Monday, December 16, 2013

Dances with dwarves

Like many, I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug* over the weekend. Like many, I enjoyed it. And I think my favorite details of this new series continue to coincide with the ways in which it differs from the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Let me explain.

Here be spoilers. In the first movie, the "good guys" are pretty exemplary. Sure, you have Boromir, who tries to take the OneRing, but he gets filled with arrows pretty quickly, just to show you what happens to guys like that. Frodo has his "episodes," but he recognizes and loathes the soul-corrupting burden of the OneRing. Other than that, there's just a little mutual racism between Legolas and Gimli, but that turns into an adorable bromance midway through the series.

But Thorin? Thorin has a dark side. He is focused on restoring his kingdom, and he makes no apologies for it. All other priorities are rescinded, if you will.

He is also capable of bad decisions. As hell-bent as he is on getting the OneDiamond to rule them all (the dwarven armies, that is), he is confident that he won't awaken the CumberDragon (he swears it). And, of course, (spoiler alert) if you've seen the trailer, or the mocap photos, or any mention of a third movie, you know that the CumberDragon awakens.**

Aragorn would NEVER have made a mistake like that....

Which is why Thorin is (IMO) a much more interesting fearless leader.

Even Gandalf gets shady and manipulative. Not that he doesn't do it for good reasons, of course, but he's shown to have engineered this dragon-awakening quest in the first place. And he rather suddenly abandons it when current events demand it.

Similarly, this series gives us a more sophisticated portrayal of elves and dwarves. Gimli was good with an axe, but he was also distracted by the mere mention of salted pork. Dwarven attempts at civilization-building were typically ill-advised (see: Moria) in LOTR. There's still plenty of dwarven ruination here, but the characters themselves display more varied and more nuanced personalities and motivations. Maybe that's just because there are more of them.

As for the elves, they're not the favorites any more.*** Whereas Elrond's withdrawal in LOTR was framed as the tragic end of an era, Thranduil's lack of interest in other kingdoms is just isolationism and ice-cold pragmatism. He's a jerk, and no one is trying to pretend differently.

*I still say "Smog" in my head. Yes, I know it's "Smowwwg," but come now.

**Best part? Balin: "If you see a dragon, don't wake it up." Good to know.

***I still love the meal in Rivendell from the last movie, in which the dwarves look completely annoyed at having harps played inches from their ears.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Turkey day in the colonies

Today is a special day.

It is the day when we feral colonists engage in some bizarre traditions. There is ritual avian slaughter, a parade of ceremonial effigies, and several rounds of bloodsport practiced by some of our nation's finest (winners bathe in Gatorade from the sacramental fount; losers are sacrificed and served in mincemeat pie).

At least, that is what I suspect it looks like to Angry Robot, but they may be too polite (and too British) to say so.

While I am getting debauched on green bean casserole and cranberry sauce, they are hard at work, and they've announced their purchase of my first novel, The Buried Life, and its sequel, Renaissance Land.

In addition to everything else I'm thankful for (too much to list here), I'm thankful to join so many wonderful, talented people on their list of authors (just how did I get here?!), and I'm thankful to work with such delightful, innovative folks to get these books published.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

It's always sunny in Irvine

I've been remiss. And I've got good excuses! But, really, doesn't everyone?

One development that's kept me busy has been joining Obsidian Entertainment as a narrative designer. Over in gorgeous SoCal, I get to work on this:

Tomorrow marks my one-week anniversary, and what I can tell you at this point is that it's awesome. The Project Eternity team is fantastic, and writing for a game with an expansive, original world is a blast. And the weather is always perfect. Come to think of it, I feel kind of like this kid:

More to come!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

That Hansel is so hot right now

It's always interesting to hear about literary trends--what's in, what's out, what's on its way in one direction or the other.

It's not surprising that when books about vampires and werewolves are selling by the dozen, agents and editors are inundated with queries about the same. However, chasing a trend is hard. If it's recognizable, it likely means that market saturation is nigh.

Between Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, Marie Lu's Legend series, and the Divergent books by Veronica Roth, dystopia appears to be having its day in the sun.

Jennie Goloboy of Red Sofa Literary makes several important points about dystopia in fiction. I think the heart of her post is that you can't really tack a popular trope onto a manuscript and expect it to work. If there's an evil government, there must be good reasons and logical mechanisms. If the star-crossed lovers are supernatural creatures, it should be so because that was the best way to develop those characters, not because it seemed like a hot trend.

What's even harder to discuss is the next million dollar idea. Since there isn't a crystal ball for that kind of thing, it's a good excuse to worry less about what's going to sell big and more about writing whatever story you're most excited to tell. I have a feeling that's what most of today's best-selling authors were thinking about at the time, anyway. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Uncommon knowledge

The lovely librarians of Stacked are challenging the oft-repeated claim that women dominate YA. I've heard it (and readily believed it), and you might have, too. Yet they break down the numbers for the New York Times Best Seller lists for Young Adult for roughly the past year (ever since the creation of a separate list for YA), and any way they cut the numbers, this assumption is not merely false, but staggeringly so.

It turns out that male authors and their books consistently outnumber and outrank their female counterparts on the NYT list. In fact, looking at the analysis, I felt downright silly for having thought that women were leading the genre. So why do we so commonly hear that this is the case?*
  • J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins. It's true, the data for the last year doesn't reflect mega-hits in the Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games series. While these are arguably the best-known YA titles, their exceptional success does not likely reflect the status of most women writing YA or of the typical gender distribution among YA bestsellers. Veronica Roth is probably the closest to this category of super-selling women, but even she's only held the top spot for four weeks, and that followed significant publicity for the film adaptation.
  • Adult women make up a large share of YA readership. I've heard this many times, too, and now I'm also wondering whether this assumption is suspect. 
  • Women writers more actively engage with other authors and readers. I don't know if this is true, but I wonder if it's also a perception. Who wants to do the research? (I call "not it.") 
  • The New York Times list is a flawed metric. Criticisms of the NYT's methods and metrics abound, but there's no denying that it's a common benchmark for success, nor that books that appear there are likely to sell even better simply for making the list.
*Note: I am not making these arguments, but rather suggesting possible counters and assumptions.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Happy NaNoWriMo!

You can usually time NaNoWriMo discussions by the appearance of Halloween decorations on store shelves. When the first ceramic pumpkin or wireframe black cat debuts at Walmart, some writer somewhere is talking about his NaNoWriMo plans.

Some writers love it. They say it's a great motivational tool, that it forces them to start and finish something in a set amount of time, that it helps them silence their internal editors while they focus on cranking out a first draft.

They're right.

Some writers have no interest in it. They say that a month is an arbitrary timeline for a project, that 50,000 words does not generally count as a full-length novel, and that most NaNoWriMo projects are so rushed and word-count focused that they're not in very good shape come December 1.

They're also right.

I'm a NaNoWriMo lurker. I don't really participate--I'd rather continue existing projects than start new ones. But I love the energy and the group motivation. I'm a big fan of write-ins. They're like group exercise classes--I can't slack off knowing my neighbors are working up a sweat. I also love getting writing done in a coffee shop. And since I have a tiny bladder, it helps to have someone there to watch my things....

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Amazon Publishing: whether and whither

The recent changes in Amazon's publishing arm have held some enlightening lessons regarding the way different types of books are sold.

While Amazon is backing away from big-name general interest titles, the company's stock is up and it's going to keep publishing genre fiction. (And which part of that statement is emphasized really depends on where you get your publishing industry commentary.)

The lesson seems to be that would-be mainstream bestsellers really do need a presence in physical bookstores to generate enough buzz, but that genre fiction lends itself to marketing targeted at niche audiences.

It makes sense. As someone involved in spec fic, I've heard a number of longtime fans and convention-goers say that the sci-fi/fantasy community is tight-knit and that there is a lot of crossover between consumers and creators. I don't know whether the links are as strong in other genres, but given the existence of conventions such as Bouchercon and Malice Domestic (for crime and mystery) and organizations like the very active Romance Writers of America, I can only assume that these principles hold true.

In any case, it will be interesting to see if the genre imprints at Amazon Publishing are able to survive in these niches and how (or whether) they can achieve a truce with traditional booksellers. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

"As sure as eggs is eggs"

Watching Amazon duke it out with brick-and-mortar bookstores has felt kind of like watching the Republicans and Democrats (in no particular order...) go after each other. At some point, I don't really care who's right or who started it--I just want a productive solution.

Amazon's retreat from mainstream marquee publishing (and Larry Kirshbaum's retreat from Amazon) made the news last Friday, and with the news came many exultations and lamentations. Whether the evil leviathan is Amazon or Big Publishing, almost everyone seems convinced that something has risen from the sea bearing the mark of the beast.

In the midst of it all, I appreciate Chuck Wendig's perspective:
I'm not saying that Amazon is blameless here. I don't want a future in which the only bookseller is an online retail giant, but I also wouldn't want to see a vendor with extensive resources and reach pushed completely out of the market. A world with more readers, and where readers read more, is the best possible outcome, and I think we need Amazon, large brick-and-mortar bookstores, and indies alike to make it happen.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Familiar advice

Writer and MFA juror Elizabeth McCracken posted a series of tweets with advice about applying to MFA programs. Most of it sounds startlingly similar to advice new writers receive about finding an agent.

A few tips don't apply (you don't submit letters of recommendation to an agent, you should query a completed novel rather than a short story, etc.), but here's the gist of much of her advice:

  1. Submit a strong, completed work that you've revised and edited.
  2. Follow submission instructions.
  3. Mention the right program/agent in your essay/query letter.
  4. Don't lie.
  5. Demonstrate professionalism.
  6. Explain why you want this program/agent and not why it/she should want you.*

Visit GalleyCat for the full Storified version.

*That's not to say that writers (or applicants) should beg or downplay their credentials, but there's a place in query letters (and applications) to mention why you're interested in this person or program, and it's an opportunity to show that you've done your research. The portion of the query that discusses your book is your chance to show what you have to offer.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pocket litter

You can tell whether Spouse or I have driven the car last based on whether or not there are granola bar wrappers stuffed in the door pocket. If wrappers have colonized the cup holders, it's safe to say I haven't even been in the car in weeks.

It can be interesting to think about characters in terms of daily routines and mundane details, perhaps because these things can reveal other details about people. For instance, what's in their pockets? If he's a smoker, he probably has a pack of cigarettes. If he's trying to quit, he might have nicotine gum. Maybe she keep receipts and meticulously tracks her expenses, or maybe she throws everything away. Perhaps she always means to, but somehow forgets, and finds her pockets lined with months-old ticket stubs.

Mentioning what a character carries can demonstrate the extent of a particular habit or quirk--a rigorous dieter might keep a few packets of his favorite sweetener on hand. It could also reflect or contrast the way that character approaches larger issues. A relentless organizer might have a few paper clips stuffed in her pocket. If everything else in her life is out of control, they might be bent. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

What I've learned from modding

Not long ago, I re-installed my old copy of Neverwinter Nights to play with the Aurora Toolset, the game's level creation software.

I'd always been intimidated by the idea of trying to build a mod, but the toolset is pretty handy. With a little patience and a basic understanding of scripting logic, you can accomplish a lot.

Here are some things I've learned about the creative process:

1. When you encounter a problem, don't get stuck on the wrong solution. As a result of the way I'd built my area, I had a heck of a time getting the (optional) dogfriend companion to follow the player up and down stairs. I didn't want to rebuild it, and I didn't want to create a separate area to load, so I spent a few hours tinkering with the area transition scripts, experimenting with waypoints, and checking the dog's following scripts. None of those ideas were necessarily wrong-headed, but when I stumbled across someone else's ActionJumpToLocation script and set up a trigger that the player character would have to walk over, it worked.

All that is to say that my solution came much more quickly once I thought of other strategies to solve the problem (instead of just trying to pick apart the scripts when, let's be honest, my scripting knowledge is meager).

Also on that note...

2. Outside input is good. When I'm trawling the internet for scripting solutions at 1 AM, it's easier to be humble about my limitations. Still, whether I'm pulling commands from a community resource or getting suggestions about the story direction, I try to hold onto my enthusiasm without getting too possessive. It's a good mindset to bring to other fiction.

Which reminds me...

3. It's hard to know how others will interact with a project. Some readers skim for action, and others absorb prose word by word. Some viewers absorb a movie's style and composition, and others veg. With games, the breadth of interactions is even more diverse. Will players follow the trail of breadcrumbs I've sown for them interaction-by-interaction, or will they race to the end? The only way to know is to let them play and to accept that there isn't a "right" way to game.

It's important to create emotional stakes without forcing the player into one set of actions or responses.

4. Mario may never enter into a truce with Bowser, but RPG gamers want options and agency. What's the point in spending waaay too long customizing a character and reading dialogue only to follow a predetermined, linear path? Creating fascinating NPCs and quest lines is important, but so is giving players the option to rebel against them. If there's never a choice to refuse to aid an NPC, then the opportunity to help is meaningless. Besides, there's probably someone out there who just doesn't like Garrus Vakarian.

5. Sometimes the solution is easier than it seems. I was out of my gourd trying to figure out why two of my NPCs wouldn't actually talk when the player clicked on them. Oh, because I hadn't actually linked up their conversation files. This was, um, early in the learning process.

6. Recognize your goals, and recognize when your reach exceeds your grasp. My goal was to get practice writing story and dialogue for a short game that focuses on NPC interactions and gives the player room to make choices. To that end, I didn't bother with combat, and I accepted that my mod would have little visual gloss. Based on my goals, my time was best spent polishing dialogue, getting the mod out into the open for feedback, and moving on to the next project.

7. Timelines motivate. Once I was far enough along that I thought (ha!) I knew what I was doing and could see the end in sight, I set a deadline. The sense of purpose was useful when it came to tackling more complex problems, and it helped me finish something over a few evenings that could have dragged on for weeks longer.

8. Take joy in small victories. I spent hours on "Demon in a Haystack," yet players can run through it in 15 minutes. A successful buildtest is still worth getting excited about.

9. Test early and test often. It's easier to tackle problems one-at-a-time as they come up than in one big muddle at the end. Frequent testing can also help diagnose problems and avoid potential back-tracking.

10. Stop lists at 10. If it's good enough for Letterman, it's good enough for me.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Which story to tell?

In the wake of Gravity's critical and commercial success, quite a few people are asking how Alfonso Cuarón managed to make such a solid yet unconventional movie. My favorite article is this interview snippet from io9, in which he discusses some of the changes that various studio personnel recommended. 

The suggestions, which range from flashbacks to a Mission Control romance, indicate not that Hollywood is full of morons out to ruin good movies, but that they had different stories in mind. Those other stories might also have resulted in enjoyable films had they been written, acted, and directed well. It seems unfair to dismiss them outright except to note that those alternate versions might have felt less original and less contemplative.

I'm glad Cuarón made the film his way.

This divergence highlights just how much an individual artist's touch can change a project. The same premise in two different hands will likely develop into two very different books, movies, TV pilots, or what have you. 

Such a world of possibilities can make storytelling intimidating. If there are a thousand possible stories dwelling in one premise, or even in one set of characters, how do you know which one to tell? On the other hand, perhaps this means there's enough room for any of the versions we might dream up.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Spouse and I had looked forward to Gravity for months, and so we saw it last weekend with Nurse Sibling and Nurse Sibling's Spouse. It did not disappoint.

I appreciated a few things in particular about the movie (besides it being gorgeous and entertaining):
  1. The astronaut characters act like professional instead of space cowboys.
  2. Characters spend their time trying to escape the disaster rather than trying to get to the bottom of it (like Cloverfield). 
  3. Sandra Bullock does not appear to be wearing makeup.
  4. As written and portrayed, Sandra Bullock's character could have been played by a male actor, and it would not have seemed odd in the least.
I was trying to articulate point #4 to Spouse on the ride to post-movie beers, and it was easiest to describe what the character was not: a chip-on-her-shoulder Amazon, a sexy love interest, a damsel in distress. She just seemed like a normal person, and at no point did it feel like her femininity was being exploited or artificially emphasized. Alfonso Cuarón has said that he received pressure to cast a man in the lead role, and I'm glad that he didn't listen.

Alien's Ripley was similarly not subject to the usual lady treatment, and perhaps it helped that all of the characters in Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett's original script were "unisex"*. I look forward to the day when more female characters can be summarized as astrophysicists/parents/golfers/bankers rather than tough, smart, sexy astrophysicists/parents/golfers/bankers.

*Really, written as male but open to being played either way.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Fine distinctions

When I was really young, I had a hard time saying "animal." About half the time, it would come out "aminal." My parents would get excited when I got it right and sound it out when I got it wrong, but I still couldn't hear the difference between the two words.

Eventually, I grew out of it.

Writing can be the same way. There are often fine distinctions between being subtle and being obscure, between writing drama and melodrama. Some literary devices are great in moderation but awkward with overuse. And it seems that every rule can be broken by the writer who does it well. Unfortunately, there aren't clear-cut rules for managing these fine distinctions, but practice and attention are valuable (if not fast) teachers.

Friday, October 4, 2013

For shame

A new marketing study aims to help advertisers time their ads for women by pinpointing the times and days that women feel least attractive. 

Targeted ads are nothing new, but it feels particularly icky for marketers to take advantage of insecurities and vulnerabilities, particularly when the targets may not even be aware that they're particularly insecure or vulnerable at a given moment. Suggesting hotels when I've been researching vacation destinations is one thing, but trying to sell me on the need to change myself at a time when I'm statistically most likely to feel down on myself? Eew.

Education is part of prevention, so here's hoping that awareness of this sort of thing will keep people from getting caught up in it.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dear Ndugu

I saw About Schmidt for the first time a couple of days ago. It was funny, sad, and altogether charming. One storytelling element I particularly liked was the series of letters that Schmidt wrote to the Tanzanian boy he was sponsoring.

It's touching to see Schmidt, who's disconnected from most of the people in his life, awkwardly attempt to reach out to this child he knows little about, and it's suddenly humorous when his commentary on his life becomes too candid and impassioned.

Overall, it was a really clever mechanism for getting an emotionally stunted character to open up on what he really thinks and to expose the gap between his public image and his private thoughts.

That is all.

Monday, September 30, 2013

From escapism to building stuff

Becky Chambers at The Mary Sue shared some thoughts about how escapism can be a useful tool for reinvigorating and refocusing one's energy on The Tasks At Hand.

In the middle of a rough patch, Chambers turned her energies to building a Minecraft house based on one of her favorite game environments. What's really exciting (besides the house, which sounds like a trip) is how she managed to turn the experience into something that gave her verve and stamina for the workday.

Chambers thought about what she liked when she went a-sandboxing. And then she thought about how she could recreate it with the tools at hand. Adding structure and introspection to play can create a fun and fulfilling learning experience.

She also took some time off from the issues that were dominating her. Spouse always says that the best way to decide on something is to get all the information, sleep on it, and let the unconscious brain do the heavy lifting. It's amazing how much the conscious mind can get in the way.

Most importantly, Chambers channeled the search for satisfaction into her regular work. Escapism can be a distraction when it becomes the end goal, but at its best, it's a tantalizing hint of something bigger. Productive, creative, and original work is difficult yet exciting.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Banned Book Week, censorship vs. criticism

This is Banned Book Week, a time to recognize (and read) some of the nation's most challenged books. The list is often surprising: topping last year's was a series called Captain Underpants, and classics like Beloved, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men regularly feature.

It's easy for me to roll my eyes and wonder how people could really think that challenging those books is a reasonable step, but Kyle Cassidy points out that if we're criticizing these attempts at censorship, we should also be critical of censorship efforts that prevent some books from ever reaching shelves.

It's a sensible point, but the examples he raises give me pause: the cancelled tell-all from a juror on the George Zimmerman case and also cancelled Kickstarter-funded Above the Game, a book about creepy (and arguably illegal) seduction techniques.

Kickstarter (in one case) and the juror's literary agent (in the other) responded to online criticism and protest against their respective projects. One could argue that these entities, in responding to public criticism, were merely acting the way business-oriented entities should. Nobody is required to represent a project (or client) that they believe to be unprofitable or objectionable, and nothing prevented the authors from publishing their projects elsewhere.

So, in a free and open society, what avenues are required to be available to give someone a voice, even if their message is objectionable? Banning criticism is another form of censorship, and yet criticism will inevitably lead to some projects being cancelled or amended, and not necessarily without good reason.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Comics and the perpetual second act

Except for this one Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures issue I mysteriously had around the age of seven, I've never really read comics, nor have I had much of a desire to. As much as I enjoy speculative fiction, the superhero genre* has never been at the top of my list. Maybe it's the all-caps sound effects, or maybe it's the costumes. I've never understood why serious crime fighter-types like Wolverine and Flash dress up like traffic signals, particularly when superheroes seem to value their anonymity.

Perhaps this is one reason I loved the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy so much.

But every once in a while, particularly in the wake of a new superhero movie, I'll look up details about the longer storylines and character arcs for some of these franchises.

Somewhere between the second death and resurrection or the third identity crisis, I get lost.

Thom Dunn of sums up the issue nicely. Comic books dig their heels in at the second act and stay there. Even when big, third act moments happen, they can be undone when the broken back heals, when someone is brought back to life, when the secret behind the secret is revealed, or when the series is rebooted. And like greengeekgirl, I find it difficult to get invested when that's the case.

Maybe sticking with something you love through various iterations and reversals is just another kind of enjoyment. It's just not for me. But then again, I generally don't re-read books or re-play video games I've finished.

I haven't read The Dresden Files yet, but people gush about it. One of the key praises is how Jim Butcher keeps raising the stakes in each novel. That he's managed to do that over fourteen (and counting) novels is impressive, but I suspect it would all mean a lot less if the big events could be reversed in the fifteenth. The series will end some day, and that's part of what makes it compelling.

*Caveat: Plenty of graphic novels have nothing to do with superheroes. Saga was part of my Hugo packet this year, and I loved it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

WTFriday: Kids these days

The Huffington Post ran an article (complete with stick figures) about all the spoiled Gen-Y brats with unrealistic expectations and no work ethic. Some people really liked it.

Journalist and late Gen-Xer Adam Weinstein had words for those people, and many of them rhyme with "tuck."

Of course, whenever anyone shakes his cane at the youth of today, I think of that old Socrates quote...
Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.
People will always wring their hands about the young 'uns who will one day manage their pensions. Expectations will change as young folks evaluate the world around them, the choices their parents made, and how those choices worked out. And conditions (economic and otherwise) will change, and opportunities will change, and everyone will pat themselves on the back for being so much tougher than the young punks who have never experienced a world without anesthesia/power steering/indoor plumbing/social security.

Via GalleyCat.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Man Booker Prize opens to 'Mericans

In 2014, American authors will be eligible to win the Man Booker prize. This new rule admits "novels originally written in English and published in the UK, regardless of the nationality of the author" whereas the award has historically been restricted to citizens of "the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe."

Surprising no one, most of the commentary across the pond has been negative. The only British author (so far) to speak out in support of the change has been Kazuo Ishiguro, a previous Booker winner and author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

I'm sympathetic to the concern that the admission of American authors connected to well-established American and multinational publishing houses will make it that much harder for non-American authors to compete. It's an honest and reasonable concern, particularly when the Pulitzer and the National Book Award are only open to authors from the U.S.

But when figures like Jim Crace, Melvyn Bragg, and Colin Midson complain about the prize losing its "focus," "distinctiveness," and sense of "a Booker book," I have to ask: what does that mean?

Until the rule change, the Man Booker Prize has been open to authors from most corners of the English-speaking world... except for the U.S. The winners and nominees have hailed from a variety of countries and written on a variety of topics. The Remains of the Day is about an English butler. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is about partition in India. Nominee Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London but raised in the U.S. and is arguably better-known as an American author than a British one. What is the "character" of a "Booker book," and how can someone argue that any English-speaking writer except an American-born one is capable of writing it?

I couldn't resist.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bob Mankoff on selection and rejection

Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor for The New Yorker, gave a charming and humorous TED talk about the process for selecting cartoons. The magazine receives a thousand submissions a week and only prints around fifteen. Near the beginning of his talk, Mankoff mentions that he submitted 2,000 cartoons before The New Yorker accepted one.

Yet even with those acceptance rates, he knows that not everyone will be pleased. In humor, he says, a 75% satisfaction rate is quite good.

In his discussion of The Rejection Collection, he notes that choosing cartoons isn't just about how funny they are on their own, but also about how they would fit within the context of the magazine. There's a continuum of edginess and benignancy, and "idea drawings" in the magazine occupy a particular sliver.

All in all, it's a pleasant reminder that those of us who have received rejections are in good company. It also highlights that there are many reasons why submissions are rejected, not the least of which is the tastes of the particular market.

 Also, the short "Being Bob" will bring a smile to anyone who's ever gotten a rejection slip.

Friday, September 13, 2013

WTFriday: Comics controversy

Someone at DC thought it would be awesome to recruit potential artists by having them draw Harley Quinn naked and on the verge of suicide.

It seems I'm behind the times in just now reading about this, but if you're in the same boat, we can pick our collective jaws off the floor together.

I don't know what's more telling: that someone found this tasteful, or that when the tastelessness was called out, the official response was, "Oops, sorry we forgot to explain why you're not supposed to be offended."

Read more about DC's PR goofs at The Outhouse.

It's kind of like the "satire" defense of the "Blurred Lines" video. It's hard to claim when the supposed parody is indistinguishable from the trends it supposedly lampoons.

On a tangentially related topic (Metal Gear Solid 5), I love how this person picks apart arguments commonly used to defend overly eroticized portrayals of women in video games (much of the same could probably be said for comics). I particularly applaud her response to the "sex sells" argument:

  1. Only to a particular demographic, which is not the only group gaming nowadays, and 
  2. Have you played Skyrim, Call of Duty, or anything featuring a chubby plumber?


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Questionable ideologies of unreliable narrators

In another life, I might have been an academic. I love picking things apart and hashing out "implications" and "context."

That's why I was pumped about a WorldCon panel in which Liz Argall, Jo Walton, Laurie Mann, and Lee Martindale discussed Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, how it spoke to readers in 1969, and how it speaks to us today.

The panelists' reactions were fascinating and varied. I'd recently read it for the first time (and loved it) for the story, the writing, and the way Le Guin develops the "stranger in a strange land" theme.

So when one panelist described it as heartbreakingly sexist, I was intrigued.

One of the great things about great books is how they often evoke different responses from different people. And with a book as rich and idea-laden as The Left Hand of Darkness, there's plenty to talk about.

What the panelist objected to (in my understanding) was the way the narrator associated feminine qualities with negative character traits. The "landlady," who has fathered several children, is portrayed as feminine for his "prying, spying, ignoble, kindly nature." Harth, who is usually described in masculine terms, is decried for his "effeminate deviousness" when the narrator is upset with him.

Additionally, Le Guin uses masculine pronouns and titles to describe the nongendered Gethenians.

Regarding the pronouns, Le Guin herself has stated that she intended for them to be neutral rather than masculine, and she's revisited the issue in later works. Would it have been better to stick with feminine terms? To mix them at random? To invent new pronouns? I don't know.

The narrator's interpretations (and our reactions to the same) are even more interesting. The holes in the narrator's perspective are revealed in chapter 1 when he, an envoy who has studied Gethenian politics and culture for years, grossly misinterprets signals from an ally. It's a reminder that his outlook is still colored by his biases, and it's a red flag (to me) that his observations, particularly those about gender, are suspect.

I thought it was a subtle (and clever) way of calling into question our own culture's assumptions about gender, which typically mirror the envoy's. On the other hand, Le Guin makes bolder statements with Gethenian concepts of kemmer and lineage:
  1. Gethenians experience "kemmer," a monthly period in which they temporarily assume male or female physiologies and become sexually active. Female- and male-phase Gethenians experience kemmer equally, and there are no stigmas or double-standards associated with either gender.
  2. Gethenians assume both male and female phases throughout their lives, and they may become parents in both roles. However, the child that a ruler personally bears (as opposed to the one s/he sires) is that ruler's heir.
Progressive, regressive, or something else? In any case, it's a fascinating and enjoyable read.

Monday, September 9, 2013

To show or not to show?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises writers keep their manuscripts to themselves until the first draft is finished. Ostensibly, the idea is to keep other voices from unduly influencing the work until the writer has had the chance to get all of her ideas onto the page.

But is this good advice for everyone?

A few thoughts.

  1. Some writers need an audience. Some people need the encouragement and urgency that comes with having someone else standing by to read their work. If that's the case, sharing a work in progress may help those people maintain their enthusiasm and meet their word count goals.
  2. Is the work in progress working? Books can fail because of uninteresting characters, unbelievable plot points, and a whole host of other problems. Attentive readers can help writers spot these problems before they're tens of thousands of words in.
  3. A delicate balance. How certain is the writer of his direction, and to what extent do the readers impose their own? There's a marked difference between a reader who says, "this romance subplot doesn't work for me because I don't see how these characters can stand one another" and one who says, "this romance subplot doesn't work for me because romance subplots are boring, and you should really make these two dueling spies."
"We had some thoughts on your first draft."

Friday, September 6, 2013

WTFriday: Preaching to the wrong choir?

Spouse and I saw a show last night. It was funny.

What else was funny? The advertisement on page 15.

I admire the gumption.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bad habits: filtering

Critiques groups are helpful. One of the most useful things one writer can point out is another's bad habits: overused words, gestures, and sentence structures. Recognizing one's own bad habits is difficult, typically because we don't realize how they come across to readers or we don't even realize that we're stuck in them.

After some insightful feedback, I'm working to cut filter phrases. Things like "she saw," "she heard," "he felt." These phrases distance readers from the action, so it's best to get to the point and state what the protagonist saw, heard, or felt. In first-person and close third-person narratives, it's typically understood that the main character experiences the events taking place on the page.

Also, avoiding these constructions helps me vary sentence structure. It's an extreme example, but:
"She ran. She saw the wall looming ahead. She climbed over it. She felt grass crunch underfoot as she landed."
is less interesting than:
"She ran. The wall loomed ahead. She climb over it. Grass crunched underfoot as she landed."
Like lots of good advice, this looks painfully obvious in retrospect. And like many bad habits, my filtering* was an unsuccessful attempt to do something else right. In this case, I was trying to (1) include sensory details and (2) keep the narrative focused on the protagonist's perspective. Filtering diminishes the impact of sensory details and throws reader's out of a character's head, which I now know.

And knowing is half the battle.**

*For the record, it wasn't as severe as the example above. We swears it.
**Red lasers and blue lasers are the other half. Or so I hear.

Friday, August 30, 2013

WTFriday: It's not small, it's vintage

I have recently discovered that the effect of relatively meager floor space in a hotel room can be offset by high ceilings. Not that it really matters--it's not like I can roost up there--but it seems less cramped.

Also, I would typically dislike having a fixed object placed in a high-traffic walkway of the room, but since it is an actual fluted column from the days when this building was used for some historic shit, I am okay with this.

Did I mention I love this hotel?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On to LoneStarCon!

And today I head off to LoneStarCon (aka this year's WorldCon). If you're going, too, maybe I'll see you there.

Any panels or events you're looking forward to? I always enjoy hearing authors talk about the practical and business-related aspects of their trade.

For the record, I can't think of this year's con without hearing Dark Helmet. Anyone else? Bueller?

Monday, August 26, 2013

All about perspective

Actress Anna Gunn of Breaking Bad fame came out in the New York Times about the hatred that Skyler White receives and that she has personally received for playing the role. It isn't pretty.

It's a fairly unscientific test, but if you Google "Skyler White," the third option that appears is "Skyler White hate." Also in the list are "Skyler White annoying" and "Skyler white shut up." Of course, option #2, "Skyler White meme," is mostly filled with variations of the "hate" and "annoying" themes.

What happens if you Google "Walter White"? The suggested search options are all innocuous, and the memes make lighthearted fun of his drug dealing and brutality.

Both Skyler and Walter are flawed characters, but the message seems to be that the wife who cheats and expressed concerns about her husband's drug dealing is worse than the husband who cooks meth, kills a bunch of people, and poisons a child.

Gunn compared the Skyler White reaction to fan hatred for Betty Draper and Carmela Soprano of Mad Men and The Sopranos which, I'll be honest, I haven't watched a lot of. The word from Ms. Gunn (and others) is that people have different standards and lower tolerances for assertive, contrarian female characters than they do for their male counterparts, particularly when said female characters fill the (ostensibly) supporting role of "wife."

I agree*, but I think there's something else. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and countless other movies and TV shows tell the stories of complicated men, and more-or-less from the perspectives of those men. It's actually pretty amazing that I rooted for Walter White as long as I did, but that's what good fiction does--it presents complex characters and makes them somehow sympathetic, even when they're not the kind of people you can pull for.

Breaking Bad is, first and foremost, about Walter White. It's not surprising, then, that many viewers see Skyler in terms of how supportive she is of Walter and his goals rather than how interesting or relatable she is as an independent character with her own set of goals who just so happens to be married to Walter.

I suspect that people might perceive her differently if the show centered around a woman who's pushed away by a distant husband with a mysterious secret, gets a job to support her family and finds herself in trouble when she cooks the books to keep it, and learns of her husband's drug cartel involvement while she's trying to protect a teenager and an infant.

*Others have long pointed out how cray-cray it is that Hilary Clinton is jeered for being opinionated and less-than-young in a profession full of men who are just that.

Friday, August 23, 2013

WTFriday: Don't read the comments

Did you think I would say something about the Chelsea Manning commentary? I guess I technically am. Here's a wonderful thought from Maureen Johnson:

It is good advice, and I think I will follow it. But only for today.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Emotions: use your words!

I came across this list from Omnivoracious on Facebook the other day. It's a list of emotions and associated body language cues. So, if you're like me, and you find yourself too often tempted to fall back on raising eyebrows and different kinds of grins, this is a help.

Of course, reading through the list for fresh gestures might also jump start your thinking about the subtler shades of emotions that your characters may be feeling. Sneaky, sneaky.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Word alert

Many writers (present company included) are guilty of overusing certain words. Apparently, one common offender is the suddenly abuser.

I've also heard people cite interesting. One problem with interesting is that it can mean so many different things, both positive and negative. I read about someone who said that he tried to excise that word from his (spoken) vocabulary completely, presumably by forcing himself to say intriguing, awkward, unfortunate, fascinating, etc., as appropriate. I tried this, too, and was unsuccessful.

Everyone has a tendency to lean too often on certain words (or gestures). Unfortunately, those overuses can become invisible to a writer. One of the services a good critique group can perform is to make overused words very, very visible again.*

via GalleyCat

*As an experiment, I decided to count the instances of "suddenly" and "all of a sudden" in my current manuscript in progress. I counted five* in about 30,000 words. Some of these are of the "suddenly + adjective" and some of which are of the "suddenly this happened" varieties.

Friday, August 16, 2013

WTFriday: Snowpiercer

Almost everything I read about Snowpiercer reminds me how excited I am to see this movie, except for the news that Harvey Weinstein wants to cut 20 minutes of character development from the movie.

And not only does he want to hack up what appears to be a perfectly good film, he's also insulting his prospective audience while he's at it. He's concerned that, without the cuts, audiences in Iowa and Oklahoma might not "understand" it.

This from the guy whose company distributed a black and white silent film?*

Sure, sure, I know his goal is to make money, but it makes me crazy when studios focus on producing popcorn movies and then say that no one wants to see anything else. Audiences got along just fine with Inception and Pan's Labyrinth.

But never fear, he who taketh away also giveth. He wants to add voice-over narration to the beginning and end of the movie.

Because after-the-fact voice-overs usually work out sooo well.

*Don't get me wrong, I liked The Artist.

via Screen Rant.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hobby writing and gateway reading

Last year, Margaret Atwood came out in support of Wattpad, an online publishing venue. She points out that sites like Wattpad can be positive, creative spaces for readers and writers, and that easy access to online fiction and communities can improve literacy.

People who argue against these kinds of venues often lament the quality of the writing. They say that an abundance of bad fiction rewards bad writers and encourages unsophisticated readers.

But perhaps the critics are missing something fundamental about the people who visit sites like Wattpad. People who write (or aspire to write) for professional pay and traditional publication tend to assume that everyone else who writes has the same goals. Not so. And yet, no one has ever accused me as an amateur snowskier/video gamer/cook of cheapening the things I do for fun. Why should writing be different?

And reading begets reading. What's more likely: that people enjoying Wattpad and Widbook stories would otherwise spend that time supporting traditional authors, or that an accessible fiction community will encourage them to read more and more widely? You can guess where my vote lies.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Lost in translation

Amanda Nelson at Book Riot has some clever translations for some of the more elitist statements that some book lovers have been known to make.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with preferring physical books, supporting local brick-and-mortar stores, enjoying prose, or avoiding TV. It seems to be the undercurrent of judgment that's the issue.

I've been guilty of debating tastes, but hopefully it was a friendly debate...?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Book report: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

I wanted to love this book. I wanted to appreciate Robinson's grand-scale worldbuilding, his fluidly descriptive prose, and his ability to weave an ensemble cast of characters and storylines into an epic whole.

After all, I enjoyed Red Mars.

I did not enjoy 2312.

The shortcomings are as much a case of what was excessive as what was lacking. Anyone who wants to see what the solar system might look like in three hundred years won't be disappointed. Robinson describes a moving city on Mercury, hollowed asteroids that serve as combination transports and habitats, and terraforming projects on half a dozen moons. Like his future society, Robinson wants to fill up every blank corner of his solar system, and much is left behind in the process. Unfortunately, it's frequently the characters.

Spending time with the characters of 2312 was like visiting crazy relatives. You see them after a long absence and suddenly remember why you didn't miss them in the first place. Then, just as you're spending enough time with them to start brushing off some of the less egregious weirdness, you depart and remember that they have nothing to do with the other 364 days of your year.

It's kind of like that.

Swan Er Hong, the mercurial performance artist from Mercury (see what he did there?) is the principal protagonist and our first introduction to the people of 2312. It's a shame, because while she could have been a fascinating and complex character, she is most often simply irritating. While I spent more time with Swan than I would have liked, I never felt like I got to know her well enough to sympathize with her. As a result, her many mood swings and extremes either baffled me or compounded my idea of her as shallow, self-absorbed, and flighty.* She actually threatens to scream when other characters refuse to tell her something she wants to know.

Most of the other characters weren't much more interesting or weren't around often enough to salvage the story. My favorite character was probably Inspector Jean Genette, a detective and a member of a group known as "smalls" who, for reasons left (surprisingly) unexplained, are all extremely petite.**

Kiran's subplot was also well-done, mostly because Robinson really captured the disorientation of someone who is in over his head, stuck in a plot that he isn't able to follow. Then again, maybe I just liked that story because it felt relatable while I was reading this book.

Frequently, characters' conversations about things that appear to be crucial plot points and themes (see: revolution) seem so general and so disassociated from any actionable context as to seem irrelevant. It's as if readers are hurtling along on one of those orbiting asteroid terrariums, and every once in a while we swing back into view of the characters just to see what they're up to before taking off again. After having a lengthy conversation with her computer about the historical contexts and causes of "revolutions" (virtually any kind you fancy), Swan then goes on to have a vague (yet nonetheless heated) conversation with Wahram about fomenting an actual revolution. Moments like these felt like they should have been better connected. As it is, it often feels like we're wandering from one event to the next, often without a great deal of causality or explanation.***

And during our many sabbaticals from the characters and their stories, we're treated to some rather bizarre infodumps. These are mini-chapters, and they may be titled "Lists," in which case they are actual lists of things: disorders, famous women, ways that Swan has mortified her flesh in the name of performance art. Others are "Extracts," which read like segments cut (often mid-paragraph) from textbooks on the science and history that underpins 2312, and yep, they're generally about as interesting as they sound. Still others are lengthy descriptions of planets, moons, asteroids, and other heavenly bodies, and I might have appreciated these more if there weren't so many seeming non-sequitirs. It's frustrating to see a writer as skilled as Robinson rely on such a sloppy method of worldbuilding.

The irony is that many of the infodumps state that the year 2312 will be the dawn of a new era. Unfortunately, the story feels like too much of an afterthought for me to care or understand why.

2312 if you dare. But I'd go with Red Mars instead.

*Like the moment she suggests self-crucifixion as a memorial to her burned city contrasted with her horror at remembering that time she ingested alien bacteria. And yet she has no qualms or regrets about having a permanent hormone drip implanted, having part of a bird's brain attached to her own, or having a quantum computer embedded near her skull.

**Best guess? Something to do with successive generations changing under the effects different gravities and environments. There are also "talls."

***For instance... why the heck did they start rebuilding Terminator halfway through? Wasn't it already established that there was no way to prevent a repeat catastrophe until they figured out whodunnit?

Friday, August 9, 2013

WTFriday: Babies can't read; blame technology

A couple of years ago, this video went viral (along with the argument that technology is destroying reading).

The thesis seems to be that because iPads exist, this baby does not know how to read a magazine, and she never will. Let's break this down.
  1. This baby does not know how to read because she is a baby. The iPad has obviously taught her to pinch and tap magazine pages instead of tearing them out (which is an improvement), but other than that, I'm not sure there's much of a net change in the depth of her interaction with glossy magazines.
  2. She may one day choose to read on an electronic device, and that is fine. Reading is reading.
  3. She will grow up one day. And when she does, her engagement with both digital and print media will become more sophisticated. It is patronizing and insulting to say that because she does not know how to use a magazine now, THAT WILL NEVER CHANGE. I yanked pages with the best of them in my day, and look at me now.
  4. Steve Jobs is not her parent. The video begins with this baby holding an iPad and ends with the ominous coda, "Steve Jobs has coded a part of her OS." Who put the iPad in her hands in the first place? Don't let technology raise your kid and then complain that technology is raising your kid.
I don't want to see reading or print books die out any time soon, but it's hard to take this kind of alarmism seriously. Society freaked out when novels first hit the scene, and yet we still have them today, even with video games and whatnot. Yes, free time is an ever-more-divided pie, but it's more useful to figure out how old and new technologies can continue to coexist.

Video via GalleyCat.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

On fake writers and fake geek girls

One of the latest internet snarkfests sprung from Lisa Morton's "Ten Questions To Know If You're A Pro," an article that recently appeared on the Horror Writers of America (HWA) website.*

In Ms. Morton's view, it's an attempt to separate legitimate professional writers from self-congratulatory hobbyists. If you back up a few hundred miles, I think a general point one could distill from the article is that anyone who wants to improve their writing (and their chances at publication) should be prepared to commit themselves to the task of writing.

Where Morton goes wrong is in defining specifically what it means (in her mind) to commit. She suggests that if you're not sacrificing relationships, (non-writing) career prospects, and personal well-being, you're not doing it right.

Various writers who, by any other definition, would qualify as professional, voiced their disagreement: Chuck Wendig, Brian Keene, John Scalzi, Rhonda Eudaly, and plenty of others. I think what set people off wasn't simply that Ms. Morton tried to standardize something that varies from person to person, but her tone in doing so. As she led up to her ten questions, there was the sense that she was annoyed at all of the people who didn't measure up to her criteria and yet had the gall to talk about themselves as real writers.

Which brings me to the ongoing "fake geek girls" debate, in which certain male geeks appoint themselves to distinguish worthy female geeks from poseurs. What's silly isn't simply that there isn't a standard for this kind of thing, but that it doesn't really matter, anyway. Deeming somebody not-a-real-geek for only liking the X-Men movies of the last decade and nothing else is silly, and so is deeming somebody not-a-real-writer for only cranking out a little flash fiction every other month or so.

People write (and geek out) with different goals in mind. Grousing about how people define themselves seems petty, and it suggests that the complainer is actually more interested in being known to others as "a real writer" (or "a real geek") than in actually writing (or geeking).

*At the time of writing, the page was down.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Don't be a pusher

Pam at has some interesting thoughts about pushing books too hard on reluctant readers.

From hermittime at the hermit hole.

It's easy (with the best of intentions) to push a favorite book a little too hard. Friends may not want to read it because it just doesn't suit their tastes, or they may be reasonably concerned about the backlash of excessive opinion they will face if they read it and admit that they did not feel the same way about it as I did.

Sometimes, it's just best to lead a friend to a bookstore and let him think.

Anyway, my new method with Spouse when I find something really good is just to point to the start of a few good paragraphs and say, "Read this page. Tell me what you think."

Monday, August 5, 2013

Whedonvice: "even Last Action Hero could've been good"

Joss Whedon's ten writing tips are available here at Aerogramme Writers' Studio. It's all solid advice, but the most thought-provoking tidbit (for me) was rule number ten, "don't sell out."

It's not quite what you'd expect.

Whedon says:
"I was able to take [the jobs] that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie: if you can find something that you love, then you can do it."
It's a refreshing and redeeming way to look at projects, and it's helpful to remember when I'm stuck on a scene that I can't seem to tie up or when I come across a passage that just feels mind-numbingly off at second glance. (Just about) anything can be good when done right, and it's important to keep fixed on that shining beacon of "what this could be" and not "what I'm afraid it might be." 

Friday, August 2, 2013

WTFriday: Fire and brimstone and falling asleep

I don't know whether this is funny or just painful, but it's definitely WTF. A pastor has a total meltdown about some poor guy nodding off, delves into parishioners' personal issues, and ends by calling out the kid in the video booth for "setting up [his] own kingdom" in there, whatever that means.

It is ugly.

On the bright side, I doubt Pastor Standridge will have to worry about anyone falling asleep in his church again. His real worry should be whether anyone sticks around to hear how important he is.

Ironically, I first saw this clip at my own church (which much friendlier than the one in the video).

Jim Standridge, is that you in the middle of the painting?

Viktor Vasnetsov, The Last Judgment, public domain (life of artist + 80 years).

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Room will change the way you watch everything else

Okay, maybe not, but still.

I've been thinking about The Room a little longer, which is probably more than anyone should admit. It seems strange that something so bad should be so entertaining, so here's my analysis of what that's all about.

Some things are funny because they remind us of something else or because they point out the absurdity in something that we normally wouldn't think to laugh at. A woman wearing lipstick isn't inherently funny, but when a three-year-old smears it in a vague mouth-shape around her face, it is. Unless you have to clean it up.

Movies* are filled with tropes and conventions so common that we don't really think about them when we see them. But when they appear in a movie as bizarre as The Room, suddenly they jump out, and we realize that we've seen them before, only we overlooked how strange they really are. Some examples:
  • The sports fidget. Because sometimes, when you're a guy, and you have to talk about serious shit, you just gotta throw a ball around.
  • The long look away. Apparently, when people are having a personal conversation with a close friend, they tend to stare in any direction where the friend is not. Bonus points for a simultaneous sports fidget.
  • Awkward sex scenes. Personally, I think they're always awkward, because I'm either around other people and wondering what they're thinking and whether I should look away from the screen for decency's sake or I'm not around other people and I'm wondering just how much worse it would be if someone walked in RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT. 
  • Women are evil. This whole movie is about what happens when a false-hearted woman cheats on a good man. The girlfriend's treachery is the giant asteroid, the velociraptor, the Jason Statham of the movie. It is the thing that propels the rest of the plot. And there is no reason. It exists JUST BECAUSE. Let's look at some counter-examples. Soviet sub crews defect so that Sam Neill can go state to state, no papers. Charles Bronson kills everybody because three thugs attacked his family. And Bruce Willis has to fight ze Germans because his wife is using her maiden name. But some catalysts need no reason. Giant asteroids throw themselves at Earth because we're in their trajectory. Velociraptors hunt humans because they do not know fear. And Jason Statham makes things explode because he's Jason Statham. 
Similarly, Johnny's lady love cheats because she is a woman, she is evil, and she apparently has nothing better to do from nine to five. People (Johnny, his friend, her friend, and her mother five different times) ask her why she does these awful things, and even she doesn't seem to know. It's just what happens when she has nothing better to do. At the end, the co-cheating best friend serves as a moral compass to tell us that everything bad was all her fault.
  • No schedules. Jack Bauer never has to go to the bathroom, but the people in The Room never have to work. Except for the main character (although he gets the shaft at the office, too), because he's the good guy and apparently the only one with any actual responsibilities. 
  • The only decent person. It's the story of a man. A man who works hard to provide roses and lingerie for his woman so that she can hang around the house and screw his best friend. Incidentally, he also puts a random kid through school so that when that kid hunkers near his dead body and screams "LEAVE US!" we know he's really sad and not planning anything creepy.
  • No big deal. Sometimes, weird shit happens. Your friend "pretends" to throw you off the roof. The neighbor kid you are financing is in with drug dealers. The neighbor kid wants to watch you and your fiancee have sex. But it is all NBD.
  • Nobody says that. Exposition gives the audience has context for what's going on, but some conversations would just never happen. Or they might, but definitely not like THAT. 
  • Technology magic. Okay, so we don't all know how a warp drive would work. But we all know that isn't how you wiretap a phone.

*And every other medium.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Changing your voice

Voice is often described as one of the most elusive, most important qualities for writers to nail down. It's the stylistic thumbprint that sets us apart from one another, and it's often a big part of what makes the best writers so enjoyable to read.

One journalist's story of changing her speaking voice has a few lessons for those of us developing our writing voices.

Jessica Grose writes in the New York Times about her experiences trying to change the way she's perceived by changing her voice. For years, she says, she was assumed to be younger and less experienced because of the way she talked. She spoke with a rising inflection and what was described to her as "a sing-songy quality." Those traits, combined with the frequent use of filler words, garnered criticism from podcast listeners who wrote her off as young, fake, and unprofessional.

Then, she tried to nix these habits. She stopped receiving questions about her age, but she also stopped feeling authentic, and she stopped receiving the uninhibited responses she was used to from her interview subjects.

So she compromised. She modulated some of her habits but accepted that her natural tendencies have their advantages (like encouraging interview subjects to open up). And she realized that voice, like everything else, changes. As her speech coach pointed out, generational peers who share her speech habits are moving up in the world, and as they do, habits that were once anomalous may become commonplace.

Her experiences provide three key lessons for writers.

  1. Know the audience (and the narrator). It seems obvious, but things like word choice and pacing will often depend on the intended readers. How old are they, and are they reading for fun or for information? Do they like Isaac Asimov or William Gibson? And who's telling the story? Character narrators should have their personalities and backgrounds reflected in the way they comment on events.
  2. Keep it genuine. Most of us, like Ms. Grose, can only change our voices so much before they start to seem forced. Fortunately, there are many ways to tell a story, and trying different ways is part of what keeps literature fresh. 
  3. Everything in moderation. Not all habits are good habits, and some good habits go bad when they're too often repeated. There's nothing like a critique partner for pointing out oft-repeated words, overused sentence structures, overworked gestures,* and other personal cliches. Literary agent Janet Reid had a really great quote on her website not too long ago from poet Billy Collins: 
"You come by your style by learning what to leave out. At first you tend to overwrite—embellishment instead of insight. You either continue to write puerile bilge, or you change. In the process of simplifying oneself, one often discovers the thing called voice."

*Mine often involve eyebrows. Or grins. Does anyone else default to these?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Playing nice

Phil Fish has recently declared that he is through with the world of game development. While I haven't played Fez, and while I haven't followed the many publicity debacles involving Fish, I did read an article by Ben Kuchera on Penny Arcade that makes some interesting (and disturbing) observations about what it's like to create things for public consumption.

For many people, it seems downright scary.

To be clear, what Kuchera takes issue with isn't the presence of negative reviews, nor even of extremely negative reviews. It's hate speech. It's threats of physical violence. It's threats of physical violence coupled with searches for a developer's home address.

That's why I was surprised to see a few responses to Kuchera's piece suggesting that this isn't a big deal, or that it's the kind of thing people just need to take in stride. It's long been understood that anyone who creates anything--whether a book, a movie, a chocolate cake, or a home insurance policy--opens themselves up to, and should steel themselves against, criticism and feedback. Fine and good, but I'd hope we can all agree that a list of angry reviews on Amazon is a separate thing entirely from an inbox full of rape threats.

But some have noted that there is no "internet war on the creatives" because plenty of other people face online harassment and bullying. It's true, and to his credit, Kuchera never denied this; rather, his article dealt specifically with Fish's departure and the surrounding context for creators. That's not to say that these problems don't also exist for online gamers, junior high students with social media accounts, or basically anyone who wants to say anything online.

If that's the case, how did we get here? A couple thoughts.

First, there's the idea that anonymity (even semi-anonymity) encourages people to act without restraint, to write things they'd never say to anyone's face. Or, as the Penny Arcade guys like to call it, the "Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory." It's road rage intensified; you're in a protective bubble of technology and surrounded by other people in their own protective bubbles of technology, and those bubbles make it easy to believe that none of you will ever have to look each other in the eye and that nobody will actually get hurt by whatever goes down.

But it also relates to the fundamental way many of us (whether we mean to or not) tend to look at the world. We often see other things and people in relation to ourselves. Even with the best of intentions, it's really hard to avoid this. After all, I call my own mother "Mom" because, well, that's what she is to me. At work, my boss is the person ahead of me in the food chain, and my co-workers are the people next to me. As for the guy who served my dinner last night, I will probably not run into him in a context where he is not acting as my waiter.

That's not to excuse selfishness, and it's not to say we can't still be thoughtful with other people, it's just a recognition of the fact that, wherever we go, we're stuck in our own perspectives. That can't be helped, but it can be circumvented when we try to think of other people with the same sense of flexibility and subjectivity with which we think of ourselves.

And people are easy to abuse when they simply become "that guy who ruined the franchise for you," "that girl who said something you disagree with," "that lady whose book disappointed you," and "the digital avatar whose FPS skills you find annoying." Which is ridiculous because we're all plenty of other things, too (breathing, feeling humans chief among them). Attack products and ideas, not people. Everyone is entitled to a little privacy and decency, even when they create something we don't like.

Cogito ergo tweet.

Monday, July 29, 2013

There will probably never be a book like The Room

I saw The Room this past weekend, and it gave me a strange admiration for director/scriptwriter/star Tommy Wiseau. While I would never want to emulate him, I can't help but appreciate his persistence. He had a story he wanted to tell, so first he shopped his script around. When no studio wanted it, he turned it into a novel. When he couldn't get a publisher to pick it up, he went back to the screenplay idea and shot and marketed the movie himself.*

At first, his movie was ignored and ridiculed. After a while, it started to receive a following, but in the same way that Plan 9 from Outer Space did. Suffice to say that most filmmakers don't want to be known for something like this.

But Tommy Wiseau embraced it. This made me wonder, if I wrote something that became famous for being hilariously awful, how would I react? As I thought about it, I decided that, as long as I'm sticking to novels and stories, the chances of getting that kind of notoriety are slim.

So-bad-they're-good movies have an appeal that similarly awful books (probably) never will, and I think the reasons for that are threefold.

First, there's the time commitment. I can spend ninety minutes laughing at something like The Room, but if I had to spend the hours it takes to read a horrible novel, I would eventually remember that I'm only laughing because it's bad, and then I would wonder why I'm spending so much time on it.

Second, there's the effort. Bad writing can be difficult to read because it often doesn't make sense. Unclear action and mixed-up sentences are a pain to interpret, and it's hard to laugh when you have a headache. This kind of things-out-of-sequence badness is easier to absorb when you're watching it on TV.

Thirdly, and most importantly, comedy is often a communal experience. Everyone has probably experienced this to some degree--movies are funnier when you're watching them with other people who are laughing, and comedy shows are so much better live and in-person.** That said, reading is usually a solitary experience. Movies are easy (and more fun) to watch with people. So, unless live readings become more of a thing, we're probably not going to get this kind of train wreck comedy out of books any time soon.

So that's one less thing I have to worry about.

Has anyone out there read a terrible novel just for the humor?

Criswell predicts hilarity.

*Of course, the other side of this is you wonder how seriously he sought out instruction and critical feedback (probably not very). The downside of indomitable confidence is lacking the humility to learn.

**Sure enough, the funniest part of the movie was probably the guy one row in front of us, who had a formidable supply of one-liners. "Take her to bed, bath, and beyooooond!"

Friday, July 26, 2013

WTFriday: Choice, feminism, and Huma Abedin

Lately it seems that Huma Abedin’s decision to stick with Anthony Weiner is receiving more criticism and attention than his decisions to send inappropriate messages to other women.  What’s wrong with this picture?

In the wake of a scandal, people always want to know how the spouse (usually the wife) will respond. Morbid curiosity is all too natural for us, as anyone who’s ever sat in traffic behind rubberneckers can attest. But what’s concerning is the editorializing that seems to accompany the questions and the speculation. People want to know why Huma Abedin is staying because, it’s implied, she should be leaving.

The problem isn’t that she’s making the right decision or the wrong decision. It’s that notions of “right” and “wrong” have no place in a discussion about such a private, personal choice.

Some chiding Abedin do so in the name of feminism, claiming that a woman in her position should demonstrate her strength and independence by leaving a serial scoundrel.

Feminism has gone through waves and changes since Seneca Falls. At its heart, feminism is about giving women choices: the choice to vote, the choice to work, the choice to maintain a separate name and identity. Unfortunately, adherents to a particular strain of feminism have simply replaced old imperatives with new ones. The point of feminism isn’t to dictate that a woman must keep her own last name, must vote for the candidates most focused on “women’s issues,” must maintain an upwardly-mobile career after having children, or must leave a man who’s been unfaithful. The point is that she’s allowed to make those decisions for herself.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

For just a second, I thought this might be real...

Shelf Awareness had me thinking that Skylight Books (which we all now know is part-owned by Jeffrey Tambor) was going to carry The Man Inside Me, the (fictional) autobiography/self-help book from Arrested Development. Which had me excited because it meant that said book might actually exist in the real world. Oops.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

If only Superman weren't so super...

Spouse and I saw Man of Steel a few weeks ago; we'd read mostly positive reviews, and positive reviews always get a multiplier when you're talking about action movies.

We saw it at one of the local venues that serves adult beverages (also food), and we were left wishing we'd ordered more beer. The movie was disappointing.

In short, Superman is too perfect. There's not much room for tension in a fight scene when Superman can survive the planet-transforming power of the World Engine. So what if he gets thrown through a barn? He can take it. Big explosions and meticulous fight choreography don't mean much, in my opinion, without a credible threat.

(This is, incidentally, what made Pacific Rim much more enjoyable for me as an action movie. The jaegers were powerful, but they were kind of slow, and they could be destroyed. Controlling them appeared to take enough effort to make the fights tense.)

It's not only that Superman is too strong. He's also too good. The movie sets up what could have been a really interesting conflict--does Superman restore his own species or preserve humanity?* But instead of engaging with that question and making me wonder (maybe) what he'll actually choose, Superman makes the decision almost as quickly as it's raised. There's a reasonable conflict there,** and there's a chance to see Superman develop as a character as he makes his decision, but instead we're told the he chooses humanity without hesitation because he's good.***

Maybe I'm a product of my times, but that's just boring. 

*Assuming, of course, the Kryptonians couldn't just take Mars (or anywhere else, really). Seriously, that was never explained, was it?

Just hanging out in the habitable zone, guys. Don't mind me.

**Sure, Superman reasons that the Kryptonians had their chance and destroyed their planet, but it never seems to cross his mind that we're not doing much better with ours. I was quite surprised this never came up.

***greekgeekgirl over at Insatiable Booksluts has a thoughtful rant on why Batman's flaws make him the most interesting of superheroes. Yes, what she said.