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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

MEN IN BLACK 3: More Of The Same or Exactly The RIGHT Note?

The Daughter and I went to see MIB3 yesterday while it rained here.

Let me just say that while my daughter and I share a voracious reading habit, our reading MATERIAL is wildly different. We’ve been known to cross over into each other’s territory, but for the most part, I read and write science fiction and she reads and writes fantasy.

Even in terms of the MIB franchise – I love it for the aliens, she loves it for Will Smith...(;-))

I’m NOT going to iterate the plot here. If you really want to know the entire movie before you see it, go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Men_in_Black_3 to get the complete lowdown.

The Daughter and I are here to review the movie and first of all I want to point out that if you’re shy of emotional issues, then this MIB is not for you. Where the others were a joyous romp all over the tropes of alien occupation, invasion and secret societies; MIB3 for the first time deals with feelings. The Daughter: And not just superficial feelings between Will Smith and an alien princess (ahem…Men in Black 2), but real, substantial feelings that resonate not just with blissful lovebirds but with the human experience at a deeper level.

Therein lies its strength.

Io9 recently posted on “trilogies”, the best and the worst – it’s worth a read! Read it here: http://io9.com/5912471/best-and-worst-movie-threequels-of-all-time. If I was writing the piece, I would now add the MIB franchise to the BEST, especially if you drop the second, painfully hideous flick (sorry Rick).

Where the first two movies were alien romps with gross beings and fantastic laser guns, and while the third one has these, there is a far deeper story here. Even more amazing, the character who is pushing for the deeper story is J, Will Smith’s character. Smart, sassy and obnoxious for the first two movies, it’s as if he grew up in the interval between MIB2 and MIB3. He is, in fact, older in this movie than in the others! Both The Daughter and I noticed that Will Smith has aged albeit gracefully The Daughter: Meanwhile Tommy Lee Jones is wizened and equipped with his usual endearing stoicism, he just sort of looks old. MIB1 was made in 1997 and MIB2 in 2002, so that means that Smith was a “kid” of 29 and is now 43. Those years, especially with children added in, can age a person, especially when he and his wife worked full time as actors as well as having a family life and everything that entails in these early years of the 21st Century.

That explains the new depth of character that Smith gives Agent J, and it seems to me that the main issue broached in the movie is one that Smith may have had to face when he was 13, and one he has likely pondered as a dad.

Another actor The Daughter and I discussed was Emma Thompson. Winner of 40 awards including Emmys, Oscars and Golden Globes whose acting credits run from Beatrice in Shakespeare’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING to the voice of the cat woman, Captain Amelia in the cartoon TREASURE PLANET. She has played such eccentric and varied characters as Nanny McPhee and Karen Eiffel. We could just see her agent handing her the script for MIB3 and her trying to fend it off, and crying in her distinctive British accent, “No, no, please! Not another American film! Especially about alien invasions! I refuse to be known as That British Sci-Fi Actor! Look what happened to Sigourney Weaver!”

We imagined the agent begging her and finally, exasperated, she would grab the script and begin to read. When she’s done, she would have sighed and clutched the pages to her chest, leaned back and said, “Now THIS is intelligent.”

Because above all things, MIB3 is smart, sassy and has fascinating characters – finally.

Don’t get me wrong, the gross aliens are still there: Humans in fanciful costumes, Bowling Ball Head, a gigantic fish who tries to eat J (and who just has to be related to the subway alien, Jeff), as well as the ubiquitous Worms (who are always abandoning Earth at the moment of truth) and the unsurprising revelation that Lady Gaga is an alien living on Earth. The Daughter: I KNEW IT! Also, one must note the distinctively retro angle they took on the aliens at the 1969 MIB headquarters. Garish colors; flaky pointed heads; and bulky costumes make them look oh so corny. Yet the viewer takes pleasure in this knowing that it was deliberately done and stands in contrast to the sharp sleekness of the contemporary MIB headquarters.

 But two new aliens gave us pause by their depth. Griffin, a five dimensional being who can appear any way he wants to in our three dimensions and who views time however he wants to as either spectator or participant is both winning and thought-provoking. Brilliantly played by actor Michael Stuhlbarg, we fell in love with him and his earnest, vaguely creepy comments. The way he viewed time as endlessly branching possibilities that eventually collapse into the “present” we are familiar with, made me remember the importance of seemingly small events and the possibility that they can be significant. He iterates this well when he says something like, “No one is that important to the time line.”  Agent J replies that something Griffin assumes is there – isn’t, Griffin amends, “Oh, he’s one of the ones who IS that important.”

But Boris The Animal (“My name is BORIS IT’S JUST BORIS!”) is especially...alien. In a movie full of Humans in costumes, this alien is truly creepy as only an “almost-but-not-exactly-Human-with-unsettling-differences” can be. The Daughter: the worst moment is when his weird “film canister” eyes fall out during his final scene, in order to pull back into his disgusting carcass-esque body. His biology is both bizarre and almost understandable and while his attitude is unrelentingly foul (making him a bit one-dimensional) he is the perfect villain for the MIB. There are even echoes of J’s issue in a scene between Borises – but I’ll leave it to you to figure that out. The movie is rich with allusions and metaphors and perhaps even a parable or two.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that MIB3 is the greatest science fiction movie of all time, I would be willing to say that it is one of the Ten Best SF Movies of All Time – and for this critic of SF movies, that’s going WAY out on a limb. 

See it. I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it. The Daughter: This is a gross, exciting sci-fi movie that’s for women, too…and not in the same way that say, TRANSFORMERS stuck in a romance in order to please the girlfriends that were dragged along to that movie. It’s just not a silly hack-and-slash/blinking lights film. It’s like…quality.

So then: let the arguments begin!

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Old Goat Prepares to Move On

This won't be my last column here at the Friday Challenge, but it will be one of the last.  I still have a goodbye column to write; but this isn't that column.  This column is a bit of an introduction to my new writing project, the one I mentioned in the comments section of this weekend's Open Mic Saturday.  I'm talking about the Cliffhanger TwoFifty.

Let me lead into what the Cliffhanger TwoFifty is by telling you about its ancestor.  Way back in 1990, I landed my first IT job.  It was most definitely an entry level position; making software tapes for customers and handling data conversion when a customer chose to upgrade to the latest, greatest version of the company's software.  At the time, PCs weren't powerful enough to handle very much in the way of business software.  A lot of business software was written for and run on mini-computers, including ones from companies which used to be big names and the industry but exist only in our memories, today.

I did all of my work on mini-computers, using a standard terminal for the time.  The terminal could display 24 lines of text with 80 characters per line.  One slow afternoon, on a whim, I decided to start writing a story to display on my terminal when I logged off of the computer.  Thus began the Adventures of Penny Pretty (extra credit to the first person who identifies where I stole the name from), which I planned as a sort of modern-day Perils of Pauline (look it up if you're so young that doesn't mean anything to you).  The first chapter briefly introduced Penny, introduced danger, then ended with a cliffhanger.  I didn't tell anyone about the story, just logged off one afternoon and left it for my co-workers to discover.  The next day, the very first question asked of me was, "When are you going to write the next chapter?"  That wasn't always an easy question to answer.

The restrictions the terminal placed on me were brutal.  Like I said earlier, 24 lines, 80 characters per line.  That's not a lot of space in which to resolve a cliffhanger, advance the story, then introduce a new cliffhanger; but they were rules I couldn't break.  Anything beyond 24 lines meant part of the scrolled off the top of the screen, never to be seen by potential readers.  I had to work and edit and trim virtually every chapter to get it to fit on a single screen.  But Penny was popular with my co-workers.  Printed copies of all of the chapters made the rounds among employees (and even some of the more open-minded managers) and more than once I was asked to logoff the computer so someone could read the latest chapter.  I ended up writing around 20 chapters in four months.  Then I was transferred to a new position in the company and had neither the time nor the terminal required to continue Penny's adventures.

I hadn't thought about the Adventures of Penny Pretty in years, but the story resurfaced a few weeks ago as I was thinking, yet again, about trying to write a novel.  I've never written a novel.  I've never even come close to writing a novel.  Somehow, I just can't quite get past the size of the task.  I can't see the finish line from the starting line.  I've tried tricking myself by setting a goal of writing a full chapter, but I'm apparently too smart to be fooled by that trick.  While I was trying to figure out a new trick, Penny's adventures suddenly popped up and started waving madly, trying to get my attention.

Many of the "rules" for the Cliffhanger TwoFifty have been taken directly from the Adventures of Penny Pretty.  In each chapter, I'll be forced to resolve a cliffhanger, advance the story, then end on a cliffhanger.  The big difference is that I'm not restricted to 24 lines, each 80 characters in length.  I was free to choose any length I wanted for my chapters, including having no set length at all.  But I want the restrictions because they increase the challenge of writing each chapter.  Also, having to fit each chapter into a certain number of words gives a simple goal for each chapter.  I know there are lots and lots of chapters to come, but what's most important is fitting the chapter I'm writing into the framework for the Cliffhanger TwoFifty.  It's a trick, but it appears it's one I'm not too smart to fall for.

The last part of the puzzle was setting my chapter length.  You've probably already figured out that chapters are going to be about 250 words in length.  It's not a hard and fast rule; I can go over 250 words but will do my best to keep to within 10 to 20 words of that number.  Why 250 words?  Well, a while back, Bruce wrote a column about how publishers count words (or at least how they counted words in the days of typewritten manuscripts).  As a rule of thumb, a single typed page (double-spaced, of course) was counted as 250 words.  I decided to go with that, essentially choosing to write a novel one type-written page at a time, publishing each page online for all to read.

The first chapter of the Cliffhanger TwoFifty is already up.  It was published two hours before this column was.  Go on over and give it a read.  It's short and won't take very long.  Leave a comment, if you like.  Like all writers, I love to read comments about my work.  Tell your friends.  Link your sites to it.  I plan on having fun with it and hope you will, too.

Saturday, May 26, 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, May 25, 2012

The Final Friday Challenge

There, I bet that got your attention. But first:

Re: The 5/18/12 Friday Challenge, "First, Begin at the Beginning..."

Yes, as rycamor couldn't resist posting, the six beginnings you were to evaluate in this challenge came from six famous published works. Cutting to the chase, then, the selections were:
  1. Dorsai!, by Gordon Dickson. First published as a serial in Astounding in 1959, this book and its sequels became the backbone of Dickson's writing career. Dorsai! did not win the Hugo Award for best novel in 1960, but only because it was competing against Heinlein's Starship Troopers, which did win that year.

  2. Beau Geste, by P. C. Wren. The first in a series of six novels, the source for at least four major film adaptations and inspiration for countless others, this is the definitive novel of life in the French Foreign Legion, and even the 1999 version of The Mummy pays homage to it. Whatever you think you know about the French Foreign Legion, it comes from this book.

  3. The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick. Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1963. Have I mentioned that I'm not only a past winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for Best American Novel, I'm also one of the judges on this year's Philip K. Dick Award jury?

  4. Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner. This dystopian New Wave novel won the Hugo Award in 1968, the BSFA Award in 1969, the Prix Tour-Apollo Award in 1973...

  5. "By His Bootstraps," by Robert A. Heinlein. This classic 1941 novella is quite possibly the definitive time-travel paradox story -- it's either this one or Heinlein's "All You Zombies" -- but it's not often reprinted, because of its unusual length. Still, as I can attest: once you've read this one, you'll never forget it, and you'll never look at other time-travel stories in the same way.

  6. Star Wars, by some guy named George Lucas. Never heard of it. Anybody else here ever heard of this one?
With this revealed, you may now begin either congratulating yourself for your wisdom in accepting or flagellating yourself for your foolishness in rejecting the foregoing works. And now, on to this week's challenge.

The Final Friday Challenge

Good grief, is it really the Summer of 2012 already?

When I first launched the Friday Challenge in March of 2005, it was with one idea in mind. After what was then 25 years of being a successful, published, professional writer and two-term member of the SFWA Board of Directors, I was getting a constant stream of email from a tremendous number of people who couldn't seem to find the answer to one very simple question:

How do I become a writer?

Because they couldn't find this answer, these people collectively were wasting a lot of time, money, and energy on self-help books, seminars and workshops, and college-level creative writing programs, all in a desperate search for that tightly held secret -- that magical incantation -- that je ne sais quois that would enable them to make the leap from saying, "I want to write," to being able to say with a straight face, "I am a writer."

In my more cynical moments, of which I have no shortage, I came up with a number of alternative ideas. Perhaps to become a Real Writer you must have a sheet of Magic Paper™ --  parchment made millennia ago in ancient Biblyos from the hide of the Golden Fleece, but still possible to find today if you have enough money and know the right -- 

Nah. On second thought mail fraud prosecutors are a notoriously humorless bunch, and I doubt if any of them have ever seen Dumbo. Okay, next idea. How about if it requires calling together a Dark Triumvirate consisting of one Hugo Winner, one Nebula Winner, and one Philip K. Dick Winner, and kneeling in the center of the Triangle of Power while they lay hands upon you and, invoking the names of past SFWA Grand Masters, repeat the ancient incantations that --

Nah. While this would gag would be fun to do once at a con, I've met too many young women (and a few men) who truly believe that becoming a successful writer does involve kneeling before a SFWA Grand Master, or at least a couple of book publishers and a magazine editor or two, and I know far too many industry pros who would be unable to resist the temptation.

After a few more ideas, none of which were any better than the foregoing two, I came up with The Friday Challenge. At heart, everything we have done here together for the past seven years has been based on this one very simple idea. To wit:

To become a writer, you must:
  1. Write something.

  2. Put it out where other people can read it.

  3. Listen to what those other people have to say about that which you have written.

  4. Learn from the feedback you receive.

  5. Apply what you've learned, write something else, and return to step 2. 

Follow this recipe with dedication and you will, in time, become a successful writer.

After decades of participating in writers' workshops and critique groups, though, I've found that the two places where most would-be writers fall down are in steps 3 and 4: listening and learning. This is because, let's admit it: it's damned hard to sit quietly and listen to someone else's criticism of something you've written.

Our stories are our children. In some cases we've carried them around inside our heads for years. When they do finally come out into the daylight, we want to believe that each and every one of them is an Athena, emerging fully grown, armed and armored, ready to peal to the sky a clarion call that will make Ouranos and Gaia tremble. No one ever likes to hear, "Hey, Athena. Your sandal's untied."

So right from the start, The Friday Challenge was designed to make it easier to learn how to listen and learn. The design points were:
  • We would present it in the form of a challenge because that way, it's not your brain-child being tortured, it's mine, and if the results turn out badly -- well, it was my stupid idea in the first place. Blame me and move on.

  • We would present a new challenge weekly because that furnishes an incentive to move on quickly, and to learn from, apply, and let go of the critiques you receive.

  • We would encourage -- in fact, beg for -- everyone including passive lurkers and readers to participate in the criticism sessions, in order to teach the two simple lessons that seem hardest for aspiring writers to learn:

You can't please everyone all the time.
No one critic is right all the time.

Writing for professional publication is not like writing for your mom to post on the refrigerator door. As a writer, you must develop a thick skin, or at least the ability to fake having one. If you do make it to being professionally published some day, your work will sometimes be criticized unfairly -- sometimes praised unreasonably, which is always more embarrassing -- sometimes damned by people whose opinions you respect and sometimes loved by people you thought you despised.

The hardest thing for a writer to learn is how to take criticism: how to figure out what's valid and what's not; who you should listen to and who you should ignore; how to avoid going into a tailspin over a bad review or becoming irrationally exuberant because of a good one; and when you should shrug off your best friend who loves you but is totally missing the point, and listen to and learn from your worst enemy who also happens to be absolutely right.

This is how you learn to become a writer. This is what defines us as writers. We learn to dig deeply into our hearts, guts, and souls, and pull out some words that seem important. We put those words out there for other people to read, and with luck, get paid for our work once in a while. We suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous critics and ignorant Philistines, and console ourselves by saying they only seethe with bitterness because they wish they could do what we do half as well as we do it. We accept the praise of our fans magnanimously, and then tomorrow, we get up and do it all over again.

And once in a rare while, when the time is just right, and the stars align perfectly, and Serendipity smiles down upon us, we can capture lightning in a bottle, and string together some words that take on a life of their own. Then we write a story that makes Ouranos and Gaia tremble, and puts a noticeable dent in the Zeitgest --

And when that happens: that, my friends, is a feeling like no other.


Seven years ago, this is what I -- we -- set out to accomplish with The Friday Challenge: to help people find the bridge that goes from "I want to write" to "I am a writer." Looking back on it now, I can't help but feel a certain sense of pride. We've done some very cool things, these past seven years. A lot of terrific talent has come through this site, and I have made some wonderful new friends, both online and in the real world. I would be remiss if I did not give special thanks now to Henry Vogel, who has been my unfailing Dotar Sojat and the constant Voice of Reason; M. David Blake (a.k.a., "M"), who stepped in heroically and kept the site running while I was preoccupied by some pretty horrendous family issues; David Yener Goodman (a.k.a., "Vidad"), who designed the site banner and has been our consistent behind-the-scenes source of creative madness; and Kersley Fitzgerald, our ever-thoughtful den mother, who has kept us boys from getting too far out of line.

But this list of credits and acknowledgments is much too short. Thanks also to Arisia, who has been a stalwart from the beginning; Guy Stewart, an old friend made new again by his involvement here; Allan Davis Jr.,  no relation to Sammy; Waterboy, "they also serve who stand and wait;" the legendary Snowdog, whose name will live on in infamy, but a little later; Leatherwing, XDPaul, KTown, rycamor, Ben-El...  The list goes on and on, and would go on much longer, except that HaloScan got acquired by JS-Kit, which in turn became Echo, which was replaced by DISQUS, and thus seven years of accumulated comments have gone down the drain.

Thanks, everybody, including those who only read and lurk.


"The time has come," the Walrus said, "to speak of other things."

It's been fun, these past seven years, but whatever we set out to accomplish when we launched The Friday Challenge, it's long since been accomplished. I've gotten to know some great people. I've had the chance to watch some talented amateurs become published pros. The Friday Challenge, proper, has become -- well, a challenge to keep going, and most of what it used to do has now moved over to STUPEFYING STORIES. My time is finite, and as STUPEFYING STORIES continues to grow and demand more of my time, something's got to give. Ergo, after a considerable amount of thought and backstage discussion:

This is the final Friday Challenge.

This site will continue to exist. We, the site authors, have at least a few more columns in us, and the Slushpile Survival Guide practically writes itself. Next Wednesday's Ultimate Geek Fu will, of course, review Men in Black 3, assuming one of us can rouse him- or herself out of our deep apathy long enough to go see the thing. But the writing challenges proper end as of today, which does make the site name and URL somewhat problematic. We'll have to reconsider that.

All that lies in the future, though. Right now, I want to lay my virtual hands upon you and offer up this closing benediction.
Don't be content to work the traditional tropes. Don't follow precisely in the footsteps of those who have gone before. Don't set your sights on being merely "good enough" to get published, and don't let "what they're buying now" be your sole guide.

Write a story that makes Ouranos and Gaia tremble! Write a book that makes a difference! Write something that thirty years from now will have schoolchildren and reporters looking you up, to ask, "Mister (or Ms) [your name here], what was it like, to be the author who wrote [your title here]?"


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Critical Thinking

Clone Wars

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to help me with an article for work. I think I know where I stand, but I'd like to know what you think, too. 

Human cloning: ethical or no? 

Giving specific consideration to: 
- Methods of development 
- Existence of a clone
- Motivations for cloning

And my goal is to be realistic; no Michael Keaton in Multiplicity!


Vidad, where are you? I'd like your take on it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ultimate Geek Fu

Ah, late May. The garden is growing; the trees are leafed out; both Summer and my cottonwood pollen allergies are in their full glory. As we head into the Memorial Day weekend we note that this traditionally has been the start of both the summer vacation and summer movie blockbuster seasons, but The Movie I Promised Not To Write About Again has kinda blown that idea out of the water. I expect that next year the summer movie blockbuster season will begin shortly after Easter.

But that's in the future. For now, this year, this coming weekend: what will you be doing? Sparing a few minutes to observe the nominal purpose of this holiday? I hope so. Taking off for the weekend to the cabin or the beach, to spend a few days offline? I wish I was. Taking in a movie?

Most likely.

So what's on your want-to-see list for the near future? Men in Black 3 opens this weekend, as does Chernobyl Diaries and OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger's Movie. (Ooh, sounds like can't miss material.) Pirates and Dark Shadows are still around, and Battleship may yet be, although the initial returns are calling it a flop that may eclipse John Carter. (Ouch!)

Looking a few weeks further out, we've got Snow White and The Huntsman, Piranha 3DD (no, that's not a typo; it means just what you think it means), Battlefield America -- "A young businessman hires an instructor to turn a group of misfit kids into a team on the underground dance competition circuit." -- the underground. dance. competition. circuit. Somehow, I think I'll be able to contain my excitement.

Prometheus, for which I will be there on opening weekend. Ridley Scott's new movie is not merely a prequel to Alien but a descendant of Blade Runner? Count me in.

After that: Brave looks promising. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter looks...

And of course, we all can't wait to see G.I. Joe: Retaliation, in which Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson completes his transformation into a four-inch-high plastic action figure.

How about you? What movies are you looking forward to seeing this summer?

Let the arguments begin...

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Slushpile Survival Guide

A Manuscript's Odyssey, Part 2

...continued from Part 1...

Once a manuscript has passed the initial battery of sniff tests and is well and fairly received, it goes into -- dun! dun! DAAAAAA! -- the Dreaded Slush Pile, where it awaits its turn to face the Fearless Slush Pile Reader Corps.

Actually, the STUPEFYING STORIES slush pile isn't all that bad a place. Strictly speaking it's a FIFO queue, which at any given time contains between 200 and 300 story files awaiting disposition. It's hard to get a precise fix on the exact dimensions of the slush pile because it's constantly changing, as new submissions come in and acceptances or rejections go out; for example this morning it contains exactly 271 files, but I also know that this number presents merely the illusion of precision, because these files are in different states ranging from just received to awaiting final disposition, and the number does not include the dozen or so new submissions that appear to be sitting in the inbox this morning. Moreover, it does include at least 50 stories that I know are waiting to be rejected; I just haven't found the time yet to write the rejection letters.

If you think of the slush pile as the DMV Waiting Room of the Damned for stories, you've about got the idea. Thank you for your submission. Please take a number, be seated, and wait to be called. Now serving number 1205103...

Your story's initial wait in the slush pile is actually much shorter than you might think. As soon as we collect new ten stories, we roll them up into a zip file and send them off to one of our first readers. The first reader in turn has a simple but crucial job: to look at the story -- to read the entire thing, if possible (sometimes it isn't) -- and then to return a verdict, either PASS or FAIL. Either the story is worth considering further, or it's D.O.A.

Some of our slush pile readers weren't happy with the simple PASS/FAIL system, though, so they came up with this seven-point scale for rating submissions:

PASS-6: I love it! I wish I'd written this one! Buy it now!
PASS-5: Not perfect, but a strong contender for acceptance.
PASS-4: I dunno. I'm not sure. Someone else needs to read this one.
FAIL-3: Not acceptable as-is, but could be if the author addressed these specific issues. Ask for a rewrite.
FAIL-2: Not acceptable and not obviously repairable, but the writing shows strong promise, so maybe his or her next story will be acceptable. Reject with encouragement.
FAIL-1: Not acceptable and the writing shows no promise of future improvement. Send a form rejection.
FAIL-0: My God in Heaven, what is wrong with this person? Reject with insults.

Of course, as soon as we adopted this system, our first readers started returning stories with ratings of "3.5," or ratings that extended the FAIL range deeply into negative numbers.

...to be continued...

Saturday, May 19, 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, May 18, 2012

The Friday Challenge - 5/18/12

Re the 5/11/12 Friday Challenge, "What's in a Name?"

To recap, the challenge was to look at a list of ten titles picked more or less at random from the STUPEFYING STORIES slush pile and then -- based solely on the story titles -- to decide which two you'd be mostly interested in reading first, and which two you'd put off until later, or perhaps never. The ten titles were:

1. "Plus One, Minus One"
2. "The Secret"
3. "The Longest Night"
4. "Pink Denim"
5. "Killing Mercy"
6. "The 3D Version"
7. "Jeremy"
8. "Too Dumb to Die"
9. "The Man Who Talked His Way to Mars"
10. "The June Meeting"

This was an interesting little exercise. It's kind of hard to quantify the results, as some respondents picked only their single favorite title of the lot while others ranked all ten, but totting up the results and stirring in a generous measure of handwavium, we find that:

The winner, in a runaway, was "The Man Who Talked His Way to Mars." Tied for second, we find "Too Dumb to Die" and "Pink Denim," while "Plus One, Minus One" comes in third.

Meanwhile, the losers are "Jeremy" and "The Secret," tied at four thumbs-down each and no thumbs-ups, and then "Pink Denim" again, with three thumbs-downs, followed by (preceded by?) "The June Meeting," at two up, two down.

It's interesting to note that "Pink Denim" appears on both the best and worst lists, indicating that whatever else is going on, people aren't left apathetic by that title, and that even "The Man Who Talked His Way to Mars" picked up one thumbs-down, on the grounds that, "the whole story is given away in the title." In order of total votes received, both for and against, the titles that got the most attention were "The Man Who Talked His Way to Mars," "Pink Denim," "Too Dumb to Die," and "Plus One, Minus One." 

What does this prove? Probably just that we have a disproportionate number of Heinlein fans in the crowd, but all the same: this is interesting food for thought. Your thoughts, comments, and observations?

And now, on to this week's challenge.

"First, begin at the beginning..."

Continuing in the same vein as last week's challenge, for this week's Friday Challenge I have again, more or less at random, plucked out the first sentence (or two or three) of six stories. The submissions you are considering are:

1. "The boy was odd. This much he knew for himself. This much he had heard his seniors -- his mother, his father, his uncles, the officers at the Academy -- mention to each other, nodding their heads confidentially, not once but many times during his short eighteen years of life, leading up to this day."

2. "Mr. George Lawrence, C.M.G., First Class District Officer of His Majesty's Civil Service, sat at the door of his tent and viewed the African desert scene with the eye of extreme disfavor. There was beauty neither in the landscape nor in the eye of the beholder."

3. "For a week Mr. R. Childan had been anxiously watching the mail. But the valuable shipment from the Rocky Mountain States had not arrived. As he opened up his store on Friday morning and saw only letters on the floor by the mail slot he thought, I'm going to have an angry customer."

4. "Stock cue SOUND: "Presenting SCANALYZER, Engrelay Satelserv's unique thrice-per-day study of the big big scene, the INdepth INdependent IMmediate INterface between you and your world!"
    "Stock cue VISUAL: cliptage, splitscreen, cut in bridge-melder, Mr. & Mrs. Everywhere depthunder (today MAMP, Mid-Atlantic Mining Project), spaceover (today freeflysuiting), transiting (today Simplon Acceleratube), digging (today as every day hominage with autoshout).

5. "Bob Wilson did not see the circle grow. Nor, for that matter, did he see the stranger who stepped out of the circle and stood staring at the back of Wilson's neck -- stared, and breathed heavily, as if laboring under strong and unusual emotion."

6. "It was a vast, shining globe and it cast a light of lambent topaz into space -- but it was not a sun. Thus, the planet had fooled men for a long time. Not until entering close orbit around it did its discoverer realize that this was a world in a binary system and not a third sun itself."

The challenge is the same as last week's: you are the submissions editor. Your time is not infinite. Knowing nothing more about these stories than what you see above, which beginning is most likely to keep you reading? Which is second most likely to do so? Which one or two are most likely to make you say, "Okay, that's enough," mark the story FORM REJECTION, and then move on to the next manuscript in your in-basket?

Make the case for your choices. Put your thoughts in the Comments on this post. And then let's all meet back here again next Friday to discuss the results.

Kind regards,

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ultimate Geek Fu

One More @#$&* Column About The Avengers

Sometime this week, The Avengers should pass one billion -- that's billion, with a B -- dollars in movie theater ticket sales. I think we can all rest assured that there will be an Avengers 2, and that Joss Whedon's career is protected, at least until he makes another Dollhouse. One billion dollars: that's not too bad, for a movie that's been out in the U.S. for almost an entire two weeks. This one may yet have some legs. Might even pull in a few more dollars, before it goes to Netflix and DVD.

But to put this number into perspective: a billion dollars is about half the cost of one B-2 Spirit bomber, or extends out to about 26 billion annually -- which, according to the most recent stats available, is roughly the same number as the annual net sales revenue for the entire U.S. publishing industry.

Annualizing movie ticket sales numbers is ridiculous, of course. Movies always have very steep sawtooth dropoffs to their earning curves. The dropoff is gentler if the movie generates multiple repeat viewings, as did Star Wars and Titanic, and I expect that will happen in this case: The Kid has already seen The Avengers twice, and The Mrs has expressed a desire to see it again.

(To be honest, she was torn: Dark Shadows, or The Avengers, again? Dark Shadows, or...  Bugger it. The more she looked at Johnny Depp in Dark Shadows, the more she wanted to see The Avengers again; which, considering her usual paranormal romance fixation, is an astonishing development.)

What I'm more impressed by, though, is the potential The Avengers has for generating huge backlist sales. The Mrs even went way out of her way to track down, buy, and watch the Blu-Ray of the 2008 version of The Incredible Hulk. (This, of course, was before the stores were flooded with 'em.) She has now gone back, bought the missing ones, and watched all the Marvel movies in sequence: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America -- not all in one day, thankfully, but still...

I must confess to some sneaking admiration for the way they built this series. The Avengers is best viewed as a direct sequel to Captain America, with strong cross-connections to Thor, but there are little bits of shared continuity going all the way back to Iron Man. Props from one movie show up in another, sometimes even before you know that some background junk in one movie is a key prop in another. The Maguffin in Captain America is quite literally the driving force behind the plot of The Avengers. Characters from one movie pop up in another, and one character actually walks out in the middle of a scene in Iron Man 2 because he's just been called away to appear in a key scene in Thor. The use of Agent Coulson ("Phil? Uh, his first name is Agent.") as the unifying element is simply brilliant, and the whole works, considered as a six-movie exercise in non-linear story-telling, is...inspiring. If you want to learn how to tell a sprawling multi-volume saga, throw away your boxed set of Star Wars. Study these movies.

And pop some popcorn. Pop lots of popcorn.

Let the arguments begin...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Slushpile Survival Guide

A Manuscript's Odyssey, Part 1

People always ask, but not always nicely, "What happens to my manuscript once you receive it?" Every publication is different, of course, but here at STUPEFYING STORIES, our process looks something like this.

When we receive a new, unsolicited manuscript, the first thing we do is bury it in soft peat for four months to give it that rich, smoky flavor—

Just kidding. The first thing we do is:

1. Check to make sure it's addressed to us. Yes, we do receive submissions addressed to other publishers. Unbelievable as it may seem, it happens all the time. One wonders what, say, Andromeda Spaceways makes of query letters demanding to know why they haven't responded to stories they never received.

And for future reference, the word in our publication name is Stupefying, meaning "to stun or astonish," not Stupifying, meaning "to make stupid." I used to be more tolerant of misaddressed email, but given the volume of submissions we receive, not any more.

2. Check to make sure there's a story file attached. You'd be amazed by how often we receive a cover letter without a story. And "story file attached" means attached, not posted on a file-sharing or "cloud" site. We're generally trusting people, but even we are not fools enough to click on links in unsolicited email messages.

3. Check to make sure the story that's attached matches the cover letter. Sometimes it's merely a matter of the writer giving his or her story file a goofy name, but about once a week someone sends us a cover letter extolling the virtues of one story and then the file for another. If the cover letter and file name don't match up, we'll try to figure out what's going on, and bounce the submission back to the author if needed.

4. Check to make sure the story is in a file format that we can read. Apple owners, this means you. We can't read .pages files. Stop sending them to us. There are other problematic formats, but Apple .pages files are the foremost offenders. Sending us an unreadable file only gets you an instant rejection.

5. Download the story file and scan it for viruses and malware. All submissions go into a quarantine area first, where they're isolated from our network, and then they're scanned to make certain they're safe to open. Yes, this is necessary, as we do receive infected files on a regular basis. Sending us an infected file only gets you an instant rejection.

By the way, this is the last point at which anyone sees your cover letter. Once the story file is separated from the cover letter, the cover letter goes into an archive, from which it is retrieved only when it's time to write the acceptance or rejection. Beyond this step, our readers will be judging your story strictly on its own merits; on what you've put into your story, not what you've written about it.

This step is also a significant point of failure for many stories. In perhaps ten percent of submissions, we'll see something in the cover letter that's so "off" it makes us want to look at the story right now.

This, despite what you may have been led to believe, is rarely a good thing. Once in an extremely rare while we'll be pleasantly surprised by the story. Far more often, though, this first look only confirms that creepy feeling we got from the cover letter: that at best, the would-be author has no frickin' clue how to write so much as a paragraph in intelligible English, and at worst, that the author writes fiction at the suggestion of his psychotherapist or parole officer, as a way to externalize his sickest sado-sexual psychiatric issues safely.

Such stories get an instant rejection. They never even make it as far as the slush pile, unless we're really overloaded with submissions and must open the floodgates solely to relieve the back-pressure.

6. Log the story as received. At this point we log the story into our manuscript tracking system by date received, author, and title; assign it a tracking number; generate a form letter to the author giving him or her the tracking number and our best (but rarely accurate) guess as to when he or she can expect to hear a response from us; retitle the story file, with a generated name composed of the tracking number_author name_story title -- given the commonality of story titles and file names, this is the only way we've found to keep the six different stories we've received this month with the title of "The End" from overwriting each other --

And now, we're ready to start passing the stories out to the Fearless Slush Pile Reader Corps, and for the real fun to begin!

...to be continued...

Saturday, May 12, 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, May 11, 2012

The Friday Challenge - 5/11/12

In the matter of the 4/27/12 Friday Challenge, "For Hollas, Who Will Be 20 In The Year 2032:"

After a ludicrously long snowdogging period, we've still received just one entry—

Jack Calverley, "Letter of Introduction"

—and even that lonely (and by default, winning) entry came in through the back door. It seems our Benevolent Cybernetic Overlords have figured out how to bypass our bypass again, and our non-U.S. friends are no longer able to comment on this site. This development is troubling and has occasioned some serious pondering here.

But more about that later. For now, let's congratulate Jack on his win, read and comment on his post (if you can), and then it's on to the new challenge.

"What's in a Name?"

This week's Friday Challenge comes straight from the STUPEFYING STORIES slush pile.

The better part of a year into this project, one thing continues to astonish me: how little thought and effort authors seem to put into the titles of their stories. Folks, this is your big chance to make a great first impression. (Okay, actually, the cover letter is, but I routinely strip those off before passing the stories on to the first readers. After seeing a couple thousand cover letters, I'm convinced the reason the vast majority of unpublished writers remain unpublished is because no editor or agent has ever been able to get past their awful cover letters.)

Ignoring cover letters, then: your title is your big chance to show the editor just how clever, insightful, and verbally gifted you are. Yet the great majority of titles I see appear to be slapped on as an afterthought—or worse, to be a double-shot of highly concentrated cliché. Consider some actual examples, plucked from our Stories Received log: “The Worst of Evils,” “The Game of Life,” “The Garden,” “The Fog,” “The Wind,” “The Rain,” “The Snow,” “The Turning Point,” “The End”— It seems that at least once a week, I receive a story entitled either “The Garden” or “The End.”

Folks, this is not Hollywood! Fiction publishers do not routinely buy great stories with terrible titles and rename them, nor do they buy great titles just to throw the story away and release another work under that name!

You have spent days or weeks, or maybe even months or years, writing your story. Once you've finished writing it, doesn't it seem reasonable to spend another half an hour reconsidering the title? Yes, we know, this is the title you've always had in mind for it, your pet name for this work, the one you know and love, the one you've used to talk about this story all through the long and painful writing process from inception to delivery. But now that the little bugger is sitting there in the bassinet, waiting to be introduced to the world: do you really want to saddle it with that name? After all, this is not merely the title of a story you're pitching to an editor. This is the marketing label the editor will be pitching to his customers, the readers. So doesn't your story deserve a title that will look absolutely frickin' great in the Table of Contents, or Campbell willing, maybe even on the cover?

End of sermon.

Ergo, with the foregoing rant in mind, here is a list of ten actual story titles, taken from ten stories actually received within one 24-hour period.

1. "Plus One, Minus One"
2. "The Secret"
3. "The Longest Night"
4. "Pink Denim"
5. "Killing Mercy"
6. "The 3D Version"
7. "Jeremy"
8. "Too Dumb to Die"
9. "The Man Who Talked His Way to Mars"
10. "The June Meeting"

This week's challenge is: you are the submissions editor. Your time is not infinite. Knowing nothing more about these ten stories than what you see above, which of these stories would you pick to read first? Second? If time runs short (and it always does; you're a busy person with a lot of work on your desk), which two stories would you put off reading until tomorrow? (Or perhaps never, as you can be fairly confident that tomorrow there will be ten more new submissions sitting in your In basket.)

Make the case for your choices. Put your thoughts in the Comments on this post, if you can, or email 'em in.

And let's all meet back here again next Friday, to discuss the results.

Kind regards,

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Critical Avenging

And I thought I didn't know what to write about... 

Yes, I saw The Avengers. Of course I liked it. I love-love-love Ironman, I was pleasantly surprised by Captain America, and I thought Thor was stupid. But it's Joss Whedon with Mark Ruffalo on the side, so how could you go wrong?

But as I mentioned in an earlier comment, there was something a little off, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. The details were exquisite. I loved how the Black Widow "interrogated" people. I loved how much Tony Stark respected Bruce Banner. Mark Ruffalo was brilliant, although what got Maj. Tom (Ret.) and me squeeing like fan girls was the return of Lou Ferrigno. And, in the end, I was craving shawarma like nobody's business.

We have a Palestinian restaurant down the street from our house. The best shawarma. The flat bread is soft and warm, just a tiny bit crispy on the outside, and it never falls apart. The meat is warm and fresh and perfectly spiced. The tzatziki has the cool of the cucumber with the warm garlic. I love the pickled turnips; they're sweet and crunchy. And they add banana peppers and onions which I pick out, but I could see how the heat would balance the sweetness of the other ingredients.

The Avengers was not a shawarma. It was a Brazilian grill. Have you ever been to one? We went, many years ago. They took all the meat in the world, and cooked it perfectly. Whether it was steak or fish or chicken or pork, it was meat cooked to bring out the best in the meat. They were spiced, but there was no sauce. Everything was meat as it should be.

But, holy cats, that was a lot of meat! So rich and filling and ugh. They had a few paltry sides, but after a while, even though the chicken was the perfect chicken and the pork chops were the perfect pork chops. I just got tired of meat.

I recently read a short story about an artist who found she was putting too much detail into every square inch of her large canvases. She realized that when she stepped back to look at the finished piece, there was no place for her eye to rest. That's kind of what The Avengers felt like.

Other than that, I thought it was awesome, and we're going to go see it again so we can catch the lines people laughed through.

But what I really want to know is, what did Dr. Selvig mean when he told the Black Widow, "Who said I didn't know what I was doing?" Was Loki controlling him or not?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ultimate Geek Fu

For this week's Ultimate Geek Fu, there can be only one question, of course:

So what'd you think of The Pirates! Band of Misfits?

Sorry, trick question. We didn't see Pirates. As far as I can tell, nobody saw Pirates. I strongly -- and sadly -- expect that it will be just like Flushed Away. A couple of years from now we'll stumble across it in a dump bin of DVD remainders, pick it up on a whim, watch it, and say, "Wow! Why didn't we watch this one when it was in the theaters?" Fat lot of good that will do the creators of the film, though.

No, this past weekend, like everyone else in North America, we were watching The Avengers, and when we came out of the theater we were absolutely stunned by the size of the crowd waiting to get in for the next showing. I haven't seen the cineplex parking lot this full since they built the place.

Ergo, the UGF question this week is, The Avengers: Good, bad, or ugly? Was it worth the hype?

Let the arguments begin.

Saturday, May 5, 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?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current Friday Challenge, "For Hollas, Who Will Be 20 In The Year 2032," is 8 a.m. Central Daylight Time tomorrow, Friday, May 4. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ultimate Geek Fu

What else could UGF be talking about today but The Avengers, opening in movie theaters all across North America this coming Friday?

It's already opened overseas and raked in about a zillion-kajillion bucks so far, so no need to worry about whether there's going to be an Avengers 2. In fact, Chris ("Captain America") Evans is reportedly under contract to make a total of six films, including two more Captain America sequels and two more Avengers sequels. Along with that Iron Man 3 either has begun or is shortly to begin filming, Thor 2 is already in the works, and Samuel L. Jackson reportedly is unhappy he's not getting his own Nick Fury movie, so if the Marvel universe is your thing, you're set for a good long time to come.

They'll eventually jump the shark, of course. Hollywood being Hollywood and Marvel being Marvel, sooner or later they're absolutely bound to make another Spider-Man 3, or X-Men: First Class, or Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The history of cinematic franchises is littered with such miserable wreckage. Consider, if your stomach can handle it, Star Trek: Nemesis, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, or Blade III: Who Cares What the Subtitle Was? If your memory reaches back that far you might even consider Powell & Loy's Thin Man movies, Warner Oland's Charlie Chan movies, or the only seemingly endless series of sequels spawned by the original Boris Karloff film, The Mummy.

Sooner or later, a successful franchise inevitably turns on itself, and invariably, you wind up with a  Charlie Chan on Broadway or an Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.

So there's today's UGF challenge. This coming Friday, of course, we will all be in the theaters, with a jumbo bucket of popcorn in one hand and a bladder-buster size Coke in the other, eagerly taking in every thrilling moment of The Avengers. But just for today, I want you to imagine that you are in charge of the Marvel universe, and it's a couple years down the road, and however unwittingly, you're about to make the franchise totally jump the shark.

What's your idea for the movie that will kill the franchise for a generation to come? Thor Loves Jane: The Sit-Com? Iron Man Meets Emo-Spider-Man? The Incredible Hulk on Broadway?

Let the arguments begin...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

And the winner is...

In the matter of the 4/20/12 Friday Challenge, "What Earth Day Means To Me:" 

Wow. Five entries. It's been a while since we've had this much competition, as well as this good of a demonstration as to how people can start with the same Friday Challenge idea and end up with vastly different results. Tackling the entries in no particular order, then:

Anatoly Belilovsky, "untitled:" Thanks for showing us a fascinating series of snapshots of places that most of us will never see and for telling a story in five paragraphs. Your writing is as always very deft and effective. The comparison of the smokestacks of Donetsk to the fumes rising from beakers of nitric acid in Chemistry class is really good, but the piece as a whole sort of peters out in the last paragraph.

N.M. Whitley, "Earth Days:" Good beginning of a story. You catch my attention, you pull me in -- but in the end I'm left thinking that there's lots more story left to be told. You've started a good tale. Now develop and finish it!

Kevan Chandler, "Remembering Earth - Remembering Treachery:" This one puzzles me. The writing qua writing is very good, but the general feeling I'm left with is one of having read an elaborate inside joke and not quite getting it. This does not happen to me often.

Jack Calverley, "Earth Day:" Wow again. You wrote this in a week? I'm impressed. Not completely swept away, mind you; while there are some very cool ideas and terrific turns of phrase in this one, there are also places where your prose is badly in need of a tightening and polishing edit. But still: to have produced the first complete draft of a fully developed 3,600-word story, complete with beginning, middle, and end, in one week? Seriously: wow.

J. M. Perkins, "A Word a Day: Earth-Day:" And now we come to the part of the Friday Challenge that's both fun and frustrating. As a story, Mr. Calverley's entry is more developed and more complete. But as a soliloquy, I love the idea that's expressed in this one more. Yes, it's a monolog. Yes, it needs a refining rewrite to clear up a few confusing bits. But, damn, I would love to hear a tightened-up version of this one read aloud!

Therefore, after one more round of behind-the-scenes discussion, it is my pleasure to announce that J. M. Perkins is the winner of the 4/20/12 Friday Challenge, and the rightful recipient of all rights, privileges, and abundant egoboo associated therewith. Congratulations, J. M. Perkins!

And now on with the 4/27/12 Friday Challenge, "For Hollas, Who Will Be 20 In The Year 2032," which is already in progress.
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