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.