State of the Writer: October 2015

Damnit, who let it get all dusty in here? And what’s with all the cobwebs? It’s still a little early for Halloween decorations, right?

So it’s been a few months since I’ve sat down on the first and wrote out what I’ve been up to. Which means there’s a lot to cover. First up, I had a short story published in the most recent edition of the Bad-Ass Faeries series, which had a rather exciting launch at Balticon. It’s the first time I’ve been in a room where someone was buying a copy of my fiction, which is an odd experience, and one of those milestones of writing that I’ve never thought of. The anthology has gotten some positive reviews, including at least one that has specifically called out my story. Which is exciting.

The characters and their conflict appear in a world masterfully designed to meet their supernatural needs, and the resolution is a beautiful solution perfectly suited to the lucha libre world in which the story is set.

Aw shucks. It’s my first positive blurb. Which kinda gave me happy chills the first time I read it.

In ongoing projects news, my generation ship novel is now a complete story that has a beginning, an end, and stuff that goes in between. It’s in a rough state, but it’s also in the hands of some beta readers who will tear it down so I can build it back up that much stronger. After that, I’ll probably be looking for some more beta readers. If you’re interested, do nothing for now except remember to watch this space, and follow me on Twitter. When I’m looking for beta readers, I won’t be quiet about it.

Nickajack has been in a holding pattern while I’ve been working on Back Half, but October is as good a time as any to get back into it. There are some chapters that need to be written, some that need to be rewritten, but it’s still a novel I’m enjoy, and still a story that I think works on the page like it did in our heads. My wife and I are in the early stages of our next joint project, which will probably be a Lovecraftian novel that salvages a lot of elements of a spec pilot we wrote years ago.

(WordPress isn’t sure whether I meant “salvage” or “savages” in that sentence…suddenly I’m not sure either.)

I’m also playing around with the idea of an epic fantasy space opera. Which really hasn’t gone too much farther than me wondering if I have the chops to write an epic fantasy space opera. I have a notion about how the magic will work, how the science will work, and where the interaction between them will be. Now all I need is a plot. And characters. And some settings. But, really, aren’t those kinda secondary.

The nose is to the grindstone, believe me.

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The Typewriter: Prologue

“What would you say to a project?”

This is the question my wife asked while she was trying to track down a birthday present for me. Would I be interested in a project? I was intrigued. I have a mixed history with completing projects I’ve bought for myself. Not to worry, however, as she said that the project was worth having even if I didn’t do it.

That was my hint. Well…that and the fact that if I did complete the project I could sell it for a significant profit. I’ll admit, those clues had me completely stumped. I briefly thought it might be a kit for launching a camera into the upper atmosphere, something that I have talked about in the past, but not something that could be turned around for a profit.

So my birthday came along, and two boxes sat on the table. One  small and wrapped, the other looking like a small vintage suitcase. The wrapped box was a USPS box from an Etsy store, a storefront that sells conversion kits for turning classic typewriters into USB keyboards. You’ve seen those, right? They often get lumped in with steampunk, but that’s not quite right. The aesthetic is something a little different.

The other box contained an Underwood Portable. This Underwood Portable:

IMG_1930It looks a little like a hockey player that’s taken one too many pucks to the teeth. But it’s in remarkably good shape for a piece of tech that’s just under 90 years old. Two of the keys, H and M, aren’t rebounding, and those will need to be fixed before I can even consider breaking into the kit. So it’s really two projects in one: Restoring an old Underwood, and then turning that restored Underwood into a keyboard.

A few interesting features. First:

IMG_1938You’ll notice something is missing here. The 1 key was not an original feature of the QWERTY keyboard. To insert the number 1, the typist would use a lower case l. To insert an exclamation point, the typist would use the single apostrophe (located on the 8 key instead of an asterisk), back space, then type a period. That is, by the way, why the one and exclamation point are on the same key on a modern QWERTY, because they were added to the keyboard at the same time.

Speaking of hitting that back space key, I love that it’s labeled  “Back Spacer”. Along those same lines, the tab key is the Tabular Key on this keyboard.

IMG_1937There’s that pesky asterisk, sharing a key with the dash. Oh, and while there might not be a one or an exclamation point on the keyboard, there is this highly useful key:

IMG_1939That’s right, the ever useful ¾ key. Right near a key that combines the wayward at sign with the cent sign.

So, if a future novel or story of mine has no characters who ever get excited about things, a lot of jobs that are left ¾ finished, and avoid the letters H and M, you’ll know I’ve got the keyboard up and running.

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Unofficial 2014 Hugo Packet

I’m sure I’m not the only one waiting for the Hugo Packet to drop. So I thought I’d look to see what’s currently available for free (free being the keyword) to tide over until the official packet is available. Linked titles go to the story online, unlinked stories I can’t find for free.

BEST NOVEL

  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross
  • Parasite by Mira Grant
  • Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia
  • The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

BEST NOVELLA

BEST NOVELETTE

BEST SHORT STORY

As a bonus, I found this site which has an archive of The Mercury Theatre On Air and Campbell Playhouse, which will get you four of the five nominees for the 1939 Best Dramatic Presentation. Nominee #5 (RUR from the BBC) exists in no known form and is thus running entirely on it’s reputation of being the first known science fiction television broadcast.

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Loving Ace Doubles

Threshold of Eternity by John Brunner. Artwork by Ed Emshwiller.

Threshold of Eternity by John Brunner. Artwork by Ed Emshwiller.

Take a look at the cover to the right. I’ve made it larger than most images I include on posts because…well, it’s glorious. This comes from the first batch of Ace Doubles I bought at a library sale two years ago. I knew nothing about the book, I didn’t even really know what Ace Doubles were at the time. All I knew is that the cover was glorious, and I wanted to own the book.

I picked it back up today because I was looking for something to read while waiting for the Hugo Voters Packet to get put together (yeah, I bought myself a supporting membership to Loncon so I could get the packet and a vote). Since I’d be reading a lot from 2013 and 1939, why not split the difference at around 1959. I pulled the book out and the first thing I noticed was the name in bold at the bottom right corner.

John Brunner.

I probably don’t have to go into who John Brunner was on this blog. However, the particular point of interest is that the name John Brunner had never before appeared on the front cover of a book until this one. He’d pseudonymously published one novel a few years earlier, but Threshold of Eternity, published by Ace in 1959, is the first John Brunner novel.

But it’s the cover that dragged me in, and it’s the cover I wanted to know more about. So I went to an Ace reference site that lists cover artists for the classic Doubles and Singles of the late 1950s and early 1960s. That drew my attention to four letters hidden in the whirling fan blades just above Brunner’s name: EMSH. This is the signature of Ed Emshwiller.

Emshwiller was a graphic artist who won the inaugural artwork Hugo in 1953, then called Best Cover Art. He went on to be a four time winner in the updated Professional Artist category in the 1960s. Including the year 1960. Since this novel came out in 1959, this cover would have been part of his portfolio under consideration by Hugo voters.

It would be an exaggeration to call it a Hugo winning cover, but it was a cover published in a year that the artist won a Hugo for his work during.

So just grabbing a book that caught my eye at a book fair, I ended up with the first real novel by a future scion of the genre, with a cover by a five-time Hugo winning artist.

Oh, and on the flip is a book by some guy named Poul Anderson.

Ace Doubles are awesome that way.

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Hugo reminder

Just a near-last-minute reminder that Hugo nominations are closing soon.

And that Welcome to Night Vale is eligible as a dramatic presentation short form.

And that The Sandstorm should have at least two nominations if you’re looking for an episode to back.

Just saying.

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A Writer Reviews: Total Recall

No no, not the new one. Look, I didn’t dislike the new one, but it’s the first shot of a troubling new trend in the film industry: remaking Paul Verhoeven movies that are still perfectly good on their own. We had a new Total Recall in 2012, a new Robocop a month ago, and there is fresh rumblings of a new attempt at Starship Troopers that hews a little more closely to the book.

I’m a huge fan of all three of these Verhoeven movies. They make for a fantastic triple feature if you want to just sit down and enjoy some fantastic satire connected through their jaded view of televised entertainment. But this isn’t about fawning over some of my favorite movies, it’s about taking one of them to task.

So what’s the big question at the center of Total Recall? The one question that people debate when they’re actually debating something so silly as 90s Schwarzenegger movies?

Does the movie happen or not?

Answer one: Yes. The movie is chronicling the actual events as Douglas Quaid learns that he is a secret agent who had his memory wiped and is living out a humdrum life on earth. Answer two: No. The movie is entirely the memory that Rekall has implanted into Quaid.

It’s a fun question. It’s at the heart of any unreliable narrator, just what parts can you believe or not? Unfortunately, and I hate to find such a glaring flaw in a Verhoeven movie, there’s only one possible correct answer. Douglas Quaid is, unambiguously, as the movie presents him. I will accept no other answer, because the movie makes it very clear in one important way.

Parts of the movie happen without Quaid on-screen.

If the movie was meant to be an implanted memory, these scenes wouldn’t exist. They couldn’t There is no way for Quaid to know what happens in these scenes, and thus no way for these scenes to otherwise exist. Sorry, the whole thing falls apart on that one moment, and any exploration about the nature of memory or reality is destroyed, leaving only a ridiculously fun story.

In the world of writing, this is what we call “head hopping.” That moment that a narrative jumps from one person’s point of view to another. On its own, head hopping is not a problem. Some stories (I’m looking at you, Frank Herbert) do it constantly. Some stories will switch between points of view at scene or chapter breaks. Some will stay firmly in a single point of view. Some will back off it all. The problem comes when head hopping happens accidentally. When that happens, it can feel like a cheat, pull the reader out of the story, or even destroy some of the potential drama.

So pick your point of view. If it’s not working, change it up. Just make sure it’s internally consistent.

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Past + Future = Science Fiction

The G in question in that tweet is author Molly Gloss, and it came out of the guest of honor interview at the 2014 AWP Conference, held this past weekend in Seattle. The idea that westerns moved to space works in science fiction is hardly new. Gene Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Firefly was so thoroughly a western that it featured a train job episode in its short run.

However, I like the idea that intersecting the past and the future can make for compelling science fiction. It’s the genesis behind the space western. It’s the genesis behind steampunk.

Earlier this week a tweet led me to a Slate article about a 1940s French board game that taught players how best to thoroughly exploit the resources of a colony. It’s an interesting artifact from a specific point in history, sure. Maybe even a little chilling. It’s also a short step from that old game to the same game being played by kids in the 2140s.

It’s the cyclical view of history. The cynical view of history. Even those who do study it are doomed to repeat it, humanity comes to the same point, over and over again. There’s easily mined drama in the notion of our species just never learning a damned thing.

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Quickie: On Fire

So many problems, in horror especially, can be solved by a copious application of fire. You know it, I know it, and readers know it. There needs to be a compelling reason that fire won’t work. It can’t just not occur to the characters.

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State of the Writer: March 2014

I fell off the wagon a little near the end of February. February is a difficult month. It’s short, it’s cold, it’s dark. This isn’t the first time that the month has defeated me, and while I hope it will be the last…let’s be honest, it won’t be. I’m redoubling my efforts, however. Around mid-December I stopped keeping my Chain calendar. I was still keep the Chain, just not the calendar. I’ve printed out a 2014 calendar to restart the chain, and with a new month it’s time to get it going again.

Sometimes it’s important to have a visual.

Short story status: One out, one ready to go out, one being rough drafted, one running around my head to finalize a plot. I also started two new novel Scrivener files today. Not two new novels, but occasionally I get an idea that I like too much to forget about, and a new Scrivener file is the best place to put these thoughts. Doesn’t mean either will get written, but it does mean I don’t want them to go away. One is an alternate history set in the modern day, the other is a space opera. Both are of a scale that I haven’t tackled before.

That’s exciting.

State of the author’s bees: ALIVE! We had a mild weekend here in DC before getting socked by yet another snowfall, which meant the bees got out and about. My wife moved all the nice tasty reserves from the lost hive to the living one, so they have a good twenty pounds of tasty pollen and sugars to eat. If that’s not enough, I don’t know what is. That means we’ll be able to harvest some honey this year. Probably not enough to start mead making, but at least it’s a start.

March is in like a lion here in northern Virginia. Here’s hoping it goes out like a lamb. I know for a fact I’m not the only person sick of this winter.

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A Writer Reviews: Almost Hollow, the Sleepy Human

SleepyHumanTwo new genre shows debuted on Fox this year. One was an insane notion of turning the legend of Sleepy Hollow into a weekly series. The other was a high concept future buddy cop show headlined by a successful movie star. If I had to put money on only one of the two shows succeeding, I’d have put the one starring a bankable star with the safer premise.

Which is to say, I’d have bet on Almost Human beating Sleepy Hollow.

However, we’re now in mid-February. Sleepy Hollow got a pickup for season two before any other new show this season, and Almost Human is possibly limping towards cancellation. So this raises a question, what did the one do so right, and the other do so wrong?

Let me first say, before I start digging into the shows, that I really do love both of them. Almost Human is one of the first hours of television I catch up with every week. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to indict the show on, nor has my enjoyment of the characters left me blind to the flaws of the show.

First, these two shows are equally weird. That I felt Almost Human was more approachable demonstrates my bias towards science fiction over fantasy. However, asking a broader audience to accept androids, quasi-sentient bullets, and sexbots is no different than asking them to accept the headless horseman, witches, and zombie George Washington. That’s right, zombie George Washington is the sexbot in this comparison. You’re welcome.

Fantasy has also been on more of a winning streak on television lately. But I don’t think that the problem comes down solely to the different genres. One of the most popular shows on television, Person of Interest, has slowly become one of the more compelling science fiction shows of the last two decades.

So what did Sleepy Hollow do right that Almost Human did wrong?

If I had to chalk it up to one factor, I would say Sleepy Hollow better compelled an audience into its world. From the word go, the show hardly let up. It trusted the audience to be willing to come along for a ride. Frankly, it had to. I was dubious going into the show, but it didn’t give me enough of an opportunity to think about what an insane piece of media I was watching.

Almost Human, on the other hand, has given the audience too many opportunities to stop and think about what they’re watching. Look, the dynamic between the two lead stars is incredible, but too often the show has relied on their dialogue in the car. The world is painted on, a thin veneer that relies on the audience to remember Blade Runner. It was only in Episode Nine when the show was willing to embrace the world, and show the audience that there was something out there beyond a familiar pastiche. Unfortunately, that’s too late for a lot of viewers.  Nearly a third of the initial audience has abandoned the show.

It’s far too late to make a thesis statement now.

So what’s the lesson?

First, trust your audience. They want to be taken for a ride, take them for that ride. Don’t feel the need to apologize for a story being what you want it to be. There are so many stories and novels that someone can pick up and read, be your own.

Second, make sure you have a world. If you spend too much time giving your audience a chance to build the world on their own, many are going to fight that. Others are going to paint in another, similar world, and be upset when they get the details wrong. Don’t give them the opportunity to make the world their own, because the world is your own.

I’m still holding out hope for Almost Human. Both from the story telling department, and in my hopes that it gets a second season. Plenty of brilliant genre shows have had slow starts. If it does survive, then everyone needs to stop giving Fox shit about cancelling science fiction.

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