Archive for March, 2011

Out the door!

I hope there will be a point in my writing career when sending out a submission feels less like an event and more like just part of the job.  For now, though, it’s still the former.  Especially when sending something off to a (gasp) pro-rate anthology.  Best of luck, little story.

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For a friend

Why do we write?

Do we do it because we expect instant gratification?  Do we do it because we expect any kind of gratification?  Surely not, because if we’re looking for either, we’re practicing the wrong damn craft.  Do we do it for the fame?  I suspect most Americans today would be hard pressed to name 20 living, working writers without having to fall back on names like Shakespeare.  Do we do it for the money?  Because a penny a word for something that I poured my heart and soul into feels like very little in the way of compensation for my work.

Why do we write?

We write because at the end of the day, thoughts flow through our brains.  They insist upon themselves.  They put pressure on us, and they demand that they be put down into words, translated from the odd whimsies of imagination into prose and poetry.  We write because it satisfies in us some innate need, some urge that grabs us and won’t let go until we do so.  We write because we must create, because we hope that some little piece of ourselves might find its way into someone else’s brain, and once there might germinate and create new ideas, new iterations.  That it might grow.  That it might evolve.  That our ideas might become the raw DNA from which more ideas might spring forth in the future.

Why do we write?

We write because it’s a noble craft, a craft older than the words that we use to exercise it.  Cave walls in Europe speak to the insatiable need of humanity to tell stories, to pass those stories on, and to present them in a way that future generations can access them and grow and learn from the knowledge.  We write because Shakespeare wrote.  We write because Dickens wrote.  We write because Dostoyevsky wrote.  And even if we can never be as great as those men, we still push to follow in their footsteps, to be part of that same craft from which giants emerged.  Because at one point each of those giants was someone no one had ever heard of.

Why do we write?

We write because we’re writers.  We write because at the end of the day we want to sit down and subject ourselves to the often frustrating pain of creation, just so we can then bear our souls and suffer the heartbreak of rejection.  We write because being a writer is being a masochist.  Tough skin comes with the job title, and even when something hurts us, and hurts us hard, we rise again knowing that next time we will do better, next time we will achieve more, and we will be able to hold our accomplishments up high and say “see what I have done!”

Why do we write?

We write to prove wrong the people who say we can’t.  Or we shouldn’t.  Or we’re not good enough.  Or that no one reads.  We write out of spite.  Out of a single bloody-minded determination that we can.  We should.  We are.  And they will.

Why do we write?

We write because it’s in our bodies.  Our blood, our souls, our very being.

Why do we write?

Because we’re writers.

So when you’re down in the absolute pit of despair, wondering whether you should go on, just remember.  It’s okay to doubt.  That’s part of the human experience.  But also remember that you set out on this path because you felt it deep within you.  Find that feeling again.  Grab it.  Hold onto it.  Follow it down the damnedable rabbit holes that it creates through your mind and psyche.  Because in the end, far better days await you.  The marketplace of ideas is growing at a rate that is unheard of in the history of publication.  There is a hunger out there for the writer’s craft, and we exist to satiate the beast.  Even the best have bad days, or just plain bad luck.  In the end, feel sorry for yourself.  Then get up, brush yourself off, and find your next target.

Because we’re writers.

And that’s what we do.

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Fortnightcap: Take Me Back

Take Me Back

A Fortnightcap by DL Thurston

Creative Commons License

One day Virginia wasn’t there anymore.

There were no warning signs, there was no explosion or noise, it just wasn’t there.  We watched on the news, horrified, from our hotel room in Philadelphia, realizing that everything we owned and everyone we knew was in Virginia.  And now Virginia wasn’t there.  There wasn’t even a great slagheap that could be sifted through, examined and tutted over.  Instead, drivers headed southbound on 95 were leaving Baltimore and thirty minutes later passing through Rocky Mount.  Physicists were interviewed on the news, asked their opinion about the anomaly, and all were stumped.

Support came in from around the planet.  Rallies in world capitals, people waiving blue flags and holding up signs “Today we are all Virginians.”  No.  We’re Virginians.  The last of a dying breed.  We’ve been asked to check in with the government, an attempt to figure out how many people died.  Did they die?  They’re certainly gone, and no one is quite able to find them.

My parents.  My in-laws.  It’s overwhelming.

People want to donate money, but they’re not sure where to donate it.  The Red Cross can’t do anything, there’s no one injured to help.  There are promises to rebuild, but rebuild what and where?  People are starting to ask questions.  Fox News broke the ice by pointing out there are now two Democratic senators who don’t actually represent a state.  MSNBC pointed out that there’s also eleven Representatives, eight of whom are Republican, in the same position.  I’m glad to know that people are really caring about the important things right now.

The news here in Philly has interviewed me several times, the real live Virginian in the city.  How did I escape?  How do I feel?  I don’t have answers for them.  I didn’t escape, I was just on vacation, some sort of horrible and fortunate and devastating coincidence which means I’m here while Virginia is gone.

People want something to blame.  Terrorism is brought up.  Radical extremism.  Divine retribution.  Sunspots.  Vaccines.  Global Warming.  Everyone has some theory, which doesn’t help in the end.  When all is said and done, everyone is wondering if it could happen again, and after some hemming and hawing no expert going on the TV can say anything other than “I don’t know.”

So here we are.  My wife has family in Maryland willing to take us in until we can get our feet under us.  I don’t know how I feel about being that close to where Virginia is supposed to be, but there’s nowhere better for us to go.  Perhaps we’ll go west, live on the California coast.

So wish us luck.  And remember Virginia.  People are already forgetting it.  A celebrity did something stupid, the Middle East got three percent more dangerous, and the loss was gone.  People don’t talk about Virginia anymore.  I appear to have misplaced my Virginia’s drivers license.  I’m trying to keep remembering it, but it all feels like a strange fever dream.  Is it possible that there never was such a place?

No.  It had to have been there.

Right?

Fortnightcaps are biweekly experimentation into short form fiction. All Fortnightcaps are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. So if you like the story, please feel free to link people back here. And if you didn’t, maybe the one in two weeks will be better.

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On Origins of Species

Aka: the morphology of Science Fiction.

Over in Unleaded this week I talked about science fiction that lacks variation in phenotypes among alien species.  Here I’d like to talk about science fiction that has an abundance of variation in morphology.  And, oddly, just as I used the Na’vi as an example of a lack of the one, I’m going to use Pandora as an example of the abundance of the other.

Look around you.  Okay, perhaps not right now, because you’re at your computer and not in the middle of the zoo.  But perhaps you can see non-human mammals from where you are.  Pet dogs or cats, a gerbil or a hamster.  While there are a lot of ways they differ from you, they’re smaller, they’re fuzzier, depending on their species they poop in a box.  But they have faces.  Two eyes, two nostrils on one nose, two ears, one mouth.  They have four limbs.  Go to the zoo.  Look at the mammals.  Look at the reptiles.  Look at the birds.  Look at anything with a backbone, and what will you see.  Two eyes, one nose, two ears, one mouth, four limbs.  Even going back to the dinosaurs, there’s the same quantities of the same five features.

This is common descent at work.  Evolution found a formula that works, works well, and even while whole scale changes happen to species those few constants have remained.

Now look at Pandora.  Lots of six-limbed creatures, lots of four-limbed creatures.  Enough of a combination between the two that, during the movie, I had to work out just how such different morphology came to being on Pandora.  Which species shared common ancestors.  The fauna presented just didn’t offer enough similarities to the Na’vi for me to feel like there was a common ancestor.

Is this a big problem?  Probably not.  Are there people reading this who never gave a second thought to that?  Absolutely.  But it is one of those things to keep in mind when creating a new world, first to ask yourself whether it’s something you care about, whether you care if other people care about it, and then if you decide you do…what exactly you want to do about it.  This may involve another phase of your world building, but the resulting world will potentially be deeper and feel more cohesive in the end.

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Fortnightcap: Don’t Walk

Don’t Walk

A Fortnightcap by DL Thurston

Creative Commons License

The little white walking man gave way to a blinking red palm.  Beside it, a red countdown began at 28.

“Come on, guys, we can still make it!”  Brad picked up his pace, leaving Antoine and Jon looking at each other, and speeding up to catch him.

“You’ll never make it.  We’ll never make it!”  Jon hastened his pace to catch up with Brad.  Brad had, in the meantime, reached the edge of the sidewalk.  Reached the curb.  Stepped off and into the street.  The countdown was at 24 seconds.

Antoine ran to catch up with the other two.  “It’s an eight lane road.  Just stop, we’ll wait for the next walk sign!”

“We can make it,” said Brad, “don’t just stand there.”

“Hell,” Antoine said, and followed the two out into the street as the countdown hit 20 seconds.  These things were always mistimed, gave people too long to cross, were designed for even the slowest walkers.  Eight lanes.  Nineteen seconds.  It wasn’t that far.

“This!” Brad shouted, doing a turn.  “This is living!  Look at that.  Eighteen, seventeen.  We’ve still got several lanes to go.  We might not even make it before the hand turns red.  Wouldn’t that be something?  Out here during Don’t Walk.”

“You’re sick,” said Antoine.

“Sick and crazy,” amended Jon, as the sign hit fifteen.

“And alive.  Not like you two.  If I listened to you, where would we be.  Back there!” he said, turning to point at the curb behind them.  “Just a bunch of clucking hens talking about how long it takes to cross a road.”

Brad turned back, took a step towards the far curb.  His foot landed awkwardly, his ankle twisted, and he went down hard on the asphalt.  Twelve seconds.

“Damn!” Antoine shouted.  “Damn damn damn.  I knew this would happen, I mean, I knew this would happen.  I follow you two bastards out into the road, and now look at this, Brad’s twisted his ankle, and we’ve got ten seconds left to make it across the street!”

Nine.

“Leave him!” Jon shouted, starting to run.

Eight.

“We can’t leave him out here!”

Seven.

“We can, and we will.  He knew what he was doing!”

Six.

“He’s our friend!”

Five.

“Leave me, damn it!”

Four.

Antoine looked back at Brad, and started running.  Four lanes of traffic to go, and not nearly enough time.  He looked ahead and Jon was on the far curb.  He was shouting, but Antoine couldn’t hear the words.  All he could hear was the blood rushing past his ears.  His feet as they pounded on the pavement.  His heart as it throbbed and tried to erupt from his chest.

One.

The curb was still two feet off.  He launched himself forward.  He hit the ground hard and rolled.  His eyes were screwed shut, instinct protecting them as he hit.  As he opened them, he prayed that he saw the white of the sidewalk instead of the black of the road.  Prayed that he’d made it across before the sign went from flashing to solid red.

White.

He exhaled, then looked back.  Jon was staring at the road, shaking.  Antoine looked to where Brad had fallen, and saw smoke being dissipated by the speeding traffic.

The sign was clear.

Don’t walk.

Fortnightcaps are biweekly experimentation into short form fiction. All Fortnightcaps are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. So if you like the story, please feel free to link people back here. And if you didn’t, maybe the one in two weeks will be better.

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Capsule Tech: Teddy Bear

Of all the stuff I put in Capsule intending it to be creepy, the one thing that has hit the most people as actually creepy is something I intended to be sweet.  Well.  People who found the teddy bear creepy should not click this link that points out the next step (first step was Teddy Ruxpin) has been taken.

And just for some extra content, have some relevant Jonathan Coulton:

(Bonus link to a live version of the same song with Neil Gaiman.)

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Whipping Office 2007 and 2010 into shape

Oh for the long lost and lamented Office 2003.  I’ve just bought a new laptop, and no longer having legal installation media for Office 2003 I was forced to go with what I did have legal access to: Office 2010.  Now I’ve heard said that the new menus are fantastically approachable for the newbie.  Unfortunately that means there’s a learning curve for the user upgrading from 2003.  So I went hunting, and for anyone who hasn’t found the settings, I thought I’d do a quick walk through of manuscript formatting in Word 2010 which should also apply to 2007.

First things first.  On the default ribbon is a nice button marked “Change Styles.”  And look what’s in there:

This looks like it would be the short cut way to create Manuscript formatting in Word. And if anyone at Microsoft was a fiction writer and knew from manuscript formatting, this button would be sufficient.  Unfortunately, this isn’t going to do anything for you, you’ll need to get your settings elsewhere.  First, let’s fix auto-correct.

To do this, we’ll need to get to Options.  In Word 2003 that can be found clicking the big round office button.  That’s gone in 2010, replaced with a smaller button with the Word logo.  Click that.  Click options.  From there you’ll have access to your auto correct options:

From there you’ll want to make a few changes.  First, you’ll be presented a list of auto corrected elements, including the dreaded ellipsis character.  Delete that entry from the list:

Then head over to the Auto Format as you Type tab to kill smart quotes and the em-dash replacement:

Close out of all of this, and it’s time to fix the biggest problem with Office 2007 and 2010: the cursed spacing between paragraphs.  You can fix this from the extended paragraph options, available by clicking the little link highlighted in orange:

The solution is to set Spacing After to 0 pt.  Also, here’s where you set your double-spacing.

Last up: margins.  These can be found from the Page Setup options in the Page Layout ribbon:

And make sure all your margins are set to 1″:

Now you’re all ready to go.  Just gotta set the font to Courier New, 12pt and type away.  Let me know if this post helps, and whether I’ve missed any major obstacles to manuscript formatting.  I might try to put together a .docx template in the future or add this as a tab at the top of the blog.

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Google Ngram for Writers

Just thought I would pass along this interesting tidbit.  I suspect a lot of people have seen Google Ngram, which tracks the relative popularity of various words from roughly 1800 until 2010.  Tonight I discovered it can be a rather handy tool for a writer.  In this case, I was looking for the best term to use for black people during the 1880s, knowing that there was a transition from “negro” to “Negro” before both terms were eventually looked down on during the Civil Rights movement.  Since the tool is case sensitive, I was able to actually put both words in, and found that the capitalization became more the norm right around 1930, meaning my 1880s set story is going to stick to the lower case.

So keep it in mind, it can be an interesting tool when working on getting period language correct.  Just so long as you don’t then get distracted by such things as “what causes the big trough in the red line during the 1950s?”

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What a gamer can teach us about writing

Last night I had a devil of a time sleeping, to the point where I gave up for several hours and ended up sitting on The Escapist, a site that I visit largely for Zero Punctuation.  I sat down with a series of videos I was aware of but hadn’t watched called Extra Credits.  It’s a series of animated lectures on various topics regarding how game developers can better approach the market and in the end make better games.  Ultimately they’d love to see games be brought to the level of being widely acknowledged as an art form, much like writing and movies are.

That I’ve found some inspiration from the series, thus, shouldn’t surprise me too much.  It does often take the approach of how games can have better told stories, so that there are episodes that are applicable well beyond the field of video game design shouldn’t be a surprise.  In particular, I found two videos on the topic of horror.

And now, some required viewing with my own thoughts after.

Extra Credits: Where Did Survival Horror Go?

This touches a lot of frustrations that I have with modern horror cinema.  At some point film makers decided that the way to scare people was to throw black cats and monsters at them.  And the video touches on that exact point from the video gaming perspective: the point when the technology allowed filmmakers to get lazy by showing the evil horror lurking around the edges of older movies.  Silent Hill had atmospheric fog obscuring much of the game because the PS1 rendering engine couldn’t handle the graphics the designers want.  Jaws had a shark that you only got to see glimpses of because their mechanical shark broke down and couldn’t be used as thoroughly as planned.

In the end it comes down to the idea of sure we can but does that mean we should.  Movies can be the ultimate in survival horror because the audience isn’t allowed to make any decisions that alter the outcome of the movie.  They’re just being grabbed and dragged along for the ride.  And the most terrifying thing that any person will ever encounter is the thing in their mind, filling in all of their personal fears and neuroses.

Extra Credits: Symbolism 101

Don’t look at the name of this video.  It’s called symbolism,but a lot of it is exploring the questions of what makes horror actually work.  And it’s boiled down into the triple concept of horror: Self, The Other, and The Uncanny.  I really can’t improve on the video by commenting on it.  In the end, it’s a short and perfectly crafted exploration about what can make things scary, with an introduction to the psychology of why.

So give them a view, they’re fantastic viewing.  And if you’re entertained by the style, certainly give the rest of the series a chance.

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State of the Writer: March

Time again for my monthly look at where I stand, and where I’m going.  Really, this is a bit of recap since I already made a post declaring March as short story editing month.  February saw no news on submitted stories, nor any new stories submitted.  March should see two going out, one that needs and edit, and one that I’m frantically trying to finish for an April 1 deadline but haven’t yet finished the first draft.

Calendars can be scary things.

February was one of my more productive months in far too long.  I’ve always been a momentum writer and I lost a lot of that momentum for most of 2010.  I think this blog is helping me stage the comeback, because even though readership is light according to Google Analytics, it still forces me to look in a mirror occasionally and say “what are you doing if you want to keep calling yourself a writer?”

I was looking for a good anthology to be my next challenge, and can’t seem to find one that really calls to me.  Okay, that’s a lie, I found one that interested me, but I can’t get behind “exposure is your payment” type things.  Sorry, exposure doesn’t get me closer to SFWA membership.  And really, exposure-as-payment deals typically don’t have all that much of the former and thus lack even more in the latter.  So that’ll probably be even more incentive for March to be an editing month.

And who knows, maybe if I get both stories where I like them, even doing some Capsule work.

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