Friday, March 29, 2013

What To Leave Out

A good story lets you imagine
the rest of the world, too.
I've started and completed dozens of posts here that you'll never see. For numerous reasons they just won't make it out of draft stage or are permanently deleted.

It's not censorship. Or not just self-censorship. Sometimes it's the fact that I can't coherently say what I want to say. Or that it's coherent but not eloquent enough. Or that it's not really something I want to say here.

You know, the discussions you have with friends over a meal or drinks or in the car that are interesting in the moment but that you think about afterwards. Political stuff, personal worldview stuff, the things that you think but don't necessarily need to say. That's what I'm talking about today.

Those things can really enhance a story or a novel, though. That's character development stuff. That goes along with anecdotes, presenting a character's worldview in such situations.

When I'm writing I like to leave out a bunch of details. At least in the first few drafts of a story. My history with writing has been that I tend to bog down when I think about what a room looks like, what's on the walls, the color of the carpet, how there's a little ding on the top left drawer of the ancient oak desk that had been restained some years before. See what I mean?

Yeah. That stuff definitely should be in stories but not to the degrees that I used to include them. What I'm working on, really really working on, is coming back from the other extreme - almost no detail. It's always been about the story and when I dump details in the first couple of drafts that's all I'm focusing on, the story's flow. Later, as I edit for clarity, the details emerge. So far I've not run into a situation where adding details to a scene have changed something else later on, but it's entirely possible. Depending on whether I'm editing backwards or not.

Have you ever done that? Started with the last scene and added things there that you'd have to foreshadow in the beginning? It's really pretty easy. Then you read the story from beginning to end and make sure the foreshadowing works.

Look, it's easy to get lost in the details. I tend to overthink stuff all the time in my regular life. If this then that but what about those? Pretty soon I'm not only off the beaten path, I'm somewhere in the wilderness wondering why the polar bear is staring me down. I think this is a natural way for creative types to be, but reigning it in and only giving the audience what they need to enjoy the story is what the Big Names do.

And that's what I'm learning how to do.

So it starts with the blog, writing those posts I need to get out of my system and then shoving them around and out of the way so I can concentrate on what you readers want from this. At least what you guys are reading and responding to.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On Reading

If you love SF and grew
up during the 70s and 80s
you should read this.
On Monday I mentioned I felt that while I struggled with re-writes I was getting better at them. I also mentioned that I had spent a lifetime reading things to prepare me to be a storyteller. (I also mentioned Heinlein but we'll get to him in a minute.)

I've read most of the greats of SF: the aforementioned Robert A. Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, L'Engle, Bradbury, Moorcock (his time-traveling stuff and some of the epic fantasy), Campbell, and dozens of others in short stories and novels. I'm not exactly up-to-date on all the new kids but I like Mieville, Carroll, Baxter, Wolfe, Bear, Benford, Kress (recently), Vinge, Swanwick, and again - dozens of others. Every year for the last four I've gotten Year's Best SF edited by Hartwell and Cramer and that's been as eye-opening an education as anything.

(And I have to say that I'm disappointed that this year's book won't be out until September. However, it WILL be in hardcover so I guess I can't complain. Too much. Still.)

However, I don't know why I didn't read any Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He's a writer of SF and I was always aware of him, but no one ever made it plain to me what he wrote. I always heard how he's a national treasure, how he's so satirical and so on the mark with dark humor and that satire. He came to the University of Kansas when I was just out of high school and talked to a packed house about being a writer. I saw him give his famous chalkboard lecture on story. BRILLIANT.

But I never read any of his stuff.

And then I read Among Others by Jo Walton and her main character kept mentioning the word karass and I learned what that was from her, not from Vonnegut. (And you should read Among Others if you have a love of SF. I had so many I-know-how-she-feels moments when the diary entries go on about the older SF writers I mentioned above that I felt like I was part of the book even though I'm a forty-something man reading about a fifteen year-old girl. It's that absorbing and I recommend it highly. HIGHLY.)

So because the main character mentions casually to someone that he should read Cat's Cradle I went to the library and picked it up.

Which is what books should do, right? They should influence you to read more books. In this case it worked. I'm finally reading an author I should have read while he was alive. And I read another great author whose work I will look for in the future. All the greats in my library at home are getting another generation of writers to keep them company.

While all of it filters through my brain and hopefully comes out as new science fiction.

That's how it's done.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Re-Writes

Oh, yeah, he's a snob, too.
Every writer has to do re-writes. (Well, maybe Heinlein didn't, but he's dead now.) It's just part of it. Either it's for editorial decisions or because one was typing so fast that mistakes just happen. Or the writer believes something can be said better, more eloquently, more simply, whatever. Re-writes are part and parcel of being a writer.

But they can suck your soul.

Every time I look at a first draft and start editing, my inner critic starts shouting about how bad I am at this. How anyone would want to read such dreck is beyond imagining. Yadda yadda.

I have to shove that critic in the fridge and then move the stove in front of it. I can't let him nibble away at me, increasing my doubt with every single word. My belief that I'm a fairly decent writer has to count for something. After all, I wouldn't have had the two books published if I was awful. Or would I?

Maybe I'm a hack. There's no degree behind my writing, there's only a lifetime of reading and an intense desire to tell stories that entertain not just me but other people, too. Does that make me a hack? I doubt it but it's possible.

But then again, maybe that's all it takes: a lifetime of reading and the intense desire to tell stories. I've been actively trying to be a storyteller (first in comics, now in prose) for a lot of years. All that practice is starting to pay off. Re-writes on AoD were a lot easier this time around than before.

By that I mean that I could anticipate the changes the editors wanted and work out their arguments to include that stuff in the writing. I wasn't always successful, but I did a helluva lot less re-writing than I did on the first Evolver book. And the second Evolver book is in re-writes and it's SO much better, exponentially better than the first draft. I'm hitting a rhythm with these books. Yeah, they're short, more novella than novel, but that's almost harder. There's no room to stretch out and pad a little.

And it's showing in the re-writes. Showing a lot more and it's shiny.

The corollary to that is that the first drafts of other things are better, too. I'll never be Heinlein, not sure I want to be, but if my re-writes become less and less painless and more like head-scratching-what-the-hell-was-I-thinking kinds of things then I'm definitely leveled up.

In the meantime, re-writes still nudge my inner critic to start shouting at me. Good thing the fridge is soundproof. And in the garage.

Friday, March 22, 2013

LAUNCH DAY - Agent of D.A.N.G.E.R.: Strange Polarity

It's time to tell you this has been released into the wild. Now available for purchase through Amazon (99 cents for Kindle and $7.99 in paperback) and Barnes & Noble (99 cents for Nook):

For the lover of adventure and comics.


This is my second book for Actionopolis and it's very, very cool. Here's the description:


Ezekiel Wolfe chased the rumors of a dark organization bent on world domination and it cost him his job as a covert agent. No longer affiliated with any government, he joins three disavowed agents also on the hunt. Alone they had no chance. Together they are mankind's last hope against the otherworldly perils of this ancient evil.

You can buy it in digital for only 99 cents or in paper form, too. I don't have any copies yet, but I'll have them at Planet Comicon April 6 -7 in Kansas City where I'll be in Artist's Alley with my good friend R.L. Naquin, who will be promoting the second book in her Monster Haven series: Pooka in My Pantry.

When I was approached to write Evolver: Apex Predator (hint, hint) I had so much fun I asked Shannon Denton if there were any other titles I could work on. He gave me this one which was created by him, Phil Hester, Jon S. Lewis, and Rob Worley.  These guys are great to work with. They've given a lot of positive feedback, been really, really patient and just generally helped me grow as a writer. I was given a lot of latitude to tell the story I wanted told. The notes and suggestions just kept making the story better and better and better...

AoD is my first effort at writing a team and that brought its own special challenges. Every character needs some time on the stage to shine, just like in Evolver. With five main characters, some important supporting characters and a couple of villains, the real challenge was just telling the story through the eyes of one person. Additionally, I'm building a whole world that has to exist inside a world that's at once familiar and slightly alien. To keep a global perspective, the story takes place South America and the Indian subcontinent. All four Agents come from different countries, too. I did my best to channel Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-Men, Kenneth Robeson's Doc Savage, and then throw in all the cartoon shows I watched as a teenager in the 80s.

You'll have to let me know if I'm successful in this. Please do leave a review at Amazon or on Goodreads or at the Barnes & Noble site if you're a Nook reader. Believe it or not, those things make a difference.

So yeah, some big news today. Please pass it around to your friends.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Magic Pill

Nope! Not paranoid at all...
That title's going to bring the spambots, isn't it?

Sigh.

Anyway, there's no magic formula or magic pill or magic bullet or anything 'magic' that'll make you smarter, more attractive or more anything that you're not already. We've all been searching for that mythical 'fountain of youth' for centuries, hell - millennia and no one's found it yet. The spambots promise quick everything and none of it works (despite 'testimonials' to the contrary) except to separate the desperate person from his cash quickly. That's it.

Even in Jack and the Beanstalk that magic bean brings a whole heap of trouble. There's no substitute to doing the hard work yourself.

That is, until you watch Limitless with Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, and Robert DeNiro. It's based on a novel by Alan Glynn, The Dark Fields, but is apparently only readily available in the US as the movie tie-in. Here's the description:

A burnout at thirty-five, months behind on his book, low on cash, and something of a loser, Eddie Spinola could use a shot in the arm. One day he randomly runs into Vernon, his ex-wife’s brother, and his ex-dealer. Now employed by a shadowy pharmaceutical company, Vernon has something that might help: a new designer drug that stimulates brain function. One pill and Eddie is hooked. 

Of course he finishes the book and his editor is amazed he's done so. ("It's a little grandiose, but...") He also cleans his apartment. This is important to the film (because I haven't read the book). Eddie is so focused that he eliminates all distractions.

As a writer watching this, I was taken with the idea of science making 'magic' a reality. I love the idea. One of the conversations that Eddie has after he's deep into using is telling: he says that people tend to overreach. And he's right.

Now the film takes a bunch of twists and turns from there and I don't want to give it away because even though I was a little ambivalent about the ending, I didn't really see it coming. It was the lesser of my possibilities as we watched and a little disappointing. A little too happy. Anyway. No spoilers on this one.

But there's no magic pill that will awaken your ability to use the entirety of your brain. There's nothing that will allow you to do the kinds of things that Eddie does here. I have no desire to play the stock market but learning a language in a day or so would be pretty cool. Just being able to see all kinds of data and then being able to process it would be very, very cool. But it's not possible.

Nothing makes doing the work easier but doing the work in the first place. That's what prepares you for the next steps and more hard work.

Would I take the magic pill if I knew it existed and had the opportunity? I don't know. That's the truth. Part of me screams "Of course you would, damn it! That's the way to achieve what you want - to be a full-time writer!" But I've spent too long already pondering the darker aspects of the magic pill or potion or ring or whatever. There are a lot of downsides to the easy path. Most of them involve your loved ones being in danger.

But it's damn attractive to think about that pill. It's fascinating, really. I might take it.

Because then I'd be able to deal with whatever came, right?

As a film, I really liked Limitless. I recommend it as a fun distraction from writing that should give a lot of creative types pause. The possibilities are staggering and fascinating and cautionary.

But there's no magic pill for when it's over and you want to write. You'll have to do the work yourself.

Monday, March 18, 2013

What Is Courage?

This Courage I respect a lot. Always
faced his fears.
I heard an interview last week with Ira Shapiro, the author of The Last Great Senate. Check out this bit of the overview from his site:

This is the story of the final years of the last great Senate.  For nearly twenty years, from 1963 through 1980, the Senate occupied a special place in America.  It was a turbulent period in our country’s history, marked by war, assassination, political scandal, violence and civil unrest.  Five consecutive presidents failed to complete two terms in office.  In that troubled time, the Senate provided ballast, gravitas and bipartisan leadership for America.

 So, taking a look at where America is now, 30+ years later, we're still at war, there are political scandals on both sides of the aisle, and we're still experiencing violence and civil unrest. (Yes, the latter is not as extreme as it was during the civil rights movement, but the Occupy folks are as close as it gets these days.) Times really haven't changed all that much when you look at it like that, have they?

We're all tired because elections never seem to end and there is endless (and I mean endless) partisanship and white noise coming out of Washington. Shapiro's theory is that all this started in the 95th Senate when there was massive turnover (as there always is when the cycle comes up) and 34 Senate seats were up for grabs. What I want to look at are the three terms he uses in that last sentence:

  • "ballast"
  • "gravitas"
  • "bipartisan leadership"
What are these things? How do they apply to our everyday lives?  When did our elected representatives (meaning folks in both houses at every level of government) FORGET that they are there to stand for every single person in their district. Regardless of whether they won by 51% or 85%, they still have to represent each voter and even the ones who didn't vote. They are to look out for the least of us so that everyone has a chance.

Courage doesn't mean sticking to your ideology in the face of irrefutable evidence that the ideology is weakened by changing conditions. If there's an open window in your house when it starts raining do you close it when the wind blows water through the screen? I do. A wet carpet is no fun. It's not courageous to say "I don't care about wet carpets", it's dumb. You're doing damage to the house.

(I think that came out better than I anticipated.)

Courage means understanding situations and taking a realistic, pragmatic view on outcomes. Ballast is that thing that gives one steadiness and stability. Gravitas is seriousness or sobriety in the way one talks.

I think you can't be a leader if you don't understand that stability doesn't just apply to you, but to those whom you want to lead. If you're not serious about being that leader, then no one will follow you. But having the courage to attempt to lead your followers to close the window when it's raining may mean stomping through some wet carpet to get there, don't you think?

This is how I try to build my heroes in my stories. To make them courageous enough to change when needed and to be stubborn when appropriate. It's harder than it sounds. Too much of one quality and they seem impossible. Not enough and he's a milquetoast. It's a fine line.

The best way I can do this is to reread and make sure my hero is not a) whining and b) just reacting to things. Those are the danger signs.

But if he's really a leader, the team has to follow him. He has to be able to convince them (convincingly, funnily enough) to go where he's going. He has to change when it's appropriate, and use tactics that mean something to the other characters in a story. But I'm not limiting to only men. Nope. In this case, leadership and courage go both ways. Though sometimes it's harder for a female lead to be an effective leader. At least, that's what's expected. Hopefully someday I'll overturn those expectations in my genre.

A courageous hero, one that a lot of readers can identify with, would step into the mess that is Washington politics and solve the problems. If it was a little pink/purple dog who only wants his people to survive, that might be enough. If it ends up being a real-life hero, so much the better.

Unfortunately, I think that hero only exists in fiction.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Curiosity Made Me Stronger

Sometimes he listens and sometimes he doesn't.
We don't often enough ask questions. Rather we seem to take positions and dare others to prove us wrong. Look around, you'll see this everywhere.

And I suppose just by saying it that way, I've taken a position. Now that I've done that, I'll ask a question: Why do we do that? And here's another: What are we afraid of?

Positions are fine. Knowing where someone stands on something - an issue, whatever - is good. Knowing what to expect of someone because you know his position is good. But one should ask questions to determine what that position is rather than just take statements at face value. It's one thing to make a statement in public, and quite another to have different views in private.

So, always look at the motives for what people say.

I'm fortunate enough to be acquainted with a couple of police detectives having first met them both through my day job. I had a conversation with one of those guys yesterday and I brought the subject of conceal and carry permits for gun owners. Full disclosure: I do not own a gun because I do not like guns. I do not hunt and I do not have what it takes to kill someone with a firearm. That said, I do not want guns taken away from responsible gun owners. (Although I don't understand why a hunter would need an assault rifle to hunt with. It seems patently unfair to whichever animal crosses that hunter's path. Still.) This isn't a post about gun control. This is a story about me asking a question and learning something.

"This may be inflammatory," I said, "and I don't intend it to be. I'm asking because I don't know and I'd like to."

"Go ahead," the detective said. Parameters had been set.

"I don't understand the big deal about conceal and carry," I said. "Why don't people just strap guns to their hips and walk down the street that way?"

He smiled. "You can. There's no law against that." He leaned forward. "But think of it like this: In Missouri they put on your driver's license that you have a conceal carry permit. If you're in a convenience store and a robbery occurs, the robber may want your wallet. You hand it over and they see you're probably carrying a gun. Now the robber has power and starts messing with you, trying to goad you into pulling your weapon. Or worse, he takes it from you. If you walk with a gun on your hip, that's MUCH more likely to happen."

That made sense. I'd never thought of it like that. He's right, though, people mess with you constantly, trying to push you into making stupid decisions.

"Now that said," he went on, "if you're in a situation where there's danger, in our state, you're required by law to remove yourself from that dangerous situation. I have a permit and if I'm with my family - even though I'm a police officer - I'm not going to put anyone else in unnecessary danger. I'm going to leave the area and call for more officers."

This made me feel good. This man has good sense.

But why did he say it this way? What motive would he have for thinking like this? I told him my feelings about guns before I asked the question and he understood that I was asking because I wanted to know what the big deal was.

We went on to talk about various things like how news media doesn't always pick up stories that could actually be news. (The Social Security Administration is purchasing hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition? Does anyone know about that? Yes, someone does. ) And the fact that 'reality' TV isn't really reality but because of its prevalence that a good many youngsters are being influenced by it. "It's a gamer reality," he called it.

So, because I asked a question, I learned something. I listened to the person I asked - unlike Mr. Bill O'Reilly and soooooo many others - and saw where my thoughts had been unduly influenced by my feelings. I had taken a position that conceal carry permits were a bad thing. I don't like 'em, not by a long shot, but I see there's a value to them if the average citizen is going to carry a firearm.

Now I understand.

At least, I understand another point of view.

And that's the lesson for today: find out something from someone else. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Consider the other person's motivation when you are asking those questions, too. Your feelings will prompt you to do it, and that's a great time to listen to your feelings.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Books by Nancy Kress and George R.R. Martin

Writers should be readers. I'm keeping track here throughout the year as a record of such things. If you're interested in my opinions read on. Maybe you'll find something you want to read, too.

AFTER THE FALL, BEFORE THE FALL, DURING THE FALL by Nancy Kress

I don't generally read apocalypse scenarios because they tend to bore me. Even the survivors are boring. At least to me. Additionally, my only experience with Nancy Kress before this book was her very informative Dynamic Characters book on writing. When I stumbled across this in my local library I thought What the hell? I should at least read something of hers to see if she practices what she's preached.

The premise here is that there are survivors of an attack on the human race that wiped just about everything out. It's an 'ark' story because these survivors were rescued by an alien race and placed in a compound called The Shell. These survivors were plucked from certain destruction by the aliens seemingly at random. But that's not important. Well, it kind of is later but not immediately.

What's happening is that the survivors in 2035 are stealing back in time thanks to alien time travel tech and abducting children in hopes of restarting the human race. In the present a mathematician who works with government agencies is developing an algorithm that can accurately predict when the next child will be abducted. Slightly ahead of the mathematician, the virus that destroys the world spreads across the globe. Thus, the title of the novella.

The characters are fairly well-developed and interesting in ordinary ways. In truth, there's nothing extraordinary about any of them except maybe the elder lady called McAllister and that's what makes the story appealing. These are ordinary people. The author knows a great deal about them and drops little hints here and there and that's how things are. Some we know, some we don't, and lots remains a mystery no matter what.

It's an entertaining, very quick read. Recommended if you're looking for a light distraction and/or are interested in apocalypse scenarios. I'm glad it was a shorter work.

FAST-FRIEND/STAR LADY by George R.R. Martin

I've never read any GRRM, either. I know a lot of people who've read the books that HBO's Game of Thrones is based on, but they're too weighty for me. Just can't spare the time. During the same trip to the library, I found this book nestled on the shelf with his other works. It's a thin volume containing to longish short stories/not-quite novellas. Plus, it's SF so I found this in the right frame of mind at the right time. Lucky me.

Well, maybe.

See, this is a riff on the old (read: ancient) ACE double-novels. It's a flip book with two covers by the same artist. The novel concept in Martin's worlds (and I think both stories happen in different universes, but I may be wrong) is that English is bastardized into a near-unrecognizable language. It's the thing that hung me up more than anything else in the stories. But maybe I'm ahead of myself.

Fast-Friend is a kind of quest story with a Love Conquers All sort of bent to it. Star Lady is a riff on I don't know what. Both were entertaining, meaning I was lost in the world of the stories while I was reading them but have largely forgotten them since putting the book down. I meant to have them close at hand while I was writing these reviews but then I returned them to the library.

I have the sense that Martin sort of dashed these stories off as quickly as the pulp writers of the 40s and 50s did. An interesting diversion, but not a meaty read by any description.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reservations

One day that'll be me up there.
I went into a bookstore the other night and reserved a copy of a forthcoming book.

It was just as easy as doing the same thing on Amazon.

No, really.

It was cool, too. I talked to the clerk behind the counter and told him which book I wanted (Black Country by Alex Grecian) and wondered when it was coming out. The good-natured fellow looked up when it was coming out (May 21st he told me) and then asked me if I wanted to reserve a copy. I thought it over and finally said 'yes' and he took out a card, wrote down my name and phone number and it was that easy.

He also told me how many copies they'd already reserved and I was happy to've given my business locally. I'm sure my purchase (in May) will contribute to the continued life of the store and hopefully the livelihood of the clerk. The store is an independent bookseller and they've been around a long, long time. They survived the arrival of Hastings way back when, then survived Borders moving in across the street and outlasted them, too.

I felt great. I was reminded of adding a title to my comic book pull-list. The exciting part is the anticipation. Yeah, it's going to be out of mind here in a couple more days, but I'm going to get a phone call from a person when my book comes in. It's not an automated process, it's humanized.

Which is cool because Alex is a human. Other humans worked on the book, too. The book will be shipped by humans to humans who will accept it and sell it to other humans.

Ever thought about how many hands touch a product like a book? Dozens, at least. I was in the neighborhood buying coffee beans around the corner and I stopped in the bookstore on a whim. Yeah, I could have pre-ordered the book from Amazon and it would have been delivered to my door, but I'm contributing to my local economy by purchasing from this bookstore. Which helps keep them in business. Which makes my town more viable.

Wouldn't it be cool if someone else who was downtown could just drop in someplace and buy my own books? Wouldn't it be even cooler if they did and walked out of the store with them? Yes it would. I can only imagine the feeling of knowing how many books have been pre-ordered and someday I'd like to do a reading in a bookstore. To see the faces of people giving my words their attention and then see their reactions would be a dream come true.

This leads me to the point of this post: I've decided to pursue traditional publishing routes. There's been quite a lot of hooraw over some epublisher's contracts that seem to be masquerading as a 'new business model' and that tipped me over back to this idea. (John Scalzi, the outgoing president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has covered it extensively and this post here is where I think you should start.) I know where the novel is going to go at the end of April. I know where it'll go next if that publisher doesn't like it. And the next and the next.

I don't have anything against epublishing, not at all. My friend Rachel is with one of the better ones. But I want people to go to bookstores and find my books. I like browsing bookshelves and I know a lot of other people, do, too. I believe in my book and I 'm sure it's going to sell. I'm prepared if it doesn't, but those preparations are set aside because I won't need them.

So, by announcing my intent I hope that it comes true. I'm going to do everything I can to ensure that it does. One day, you'll be able to walk into a bookstore and ask the helpful clerk  when my new book is coming out. When you're asked if you'd like to have a copy reserved for you, you'll be able to say yes.

And that's pretty cool.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Breaking the Bad Feelings

Time to get busy. Stop looking over my shoulder.
I never know how bad I'm feeling until I start to feel better. I don't know if it's about hitting bottom or just being brave enough to do something that I know will lift me up. Regardless, being in the depths of whatever pit I'm in always makes things worse. The walls are slippery with negativity down there and light doesn't reach very far down. It's pretty bad.

Truly, I'm an optimist by nature. I like to see the good in people, to believe that they are wiling to do the things necessary to be well-rounded and happy on their own. I've been disabused of that notion often enough that I shouldn't be anything like optimistic EVER, but I haven't given up yet. Don't know that I ever will.

Lately I've been bemoaning the fact that I've put on too much weight and I don't have the time I once did to exercise. That is, of course, bullshit. It's not that I don't have time, it's that I preferred to spend that time noodling on the 'net instead of writing or getting up and moving around. I always feel a LOT better when I'm doing something that gets my heart rate up: walking or cleaning or pulling my fat ass up and down on the Total Gym we inherited some ten years ago. I've never had any illusions about having six pack abs or a Calvin Klein ad-type body, but not so long ago I had gotten down to where I could see my target weight on this side of the horizon.

Things happened and my emotional state of mind overwhelmed everything else last summer and into the fall. I started a new job that required commuting and that was both my exercise and writing time down the tubes. I felt sorry for myself though I tried to keep working, keep writing. Exercise just went by the wayside.

A couple of weeks ago I started on the Total Gym again (I fully expect the 'bots to spam me now that I've mentioned it twice. I'll let you know). Just a couple days in, I started feeling good again. My thought processes were a little clearer, I could see my stories and my characters again. I felt GOOD in a way I hadn't for about nine months. Now I'm not going to make any connections about being born again because I think I got it right the first time, but I felt renewed and the feeling was welcome and familiar. That's what I'm saying.

I've long touted that exercise is a MUST for a writer. I once had a conversation with a famous SF writer in a workshop situation and he agreed with me which made me feel good, too. I've shared it here on the blog and I think I've even mentioned it over at the Confabulator Cafe (where you can read my thoughts on critiques today) but it bears repeating: get the hell up and walk around. Get the hell out of the house and go for a walk. You'll feel better.

I can't wait for winter weather to be pretty much over and for spring temps to start rising so that I can get out and walk on a daily basis. I can't run, I'm too fat. And now my knees are giving me fits partly because of my job and partly because I'm getting old.

But I'm not letting that defeat me. I'm tired of feeling bad. It wears me out and wears me down. I have too much work to do to just let that happen.

There won't be daily or even weekly updates on my weight loss or anything like that. The blog isn't turning into some Jenny Craig/Weight Watchers mirror site. I may occasionally from time to time mention how it's going and exhort you readers to do the same. It's good for you. But I'm trying to give up the refined sugar in soda (which is EASY) and candy (which is a lot harder for me) and to watch the carbs. Carbs. God help me I love bread and potatoes and everything about carbs but if I can fill some of that in with fresh fruit, I'm better off. That'll help with the sugar, too.

That's my plan. The better I feel physically, the better I'll feel mentally. And that's what's going to get the writing done.

Because when I'm writing, no matter what I'm writing, I'm happier and those bad feelings are behind me like so many broken branches after a windstorm.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Role of the Artist


The reality is, most people who work behind the scenes in Hollywood get crapped on, unless you're the director and the producer. Screenwriters have been working thankless, poorly paying jobs for decades. - Allison M. Dickson on Facebook. 

Jack Kirby created things on paper that could only be
dreamed of on film 

There's some hooraw over the treatment of video effects (vfx) artists because the house that provided visuals for the film The Life of Pi (which won an Oscar for both its cinematographer and director) is in financial trouble. Director Ang Lee failed to mention the house (Rhythm & Hues) and was quoted earlier in the week as wishing that the process of vfx were cheaper. The cinematographer also failed to mention the ruckus. A lot of people were upset further that during the presentation for vfx, the cast of (Marvel's) The Avengers made light of the award despite the fact that a protest was going on at the awards and at least two of the cast were CGI animated characters for a good deal of the film they're associated with.

That's the short version, believe it or not.

I have a friend or two who work in vfx out in Hollywood. They freelance like comic book artists. They don't have a union, they get paid a flat rate, work insane hours (sometimes double what I do), weekends and days upon days in a row, and have few - if any, really no - benefits. And yet, they contribute to the enjoyment of films that do hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars at the box office.

And Ang Lee wants the process to be cheaper.

Okay.

So, stories that were previously 'unfilmable' (the Star Wars prequels, AvatarLife of PiCloud Atlas) because technology hadn't caught up to the filmmakers' vision are now able to be put on screen. And yes, that should cost money. And it should take time. And because it's a work-for-hire, the artists involved don't own anything of the film; they don't get any of those hundreds of millions or billions of box-office dollars. By the time the film they worked on comes out they're already on to the next project for a flat rate, no benefits, and insane hours.

And filmmakers want the process to be cheaper. And studios want the process to be faster.

I see a problem.

But it's not a new problem. This kind of behavior by corporations has always gone on. I'm most familiar with it regarding comics. DC's lawsuits against the creators of Superman for one. Jack Kirby's fight with Marvel Comics for the return of his original art for another. In both cases, the publisher made tons and tons of money off the characters and stories created by the artists (called properties by the corporation). Kirby's fight, in particular, led to slightly better conditions for artists who were guaranteed at least the return of their original artwork which allowed for them to sell the artwork and realize some small portion of recompense from collectors. However, as part of the work-for-hire contract, neither Kirby nor his heirs receive any further compensation for his creations.

And the cast of (Marvel's) The Avengers, 4 out of 5 who portrayed a character created or co-created by Jack Kirby, made light of the award they were giving for vfx. These actors, artists, are compensated a great deal more than the creator (and his family) of the character they play and a great deal more than the artists who take the vision of the creator and see it realized on screen. The artists on screen could show a little solidarity with the folks who did the legwork.

The studios could allow a little more time for art. And compensate accordingly.

It's not just money I'm talking about though. Look, working 80 hours in a week is just plain dumb. There are studies that show that after 9 hours in a workday, people become more and more useless. A little patience on the part of the studios makes sense. This isn't fast food, it's art. It's popular art, to be sure, but art, nonetheless.

The intersection of business and art is what we're really talking about here. Business builds unrealistic expectations and then punishes those who point out those unrealistic expectations. Guess who owns Marvel Comics and ABC, the network that broadcast the Academy Awards. Go ahead.

Disney.

Of course that doesn't excuse the business practices of Rhythm & Hues, which I know nothing about. I do know, however, that business practices and poor planning are what lead to a business failing. You see it all the time if you pay attention. I'm not drawing any connection between Disney and Ryhthm & Hues, but one would think that the studios would understand that they need to work with sub-contractors to produce the best work possible on a reasonable schedule. One would think that Disney would understand the intersection of business and art.

Ask the families of the creators of Superman and The Avengers if they understand how business and art can work together so that everyone can profit from the work that was commissioned. That's all they want. When a character or story (or property) is successful everyone should share in the profits. When the adaptation of said property is successful in another medium the profit should be shared.

Artists should not compromise their art for the sake of a buck. Businesses should not come with unreasonable expectations and an attitude that the work can be done cheaper elsewhere. Meetings should be taken between parties that respect one another and the people who work for them.

It's really not that difficult. Is it?

Monday, March 04, 2013

Storytelling: The Ongoing

The unadorned cover to Batman #700.
More than twice Sim's Cerebus,  but
there's no end in sight for Bruce & Co.
Peter Parker was married. Now he isn't. Superman died in battle with the super-scary extraterrestrial Doomsday. Four Supermen showed up to defend Metropolis and some thought they might have been the original reincarnated. But then he wasn't dead, after all. Bruce Wayne was recently lost through time and somehow crawled back to the present. And his back was broken a couple decades ago but he got better. And he has a son. Had a son. He's dead now, too.

But for how long?

It used to be the rule in comics that the only death you could count on was Captain America's sidekick from WWII: Bucky Barnes. But even he's come back from the dead, too.

And Jason Todd who was brutally murdered by the Joker and whose fate was decided by readers calling in to a toll-free number. Not texting, but calling from their landlines. Now Todd has returned as the villainous Hush.

I guess Uncle Ben is still dead despite the alternate reality Ben who showed up some time ago.

Good lord, what's wrong with change being permanent?

It was pointed out in a comment on this post that ongoing series make choices for financial reasons rather than artistic ones. Even James Bond is not immune.

The reasoning behind this, I suppose, might be that in real life change happens and it's difficult to reverse. Yes, you can remarry the same person (ala Liz Taylor) but death - at least in real life - is permanent. We have yet to bring back the dead though they can be preserved in theory. Writings and films and videos and such help in that respect.

So our storytelling reflects the fantasy that we can change things, that we have power we don't have in real life. People don't really die, they don't really get married and have to struggle through a relationship when things get tough. That nothing's permanent.

I mentioned James Bond up above, didn't I? Well, in fifty years how much has Bond really changed? In the film of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond falls in love and the girl is killed. (If you don't know that it won't hurt your enjoyment of the film and if you're a Bond fan you already knew it, anyway. Right?)

In the books, the follow up is You Only Live Twice and Bond is sent out on a mission to get him back in harness because he's devastated by his wife's death. Yeah, they got married. Did you know that? If you only ever saw the movies with Sean Connery and Roger Moore, you didn't know that. George Lazenby gets short shrift (and maybe justifiably so) but still, OHMSS has more emotional punch than any of the more famous films. That is until Daniel Craig took over and the last three movies have gone for the gut.

Those films (especially Skyfall) are the exception to the rule. Yes, Bond is timeless, but there were a number of movies that shouldn't have been made. Don't you agree?

Because the Bond books that Ian Fleming wrote that were made into films were made out of order (You Only Live Twice precedes OHMSS) early on, there was just very little resonance from one film to another. And even less from one actor's portrayal of the character to another. That is until Craig recalled the best of all of them.

As much as I liked a few of the Bonds between OHMSS and the remade Casino Royale, they didn't really need to be made. Other than for monetary reasons, that is. Between For Your Eyes Only and Goldeneye, there's not one I like at all. And between Goldeneye and Casino Royale, I saw only half of one of the films.

And I've pretty much stopped reading any Superman or Batman titles. Since both were relaunched as part of DC's New 52, I've picked up one issue of Superman and put it back on the rack. Just not interested. Not interested in the editorial direction and not interested in spending the money.

The fantasies are wearing thin. It's hard to get excited about characters who are changed for short periods and then revert to what they've always been. Superman isn't married in the New 52 and Lois Lane doesn't have any idea he's really Superman. Sigh.

One would think that given the success of The Walking Dead not just in comics but also on TV that there would be a bigger drive to create new stories. Not just Batman stories or James Bond stories but new stories.

Awake (starring Jason Isaacs on NBC) was a breath of fresh air but it didn't fly. There are others. You have your favorites, I'm sure. Firefly among them, right?

Look, I've been going on and on but you're getting the idea. Series are okay as long as they have a definite ending. Like Harry Potter. Like The Sopranos. Within those series, characters grew and changed, headed toward that inevitable ending. The series I'm looking forward to seeing finish is Lev Grossman's that began with The Magicians and continued with The Magician King. I can't tell you how much those books blew my mind and I want more. But there's an ending coming.

I'm good with that. That makes room for more stories and leaves these as they should be: complete.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Storytelling: The Limited Series

I don't agree with Dave Sim's personal
views but Cerebus is one of the most
interesting comics out there.
I grew up reading comic books and watching TV shows that had new episodes each week during a 'season' that ran from September through May. Comics came out monthly or bi-monthly in general and we had to go to bookstores or grocery stores that had spinner racks or magazine racks. The networks were only three plus PBS back then. Sometimes there would be primetime previews of cartoons that would run on Saturday mornings. Sometimes those cartoons were based on comic books that I read.

Occasionally an adaptation of a film into a comic book would appear in the spinner rack. If it was one of the Marvel Super Specials it was magazine-sized and colored beautifully. (I have fond memories of discovering Steve Oliff's talents among those comics.) If it wasn't a MSS it was a comic and it was usually a two-parter. A very limited series.

According to this article on Wikipedia, Dave Sim is credited with creating the first (and longest) limited series with his title Cerebus the Aardvark. DC Comics published the first modern miniseries, The World of Krypton, after the cancellation of its excellent and long-running title Showcase which functioned as a kind of tryout book for new characters or B- or C-list characters. Three issues long, WoK appeared monthly in the spinner racks as did Untold Legend of the Batman and then so many, many others.

In TV, they call them miniseries, too. At least in America. The first one I remember watching was Roots and when that proved wildly popular there were two or three miniseries on every network each season. One of my fondest memories was watching the adaptation of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. It stuck in my mind so hard that when I stumbled across the DVD version of it at my library in the last three or four years I had to see it again.

Of course it wasn't as good as I remembered. The sequence of the Martian woman falling in love with a human and the connected story of Jeff Spender (played wonderfully by Bernie Casey) going native were still powerful stuff but the rest of the series showed its age. It seems that the time might be right to revisit the stories and see if an update could happen. I digress.

Fast forward. In comics we had extended limited series with titles like The Sandman, Preacher, and 100 Bullets where creators (remember Dave Sim?) announced there was a definite end. And the creators stayed to the end, mostly. (Sandman had rotating artists as each new arc began after creators Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg left.) This is part of what made all three of those, in particular, so successful.

On TV, The Sopranos on HBO had a definite end announced by creator David Chase. I seem to remember David Milch saying that Deadwood also had a definite end but it was cancelled before it was reached. As well, Carnivale was cancelled before its intended ending, though that show may have been too ambitious for its own good. Regardless. You get what I'm saying. On the other side of the pond, the BBC produces limited series that return from year to year (Downton Abbey is the most prominent in popular culture right now but hardly the first) in the same way. In fact, HBO's approach of 10 - 13 episode seasons I bet was inspired by the BBC. I can't confirm that, though.

My point here is that I believe limited series storytelling is the way to go. Get in, tell the tale you want to tell, have a definite ending, and go home with acclaim and awards or at least something that can disappear quickly. I've always believed that. Ever since I read World of Krypton all those years ago.

A series of miniseries works better than an ongoing, never-ending narrative that must be sustained by keeping characters the same as they've always been. Next time I'm going to get into why I think that characters like Superman, Spider-Man, and even James Bond (in film, at least) have failed their fans more than they've succeeded.