Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

Foodie Blogs, Dead Playwrights, and Game Shows

In Uncategorized on April 24, 2012 at 9:00 am

Serious Eats is a favourite blog of mine, not only because they understand the superiority of Chicago cuisine and thus have devoted a sub-blog to it, but also because they’re extremely transparent, given the kind of site they are. They joke with each other across posts, show off Dumpling the Serious Eats mascot dog, talk about the process of creating content, and do stuff like post their list of “banned” words that they keep in an actual communal Google doc for reference.

“A list of banned words from the website is a subtly different from the many, many, many lists of “words foodies hate” that you see going around the web […] These ones aren’t necessarily words that grate our ears (though some of them definitely are), but are words that are simply bad descriptors, overused, or plain silly.”

Most of the phrases listed are essentially cutesy versions of more grownup words, which makes sense. Irreverence is fine, but professionalism is still the watchword, and that’s how it should be.

I don’t have a list of words I don’t use, because frankly I’d never remember it. I find that for me, not using words tends to derive (regrettably) from the humiliation of being asked not to use them, or of having someone pointing them out. I will never forget being sixteen and having someone on the internet tell me to stop using “kewl” because I look like a moron. The thing is, they were totally right.

Joe Orton, a brilliant playwright in the mid sixties (tragically murdered early — “Prick Up Your Ears” is a great biography of him and a decent biopic) used to keep lists of words he liked in his notebooks, which I’ve always found a more positive way of looking at things. Not that I do that, either, but it seems better to focus on what we enjoy doing than what we oughtn’t to do.

It’s this kind of attitude that gets me in trouble with organised religion.

One of the ultimate tools in a writer’s skill set is an extensive vocabulary. It’s not about being able to use long words in place of short ones or complicated words in place of simple ones, but about being able to use the right word to evoke an emotion or a vision in the reader’s mind. The precise use of language is incredibly important, and also incredibly difficult, because we often agree as a society on general meanings but get bogged down when it comes to specifics.

As with most writerly skills, the best way to acquire a good vocabulary and the ability to apply it properly comes down to reading.

My ex-roommate and I watch a lot of Wheel Of Fortune. A LOT of it. And with this repetition comes a certain recognition of pattern: Final Wheel is always a much more complicated, much shorter sequence of words than ordinary Wheel Of Fortune, because it’s not player-versus-player now, it’s player-versus-puzzlemaker. The words are specifically chosen to contain as few as possible of the most commonly-used letters in the English language (R, S, T, L, N, and E) and to use very rarely-used letters like W, Y, and J. But it’s not easy to see that if you don’t watch the show a lot.

Repetition leads to familiarity, which in turn leads to pattern recognition. The more you read, the more you absorb the structures of language, and the more you internalize the compelling, dramatic, and evocative in literature.

And, of course, the more you learn what words not to use.

The Dead Isle – Index Post

In Uncategorized on April 20, 2012 at 7:53 am

Clare Fields is a Creationist — an individual gifted with the ability to create things out of thin air for a short amount of time. Her best friend, Jack Baker, is an Engineer with big dreams stuck in a world where magic infuses every aspect of society, from faith and mythology to industry and business. Inseparable despite their differences, Jack and Clare have always been outsiders, standing together against the world.

Now Jack has been tasked with building a flying machine without the use of Creationism, far from home and the familiar confines of his University. His patron is a wealthy eccentric named Ellis Graveworthy: an eminent novelist who also happens to be a secret agent for Her Majesty’s government.

Together, the three of them will embark on an adventure across continents and oceans to reach Australia, the infamous Dead Isle that robs Creationists of their abilities and has long since closed its borders to outsiders. Along with Purva de la Fitte, a pirate princess who joins them on the journey, they must find their way to the anonymous supplicant who summoned them, unaware of what awaits them — or that Clare may hold the secret to the puzzle of why Australia has no Creation.

The Dead Isle is a steampunk fantasy novel currently being posted on LiveJournal for criticism and review, one chapter a day between April 20th and May 14th, 2012. Check back daily for new chapters, or follow the action at theoriginalsam. Feel free to comment with any and all thoughts you may have as you read. With any luck, a final version will be available in epub, pdf, and hardcopy format by the end of the year.

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5
Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10
Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15
Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20
Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25

Start Your Difference Engines!

In Uncategorized on April 16, 2012 at 11:07 am

I’ve talked a lot about the reader-writer relationship here, and a lot about my new novel The Dead Isle as well, and now they’re coming together like brass and leather in an editorial steampunk extravaganza.

Starting on April 20th and going through May 14th, I’ll be posting a chapter a day of the newly rewritten The Dead Isle to my fiction blog, The Original Sam. I won’t be posting daily updates at WordPress, but I will make an index post on the 20th which you can check daily for new chapters. And if you’re on LiveJournal you can always friend the blog and get updates on your friendslist!

I am inviting all readers to come out and review the chapters as they go up, pointing out everything from typos to anachronisms to just plain poor writing. (It happens to the best of us. At least, I hope.) This is the extribulum process, a part of building the bond between writer and reader rather than between seller and buyer, making the reader an integral part of the editorial process. It helps me to understand what stories people want to hear and how they want to hear them.

So come out to read and critique The Dead Isle! And if you have friends who are interested in editing, steampunk, fantasy, alternate history, or digital publishing, tell them too! The Dead Isle is family-friendly (there’s very little swearing or violence and no sex) and while I may be biased I think it’s a heck of an adventure.

Kicking Ass And Kitchen Tables

In Uncategorized on April 9, 2012 at 9:00 am

I’ve been reading a lot of comic books lately. I’m not really sure why; it’s just one of those things where my interest suddenly flicks on. The time was right, the stars aligned, who knows.

I’ve always had difficulty with comics in the past because I’m a dialogue-focused person — much of my early training in writing was theatrical. I’ve tended to read the dialogue and ignore the art, unless there was a particularly compelling image. The older I get and the more I study classical art, the easier it’s become to integrate the two. Practice helps, of course, and fortunately there is a vast archive of digital comics that has helped me, particularly some early stuff where the characters were fascinating but the writing was truly, truly dreadful so I had to focus on the art.

I wish I could say I was reading something particularly unique, but the truth is I’m reading pretty mainstream: Avengers from Marvel, old Batman and Superman from DC.

Now, I don’t want to claim that comic books have no literary or artistic value. They do, and it’s a very unique kind. I don’t really want to claim that some comic books have more value than others, but let’s be honest: I am reading the comic book equivalent of the Beach Novel. Does it have value? Usually! Is it just a little trashy and self-gratifying? Always.

I’ve formulated a theory on mainstream superhero comic books, and I’m calling it the Fight-Brain Theory. It goes like this: within the superhero genre, there are Fight Comics and there are Brain Comics.

Fight Comics are composed predominately of people bashing each other over the head until one of them gives in. There may be meaningful dialogue during the fight, there may be character development during the fight, but I wouldn’t know, because fights are usually pretty boring, so I skim them. Mileage varies from person to person; I’m just not interested. I also skipped all the major battles and Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter books.

Then there are Brain Comics, which aren’t substantially different from Fight Comics; they’re like Fight Comics with DVD extras. It’s not that the hero uses his brain to win the fight, it’s that there are other parts of the story where the action is mostly intellectual: people talk about relationships and problems, they have friends and hobbies, they engage in activities outside of superheroing — what the industry calls “Kitchen Table” scenes. And all this can happen in Fight Comics, but the difference is that in Brain Comics it’s a major, significant portion of the story, and the fights tend to be truncated to allow it in. (Spider-man, I have to admit, is the one exception to my Fight-Brain theory, because he’s designed to be an entertaining conversationalist whilst fighting, that’s like half the point of him.)

At this point, Marvel actually puts out special-edition Fight comics — Avengers Vs. X-Men will have a series of “Versus” side-comics that are nothing but fighting. There’s a market for it, I guess.

Most of the golden-age stuff I’ve read (Batman, Flash, Captain America) is heavily Fight oriented, but this has changed as comic books have evolved. I can’t really make generalizations about modern comics because most of them vary from issue to issue or series to series. Marvel Civil War and Marvel Siege are two “events” that illustrate this well — they occurred very close together but one is much more focused on discussion and debate with occasional skirmishes, while the other consists almost entirely of fight scenes with quick breaks for talking.

I do see trends — Batman tends to be more Fight oriented, I think because for Bruce Wayne there’s not a whole lot that satisfies him outside of his crime-fighting, and especially these days writers are leery of examining his use of children as sidekicks too closely (something that Marvel Young Avengers also struggles with). But the Batman|Superman series alters that because it’s concerned with a relationship that can’t be navigated solely on the basis of physical altercation, and because Superman has a more complex outside-the-cape network of friends and activities, and visibly enjoys them.

How awesome is it that I am writing phrases like outside-the-cape? It makes me laugh.

Stan Lee has said that Iron Man was one of the first comics to draw a large (or at least, a vocal) female readership, which he attributes to the magnetism of Tony Stark, the central character. At the risk of countering his massive generalization about women with one of my own, I have a different theory: Iron Man has consistently leaned more towards a Brain comic from the start, because it concerns specific moral dilemmas that superheroes don’t usually deal with and features a man who would rather interact socially than fight crime. Women in our culture are socialized to focus more on interpersonal issues and less on aggressive conflict, and this was especially true fifty years ago when Iron Man debuted. It makes sense a Brain Comic would appeal.

Besides, if a woman is reading comics for the beefcakes, there are frankly much more attractive superheroes around than Tony Stark, and most of them wear spandex instead of a robot suit.

Mind you, I’m in it for the robot suit, but let’s move swiftly along.

I’m not sure how this form of storytelling interacts with prose storytelling, though if the novelisations of the Ultimate Comics saga are anything to go by, there’s a cognitive gap between them that’s difficult to bridge. It’s not that writers can’t switch back and forth between mediums; plenty of writers on both sides do it. It’s more that structurally, I’m not yet sure where they intersect.

At any rate, it’s more like navigating two different cultures than it is two different genres — books and comic books have distinct review sites, news sites, and styles of presentation — and the compare-and-contrast is endlessly interesting. I feel a bit like an anthropologist.

Non-Amazon Resources Post!

In Uncategorized on April 6, 2012 at 9:00 am

Well, I feel just like Radio Free Monday right now, even if it is Friday…

I asked, a while ago, for resources that could supplant Amazon.com. Most of them are book-oriented, which I think is still Amazon’s stock in trade despite being an online megamart these days. Here were your suggestions!

JJ suggested Book View Cafe, an Author Cooperative: “Book View Café came together in March of 2008 around a group of authors with a simple aim:  to use the Internet to bring our work directly to our readers. It was already clear that a revolution was coming to the publishing industry and we wanted to help shape its course. Working with a shoe-string budget and volunteer labor, but drawing on a collective century’s worth of experience in the publishing industry, we created the Book View Café website, a place where readers can browse and discover new authors and titles alongside current favorites. We made sure that fresh fiction appeared on the front page every day, a feat made possible by the extensive list of material available to over twenty professional authors.”

Neverasmith suggested Better World Books, which often has better prices than Amazon, and Mink Rose seconded that recc and added IndieBound as a commonly-linked resource.

Raye suggested Fishpond for Australians, which offers free delivery on orders over $50 and has a record for treating its employees well.

Maggie suggested, for self-publishers, Gumroad.

Mer suggested Half Price Books, which now has an online marketplace (which is yay, because the most frustrating thing was knowing the store had it but not being able to get there). She’s also interested in hearing any advice about how to acquire digital music without using Amazon or iTunes.

And lastly, Seventy has more news about Amazon: they’re collecting data on library ebook use. This might not seem at all strange to some, but most librarians are horrified at the idea of gathering and keeping this kind of data on their users.

When In Doubt, Ninjas Attack

In Uncategorized on April 3, 2012 at 9:00 am

Er, warning, there are spoilers in this for a book I haven’t actually written and may never be completed. Just as a friendly note.

There’s a saying about writing that I think originated with National Novel Writing Month: if you don’t know what happens next, or if you have a writing block, make ninjas attack.

It’s not actually a bad way to go about things in the theoretical. I’ve used it several times — not literally with ninjas, mind you, but similar. Attacks, bombs, someone bursting into the room with sudden horrible news. The immediacy of a new and dangerous threat is a great way to drive action along. I have a tendency to write a lot of talking heads or a lot of contemplation as I try to move from one scene to another, so send in the ninjas is a constant theme in the back of my head.

Take Pirate Country, for instance. Pirate Country is a sequel I intended to write for The Dead Isle, one that I planned in my head even before Dead Isle was finished.

I’ve been fascinated by Jean Lafitte ever since I first encountered his stories during a stay on Galveston Island, off the coast of Texas; he was a pirate in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and it’s rumored that he buried treasure somewhere along the coast of either Louisiana or Texas. He spied and fought for America in the War of 1812, and for a while he had his own country on the coastline of the US: Barataria, which has always enchanted me. I wrote it into The Dead Isle because the idea of a country run by pirates was just too good to resist, and I made Purva a Baratarian by heritage so that I could write a sequel where she went home: Pirate Country.

I’ve been playing around with it now, because I finished The Dead Isle‘s rewrites a month early and I’m a bit compulsive about always having writing projects to hand. It opens with Jack Baker back in Australia, saying his final goodbyes before he and Purva depart for Barataria. They’re attending a farewell party thrown for them by the Harrison Automobile company, and I had to get some necessary exposition in during the conversation between Jack and James Harrison (who was a real person) and then the conversation just…stopped. If it were actually happening, there would be an awkward pause while the participants shuffled their feet.

But I hate awkward pauses and I don’t like writing small talk so, instead, I set off a bomb.

Which was good for about four thousand words, and turned the time period between the farewell party and the launching of the airship into a thrilling exercise in espionage!

You have to be careful when you send in the ninjas, and not make it an excuse for sloppy writing: you have to have at least a vague idea of where you’re going and exhaust other avenues before you make something exciting happen, because if something exciting happened every time you hit a wall your heroes would be traumatised into catatonia by the end.

But, just occasionally, a fictional bomb is a very useful device.

Well, we seen Colonel Jackson come a-walkin’ down the street
A-talkin’ to a pirate by the name of Jean Lafitte;
He gave Jean a drink that he brung from Tennessee,
And the pirate said he’d help us drive the British to the sea…
The Battle Of New Orleans, Jimmie Driftwood