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Archive for April, 2015

Heroes. We all write about them. They’re kind of necessary: They propel the story, readers identify with them, they are the way we write stories that provide some kind of cathartic resolution to implacable problems. (For both our readers and ourselves.) Heroes: can’t live with ’em, can’t write without ’em.

Wait–“can’t live with ’em”? Yeah, because heroes are larger than life. It wasn’t because Superman lives such a dangerous life that he couldn’t marry Lois–she got into as many scrapes as he did–it was because he would never have any time for her. And as hard as heroes are to live with, they’re just as hard to write.

To be interesting, to be believable, a hero has to be flawed. All of us are. Somebody like Superman or Doc Savage, we can admire them, live vicariously through them, but we can’t relate to them. That’s why they have associates, assistants, friends. Watson is our way in to Holmes’s world. Even Godzilla movies have some kind of human story going on alongside the mayhem.

That’s one way to humanize a hero, although it’s not direct. The direct way is to make him more like the rest of us, scrape away some of his superhumanity. Batman has a tragedy in his past. While we can’t relate to putting on a mask and a cape and swooping in on armed bad guys, we can understand loss. But if you go too far, you risk making your hero–not a hero. How far can you go before your hero is no longer heroic? Where is the line between hero and villain?

It’s interesting that if you actually go way beyond that line, you reach anti-hero territory. Superman kills Zod, and the public screams. (I, for one, won’t watch that movie.) If Batman machine-gunned the Joker and his entire gang, his readership would vanish. (Okay, probably not completely. There are people out there who will read anything.) But let John McClane commit a mass killing, his movie gets three sequels. You skip over “villain” altogether.

So we go from hero through villain and end up at (quasi-) hero. With such a broad spectrum available, where do you fit in the “he’s just like us” part? It isn’t easy. But if you want a relatable character, you have to find a way.

Ironically, if you try to humanize a villain, you do it exactly the same way. And then things get really interesting.

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You ask any author what the hardest part of the job is, and you’ll get one of a hundred different answers. Some think it’s editing and revising, some think it’s naming characters, some it’s writing a satisfactory ending, and so on. I personally think it’s almost all of the above. (I’d say which, specifically, but writers are like magicians and we have to keep some mystery. Unless we’re writing mysteries, in which case we have to dispel any mystery in the end. Like I said, it’s a difficult job. It does help to be insane.) I have tackled this question before, and I thought I answered it, but I was wrong.

The very hardest part of the job is starting. And I don’t mean staring at that piece of paper (yes, I find working on paper helps the process, and you youngsters can ask your parents what “paper” is), I mean coming up with the idea that will lead to someday putting pencil (ask) to paper. It’s hard enough to know what to write, but it’s even harder to know what to write about.

And even that’s not as easy as it looks: You have to define your terms. When you say you’re going to write “about” a space pirate working as a privateer/spy for the king of one star system fighting a cold war against the king of another star system, what kind of story are you trying to write? Is it going to be a “message piece” where “war is bad” is inherent in your tale, or are you writing about the pirate himself and how he views his own life, or are you penning a straight spacebuckler? (Hands off, I just made that up. Honest. Just this minute.)

In a perfect world, you will incorporate all of these elements, but you have to be careful. If the first or second outweighs the third, you risk being boring (and having people yell at you). If the third outweighs the others, you’ll never get any critical respect (or award nominations). So it helps to have some idea which it’s going to be before you start. (Ironically, the fact that you can always change your mind later makes things even worse, not better.)

Me, I almost never know what I’m going to write about next. I have notebooks full of ideas, but seldom do I use one. I have proto-plots for at least five novels in my head, but I don’t really want to take the time to write a novel at the moment. So here I sit, plotting out a blog instead, because 500 words is easier than 5000.

And yet, what good is it to coin a word like “spacebuckler” if you’re not going to use it? Hmmm…

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Like any other attendee, when I volunteer to be an Author Escort at the LA Times Festival of Books, I am hoping to get a chance to meet and talk to one or more of my favorite authors. This has happened a surprising number of times, but more surprising is the number of times I have escorted an author/authors of whom I have never heard, nor in whose field of work (If I even know it) I have ever even pretended to hold the slightest interest–and yet when I am sitting for an hour in the front row of an auditorium, forced to stay awake because the entire room is behind me and the authors are right in front of me and I’m usually on-camera, I find myself fascinated, or at least interested, in what this stranger or group of strangers has to say. This is not to say that I am some kind of Renaissance Man, soaking up information wherever I can find it–it’s a tribute to the variety of experience and the depth of speakers that the Times Festival of Books provides. And it’s one of the reasons I do this, because knowing you’ve got a good chance to meet someone you admire is great, but the idea that you may admire someone you meet is exciting.

I volunteered two days. The first day, John Scalzi was being interviewed by Wil Wheaton. Okay, what self-respecting SF geek could pass that up? I mean, we get guaranteed front-row seats. We get to hob-nob with the stars. Had to do it. Had to. And they were funny. Turns out Wil went to UCLA, and he felt about being on the SC campus as I did. His first “official announcement” as provided by the Festival was “Go Bruins!” Now I have to go out and read whatever he’s written. And that Scalzi guy was amusing too.

The second day I had no preferences, so I grabbed someone at random. Not until I sat down and started to listen did I learn that Claudia Rankine was a poet. A poet?? What had I gotten into? And yet it turned out to be quite interesting. Her poetic exploration of race relations in Los Angeles (readings from her book Citizen, winner of a Times Book Award the night before) made me think, in the way the previous panel had made me laugh. Had I not blindly volunteered to escort Ms. Rankine, I would never have known of her work, never heard of her, and been the poorer for it. I’m not saying I will go out and buy her book, but I won’t look at the Poetry Corner quite the same way again, either.

Obviously, most people can’t get to this festival. But it’s not the only one. And if you don’t have a local book festival, you’ve probably got a local library. Maybe the authors aren’t there in person, but they’re still there for you to meet.

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I was cleaning the garage last weekend (because even proto-famous authors have help around the house) and I ran across a box labeled “Old MS.” Upon later examination, this box proved to be somewhat misleading, as it should have been labeled “Really Old MS,” as in “as old as they get.”

I started writing in the tenth grade. My brother announced one evening that he was going to write a story for his own enjoyment. I said, “I’ll write one, too!” All these years later, I have no idea why, except probably it was sibling rivalry. That sibling rivalry changed the entire course of my life. My brother wrote his story and moved on to other pursuits. I wrote mine and moved on to writing other stories. I had the bug. Eventually, my English teacher got wind of my project and asked to read it. I gave it to her, and she returned it with 100 extra credit points–which I didn’t need, because I had a 4.0 GPA in high school English. I’ll never forget her announcing, “Brian has written a novel and I gave him 100 extra credit points. If anyone wants to write a novel, I’ll give them the same.” Problem? It was three weeks before the end of the school year–and NaNoWriMo hadn’t been invented. I don’t think anyone took her up on her offer. Me, I kept writing and started submitting to magazines the following year.

Fast forward to last weekend. I opened the “Old MS” box, and there was that “novel.” In fact, there was the handwritten version preceding the typed version my teacher read. Cue OMG moment. And that’s not all. In this box I found over a dozen stories I thought had been lost the ages, including the first I ever submitted and a bunch more I couldn’t even remember. (You’ve heard of hysterical amnesia.) And I found the piece de resistance, what I believe was my first rejection. OMG indeed.

Now, I have not had the courage to re-read most of this…stuff…and what I have re-read is quite enough. But in its sheer amateurishness, I found joy and encouragement: It showed me just how far I have come. In truth, the mere fact that I can skim over the material so cursorily, and yet detect instantly where I had gone wrong, shows how far I have come. Writing is not about immediately putting the right words on the page, it’s about knowing which words belong before it leaves your hands.

And this is very valuable stuff. It doesn’t matter if you have success, as I’ve said before, writers are harder on themselves than anyone else is. But when I am most down on myself because I haven’t written enough, or sold enough, I think back on that teenager who wrote these Conan rip-offs (trying at the same time not to be writing Conan rip-offs), and I look at myself now through his eyes. I’ve sold almost 20 short stories. Do you know what that kid would have thought of someone who had sold nearly 20 short stories? He’d think that author resided on the (lower) slopes of Mount Olympus. He would look at that man and feel a yearning to make his heart burst, a yearning to be that man. And he would be, someday. And if he heard that man bemoaning the lack of production or the lack of sales, he’d say, “Are you kidding me? Do you have any idea what I’d give to be in your shoes? You’re published! You go to parties where the man across the table is allowing you to admire his Nebula award while the man next to you says, ‘Yeah, it’s prettier than mine’! What the hell’s wrong with you?”

Without enumerating all the possible answers to his question, I’d have to admit he’s right. For most of my life, I would have thought my position as a writer today was pretty sweet.

What a great thing perspective can be. And who would have thought a fifteen-year-old kid would be the one to provide it?

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It was not so long ago
I can still remember how the writing used to make me smile
And I knew if I only wrote
That I could make those people vote
And maybe I’d have a Hugo in a while.

But those Sad Puppies made me quiver
With every posting they’d deliver
Bad news on my laptop
I couldn’t make them all stop.

I can’t discern just what they hate
When they talk about their awards slate
But something touched me deep inside
The day the Hugos—died.

So bye-bye to American sci-fi
Tried complaining to the concom
But the concom was fried,
And them good ol’ boys was drinkin’ bottled Chimay
Singin’ “This is all the fault of Vox Day,
This is all the fault of Vox Day.”

And the three pros I admire most
Writing about aliens, ghouls, and ghosts
They had to admit Worldcon was toast
The day the Hugos died.

And they were singin’
Bye-bye to American sci-fi
Tried complaining to the concom
But the concom was fried,
And them good ol’ boys was drinkin’ bottled Chimay
Singin’ “This is all the fault of Vox Day,
This is all the fault of Vox Day.”

Bye-bye to American sci-fi
Tried complaining to the concom
But the concom was fried,
And them good ol’ boys was drinkin’ bottled Chimay
Singin’ “This is all the fault of Vox Day.”

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With Spring in the air and our favorite shows just returned from their winter hiatus, it’s time to start saying good-bye as they go on their Summer hiatus. But don’t despair, because this Fall promises to bring more than its share of new genre-related shows. We’ve picked some of the most promising to preview.

“Please Don’t Eat the Westeroses,” a family comedy from the people who brought you “Game of Thrones.”

“Franks.” Big monster in the big city, from the people who brought you “Friends.” Featuring the theme song, “You’re Worth an Arm and a Leg to Me.”

“The Bachelor Agent.” Every week Agent Coulson invades a Hydra safe house where sixteen femmes fatales vie for the opportunity to put a rose on his coffin and win the grand prize of $1,000,000. (The prize is forfeited if Coulson rises from the dead. Again.)

“The Great Hugo Race.” In this reality series, two (maybe more) teams compete in a series of demeaning exercises to see who can take home a trophy that none of them “really wants” anyway.

“Breitbart.comedy,” in which a crusty old conservative tries to teach his feisty young niece, a budding nerd, to read the “right” kind of SF. From the Disney Channel.

And of course the big news is the hotly-anticipated “Agents of SHIELD” spin-off, “Hi, Hydra, I’m Home!” Can a Hydra assassin balance mayhem, extortion, and arson with PTA meetings, selling Girl Scout cookies, and backyard barbecues? Hilarity ensues weekly when he pins his mission parameters to the fridge and takes the family schedule to work! Fortunately, he can always count on his neighbors, Vera and “Red” Skull, because after all, it takes a village to rule a planet, let alone raise three teenagers.

So, what will you be watching?

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Note: This is another post dedicated to the Hugo Awards. If you aren’t interested, we will return to our regular programming eventually. I promise.

I freely admit that I’m spending more time on this whole Sad Puppies/Hugogate phenomenon than is perhaps healthy. (If you’re just coming into this discussion, just google “Sad Puppies 2015.” It’s gotten too big to encapsulate in any one reference.) In my own defense, however, this controversy is not going away any time soon, and by “soon” I mean “the next few years.” So I might as well be up on it, and for that reason I have been trying to amass as many viewpoints as possible. And because of that, I have made the startling discovery that both sides actually have something in common:

They’re both wrong.

Not about everything, of course. Much of what they say is a matter of taste and/or opinion, which cannot be wrong. That’s why taste and opinion are not fact. But they are wrong on the facts–sometimes. Maybe if they weren’t, some kind of meaningful discussion could actually occur (although I doubt it). I’d like to take this opportunity to show how both sides get some things wrong. I’ll start with the Sad Puppies, because they ignited the current contretemps.* I will use a recent posting by Larry Correia as my template.

Mr. Correia’s posting is too long to cover in its entirety, and much of it, as I said earlier, is opinion, so I’ll only speak to certain sections.

Sad Puppies is all about getting good books recognized. That’s what you say and I’m sure you believe it. But Sad Puppies was created expressly as a right-wing political experiment, and two years of evolution is not going to erase people’s memories. You can’t expect it will.

SP3 won big because the fannish cabal was mean to us after last year’s SP selections lost. No, it was because you mobilized your troops and the other side didn’t.

We’ve got nothing against fans. We’re fans too. Yes, I’m sure the CHORFs would agree.

We’re doing this in defense of freedom of artistic expression. This has nothing to do with artistic expression and everything to do with who gets awards. Artistic expression is not at risk. Neither is freedom.

Don’t blame Vox Day on us. True, he was a jerk before Sad Puppies. True, he’s no longer connected with SP. But he started with you, and you knew damned well who and what he was. In fact, you recommended works on his slate. Now Frankenstein’s Creature is loose (“Rabid Puppies” is no coincidence) and you can’t say you don’t share the blame.

As for the left side of the aisle…

For its (many) sins, the only proper response to the Sad Puppies slate is complete rejection. Although it is only one fact, it is as wrong as all of the facts listed above collectively.

First, not everyone on the Sad Puppies slate was consulted, or knew what was going on when they found out they were included. You’re punishing the innocent with the “guilty.” Isn’t it conservatives who supposedly shoot first and ask questions later?

Second, some people on the slate choose to remain there not because they agree with the SPs politics, but because they’ve been nominated for a Hugo. Had I been asked to be put on the slate, I don’t know that I would not have agreed, just for the publicity. We authors are in it to sell books, and “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Third, voting “No Award” before every category is only going to give the SPs ammunition. They’ll say, “They’d rather destroy the Hugos than let us win,” and they will, sadly, be right. You don’t trim a tree by chopping it down.

So okay, all of you are wrong about something. Can you climb down from your fortified towers, wave a white flag, and talk? If you are all, as you say, only interested in finding the best stories to honor, then you actually have a lot in common.

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