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Saturday, March 31, 2012

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, March 30, 2012

The Friday Challenge - 3/30/2012

Ripped from the Headlines!
In case you missed the news, here's an interesting link or three:

"Ghost Ship" Link 1 | Link 2 | Link 3

The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, was unquestionably a horrible disaster. The loss of human life was appalling. The scale of the environmental catastrophe following the Fukushima reactor meltdown is still being discovered. In the midst of all this tragedy, the loss and presumed sinking of one fishing boat is scarcely a footnote.

Except that a year later, here the fishing boat is: an ocean away from where it was presumed lost, apparently derelict and adrift, but very much not sunk.

I have always been a pushover for Mary Celeste stories, and there's a great one waiting to be told here. Where has this ship been for the past year? Why hasn't it been found until now? If the Coast Guard were to board it, what would they find? Obviously, since it's a Japanese squid-fishing boat that was presumed lost during a nuclear reactor accident, it's now being sailed by a crew of giant atomic mutant squid on a revenge mission—but really, that's too obvious, even for The Friday Challenge. Try Hollywood.

Instead, for this week's Friday Challenge, what I want you to do is put on your thinking cap, and—using this event as an inspiration, from which you can depart as much as needed—show us the first 1,000 words of the story that develops.

Only the first 1,000 words; no more, and less is acceptable, too. All I want you to do is begin the story and set the narrative hook.

Think it over. Write up something. And then let's all meet back here again next Friday to talk it over.

3/23/2012: "The First Voices of Spring"
Regarding the 3/23/12 Friday Challenge, "The First Voices of Spring," as of this morning we have received two entries and two urgent pleas for deadline extensions. Therefore, in accordance with the long-established Snowdog Rule, I am extended the deadline for the 3/23/2012 Friday Challenge until 9PM Central Daylight Time tonight.

This week in The Friday Challenge...
Through the heroic efforts of M, ably assisted by Jack Calverley and a host of others, a fix was found and implemented for the pesky global censorship helpful new automatic URL redirection feature that completely crippled our commenting system for our non-US friends. Hooray! Join the discussion... (Subject to the approval and prior restraint of your beloved local government, of course.)

Bruce Bethke posts one last review of John Carter, essentially advising everyone to see it quickly, before it disappears from the movie theaters and you have to wait for it to come out on Blu-Ray. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu sorts through the latest batch of movie trailers in search of the answer to the question: Is there anything coming out this Spring that looks like it's worth watching? Join the discussion...

Scott Bartlett takes the win in the 3/16/12 Friday Challenge, "My Favorite St. Patrick's Day Story." Join the adulation....

Anatoly Belilovsky, Henry Vogel, Arisia, and nm whitley all have news to share on Open Mic Saturday. Join the kaffeeklatsch...

All this and more, this week in, THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the 3/23/2012 Friday Challenge, "The First Voices of Spring," is 7:00 AM Central Daylight Time, tomorrow, Friday 3/20/2012.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ultimate Geek Fu

Trailer Park
I didn't actually check the time, but it seemed like last weekend's showing of John Carter was preceded by a full half-hour of trailers for other movies. Sitting there watching them with Karen and The Kid, in a dark and almost-deserted theater, we had a wonderful opportunity to play focus group, or more accurately Mystery Science Theater 3000. The verdicts?

Karen can't wait to see Mirror Mirror this coming weekend. The Kid, for some inexplicable reason, is really excited about Battleship; I don't know where I went wrong. There were the usual couple of other forgettables—not including Wrath of the Titans, I want to add. As much as I thought the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans was unnecessary, too long, and too loud, it was a much better movie than I expected and a lot of fun to watch, so I'll go along for the ride on the sequel. Somewhere down the line I expect it will wear out its welcome—Crash of the Titans? Rash of the Titans? Just how long can we string this one out? Titans vs Terminators seems like a natural. Sam Worthington can do the Mike Myers "Austin Powers" thing and play both leads.

Also as usual, there was not so much as a whisper about the one movie that's coming out this Spring that I really want to see: Iron Sky.

But for our little focus group, the highlight of the Coming Attractions was the trailer for The Avengers. Oh, talk about total nerdvana! Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, and the Incredible Hulk, together at last! Scripted and directed by Joss Whedon! (Okay, so that means that Buffy—er, River—er, Black Widow will have a role all out of proportion to her importance, but never mind that now.) At the end of the trailer, both Karen and The Kid turned to me and asked, "We're going to see that one, right?"


So how about you? Are there any movies coming up in the next few weeks that you are really looking forward to seeing?

Let the arguments begin.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Testing a fix for that pesky Blogger/Blogspot/Google globalization...

This morning, we are testing a fix for the recently-implemented country-specific redirects imposed on this site.

If you live outside the US, and specifically if you live inside India [blogspot.in], Australia [blogspot.com.au], UK [blogspot.co.uk], Japan [blogspot.jp], New Zealand [blogspot.co.nz], Canada [blogspot.ca], Germany [blogspot.de], Italy [blogspot.it], France [blogspot.fr], Sweden [blogspot.se], Spain [blogspot.com.es], Portugal [blogspot.pt], Brazil [blogspot.com.br], Argentina [blogspot.com.ar], or Mexico [blogspot.mx], could you try visiting the two links below, and let us know whether you are still being redirected, whether you are now able to see the comments, and whether you may also place your own?



Thank you.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

And the winner is...

To recapitulamatize, we've been experiencing some severe problems with Disqus this week, so we'll assume the paucity of comments is due to that, and not to any more likely and reasonable cause. For the 3/16/12 Friday Challenge, "My Favorite St. Patrick's Day Story," we ended up with but two entries, which we now reproduce in their full glory.

"Cupcakes," by M
The setting was College, Round II. The time was early morning, St. Patrick's Day 199(8 or 9?).

At the student union where I spent most of my waking — and a good chunk of everyone else's sleeping — hours, an energetic young coed had just brought in a special treat: green velvet cupcakes. There were plenty to share; she'd made at least three boxes worth.

They were beautiful. Of course, to get such an impressive shamrock green she'd also used five or six bottles worth of green food coloring.

We each had one. Some folks had more than one.

Every urinal in the building was stained green, for a week.

"Spring Break," by Scott Bartlett
Everyone in their right mind went to Daytona Beach for Spring Break. I drove from Boston to York, Pennsylvania to visit a friend. There was a party in the middle of a nowhere. There is always a party in the middle of nowhere when you are 20. I was a celebrity. It wasn’t out of merit, it was because I had a Boston accent.

A girl called me by a different name all night, pretending I was someone else. Her boyfriend. I let her do that. You go to hell for things like that. My friend vanished from the party and left me all alone. It was the only time in my life that the girl to guy ratio was 4 to 1.

I woke up in a clouded haze from the night before. Someone had drawn shamrocks on my face with eyeliner or mascara. I could not wash it off. My friend was gone and no one knew who I was. I was asked to leave. I got in my car and followed any sign that said north. I found the highway and drove back to Boston and went to my grandmother’s house for my family’s annual corned beef and cabbage tradition. My cousin washed the mascara off my face with cold cream. I never spoke to my friend again.

M's story is a beautiful, self-contained, perfectly paced comical anecdote. There's just enough initial detail to frame the story, a gentle three-beat setup, and then he nails it with a deadpan one-line spike. Score!

Scott Bartlett's story, on the other hand, is a fully developed tale. By the time I was done reading this one, I was ready to begin casting the movie. (Seriously. Films have been greenlighted on shorter pitches than this.)

Therefore, by the powers invested in me, I decree Scott Bartlett to be the winner of the 3/16/12 Friday Challenge, with all rights and smugnesses appertaining thereto.

And now on with the 3/23/12 Friday Challenge, "The First Voices of Spring," which is already in progress.

A few last words about John Carter

We needed a break yesterday, so we went to see John Carter at the local cineplex. At the last minute The Kid decided he wanted to come along, too; he's at that awkward age where he's not old enough to take a girl to a movie by himself, yet old enough to be embarrassed at being seen by girls he knows from school while in the company of his parents. Of said girls there were plenty at the theater, all queued up to see The Hunger Games.

Including the three of us, there were seven people in the theater that was showing John Carter.

This seems a shame. John Carter is a rousing, rip-roaring, sci-fi action-adventure movie, and (I almost hate to say this) fun for the whole family. There are heroes and villains, and you can tell which are which. There are fantastic settings, spectacular gizmos—I particularly liked the Barsoomian flyers, which somehow managed to blend futuristic and steampunk into something better than both—dramatic sword-fights, perils to be faced, journeys to be traveled, monsters to be fought, other monsters to be befriended, deft moments of comic relief (if you don't laugh at the Thark baby-delivery scene, you are way too serious)—

And of course, a beautiful princess who needs to be rescued—and rescued—and when the situation requires, is fully capable of picking up a sword and doing a good bit of rescuing herself.

In short, it's everything you could ever want to see in a good, honest, heroic, romantic, pulp-fiction sci-fi action/adventure movie. If you liked the original Star Wars, you'll like John Carter. If you liked the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, you'll get that same thrill from John Carter. (Except that Carter manages to be considerably less bloody than Raiders. I suppose it helps that the Barsoomian beasties bleed blue.)

This is not just my opinion. I grew up on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels, and think John Carter rates right up there with The Lord of the Rings in terms of adapting the original source material without doing horrible things to it. Karen, on the other hand, has never read a word of Burroughs, but she loved the pure-hearted escapism, adventure, and romance of it. And The Kid, of course, now thinks that Tharks are the coolest creatures that never lived.

What a shame that everyone is going to be talking about The Hunger Games tomorrow.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

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?

Update on the Comments issue: Thanks to Jack Calverley, we've learned that our friends in the UK who are coming to http://www.thefridaychallenge.com are being redirected automatically to http://thefridaychallenge.blogspot.co.uk, and no amount of attempting to force the issue will get them to the US .com site. This in turn appears to be causing problems with Disqus. We suspect that something similar might be affecting our Australian friends, so if any are awake now, we'd appreciate knowing if you're being redirected to http://thefridaychallenge.blogspot.com.au. Obviously, if you can't post, you'll have to let us know by dropping us an email at slushpile {at} thefridaychallenge {dot} com.

At this time we have no idea what the solution is, but this at least helps us to identify the problem.


Update to the Update: AHAH! If I go to, say:


I see all the comments on yesterday's Friday Challenge post, but if I go to:


It comes up blank!

Ditto for:

Curiouser and curiouser....

Update to the Updated Updates...

Google implemented the auto-redirection on all Blogger/Blogspot-related URLs a few days ago. DISQUS has not (yet) adjusted their system to account for this, and since the "#disqus_thread" property is domain-based, the global redirects are throwing it off. A fix should be coming soon, because they are certainly aware of the issue.

— M.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Friday Challenge - 3/23/2012

The First Voices of Spring
It's amazing, the difference a week can make. Normally at this time of year we'd be watching the snowdrifts melt and hearing about pickup trucks going through the ice, as too many anglers try to squeeze in one last late-season ice-fishing trip. This year, though, thanks to a week of record high temperatures, the local lakes are ice-free—one of the earliest ice-outs on record—the lawns are lush and green, and my front yard is erupting in tulips. In the evenings, when I walk the dogs, not only is every dog for a half-mile around barking, but every little pond, slough, and swamp in the neighborhood is alive with the cacophony of tiny croaking voices screaming out either "Hey ladies!" or "Hello, sailor!"*

(*Translated from the Froggish, of course.)

How about you? What's your unofficial first sign of Spring? (Or for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere: your first sign of Fall?) What's that one thing you notice every year, maybe even without really noticing that you notice it, that tells you the seasons have changed, and that Winter (or Summer) is finally over?

That's this week's Friday Challenge. We're not looking for a story this time: just a mood piece or tone poem about your personal cue that the seasons are changing. Think it over; write up something; post it in the Comments on this post, if you can,** and let's all meet here again next Friday to talk it over.

**Speaking of Comments
We've received a number of reports that Commenting isn't working again. Some people can see a Comment number on posts but can't see the comments; others can see the comments but can't post their own. We haven't changed anything on our end and quite honestly have no idea what's happening.

After I publish this post, I'm going to post a comment. Ergo, you should see at least one comment on the thread and should be able to post a reply to it. If you can't, drop us a line at slushpile (at) thefridaychallenge (dot) com. If nothing else, we'd like to get a sense of how widespread this problem is.

[Update: Mmph. Apparently the Comment counter has gone wonky again, too.]

[Update to the Update: No, it's not a bug, it's a feature. Fortunately, there is a solution. Read all about it.]

"My Favorite St. Patrick's Day Story"
Regarding the 3/16/2012 Friday Challenge, "My Favorite St. Patrick's Day Story," either because of the malfunctioning comment system or because of sheer embarrassment, we have as of this morning received but two entries:

M, "The Day The Urinals All Turned Green"
Scott Bartlett, "Daytona Beach Spring Break"

With luck, you'll be able to read these in the comments on the 3/16/2012 Friday Challenge post. If you can't—or if you have a story you're eager to tell but weren't able to because of posting issues—send it to slushpile (at) thefridaychallenge (dot) com and we'll snowdog it in.

Even if you haven't entered the challenge, you're invited to discuss, critique, and vote for your favorite entries. Winner to be announced on Sunday.

This week in The Friday Challenge...
Jason Peters wins the 3/9/12 Friday Challenge! Join the discussion...

Anatoly Belilovsky shares some insights into writing credible fiction involving wounds and injuries, gleaned from his experiences working in a hospital E.R. Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald reviews Disney's John Carter—which now appears fated to surpass The Black Hole and become the biggest money-losing flop in Disney's movie-making history. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu decides to take the week off. There doesn't seem to be anything left to say about John Carter or Terra Nova (did anyone even notice that that one was cancelled?), we can only look forward to next week's Clash of the Titans sequel with trepidation, and as for The Hunger Games: meh. The Running Man rewritten so as to appeal to the Twilight market? Big fat hairy deal. As far as we're concerned this movie only makes the argument that parents should be paying more attention to the books that Scholastic is shoving down their kids' throats.

And Bruce Bethke discovers that when you replace a kitchen sink, it's important to measure in the Z dimension, too, because just a slight difference in the depth of the new sink will wreak unholy havoc on the drain piping. Join the derision...

All this and more, this week in: THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Job Opportunity

I have a friend who has a freelance business providing articles for different websites. She has need of a technical writer who could write articles about robotic arms used in assembly lines. If you're interested, email me at kersley.fitz at gmail.

Critical Thinking

Why I like John Carter

How big a dork am I? The first time I saw the preview, I misheard the name and couldn't figure out when they had filmed another Terminator movie. Or why in the world John Connor was riding dinosaur-Banthas. When I saw the preview, my reaction was one big "eh." Eventually, there was nothing else to see.

Maj Tom: Why don't you want to see it?
Me: I'm afraid it won't measure up.
Maj Tom: To what?
Me: You know, all my childhood favorites. My family's cult classics.
Maj Tom: Like what?
Me: Krull. BeastMaster. Red Sonja.
Maj Tom: * Yeah, you got some high standards, there.

Disney thinks the movie will lose $200,000,000. Entertainment Weekly gave it a D. (And that was Owen, not Lisa-who-hates-everything.) In the interest of objectivity, I haven't read Henry's review.

Whatever. It didn't suck. It was entertaining. I haven't read the Barsoom stories, but I've read the Moon series and that little bit was enough to get me oriented. Yeah, things were changed. The once (I'm assuming) helpless female was a professor-warrior. That's cool. The acting was better than in Red Sonja. And, really. When's the last time you saw a swords and sandals fantasy with a kick-butt heroine who got to wear a sports bra?! (Yes. The foundation garments gave it credibility to me.) In the end, the hero out-tricked the bad guys (AKA: Martian Illuminati) to return to his woman.

So, it didn't have spandex britches or firemares (or Liam Neeson), and it didn't have creepy bat creatures or ferret heroes, and it didn't have Brigitte Nielson's fine acting skills*, but I think it was worthy enough.

In other news (and I'm sorry this is so late, but I couldn't get Maj Tom to even watch it because he knew once he did it would be over forever) but did you catch the last episode of Chuck? I mean, I guess I get it in a literary sense. By having Sarah lose her memory, they got to do a little bit of a recap, especially with their relationship. I don't think it would have been my choice, though. Still, cool that Casey left to go find Trinity.

* I just got something. Does anyone watch Once Upon A Time? Is the evil queen/mayor trying to channel Queen Gedron and failing miserably?

Now that that's out of the way, how on earth am I going to get a babysitter this weekend so we can see The Hunger Games?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Just Another Day in the E.R.

by Anatoly Belilovsky, M.D.
[Editor's Note: We had some questions about a submission that, while generally well-written, depended on a resolution that seemed to have been written by someone with absolutely no understanding of vertebrate anatomy. We asked Dr. Belilovsky for a few words of advice and he sent us this piece, describing his typical working day.]

There was nothing we could do for the man with the shuriken embedded in his forehead: it had penetrated eleven millimeters into the vital subcutaneous lobe of the brain. Death had been instantaneous. I wrote DOA on his chart and turned my attention to the people with less-severe injuries.

“Here is a man with a GSW to left shoulder,” said Yolanda, my medical student. “That could be serious.”

I gifted her with a benign smile. “Gunshot wounds to the shoulder are rarely serious,” I said. “Here in the Fiction General Emergency Room, you will find that bullets usually enter the subclavian fossa just under the collarbone, make a hairpin turn to avoid the subclavian artery and vein, then navigate the maze of nerves in the brachial plexus, and finally exit just under the glenoid fossa, narrowly missing the head of the femur.”

“Isn't that humerus?” she asked.

“Severe or not,” I said sternly, “gunshot wounds are never humorous.”

She giggled uncontrollably. Some people never develop much of a bedside manner.

A woman walked in on two broken tibiae, using a furled umbrella to support herself. I left her to Yolanda's ministrations while I attended a female police officer who had been shot point-blank with a .50-caliber machine gun. Her flak jacket stopped the rounds, but their kinetic energy propelled her through a brick wall and down two floors to land on the roof of a taxi. While she was unconscious I took great pains to ascertain that her 38DD's had sustained no damage; not even a bruise, in fact. When she awoke she attempted to accuse me of groping, remembering my name from my badge, but since she could not remember her own name, her words were not given due credence.

Near the end of the shift a man ran in. “I have been poisoned!” he shouted. “You must find the antidote! I have 43 minutes to live!” We did our best, but as the 43rd minute chimed, he paused in his recitation of the story of his life, his eyes rolled, and he fell over dead, on cue to cut to the commercial.

In the ensuing silence I heard Yolanda mutter, “...said 'femur' instead of 'humerus'” as she glanced in my direction. “Epic boner,” Nurse Cassie replied.

I smiled.

All in all, an unremarkable day. Straight out of Harrison's Textbook of Stochastic Medicine.

Monday, March 19, 2012

And the winner is...

The Menard's Plumbing Department, in extra innings. But never mind that now.

In the matter of the 3/9/12 Friday Challenge, "I, The Jury," in which you were to put on your editor-in-chief's hat and imagine you were being confronted by this epic masterpiece, "A Writing Man of Mars," submitted to your publication by a certain well-known and award-winning author:

Honorable Mention to Anatoly Belilovsky, for his incisive critique of the structure of the story. If we were judging this one strictly as a story, Anatoly's comments would be spot-on. If you're going to use the story-within-a-story structure, there must be a tight relationship between the inner and outer stories. One should illuminate the other. That fails to happen here.

However, this is not merely a story-within-a-story: it's a pastiche within a story, and on that level we must award several Dishonorable Mentions to certain anonymous cowards who did not comment in the post, but rather wrote me privately to ask, in essence, "Are you out of your mind? You're messing with Disney!"

An interesting question. While Edgar Rice Burroughs' early novels are long since out of copyright and in the public domain, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., backed by the Disney corporation, claims that "John Carter," (which name, you'll note, never actually appears in this story) "Tarzan," "Warlord of Mars," and a variety of other character names and titles that appear within said public-domain novels are in fact trademarks, and therefore legally protected from unauthorized use.

A very interesting question indeed. Can you retroactively copyright or trademark works that are in the public domain? Could you, say, claim a copyright on the Mona Lisa?

Who cares? Good, bad, right, wrong; they're the ones with the small army of lawyers on staff. As Joel Rosenberg used to say, "And how much justice can you afford to buy today, sir?"

On that grounds alone this one is probably a reject, just as we've already rejected several parodies—some of them quite clever—of assorted movies, TV shows, and comic-books. There is a thin line between "clever parody" and "actionable infringement," and this is one of those areas where even if you win in court, you lose, at least in terms of time and money spent defending the case. So thank you for your submission, sir, but we'd just as soon not explore this question first-hand.

Which brings us to the critique by Jason R. Peters, in which he calls the story a reject, on these grounds:

1. There are two very different stories jammed together in the body of this one, and the relationship between the inner and outer stories is very weak. The story is bi-polar. Is it serious? Is it madcap parody? It can't seem to make up its mind.

2. The outer story is a decently written framing device, but what exactly is the outer story? Aspiring but unsuccessful SF writer gets otherworldly aid to write a story? Put in those terms, we can only say, "Oh no, not again." This idea was old 60 years ago when Fredric Brown and Richard Matheson were working it, and it hasn't improved any with age. We see about ten of these a week, and they're all, at heart, uninteresting. If we wanted to hear unpublished writers whine about how hard it is to get published, we could get it for free from our writer-friends.

3. As it stands now, the Burroughs' pastiche goes on way too long. If the framing device were to be cut down to the barest minimum, the inner story might work as-is, but then it would only be accessible to readers who were already very familiar with the Barsoom novels. A story that makes sense only if the reader has read an earlier story by a different author—unless that previous story was, say, Moby Dick, or Twilight—is a story with a very small readership indeed.

As it happens, I agree with this critique. I wouldn't have 25~30 years ago, when I first wrote this thing, but with the benefit of a lot more experience, I do now. Therefore, by the powers invested in me by—er, me—I declare Jason R. Peters to be the winner of the 3/9/12 Friday Challenge, with all acclamations, huzzahs, and attaboys attendant thereupon to be bestowed. Huzzah! Huzzah!

And now on with the 3/16/12 Friday Challenge, "My Favorite St. Patrick's Day Story," which is already in progress.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

And the winner is...

...to be announced at 6pm CDT today. In the meantime you still have a few hours left in which to get in your comments on the 3/9/12 Friday Challenge, "I, The Jury," which this week tackles "A Writing Man of Mars," by yours truly.


Update: Did I write 6pm? I meant 7pm.

-Bruce, Acting Plumber, In the Kitchen, Under the Sink

Update, 10:32pm: And sometimes the only thing to do is just to rip out everything between the supply pipes and the soil stack and replace the whole damned works. Winner's announcement to be posted tomorrow. Now if you'll excuse me, I need a shower. And a jumbo box of Band-Aids.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

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, March 16, 2012

The Friday Challenge - 3/16/2012

Ah, and sure'n if it isn't nearly Saint Patrick's Day, which here in Minnesota we celebrate by blocking off the streets for parades, filling our slow-cookers with corned beef and cabbage, and filling the bars with drunken Swedes and Norwegians claiming to be Irish for a day! Personally if I were to acknowledge the very tiny bit of Irish ancestry in my family tree I'd be wearing orange, but people look at you funny when you do that, so let's just move right along to this week's Friday Challenge:

My Favorite St. Patrick's Day Story

That's what we want from you now. Tell us your funniest, strangest, most appealing or most appalling St. Patrick's Day-related anecdote! Tell us about that unforgettable party where you first met your beautiful blushing red-headed bride-to-be, or tell us about that time in Boston when you got so drunk on green beer you vomited in Technicolor! If you don't actually have a favorite St. Patrick's Day story to tell, that's okay, too. Tell us about that magical morning you woke to find your lawn filled with shamrocks and fairies, or the time you had to call Orkin to trap those pesky leprechauns infesting your garage! Remember, it's St. Patrick's Day! So kiss, lick, or snort scrapings from the Blarney Stone as suits your tastes, and tell us a real whopper!

Since folks have been rather quiet on the subject of the Friday Challenge Yahoo! file sharing site, I'd like to propose an experiment. This week, instead of putting your stories into the Yahoo! file repository, I'd like you to either post them in the Comments on this post (if they'll fit), or else post them on your own blog or website and post a link here. If you've written a tale that's too long to post in the Comments and don't have your own blog or website (or would rather that your regular blog readers never saw your epic tale of drunken debauchery), then contact me at slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com, and we'll figure out something.

And then let's all meet back here next Friday, to talk about the results.

The 3/9/12 Friday Challenge
Speaking of results, given the peculiar nature of the 3/9/12 Friday Challenge, I, The Jury, there doesn't seem much point in summarizing the entries here. Instead, you'll find them all over in the Comments on the 3/9/12 Friday Challenge post. Review, consider, debate, add your own comments; the luck of the Irish and green beer willing, we'll be announcing a winner on Sunday.

This week in The Friday Challenge...
We've had a surprisingly active week here in the FC, for a pleasant change.

Kersley Fitzgerald continues her discussion of the philosophy of ethics in Critical Thinking, and also provides some insight into the wisdom of letting your dog eat peanuts. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu yields its space to Henry Vogel this week, who reviews Disney's John Carter (not "Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter?"), and spawns a delightfully active debate. Join the discussion...

After long hiatus, The Slushpile Survival Guide returns, with a few words of advice about cover letters. Join the discussion...

Nicholas Whitley is declared the winner in the long-delayed 2/17/12 Friday Challenge, "And now for something completely different..." Join the discussion...

Anatoly Belilovsky shares publication news, M talks about Hugo Award voting, and the inmates share their views from their respective places inside the asylum, in Open Mic Saturday. Join the discussion...

All this and more, this week in: THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Critical Thinking

Or, "I'm sorry I couldn't get my homework done. I was too busy writing this excuse."

John Carter:

I liked it.

More later.

Until then, I leave you with my synopsis of the Philosophy of Ethics:

The philosophy of ethics is a type of psychological warfare used by abstract thinkers who have no grip on reality and a strange inability to balance their checkbooks. They use this surreal worldview to develop Möbius-like, self-contradicting statements about reality and truth. Statements like, "Reality does not exist," and, "There is no such thing as pain," and, "There is a hypothetical, perfect, objective, omniscient observer who could answer that question except that he doesn't exist and if he did, he wouldn't tell us."

The number one victim of this insidious warfare is the innocent, pure mind of the mild-mannered engineer who learned to debate in a thorough, logical manner. When exposed to the philosophy of ethics, the aforementioned engineer will find herself gazing at the far wall , slightly cross-eyed, rocking softly back and forth, humming Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," while her brain turns into something that slightly resembles three-month old guacamole. Once their victim has reached the stage of catatonia, the philosophers will dance about gleefully, then meet at the local martini bar where they will over-indulge in absinthe and plot the destruction of all rational thought.

Happy belated Pi Day

Last week: dog eats peanuts, dog's face swells up like a St. Bernard, dog bitten on nose by a pug, I dislocate hip (happens regularly), Creature sick. Last three days: second job ramps up, dog explodes in kennel, dog bleeds everywhere, dog has lower GI bacterial imbalance, Maj Tom's paycheck bounces, Maj Tom's paycheck promises to bounce back soon, internet broken, internet fixed but no wireless, Creature sick, Maj Tom sick, me sick, Creature and me rear-ended (no injury, no damage), creature has lower GI bacterial imbalance, friend diagnosed with cancer.

Boss says: "Go ahead and take some time off if you need it. As you can see, I'm really busy playing Angry Birds."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ultimate Geek Fu Reviews John Carter

I first learned of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars series from my high school math teacher. She and her husband, both of them science fiction fans, had been thrilled when Ballantine Books began releasing new paperback versions of the books. I'd read Tarzan of the Apes and The Outlaw of Torn already, so I wasn't a complete stranger to Burroughs' stories. I was intrigued by what my teacher told me about the Mars series and readily accepted when she offered to let me borrow A Princess of Mars. The following weekend, with nothing better to do, I opened the book and began reading.

First published 100 years ago with the title Under the Moons of Mars, I'm absolutely positive Burroughs had teenage boys in mind when he wrote the book. First, the world is absolutely chock full of beautiful women. Beautiful, naked women. The stories are a mix of science fiction technology -- such as the wonderful flying ships all the human races of Mars use -- and the swashbuckling excitement of ringing steel as heroes and villains cross blades with the fate of a world or, equally as important, the fate of a lovely (naked!) woman hanging in the balance. Strange, alien races with strange, alien cultures aid and hinder John Carter, gentleman of Virginia, mighty warrior of Mars, and hero of the story. What more could a teenage boy ask for? I finished the book in one day.

As luck would have it, I discovered on Monday that one of the few fellow science fiction fans in my high school had brought his two-in-one Science Fiction Book Club edition of the second and third books in the Mars series. He ended up loaning me the next six books, none of which took me more than a day to devour. That's not a particularly impressive feat as the books are fairly short, but I'd never felt so compelled by any series of books prior to these.

Put simply, I love the John Carter books. Yes, they're formulaic and lacking in any kind of humor. But they're also exciting and imaginative and, along with The Lords of the Rings which I read a few months later, the first books I really, seriously wanted to be true. So you can imagine what I felt when I heard Disney was finally going to bring John Carter to the big screen.

Trepidation. Excitement. High hopes. Low expectations.

The movie opens on Mars, Barsoom as it is known to its native races, a place the book did not take readers for several chapters. In this case, the opening sets the conflict into which John Carter will be thrust when he arrives on the planet. The city of Zodanga is conquering the entire planet. For hundreds of years, only the mighty forces of Helium stood firm against Zodanga, keeping their power in check. But now the Jeddak (the king or ruler) of Zodanga has powerful allies; strange, bald men who control great power and place some of that power in the Zodangan Jeddak's hands. With this power -- and the advice of the lead bald guy -- Zodanga will be unstoppable.

I suppose that could be considered a spoiler, but it all comes out in the first few minutes of the movie, so it's not much of a spoiler. There are actual spoilers in the next few paragraphs. Skip ahead to the "End spoilers" line if you don't want to read them.

The movie follows the novel's storyline, at least in fairly broad strokes. John Carter heads out west looking for gold and stumbles across a strange cave from which he ends up being transported to Mars. He meets and is captured by the wild green Martian tribe, the Tharks. The princess Dejah Thoris is captured by the Tharks after her airship is attacked and destroyed. John Carter escapes with the princess and the young, female green Martian, Sola, who is one of the few among her race who feels compassion.

As John Carter and Dejah Thoris begin to fall in love, our hero battles Warhoons, a different tribe of green Martians, before ending up in a place of honor in the city of Zodanga. There, Carter learns that Dejah Thoris has agreed to marry the Jeddak of Zodanga, hoping it will bring peace and allow her beloved city of Helium to survive. Determined to stop the wedding, John Carter escapes from Zodanga, journeys back to the Tharks, and enlists their aid in his cause. The Tharks attack Zodanga then move on to Helium, arriving just in time to help defend Helium against the forces of Zodanga. After defeating the Zodangans, John Carter and Dejah Thoris are married. Alas, their happiness is not eternal, as John Carter is returned to Earth where he spends his days trying to get back to Mars and the woman he loves.

Within those broadly stroked events, there are significant differences in the details of the movie compared to the details of the novel.

John Carter is a straight-forward man of action. That's what he was in the books and it's what he is in the movie. I think the movie John Carter starts out a bit more dim than the one in the books, but he gets smarter as the movie goes on. As did Boroughs in the books, the movie makes great use of Carter's amazing jumping abilities (Mars has one third the gravity of Earth). The movie John Carter turns out to have been married prior to the Civil War. During the war, his wife and child were killed; something which is used solely to draw out Carter's willingness to commit himself to Dejah Thoris and her cause. That bit was totally superfluous and something I think should have been left out.

In a move that didn't surprise me one bit, Dejah Thoris is both a beautiful warrior woman and a brilliant woman of science. In fact, she's a Regent at the Helium Academy of Science or something like that. This is a particularly tiresome thing Hollywood does any time they have a female lead character created prior to the feminist movement. That's why the Fantastic Four had Dr. Susan Storm, the Avengers (the British spies, not the American superhero team) had Dr. Emma Peel, the X-Men had Dr. Jean Grey, and, I assume, if someone ever does a movie based on the TV series I Love Lucy, we will have Dr. Lucy Ricardo (surely soon to be followed by Dr. Mary Tyler Moore). It seems that it is no longer enough for a woman to be brave, intelligent, and heroic. She must also be a brilliant scientist or lawyer or some such (no pressure, there, ladies). So, we get the brilliant Dejah Thoris, who John Carter calls "Professor" several times during the movie. Other than this bit, though, I think the movie did a good job of capturing Dejah Thoris, even if she isn't called "incomparable" even once.

But the truly major change from the book to the movie is in the source of the conflict between Zodanga and Helium. Burroughs pretty specifically spells out that all the races of Mars live for war. It's like a sport or a hobby to them. One nation is always fighting another nation and no one seems to really need a reason other than this love of war. In the movie, there is no mention of this aggressive side of Martian culture. Instead, it is the city of Zodanga that wages a war of conquest all across Mars, crushing every presumably peace-loving Martian nation in its path. It is this centuries-long war which draws in the great difference between book and movie.

The great power wielded by the Jeddak of Zodanga has been given to him by a bunch of planet-hopping, shape-shifting bald guys. We never really learn exactly who these guys are, though they are referred to as "Holy Therns" at one point. Therns are the white race John Carter eventually discovers on Mars and they are bald, but the bald guys in the movie are not native to Mars. Still, I'm going to refer to them as "Therns" for simplicity.

The Therns not only provide great power to the enemy of Helium, they also provide the method for John Carter to get from Earth to Mars. This is one change I rather approve of. In the book, there is an unexplained, mystical something which allows Carter to break free of his mortal body while, somehow, still having a mortal body. In this strange state, Carter can travel to Mars simply by willing himself to do so. It's really rather silly, when you get down to it. In the movie, Carter stumbles across one of the Therns' secret transfer points, gets hold of the alien technology used by the Therns to travel between worlds, and next thing you know he's on Mars.

Once on Mars, the movie jumps -- usually on the strength of John Carter's legs -- from action scene to action scene. There is enough time taken between action scenes to explain more or less what's going on, but it's not like you really need any kind of deep explanation. John Carter originally just wants to go home and, being short a set of ruby slippers, needs "Professor" Dejah Thoris to figure out how to use the device which brought him to Mars in the first place. Along the way, the two begin to fall in love. With the growing love, Carter's goal changes from returning to Earth to stopping the princess from marrying the Jeddak of Zodanga. Dejah Thoris is doing this to save Helium from being destroyed by Zodanga.

The wedding, of course, turns out to be a ruse by the Zodangans. While all of Helium is distracted by the wedding, the Zodangan forces attack. John Carter arrives in the nick of time, followed by an army of green Martians led by Tars Tarkas, the Jeddak of the Tharks. We get a nice, big, movie-ending battle from which the primary Thern escapes when it becomes obvious the good guys are going to win. John Carter and Dejah Thoris are married but everyone does not quite live happily ever after because the head Thern sends John Carter back to Earth on his wedding night (though not until after John and Dejah get some off-camera time in the sleeping furs). Still, though, the movie is not quite over. John Carter dedicates his life to finding another Thern planet-hopping device so he can return to Mars. His scheme for getting one turns out to be rather clever, in my opinion. The movie ends with Carter triggering the device. Roll credits.

End spoilers.

At the beginning of this review, I professed my love for the series of novels. So, what did a Burroughs fan such as myself think of the movie? Like many epic-scale action movies, I can find many faults with the movie. It has plot holes. It has things I wish had been done differently. But I can say that about many other movies, including the original Star Wars and the most recent Star Trek movie. The faults in those movies didn't stop me from thoroughly enjoying them, just as the faults in John Carter don't stop me from thoroughly enjoying it.

The action scenes in John Carter are well done and generally quite exciting. The characters are likable and the script brings a sense of humor to the story which had not a single humorous line within the pages of the original novel. I watched the movie with a friend who also has a love for the Mars series. He found the movie quite as enjoyable as I did. The Boy, who only knows about John Carter because I've told him about the series, liked the movie, as well. More importantly, at the end of the movie, there was actual applause from the audience. I wouldn't need all ten of my fingers to count the number of times I've heard actual applause after a movie ended. It's worth noting, most of those movies had Star Wars or Star Trek in their titles.

John Carter has its blemishes, including the poorly selected title (I think A Princess of Mars would have been a far superior title), but the sheer sense of fun I felt watching the movie more than made up for those blemishes. I wish the movie was bringing in more money, because this Barsoom is a place I'd like to visit again.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Slush Pile Survival Guide

The Cover Letter
I'm curious. Where do writers get their sometimes very peculiar notions about what makes a good cover letter?

After seeing somewhat more than a thousand cover letters, I must be honest: I no longer read them. The very first thing we do when we receive a new submission is separate the story from the cover letter. The cover letter gets filed, in case we need to refer to it later, and only the story goes on, naked and alone, to meet the first-readers and reviewers.

Frankly, considering most of the cover letters I've seen, this practice is very much to the story's advantage.

For the record, I have never bought a so-so story because it came behind a great cover letter, but I can readily imagine that there are a lot of really great stories floating around out there that have never been published, because they habitually arrive in editor's offices wearing truly godawful ugly cover letters.

Some things to avoid:

* Don't send me your entire c.v. I don't care where you went to school and I'm not buying your publishing history. I'm only interested in buying or not buying this story. In the case of flash fiction in particular, we've actually seen cover letters that were longer than the attached story.

If you have a publication history, great. List your two or three most significant—or most recent—publications. Anything more than five is overkill.

* Don't list an alphabet soup of writer's organizations to which you belong. Some are germane—i.e., SFWA, HWA, and a few others—but if you list everything down to the writer's group that meets at your local library every second Tuesday, this suggests to us that you're more interested in socializing and talking about being a writer than in actually writing.

* Don't presume a jocular familiarity. Don't assume that because the publication is named Stupefying Stories, that we're all a bunch of gonzo wild 'n' crazy kids. Using the insultingly humorous form of address, in particular, just makes us want to kick you. But since we can't get to you, we'll abuse your story instead.

* Don't send us a synopsis of the story we're about to read. All a synopsis can do is take away our interest in actually reading the story. More than anything else, you want the editor to read your story.

* Finally—and this one really baffles me, but someone out there must be saying that doing this is a good idea, because we see it so often—don't send me a paragraph of advertising copy telling me how exciting (or breathtaking, ground-breaking, intriguing, heart-warming, side-splitting, bone-chilling, or whatever) the story I am about to read is. Anything a writer writes about his or her own work in the third-person is apt to be pure marketing b.s., and we both know it, so just stop it right now. Capisce?

Hope this helps. Will write more next week.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

And the winner is...

...and we're back from MarsCon, where we had the pleasures of having lunch with old friend, Stupefying Stories author, and sometimes Friday Challenge contributor Guy Stewart; of finally getting to meet and have a good long chat with new friends Roy C. Booth and R. Thomas Riley, whose co-authored work will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Stupefying Stories; and the supremely weird experience of showing up for a reading by [NAME WITHHELD], only to find that he'd had to cancel out of attending the con but no one had thought to post the schedule change where any fans could see it. So there I was, in a room full of people eagerly expecting a reading by [NAME WITHHELD], and it just so happened I had the final copy-edited manuscript of his very latest next-to-be-published story right there in my hands...

It was a promotional opportunity not to be missed, and I didn't miss it. I am so shameless, sometimes.

Anyway, it was the usual fun but exhausting experience, and now we're back, and I'm ready to pick the winner in the long-delayed 2/17/12 Friday Challenge: "And now for something completely different...

Looking at the entries received:

Spambot!, The Slow Butcher, Diamonds Are for Ebert, and General Tso's Chicken, all by Anatoly Belilovsky

The Trouble with Zonde Begaan (or Voyage to Atlantis) by Nicholas Whitley

Let's be honest. Anatoly, all your entries are one-liners, and some of them (i.e., "The Slow Butcher") are even older than I am. Nicholas, on the other hand, has fulfilled the requirements for the original challenge and produced an actual outline for a possibly unwritable novel—but nonetheless an actual novel, complete with beginning, middle, and end, complete with gobs of impossible and confusing character and plot development. Therefore, I decree Nicholas Whitley to be the winner of the 2/17/12 Friday Challenge!

Thanks for participating, and now, on to the current challenge, which is already in progress.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

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, March 9, 2012

The Friday Challenge - 3/9/2012

Hi, Bruce Bethke here, stepping in today to try to shake things up a little. This week we're going to lead off with a new and different kind of Friday Challenge, and it's one I call:

I, The Jury

For the past few months I've been off working in another part of the Rampant Loon Press vineyard, putting most of my time and energy into getting STUPEFYING STORIES up and running. I couldn't have done it—we couldn't have done it—without an incredible amount of help given very generously by Marc, Henry, Beth, Vidad, Karen, and a whole lot of other people I'm not going to name right now for fear of turning this into an Academy Awards acceptance speech, but in the final analysis, the one thing that's really struck home in these past months is the realization that ultimately, the responsibility rests on me.

It is not always possible to reach a clear consensus. I can delegate to, enable, and empower other people all I want, but at the end of the day, I am the one who has to make the final decisions. Making decisions is not always fun, either, especially when you're doing the kind of hair-splitting sometimes needed to decide whether to accept or reject a story—but when you're the editor-in-chief, you are the judge, jury, appeals court of last resort, and executioner.

So for this week's Friday Challenge, I want you to try on my size-11 shoes for a change. There is a story posted at this link:

A Writing Man of Mars

I want you to imagine that you are the editor-in-chief, and this story has just shown up in your in-basket.

What do you do with it? Accept it? Reject it? If it's a reject, can the story be salvaged with a rewrite, and if so, what would you want to see fixed? It's easy to give something a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, but I'd rather you explained your reasons why this story should see one fate or the other.

You have one week. Put your response in the Comments thread on this post, and let's all meet back here next Friday to compare answers. Have fun!

And now, on to other business...

This Week in The Friday Challenge
It's been a slow week, here in The Friday Challenge.

Kersley Fitzgerald writes about the philosophy of ethics. Join the discussion...

Allan Davis celebrates a new job, while mourning the apparent death of his wife's laptop. Join the discussion...

And we still haven't picked a winner in the 2/17/12 Friday Challenge, "Moving Right Along / “And now for something completely different...”, so to reiterate:

As of this morning, we have received the following entries for our current challenge:
Somebody comment on these things, okay?
Whither The Friday Challenge?
In response to the 3/2/12 rhetorical challenge, there's been some behind-the-scenes discussion, but not much overt action....yet. The most important development you'll find if you look around the site today isn't even here; it's over on the Yahoo file-sharing site. We finally found the keys to the fridge, and we've cleaned out all files older than January 2012. That alone should make the thing much easier to use. But on a related note: realistically, do we need a password-protected file-sharing site? The original reason why we set it up was because some participants were afraid that posting their Friday Challenge entries on publicly viewable web or blog sites would jeopardize their prospects for later selling stories developed from Friday Challenge entries.

Honestly, now: is this really a significant concern?

The lines are open. Your thoughts, comments, observations, and opinions are welcome.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Critical Thinking

The Philosophy of Ethics

So, I've been writing these articles for work on the philosophy of ethics. First of all, philosophers are nuts. How do they come up with some of this stuff?

Second of all, it's interesting the relationship sci fi has with ethics. Maybe it's because a whole new, made-up environment gives us the opportunity to go beyond setting and contemplate the human condition, as well.

In fact, I accidentally explored that in a story that may be coming out soon in Stupefying Stories. In it, humans have to learn how to get along with aliens who appear to have only superficial differences (they're giant frogs), but actually live based on an ethical philosophy that is just different enough that it drives the humans nuts.

Star Trek, of course, was a great one for contemplating ethical theories. Everyone knows the Vulcan basis for ethics, but some may not know it is the definition of egalitarian consequentialism. Most know the Ferengi's Rules of Acquisitions—deontology at its finest. Even the Borg display mohist consequentialism. And the Prime Directive is classic cultural relativism.

Coming up with basic theories of ethics for societies and individuals is a great way to add tension to a plot, but it can also inform the characters of plot-based writers. If you want your character to be more than someone who gets the plot from point A to point B, it helps to know how he would act in a situation. Back-story is great, but it doesn't necessarily determine reaction. Knowing the ethical theory of a minor character can also help know how they will aid or frustrate your protagonist.

How have you used ethical theories in writing? What schools of ethics have you seen in others' writing? How did it work?

Kersley Fitzgerald is a writer who thinks the coolest thing she found out about the philosophy of ethics is that The Matrix is based on Blaise Pascal.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

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, March 2, 2012

The Friday Challenge — 3/2/2012

This past two weeks in The Friday Challenge:

M receives a visit from his wife's family, and defers the action for a week. • Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke spreads rumors of a reboot, and ponders the necessity of such things. • Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald discusses the problematic “middle ground.” • Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel gives a flip answer... then follows it up with a completely serious, lengthy exposition. • Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke is uncomfortable laughing at televised stereotypes. Perhaps the secret involves picturing members of TFC in place of the cast members? • Join the discussion...

Kersley Fitzgerald discusses the impact of POV, and why sometimes a story is more powerful if you choose the “wrong” one. • Join the discussion...

Nicholas Whitley wins our “What a twit!” challenge, by default... and to the best of our knowledge, he is still at large. • Join the discussion...

All this and more, as Old Stuff Day prompts us to do something other than the “same old stuff,” and the inmates discuss the view from their respective places in the asylum.

Moving Right Along / “And now for something completely different...”

As of this morning, we have received the following entries for our current challenge:

Given the delay, and the nature of their respective entries, we'll go with a previous suggestion: Both of them should walk the plank.

A Challenging Proposal

And now it is time for this week's Friday Challenge, inflicted by M:

Participation has been dropping off. Early last year we started strong (pent up energy!) and rode the wave for a few months, until the summer slump was followed by an autumn malaise, and then a winter freeze.

Now, we all know that there will be an ebb and flow to your involvement. Frankly, we hope that the current diminished participation in the challenges is a sign that you are all busily sending out your material to paying markets.

But it is a little disappointing, week to week, to see an individual excitedly propose a challenge, only to be met with a “Thunderdome” scenario, or worse, a solitary response.

While our visible online numbers have been dwindling, the face-to-face writers' group in which I participate has been experiencing explosive growth! Some of the participants there have also entered — and even proposed — challenges here, so the lack of online involvement isn't from lack of interest in writing, or obtaining feedback.

That leads me to think that it might be the challenge process itself. Over the past few years, we've varied between a rotating challenge proposal mechanism, to a system of proposals administered by a governing body, and back again. Is it time to adjust the mechanism, or our expectations?

Your challenge this week is to explain what sort of challenges would grab your interest, and how you would like to see them delivered. Continue with a rotating catbird seat? Shift the burden to a few dedicated individuals? Institute a subscription list for challenges, and consider the entries as Stupefying Stories submissions? Stuff an extra seventy-two hours into each week, so you'll have time to write?

Anyone can enter, with no restrictions.

[NOTE: Pay no mind to the Comment counter. There are comments. Disqus is just acting wonky again.]

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Critical Thinking


Maj Tom and I were listening to NPR the other morning. They were interviewing Viola Davis, the amazing actress who played Aibileen on The Help. She's been getting some flack from the African American community for playing a maid. In fact, the movie has gotten criticism because of the focus on Skeeter, the white woman who is the driving force behind empowering the black maids. One thing I heard was that too much focus was on Skeeter when it should have been on Aibileen.

As a story-teller, I was wondering what would have happened had Skeeter been relegated to a smaller role and Aibileen been the bigger role. I think it was a delicate balance. Aibileen was so (justifiably) depressed and defeated. I think if the movie had been primarily from her point of view, it would have been more demeaning, in a way, because we would have seen her as she saw herself: a beaten nobody in a deep, dark hole until a young white hand reached down to pull her out. Instead, we see her as Skeeter sees her--a strong, abused, valuable woman with a story.

So twist it around. Take out Skeeter and make the young journalist one of the maids' daughters--Constantine's daughter, maybe, come down from Chicago to get the story of her mother. But from that point of view, the prevailing emotion would probably be resentment--of both the disrespect the women put up with and the fact that her mother raised white babies when she should have been raising her own daughter.

Instead, from Skeeter's point of view, we get affection and gratefulness mixed in with the righteous indignation. The problem with seeing only the bad in the maids' situation is that it marginalizes their lives and the value of their work. Skeeter, for all her naivety, adored, respected, and appreciated Constantine in a way that a resentful daughter might not have been able to.

Another role Skeeter played and was that of the audience-sympathetic dumb puppet. She allowed us to discover information that a more knowledgeable main character would have already known. She also gave us a sort of emotional compass, allowing us to put ourselves into the story in a way that was safe. It's nice to be able to sympathize with the hero.

One more thought, and that's about theme. Was this movie about civil rights? Because the rights of the women didn't change much. I say it was about marginalized women (Skeeter and the maids) finding their voice, realizing they had an important story to tell. Skeeter and Aibileen didn't change the culture; that wasn't their character arc. But they both because writers--tellers of stories. It was as writers that they realized they were kind, they were smart, and they were important.

Point of view's a tricky thing, especially when it deals with such a sensitive topic. What do you think?

In other news, Kersley Fitzgerald gets her first nephew this month! Just as soon as her sister, cheesentoast, stops hogging him all to herself and lets him out to see the world!
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