Sing The Body Electric, R is for Rocket, S is for Space, The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of The Sun, Long After Midnight, The Toynbee Convector—yes, I'm apparently one of the few people who bought that one—I made a terrible discovery...

First off, Bradbury—or more likely, his publisher—recycles. A lot. Just how many times do "The Veldt," "A Sound of Thunder," and "The Fog Horn" need to be anthologized, anyway? I now remember why I stopped buying Bradbury books some decades ago: because I got tired of buying "new" books and discovering they were filled with stories I'd already bought in different collections.

But that's off-topic. The real discovery here is that, while there are macabre hints and suggestions galore, there are very few actual grisly bits, and almost all his violence takes place offstage. He routinely hints, foreshadows, or has his characters discover afterward. Very little physical action actually happens within the narrative confines of the story, in clear light and full view.

I suppose it was the tenor of the times. Most of these stories were written in the 1940s and early 1950s, and he has the same sense of detachment about sex. There are hints and suggestions of sexual attraction, affairs, and infidelities all over the place, but almost never anything actually onstage. In a way, there is a charming, refreshing, naïveté to this style: it's hard to imagine anyone else before or since writing a story like "The Long Rain" without throwing in at least one pitched and gory hand-to-flipper battle with the Venusians; writing a story like "Marionettes, Inc." without exploring the question of just exactly how anatomically correct these companion robots are; writing a story like "There Will Come Soft Rains" without going into icky detail about how the cleaning robots dispose of the dog that dies in the house; or in general, writing as frequently as he does about men on rocket ships without firing off at least one spread of space torpedoes or salvo of electro-zap cannon fire.

But no, that never happens. Bradbury never explains how his spacecraft work or what they look like, how his soldiers' and space-sailors' long-arms and sidearms work or look like, and almost never splashes blood onstage. And yet he had this reputation for writing stories of HORROR! and TERROR! that SHOCK! (I'm stealing adjectives from the marketing copy on the jackets, now) the reader! So I'm guessing today's lesson is that sometimes less is more, and sometimes it's far more effective to hint at something and let the reader's imagination fill in the rest than to actually work out the details of the thing. Either that, or maybe we've all just become a whole lot more jaded since 1950.

Your thoughts and comments?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Further notes on the demise of the publishing industry

...arrived today courtesy of Don Blyly, owner of Uncle Hugo's Science Fiction Bookstore, "The oldest [surviving] independent science fiction bookstore in America." According to Don:

"The book industry is in turmoil. It seems like every few weeks there’s another announcement of 100s of people fired by Borders, as they try to cut expenses enough to survive. Barnes & Noble has announced that it’s for sale. Some commentators are speculating that the independents are likely to be able to survive after the national chains go under, as happened in the music industry. [...]

"One author who has had almost two dozen titles come out in mass market paperback recently told me that his current publisher told him that he and many other authors will no longer get mass market editions of their books, just hardcover and trade paperback. The chains have been buying so few copies of mid-list mass market paperbacks, and then returning them so quickly, that this publisher no longer feels that mass market paperbacks are profitable for many of their mid-list authors.

"Dorchester Publishing, which has been in the mass market business for almost 40 years, announced that their September titles were already printed and shipping to the bookstores, but that would be the last mass market books they were going to publish. [...] After September, they are going to e-books only for all of their titles, with some of the titles coming out 6 months later in print-on-demand trade paperbacks at around $15 each."

Personally, I see this merely as further evidence that the dinosaurs have failed to adapt to the changing ecology, but if you want to wallow in despair, there's more.

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Is it time to start imagining what a world without bookstores might look like?

That's a question I've only recently begun to consider seriously for various reasons. One of those reasons is the news that the Barnes & Noble bookstore chain has been put up for sale. The chain isn't bankrupt, but they're apparently losing money left and right. This, despite entering the supposedly lucrative ebook market with their ereader, the Nook. That's a clever name, far better than "Kindle" if you ask me, but how many people are prepared to drop $149 on a device that allows them to read books that they still have to buy?

Borders, the country's second largest brick-and-mortar bookstore chain, has cast their lot into the ebook waters, as well, throwing their support behind Sony's ereaders, along with plans to start selling ebooks as well. But I've heard rumors that Borders may be in even more trouble than Barnes & Noble.

Independent bookstores have already been hit hard by the big chain bookstores. They won't be able to compete at all in the ebook market without a significant online presence and dedicated customers.

In fact, I may have started my column off with the wrong question. Perhaps we should consider if it's time to imagine a world without printed books. Ebooks, after all, have a lot of advantages over traditional printed books.

Ebooks do not have to be printed and have no true physical presence. That means all the money publishers currently spend on printing, shipping, and storing books can be saved. This, in turn, will reduce the cost of books. Both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble already sell the ebook version of a new hardcover for well less than the hardcover book costs.

Booksellers will no longer need to guess how many copies of a book to stock. Nor will they have to get rid of older books to make room on the shelves for new books. A bookseller should just have to keep track of sales each month and pay the publisher at the end of the month. Once again, with no physical inventory, there is no actual limit to the number of books a bookseller can make available to customers.

Most importantly, ebook publishing makes it possible for anyone to publish their own book. There are already plenty of sites online where you can purchase ebooks that have been "published" by the author. The cost of publishing an ebook is negligible, something you cannot say about the cost of publishing a paper book. An author no longer needs to risk thousands of dollars to publish his novel. Plus, to help move his novel, an author can offer several chapters of his novel for free, allowing readers to try before they buy. Finally, the ease of publishing ebooks means that writers and the reading public will no longer have their reading options restricted by a comparatively small number of decision makers at the various publishing companies.

But all of this is really going to depend on the success of ereader devices. I know of very few people who want to sit at their computer to read a book. Nor do they, for the most part, want to curl up with their laptop in their favorite chair. Ereaders are light and portable. Ereaders are not back lit, so they won't cause eye strain the way computers can. Ereaders are designed for exactly one thing; to make reading an ebook as comfortable and seamless as reading a printed book is. And, if ebooks are competitively priced, over a span over several years the cost of buying an ereader will be saved due to the lower prices paid for ebooks.

There are downsides to ebooks, too. Some people just love the feel and the smell of paper books and may never be satisfied with ereaders. It will be much more difficult to figure out what is worth reading and what is not worth reading if every budding author can publish his or her novel as an ebook. (I think reader reviews such as you see on Amazon.com will take on even more importance if ebooks become the primary means of publishing.) "Used" ebooks will have little or no value, making it more difficult to recycle books you'll only read once into books you haven't read yet.

Then again, there may be hope for those who insist on paper books in an ebook world. The Espresso Book Machine can print and bind a book from an electronic file in about five minutes. Those who insist on having a printed book could simply buy the ebook and then have it printed for them on one of these.

While I love the feel and smell of books, I am intrigued by ereaders. They may be worth it simply by being lighter than most paperbacks, much less some of those heavy hardback monsters that always seem to put a strain on my aging fingers, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. I'm seriously interested in trying an ereader for a while just out of curiosity. Price has definitely been an issue, but prices have been falling steadily. If prices drop far enough, one Monday you'll have the chance to read the Old Goat's review of an ereader.

I don't honestly believe the end of the printed book is nigh, but ebooks are going to change the face of publishing forever and, I believe, for the better. And that means it's an interesting time to be a writer.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

And the winner is...

In the matter of the 8/13/10 Friday Challenge, "Planet of the Dogs," the judges opinions are—

Actually, before we get to that, I just want to take a moment now to say how delighted I am that we not only got four really good entries this time, we also got a lot of really good commentary on the entries. This is when it works best, folks; when we get a good discussion going and start to think not only in terms of what makes a particular piece of story-telling fun, interesting, and exciting, but also in terms of ways in which we can help each other to improve.

And with that bit of gushing out of the way:

Guy Stewart, "Laughing with Kiiote"

Kersley: I think this really speaks to the challenge. In an interesting way, it also shows how we'd have to change our ideas of modesty if we were to develop a relationship with a dog-like race. The physical transformation from walking on all fours to walking upright was thorough. One questions, though--is that just a description of what would happen if they stood, or are they altering like a Transformer?

Henry: I'm intrigued enough by the little you wrote that I would love to read the story you plan to write! We don't get a feel for the technological level of the Kiiotes, though I'd guess not equal to that of the humans. I like the idea of a race which can alter its physical structure to allow it to walk upright or on all fours. That capability answers a lot of the challenge questions all by itself. And if some of the Kiiote had ever visited earth in the past, you've got a ready-made science fiction answer to the origin of the werewolf. There's lots of potential in this one.

Bruce: I was wondering if anyone would submit an entry like this one. I was relieved when Phenda was not required to reciprocate the gestures of greeting. This one definitely gets the coveted "Most Like What I Would Have Written" comment.

In oblique response to Henry's question though, I wonder how often someone thinks to write a story in which the intelligent aliens *were* technologically advanced enough to have visited Earth in ages past, but have since regressed. After all, the Chinese claim that they discovered America in 1421; they just didn't think it was a very interesting place or worth the work of colonizing.

Triton, "Xanthor, P.O.W."

Kersley: It's a good start, but I don't think it goes far enough. I like how Pack Father's history is a reverse Mowgli and his brothers. And how they view plants as "bait." He's just a little too human, though.

Henry: That was a fun scene but a few things don't really quite scan for me. Barring some kind of racial memory, I don't see how the origin of this canine species could ever be known as exactly as Xanthor tells it. I also got the feeling that Xanthor was monologuing, as he was willing to expound on just about every subject asked of him, especially when he gave away the olfactory component of their computers. Were Xanthor some kind of comic book supervillain, I could readily see that one bit of information coming back to bite his race in the end. It was fun, though.

Bruce: I'm actually rather getting to like Xanthor. He's not just a German Shepherd; he's a Nazi Shepherd. He's arrogant, insolent, supremely overconfident, and as Henry suggests, it would be really gratifying to see his superiority complex come around to bite him in the—er, tail—in the end. It's hard work to create a good villain. In Xanthor, you've got one who is reaching for greatness. I also really like the way you've pulled a reverse Mowgli, as Kersley pointed out, and also rolled in a bit of Tarzan, to end up with a ungrateful wolfling raised by apes instead of a boy raised by wolves. I don't have Henry's problem with the exactness of Xanthor's recounting of his species' origin; oppressive ideologies are often accompanied by an unshakable faith in the associated creation myths.

Arvid Mcenion, "The Best Meat in the Universe"

Kersley: Ohhh, there are problems galore, but I think it does what it was intended to. The vision of six-foot coyote-aliens in the mess, face-first in a bowl of taco meat gets the laugh.

Henry: Good job writing the speech of the canines in such a way that we were more or less capable of figuring out what they were saying while leaving just enough uncertainty to make things interesting. I'm rather doubtful an admiral would accept the word of a junior officer and UFO history enthusiast as sufficient to jeopardize first contact with a new species, either. It was a fun story, though, and the ending was well worth a laugh, even if it didn't actually answer any of the questions posed by the challenge.

Bruce: A very good short-short joke story. It needs further development and could stand to be another 500 words longer, but still, a great setup for the punchline. Oh, and the fractured communications in "doglish" are terrific. Keep it up.

ApolloKioku, "Contact"

Kersley: If you had only spent time on writing lovely, creative descriptions of the Yote, instead of the first scene of the story! There is something about this that makes me really want to read it when it's done.

Henry: What an intriguing collection of fragments we have from you! I really hate that deadlines prevented you from completing this (though I do understand) as it's a very tantalizing glimpse of the story to come. Please remember us when you finish it (there's the rewrite drop, for example) as I would love to read the finished story. As you predicted, though, there's not enough to judge in reference to the challenge.

Bruce: Fascinating fragments. Absolutely fascinating. Beautiful writing, and I really like the way you give us an insight into your writing process this early in the rough draft process. Yours is the only story that suddenly got me thinking of all the old Coyote/trickster myths and legends of the desert southwest, and wondering if there isn't a connection. I really want to see the ideas sketched out in this entry developed further, and I really like the way you made your Yotes poetic and gentle, not borderline werewolves.

And the winner is...

Kersley: My vote's for Guy. I think he answered the challenge best, but I also thing he really thought about (or even researched) how exactly a dog would act and communicate.

Henry: This was a good week for the challenge, with entries that were all over the place. In the end, I think the questions posed by the challenge were best answered by Guy (whose complete story I'm also looking forward to reading), so Guy gets my vote this week.

Bruce: After re-reading all the entries, re-reading my fellow judges' comments, and re-reading all the reader comments, I have to—somewhat reluctantly—ratify the troika's decision and declare Guy Stewart to be this week's winner. This reluctance has nothing to do with Guy's entry, but rather comes because Apollo's entry was beautiful but incomplete, Arvid's entry rough-edged but made me laugh, and Triton's entry... well, there's some seriously evil intelligence at work there, that's for sure. I also find myself shying away from calling the decision because of some misplaced sense of a "Mercy Rule," instilled in me long ago, probably during one of my dreary seasons of Cub Scout baseball.

But, no. Guy's entry is head-and-shoulders above the others and clearly the best writing, the best thought-out backstory, and the best answer to the challenge. So Guy Stewart is this week's clear winner—with a special Second Prize to be awarded to Triton, for inspiring this challenge in the first place.

Hmm. I suppose one of these days we should consider replacing the troika with a tetrarchy...

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke


Ninety years old today and still going strong. But more on this in a few minutes...

STUPEFYING STORIES update: Okay, we've finally got the last, cross-fingers, knock on wood, technical problems solved, and the thing is actually on the presses and in production. The official launch date is August 30, as that's when we're supposed to have finished printed copies ready to ship, although I won't really believe that until I actually have them in-hand. Stay tuned for more details.

Having now gone through the whole process of creating and producing a self-published book from beginning to (almost) the end, I don't see how anyone but a masochist or a total nutcase does it more than once. Of course, that's what my wife says about childbirth.

On a related note: while browsing through a used-book store the other day, I came across a copy of the Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show anthology that Tor put out a few years ago. To tell the truth, I felt kind of humbled, because the OSCIGM book was so... fat. Now that is the kind of book I could be putting out if I had major corporate backing, a serious budget, and an editor to do all the actual work, so that I could get back to doing what I actually want to be doing, which is writing new fiction.

Questions for the ensemble: does anyone here have any experience with the IGM? Have any new writers that you're aware of emerged from that workshop? What is the IGM doing that we should be doing, and what are they doing that we should stay the heck away from? If you've tried both, why are you here instead of there, or conversely, if you've taken your time and talent over there but still stop back here from time to time, why? Most importantly, is the Friday Challenge actually doing something usefully different from the IGM, or are we just a smaller, cheaper, and slightly later copy, and would we be better off ending our campaign now and telling everyone to go vote Orson Scott Card?

What I'm reading: because some people for some reason seem to think this is interesting.

R.U.R., by Karel Capek. Just about finished with it. I can see why this play is more talked about than actually read or performed.

Project Orion: The True Story of The Atomic Spaceship, by George Dyson—yes, Freeman Dyson's son, who remarkably is not an atomic mutant. A 4,000-ton spaceship propelled by exploding atomic bombs? And they actually got as far as a scaled-down working test model? Ah, for the good old days, when ARPA and the Pentagon were willing to fund truly mad science!

Generation Kill, by Evan Wright. I've long argued that most military sci-fi writers were mostly interested in refighting WWII with cooler weapons, except for those writers of my generation who are mostly interested in refighting the Vietnam war with cooler weapons and more cynical politics. If you have a desire to write military sci-fi, I strongly recommend that you look into this book, as it will open your eyes to a whole 'nother way of thinking—and should at least give you one or two chills along the way. Granted, these are U.S. Marines we're talking about, and not merely U.S. Marines, but Marines of the First Recon Battalion. But when they shoot their way out of an ambush, in the process nearly leveling an Iraqi town, and afterward one of the Marines is really pumped because it was just like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, only with real guns and real explosions...

These are not your daddy's or your granddaddy's U.S. Marines.

Finally, I don't know the name of the book or the author, but I have to slip in a moment of paternal pride here. The Kid was reading a new SF novel that he'd just bought and wasn't more than a quarter of the way into it when he stopped, looked up at me, and said, "Dad? This book is just Black Hawk Down rewritten as science fiction." Then he went on to tick off the checklist of substitutions: another planet for Mogadishu, aliens for Somalis, the Imperial Space Marines or some such thing instead of Army Rangers, cooler weapons (always a requisite in military SF), etc., etc., concluding with, "I was really looking forward to reading this book, but now I'm really disappointed by this author."

Keep that in mind when you cook up the plot and all the baroque details for your big hard clanking military SF splat-'em-up. If a 15-year-old kid can spot the bits you lift, you probably can't get away with it.

Some notes on the business: had a depressing conversation with a writer-friend the other day, mostly centering on how rapidly the industry is contracting.
Sorry, interruption. There was a hummingbird in the nasturiums and I had to stop writing for a few minutes to watch it. I don't know why I'm so delighted when hummingbirds show up, but I am. The finches and chickadees are beginning to feel slighted.
Anyway, it was the usual litany of woe, not for this writer, but for other writers she knows. The hardcover originals market remains relatively strong, but the paperback originals market is vanishing overnight. Contracts are being canceled, book releases delayed, publishers are cutting back their lines or even folding completely (most "publishers" these days actually being wholly owned subsidiaries or imprints of multinational entertainment oligopolies, which can be erased from existence at a whim during a corporate re-org); advances for next books are being drastically reduced while publishers' demands for author participation in promotional work are escalating dramatically, and nobody seems to have a handle on the ebook download market. "The thing to be right now," she said, "is a dead writer. Nobody expects Heinlein or V. C. Andrews to do webcasts, book tours, maintain a blog and a Facebook page, and Twitter all day long."

While I feel for those previously successful novelists who are suddenly discovering that they need to do something else for a living, having long since watched my own writing career wither and die I can afford to be a bit more philosophical. Historically, being able to make your living purely by writing fiction has been a very rare thing. Sir Walter Scott was probably the first "modern" writer to do so, and the list of 19th century writers who did nothing but write fiction—and did not also have a teaching post, or an undemanding government job, or a substantial inheritance, or a well-funded spouse—is vanishingly small: James Fennimore Cooper, Emile Zola, Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens... Jules Verne was a successful novelist, but he also wrote journalism and satires, and it was the stage rights to Around the World in 80 Days that made him rich. Mark Twain apparently made most of his money on non-fiction and lecture tours. You have to get to the 20th century before you start finding a lot of writers making their livings from doing nothing but writing fiction.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was probably the first American writer to get really rich by writing popular fiction, but that was primarily because he seemed to have a unique genius for creating characters and environments that adapted well to that strange new medium, the moving picture, combined with the business savvy to make certain that he and his heirs retained control of the rights. That his books have remained popular for the century since is probably largely the result of those great Frazetta covers Ace put on all his books when they reissued them in the 1970s. For example:

(Henry, Kersley: if you were wondering where that line about an age "when women still had vestigial tails" came from; this is it.)

It was not until the 1950s and the advent of the paperback originals market that it became possible for large numbers of writers to make their livings by writing only novels. It was not until the late 1960s and 1970s that it became possible for large numbers of science fiction and fantasy writers to make their livings writing only novels.

And now the market has shifted again. Whatever experience it is that young readers used to get from reading science fiction or fantasy, they're getting it someone else now. My suspicion is that the teenage girls have moved off into paranormal romance—although that sub-genre shows strong signs of being supersaturated already—while the teenage boys have moved into gaming.

The choice for the writer is simple. Adapt to the changing market conditions or get out. Either you are a writer, who enjoys writing and wants to write, in which case you will find other outlets for your verbal creativity, or else you're a plodding careerist who wants guaranteed income, in which case, boy, are you in the wrong field.

Anent Ray Bradbury: And once again I've gone off in six different directions simultaneously and not written that which I started out intending to write. (Actually, I intended to write this column yesterday, but then the dog ate something that did not agree with her and I spent the afternoon and evening steam-cleaning the carpets instead.)

I had—still have—a deep affection for Bradbury, going back to when I was 12 or 13 years old and first discovered The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles. I'd read SF before that—a lot of SF, largely Clarke, Asimov, Norton, and especially the Heinlein juveniles that were serialized in Boys' Life—but somehow I've never held the same affection for, say, Lucky Starr and The Pirates of The Asteroids that I've always held for Bradbury. Perhaps it has something to do with Bradbury being the first writer who made me say, "Wow! I want to write like that!" (After which, throughout my teenage years, I tried to, and produced a lot of Bad Imitation Bradbury.)

I've been loathe to reread Bradbury lately, for fear of shattering my happy memories. I finally got around to reading The Halloween Tree last year, and frankly, it was weird. I've had From The Dust Returned sitting on my to-read stack ever since, but have not been able to work up the nerve to tackle it.

But today being Ray Bradbury's 90th birthday and all, here's my question for you. What is the one story you would choose to re-read today, to celebrate this man's amazing life and career? The lines are now open.


Saturday, August 21, 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? Did you place a story in the Friday Challenge Rewrite Drop? 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?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Curiouser and Curiouser

Penguin's SF/F imprint, DAW, accepting unsolicited full manuscripts.

As are some of Penguin's young readers imprints.

And I thought I was going to have a relaxing weekend...

The Friday Challenge - 8/20/10

Kerlsey Fitzgerald celebrates the beginning of school by riding her bike and then having a massive allergy attack. Then she gives us links to varying positions on the paper book versus ebook debate. Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke writes four different columns under the guise of Name that Column. Read and discuss the latest on Stupefying Stories. Join the discussion about Friday Challenge Submission Formats. If writing groups are your thing, take a look at this column. Or give everyone your ideas on what is offensive and what is just a PC jerk of the knee.

Henry Vogel expands on a subject he heard discussed at NASFIC; the sacred and the profane. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu asks which summer blockbuster movies lived up to their billing and which were turkeys. Join the discussion...

Carmine Vrill takes the win in the 8/6/10 Friday Challenge, "Postcards With an Edge", Kersley Fitzgerald asks the important question is your idea genius or signs you're off your meds? The inmates discuss the view from their respective locations in the asylum. All this and more, this week in THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE.

And now for the current challenge.

"Planet of the Dogs"
Here are the entries for the 8/13/10 lesser Friday Challenge, in which we challenged you to redesign canines as an intelligent, tool-using, space-faring race. Entries are presented in approximately the order in which they were received:

Guy Steward, "Laughing With Kiiote"

Triton, "Xanthor, P.O.W."

Arvid Macenion, "Best Meat in the Universe"

ApolloKioku, "Contact"

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 new challenge.

The Sound of Summer Running (Void Where Prohibited By Law)
Ray Bradbury celebrated his 90th birthday by unloading on ebooks, the internet, and the president for not planning a moon colony. Meanwhile, I simply cannot think of Ray Bradbury without thinking of a story he wrote back in 1956, "The Sound of Summer Running," in which a then 36 year-old Bradbury channeled the magic new sneakers held to a child of the fifties. For those who have never read the story, or who haven't read it in far too many years, you can find a PDF copy here. Go read it now. We'll wait.

Did you read it? No? Seriously, you do want to read it. It's necessary for the challenge. Now go read it. We'll wait again, but this is the last time.

Whether you've read it or not, we're now getting on with the challenge. Think upon this wonderful story (if, you know, you've actually read the wonderful story). Think about how thoroughly set in the 1950s it is. Who believes "old Mr. Sanderson" actually works at a place called Sanderson's Shoe Emporium? Who puts a shoe store just out on the street in town? Where's the mall? And sneakers? Sneakers? Where are the basketball, track, tennis, and skateboarding shoes with the expensive sports stars names attached? Plus, who believes a kid can land a job just by asking? He didn't fill out an application? He didn't have to provide a Social Security card and proof of either U.S. citizenship or a green card? Finally, Sanderson is just going to let this kid run errands around town without deducting for insurance or having the kid's parents sign a waver freeing Sanderson of any liability in case the kid runs out in front of a truck?

Yep, this is a seriously 1950s story, all right. It really needs to be updated to be relevant to your average 21st century American child. While Bradbury is still writing, we here at the Friday Challenge figure he's got better things to do with what years he has left than to rewrite "The Sound of Summer Running." That's where you come in!

Your challenge is the write the updated, 21st century version of "The Sound of Summer Running." Get cynical, satirical, sarcastic, funny, or even depressing, but give us the definitive rewrite. Don't just sit there! Go read that story (we know you didn't read it either time we waited) and start rewriting!

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 26.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, "Planet of the Dogs", 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 less than 1000 words, though that is most definitely not a rule or requirement. If your muse instructs you to write far more than 1000 words, write on! 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

Well, you all refused to do my work for me and send in a finished story to be torn sentence-from-sentence. Have you no mercy? So I had to come up with another idea for today's article.

Which I did. Two, actually. Two fabulous, Earth-shattering, mind-numbing ideas, both of which require a lot of research and work and stuff. And you'd think I'd have the time, what with this being the first blessed day of school and all. But I rode my bike, instead. (I always name my bikes, but I haven't this one yet. I'm thinking TRAG or something--Tax Refunds Are Great. Maj Tom got glasses, instead.)

And it was a great ride. I was shooting for twenty miles but, after chugging a smoothy way too fast, realized I needed to crank it down to sixteen. Twelve miles of which were in black-eyed-Susan country.

Then a trip to the Perk for my celebratory school's-back-matte (tasted like grass) and a little Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Then back home to put in my hours at work at job #1 so I can go to job #3 tomorrow and Friday.

But wait! How could I forget? I am violently allergic to black-eyed Susans. I love them. They're like the "What Not To Wear" of the daisy world. But even a daily Claritin and a brace of weekly shots could not fend off the vile allergens. I'm dying here. My eyeballs are swelling into my brain. It's pretty gross.

All that to say, I'm toast. I'm sure, despite your gracious acceptance of my second-rate articles, you're not really interested in a fourth-rate article. I will try to get the good ones written in the weeks ahead. (Maybe I should write down the ideas before I forget...)

But! Google Reader smiles upon me. Two blog entries, one by a successful author, another by a New York agent, both on the same topic. A topic that has been discussed to some degree here. Still, as People Who Actually Read Books Occasionally, I'm interested in your view.

So peruse the following, then give your opinion. Remember to show your work.

First from Joe Konrath, author.

Second, from an anonymous NY agent.

And, finally, the source material.

Kersley Fitzgerald is...going to look again for that Benadryl.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

Well, here we are, winding down into late August again. Another summer has come and gone, and with it, another crop of summer blockbuster movies. The obvious question is: which was the best one?

The Kid votes for Iron Man 2. Daughter #3 recommends Scott Pilgrim vs The World, but her strong second choice is Inception. I really enjoyed The A Team, although until we got into this discussion over dinner last night I'd forgotten that I'd watched it, and The Other Guys also got some support from some members of the dinner party, although I'll never see it, because watching Will Ferrell makes me break out in hives. I have a slight desire to extend the definition of "summer" back to April, in order to include Clash of The Titans for consideration, but that led to someone else's suggesting that the definition be pushed back to March, to include some other movie whose name I've already forgotten.

I think The Expendables may stake the claim for being the movie of this summer: it's big, long, loud, stupid, and extremely—almost surrealistically—violent, but on the other hand, it's also aware of exactly what it is, and does have a distinctly Rio Bravo quality to it. E.g., the Last Ride of the Fat Old Guys, getting on their horses and coming out of retirement one more time to show the kids just exactly how it's done.

As for the Golden Turkeys of Summer 2010: there are so many in consideration that perhaps we should save this topic for next week—or should we just do it now and get it out of our collective systems? Jonah Hex? Grown Ups? The Sorceror's Apprentice? Kick Ass? MacGruber? (Although I think any movie based on an SNL skit has an unfair advantage in this area.) The Last Airbiscuitbender? Did anyone even see Prince of Persia?

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.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

In last week's column, I mentioned a panel I attended about creative insults. One important the panelists discussed was knowing what was considered sacred and profane in your world. While it was discussed for only a few minutes, this is not a trivial subject.

Consider our current world. What is sacred and what is profane in our world? The answer to that question varies from culture to culture and even from person to person within a culture. Here's a brief list of things that are generally considered sacred within U.S. culture:
  • God
  • Life
  • Marriage
  • Children
  • Family
  • Fidelity
  • Liberty
These things may not be "sacred" by the traditional definition, but they are considered by many to the bedrock upon which our nation was formed. Things which threaten what we consider sacred become profane. Our worst curse words revolve around God, marriage, and things our culture says should be reserved for marriage. Yet I could find someone -- probably right here in my own neighborhood -- who holds only some or none of these things to be sacred. I might easily find someone whose list of the sacred includes:
  • The earth
  • Climate change
  • Over population
  • Eating vegan
  • All life on the planet
The variation between these two lists automatically leads to conflict; and our culture expends vast amounts of time and energy on this conflict.

Cross either the Atlantic or Pacific and you'll find yourself with different lists of the sacred and profane. There will almost always be similarities between the lists, but even those things that are similar can be totally different.

For example, Christians and Jews rarely mind telling jokes concerning God, Jesus, the prophets, or the saints provided the jokes do not cast the religious figure in a bad light. No matter how innocuous a joke about a religious figure may be, Islam views all such jokes as blasphemy. While Christians, Jews, and Muslims would all place God at the top of their "sacred" list, conflict can still arise over the subject.

Note the word I keep using when discussing the sacred; conflict. And what is necessary for a good story? Conflict.

Any time your story is set in a made-up culture, taking the time to choose what is sacred and what is profane to the people in that culture will time well spent. Not only will it increase your understanding of your made-up culture, it will add credence to the curses your characters utter and provide a potential source of secondary conflict between those characters.

One problem I had with science fiction from the supposed golden age was the assumption that science would unify everyone. Take Asimov's Foundation series as an example. The only religion found in the series is religion created by the Foundation among their less advanced, more superstitious neighbors. There are no great scientific debates nor any great scientific rifts that take on the tenor of religion. One need merely look at the conflict over climate change -- regardless of which side you take in the conflict -- to see how scientific arguments can take on the tinges of religion among those who are heavily vested in their position. Climate change is hardly the only example of this kind of behavior here on earth. What makes you think human nature will change simply because humans have spread to the stars?

The short answer is it won't change. What will change is what various human cultures consider to be sacred and profane.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

And the winner is...

In a stunning break from business as usual, we, the ruling troika of THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE, are actually going to announce the winner on Sunday evening for a change! Don't let it throw you; no doubt we'll be back to our old habits next week.

But this week, in the matter of the 8/6/10 Friday Challenge, "Postcards From the Edge," the considered opinions of the judges are:

Miko, "Pilgrimage to the Holy Land"

Kersley: That was just cool. I’m not sure if the combination of beer and fervent religion was ironic or tells me you need an intervention, but I’m going with ironic and whimsical and Canticle for Leibowitz-ish and…cool.

Henry: Now that's a pilgrimage I would be willing to go on! Not having an inkling of most of the foreign words, I was buying the religious subtext completely. Having it turn out to be beer was just a great turn around (and makes the whole beheading-was-merciful bit in postcard 2 all the better). This was a lot of fun, though it's more of a travelogue than a story.

Bruce: Henry? For some of us, beer is religion. Or at least, as Benjamin Franklin once said, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Miko? Beautiful, just beautiful. I have enough familiarity with the Czech language to have realized from the start where this was going, and still I savored every delicious golden drop. I was mildly disappointed when I realized that those were not your photos—and so this remains only a pilgrimage in fantasy—but still, it was a very clever idea and very well executed. And admitting this does not come easily to me, as this is closer to my heart. (Pfah! Czechs! What do they know?)

Arvid Macenion, "Postcards Home"

Kersley: Very cute. I love that it’s a camp for “females” -- as if female doesn’t necessarily mean girl. The “do you think maybe she could come over some time?” was just spot on.

Henry: I should have figured we'd get at least one postcards-from-camp entry and yours was fun. As there are only a couple of different ways this kind of story can end -- the kid keeps hating camp or starts enjoying it -- they tend to be predictable. The fun is in how the child finds a way to break through and start enjoying herself. Also, placing Sarah in a camp for lots of different species really helped build the isolation she felt at the beginning. All in all, a good, enjoyable entry.

Bruce: Henry is right; there is a predictable quality to the postcards-from-camp structure that undercuts the impact of the story. All the same, this one was really enjoyable, and I find myself wishing I knew more about the YA market, so that I could give you some advice on developing this into something that might be sellable. Guy Stewart, if you're reading, please feel free to jump in.

M & Avery, "Postcards"

Kersley: [comments unprintable]

Henry: Scribbler lives! What long, strange retcon it's been, too. Guys, we're talking some serious inside jokes in this entry! Add in the ongoing Haldeman autograph bit and you've got something guaranteed to confuse almost everyone. I really liked the absinthe pun, too. Well done in an "I'm still trying to wrap my brain around this one" way.

Bruce: [having trouble with drop i/o, but trusting Henry's assessment that it's the Mother-in-Law of All Inside Jokes]

Carmine Vrill, "Dear Samantha"

Kersley: Cool, enigmatic entry. Some of the word choices are a little off. If I was in a jungle filled with silent monkeys, I don’t think I’d call it “grating.” Like the Bandit’s entry from last week, I feel like the third quarter is missing something. What happened? What do the changes in font represent? Is the writer possessed?

Henry: Very creepy with a nice tie-in to the whole "world will end in 2012" theme, though that's Mayan rather than Incan. The postcards reminded me a bit of Lovecraft. Of course, I've never been able to finish a single Lovecraft story, so take that with a grain of salt. I liked the way you ratcheted up the tension with each postcard and used the font selection to aid in telling the story. Nicely done!

Bruce: And right in the middle of my writeup, as I was sitting out of the deck in the growing dark, swatting mosquitoes, listening to the oppressive racket of the tree frogs, and ducking the occasional low-flying bat -- which is to say, feel quite sufficiently jungle-ish -- my wi-fi connection decided to take a dump. Which is why this is being posted a few minutes after the scheduled time after all. And the short version is, very nicely done, very Gothic.

Watkinson, "Postcards With an Edge"

Kersley: Yeah. There you go.

Henry: In a way, this entry and Carmine's entry are similar in that the main character enters the jungle and is vastly changed by what he finds; possessed (I assume) in Carmine's entry, obsessed in yours. I thought the willingness to kill to preserve his obsession came out of nowhere. The character went from hoping to persuade to willing to kill between the third and fourth postcards. I know that's readily possible in real life, but we like a bit more foreshadowing in our fiction.

Bruce: Trying to reconstruct the comments that were lost when my wi-fi took a dump, basically, I really liked the way you sketched out a complete story arc in a very few well-chosen words. I would really like to see this one developed into a longer story.

And the winner is...

Kersley: When I first read the challenge, I was thinking something along the lines of the babysitter’s voice mails in The Incredibles. I’m happy to be able to vote for Watkinson this week. I’ve always loved his storytelling; with this one, he handles the writing, too. Miko's was very complete, and Carmine's has a lot of potential, but I think Watkinson's matched what I was hoping for.

Henry: Despite selecting the wrong ancient civilization to be holding TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It) prisoner, I thought Carmine's entry fulfilled the requirements of the challenge best while also telling a good story. Carmine gets my vote this week.

Bruce: Tough choice. I enjoyed Miko's the most, I liked the tone and message of Arvid's story, I wish I could have read M & Avery's entry even though it was an inside joke, I was somewhat fearful that Carmine's story was going to turn into some sort of Aliens vs. Predators fanfic and greatly relieved when it didn't, and I think Watkinson's entry has the most potential to be turned into something longer and possibly marketable. Reading the reader's comments didn't help much; all of them got votes and none was the clear and overwhelming favorite. Therefore, operating on the principle that I can't ship the obvious prize to Miko by mail -- if you show up at DragonCon, I'll buy you one, instead -- I'm going to cast my tie-breaking vote for...

Carmine Vrill for the win, with Honorable Mention to Arvid Macenion. And Watkinson, I really want to see more of this story and hope you'll develop it further.

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

As typically happens when I go a few weeks without writing a column, I've wound up with a backlog of topics to discuss and a shortage of time in which to really develop each one into a full column. In the interests of flushing the buffer, then, and also to keep the comment threads from getting hopelessly entangled, I've decided to fire off a quartet of smaller posts and this disambiguation post. On today's menu:

FRIDAY CHALLENGE Submission Formats
Re Writing Groups
Taking and Giving Offense

And one more topic for discussion, should you choose: is this multiple-post format useful or annoying?


For those of you who have been wondering but are too polite to ask, after a long series of fiddly but really aggravating little technical problems, STUPEFYING STORIES is finally in production. The printer assures me that we should have a proof copy ready to review and sign-off on in the next two days or so, and assuming no more ugly surprises leap out and bite us, we should have finished copies ready to ship sometime in the week of the 23rd. At that time both the paper and Kindle editions will go up for sale on Amazon—there are good business reasons for releasing both simultaneously—and we can take a well-earned moment to step back and sigh in relief...

And then get started on the October issue.

In the process of getting this thing out the door I have unfortunately learned far more about the ways in which PDF files interact with Windows that I'd ever really wanted to, and consequently developed a great affection for Kindle files. They're so bluddy simple, in comparison. However, it still seems as if the smart thing to do is to release new books in two simultaneous editions: a short run of printed books, for thems as still wants dead trees, and a Kindle edition for the rest of the world.

As for you few who are whining about there not being an iBook version—yes, I can hear you, all the way over here—my answer is, "There's an app for that." Specifically, there is the free Kindle Reader app, in versions available for Mac, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Android, and Windows PC. Yes, I know, this is not exactly the most user-friendly and seamless solution possible, but from the publisher's point of view, it's far better than trying to deal with a certain computer and media company that pays a lot of lip-service to working with indies but doesn't actually want to, not really.

Your thoughts, comments, and observations? 

FRIDAY CHALLENGE Submission Formats

The question once again seems to have come up: why do I have an unreasoning objection to FC entries submitted as audio files? The answer is that I don't. In fact I have had a lifelong love of the radio play as a storytelling medium, and still feel that Vidad and KTown's "Heather Has Two Mommies, Three Daddies, A Pig's Spleen and a Baboon's Heart" is one of the most entertaining entries we've ever received.


(You knew that was coming, didn't you?) The thing I've observed in writing group after writing group, for more than thirty years, is that a really good story teller can sell listeners on a story that, on later reflection, makes no sense whatsoever. I first ran into this in a writing group in which the working method was for each writer to read his or her story aloud. We had one writer who had a magnificent baritone reading voice, worthy of Charlton Heston, and as the saying goes, could read the phone book out loud and make it sound exciting. We all loved to hear him read his stories—and then, after the meeting was over, a few of us would be cleaning up, and we'd start looking at each other, and then somebody would invariably ask, "Uh, did you understand [name]'s story? 'Cause I gotta tell you, I had no idea what the hell he was talking about."

More recently I was in a screenwriting group composed largely of wanna-be and out-of-work actors, and observed the same principle in operation, in spades. These people all had a pronounced tendancy to write great lines, and sometimes great scenes, that sounded great while the writer was reading them. But all too often a good dramatic reading obscured the fact that there was nothing connecting one scene to the next, and no overall sense to the work. These people were producing patchwork quilts of cool images and strongly dramatic interactions, not works with any central—or even coherent—ideas.

I dunno. Perhaps I'm just stuck in the last century. I've certainly watched enough movies lately that seemed to be the results of the patchwork-quilt writing process. And the prevailing wisdom does seem to be that to be a successful writer in the Internet age, you can't just write: you've also got to have a Facebook presence, a Twitter channel, and a YouTube hit with a million views. I don't know that I really believe that, as while there certainly have been enough publishing contracts signed, and booklike cellulose products manufactured, marketed, launched up the bestseller lists like skyrockets and then instantly remaindered, I've yet to read a coherent book actually written by a talk-radio host or a prominent blogger—or at least, by one who was not already a successful print writer first, before transitioning to electronic media. (Ghostwritten books don't count.)

But... your thoughts? 

Re Writing Groups

Arisia asks some good questions about the mechanics of writing groups. I've been in a lot of them over the years, some pretty good, and a few really horrid—and if I had the time to write a full column, I'd relate more of the horror stories, as some of them are pretty hilarious in hindsight—

But for now, let's just stick with what works. The best writing groups I've been in, judged in terms of producing the most published work by the most group members, generally followed a process something like this.

The group meets on a regular basis; say monthly. Groups that meet on an ad hoc basis always fall apart rapidly.

Everyone submits something to the group for every meeting. Missing once is understandable; missing twice puts you on probation; and not submitting for three meetings in a row gets you booted. This weeds out the "critique sadists," who join writing groups seemingly for the sole purpose of insulting other people. Yes, I've met plenty of those. They're all filed under "horror."

Everyone submits well in advance of the next meeting. At least a week in advance, if it's a short story, and a month isn't out of the question, if you're working on a novel. There's no official length limit, but good manners dictate that submissions be kept under ten thousand words—unless you're well into a novel, and also willing to accept that your fellow group members might only read and comment on part of what you submit.

Everyone submits their entry on paper, or in an emailed text or rtf file. Thus the members of the group will be seeing the work as an editor would; in cold, unadorned, print.

At the group meeting, the members sit in a circle, tackling each submission in turn, with everyone commenting on every submission. And—this is the really hard part—the author of the piece being critiqued just SHUTS UP AND LISTENS, until everyone else has had their say. No arguing. No whining. No answering questions unless specifically asked. Most of all, no carrying a grudge, and just sitting there steaming and itching for your chance to savage the wretched Philistine who just slagged your work.

There; that's a very short summary of what I've seen to work best. Your thoughts, comments, and observations? 
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