State of the Writer: February 2014

Cold! The writer is god damned cold and ready for this winter to end!

That said, January was a pretty damn good month. My new writing schedule is working out. If you’re here, you’ve probably noticed the uptick in blog posts, and I’ve enjoyed having a few days a week dedicated to short stories. One is making the rounds, another got written and is an editing pass away from going into circulation. Plus there was the sale in late December, more on that later in the week.

Plus, a few days ago I wrapped up the rough draft, extremely rough draft, of the generation ship novel I’ve been working on. It clocked in at just over 70,000 words, which is a little disappointing, but it also needs a lot of work. Nothing about its current length, or arrangement, or plot is untouchable. Because isn’t editing fun?

February will present a few challenges, including a night where we’re dropping the baby off with her grandparents and just getting out for a night. I don’t want to give myself that day off, but it means finding some earlier writing time than I might normally.

State of the Author’s Bees. They’re alive! The bees are alive! We lost one hive early in the winter, but the other is hanging in there. We had a warm day this weekend (well, warm for this winter) so my wife took a look in the hives. The dead hive apparently fell victim to a mouse invasion. Which is a shame, but it’s also nice to have a specific cause to point to. The other hive is alive and kicking. So we gave that hive all the uneaten stores of the dead hive, some tasty sugar syrup, and a patty of artificial pollen.

The queen should start laying new eggs soon. They’ve only got another month until they’re through the worst of it, but it looks like we’ll actually bring a hive through the winter. First success in four tries, but we’ll take it. It means there’s also a good chance of being able to harvest some honey this summer. Not a lot of honey, but some.

So. Forward and upward! This month the Great Hugo Read delves into alternate history with Phillip K. Dick’s classic novel The Man in the High Castle, and one of the books that inspired Dick, Bring the Jubilee. The novels are at the forefront of what are now two of the standard tropes of alternate history, exploring what would happen if the Axis or the Confederacy had won their respective wars.

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Not Understanding

Disney has announced their first official princess of Polynesian descent. Yes, I watched and loved Lilo and Stitch, too. But she’s not one of the official Disney Princesses. This new character, Moana, will be the first official Disney Princess of Polynesian descent, and this is a big deal. An extremely big deal. An extremely big deal that I don’t understand in the least.

Not the Disney Princess thing. Alright, I sort of don’t understand that either. Like is Tinkerbell a princess, or is that a different thing? And why was there a period between when Brave came out and when Merida became an official Princess. Or why the two main characters from Frozen aren’t yet official Princesses. Or why Kida from Atlantis doesn’t count. Is it because only three people saw Atlantis? I’m sure I’ll learn these things over the next few years and still not understand them. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I mean I don’t understand why it’s a big deal. Wait wait wait, stay with me. I don’t mean that in the dismissive way the internet typically means it. I mean, simply, that it’s impossible for me to understand it. It’s impossible because I’m a white male living in the United States of America. I have grown up in a culture that is based around me. My likes, my experiences, my interests. I am in all the media, television, movies.

I am Legion.

Which means I can’t possible understand what it’s like to be unrepresented in media. What it’s like to not see a face that looks like mine. Only…more attractive. When a movie starring a non white male fails, it’s because the movie going public doesn’t want to see a female lead. Or an African-American lead. Or an Asian-American lead. Or…anything that makes the lead not a white male. But no one has ever, or likely ever will, suggest that a movie failed because people don’t want to see a white male lead.

This is privilege. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s something that I have in bushels. I can’t escape it. I’ve had times where I’ve ripped over it without seeing it coming. I can’t get rid of it. All I can hope to do is be aware of it.

However, while I can’t possibly understand it, I’m glad to see Disney making this move. I’ve seen some accusation of tokenism, but any increased inclusion must start somewhere. So now we’ve seen a Native American princess, a Middle Eastern princess, an African-American princess, an Asian princess (yes, I get that it’s problematic trying to represent all Asian cultures with a single character), and next is a Polynesian princess.

And I know this is a big deal because, with only one piece of unofficial artwork released then retracted by Disney, there is already a proliferation of fan art on the internet.

There are people out there who have been unrepresented, or underrepresented, in film. And now they’re gaining that representation, they’re finally getting a chance to shine. Perhaps the closest I can come is when a fringe hobby or interest of mine makes its way into a movie. But I know that’s not exactly it. There’s a difference in being excited that a character in a movie is also interested in curling, and a character in a movie who looks like me.

While I can’t understand what it’s like to be suddenly represented in the media, I can understand that this is making people happy. Specifically, it’s making little girls happy. As a daddy to a little girl, I know what a great joy it is to see her happy. I will bend over backwards, do whatever it takes. With this movie, Disney is making little girls happy. Which means it’s making the mommies and daddies of those little girls happy. And that’s a net positive in the world. And a net positive that opens up narrative possibilities for the company at the same time. It’s a win for everyone, except those unfortunate grumpy souls who see inclusion as a zero sum game.

I doubt there will be a future where more and wider demographic groups won’t understand a lack of representation. Though that doesn’t mean it’s not a noble goal to work towards.

I just hope the movie is good.

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RPGs and Story Telling: The Worlds

Oh lord, the worlds. After I’ve finished reading through the character sheets and looking at how characters are built in the game, it’s time to look at the rest of the book. And that’s where worlds are born and live.

This is one of the power of systems designed to translate across multiple settings. It’s what GURPS tried so nobly to get right, though I found it often got lost in all the rules. It’s what Fate Core has achieved thus far.

I used to buy those old GURPS books. Never played the game much, but the books were fantastic resources. They would take a setting, such as Steampunk, or pulp adventure, or Discworld, and walk through not only new rules for the location, but go through the major points of the genre. The essential stories, the essential movies. They weren’t about creating restrictions, they were about showing how the base rules could be expanded, and how to tell stories in these worlds.

That’s what running a game is, after all. It’s telling stories. This isn’t advice to grab these books and start telling stories entirely in these worlds. Unless you’ve been properly licensed to do so, in which case you certainly aren’t reading this. But this is advice to grab books set in interesting worlds, and find the bits that interest you. Grab the books that are guides through a genre, and follow their examples.

Or, just grab the books at random. Like I’ve been doing through Bundle of Holding. Look through them, and find the bits that interest you. Find the things that make the worlds fun or unique. Take small bits, change them around, make them your own.

And then, once you’re done checking out the character sheets, creation, and reading about the world…maybe grab some dice and a pencil and actually play one of the games. Cause that’s fun, too.

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Fox’s Doctor

In 1996 a doctor immigrated to the United States from England. Not because he found a better hospital to work at, but because he found a different network. Yes, the individual in question was no medical doctor, but instead Doctor Who, transitioning from his traditional home on the BBC over to the Fox network. After a backdoor-pilot was produced and run as a movie of the week to blockbuster ratings, the network jumped at the chance to air the newly Americanized series, and slated it for a Sunday time slot in the 1997-1998 television season, pairing it with the fifth season of The X-Files to create a two hour block of science fiction.

The show had a bumpy start. Existing fans of the BBC series were constantly frustrated by the re-establishment of so many basic elements of the mythology (and even some changes to the core notions, such as the Doctor now being half human). New fans were often overwhelmed by the 35 years of history the show traveled with. It was an awkward middle ground, but the show persisted, pulling in 12-15 million viewers a week. Which was enough to keep the network happy, though not thrilled. An attempt was made to goose the ratings during the 1998 November sweeps when the two shows crossed over with a single two hour narrative that saw the Doctor help stem an invasion from the shape-shifting bounty hunters. This episode also saw the departure of Daphne Ashbrook as the Companion, killed during the climactic battle.

Ashbrook’s departure was the first kink in the armor. While long term fans of the British show understood that Companions came and went, and that even the Doctor changed faces every few years, American audiences were accustomed to more continuity in their programming. The second season also saw some cost cutting by the show. The Master, recast from the television movie, steals the TARDIS, stranding The Doctor in present-day San Fransisco for most of the season. While the show never went to truly exotic locales, due to budgetary restraints, this locking down of the Doctor changed the tenor of the show considerably.

The big news hit in the third season. While his TARDIS was restored, the show was losing viewers. Worse, it was about to lose its star. McGann announced his intent to walk away from the show at the end of the season, forcing Fox to weigh their alternatives. Cancellation was discussed, but the show was still proving profitable, and though the viewership had shrunk, the remaining fans were devoted to the show. Fox made a blockbuster move, courting George Clooney who had announced his own departure from ER. Clooney was looking to pursue his movie career, but couldn’t pass up the chance at such an iconic role. He agreed, but with a stipulation.

He would only do thirteen episodes.

Fox assented to the demand, largely in hopes that Clooney would change his mind once on set. He was set, however, and his rapid departure ushered in an instability of casting as Fox jumped from one actor to another, sometimes keeping a Doctor for as long as a half season, sometimes stunt casting an actor for a single two-parter. It was seen as a guest role, even though it was the star of the show, and focus moved away from the Doctor himself and towards the more stable companions. After two seasons of this, Fox saw the writing on the wall and announced the show would end after its fifth season. With The X-Files ending the same year, it was a blow to science fiction on Fox.

20th Century Fox held on to the rights to Doctor Who, however, denying the BBC an opportunity to reboot the show on no less than three occasions between 2001 and 2008. Finally, in 2010, they were in a position where they were forced to exercise or lose the rights. Not wanting to put the character back on television, they attempted a feature film. Believing that saddling the character with now 45 years of back story was asking too much of the audience, Doctor Who was to be rebooted with a fresh origin story.

There was initial promise. Wanting to return the Doctor to his roots as an older character, not to mention in hopes of casting the first British actor to play the role since McGann, Fox landed their dream actor, Patrick Stewart. He’d been central to not one, but two science fiction franchises, why not a third? Unfortunately while the casting was well received, the movie was panned by critics, largely for Damon Lindelof’s confounding back-and-forth time travel plot. The movie made a profit, but not enough of one to justify a sequel. However, Fox still puts out direct-to-DVD follow-ups every few months starring a British actor known mostly for the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series Sherlock in the main role, just to hold onto the rights. And they’ll probably keep doing so. They’re cheap enough to put together, and just enough people buy them.

If y0u believe in alternate universes, somewhere out there might be one where Fox passed on the show. Where the BBC started it back up. And where it was done right. However, the various attempts at Americanizing the show left it a shadow of its former self. I hope they know the bullet they dodged by the McGann version failing. It’s not that McGann was bad. He was great. He was my first Doctor, watching him on Sunday nights on Fox. But everything else around the idea was so bad, so cynical, so…not Doctor Who.

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RPGs and Story Telling: Dump Stats

In this space last week, I talked about using random character sheets to explore different approached to character creation. Let’s pull some of those character sheets back out and look at an important aspect. This doesn’t come up in every role playing game, but any system with more than four stats is going to make the player pick which skills they’re good in…

…and then pick their dump stat.

dumpstatThis is probably my favorite part of putting a new character together. In most systems, every character is great at something (though in Call of Cthulhu, you get to be merely competent in one or two skills). This will usually dictate what skills a character can pick up, and how they’ll find their way out of a situation. For a character good at swinging the epic Mordenkrad Hammer (Brutal 1), for example, every problem is going to look like a nail to smash.

But when actually role-playing a character, player decisions are often informed not only by what a character is good at, but by what they’re bad at.

RPGs force this issue. Writers are on their honor to remember it. When building characters for stories, I’ve had this problem. It’s easy to think about a character’s competencies, it’s less obvious to think about a character’s incompetencies. While a character being good at things might get them out of a problem, being bad at things will get them into problems. And that’s the heart of drama.

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Two Hugo Nomination Suggestions

As I’m writing this post, I’m anxiously waiting for my Hugo nomination PIN. So I haven’t filled out a nominating ballot in any official sense, but I have started thinking of some notions of what I’d like to support. I don’t suspect I’ll make much of a difference in the process, but at least I can do what I can to provide some categories with new nominees.

Dramatic Presentation: Short Form. Yes, yes, I know this is my bugaboo category. And, yes, I know it’s going to come down to Day of the Doctor vs The Rains of Castamere, which isn’t actually a bad pairing as Day of the Doctor was head and shoulder above any of the nominated Doctor Who episodes last year. However, I’m still firmly behind giving Welcome to Night Vale some support. Specifically, the two part episode The Sandstorm.

Dramatic Presentation: Long Form. There’s are two categories within Dramatic Presentation that I don’t believe have ever been nominated. One is video games, the other is theatrical presentations. Theater and the Hugos are an awkward combination, as most theatrical shows don’t reach a broad enough audience to make a blip in the Hugo process, but this year I’m going to include one on my ballot. Specifically Mike Daisey’s All The Faces of the Moon. Yes, it’s that Mike Daisey, infamous for forcing This American Life into issuing a rare retraction. The show was a massive monologue delivered over 28 consecutive days and released on podcast. It’s hard to tell where the extemporaneous portions end and the scripted (or, at least, planned) elements begin. The whole of the story takes a gradual veer into urban fantasy, and is a lot of fun.

I don’t expect either of these to end up on the final ballot. Perhaps that’s why I’m pointing them out now, just to demonstrate some support for things other than episodes from the big two television series and Hollywood releases in the dramatic presentation categories.

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Bee Update, Winter 2014

I’ve not talked about the bees in a while.

We went into the season with two fresh hives, package bees that took the trip up from Georgia. So, as one does, we named the queens Peachtree and Umbriel. This was an entirely unnecessary step as both hives staged coups and installed new queens during the early summer.

This was a less-bad year for bees in Northern Virginia. Still not a great year, but not the horrible year that we went through with our first attempt. Both hives made it through the summer and fall looking hale and hearty.

It’s been an odd winter around these parts. We had early snow, we had our share of the polar vortex taking temperatures down into the single digits, but we’ve also had some surprisingly warm stretches. During the first of these warm periods, we saw bees venturing forth from both hives to do some foraging. Unfortunately during the warmer weather this weekend, bees only came out of one hive.

So we’ve apparently lost a hive. However, that’s the pessimistic way of looking at things. Instead, we’re looking at the positive: our hives are half full. This is a major improvement over last year when we lost one hive to robbers during the early autumn, and the other hive was empty by this point in the winter.

There’s still a lot of winter ahead, but the bees have survived some of the worst of it already. This is fantastic news because year two of a hive is the earliest point for honey harvesting. It’s no guarantee that we’ll get some nice tasty honey even if the hive does make it, but we’re in so much better of a place now than we were last year. Crossing fingers.

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RPGs and Story Telling: Character Sheets

I’ll admit, I have a bit of a problem when it comes to the Bundle of Holding. For those who don’t follow it, you should. The site takes the notion of the Humble Bundle, pay-what-you-want pricing for a collection of games with proceeds going to charity, but instead of computer games the site goes for pen-and-paper RPGs. The most recent bundle is my eighth, and even though I don’t know when (or even if) I’ll get around to giving them all a try, I enjoy having them.

Fact is, I’ve always enjoyed owning RPGs, even if I don’t sit down and play the actual games nearly as often as my collection suggests. As a kid I would buy Toon books from Steve Jackson. I was a high school student playing Mage in the heyday of White Wolf. For awhile I collected some of the GURPS books. As an adult, I’m finally getting into Dungeons and Dragons (4E) and Call of Cthulhu.

BoH FilesPDF has given a new life to pen-and-paper RPGs, allowing for cheaper pricing and easier distribution. It’s fantastic, and it has resulted in the file directory at right. I was going to keep expanding folders, but they wouldn’t all fit on the screen at the same time. Maybe I do have a problem.

Anyway, I enjoy RPGs as much for the playing as for the opportunities they present the story teller. So this is part one of a new, short series about RPGs and story telling. It’s not about how better to play or run RPGs, because I can’t give that sort of advice. It’s also not about how to turn your RPG session into a short story. The answer to that is: don’t.

It’s about how I approach RPGs as a story teller.

The first place I turn in any new RPG (or scroll, as I tend to do PDFs) is to the end. First because I’m always curious how good of an index they have. Second because I want to see what the character sheets look like. These can range from complicated multi-page layouts like Dungeons and Dragons to simpler notions of asking what is your name, what is your quest, and what is your favorite color.

Each is a different way to approach how to create a character, tailored to the kind of story-telling that the game shoots for. You can get a very quick feel for the style of an RPG by looking at those blank sheets at the end.

Every now and then I like to approach characters in my stories and novels this way. Pull out a character sheet and look at the methods of creation. Whether it’s considering each of their skills at a micro level in Call of Cthulhu or considering the connections between characters required by Fate Core. These are things that I always try to think about with characters, but by pulling up an unfamiliar system, I’m forced to consider them from a different angle.

Which I find a powerful tool. Finding a different way to approach a characters sometimes ends up being an interesting thought experiment. Sometimes it results in me finding a plot line hidden in the characters that I wouldn’t otherwise see. Oh, I don’t do it every time. Only when I feel like I need to goose my creativity.

The best part about this method? You don’t need to become a Bundle of Holding junkie like me (though you should). RPG makers want you to play their games, which means most of them allow for wide distribution of the character sheets even if the rest of the book is protected under copyright. RPG Sheets is a massive online database of these sheets, including old editions of oft-updated systems, games you’ve never heard of, and games that perhaps should never have been made. They don’t necessarily include character creation instructions, but they’re a good starting point to get the brain going.

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Great Hugo Read: Year One Wrap-Up

Perhaps the biggest victim of the rarity of blog posts around here has been the Great Hugo Read. I’m still going through the books, and there is still a small community of readers occasionally having opinions over at the Goodreads Group. This month is a double dose of Heinlein as we look at his Hugo winning opus Stranger in a Strange Land, paired with the Retro Hugo winner Farmer in the Sky. But let’s talk about those later, especially since I’m only about 80 pages into the quite long Stranger. Instead, let’s catch up with 2013. Specifically the old winners. And since the end/beginning of the year is the time for lists, here’s my ranking of the seven past Hugo winners that came up in 2013:

7) They’d Rather Be Right. Look, I don’t know what I expected going into this book. I’ve seen it called the worst novel to ever win the Hugo, and came away with nothing that convinces me otherwise. The novel has a decent start. For a handful of chapters, I even wondered if the reputation was ill deserved. However, the second half of the book falls rapidly apart. It’s a book I can only recommend to Hugo completists.

6) Double Star. This was probably my biggest disappointment of 2013. No, it’s not as bad as They’d Rather Be Right, but it’s a book that I actually had expectations for, and just fell flat. You can say what you will about Heinlein’s various novels, there are some of his books that drive me absolutely batty (Farnham‘s Freehold anybody) some that I’ve loved (Job) but falling flat is not a problem I ever expected to have from one. But…there it is.

5) A Case of Conscience. Much like They’d Rather Be Right this is a novel of two halves. The first half is a rather interesting story that hangs out on another planet that is suitably alien in every way, while still being approachable. The second half takes the story back to earth, and just didn’t hold me quite the way the first half did. It was the first of two novels in 2013 that had Catholic undertones to the science fiction, and that isn’t where the fault lies (if you look ahead, you’ll see). The fault lies in the integration.

4) The Big Time. This goes right in the middle because it was the novel that stuck with me the least. I could only remember six of the seven books while putting this list together, and I even had to remind myself of the plot to The Big Time. It’s fascinating in that it’s a small story told in a big world. A closed door mystery where, on the other side of the door, is a massive war being fought back and forth through time. Some books stay with you for what they do right. Some for what they do wrong. And some, perhaps by no fault of their own, just come and go. This fell into that third category, and it feels fitting to use it to separate the two other categories.

3) Starship Troopers. I’ve seen the movie. I love the movie. It might even be one of my top ten all time favorites, if you’d believe it. However, this was my first time reading the book. In part I haven’t bothered because I heard so many times that the novel and the movie are two very different things. That the movie is a satire of the novel. I knew the diehard fans of the book often don’t like the movie, so I assumed as a diehard fan of the movie I would dislike the book. I was wrong. It’s clearly the same story, but told in a very different ways. I see the bits that the movie decided to take out of context, to twist, to put into a different light. It was hard not to read the novel as a satire of itself, if that makes sense. To not take it at face value as I might otherwise. That I’ve put it at number 3 on the list says more about the novels ahead of it than the novels behind it.

2) The Demolished Man. I seriously thought about putting this as #1. For most of the year, I would have. About this time last year I started gushing about this book, because it simply blew me away. From word one, I was sucked in and was disappointed when it was over only because there was no more of it to read. I could go over my reasons, or simply point out that I wrote three posts on the book back in January 2013, and link to them here. (One Two Three) I will say, it was my biggest positive surprise of the year.

1) Canticle for Leibowitz. Alright, you looked ahead when I said my problem with Case of Conscience wasn’t the Catholic science fiction. Yes, that means I put the other right at the top of the list. Leibowitz creates not one, but three compelling futures, jumping centuries at a time between portions of the book. Each is eerily plausible, each flows from the previous. The third is, perhaps, the weakest, but the strengths of the first two sections carry so much gravitas into the ending. Perhaps it’s the futility that peppers the final third, combined with reading it so close to Christmas, turned me off the message of Book Three. I’ve made an attempt to not hold that against the book, which I apparently succeeded at, since I’ve put it at #1.

That’s my breakdown. If anyone read some or all of the books and has a different ranking, please let me know. I’m looking forward to another twelve months of science fiction classics I may not have otherwise read. Though there are some weighty reads coming up, with Stranger and Dune as primary reads, and the first two Song of Ice and Fire books as secondary reads.

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State of the Writer: January 2014

Welcome to the new year! At this time of year people tend to take stock of what they’ve done, and look ahead to what they would like to do. In 2013 I started a new productivity technique called The Chain. When last I updated, I had that chain up over 80 days. Unfortunately for that particular chain, that’s where it ended. The next day an ice storm brought down our neighbor’s tree, which had us decamped to the in-laws for a few days. Writing at someone else’s house just isn’t something I’m all too comfortable with, so for a few days nothing happened.

But! The Chain has, for the most part, been a massive success. The novel I started with the chain is now just under 60,000 words long with seven chapter left to draft. It has, in fact, been so successfully that I’m leveling up with the new year. Before, a successful day meant writing 500 words, or doing 30 minutes of either editing or outlining. Starting the second, I’ve increased each of those goals by 50%. 750 words, 45 minutes. Additionally, I’m working up a different schedule, at least for the time being. Tuesday through Friday means working on the novel. Weekends are for short stories.

What about Monday? Well, it’s no coincidence that I’m writing this on a Monday. Monday is for sitting down and actually writing some blog entries. At least one, though ideally two or three that I can schedule through the week.

Some other late breaking 2013 news, I landed a short story into an anthology. I’m waiting for the official table of contents to go live to say exactly which one, but I am excited to be in this anthology along with one of my best writing buddies NR Brown. It’s exciting to be sharing page space with another writer I know and respect. Plus, I totally beta read her story and it’s fantastic. That’s all I’m saying for now.

That’s actually the incentive behind designating some short story days. The first short story weekend just passed, and I got back into a story I walked away from awhile ago for reasons I can’t explain, because it’s a plotline I really liked.

So welcome to the New Year. And welcome to a hopefully revitalized Writerly Words.

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