Friday, October 30, 2009


The only role-playing game I ever seriously thought about playing has turned 20. I never did actually play the game, but if there was something that was going to get me to buy multi-sided dice and huddle around somebody's card table in their basement or rec room, Shadowrun would have been it. I actually owned the guidebook up until my last move, and it provided a fair amount of inspiration for me. (I've never thought of it before now, but it occurs to me the blend of the supernatural/paranormal and sci-fi that is the hallmark of the game may well have been in part the inspiration for my main body of work.)

For those not familiar with this particular RPG - back in the days when that meant dice and well-worn books and card tables and not fancy CGI effects - the premise was a simple one: in a "Twenty Minutes Into The Future" type device, sometime in the near future magic returns to the world in all its forms. Dragons, wizards, orcs, trolls, etc... in short, take your standard Dungeons and Dragons motifs, all the sci-fi trappings of a cyberpunk convention, mix them all together with a mercenary-based system of gaming, and you have the basic gist. The actual setting of the game as played was a bit farther into the future, I think, about mid-point or so in the 20th Century, but the turning event in their particular history had already occurred some time back, so trolls carrying lasers was commonplace for the inhabitants.

Of course, some of the technology that was supposed to be in the future now looks kind of... quaint. Which is also an issue if you're trying to do near-future sci-fi. (The topic of a forth-coming post.) Very few people foresaw the revolution in cell phones and those little hand-held computers so many of us carry now. (Better known as iPhones, Blackberries, and the like.) On the other hand, I don't think anyone who played the game ever expected the future to be like that anyway.

At least I hope not, as it was all rather dystopian. In that regard somewhat unoriginally so, as it was all big corporations ruling the future, but I'm guilty of that particular trope myself. I say trope rather than cliche in a hopeful tone, there, but certain aspects of it carried a somewhat dismal tone. Which makes sense in an RPG, because after all if it's all sunshine and rainbows, what is there for characters to do?

I also have to wonder how many of the guys writing urban fantasy - and possibly some of the women - were in some part influenced by the game. It occurs to me that the whole "magic and tech don't mix" motif was one of the rules of the game: magic users in the game didn't get any of the nifty cybernetic enhancements the non-magic characters could get. Of course it was all set in a more futuristic time than the majority of urban fantasy, but there's some of it out there. I think. .... If not there will be when I publish. So there.

Anyway, as I said at the outset it provided some inspiration for me, and used to sit on my bookshelf. I think I may have to go out and purchase the anniversary guidebook, just to put it back on my shelf again so that, when the mood strikes, I can mine it for ideas.

.... Still not buying the dice, though.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

This is Supposed to Scare the @#$% Out of You, Right?

During a recent trip to the library, my little one decided to rent Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." I presume this decision was based on the picture of Esmerelda on the cover, and my daughter's fondness for Disney Princess movies. Now, I should have known better, because I am familiar with the story, but in my defense it is a Disney film and it did carry a G rating. Pixar's "The Incredibles" has a PG rating, and my daughter has seen and enjoyed that film. (So have I, for that matter, but that's another story entirely.)

All I have to say is, the MPAA dropped the ball on Hunchback. Or else Disney bribed them. Something. Because about half an hour into the film, around about the time of the carnival when things go from good to bad, I turned it off. With my daughter's approval. She's only 5 1/2, and the film was scaring her. Badly. And this is a girl who doesn't flinch at the dragon in "Sleeping Beauty" which let me tell you made an indeliable impression on my young self. (I saw that one again recently, and am pretty sure I've already commented here on some of the hidden meanings I saw in it.)

It was dark, it was scary, and we hadn't even gotten to the bit where the Judge lusts after Esmerelda yet. (Though Tony Jay is an excellent villain, had they stuck to the story and kept the archdeacon the villain, I think listening to David Ogden Stiers would have been far creepier.) This was not a film meant as a horror outing, unless the executives at Disney wanted to see how far they could push the envelope with the ratings board. And it masquerades as a typical Disney flick, right down to the talking gargoyles. Yet, as dark as it was, I know adults who would have a hard time with it.

Which got me to thinking that it's often these kind of horror outings that are most effective, even when they aren't intended as such. I freely confess that the majority of the slasher films out there bore me to tears. Or worse, amuse the heck out of me. Saw was so preposterous, so ridiculous, that I fast-forwarded through the better part of it just out of morbid curiosity to see how they were going to end the train wreck. Give me a subtle, creeping horror any day over some whack-job with a sharp blade and too much free time on their hands.

Some stories just seem to have an inherent creepiness, again even if they weren't originally designed to scare. Sometimes it's not even the story itself, but one of the characters in it that sends chills down your spine. The kind of character that you just wouldn't want to meet in a lit hallway, never mind a dark alley. Aside from the Judge in Hunchback, I can't think of any off the top of my head - but I know they're out there. I've seen them. And they can turn anything they're in into a "don't watch this in the dark" experience.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Definitely not the Dream Castle

Barbie's gone homeless.

All right, it's not really Barbie, but rather one of those American Girl dolls that come equipped with a history lesson, a morality lesson, various trimmings and trappings, and a price tag that makes Barbie look like Raggedy Anne. And it's not even one of the main dolls, but a side character from one of the stories that comes with the main doll. But, from what I understand, you can purchase her (and thereby give her a home - though that's a cynical approach and might even be a bit of marketing irony lost on the company, as they don't seem noted for subtlety), and this has apparently caused a bit of an uproar.

Now, before I get to what I really want to discuss, I'm going to say that the uproar over this particular doll strikes me as somewhat silly and misguided. I'm the parent of a little girl, and frankly given all the hundreds if not thousands of images about femininity she is bombarded with on a weekly basis, there seem to me to be lots of other things to get upset about. Body image and unreasonable life expectations are only the start of it. (A Prince? Really? Marrying someone you've only just met is really going to fix your life? Sure, thanks for that lesson Disney.) But no one seems to get much up in arms over those topics.

Let one little doll be homeless, however, and suddenly it's some sort of moral crisis or something, as if we're now exposing our daughters to something we ought to have shielded them from.

Which, again speaking as a parent, is crap. If you ask me, the American public as a whole is far too shielded from the reality of life on the streets, let alone our children. Because as much as it may be a shock to some people, there are plenty of our children who are living on the streets. They, and there parents, have no where else to go. Yet we don't think about them when we think about the homeless.

Take a moment, just a moment, and do a mental exercise with me. If I say "homeless," what do you picture? If it's some bushy-bearded guy in rags - pushing a cart is extra - who mumbles to himself and/or smells of alcohol, chances are you're in good company. It's what a lot of people think. And to be fair, many of our homeless do suffer from mental and addiction issues. But it's not all of them, not by a long shot, and the difference between some of "them" and most of "us" isn't as far off as we might like to think.

In this one regard I will defend Dickens, whom, as I may have mentioned before, I generally loathe. But my lack of esteem for his word-craft aside, the man raised public awareness about the plight of children living on the streets and working in factories and being raised in dismal orphanages in ways very few others managed to do. (And it wasn't just Oliver Twist, either. Read enough Dickens and you will notice the recurring theme. Even in "A Christmas Carol." Pay attention to the little caroler who comes calling on Scrooge early in the opening act.)

We could use another Dickens in this day and age. That Will Smith movie wasn't a bad attempt, but I don't think it went far enough, and it wasn't the point of the story anyway. The sad reality is, especially in these economic times, homelessness is something that entire families have to deal with. Some, probably most, manage to ward it off through various means. I know that if it came down to it, I have family I can turn to. Even friends. But not everyone does. And anything that raises awareness of the issue, even if it wasn't the direct intent, is something that I think is worth talking about.

Not ranting about, mind you, in some misguided argument over the "appropriateness" of a doll, but actually discuss. In ways that might someday bring about a change in attitudes, or preferably still, a change in reality.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reality, Not TV

I confess I don't watch much reality television. I watched one season of American Idol, and that was mainly because I was overseas at the time and my options for English language programming were slim. My main impression was that it reminded me far too much of the popularity contests I remembered from high school (also known as choosing the Homecoming Queen or King or whatever). It also seemed, like most reality television, to be an exercise in personal vanity more so then anything else. When "Survivor" goes "Lord of the Flies" - or at least Bart Simpson at Kamp Krusty - that will be the season I watch. Otherwise I tune out.

The exception to this is the home makeover show. You know the one, it's on ABC, SEARS gets major publicity out of it, and all the guy designers seem ... well, like the stereotypical designers except they can also wield a hammer. I make no claims to regularly watch it by any means, but on those times when I have watched it, aside from giving me ideas what I would and would not do with my own home were money not an obstacle, it never fails to strike a chord.

Mostly this is not because of the donations of the corporate sponsors. I have no doubt SEARS is motivated by more cynical, market-driven concerns than any real desire for charity. (I may be wrong about that, but like I said, it's cynical.) Granted, they are donating, which they don't have to do, but it's the real volunteers, the ones making the biggest donations, that move me. These are the ordinary local people who show up to help, including the local building contractors.

(My cynicism about them is tempered by the knowledge that, being local, simply being on television isn't going to make a big difference in their bottom line. It may be free advertising, but let's face it, local homebuilders don't do a lot of advertising for the general public. Think about it. When was the last time you saw such an advertisement? I used to, but I grew up in that industry.)

The sheer outpouring of volunteers from the local community when these things happen is always staggering. Putting up a house in a week is no small feat anyway, but that they can do it - and do it with the numbers they do, is nothing short of remarkable. And it proves to me at least that no matter how jaded, how cynical, how simply misanthropic I am inclined to be about my fellow human beings on average, we are capable of extraordinary acts.

It doesn't have to be on television, either. Habitat for Humanity builds homes all over for people who couldn't otherwise afford them, all with volunteer labor. People volunteer their time in soup kitchens and shelters, and various other enterprises that, as winter sets in, become even more important to those in need. These volunteers remind that no matter how out of touch the average American might be with the reality of life on the streets (which is an issue for another blog), there are still many people in each and every community willing to give of their time and energy to help.

That's something to be cheerful about, even if there isn't much cause for cheer elsewhere at the moment. It's also something that everyone could be a part of. So I'm going to do something I don't normally do here and urge those few readers I have to consider finding a way to make a difference this holiday season. It doesn't take much, not really, and no matter what your circumstances I think we can all make time to help out somewhere, even if it's just through donations to the Salvation Army, the Food Pantry, or other organizations. I think that, if you do, you'll find you have something in common with all those people on television, week after week, community after community.

And it's not something you can get from just watching television.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Steampunk Music

A quick definition, for those not in the know, borrowed from the Wiki gods:

Steampunk is a sub-genre of fantasy and speculative fiction that [...] denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used [...] but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy [...]. Other examples of steampunk contain alternate-history-style presentations of "the path not taken" of such technology as dirigibles, analog computers, or digital mechanical computers [...] with a presumption of functionality. (original article here)

This is one of the concepts that may be best understood with a visual, so take a moment to look here and then again here, and you'll get the idea.

Now, the concept appeals to me for a number of reasons, not least because the first bit of adult fiction I ever really got into was Sherlock Holmes. (Tolkien and Herbert were in there, too, but their worlds had more limited entries.) Steampunk seems perpetually stuck in a semi-Victorian era level of society. A bit more advanced, as I think dirigibles came slightly later, but with about the same feel. So it appeals to me for that reason alone, as there is just something about that era that I find fascinating.

Also, I find dirigibles incredibly cool, and think that even though it would be slower, modern air travel would be so much more enjoyable if we'd stuck with blimps. Which, yes, is wholly impractical given the number of travelers and the speeds with which they must travel, but really, can anyone argue that a slower pace would really be a bad thing in today's world? And besides... blimps! Blimps!!

Ok, that bit of personal geeky self-indulgence aside, one of the other reasons the genre appeals to me is it has such a visual element to it. Which was pretty much where I thought it began and ended - as a visual medium.

I was wrong. (Probably not for the last time, certainly not for the first.)

There is musical steampunk.

I'm not sure if it expands beyond the band that was introduced on the radio the other day, via one of the NPR programs, but it does exist. The group, whose name eludes me - and we all know how I feel about research on this blog - is primarily a jazz-oriented outfit. Now for whatever reason, they decided to attempt to do modern era music on more traditional instruments. In other words, rock and roll without the standard rock and roll set of instruments. Big band meets Led Zeppelin. Sort of. (Yes, blimps again.)

It was not muzak by any means, which might be the first comparison that springs to mind. They managed to retain the edginess that defines steampunk, and convey that on a musical level. I won't claim it was music I'd run out and buy, but it was decidedly different, and I thought it added another dimension to this particular genre. It reminded me that if you're going to get into world-building, which is sometimes an integral part of both fantasy, sci-fi, and spec-fic (with all the over-lapping those genres do lately), there are always multiple layers of elements to consider.

Which, if it didn't look so cool might be enough to get me to eschew the unfamiliar future for the known element of the present.

Only... there are those blimps to consider.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Smells of the Season

The turn of the seasons here is accompanied by a variety of visual clues. Changing leaves, darker clouds (usually rain but every now and again snow instead), and of course shortening days and warmer clothes. Each season also comes with it's own set of smells, and these for me help me to get more into the season than almost anything else.

Spring and Summer, for example, are accompanied by the smell of mown grass. The other day it was warm enough for someone to be getting in one last mow. (Not me, though my lawn could probably use it, but I have decided now that we've had a frost not to worry about it.) Even though it was October, it brought Spring to the forefront of my mind. Cookouts are one of those Summer smells, as in the unique smell of the beach - which around here is normally a pleasant thing.

Winter's smells, by contrast, are almost all indoor smells. Snow, for example, doesn't have much of a smell. Unless you have dogs, and in that case you shouldn't be out and about in that snow anyway. White snow only. Pine might be an outdoor smell, but of course in Winter you usually get that indoors around the Christmas tree. Being out in an actual pine forest has the same smell, but being evergreens it doesn't matter much the season. Other smells include those of holiday foods, such as pumpkin spices.

For Fall, that smell is a combination of things, but none are more prominent, more welcome to my nose than that of wood smoke. Something about catching that first whiff on the breeze lets me know that fall has truly arrived. Couple that with the smell of apples, particularly apple cider, and even if I couldn't see the leaves change I'd know what season it is. Now, I realize this may be a regional thing, and that if you live in Southern California the smell of wood smoke might mean something far less pleasant, but up here (relatively speaking) that smell means the temperature is dropping and people are turning to their wood piles once again.

That, for me, is one of the biggest appeals of a fireplace, too. Yes, they're pretty and provide warmth, but it's that lingering smell, especially if you're burning more fragrant woods, that really sells the experience for me.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Omega Reader

I seem to be the last one to read just about everything. This is, of course, a slight over-simplification, as people will come after me who have not read the same things I myself am behind the curve on, but it feels that way sometimes. I remember buying "The Firm" many years ago, after the movie had come out, and the person next to me remarking she was glad to know she wasn't the last person who hadn't read it. So I suppose it would be more accurate to say I am behind the popular curve, that I tend to pick up books long after they have become "hot" and while their authors may or may not be on the cultural edge.

On the one hand, there are a few advantages to this. Well, actually, there probably aren't any, really, other than I get to feel like I'm not following the herd. Though you could argue that I am, in fact, following the herd - I'm just really, really far behind. In the case of where Hollywood has made a movie out of the book in question, I've usually seen the movie before reading the book, so I also don't have to deal with being disappointed by casting choices.

Case in point, I am reading "The Da Vinci Code" finally. While not great literature, I confess it is a fun book, and admit that it also contains one of the most blatant attempts by an author to influence casting for the potential movie. Possibly ever. But that's another entry entirely. My point is, I saw the movie first, so despite the book's description - it's Tom Hanks in my head. Though I have given him better hair in my imagination.)

You might think that having seen the movie would spoil the book for me, knowing how it all comes out. Especially a book with puzzles or a mystery. And somewhat, of course, it does. But books often diverge from movies, or vice versa. There are those where I actually prefer the movie, with "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" making the top of the list. I like Dick's books, but they are often convoluted, and I'm not entirely sure "DADES" was his best outing. "Bladerunner," however, with the exception of that pointless unicorn dream that makes no sense at all, is one of my most favorite movies of all time.

And besides, I tend to look at the back of a book before I actually get there, anyway, so there's little to spoil. (Hey, I could get hit by a car, and then I'd never know how it ends. It would bug me. I presume there will be books or something in Heaven, at least in my version, but that's not the point.)

Another advantage to being behind the times is that I can usually avoid all the hype around a book and go in only with the usual expectations. Now, there remains some buzz, but no more so than around any other best-selling book or author that all the reading public gets excited about. Sometimes even that level of expectation turns into a bust, as "Meg" was sadly a bitter disappointment for me despite the anticipation of a "Jurassic Shark," but other times I start to see why everyone was so excited.

And then there are books that just fall in the middle, and are good reads, but aren't going to turn me into a stark-raving fan.

Not sure where I'm going to end up yet with Dan Brown, but I'll let you know.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Grammar Text Rantings

I hate Strunk and White's "Elements of Style."

There, I've said it.

I know I'm not alone, and I suppose to be completely honest I don't hate the book, per se. What inspires the loathing (I decided "hate" wasn't strong enough) is that the book is treated in literary circles much like the Bible at a fundamentalist's convention. It is regarded as sacrosanct, unassailable, and unimpeachable in its authority. People who quote Strunk and White at you often do so with that self-superior air that says, not only were you wrong, but they're going to beat you with the good book just to make sure you grasp just how wrong you were.

Now, I will admit that some of the times they are correct. Often, however, it's a lot more subjective than any of the "Elementals" will ever admit to. If that was not the case, why would there be more than one manual of style in official use? (I'm more of a "Chicago" person than an MFA myself.) Yet, even when these die-hard Stunk & White cult members have other manuals on their desk, it's the little slim volume they choose to beat you with.

(Which is actually fortunate. The Chicago Manual of Style is a big, heavy book. It would hurt. A lot.)

It's that unwillingness to adjust to the changing and adaptive nature of the English language that most often irks me when I get into discussions with Elementals. English, like most modern languages, is constantly evolving, and subject to certain vagaries of style. Mike Royko once put the Gettysburg Address through a grammar checker for one of his columns, with predictable results. Strunk first penned the initial version of "TEOS" in the early 20th Century. Things have changed.

This is not to argue that there shouldn't be guidelines. There should be. And it's a good idea to know the rules before you attempt to bend them (or altogether ignore them) in you're own writing. As an editor, I relied heavily on having a set style to adhere the authors to. Without it, an editor's job would be twice as hard as it is.

The problem is that unlike the Chicago manual and others like it, which get updated periodically, Strunk & White has been left alone, intact, since its initial publication. No one has bothered to revise or update it, in part I think because unlike those other manuals it has the name of two authors attached - one of whom was fairly prominent. If the book had been generically published by a college or some other entity, I think by now it would be it it's fourth of fifth version, at least.

The progression of time will only serve to heighten these shortcomings in the book. As a historical look into the nuances of early Twentieth Century English, I think it has its place. It's not even a bad place for the fledgling writer to start if they are unsure of the rules. But at a certain point, it needs to be shelved in favor of books that are more flexible.

And if I should disappear after this post, I urge the authorities to look into the nearest holder of a copy of Strunk & White. It'll be dog-eared, well used, and the owner will lecture you on the proper use of commas and semicolons

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Everyone Can't Do It

Had a conversation come up elsewhere about responses from editors when they reject stories with form letter responses. As someone who works both sides of the aisle, I understand there are times when it's simply not worth the effort to try and get an author to resubmit something. In the nonfiction field where I worked, this was less often the case, as we would send things back with requests for rewrites. But there were times when the author just didn't get it, and we ended up having to write it ourselves or give it to someone else. In fiction, of course, you don't get to have someone else write your story, so when editors reject it that's pretty much the end for that piece with that publisher, and you move on to the next one.

Some people, though, don't seem to get the message when editor after editor, critique after critique, their work keeps being rejected or torn apart. They keep writing in spite of all evidence to the contrary that they should quit. And while yes, this is the hallmark of all writers, and that the pattern holds for everyone, and that you have to be persistent... I have read things that have prompted me to think some people should just know when to stop.

I realize this is practically heresy among online writing communities (one of which I happen to belong to) but there are people who just flat out should not write.

At least not for anything more than an audience of one.

It's the one thing where I think writing, as an artistic venue, seems to differ from all the others. Most of us know we can't make it as an artist, or a singer, or multiple other disciplines. We know it, we recognize it, and generally don't argue it. Yet writing seems to be the one field where everyone is convinced they can do it. I don't know if that's because, unlike in the visual arts where you can see that you can't draw, or hear that you can't sing, somehow when it's words on paper you don't ever seem to grasp it quite as clearly that no, you weren't meant for this.

I'm all for encouraging people who have talent, and recognize that sometimes that talent takes one heck of a lot of polishing and practice to get to something good, but there are people for whom that kernel of talent just isn't there, and as an editor - and sometimes as a reader - you just want to put them out of their misery.

Though as a single editor you just can't do that, in part because of that idea that everyone can write again. It takes multiple rejections before someone gets the idea that they can't, in fact, write. If ever. So unless you're the tenth editor to reject them, you don't get to be the one that spares the next poor unfortunate sole the wanna-be author will inflict their masterpiece upon.

Is this subjective? Of course it is. Lots of people adore James Patterson, and I wasn't impressed. Lots of people hate some of the authors I happen to like (Jonathan Kellerman comes to mind). So while I might read something and think the author needs to have their pencils, pens, or keyboards taken away, someone else might disagree. It doesn't change the fact that some people just don't have what it takes, and never will.

All I can do is hope that they get that message before they send their stuff my way.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gone Too Soon

SyFy is running mini-marathons leading up to Halloween. These are, as you might expect, all supernaturally themed. They kicked it off with "Brimstone" which I saw, loved, and mourned when it first aired and then unceremoniously had the plug pulled early on. The other day they ran a show I'd not heard of (in part because I'd been overseas when it aired), "Haunted," that I enjoyed enough to park my butt in front of the television most of that. (My laptop came downstairs with me, so I didn't completely waste the day.) Like so many other shows, it died quickly, most likely due to ratings and other factors, and like so many other shows, I found myself lamenting it's short run.

This is one of the problems with television as a medium to tell stories in. With books, where once an author has been published, it's a good bet they'll be published again, and so if they have a continuing character you can be guaranteed further exploits. Spenser has been going for nigh on thirty years at this point, and I expect will continue to do so until Robert Parker finally puts down his pen for good. With some ongoing characters that means more growth than others, but is also means there's either a sufficient back catalog to keep you busy, or the promise of future works to happily devour.

In television, however, once the plug is pulled, that's it. (Unless it's a Joss Whedon show, whereby cancellation just leads to a change of media. Though I could use more "Firefly" and less Buffyverse from his comic empire.) The story is done, the actors move on, and whatever interest you had in the story has to make do with either reruns on cable or buying the DVD packages. When they exist. (Which a "Brimstone" collection does not. A serious oversight in my opinion.) You're left with fan-fiction, which is sketchy at best and weird and badly written at worst (recently lampooned to excellent effect in "Supernatural" - which I recommend to horror fans), or crafting your own "what if's" in your head.

If the story ends on a cliffhanger or something like that it can be even more frustrating. I remember a very short-lived series called "The Fifth Corner" that was a spin on the concept behind the "Bourne Identity." It was one of those shows where, for every answer you get, more questions popped up. I liked it, it was well done, and it got far enough where you could tell it was only going to get better ... and then some international something or other happened, I don't remember what, and it got pre-empted for news coverage, and once the something or other was over, the show was gone.

Watching "Haunted" also got me thinking in reverse about some book series. There are a couple I have read where, for whatever reason, as a reader you start to wish the last few books in the series hadn't been written. Books that would have "jumped the shark" had they been television shows. You read them anyways, unless they get really bad, just like you watch them anyway (last season of the "X-files" comes to mind), but you know that pretty much every time you go to read a new installment, it's going to be a disappointment. If the author keeps going, you may even just abandon them entirely. It's enough to make you wish that some series and/or authors were dependent on ratings, and that once they fell below a certain readership they'd be asked to pull the plug on it.

With books, though, unlike in television, once you've managed to get your pilot show aired you're pretty much guaranteed to keep going for as long as you can churn them out. There's always another publisher out there willing to take an author with a proven track record on, even if there last few outings don't get the critical acclaim of the initial forays. (As in television when another network picks it up, that doesn't always mean you get the same quality of stories. If anyone remembers "Sliders" - the version on cable wasn't the one on Fox by any means.)

I suppose it's like that Billy Joel song - "Only the Good Die Young." Only without the whole "rock groupie Catholic girl sex" thing going on.

In the meantime, there's cable television reruns and DVD rentals. And knowledge of the inevitable - that other shows, other stories, will come along, only to be gone just when they were starting to get really interesting.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mind Games

I have rediscovered my love of crossword puzzles. Well, that might be a little strong. I have always enjoyed crossword puzzles, it's just been awhile since I worked on them with any sort of regularity. However, living in a town where not every source of employment is posted online, I've taken to buying a Sunday paper to peruse the classifieds. (Also helps keep me informed of various local going-ons.) And with the Sunday paper, of course, comes the Sunday puzzle.

As a writer I find these kind of word puzzles useful not just for brain stimulation but also as vocabulary improvement aids. I'd never have learned what "dorp" meant if it hadn't shown up in a puzzle. Mind you, I've had very few occasions to then turn around and use that word in real life, or even in my writing, but I have always been of the opinion that knowledge ought to be acquired for it's own sake. If it's useful, that's an additional bonus, of course, but just knowing things makes my life a little bit richer.

Plus it's useless trivia that can come in handy when watching "Jeopardy" or dropped into conversation. I am a font of useless trivia and otherwise little-used knowledge.

Beyond that, it's just a good way to keep the brain limber. My local puzzle doesn't seem to be the NYTimes one, so it's not as challenging as it could be, but it's enough to get me thinking for a while and doing some mental gymnastics I otherwise wouldn't be doing. I like the bigger puzzles on Sunday, not least because of the theme clues. The smaller weekday puzzles, especially the small ones with mostly three and four letter answers, tend to vex me. I don't know if that's a reflection of my vocabulary being too reliant on more complicated words, or just an inability to think small.

The jumble eludes me completely, even though I do pretty good at Scrabble. I think the difference there is being able to actually move the tiles in the game and shuffle them around. When it comes to shuffling the letters in my head, for some reason it's just not that easy.

(Sudoku? Not a chance. Math is evil.)

So while it does, technically, take away from time I could spend writing, I think it provides a needed and helpful distraction. Besides, all work and no play makes _____ a dull boy. (4 letters)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Wasting Villains

No, this isn't about shooting the bad guys with an oversized gun designed to compensate for the hero's masculinity issues. This is about when a villain's potential goes to waste. When, despite the hype, they're barley on the screen (looking squarely at you, George Lucas, for Episode I) or in the book. When the author makes a big deal about just how evil, and powerful, the villain is, or has created a really great villain... and then doesn't do anything with them.

I have a particular author in mind for this little rant, but I won't name names. (Other than George Lucas... because, really, as much as I like Christopher Lee, Darth Maul deserved more screen time.) Mostly, in the case of the unnamed author, it seemed as though the villain had been relegated to the role of sub-plot, and if you're going to do that, it's all well and good providing that 1: it's the kind of thing you usually write so the audience has no reason to expect otherwise and 2: you don't create a really cool villain that you normally would have done lots with.

This was something I thought Silence of the Lambs did well. Aside from the screen presence of Lecter, he lived up to his potential. He wasn't just the scary guy safely in the glass cage. He gets out. Better still, though he is the subplot, the main villain is also satisfying. (Neither the movie nor the book would have worked half so well otherwise. Sub-plot should never completely overshadow plot.) It was also something the movie sequel screwed up, namely because the director, whom I normally enjoy, went for the shock ending. Only the Lecter we all know and love would never have allowed himself to be in that position.

(Not to mention he doesn't have to amputate his hand. Far less risky to simply take off the thumb, if it comes to that.)

Which illustrates another peril here: you can waste your villain with a single mis-timed scene. Something that doesn't ring true to character. At that point, you leave audiences scratching their heads and wondering what happened to the villain they've been watching all along. Hannibal isn't the only film guilty of this. (The book avoided this pitfall, but fell into another one.)

Mind you, some of those wasted villains have provided me with fodder for my own evil characters. I fully plan to steal the concept for one villain from a certain author who didn't know enough to use what she'd created. Well, "steal" is such a harsh word. I intend to appropriate and use for my own ends.

If you're going to create a strong villain, then you ought to use them appropriately. If not, you might want to start asking yourself if your story needs a villain at all, or if perhaps the motivation for your characters is something else entirely. Villains should be treated like the famous gun Chekov talks about: if they're there, they ought to be used.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Appeal of Cemeteries

I like cemeteries. Which I realize might sound kind of creepy at first, but as I think I've mentioned I'm a bit of a history buff. So I'm not hanging out in cemeteries to do anything creepy or occultish. I like roaming amongst the headstones, particularly ones that are old, and thinking about the history that is more or less buried beneath my feet.

Obviously older cemeteries are better for this kind of thing. There's a small local cemetery here in town, not very big, and while some of the stones are new, the town itself dates back to Colonial times. I think the town wasn't officially founded until after the Revolutionary War, but there's a historical marker where George Washington passed through on some sort of campaign. None of the headstones in the cemetery were quite that old. There is a marker for the town's founder, who is buried there, but it's clear he was reburied some time long after the initial internment.

Which I did not deduce from some careful historical study, but because I read it on the marker accompanying the grave site.

There are a number of stones that went back as far as the mid 19th Century, and possibly some that went even farther back but which had sadly been worn past the point where they could be read. Part of the appeal is simply knowing I'm looking at something that was put in place over a hundred years or so before I was born. I like being able to touch history, it's one of the reasons old architecture appeals to me.

Of course, the appeal of cemeteries in fiction and other media is usually based on other ideas often associated with them. Those would usually be the creepy aspects. Interestingly, most of those cemeteries all look about the same on celluloid. One of the things I have noticed in my travels is that cemeteries come in all shapes and sizes. On film, and in illustrations (with the notable exception of Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame) they all tend to follow one common layout, with the round headstones and the more spaced-out layout. This was the practice in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, like my neck of the woods, because space and cultures allowed for it. But it's not always the case.

Asian cemeteries are much different, in part I think because they often cremate and thus have no bodies to bury and take up space. Despite another stereotype, not all Native Americans had a "burial ground." Some cultures wandered off into the woods, others made biers. And Eastern European cemeteries are just... cool. Lots of differing headstones and tombs, often with a great deal of iconography. And of course, even cemeteries around where I live are often a mix of different styles. There are no angles or cherubs in the cemetery here, but there are some obelisks and crosses, along with more traditional slabs. (Including one depicting a golf scene that looks to be from the early part of the 20th Century.)

All of which just illustrates the point that research is important if you're going to set a scene in a cemetery and have it matter what kind of cemetery they're in. Which sometimes might matter even if you don't think it does. No one's robbing graves in New Orleans with a shovel, after all.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Defending the Litte Guy

Everyone hates the Ewoks. This seems to be the universal consensus among legions of Star Wars fans, and one of the reasons why Return of the Jedi was thought to be the weakest of the three films. Then, of course, Lucas made three more films, thereby elevating ROTJ from the bottom of the pile and dropping the Ewoks from "most hated" status. I expect they're at least a distant third now.

I have to admit, I'm not everyone, and I think some of that is rooted in my academic background. One of the chief complaints I've heard about the Ewoks is how they managed to overcome the obviously technologically superior Imperial Forces. (Speaking of which, why is it "Imperial" with an "I" when it's "Empire" with an "E"? Have to find that out one of these days.) This, more than any other argument I've heard, seems to be the main source of ire. I suspect some of it may also be that it was Ewoks, not Wookies, but given the FX constraints of the day I've heard that was largely budgetary more so than anything else.

There might also be some lingering resentment that, for the longest time, the only post Star Wars offerings were a couple of television movies featuring, of all things, just the Ewoks. No mention of any of the rest of the Star Wars universe. Other than the Ewoks, it could have been set anywhere else. But I think a lot of it is that the Ewoks manage to overcome the Stormtroopers.

If we were talking a long, protracted campaign, then I think the critics would be right. There's no way the Ewok would be able to withstand a coordinated campaign. The Empire isn't the Americans in Vietnam, after all. Assuming the planet was worth the effort, they'd wipe out the Ewoks in a heartbeat. Superior numbers, superior technology. If all else failed, they'd just vaporize the planet. (Which I suspect would have happened the moment the Death Star was finished anyway.)

But that's not what happens in the film. It isn't an entire war. It's one battle. Against an indigenous, obviously prepared guerrilla force. Yes, it's a force of three foot tall natives who look suspiciously like a marketing ploy. (It is George Lucas, after all, a marketing mastermind... to a certain extent... and it is Star Wars, which changed the movie marketing game forever.) Yet they know the terrain, they've put together various defensive/offensive efforts that are clearly aimed at the occupying forces - unless there's some T-rex sized predator roaming around that requires the smashing logs suspended from trees - and they aren't entirely alone. They have the Rebel squad assisting them, too.

As someone who's studied military history, I know this isn't the first time a smaller, less-armed force has managed to defeat a large, more technologically proficient force. Little Big Horn comes to mind, among other instances. Guerrilla warfare works for precisely the reasons the Ewoks manage to put a dent in those shiny white uniforms. Smaller, more mobile force, that knows how to use the local terrain to their advantage. In the long term, against a more ruthless force willing to use all the means at their disposal (which most opposing forces aren't - hence the reason we didn't firebomb North Vietnam into a wasteland) those advantages can be countered and overcome.

So, again, in the long term the Ewoks would be toast. Fuzzy toast, likely with the smell of burnt hair which, if you've ever smelled it, is highly unpleasant. But for one, short, pitched battle, with the element of surprise and advanced planning, there's no reason why it couldn't have gone their way. They might have even won a few battles before the Empire razed the forest and hunted the little pseudo teddy bears into extinction.

Hate the Ewoks if you must, but don't begrudge them their victory.

Although if Lucas ever comes up with a Jedi Ewok, then I, too, may be on the anti-Ewok bandwagon. Or would that metaphor work better with a Sand Crawler?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hamlet's Last Words

The podcast that inspired today's post can be found here. (And while you're there, I would recommend perusing their other podcasts. Then supporting your local public radio station.) I listened to it a while back, but it was brought back to mind today by another story on NPR about Jude Law stepping into the role of Hamlet. Not sure how I feel about that, but then every actor approaches the role somewhat differently. It is arguably one of the most famous plays in existence, probably #2 behind Romeo and Juliet I would think - though I much prefer Hamlet, and has been subject to much interpretation.

I would hope I'm not giving anything away by saying Hamlet dies at the end, in, arguably again, one of the most famous death scenes of all time. His last words are "the rest is silence." Which is generally the last thing he says. Only, there's another version, where it isn't the last thing he says. Added after Shakespeare's death, they may or may not represent an editorial decision made first by an actor interpreting the role. Given that Hamlet is a role that is open to much interpretation, this seems a small thing, but I found that the idea of Hamlet having a death rattle not only pretentious and presumptuous on the part of the actor who thought to do it, but also unnecessary.

Before I go too much further, I should say there are times when just because an author chose to end the story arc one place, it doesn't mean that it's forever sacrosanct. That said, you have to pick and choose your moments, and your story before you decide the original ending just wasn't good enough. I've never read "Gone With the Wind," nor seen the movie... and have no desire to. That said, I'm familiar enough with the ending, and think it remains one of the better endings in literature. Ambiguous, sure, but at least with a heroine who stands on her own. Only to end up with a "happy ever after" in the sequel.

Which invalidates the original ending, I think.

Which is my problem with Hamlet's death rattle.

You take what is, essentially, a perfect ending. A poetic ending, especially given Hamlet's penchant for wordiness (exceeded only by Polonious). And then you undo all of that for no good reason other than someone else's hubris. (Which is a major Shakespearean theme, so it kind of fits.)

I'm not saying you can't ever mess with something. The Lego version of the Bible is at once both faithful to the text and somewhat irreverent. There's a couple of riffs off the Lord of the Rings that made me laugh out loud. But those were meant to be what they are. With Hamlet and GWTW the add-ons were serious efforts. Completely extraneous serious efforts.

I'm not even saying you can't continue the story. I'd like to know what happens to Rick after the end of "Casablanca" and think that would make a good story. Might even be tempted to write it someday. But I wouldn't have Ilsa get back off the plane, or come back to Rick. Because that would undo the power of the original ending and, if I may say so, be disrespectful of the text. I won't say that "Scarlett" was disrespectful of GWTW - as I said, I've not read it so I won't presume to comment too extensively. I have read, and watched, Hamlet. And I cannot imagine it with a death rattle.

All I am saying is that if you feel the need to mess with a classic ending, or the story in general, maybe you ought to think twice about it.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Death of a Character 2: He's Dead, Jim

That will likely be the last Star Trek reference I make - in this entry, anyway, and only because I can't think of any other way to tie Star Trek into this particular topic. My geekdom knows few bounds. But the death of the redshirts (okay, so that's another reference) doesn't really apply to the topic today, despite the high turnover rate in their ranks.

While this is about people who die and stay dead, it's also about when significant characters die and stay dead. Not the incidentals or the guest stars. There can be any number of reasons why an important character might die, not all of which are good reasons, if you ask me.

The first reason, and the best, is when it's necessary to further the story. Sometimes it's just necessary for someone to die. If you write horror or mystery, this is probably a given. Most murder mysteries circumvent this some because the character usually starts dead, or is given only a brief introduction before being killed. (Unless you're in one of those Agatha Christie type stories where people are slowly but surely killed off.) They become a central character of sorts because they're dead. In contrast, in a horror story characters tend to die to illustrate the idea that no one is safe. Sometimes, though, someone simply has to die. Would Luke have put his faith in the Force during the Death Star run without the death of Obi-wan? Possibly, but likely not, and it would have carried much less gravitas to have Obi-wan telling Luke to "Use the Force" over the intercom.

Sometimes a character dies simply because the writer has run out of uses for them. They create a character who serves a purpose the plot, but then it becomes murky as to what purpose the character continues to serve once they've fulfilled their function. I happen to think that killing off such a character represents poor planning on the part of the author, and that killing them is the easy way out. Rather than having figured out how to integrate the character into the whole story, they only plotted it out so far, and when things got difficult they pushed the character out of the moving vehicle and into traffic. There are times when this gives the story a bit more of a realistic feel, especially if the death of the character taints the "happy ever after" of the ending, but they can irritate me some when they happen.

What really irritates me, though, is when characters are killed for no good reason other than shock value. An instance that comes to mind is Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore, too, to a certain extent, although I think that falls more into the second scenario detailed above - the final battle needed to be Dumbledore-free so he couldn't somehow save the day, and killing him off is the surest way to accomplish that. Also set up the whole thing with Snape. However, it was somewhat undermined by Sirius's death in the previous book.

After the fourth installment, it felt to me as if J.K. Rowling felt the need to end the next two books with a death. (The final book was a series of deaths in and of itself, and, honestly, most of those took the easy way out. I didn't feel the loss of any of them, really, except Hedwig.) Sirius was probably the logical choice, by which I mean the biggest shock value. May also have been a case of not knowing what to do with him, though I think that could have been solved. I didn't feel it served any purpose to kill all of Harry's family (except the Dursely's... and really, if there were people who needed killing...) other than just the shock value.

It seemed to me that by killing the character the author in fact marginalized the character. Just watch the movies and this becomes apparent. Other than to die in the fifth installment, what else did Gary Oldman really have to do? And there was a great deal of potential in the character, particularly as a darker foil to Harry, someone he looked up to who wasn't the ideal of the other mentor figures in the book. (Course, maybe that was sort of the moral point. In which case I really dislike his death.)

The Harry Potter series aren't the only case of killing a character for shock value with no other discernible purpose, but it was the one that came to mind. So I guess the moral of the story here is, if your character is going to stay dead, it ought to be for a good reason and not because you wrote yourself into a corner, or wanted to shock the audience.

Death with a purpose, in other words.

There's a third part to this series, and I'll put it up as soon as I remember what it was going to be.