IT'S ALIVE!

1.5 - March 2012

Kindle U.S. | U.K. | Germany | France | Italy | Spain | Nook | iTunes | Kobo
 
1.4 - January 2012

Kindle U.S. | U.K. | Germany | France | Italy | Spain | Nook | iTunes | Kobo
 
1.3 - December 2011

Kindle | Nook | iTunes | Kobo
 
1.2 - November 2011

Kindle | Nook | iTunes | Kobo
 
1.1 - October 2011

Kindle | Nook | iTunes | Kobo

Blog Archive

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

World Enough, and Time

Greetings, Challengers, and welcome to the first of (I hope) a long series of articles on "finding the time to write and to publish."

Otogu ("Other Things of Greater Urgency," the demon-entity scourge of the Friday Challenge) is a many-armed beast.  No one person--a sane one, anyway--could possibly hope to catalog them all, or live long enough  to even accomplish half of the dreaded task, but here, at least, is a representative sample.  On her right side, she has arms labeled "Ultimate Time Sink" (aka "The Day Job"), "Commute Time," "Daily Chores," and "The Horrendous List of Things You've Been Putting Off Since Last Halloween."  Her left arms include "Quality Time," "Poker Night," and the horrific "Writer's Block" (aka "We Don't Need to Eat Until Next Friday").  (Oh...and there's also an extra mouth, filled with row upon row of jagged black shark-like teeth, labeled simply "Video Games").

But this series is not about Otogu; rather, it is about the weapons we can take up in the holy quest to fight Otogu, and the skills to use those weapons to their best effectiveness.

At the top of the list is the Lance of Portability.  There is simply no substitute for having the ability to write with you at all times.  That way, unexpected surprise delays--like sitting at a railroad crossing, or or the wait in an emergency room with the thirteen year old who did not realize that that particular branch, thirty feet off the ground, was rotten and easily broken--become instant excuses to add a few lines to the work-in-progress.  In ages past, there was little alternative to a pad and pen, but in recent months, the ability to actually type while away from the keyboard has become more and more practical.  Alphasmart, Quickpad, and laptop computer have all given way to netbook, Star Trek-style Pad computer and ebook reader, and even smartphone (two pages of my Nano novel attempt last year were punched into a Blackberry).

Flexibility is a critical blade.  I find it difficult to "move on" to another scene in the story before the current one is done...but if there's a piece to the scene that has not yet worked its way up from my subconscious, the story bogs down to a halt.  Last year's Nano attempt was the first time I've ever been able to "jump around" in the storyline.  Consider it a cure for writer's block; if this chunk isn't flowing, move on to something else, and keep going.  It is a difficult weapon to master, but well worth the effort.

Some writers--not me--find the Holy Armor of Organization to be of utmost importance.  They outline the story, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, even paragraph by paragraph, so that the entire story is clear and concise before the first word of exposition reaches the page.  Sorry, but this is a suit of troll's armor that this particular hobbit has never been able to wear...mainly because my stories seem to wander from the outline as the characters take on personalities and minds of their own.

Last, and most definitely not least for this particular article, is the Shield of Support.  Take it from me, guys...if you don't have encouragement and understanding from She Who Must Be Obeyed, your writing career will slowly grind to a halt.  Ladies, there's no doubt in my mind that you'll have a similar problem without the understanding of your significant others as well.

Now, properly armed and armored, we can wade back into the heat of battle, and start lopping off arms, right and left...

-=ad=-


Allan Davis is a writer, photographer, database programmer, and--along with wife Yvette--new business owner.  He also seems to enjoy the pain and punishment of trying--and failing--to complete a novel in thirty days each November...and fully admits that the purpose of this series is much more to find time to write himself than to help anyone else find the time to write, though that's an added benefit.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Ruminations of an Old Goat

For as long as I can remember, I've held the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in a kind of awe. When my family visited Washington, DC, when I was a child, there was nothing I wanted to see more than the Tomb. I still visit the Tomb whenever I can, enjoying the hushed crowd while taking a few moments to reflect on the bravery and sacrifice of those men and women in whose honor the Tomb was established. On this Memorial Day, I entreat you all to take just a little time from your day and remember.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

And the winner is...

Our fifth challenge might well have been dubbed "The Friday Challenge: Deathmatch," as two previous champions went head-to-mead, mano-a-mano, BEM-to-BEM (without the BEM), et cetera... and quite fittingly, they were both also brave enough to exchange votes.

That's right, summer is about to begin! Summer means busy schedules filled with work, travel, a little recreation, a little beer, and more work. This participatorial slump is not unanticipated.

We ebb and we flow, and we aren't going away. In fact, we're just getting started.




If any either of you are able to take a second look at your own work, and see ways in which to improve a concept so that it can be more successfully developed, the effort will have been worthwhile.

Those of you who vote are allowed to assign a range of “0” to “3” points, per entry. Since challengers may not vote for their own stories, a bonus of 2 points is given to a participant's highest-ranked work, if that participant also takes the time to vote on the other entries.

Official judges receive a 30 point allocation, to assign as they see fit. The only restriction is that at most, only half of those points may be given to any single entry. (Note: There is no requirement that the entire 30 point allocation be used.)

miko is about to put on the “Editor Hat.” It's sort of like the “Sorting Hat” they use at Hogwarts (“It's so quiet, I think I'll just prop myself up and relax...”), but a little more nearsighted. Remember, this time it can only see a maximum of 250 words.


Props for Props

“Plague of Witches” by Ryan J

miko: Although we get only a glimpse of a larger story, this scene is loaded with allusions and sub-text, so we learn quite a lot about what has likely transpired and what might be to come. There are fun moving parts and imaginative touches. As a scene, "A about to meet V", I think it is compelling and effective - I imagine we'd all now like to read about the meeting. Well done on the writing.

Nit-pick: "resisted her" and "strands" are both repeated within a three sentence sequence.

Now on to the homework assignment.

The opening dwells on A's restraints, but that's not the revealing prop. The middle dwells on the setting's contents, but that's not the revealing prop. The tablet bearing the scene's final phrase - that's the revealing prop.

What does it reveal, and about whom? The prop tells us about the off-screen V and I think we learn he's had a kind of awakening - a change of heart, born of regret and futility - that he thinks things have gone too far and that the future depends on taking a different tack. I think this might foreshadow a surprising purpose for the coming meeting.

Assuming I'm not too far off, the scene is indeed revelatory, but I think the prop does not carry the freight by itself: its power is dependent upon what we've been told about A's benign treatment and about general circumstances, yet these are not exactly the story of the prop itself.

That's not a problem for the scene - only its evaluation regarding the Challenge statement: the prop might be telling us less about V's inner character than about a coming plot twist.

(good literary score; ok challenge score)


Ryan J: voted! / xdpaul: 2
miko: 10
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 14



“The Applause of Applesauce” by xdpaul

miko: Who'd have expected this entry to not only be the longest, but to actually exceed the suggested word count?

This piece is a challenge unto itself. I've played with the puzzle parts, but can't make out the picture. The story paints a terrifically disturbing backdrop, but of what? A plagued society? A self-destructing society?

Since I discount persons as props, the prop must be the jar of applesauce, but does it serve symbolism or characterization? The story focuses on the encounter with the woman and on the environment that produced it, making the function of the applesauce obscure.

It's not clear to me whether R's trembling hand is the result of his haunting encounter with the woman, or is a symptom of finally becoming similarly afflicted. Maybe the applesauce is some kind of odd elixir? Maybe he needs the pectin boost against diarrhea? (See what it's come down to?)

Since we're told R is a professional and a gentleman, the state of the contents of his fridge is certainly incongruous. I was inclined to think the applesauce had been all the food there was to be had, but if food were so hard to come by, why would he have let the contents of the fridge expire before consuming it?

My best guess is that the ridiculous applesauce is symbolic of a crestfallen man who no longer cares enough to take care of himself. But, then, is the empty jar discarded with violence out of frustration, resentment, anger, disgust, or hopelessness?

Nit-pick: "She had judging him".

I think this piece could be great in its place within a larger whole because the images are striking, the setting is decidedly worrisome, and I'd like to know what’s going on generally and with R specifically. The problem for me is that the very oddity of the prop raises questions, rather than clarifies something about the character. I have guesses but I don't come away feeling like I know.

That said, if I entered his kitchen and saw the scattered shards from the broken jar (not even knowing about the applesauce), I'd definitely start to wonder what was up with him - and maybe that tilts toward characterization.

I wonder, might you have ironically run afoul of Flash Fiction Advisory #5?

(good literary score; ok challenge score)


Ryan J: 3 / xdpaul: voted!
miko: 13
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 18



Wrap-up...

Based on the numbers, our reigning champion from last week continued to hold a decisive lead, with a strong showing by the runner-up:

2nd Place: 14 points — “Plague of Witches” by Ryan J

1st Place: 18 points — “The Applause of Applesauce” by xdpaul

Congratulations, xdpaul! Since you also won last week's challenge (and thus proposed the new one, taking yourself out of next week's competition), you have the option of selecting another new challenge proposal this coming Friday, or passing the “Editor Hat” to Ryan J, so that you may more quickly participate again.


Afterword...

So what was the lesson of this challenge?

miko: I don't think the entries were entirely successful as exercises prescribed by the Challenge, but as Vidad taught me many moons ago, that's not really what's important.

The point of a Challenge is to spur us to use our words, because writers write. The better outcome of a Challenge entry would be that its content becomes (part of) a completed work that the author seeks to publish. It is a very distant second that a Challenger might have gotten a chance to practice up on some isolated technique or topic.

So, true success for a Challenger is not determined by how well a judge thinks the entry addressed the Challenge in any technical sense, but by whether the Challenger himself thinks he's come away with a productive bit of writing. In this more important sense, both entries may yet be quite successful.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

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?

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Friday Challenge — 5/27/2011

This week in The Friday Challenge:

Guy Stewart relates a string of effective techniques for pestering editors into submission. • Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel shares an essential snippet of business acumen, and promises Vidad a commission. • Join the discussion...

-=ad=- picks a fight... er, invites the rest of us to pick a fight. • Join the discussion...

xdpaul is too subtle for his own good. • Join the discussion...

Arisia meets Kersley Fitzgerald, Waterboy, Lady Quill and -=ad=-... and has the photos to prove it. • Join the discussion...

xdpaul wins the What’s Luck Got To Do With It? challenge, by being lucky spinning prose that is simply beautiful, and meeting the challenge. • Join the discussion...

All this and more, as M's daughter talks him out of a whole pocketful of change on Lucky Penny Day, the shattering of an appropriately impressive glass ceiling is observed on Sally Ride Day, and the inmates discuss the view from their respective places in the asylum.


Props for Props

As of the deadline for our current challenge, we have received the following entries (listed in their order of appearance within Files > Friday Challenge 2011 05 27):

  • “Plague of Witches” by Ryan J

  • “The Applause of Applesauce ” by xdpaul

An enthusiastic "Huzzah" to all who have entered! The judges are now considering your submissions. A winner will be declared by the evening of Sunday, 29 May 2011.


That's Infotainment!

And now it is time for this week's Friday Challenge, courtesy of xdpaul:

The venerable Henry ran with a wonderful commentary on the nature of entertainment in the future in a recent post.

We also had a vorpal discussion of fantastic fights, and how the really great ones contribute more than action: they deliver key stories, too.

This week's challenge draws its inspiration from both:

That's Infotainment!

First, Develop, for any genre, any setting, the (hard) rules for a new game or the parameters of a new entertainment. This can be in any format, as long as it is as specific and detailed, as, say, the rules to Hi-Ho Cherry-O (or any other boxed game - i.e. enough that, in theory, it could be recreated, given the resources - even if said resources are literally unattainable.)

Then, write out a very brief fictional discription of a pivotal move, choice or moment as it might occur in that game or entertainment.

To put it another way: write the "rules" for an unknown game or entertainment, then a brief scene that demonstrates how the game or entertainment can advance a plot point.

You may identify the genre if you like, and there is no word limit, low or high.


Anyone can enter, except for xdpaul. You may enter as many times as you wish, but each entry must be independent of the others. There is no length limit this time, but you are still not allowed to build on anyone else's setup.

Everyone is asked to vote, and to say a few words about what they liked, and why. Or to say a few words about what they disliked, as the case may be; by submitting an entry, you implicitly agree to accept criticism, because there will probably be some handed out, and no one is immune. When voting, please rank a work as either “0” (not so good), “1” (not as bad), “2” (could have been better) or “3” (pretty good stuff!). If you give either a “0” or “3” vote, feel free to argue in support of your reasoning.

Don't like the negativity? Feel free to think of the levels as “0” (Not bad for a first attempt), “1” (Right on!), “2” (Holy cow, I wanna buy this now...) or “3” (Sweet mother of God, how did you write something this awesome?!!). The point is to clearly differentiate, and rank according to your own preference.

For the purposes of this challenge xdpaul will be serving as Ye Olde High Marker, Voluntarily Walking th' Plank.

As of now, we are playing by the loosely enforced and slightly modified rules of The Friday Challenge. All entries are due by 6 AM Eastern time on the morning of Friday, 3 June May 2011. A winner will be declared by the evening of Sunday, 5 June 2011.

Oh, there is one more thing... but it is the most important! Have fun. Always have fun.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge — Props for Props — is 6 AM Eastern time on the morning of Friday, 27 May 2011... less than twenty-four hours away.

Entries may be added to The Friday Challenge Yahoo Group (see the appropriate directory within the "Files" section), hosted on your personal blog(s) and linked within the comments for the challenge, or copied directly into the comments section as a post.

In previous challenges, we have accommodated late entries. This time, we have no such luxury; if you post an entry much later than 6 AM Eastern time, there is a chance the judges will not be able to properly consider your work. Should you anticipate a need to snowdog, please mentally back the deadline up as much as necessary. If the deadline hits and you are very, very close, please publicly announce your intention to enter.

A winner will be declared by the evening of Sunday, 29 May 2011.

Critical Thinking

Arisia's TFC adventure

Arisia took a rare vacation and for some reason wanted to spend some of it with us hobbitses (and hirsute elves). First stop was Colorado, where she met up with Waterboy and me.



And Waterboy and I found out we live about two miles from each other. (I don't usually look quite so glazed. I was so tired.) I thought we'd meet up at Panera, talk awkwardly for maybe an hour and a half, and send Arisia on her way. Three and a half hours later, I was on my way home.

Then, after time seeing some family, she dropped by Lady Quill and -=ad=- in Nebraska.



Lady Quill hasn't been around for a while. She's been off doing things like this, and this.

Thanks for swinging by, Arisia. Hope to see you again soon.

Flash Fiction Advisory

Leave Coy for the Ponds.

I’m not a jerk (just ask my parole officer) but it doesn’t hurt to be one for flashcraft. Readers are drawn to the “pop!” and that means subtleties can become liabilities. Being rude about the story is something flash readers want: they want to “get it” quick.

Don’t take my word for it. Some of my flash “rejection notes,” all helpful critiques, are ones that have never applied toward my longer stories or novel proposals:

“I like the way this is written, but I'm afraid I just don't get it.”

“Obviously too subtle.”

“Can't decipher this.”

“Confusing.”

Flash Fic Advisory #5: Don’t be coy.

[Note: Perhaps a writer's corollary to John Scalzi's "Failure Mode of Clever."]

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu - Fight Scenes

By Al

"Prepare for the Fight Scene!" --Robin of Loxley, Men in Tights

What makes a good fight scene?

Fight scenes are everywhere. You have the overly choreographed and scripted acrobatics of professional wrestling and the UFC on the other end of the spectrum. There's the wire-work of Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and the "does his own stunts" death-defying antics of Jackie Chan. Swords flash by too fast to see in Blade (though the inspiration came from the Princess Bride--"I'm not left handed either.").

Sometimes an entire book or movie--or even a series--can lead up to a dynamite, knock-down drag-out battle between the forces of good and evil. Some of those scenes leave us breathless and worn out, almost as if we were taking part in the fight ourselves...while others will find us mumbling "meh" under our breath while reaching for the remote to find a rerun of Mortal Kombat Conquest.

So, then, what makes a good fight scene? Massive numbers of troops on either side, or mano-a-mano, up close and personal...? Absolute silence while the two seriously and relentlessly beat the snot out of each other, or testosterone-enhanced taunting and bragging to punctuate the violence? And what's the BEST fight scene?

Your nominees (and please, feel free to add to this list, it is by no means conclusive):
  • The Man in Black (aka the Dread Pirate Roberts aka Wesley) vs. Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride (This is the best sword fight ever recorded on film. If you think otherwise, you are absolutely, positively wrong.)
  • Anakin vs. Obi Wan, Revenge of the Sith
  • Neo vs. Agents Smith (The Burly Brawl), Matrix Revolutions
  • insert massive battle scene here, Lord of the Rings
  • Indiana Jones vs. the Swordsman, Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Bruce Leroy vs. Sho 'Nuf, The Last Dragon
  • Ash vs. his own possessed hand, Evil Dead 2
  • insert another massive battle scene here, Lord of the Rings
Of course, if it wasn't obvious from the list, nominations are also being accepted for the Worst Fight Scene in a book or movie, as well...

Let the arguments begin!

Editor's note: Henry added the sword fight from The Princess Bride and stated (correctly) it is the best sword fight ever captured on film. This may not be Al's opinion, but that's Al's problem.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Epublishing Update (sort of)

Otogu has been demanding a lot of sacrifices lately, leaving me little time to write much of anything, including updates on the epublishing project. On March 7 I announced my plans to epublish one of my children's stories. I had planned to report my progress, discuss formatting tools, etc, in the following couple of weeks. It's been nearly three months and I still haven't epublished. What's going on? The same that's been going on for two and a half months.

The story is stuck in illustration limbo. Instead of turning out the illustrations in one week as promised, the artist has offered up a host of excuses and hasn't bothered to respond to my most recent email. As this guy is a friend who I've gone well out of my way to assist for the last several years, I am angry at how this is turning out. The one time I ask for something from him -- something I've paid for, no less -- he's failed utterly to live up to his end of the deal. Considering I offered the job to him because I knew he could use the money. I'm doubly upset. Worst of all, I broke the cardinal rule of working with artists and paid him in advance because he was flat broke at the time. If he'd only done the job on schedule, I'd have been happy to recommend him to any of the rest of you who needed artwork for an epublishing job. There's no way I can recommend him now.

Next time, I'm using Vidad.

Monday, May 23, 2011

WRITING STUFF FOR BIG AND LITTLE KIDS: First Semi-Pro Sale – “Test”

In these articles (about once a month on the third or fourth Monday), I’ll be sharing with you what I’ve learned in the past fifteen years from first trying to get short stories and articles published in the non-adult market to publishing pretty much whenever I submit a short story, article or essay to a non-adult market. I’m going to do this chronologically so that those of you who are beginning your journey can learn what I did as I did. This will also tend to make me more coherent as I cast back to those first days – and I won’t make assumptions about what I did and didn’t know…

In 1994, HiCALL was the teen magazine of the General Council of the Assemblies of God Church; a sort of eight page flyer that could be handed out to the youth in a church. I found it in the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET GUIDE where the editor had listed that she was interested in science fiction.

I wrote a couple of stories that were rejected without comment. Determined to break into this market, I made drive-by visits to all of the Assemblies of God churches I could find in our area. There weren’t many. Entering the churches in the summer during the weekday, I didn’t find many youth directors around. But one was all I needed and she provided me with a few back issees of HiCALL. I studied the stories then wrote a letter to the editor listed on the magazine asking her what kind of science fiction she wanted.

A short time later, I got a response from her! She told me that she hadn’t seen my stories, but that, as a science fiction fan, I could submit another story to her, marking the envelope “Personal”. This would get past the first reader and go directly to her.

I hastily wrote “Dance to Change the Universe” using a world I’d invented in college called Enstad's Planet, for a friend of mine (Tom Enstad was my next-dorm-door-neighbor in college. We became friends, organized a group of eight young men to hike in the Rockies and got closer. Several years later, he was killed while stepping off a curb in Washington, DC; so stories on this world are a legacy of his provocative questions).

This time, the story made it to the head editor. She responded that while she liked it, she couldn’t use it. Because I’m Lutheran, I didn’t know that in 1992, in the Assemblies of God, dancing was a taboo subject. She also added, “…we cannot print a story about a girl studying ballet – even if she’s in space.”

I queried again and she responded that she’d love to see the story – but that they could no longer respond to my queries. Essentially, “Just send us the story, already!”

I wrote “Test” about a girl who had overcome sexism to become a licensed paramedic. She’d also overcome religious prejudice, as she was a Christian in a Muslim field of endeavor. But her excellence has given her a position on a paramedic team. Disaster strikes and she chooses to help one of her antagonists despite his proclamation that he’d rather DIE than be treated by a Christian woman.

She loved it and bought it in October of 1992. I was paid and then I waited with bated breath.

And waited.

For a year, until in 1993, “Test” appeared in the October issue of HiCALL magazine.

Thrilled with my first practically-professional publication, I quickly discovered two things. The first was that the writer has NOTHING to do with the art. My main character as interpreted by the artist was a…busty…Hispanic woman! Not at ALL who I had in mind as I wrote. The second thing was worse though – no one outside of my family noticed. There were no calls, reviews or fan letters. THIS was my first taste of the loneliness that would dog me until, at the dawn of the second decade of the 21st Century I would write a certain author and ask him, “What’s it like to be famous?”

Who knows, I might even share what he said someday. But for now, victory was MINE! I had finally published my first science fiction story in a teen magazine!

What I Learned #2: Research your market COMPLETELY before you fire off your story.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

And the winner is...

Our fourth challenge provided some interesting entries, with four very different approaches to the process!

If any of you are able to take a second look at your own work, and see ways in which to improve a concept so that it can be more successfully developed, the effort will have been worthwhile.

Those of you who vote are allowed to assign a range of “0” to “3” points, per entry. Since challengers may not vote for their own stories, a bonus of 2 points is given to a participant's highest-ranked work, if that participant also takes the time to vote on the other entries.

Official judges receive a 30 point allocation, to assign as they see fit. The only restriction is that at most, only half of those points may be given to any single entry.

miko is about to put on the “Editor Hat.” It's sort of like the “Sorting Hat” they use at Hogwarts (“Let me ask you this, Harry. Do you feel... lucky?!”), but a little more nearsighted. Remember, this time it can only see a maximum of 250 words.


What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

“All the Luck” by WaterBoy

miko: The story opens with directness and then proceeds to deliver on its promise. It describes how things came to their present state, but I think being largely historical, it loses some immediacy.

I definitely like the speculative SF angle and the idea of a proactive approach to chance.

I also like very much that the final utterance invites several interpretations: this gives us a reason to keep the story alive in our minds even after it has ended.

On a quirky note, the second paragraph has a sentence structured like this: “Through creative application..., he discovered that... J was able to...” It sounded like “he” and J were different people but “he” is J. It sounded to me like the narrator was conveying J as thinking of himself in the third person! I can’t say what (if anything) might be grammatically wrong with this but it somehow struck me weirdly – it’s probably just me.

The title - and the phrase "favorable, at least, to J" - makes me wonder whether the protagonist is (or would be accused of) taking luck away from others, consuming the good fortune in events to the exclusion and detriment of others. This suggests there's more going on than we've heard so far.

And that makes me wonder about the reactions of others. My guess is that they would be suspicious and resentful, and he would eventually be barred from many venues. I suspect he'd become reviled and hated. Rather than exhibit envy, I’d expect the commissioner to sneer through a fake smile, “Sooner or later, we’ll figure out how you pulled this off, and then you’re going down...hard.”

I think this opportunity for conflict already present in the story could allow this piece to expand into a deeper and broader story.

I think the strength of this story is in its potential because it opens up a range of possibilities for exploring perceptions about luck, for conflict, and for cool plotting based on the manipulation of chance. The word count pens it in, but I wish there had been more of such conflict and immediacy, and maybe a bit less of the history.

The story seems to say that luck is mere chance, and then imagines a future wherein chance could be corralled and manipulated. This would seem to so alter our perception of reality that there must be a deep vein to mine here. I like that, but the fun stuff was left for the sequel.

(good literary score; low challenge score)


Arisia: 2 / Avery L. Maxwell: 2 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 3
miko: 5
Total: 14



“Luck” by Watkinson

miko: This story is sly. I admit that I started getting impatient with the mental soliloquy (that’s funny coming from me, right?), and I was tempted to jump the gun and start arguing with the protagonist's bald assertions about what luck was, and what it could never be.

But then the last line took the mickey out of me; all my pent-up frustrations were disarmed, and dissolved into satisfaction. Yes, I smiled in utter bliss.

It was very clever to set us up by having it all be a helpless, flailing rationalization. He’s trying to convince himself (not us), and he fails. Much like a Judo flip, the ending puts us on our back, but it does so in the gentlest possible way: by touching a universal chord. How can we not all identify?

But(!), I think your editor needs to pay better attention. Some kind of punctuation is needed in the first line after P says, “is lucky as” – it causes the reader to stumble. There is a typo: “back at back at”.

I think the third paragraph sounds more like narrator description than the protagonist thinking to himself. Maybe these details should come out as observations relating to himself: something like, Look at that guy! I've got that same H-R-T tracksuit lying under my bed.

Also, I think the "voice" has to be more consistent throughout: phrases like "understandably", "what is it that this man", "implies", "tangible", "which they work on" - these don't sound like they fit. I think the language should be more consistently "regular guy", everyday talk used for regular-guy, everyday notions. Rationalize? Definitely. Philosophize? No so much for this character.

The story seems to say that luck is undeserved, yet ultimately asks, ‘And how come I don’t deserve that kind of luck?’ By setting up a rationalization and then knocking out its pins with a feeling, the story shows us that emotions tug at us harder than thoughts. It's all so very...human - hopelessly human – and might be what luck is really all about at its core. The writing requires more attention, but the idea – I think you nailed it, mate.

(low literary score; high challenge score)


Arisia: 1 / Avery L. Maxwell: 2 / Ryan J: 1 / xdpaul: 1
miko: 6
Total: 11



“No luck. Only skill.” by Ryan J

miko: I like the intro: it sets the stage, gives us an image, creates tension, and even hints at its own resolution.

The initial assertion about luck v. skill nicely foreshadows a resolution, but is it in the voice of the narrator, or of D? If it is D, then I have a slight problem because it is not in quotes as dialog, but neither have we yet gotten any solid cue that the scene is supposed to be D's POV, so it was unclear (to me) that this would be the narrator conveying what D is thinking. Were it merely the narrator telling us something we’re supposed to accept, that would be the weakest alternative. I think it would work best as quoted dialog from D because the foreshadowing would then also serve as characterization by being an evident boast and therefore an overt challenge to S.

I like when the assertion is later repeated: it works nicely here as narration rather than dialog because by now we know more about D and can easily recognize this as what he would be thinking amidst the action he is taking. The echo of the earlier boast now becomes narrative fact. Cool.

The characterization of a confident, skilled warrior is well accomplished by the action of making his own luck, playing on his own terms, and changing the rules of the game while fully expecting his opponent to not only take it, but to like it.

We have typos – “are the gods are”, “Sten” – plus the unclear (to me) attribution above, but overall, it’s an effective scene that very naturally ends with what is skillfully both a satisfying resolution and a transition to what might follow.

The story seems to say that luck is preparation meeting opportunity, despite the vagaries of chance. This being a view held by a successful few, one wonders about the degree to which they are indeed correct versus merely being set up to learn a stiff lesson later.

(good literary score; good challenge score)


Arisia: 2 / Avery L. Maxwell: 3 / Ryan J: voted! / xdpaul: 3
miko: 8
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 18



“The Moon's Last Gambler” by xdpaul

miko: The writing style is crisp and evocative. I'm impressed by the economy, amping up the intensity with a focus on close, intimate details. I think this story is the best-rendered bit of storytelling here.

I like the subtle counterpoise of the random chance of gambling with the not-so random possibility of human fallibility in the launch of an engineered machine. That one cancels out the other is a crafty commentary (even if unintended).

The tale shows us luck as being arbitrary, yet to our judging minds, luck appears ironic. It is common to portray a devil as a trickster; it is not so common to likewise portray the creator of existence itself. I like this very much.

I'm slightly torn, though, by the situation: on the one hand, I can imagine people throwing away all they had since it would be no further use to them, but on the other hand, would the gambling really compel that much interest in a fated group's final hours? On the Titanic, I imagine some panicked, some sought solace in final tenderness with their families, and others preserved their dignity (“the band played on”). I wonder whether so many would choose one last gratuitous indulgence in vice as the last act of their existence.

Then again, a radio wise-guy spoke this morning about how the end of the world would be a golden opportunity for endless orgies, and then after popping in my Soulfly CD, I was treated to songs such as “No Hope = No Fear” and “Karmageddon”, so the “warrant” of your story would seem better supported than I might suppose.

The story seems to say that luck is arbitrary, and that this fact torments our judgment, but it also hints (I think) that some of what we perceive as luck comes to us by our own (or each other’s) hand. This seems like a mature and sober assessment, and too bitter a pill for most to swallow. Applied to our own lives, the notion is haunting – but hopefully liberating.

(high literary score; good challenge score)


Arisia: 3 / Avery L. Maxwell: 1 / Ryan J: 3 / xdpaul: voted!
miko: 11
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 20



Wrap-up...

Based on the numbers, our winner held a decisive lead, with a strong showing by this week's runner-up:

2nd Place: 18 points — “No luck. Only skill.” by Ryan J

1st Place: 20 points — “The Moon's Last Gambler” by xdpaul

Congratulations, xdpaul! As winner, you are hereby invited to propose next week's challenge, scheduled to be announced the morning of Friday, 27 May 2011.


Afterword...

So what was the lesson of this challenge?

miko: Each story had different strengths, and each one answered the Challenge in an interesting and worthwhile way. I did some nit-picking in my role as editor because that (so I understand) is what editors do to our submissions. My opinions on the story content or style are just that – opinions. There’s no particular reason you should take them seriously – your writing is your own expression. I just felt obliged to be honest and complete.

I was torn between granting points based on literary accomplishment or how well I thought the Challenge statement (show the nature of luck) had been addressed. On the first criterion, I might have chosen xdpaul; on the second, I might have chosen Watkinson. But I had to weigh both criteria because neither good writing that doesn’t accomplish anything, nor an awesome idea that is poorly delivered, is likely to meet with success.

I had as much fun as I could hope for seeking the meaning of luck in all the entries. This Challenge suggests two things to me. First, abstract ideas can usefully serve as themes or motifs that underlie a story, but, second, the most compelling stories are the most human ones, where we can identify with the characters and imagine it could have been us in their place. Because that bypasses our forebrain, when it hits us, it comes not as thought but as emotion - and being human, that's where we have no defenses.

That doesn't mean pandering or being maudlin - it just means being real.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

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?

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Friday Challenge — 5/20/2011

This week in The Friday Challenge:

xdpaul serves a warrant. Watkinson and Ben-El question the jurisdiction. • Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke asks which science fictional cineverse we might inhabit. Given the surprising revelation that he keeps Al Gore memorabilia, it could conceivably be an episode of Futurama. • Join the discussion...

miko wins the Recasting Genres challenge, but don't worry... he isn't allowed to participate again for another week and a half. • Join the discussion...

All this and more, as M's wife celebrates Pick Strawberries Day a few days early, global media gears up for National Waiters and Waitresses Day (also known in some circles as International False Prophet Day), and the inmates discuss the view from their respective places in the asylum.


What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

As of the deadline for our current challenge, we have received the following entries (listed in their order of appearance within Files > Friday Challenge 2011 05 20 ):

  • “All the Luck” by WaterBoy

  • “Luck” by Watkinson

  • “No luck. Only skill.” by Ryan J

  • “The Moon's Last Gambler” by xdpaul

An enthusiastic "Huzzah" to all who have entered! The judges are now considering your submissions. A winner will be declared by the evening of Sunday, 22 May 2011.


Props for Props

And now it is time for this week's Friday Challenge, courtesy of miko:

Last week, I had commented on Friday the 13th luck, and Waterboy called me out on my karma – I didn’t come off so well.

This week, I find out that tomorrow is, of all things, The Rapture! Now, I’m going to look pretty bad again when I’m the only one who shows up here on Monday.

It seems both cases are conspiring to reveal rather more about the state of my soul than I would intend.

But that’s not all.

I was sitting on my crappy sofa in my crappy flat trying to think up a Challenge for this week, so I started looking around in desperation for inspiration. What did I see? Junk. I realized that I don’t own a single valuable thing, or even anything in decent condition? What would other people think?

What does my shabby stuff say about me that I would never intend to reveal?

Aha! That junk had just given me the idea for this week’s Challenge.

Props in stories can serve several purposes: as plot devices (e.g., a bomb), as setting (e.g., a tree), as symbolism (e.g., a scarlet letter), but also – drum roll, please – as characterization.

A story may employ objects to reveal character, without the character necessarily having to say, think, or even do, anything.

So, this week’s Challenge is to write a scene, vignette or story having the sole purpose of revealing to the reader the essence of a character by employing only that character’s relationship to some prop - that is, readers should see the character not as the character would choose to be seen, but as unintentionally reflected by the chosen object.

(Remember, don't just describe a shabby apartment - it's about characterization, not setting.)

Pick some (underdeveloped) character from one of your works in progress (or make one up). Decide what readers must understand about this character – what makes him tick. Pick a prop (an inanimate object) having a necessary and appropriate relationship to the character. Then tell us the story of the object (showing us the object’s relation to the character) so that readers will in fact come away knowing the character in a way the character’s ego would never permit.

Stay within 250 words, and props will go to the best use of a prop to bare a character’s soul.


Anyone can enter, except for miko. You may enter as many times as you wish, but each entry must be independent of the others. You are not allowed to supply a more lengthy characterization-via-prop-related-inference sketch in 250-word chunks, and you are not allowed to build on anyone else's setup.

Everyone is asked to vote, and to say a few words about what they liked, and why. Or to say a few words about what they disliked, as the case may be; by submitting an entry, you implicitly agree to accept criticism, because there will probably be some handed out, and no one is immune. When voting, please rank a work as either “0” (not so good), “1” (not as bad), “2” (could have been better) or “3” (pretty good stuff!). If you give either a “0” or “3” vote, feel free to argue in support of your reasoning.

Don't like the negativity? Feel free to think of the levels as “0” (Not bad for a first attempt), “1” (Right on!), “2” (Holy cow, I wanna buy this now...) or “3” (Sweet mother of God, how did you write something this awesome?!!). The point is to clearly differentiate, and rank according to your own preference.

For the purposes of this challenge miko will be serving as Ye Olde High Marker, Voluntarily Walking th' Plank.

As of now, we are playing by the loosely enforced and slightly modified rules of The Friday Challenge. All entries are due by 6 AM Eastern time on the morning of Friday, 27 May 2011. A winner will be declared by the evening of Sunday, 29 May 2011.

Oh, there is one more thing... but it is the most important! Have fun. Always have fun.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu

My office, not to put too fine a point on it, is a mess. There are good reasons for this sad state of affairs, and we can go into them another time, if you like, but what I'm most interested in today is this Golden Oldie, which I recently accidentally exhumed while looking for something else.

It's a fund-raising letter, sent some years ago by MoveOn.org over the signature of Al Gore. In the midst of the usual plea for money and volunteers, there's this gem:
"But the stakes this year are too great for any of us to sit it out. We're facing two wars and an economic meltdown. The climate crisis, in particular, is worsening more quickly than predicted and without strong leadership from the next president, we could face consequences right out of a science fiction movie."
Hmm. A science fiction movie, you say? Yes, of course, obviously, but the all-important question is: which science fiction movie?

Star Trek? Silent Running? Soylent Green? Lord of the Flies? Godzilla vs The Smog Monster? (Personally, my money is on The Manchurian Candidate.)

Thus, today's Ultimate Geek Fu questions. Keeping in mind our loosely enforced "no politics" rule, and being somewhat mindful of the feelings of your fellow Friday Challengers: in your humble opinion, which science fiction movie best describes the future we are heading for?

And which science fiction movie future would you most like to live in?*

Let the arguments begin.


* Vidad, I'll put you down for World Without End, okay?

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge — What’s Luck Got To Do With It? — is 6 AM Eastern time on the morning of Friday, 20 May 2011... less than twenty-four hours away.

Entries may be added to The Friday Challenge Yahoo Group (see the appropriate directory within the "Files" section), hosted on your personal blog(s) and linked within the comments for the challenge, or copied directly into the comments section as a post.

In previous challenges, we have accommodated late entries. This time, we have no such luxury; if you post an entry much later than 6 AM Eastern time, there is a chance the judges will not be able to properly consider your work. Should you anticipate a need to snowdog, please mentally back the deadline up as much as necessary. If the deadline hits and you are very, very close, please publicly announce your intention to enter.

A winner will be declared by the evening of Sunday, 22 May 2011.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Flash Fiction Advisory

Unwarranted Warrants.

Identify the assumption at the base of the story. In a space story, does the plot rely on the assumption of FTL travel? If a fantasy, is the Divine Right of Kings critical?

Assumptions, aka “warrants,” are any truths that must be easily, subconsciously accepted by the reader for the story to work. If a warrant starts an argument in the reader’s mind, uh-oh.

When a warrant is controversial: say, “humans aren’t worth saving from disaster,” those who recoil against it will reject the story, no matter how well-written.

Example: Fiction with a warrant problem noted in the reader commentary.

Flash Fic Advisory #4: Identify your warrant.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

And the winner is...

For our third challenge, four contestants submitted an equal number of entries, and the same number of individuals — but not quite the same list of individuals! — assigned numeric votes. (Everyone resisted the temptation to veer from integers, despite an admittedly strong inclination.)

If any of you are able to take a second look at your own work, and see ways in which to improve a concept so that it can be more successfully developed, the effort will have been worthwhile.

Those of you who vote are allowed to assign a range of “0” to “3” points, per entry. Since challengers may not vote for their own stories, a bonus of 2 points is given to a participant's highest-ranked work, if that participant also takes the time to vote on the other entries.

Official judges receive a 30 point allocation, to assign as they see fit. The only restriction is that at most, only half of those points may be given to any single entry.

Ryan J is about to put on the “Editor Hat.” It's sort of like the “Sorting Hat” they use at Hogwarts (“You sound like a Ravenclaw... although deep down, you're really a Hufflepuff in disguise.”), but a little more nearsighted. Remember, this time it can only see a maximum of 200 words.


Recasting Genres

“Recasting Genres” by miko
Apparent source: “Jack and Jill” from Mother Goose's Melody (c.1760s) by John Newbery [see also, Roud Folk Song Index #10266]

Ryan J: This one was my favorite. It was recast very smoothly — were it not for the names of the probes, I would not have guessed the source. It's as far as you can go from being a nursery rhyme to a science news article, and I think the cleverness of making that shift is a big part of why I enjoyed this one so much.

Arisia: 3 / Ernest T. Scribbler: 2 / miko: voted! / xdpaul: 3
Ryan J: 10
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 20



“Strangler with a Sprained Hand” by Ernest T. Scribbler
Apparent source: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert A. Heinlein

Ryan J: This one was disturbingly fun to read — fun because it's clear that the author was enjoying the process of laying out the language, disturbing because the topic conjoined to that language is so grim. (I really enjoyed the line about the ossification of the cartilagenous rings of the trachea. This one more so than the rest, though, I'm not sure I could identify the targeted writing style, so I'm not sure what the genre expectations Ernest is playing with might be.)

Arisia: 1 / Ernest T. Scribbler: voted! / miko:3 / xdpaul: 2
Ryan J: 7
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 15



“The Big Bad Wolf” by Triton
Apparent source: “Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf” from Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Tales (c.1843), by James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps

Ryan J: I think fairy tales have a lot going for them in translation to sci fi, but this one still felt a lot like a fairy tale, just set in space. The setting changed more than the genre. The warning of the old woman really contributed to that. An old woman standing on the road (spaceport?) giving warnings to passersby seems like a more comfortable fit for the fairy tales from which the 3 Little Pigs came than for a science fiction story. Genre is more than the setting of the story, after all, but also the atmosphere of the story, the flavour of the writing, et cetera.

Anyone ever see the Muppet Show? Pigs in Space was one of my favorite segments. That and the Swedish chef.


Arisia: 3 / Ernest T. Scribbler: 2 / miko:1 / xdpaul: 2
Ryan J: 5
Total: 13



“The Task of Amon T. Yoder” by xdpaul
Apparent source: “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) by Edgar Allen Poe

Ryan J: I really enjoyed the Victorian flavour of the writing. I'm not familiar with the original material, so it's hard to judge how smoothly the story was recast, but the writing felt very true to the spirit of the period. There's a certain almost oratorical style to the writing of this era, where each sentence is balanced and structured, that is captured really well here.

Arisia: 1 / Ernest T. Scribbler: 3 / miko:3 / xdpaul: voted!
Ryan J: 8
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 17



Wrap-up...

Based on the numbers, we have one clear winner and a strong second:

2nd Place: 17 points — “The Task of Amon T. Yoder” by xdpaul

1st Place: 20 points — “Recasting Genres” by miko

Congratulations, miko! Since you also won last week's challenge (and thus proposed the new one, taking yourself out of next week's competition), you have the option of selecting another new challenge proposal this coming Friday, or passing the “Editor Hat” to xdpaul, so that you may more quickly participate again.


Afterword...

So what was the lesson of this challenge?

Ryan J: This challenge has drawn out the difference between setting and genre. Where and when a story takes place are important — the Rockies in the 1800s is probably a western, while Alpha Centauri base in year 4000 is probably science fiction — but the setting is not what ultimately defines the genre.

If that story in the Rockies features a band of cowboys fighting for their lives as Lovecraftian ghouls destroy their herds, you really have more of a horror story than a western.

If a murder has taken place on Alpha Centauri base, and the protagonist is seeking clues, you have a mystery within a science fictional setting.

The boundaries are not clear cut, and you can profitably mix elements from each. The perception of genre is more dependent upon the atmosphere and character of your story, and the stakes at play, than where or when the story takes place.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

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?

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Friday Challenge — 5/13/2011

This week in The Friday Challenge:

Henry Vogel plays a serious game of “call a poker deck a smeerp pile,” while Bruce Bethke points out that an awkward young ensign never made it past chapter four. • Join the discussion...

xdpaul keeps on chooglin'. Does “chooglin'” matter, or even squeak? • Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel doesn't quite believe Natalie Portman is an astrophysicist, but has fun seeing Tom Hiddleston get hammered. • Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald admits that she is occasionally at a loss for words, but embraces her cinematic compensation. • Join the discussion...

miko wins the “Ooh, it's fuzzy!” challenge, by not giving an explanation. • Join the discussion...

All this and more, as we collectively celebrate Blame Someone Else Day, Vidad prepares for World Naked Gardening Day (don't worry, it's a safe link!), and the inmates discuss the view from their respective places in the asylum.


Recasting Genres

As of the deadline for our current challenge, we have received the following entries (listed in their order of appearance within Files > Friday Challenge for 5 13 2011):

  • “Recasting Genres” by miko

  • “Strangler with a Sprained Hand” by Ernest T. Scribbler

  • “The Big Bad Wolf” by Triton

  • “The Task of Amon T. Yoder” by xdpaul

An enthusiastic "Huzzah" to all who have entered, despite almost a day's worth of unanticipated technical difficulties! The judges are now considering your submissions. A winner will be declared by the evening of Sunday, 15 May 2011.


What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

And now it is time for this week's Friday Challenge, courtesy of miko:

I hope none of the FC faithful is spending today hiding under the covers, tragically afflicted with friggatriskaidekaphobia. For those folks who are so afflicted, I suppose luck is nothing to be trifled with. But what is luck?

Is it mere chance, i.e., nothing at all? Is it the immanent agency of beneficent Providence, or else of capricious Fate? Is it a mysterious force shaping events, one that we provoke with hubris or placate with ritual? Is it superstition? Is it the name we give subjective value judgments concerning effects perceived as good or ill, whatever their cause?

We’ve all heard stories of lottery winners who ended up broke, and even in jail. We’ve all heard Lou Gehrig tell us he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of this earth”, even as he confronted a future of inevitable debility, suffering, and premature death.

Is someone unlucky because he got in a car crash, or lucky because no one got hurt? Is someone unlucky because he had a heart attack, or lucky that he now better appreciates his life and loved ones?

We think something unlucky while others think it lucky. Today we think something lucky, yet tomorrow think it unlucky. Is it only a matter of harmless opinion, or does our view of the good or bad luck in events affect us, and thereby change the subsequent course of events, for better or worse?

The concept of luck is tied up with meaning. How does an opinion of what luck is affect people’s behavior? How does it affect their outlook on life and their sense of happiness or discontent?

Do you have a good luck charm? Do you perform some ritual before every big game? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Why? Do you believe you control the course of your life, or that you simply “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”?

Well, I offer these spurs because I want you to pick any view of what luck is, and then write a story showing us that view in full flower. Maybe we see the material consequences, or maybe the psychical effects - maybe for someone who accepts that view, or maybe for one who rejects it.

Specifically, I want your story to demonstrate an answer to the question, “What is luck, and why does it matter?” I think your story could hinge on character, or plot, or setting, and so could serve as an exercise in developing any of these.

So the Challenge is to show us the nature of luck within 250 words.

Make it traditional or far out, technological or interpersonal, historical or futuristic, a biography or a parable, a rant against the gods or a lesson for a child when life seems unfair (or too easy) – whatever.


Anyone can enter, except for miko. You may enter as many times as you wish, but each entry must be independent of the others. You are not allowed to supply a more lengthy nature-of-luck sketch in 250-word chunks, and you are not allowed to build on anyone else's setup.

Everyone is asked to vote, and to say a few words about what they liked, and why. Or to say a few words about what they disliked, as the case may be; by submitting an entry, you implicitly agree to accept criticism, because there will probably be some handed out, and no one is immune. When voting, please rank a work as either “0” (not so good), “1” (not as bad), “2” (could have been better) or “3” (pretty good stuff!). If you give either a “0” or “3” vote, feel free to argue in support of your reasoning.

Don't like the negativity? Feel free to think of the levels as “0” (Not bad for a first attempt), “1” (Right on!), “2” (Holy cow, I wanna buy this now...) or “3” (Sweet mother of God, how did you write something this awesome?!!). The point is to clearly differentiate, and rank according to your own preference.

For the purposes of this challenge miko will be serving as Ye Olde High Marker, Voluntarily Walking th' Plank.

As of now, we are playing by the loosely enforced and slightly modified rules of The Friday Challenge. All entries are due by 6 AM Eastern time on the morning of Friday, 20 May 2011. (miko: I’ll keep my fingers crossed that, with any luck, we’ll get at least one entry...but not twenty-eight!) A winner will be declared by the evening of Sunday, 22 May 2011.

Oh, there is one more thing... but it is the most important! Have fun. Always have fun.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Critical Thinking

A writer friend once told me, “You only have so many words.” I’m afraid it’s proving true. Over half of my job is actually writing. No idea how that happened. Of course, it’s not sci fi—it’s not even fiction—but it is writing. This means when Thursday rolls around, I find myself with a dearth of words. Sorry about that.

I wanted to talk about story, though. All this non-fiction has me starving for well-written stories. I don’t necessarily mean an epic saga or a classic hero motif. I mean the kind of story you completely lose yourself to and only after think, “Dang!” The kind you don’t even realize is a good story until it’s over and you can breathe again. There are too few of those around.

Justified

For some unknown cosmic reason, Maj Tom (nearly Ret.) and I stumbled upon Justified its first season last year on FX. Based on stories by Elmore Leonard, it follows the misadventures of US Federal Marshall Raylan Givens, played by the charming (if sometimes slightly effeminate) Timothy Olyphant. He starts out in Miami, but before the first scene is over, finds himself exiled to Harlan County, KY, after “justifiably” killing a drug mobster. The biggest problem with this setup is that he is actually from Harlan County. He worked the mines there, his mom died there, his dad was a second-rate crook there…

It’s a far stranger thing to walk into the old neighborhood a new man and realize how quickly the old life can suck you back in. The first season centers around Ava Crowder, the girl he never had but is available now (seein’ as how she just shot her husband), and Boyd Crowder, an explosives expert/thief from Raylan’s mining days. Oh, you caught that? Yeah, the husband Ava killed was Boyd’s brother.

Ava’s shot was justified, but Boyd’s family doesn’t really care about fair. Boyd, meanwhile, sits a spell in prison, finds Jesus, and returns a changed man. Instead of stealing, he gathers around him a bunch of addicts and dealers who want to stay clean. Boyd becomes father and pastor to the lot of them. Raylan doesn’t buy it for a minute.

This season, Raylan’s on-again-off-again with the ex who couldn’t handle his job before, Ava’s fed up with everybody, and Boyd’s drifting after finding the hills were tougher than his faith. We’re introduced to a new family, the Bennets. Mags is the matriarch and crime lord. Oldest brother Doyle uses his position as county sheriff to keep the law off their backs. The eternally stoned Coover is a master at the genetic manipulation of certain less-than-lawful herbal treatments. And Dickie tries to keep Coover out of trouble while limping on the bad leg Raylan took a baseball bat to in high school.

There are three obvious gems in the series: the dialogue, the characterizations, and the actors. The dialogue approaches Whedonesque perfection. I’m not usually one for bad guys. It took me until Sense and Sensibility before I could say I liked Alan Rickman. But I long for Boyd to come on the scene. Mags is just pure unadulterated evil—I spent the entire season trying to figure out if she was a full-on sociopath or just a competitive business woman. The physicality of the actor who plays Dickie is perfect. The only character who falls flat is Winona, Raylan’s ex. But the rest are just amazing. As proof, I just wrote all that from memory—including all the names. I’m terrible at names.

Which leads to the story. I don’t generally like serials. Too much “Let’s see what else we can do to get viewership up.” Justified seasons read more like a miniseries, honestly. Each episode draws you in with the micro—the bon mots and the humor—but subtly builds into an over-arching plot that truly resolves at the season finale.

Standard warning; it is rated PG-13 for language, violence, sexual suggestions. And Timothy Olyphant doesn’t take his shirt off near enough. If you’re okay with that, I’d suggest Netflixing the series, as the second season just finished.

Some other things we’ve seen lately:

Water for Elephants

Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson in a role he actually gets to act in) is almost a veterinarian when tragedy strikes moments before his final exam. He finds himself as a laborer in a traveling circus in the Depression before the owner, August, and his wife/main attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), discover his knowledge of animals.

I liked it. I thought the characters were complex enough to be both interesting and unpredictable. Neither Maj Tom nor I were terribly wild about the whole love-triangle thing, but there you go. We’ll take violence and swearing over adultery. We’re nothing if not fully aware of our hypocrisies.

Red Riding Hood

The chickie from Mama Mia tries to figure out who is the Big Bad Wolf. Okay, you’re probably not going to like it. There’s probably an over-abundance of forlorn glances and romanticized camera work. But I liked it. The story is clever and, at the risk of giving too much away, I did not know the reveal until the curtain was literally pulled away. Most people I talked to didn’t have it figured out, either. I went with Ev (my Christian-fantasy-romance writer friend), so Maj Tom doesn’t have an opinion. Ev liked it, but she’s a Twilight fan, so there you go.

Thor

Oh, it was fine. Not spectacular. What do you do with a hero who plays it straight and a villain who’s still finding himself and doesn’t really have a personality? You wait for the hero to take off his shirt and spend the rest of the time thinking about Ironman. As Maj Tom said, it’s a setup for the next one. Perhaps an example of the prequel that needn’t have been made?

Jane Eyre

Ev loves the Brontes. She says they’re Jane Austen with backbone (And yet she loves Twilight. It’s a mystery.). It’s been a while since I’ve seen Jane Eyre (never read it), but this one felt just okay. Maybe because I knew what was in the attic. Maybe because Mr. Rochester didn’t ring true. I can appreciate the story, how all the elements tied together in a nice little grrl-power bow, but I didn’t feel like there was a lot of character in the in-between moments. Like Thor, it was fine.


What story have you seen/read lately that sucked you in and spit you out? What character or dialogue made you consider throwing in this whole writing thing and getting a job aerating lawns? And what hidden gems have you found in the deep, dark recesses of cable?

And, most importantly, do you think they’re really going to cancel Chuck? What are they thinking?!

Yes, Kersley Fitzgerald is alive. And looking forward to seeing Arisia and Snowdog soon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge — Recasting Genres — is 6 AM Eastern time on the morning of Friday, 13 May 2011... less than twenty-four hours away.

Entries may be added to The Friday Challenge Yahoo Group (see the appropriate directory within the "Files" section), hosted on your personal blog(s) and linked within the comments for the challenge, or copied directly into the comments section as a post.

In previous challenges, we have accommodated late entries. This time, we have no such luxury; if you post an entry much later than 6 AM Eastern time, there is a chance the judges will not be able to properly consider your work. Should you anticipate a need to snowdog, please mentally back the deadline up as much as necessary. If the deadline hits and you are very, very close, please publicly announce your intention to enter.

A winner will be declared by the evening of Sunday, 15 May 2011.

Ultimate Geek Fu: Thor

As a Mother's Day gift to my wife, I took the Boy to see Thor Sunday afternoon. Strangely enough, I tend to take the Boy to a movie on Father's Day, too. Hm... Well, back to Thor.

First off, the movie is very well cast. Chris Hemsworth is completely believable in the title role. He's big. He's strong. He's got a good voice for the god of thunder. The viewer can easily accept his Thor as a being who lusts for battle and glory, relying on his muscles and his hammer, Mjölnir, to win the day.

Natalie Portman is fine as the blandly named Jane Foster, though she's only somewhat more believable as an astrophysicist than Denise Richards was as a nuclear physicist. Fortunately, Jane just has very little terminology to spout, spending much of time trying to figure out and keep up with the blond giant who literally falls out of the sky before her.

Thor's Asgardian companions -- Volstagg, Hogun, Sif, and Fandral -- reminded me of an actual group of friends. They followed Thor's lead, but didn't hesitate to argue with him if they thought he was in the wrong.

Tom Hiddleston did a fine job playing Loki but every time he appeared on screen I couldn't help thinking he should be cast as Data if Star Trek: The Next Generation is ever rebooted as a movie franchise.

There are some spoilers below, though mostly from the opening of the movie.

The movie starts a bit slowly. We open with astrophysicist Jane out in the desert with her assistant and her physics mentor watching for an odd, weather event. Or maybe it's a space event, the movie doesn't dwell on that. Just as Jane is about to lose hope that her predicted event will occur, it begins. Driving through sand kicked up by the event, her research vehicle hits Thor just after he fell to earth.

Then, in what I considering a jarring transition, we get a flashback to the Norse people 1000 years ago and the gods they worship. The picture rushes through space or time or whatever to show us Asgard. We get the short version of the Asgardians war with the frost giants, telling how Odin led Asgard to victory, etc. Soon we meet Thor and Loki and learn that Thor, as eldest, is to be named heir to Odin's throne. Just before Odin can name him heir, though, frost giants attempt to steal something, ruining the moment for Thor. With his dander up, Thor rushes off to teach the frost giants a lesson, his band of friends and Loki in tow. Odin is forced to save Thor and his friends and decides Thor's actions show he is not ready to be named heir after all. Odin banishes Thor to earth (Midgard) and throws
Mjölnir down there, too, though only after proclaiming that only one worthy of the power of Thor will be able to wield the hammer from now on.

At that point, we go back to the desert and replay the last minute or so of the opening scene in the desert. I described these opening scenes because I don't think they work well in that order. I think they'd have been better off running the scenes chronologically, opening with the war against the frost giants, Thor's impetuous battle, his banishment, and then the desert scene with our astrophysicists. For me, the transition from a New Mexico desert in the 21st century to the Norse in the 11th century to Asgard was jarring. I'm sure the director, well-known actor Kenneth Branagh, was specifically trying to avoid just that sort of chronological opening for artistic reasons or something, but I didn't care for it.

From this point, the movie moves back and forth between earth and Asgard. On earth, we have the stranger-in-a-strange-land bit, as Thor learns about the 21st century. This kind of thing can be really painful to watch if done poorly. The character broadly misinterprets everything going on around him then misinterprets everyone's reaction to his mistakes and so on until you want to crawl under your seat and make the whole thing go away. Branagh completely avoided this. Thor is out of place but not stupidly so. He makes a few mistakes but does not insist that everyone treat him like a god. It's obvious Thor is trying to fit in and listens when his earthly companions tell him of the local customs.

The scenes in Asgard drive the movie's plot forward as the repercussions of Thor's banishment ripple through the city. The true nature of the threat isn't revealed for a good while though only an idiot won't know who's behind it all.

Eventually, all becomes clear to Thor. By then, he has learned humility and sacrifice, becoming worthy to wield the hammer once again. He returns to Asgard, faces his enemy, and saves Asgard from the betrayer and the realm of the frost giants from destruction.

Roll credits. The end.

So, what did the Boy and I think of the movie? The Boy has been amazingly unhelpful in this regard. I couldn't get anything out of him other than, "It was good." I couldn't get him to compare it to any previous superhero movies or provide any other useful comments.

I enjoyed the movie as well and agree that it was good, not great. I will compare it to other superhero movies, though. It didn't have the sense of fun that the original Iron Man had, though it was more focused than Iron Man 2. It didn't get tied up in lots of everyday-life introspection like Spider-Man and will probably be more enjoyable to children as a result. It never matched the fun and wit of The Incredibles (the best superhero movie ever made, in my opinion), but it had its clever and fun moments. It does surpass The Fantastic Four in every possible measure I can think of, though that's less of a compliment than Thor deserves. I don't think it's going to rack up the ticket sales of some of the previous superhero movies racked up, but it also features a less popular character than any of those movies.

Thor is a good start to the summer movie season, just not the slam bang movie I was hoping it would be. I give it three and a half stars out of five.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Flash Fiction Advisory

Word-taming.

When writing a novel, it is often said that every word matters.

This is a lie.

Many words matter in a novel or even in short fiction, and, when going through the editing process, it may seem as if every word is being scrutinized.

The truth is that for work over 1000 words, practiced editing technique is more of a mine-sweeping exercise than a bomb-defusing exercise: you catch the ones in the way.

In flash fiction, you aren’t looking for trouble spots, you must rattle each word until it squeaks. Edit the story, assuming that each word isn’t quite right.

Flash Fic Advisory #3: Train every word.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ruminations of an Old Goat

It was the summer of 1967 when I was first able to watch an episode of Star Trek. I hadn't been able to stay up late enough during the school year to watch the show, forcing me to wait months to see science fiction on TV. I settled in, tingling with anticipation, as the show opened showing a man in a blue uniform standing on a planet. Suddenly, a white rabbit hopped by.

What the hell? I'd waited months and months for an Alice in Wonderland rip-off?

The rabbit never appeared again, but lots of other odd stuff did pop up, including a World War II fighter plane (a Zero, I believe) and a knight in shining armor. Those who have watched the original series will have already recognized Shore Leave, a decidedly off-beat episode with which to begin my fascination with Star Trek.

There was something else different about that episode, though I didn't realize it until decades later. The episode dealt with entertainment, as the planet where on the weird stuff was going on was actually a planets-sized playground for an advanced alien race. Most science fiction completely avoids the concept of entertainment, rarely even touching on what people within the story do for fun.

Why do I find this odd? Because the more advanced a civilization becomes, the more leisure time its citizens will have. You need only consider how many of the technological advances in the latter half of the 20th century were entertainment oriented to realize the truth of that statement. Black and white television, stereo music systems, transistor radios, color television, VCRs, video games, cable TV, CD players, Walkmans, big-screen televisions, portable video game systems, MP3 players, hand-held video players, smart phones. The list could be much, much longer, but you get the idea.

In most first world countries, people work about one third of each week day. They sleep about one third of each day. That leaves another one third of each day -- two thirds on any day you don't work -- to do as you please. That's a lot of leisure time to fill each day. Even after you take into account household chores and meals, we still have a lot of spare time to fill. Despite that, most science fiction stories never touch on just how the population manages to keep themselves occupied when they're not working, sleeping, or taking care of household chores. Note that I don't mean the story doesn't feature the entertainment prominently. I mean the stories don't even mention entertainment at all.

Take a moment and think about some of your favorite science fiction books and movies. Do they even hint at what the characters do to entertain themselves when they're not busy saving the galaxy or whatever it is they're busy doing? Star Trek actually scores pretty well in this regard. Not only did they show the planet-sized playground, they also featured the 3D chess set. Next Gen really raised the stakes with the holo room. The original Star Wars nodded to entertainment when Chewbacca and R2-D2 played the holographic chess-like game and, loathe though I am to compliment Attack of the Clones, it did feature a brief scene in what appeared to be a sports bar fairly early in the movie.

Mostly, though, authors tend to either ignore entertainment or they just have the characters play games similar to chess or poker. That's better than nothing, I suppose. But really, have they no imagination? I know I learned how to play both games as a child and have played both a fair bit. I haven't played either one in several years, though, and I'm a very active game player. I'm not expecting writers to come up with the sensible rules for brand new games, but if your character is going to play a game, why not try something other than chess with another name?

John Brunner showed some imagination by introducing a game called Fencing in his novel The Shockwave Rider (great book, by the way). Brunner actually worked out rules to his game and included them in the novel. They sounded just plausible enough that I attempted to play the game back when I was in college. It didn't work out that well, but I appreciated Brunner's originality and the game fit well in the story.

The entertainment doesn't have to be a game, of course, but even the most dedicated hero in a story must have some way to relax and unwind. As a writer, it will help you understand your character better if you figure that out. Besides, you never know when something like that will provide a bit of scene dressing in the story.

Remember, entertainment is incredibly important to advanced civilizations. It's the reason those who successfully entertain us tend to get rich. Don't forget about that when creating your characters and writing your stories. Just a brief mention of methods of entertainment will make your character and your world seem more real to your readers. After all, they're reading your story for entertainment, so they already know its value. Show them you know, too.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

And the winner is...

Everything went off without a hitch last weekend, and we were able to establish a working structure of sorts, by which entries might be judged. All in all, a good precedent.

But then, after Mike Resnick and Joe Haldeman consented to serve as guest judges last week, Triton asked the following about this week's challenge:

“I wonder who this week's surprise celebrity judges will be. Due to the subject matter of the challenge, my guess is Spielberg and Lucas.”

Oh dear... some perceived precedents are perilous stones upon which to step! I wish I could say that Spielberg and Lucas were available. (Steven, George, if either of you read this and you are available down the road, give me a shout. We'll schedule something at your convenience.)

As challenges are proposed, if I am able to get in touch with anyone who would be particularly suited to serve as a guest judge, I'll happily ask, and even more happily accept volunteers. Frankly though, a writer's first job is to be out there, writing; if we are fortunate enough to receive such a visit in any given week, it is a special occurrence.

In that light I would like to again thank Joe and Mike for agreeing to participate last weekend. Between them, everyone who participated received some degree of professional criticism, and in a few cases, exceptionally useful feedback.

Thank you, both!


Our second challenge did not quite yield the same degree of participation as the first, but everyone still seems to be having fun. Four contestants submitted five entries, and three different individuals assigned numeric votes. (In a dramatic and unforseen turn of events, everyone seemed content to use integers.)

If any of you are able to take a second look at your own work, and see ways in which to improve a concept so that it can be more successfully developed, the effort will have been worthwhile.

I am about to put on the “Editor Hat.” It's sort of like the “Sorting Hat” they use at Hogwarts (“Well, well well... another Weasley? Or are you a Rabbitsley? I get confused.”), but a little more nearsighted. Remember, this time it can only see a maximum of 150 words.

Those of you who voted were given a range of “0” to “3” points you could assign, per entry.

Official judges are given a maximum of 30 points, to assign as they see fit. The only restriction is that at most, only half of those points may be given to any single entry.

Since challengers could not vote for their own stories, a bonus of 2 points was given to a participant's highest-ranked work, if that participant also took the time to vote on the other entries.


"Ooh, it's fuzzy!"

“Dust Bunnies” by Ryan J

M: This is an impressive bit of iconography, and I am strongly tempted to give you a flat-out fifteen point sweep for the impression these critters convey. “Silver furred bodies with small claws” is evocative, but the marketing department will have fits trying to print a poster based on that description. Definitely iconic.

miko: 1I / Ryan J: voted! / xdpaul: 3I
M: 8
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 14I



“Hollow Man” by xdpaul

M: When I said “fur is technically optional,” I left a big ol' gaping loophole, didn't I? The Hollow Man could be an iconic creature-character, but he/it has strayed about as far from the original concept as you can go without being utterly disqualified. I sort of like it, and I'd like to see you do something with it.

miko: 1I / Ryan J: 2I / xdpaul: voted!
M: 2
Total: 5I



“Grampa's Critters” by miko

M: Miko, I have a strong impression that you managed to submit two entries wrapped into one, and the hidden entry is the stronger, more iconic of the two. This is certainly an entry that could very easily be spun into the voice-over for a film (or book) trailer, showing superficial beauty and light, but hinting at something horrifically dark beneath the surface. As iconography, “Grampa's Critters” are weak... but “the others” — despite the fact that we have no clear idea of their appearance — are decadently dark, malformed and memorable. And I am guessing that at least some of them have fur.

miko: voted! / Ryan J: 0 / xdpaul: 2I
M: 11
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 15I



“Phi” by xdpaul

M: Although this is quite a detailed description (if you bother to include measurements, whether they are fixed or relative, that is detail!), it doesn't read as an iconic entry. Relying on a human-mathematical concept as the hook with the implied presumtion that the same concept carries universal weight among alien critters smacks of gimmickery. Not iconic in the least, but your entry doesn't read as a nausea-inducing parody, either.

miko: 2I / Ryan J: 3I / xdpaul: voted!
M: 2
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 9I



“Sassysquatch” by Henry

M: Can we still get the team that animated The Smurfs back together? Or even the group that brought us The Snorks? Hell, there's gotta be some out-of-work eighties animators who'd jump at this chance. You could probably even pay them in sugared cereal. Then you could herd them all into one big room and shoot them, to spare the world. Sadly, this could be all too iconic... but I am going to place my vote solidly in the “gonna spew chunks now” camp.

miko: 2G / Ryan J: 3G / xdpaul: 3G (or 2I)
M: 7G
Total: 15G



Wrap-up...

Based on the numbers — which also serve as evidence that we all benefit when there are more entries and greater voting participation — we have a clear winner in each category:

(Potentially) Most Iconic: 15-I points — The Others, from “Grampa's Critters” by miko

(Decidedly) Most Yarf-in-a-Can: 15-G points — “Sassysquatch” by Henry

Congratulations, miko and Henry! (Actually, I am not sure we should congratulate Henry for that one. I'm considering a class-action suit, pending the potential inducement of psychiatric trauma.)

miko, as winner of the “iconic” award you are hereby invited to propose next week's challenge, scheduled to be announced the morning of Friday, 13 May 2011.


Afterword...

So what was the lesson of this challenge? A more iconic impression can sometimes be created by what you choose not to tell.
blog comments powered by Disqus