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Archive for June, 2014

Ah, yes, the ubiquitous “Best X of All Time” debate. Never can we get enough of these, and if we are honest, we admit that we tolerate (love) them only because we love to argue with them. And I’m nothing if not honest. I’m here for the argument.

The British genre magazine SFX took a poll of British fans to ascertain the “250 greatest moments in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.” (They appear to have limited these moments to media moments.) They report receiving 96,000 replies, a pretty good sampling, one would guess. (Only the top ten choices were released publicly.) So how do 96,000 people come up with this?

1. DOCTOR WHO The Doctor and Rose say farewell at Bad Wolf Bay in “Doomsday”
2. AVENGERS ASSEMBLE “Puny god!” The Hulk owns Loki
3. ALIEN The chestburster
4. FIREFLY Mal Reynolds kicks a bad guy into Serenity’s engine intake (“The Train Job”)
5. STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father
6. BLADE RUNNER Roy Batty’s “Tears in rain” speech
7. GAME OF THRONES The Red Wedding: “The Lannisters send their regards”
8. THE MATRIX Neo dodges bullets in the bullet-time scene
9. HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE Dumbledore’s death
10. BACK TO THE FUTURE “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”

Where to start? Okay, the beginning. Not a bad choice, and considering it’s a British poll, not surprising. But I think there’s room for argument. As opposed to say, no. 2, which is just plain silly. And Mal kicking a bad guy ranks higher than Vader & Son? Really?

Rather than dissect the entire list (which is largely unobjectionable, if controversial), here’s mine. I don’t know that these are the top ten moments in genre history, but I’d argue that any of them has a place on the list. I’ve limited each movie and TV show to one entry to avoid overconcentration (I’m talking to you, Twilight Zone!). They are presented in no particular order, except No. 1, which I would argue should have been no. 1 in the SFX poll, as well.

1. STAR TREK “City on the Edge of Forever” The death of Edith Keeler

2. SUPERMAN Superman: “Don’t worry, miss, I’ve got you.” Lois: “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”

3. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN The candle scene

4. TWILIGHT ZONE “Time Enough at Last” Burgess Meredith loses his glasses

5. STAR WARS Han saves Luke at the Battle of the Death Star

6. FORBIDDEN PLANET Anne Francis [swimming]: “Come on in.” Leslie Nielsen: “I didn’t bring my bathing suit.” Anne: “What’s a bathing suit?”

7. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) Kevin McCarthy in the final scene

8. ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. The animal skin bikini

9. SMALLVILLE Clark puts on the suit

10. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE My wife’s turn as an extra. I defy anyone to watch her performance and say she wasn’t a Starfleet officer.

Of course, now that I have a list, I expect you all to argue with it…

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Why don’t they reboot novels?

I mean, movies get rebooted all the time. If they reboot Spider-Man any more, they’ll be writing over movies they haven’t made yet. Songs are rebooted; they’re called “covers.” Even TV series are remade occasionally. (Knight Rider? Really?) But nobody reboots books.

There are a lot of classic novels out there that no one reads anymore (unless they’re assigned in school). There are many times more classic novels out there that no one reads anymore at all. Many are not read because they are not, in fact, “classics.” But that’s never stopped the movie industry. In fact, you don’t remake “classics” because they stand the test of time, that’s the definition of “classic.” (I’m talking to you, The Day the Earth Stood Still.)

So why not books? Why not update a du Maurier thriller–not the movie Rebecca, but the book? Or even better, how about updating Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with a little gene-tampering?

Of course, a lot of books would not survive the changes. If Odysseus had kept his cell phone charged, he could have called home once in a while and avoided a lot of trouble. If Sherlock Holmes had the Internet, he could…oh, wait, they did that, and it’s really cool. Okay, but if Jonathan Harker had been able to Google Dracula before travelling to Transylvania, that would have turned out differently.

Still, a lot of old books are just chock-full of musty old language that you could clean up so people today could actually read them. Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare…let’s modernize and popularize! (Oh, c’mon, Will would be have all for it if it meant more sales.) We don’t even have to go back that far. Take Tolkien–please. You could cut him down to one book. And while we’re on the subject, can we re-boot the Harry Potter books into American? I mean, who can read that stuff?

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“Day of Reckoning,” about a superhero contemplating his involuntary “retirement,” is going to be published by the award-winning Plasma Frequency Magazine. I’m thrilled to be able to break into this new market with my 16th career sale.

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There was an article I saw the other day about a couple of girls from a famous (infamous?) reality show family (yeah, you know who they are) appearing at a local Barnes & Noble to promote their new novel. Intrigued by the concept as I am that the name of the author is ofttimes more important that the content of the book, I took a closer look, and discovered that the reality was more horrifying than my imagination. This was not a mere case of celebutantes taking valuable shelf space for their questionable literary dalliances, this was a case of promoting a novel they didn’t even write.

Now I understand ghostwriting–done it myself. If a celebrity wants to write his memoirs, he hires help (usually but not always acknowledged). Nothing wrong with that, baseball players aren’t typically accomplished writers. But to hire someone to write a novel and then put your name on it and then promote it like it’s something you actually accomplished–that’s beyond horrifying, that’s just sad.

It’s especially sad when you consider that these girls are still teenagers–they have lots of spare time to write a book if they want to. But in a bid, I guess, to save time and avoid rejection, they just skipped the hard part, hired a real writer, and jumped straight to the public adoration. But what does that say about them? What use is that adoration when you haven’t earned it?

These girls grew up rich. The wealth is obvious, but the “grew up” part isn’t. Most novelists have a few clunkers until their belts, but they admit to them as part of the learning process. And even the clunkers are something to be proud of: I finished my first novel in college. When I was done, my roommate (an English major who knew perfectly well that this was no piece of literary immortality) got some friends together and threw me a surprise “You finished your novel!” party. It still ranks as one of the greatest rewards of my writing life. And no, the novel never went anywhere. But I’m proud of it, because as my roommate acknowledged, I wrote it. Every word. I did what so many people think about, and say they’re going to do when they get the time, and so on. I did that thing.

No, I’ve never stood up in a Barnes & Noble and hawked my book. No, I’ve never been on a TV show. But I still think it’s better to fail on your own than to claim success through someone else’s efforts. And I’m proud of that.

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If you know about anything about Edgar Rice Burroughs (other than that he wrote the Tarzan books), you know that in the early part of the last century he wrote other series that took place on Mars (sorry about that movie, John Carter), Venus–and the center of the Earth, which he called Pellucidar, one of whose defining characteristics was a huge subterranean ocean. Now, we all know that there is likely no life on Mars, even less on Venus, and the idea of a huge prehistoric land in the center of the Earth, complete with a pleisiosaur-haunted ocean? Really, don’t make us 21st-century folks laugh.

Except that Burroughs was right. They just found the ocean.

Okay, it’s not really an “ocean” with snowy wavecaps and briny deeps, but they’re calling it one. So does this mean we’re going to find dinosaurs and cave girls down there? Just think for a second if we did. What if some of that old-time pulp nonsense turned out to have even a fraction of a chance of being true? What a magical world that would be.

I don’t care what kind of “ocean” it is, whether it’s liquid water or absorbed in minerals or a giant ice sheet. Let me be the first to say to our Stone Age neighbors, many hundreds of miles beneath our feet:

“Howdy. So how’s the weather down there?”

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A professional writer writes to be paid. That’s kind of the definition of “professional.” There are ways that one can act like a professional, and earn the respect of professionals by so doing, but in the end you’re a pro if you get paid and an amateur if you don’t. This is not to denigrate aspiring writers (I was one for far too long to do that), but to illustrate a point.

It’s come to my attention recently that a magazine (paying SFWA rates) has decided to institute a two-tier system of submissions. Half of their stories will come from slush pile subs, just as always, and half will come from “premium memberships,” where writers pay to get a better chance of selection. (Premium members can also be picked from the slush pile, but not vice versa.) I’m not going to name the magazine, because frankly, if they change their policies I might want to sub there someday, and because that’s beside the point. (If you want to find out, it shouldn’t be too hard.)

The point is this, and I direct this to any new writers out there: You don’t pay to get published. Ever. Under any circumstances. Professional writers get paid, they don’t pay. This applies to premium memberships, reading fees (for magazines or agents), and in my opinion, contest fees. (There are fee-charging contests which are legit. I just don’t enter them.)

This is a sore subject to me, because I’ve been a victim twice. (And no, I’m not getting into specifics.) One time was a magazine reading fee (refundable if the story sold), and once the agent I hired, who wanted money to cover “mailing and expenses” was a fraud. Fortunately, neither of them cost me a lot, but had I known better they would not have cost me at all. (I also once paid an agency for a critique in addition to considering my manuscript for representation. I’ve heard since this agency caught a lot of flak for that, but I did get a detailed critique with valuable feedback, so while I wouldn’t do it again, I don’t consider that I was dealt with unfairly.)

There are two problems with this magazine’s latest idea: (1) it dilutes the integrity of the market, and (2) more importantly, it asks authors to pay for offering a market its own product. What does a market sell but your stories? Why pay the magazine so that it can make money off of you? The truth is that if you write well enough to publish, there are dozens of markets out there that want to see your stories–for free. They’ll even pay you for them. (Try looking here, for example.) And your potential fans will not look at your story and say, “Oh, their authors pay to be published there.” Why would someone buy that magazine?

If you want to pay to be published, slap your stories together into an anthology, invest in a pre-made cover, and self-publish. At least then you keep all the money. Paying someone to publish you? That’s not professional.

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And by “you,” I mean anyone who wants to be a writer. Sane people, on the other hand, should simply go about their business, because you don’t want to know that there are folks walking around who look like you do, and sound like you do, but think like we do.

A friend recently told me that his son wants to be a writer, and asked me what his son should study? Should he go to a school which offers a creative writing major, for example?

I said that there are a lot of such programs out there, and I certainly wasn’t able to critique each one, but what you really need to become a writer is to write. Reading is critical, too, and you should read things more than once, so as to see how successful authors (or rather, good writers) do what they do, but the first thing is you have to write. You have to want to write, because you’re going to be doing a lot of it. This isn’t to say you have to enjoy writing, because very possibly you won’t. But you have to want to do it anyway.

But that’s what you have to want, and have to do. There’s something else equally important, and you can’t want it, or do it. You have to have it, or learn to develop it, and that’s a thick skin.

This is ironic, because as we all know, artists are thin-skinned. They are sensitive, and easily upset; most learn very quickly not to read their reviews. And yet, you have to be thick-skinned, too, and this is why everyone who wants to write should be a fantasy writer: Fantasy writers deal with made-up worlds, worlds that have an internal logic but bear little or no resemblance to our own. If you want to be a writer, you are already living in a fantasy world: You think writing is the road to fame and fortune.

Still, everyone is the hero of his own fantasy, and even if the story extends through an entire trilogy, the hero usually wins–eventually. And during the long days and nights of writing and submitting and being rejected, it helps to be able to retreat into your own made-up world where the arrows bounce off you and you can pull yourself up off the ground and charge into battle again. If you can construct that world and believe yourself its hero, and that you’re going to win in the end no matter what, why then, you’re already a fantasy writer.

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