Thursday, April 30, 2015

The fantasy book doorstop. Please just stop.

This is an example of when I read something out in the wild forums of the Internet and my two cents sort of became a buck-fifty.

The subject? Why most current fantasy novels are fat door-stoppers made of paper and pulp as the saga goes on for thousands of pages.

My reply (edited into a less rambling format.)

Don't blame the genre, blame the business.

Back in the 70s novels were a lot smaller. The two volume set for Chronicles of Amber, was a total of 772 pages for a collection of 5 stories. Yep, 150 pages a piece. (The entire run was 10 stories at 1,500 page maintaining that average.) And finishing a series like Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun" ( about 1,200 pages )  was a commitment.  

But then Wolfe was always a bit indulgent.

Then some time in the late 80s, publishers convinced themselves (because noon of them used research to shore up their wack-a-doodle ideas) that if a reader at a Waldenbooks mall store (or at the airport) didn't know Writer A from Writer B, then the reader would pick a thicker book. They assumed that the reader hoped they'd be getting more story for the buck with the thicker forest-killing  tome.

Perhaps because the fantasy genre had long already been in DTOGO mode (Do a Trilogy Or Go Home) that it slid easily into making bigger books and rambling stories. It doesn't help that once an author gets popular, editors seem loath to trim their tales. (I think the Yiddish Policeman's Union is about 100 pages too long.)

So if you want lighter, tighter fare  I suggest going back and discovering the old Sword and Sorcery/New Age stuff like Zelazny, Moorecock, Butler, and last - but never least - Le Guin. All of them have tighter, shorter reads that all buck the Tolkien template.

And for some of us, the "Fantasy novels are too padded" ranks right up there with "Why doesn't MTV show music videos anymore?" i.e., a meme that's old enough to drive a car and probably buy its own drinks.

My inspiration for digging up this reply up was finding a publisher who wanted LESS than 60,000 for a submitted novel. That, right there, felt like a breath of fresh air.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Your book, your dreams ...

Recently two things happened.

The first was that a young writer has gotten back in touch with me. He had taken an unintended sabbatical from writing because he thought he was stuck in a rut. 

He loves writing Urban Fantasy, but felt like he couldn't add anything new to the genre -- that everything had been done before. Frustrated that he couldn't come up with a story idea free of cliche or tropes, he eventually stopped writing.

Now he's aiming to be back in the saddle with the goal getting up at 5 am and try to write something every day. Bless him, he's an early riser. For me, it's much more likely that I'll get a thousand words written than get up at that verboten hour. So what's gotten him writing again?

Pretty much a forgettabout attitude. 

For most writers that discover something new, two things happen. Either they catch lighting in a bottle; or they've found a great peanut butter/chocolate mix of ideas and imagery. (The current marketing shorthand for such things is "X"-punk.) So either you need luck or you need time to mix and match things to find that right combo. Your odds of doing so improve greatly by actually writing. So start writing.

But you want to bring something unique, something awesome to the table. Well, they say there are no new ideas, that even scifi concepts -- like robots -- can trace their mythical roots to the golem and living statues that date back to the first pages of recorded history. If that's true, what can you bring that's new?

Stories are a lot like people. The great ones have heart and brains, but they also a voice. And each voice is different. That's what you bring, so bring it! 

There is a time for writer to put their ego to the side. The first draft ain't the place for that, pardner. 

Oh, there was a second thing, wasn't there?

Yep. Lately, I've been noticing that my FB  and forum posts have been getting longer and longer. I've taken that as a sign that maybe my thoughts need a bigger space to stretch their legs. So you might see me blogging a bit more in the past. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Hugos ... what a mess.

This year the Intertubes were a blaze with issues about tolerance -- or the lack of it -- in all types of media and it may not be a surprise that the Hugos are in the middle of it this year when a group decided to make a statement by gaming the Hugo Awards to prove that the Hugo nomination system could be gamed.. I'd say that was proven when Doctor Who won the Short Dramatic Feature for like three years in a row. All good stuff, but that was a bit much.

For those who might want to know -- or care -- the Hugos are basically the People's Choice Award for literary and dramatic genre fiction. So right off the bat, take that for what you will. (The genre Oscar is called the Nebulas and usually gets less press since it's more of a SWFA pow wow than a con.)

You can vote in the Hugos for two years if you like, by getting an associate membership to World Con, which is $40. In a time that's the same price as one-day pass to a local con where you can talk to people about the cool stuff you saw this year, that seems steep. And to be in person is bit steeper than PAX, a show with 70,000 guests is $95. A World Con can be between $150-$200 depending on how long you wait to get tickets. (You can get some discounts with early bird specials, attending last year, etc.)

So people voting on the Hugos can claim they are serious about their fandom in a time when the paperback novel that sparked genre explosion over half a century ago is dying. to ebooks. Serious enough that fans stump for their favorites more out of love than of merit. Some even claim that reached a tipping point the early 70s, when Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama beat out Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. "There," they say. "Is when the Hugos became more about the popular vote  than literary one."

That particular argument to the side, every major award has that bent to it. It's the irony of such enterprises to showcase the best, but not necessarily the best of that particular year or even the best of us. It's like a warped mirror that gets close some times, but you should still be turning around to check your ass to see if it's really that wide.

My advice, if you're a voting member, is to not sit on your Laurels, or Hardys, this year and make an effort to check out each nominee. Don't vote as a fan or as a political activist. Just vote as a reader and don't worry about what someone will say about that vote. Because the pranksters will claim a win no matter what you do, they rigged ballot for that very purpose in mind.

If you vote true, the truth will bear out in the end.

There's been talk lately that World Con's gotten a bit small and bit grey in it's own sampling of fandom. Who knows, maybe this ruckus has a silver lining and the attention will get new blood in. Of course you know what means, the new blood always wants to make its mark and show the status quo how it's done. 

I'm sure that'll be a whole new bit of drama if that happens. At least the rest of us can watch on the sidelines. Care for some popcorn?

Friday, February 6, 2015

Broaden your horizons

Virginia Hamilton
N.K. Jemsisn
Octavia E. Butler
Samuel R.Delany
Walter Mosely
Nalo Hopkins

If these writer's aren't on your To Read List, pick a couple and enjoy. One of the great things about SciFi is the invitation to explore beyond your boundaries and these writers still have a lot to teach us about the human condition and about ourselves. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Gaming your writer's block away

I don't usually have writer's block, per se, as you see it in fiction,* where it's the crippling type that has the writer seemingly blank on ideas, like he's living in a white blank-paged wasteland of imagination.

It's a popular image that's (ironically) inspired different systems and techniques to beat the block. Over the past couple of years I found a few that might do the trick or they're at least fun enough to make your writing breaks a bit more creative.

The latest is a Kickstarted game by Dejobaan Games.

 Elegy for a Dead World

In this recently released PC game, you are the lone survivor of an expedition to an abandoned planet. You aren't the pilot -- or the archaeologist -- you are the poet. Your character roams the beautiful scenery and writes about what they see. You can either write free from or pick a theme, like You Realize The Whole Planet Is Artificial, that prompts your story. Players can also share, read and rate their stories on the cloud.

Roy's Story cubes

You've got  nine dice with pictures, you've got game rules on how two or more players can make a game of storytelling or play solo and see if the mental exercise can loosen up your brain blockage.

 Once Upon an Time

OUaT is a card game that lets people empty their hand as they tell a story, but other's can interrupt the flow with their tale to tell. The game ends when a player ties in their story with a unique "Happy Every After" card, which also has to be their last discard.

Not only is it an award-winning game that's been around for decades (not that I would personally know ... stop looking at me like that.) But there's also a book that turns the cards into fun writing exercises.

So there you go. More ways to incorporate storytelling into your life and fight writer's block.

Or at least a way to tell your internal editor that you're "brainstorming" for a story  when you've got dice and cards in hand.

*The things that stump me are how to express my ideas ... and the willpower to stick with an idea long enough to get it finished.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Space Opera Tropes: the Precursor race. Here to stay?

It's a literary tradition in science fiction that when Hollywood and video games start regularly using a trope that's been around for ages, then it might be time to move on from that trope.

Thanks to Prometheus and Halo, a lot more of the mainstream public is now familiar with the Precursor race trope. For those who watch what's left of the History Channel, it also known as "God is an Astronaut."  The trope evolved to explain (in a retcon fashion) why so many alien races on the screen -- and in books -- have two arms, two legs, communicate with their mouths, and are basically humanoid except for the addition of fur, scales or other bits of Hollywood makeup.

And it's much less cynical to explain that aliens seeded the universe than to admit to convenient writing and tiny budgets.

But as audiences get more savvy, there's been an uptick in  this trope is a nod to the hard science fiction. It helps explain why we can interact with the aliens  — and that we all advanced our technologies at the same rate. And just to further clarify, when I say the same level of tech I mean that the gulf in technologies and sciences are close enough that one can eventually reverse engineer from the other.

Without a precursor race, pure science says the odds of us meeting a race that both resembles us AND shares the same level of tech is near nil. It's much more likely our neighbors will be vastly different, incomprehensible. Their technology will also be on a completely different level than ours. There will be no contest for the side with the better tech. On the other hand, it's much easier to live in peace with a species that shares no common resources or even knows that you exist. ... Until they accidentally wipe you out or vice versa.

The tropes of Space Opera have popped up to help tell a certain style of story to a certain audience. Over time, those tropes have evolved to keep the genre going.

For example, Old Man's War explained that FTL was actually dimensional jumping and terraforming in Firefly explained one climate planets.

You can do Space Opera without FTL (synchronized cryosleep) as in the Lockstep novel. But then again, Altered Carbon tried to have Space Opera without starships (broadcasting downloaded personalities) and that came off more as cyberpunk.

So at this point, the PC trope might be here to stay just like Starships, FTL and big laser guns.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Sound check, check, check. Audiobook time.

I’ve been quiet for a couple good reasons lately. In addition to shooting out a raft of short stories out into the unforgiving world of the slush pile and creeping along with my YA novel, I've been experimenting with audiobook short stories (audioshorts?) by laying down tracks for Small Town Nights.
Here's a sample:

Luckily my buddy Ebony Jones, who has like one of the coolest real life names that I know of, did all the heavy lifting when it came to the directing and sound. I, on the other hand, was just happy to put my old broadcasting skills to use.
But every format has its own quirks, as I found out:
Pick a story that plays to your strengths -- and your limits. If you’re not the sort of person who can make up voices, find a story with only one narrator or a third person omniscient. If you're doing a story with local flavor and your natural accent add ambiance, go for it.  Small Town Nights is an example of that. It was a narrated piece where my Midwestern/Southern accent fits perfectly, once I ham it up.
It’s ten times easier to do straight narration than voices. The real challenge is when you have to come back to the studio the next day and match those same voices again. It’s harder than you think, especially when you the voices in your head are different than the ones come out of your mouth. … Even worse when the voices in your head are telling you to smother peanut butter on your chest. … I’ve had my meds, I promise.
We wasted a good half hour because I was thinking of Sean Connery, when I was really speaking like Deckard Cain. Which is fair, DC is a SC rip-off.
Even if you wrote it, rehearsal is good. Even if the writing is spot on, there’s going to be some hidden tongue twisters in there.
But being your own script-writer is great. Sometimes things that read great on the page suck when read out loud. I’m not saying that the original was bad, but in performing a piece that’s already driven by narrator I found some spots that needed more flavor -- as compared to polish. Soon, future versions of the epub Small Town Nights will have these changes.
Reformat your work. Avoid splitting a paragraph between pages. It will minimize breathing sounds and kept you from absently mindedly turning the page -- and thus reduce the amount of splicing for your sound guys. An aside here, sound guys are going through what’s already happened to Graphic and Web Designers. Since the ease of open source software and the Internet has demystified the technology somewhat, clients new the field have unrealistic expectations and expect rates lower than the industry standard. e.g. They expect a pro to “cut and paste” tracks together for $9 an hour and do it all in under an hour. 
That’s like asking me to draw an owl. You’ll get a stickman owl. Ask an artist to draw an owl:
But we both know how to put pencil to paper. The first clue maybe that the artist is going to use a charcoal pencil while I use an H2.
Home offices/studios have their challenges. Airplanes, motorcycles and thunderstorms can give you retakes or postpone a session, plan according.
The most important part though, is have Fun, as you experiment and create your own audiobook.