Sunday, June 28, 2009

Burning the Midnight Zeppelin: Villainous Villainy

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I've talked about heroes and villains before (and somewhere else that I can't find right now), but I had a conversation today that had some interesting and surprising results, that I'd like to share. This is going to be quick because I'm sleepy, but I'm hoping it will give you all something to think about.

It probably comes as on surprise to anyone, but I really, really liked the recent Star Trek movie (though I saw it about a month ago, so I clearly wasn't in a huge hurry to tell you all about it). I thought it was an excellent revamp to an old setting. I thought what they did to the Vulcans desmarmed them and gave them some angst, making them infinitely more evocative. I think that they got better actors than the original series could ever hope to have, which helped. All this, and wrapped in a package that had the same retro-space feel as the original series, but with better special effects. Most of all, however, I loved the villain.

Wait. What? You liked the villain? Mr. Villains-Are-People-Too liked mad, bad, hates the world Captain Nero? What's up with that?

What came out of today's conversation is that there are two kinds of villains. You have your garden mill, run-of-the-variety people villains. People villains are - basically - people. They have hopes and fears, friends and affections, just like anyone else. Unfortunately, what they want is inimical to what the protagonists want, but that doesn't mean they're bad people. Even when they are bad people, it's usually in an undertandable, comprehensible way. You can see where this person went bad, and what he became is the kind of thing you could become, given the right stimulus. These are the enemy generals, overambitious wizards, and loyal priests of black gods of the world of fantastic fiction.

This kind of villain's strength is in its humanity. This kind of villain can form relationships. Protagonists can become close to him or even come to agree with him. If a hero really hates this kind of villain, it says something about her. What does it take for a hero to really hate - actualy truy despise and be prepared to kill - someone who is ultimately just a person who has made different choices and experience ddifferent consquences.

A second kind of villain is a force of nature. The villain's own inhrent nature matters less than its existence and its ill intent. This kind of villain exists to give the protagonists someone to bounce off of, rather than to have a point of view all its own. These are the evil prophesies, dark gods, exploding stars, and oncoming winters of fiction.

What's fascinating is when one kind of villain is actually the other. More specifically, when a force of nature has a name, a face, and a backstory - when a primal villain is also personified.

Don't let the trappings fool you - a force of nature villain is a force of nature villain, no matter how much she seems like a person. She doesn't exist to have a point of view, she exists to stress the protagonists' relationships and invite them to do terrible things to defeat her. She is a force of nature, she just walks like a person.

Neither villain is superior in my mind. To call either "better" is invalidated by a great wealth of literature in which the main character struggles against the environment (or some dark nature of her own) rather than another human being. Rather, I'd say what's important is knowing what you're about and sticking to it ruthlessly. When you're writing a force of nature, keep him a force of nature. Give him a personality and a backstory, make his past as tragic as it needs to be to make him make sense, but keep the story focused on the protagonists. What's exciting when this kind of villain takes the floor is not what he does, but what the heroes do in reaction to him. When you're writing a person, keep him a person. Make sure her choices are rational, her feelings are logical, and her emotions are human.

The problems come when you try to write one kind of villain as the other. When an author is writing a force of nature and tries to "soften" his image with completely extraneous, well, crap, or writing a real person and crosses that invisible line that separates "sympathetic antagonist" from "total douchebag."

Which brings us back to Nero.

Nero is an excellent example of a force of nature villain in human form. He has just enough backstory and personality to make him believable, but when push comes to shove, Nero's emotional experience isn't important to the story. What makes Star Trek tick is how everyone else reacts to Nero, how they suffer, sacrifice, bond, grow, and change in the face of his ruthlessness.

So don't be afraid to write your bad villains bad. Just be sure you know what you're doing.

• • •

EDIT: I almost got this post out yesterday night, but then I passed at the keyboard. Repeatedly, in fact, until the Abigail came and took me to bed. So the post is late by reason of exhaustion. Enjoy.

• • •

  • What's your favorite example of a force of nature antagonist, personified or otherwise?
  • Who's your favorite example of a human antagonist?
  • When have you seen a villain cross this line well?
  • When have you seen a villain cross this line poorly?
  • This entry brings up the possibility of villains who are personified forces of nature, but is the inverse - a force of naturified person - possible, or just silly?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Not So End

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One of the best things about any extended practice - in my case, writing - is the things you learn about yourself. In this particular case, I've noticed a fascinating pattern in my short stories. I don't like to write short stories that really, really end. In some cases, they don't really begin, either. I seem addicted to those stories that are slices of greater stories, the past elegantly implied through masterful explication, the ending elegant and satisfying, but with a hint of further narrative.

There are three reasons I'm not surprised. The first is that I suck at endings. I always have, and they will probably always be the part of a story that I find most difficult. Beginnings are easy for me, I just pick out a suitably dramatic moment and go. Endings... endings always awkward, though. Does the narrative just stop? Do I end with a line of dialogue, a description of the sunset, a narrative musing? How do things end, anyway? So, it's not shocking that when it comes to short stories, I find a way to end the piece without really ending the story.

Secondly, I know myself to be primarily a novelist. All my best ideas first occur to me as extended epics, both personal and fantastic. Some of them I file down to short stories - especially in the context of my Burning Rejection Challenge - but they always remain contextualized by the conditions that gave them birth. Specifically, a longer story.

Finally, I'm not surprised because my one-shots are the same way. Roleplaying style isn't always an indicator of writing style, but in this case, it's dead on. I never run totally self-contained one-shots. They always feel like a first episode or a juicy cut from the center, satisfying, self contained, but implying more.

Sometimes I take the philosophical view: nothing really ends and nothing really ends. Every beginning is just a matter of point of view, not "when does it start" but rather "when did I start paying attention." I kind of like that rather than pretending that reality is neater and cleaner than it really is, my stories embody that reality.

That said, I don't know if stories that work this way are satisfying. If they are, I'm quite content to keep on writing the way I have been... except, of course, that stories still need to have endings, and I'd like mine to be more elegant. I also don't know if stories that work this way really are as satisfying as I hope they are (and find them myself). I'd hate to be doing something people think is annoying and dressing up a bad habit as a virtue (which is something I find annoying).

Fortunately, though, essays do have endings, and that brings us to it. I'd love to hear your answers to my prompts - or just your thoughts on the topic in general- below. Until then, farewell.

• • •

  • Do you think this is a serious flaw, or are stories that don't really end as satisfying (or more so?) than stories that end definitively.
  • What kind of short stories do you prefer?
  • What advice do you have for getting more comfortable with endings?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Illicit Burning Experience

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This is insane.

I'm sorry about the nopost yesterday. I was home at 9:20, needed to be asleep by 10:45, and actually wasn't in bed until 12:45, all because I was handling logistics, sending and answering important emails, and ironing my pants. Man, this program is rough. I hate ironing pants.

I actually shouldn't be writing this post. I'm currently at the actual program, at my lunch break, and I really need to be studying for the constitution exam.

Um... let's see. I still need to give you something Burning. Something good.

How about this? Check out the RPG Dumping Ground, a daily fantasy idea blog. Every idea is outlined in evocative detail and vague stats, suitable for interpretation into any game system. The first post outlines the system light pseudo-statting the author uses to describe his inventions' traits.

Now, at first glance this blog is merely a good reasource for gamers. However, it's also a good resource for writers. Remember: good artists borrow, great artists steal.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Weasel Cheeseburger Disease!

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Today's Burning Prompt Experience is inspired by my real life Tuberculosis Adventure:

Very few venture into the softlands, that ever-changing wasteland of illusion and danger, and even fewer travel to the Mouth of Chaos at its center, a twisting pillar of transformation that warps everything it touches. Mostly they are priests - come to close the Mouth of Chaos or to worship it, or try their faith against the softlands - magicians come to learn what the softlands have to teach about the nature of the world, or adventurers come looking for monsters to slay and treasures to sell. Some are desperate men, come in search of transformation, hoping the softlands or the Mouth of Chaos can change them in some way, remove some defect of body or character, or at the very least exchange a hunted face for an innocent one, however terrifying and deformed that new face might be. Cities have cropped up at the edge of the softlands, for these adventurers and madmen to spend their gold, and a few communities survive within its borders. A few.

No one knows when the sick man came to the softlands. No one will admit to having met him, succored him, even spoken to him, out of fear of reprisal. He probably suffered from some life-destroying disease, like leprosy or consumption. He had probably been cast out of his home and had nowhere else to go. Perhaps he hoped that the Mouth of Chaos would remove his illness altogether - it had been merciful in the past and might be again - or perhaps he had only hoped for death. Either way, he remained unchanged. It was the disease that enjoyed the full extent of the softlands' mad blessing.

Before, those who stayed away from the softlands were safe. Far from the edge of chaos, in sane countries, they could live in peace and enjoy whatever their lives had to offer. Before, those the softlands had touched could leave and travel the world, and though their strange or grotesque shapes might inspire admiration, pity, or revulsion - or some combination of the three - but never fear or hatred.

Not so once the Change Plague began. The mutant disease, born of one man's desperation, spread far and wide. Now a chance meeting could lead to infection, and infection invariably led to transformation. Some can carry the disease their whole lives without knowing, meaning that anyone touched by chaos - or, in fact, anyone at all - was suspect. And when the disease chose to blossom, it was as a terrible fever that changed as it killed, leaving the survivors with warped bodies and shattered minds, and the knowledge that one day the disease might blossom again, and again, and again.

Much of the world died in the anarchy that followed. Kingdoms fell and new ones rose in their place. Those who are touched by the chaos are carefully watched. In some places, they driven away or killed. The only place safe for us and those who become like us is here, at the edge of the softlands.

Welcome.

You know the rules; there aren't any! In comments (or with a link to your own blog), tell me a story of someone touched by the Change Plague, the softlands, or the Mouth of Chaos, or anything else in the above.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Burning Update Experience: Life Goes On

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It's that time again. Time for me to imitate my inspiration, the inestimable Mur Lafferty of I Should Be Writing and come clean on how much writing I've actually been doing and what else is going on in my creative world.

• • •

When it comes to fiction, I am still caught up in the Burning Rejection Challenge, where I dedicated myself to collecting fifty rejection letters in the coming year. The goal - to explain it to those who, like my father, might view it as somewhat backwards thinking - is to get myself to send stories out. If I make getting acceptances my goal, I'm bound to be disappointed more often than not. Even the best author gets rejected a lot, especially at first. If I make the goal of the game to collect rejections, though, I transform it into a win-win situation. If I get rejected, I win! One closer to my goal of fifty! If I get accepted, I win! More importantly, so do my ego and my bank account!

So far, I've accumulated... one rejection letter. However, I have sent out not one, not two, but three stories: The Invisible Kingdom (Redux) to Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Storm Seeker to Black Gate, and The Evil Eye to Weird Tales. Two factors have been slowing me down: the incredibly slow turnaround time on submissions (often upwards of two months!) and what I'm calling a creative pseduo-slump. While I've had plenty of energy when it comes to completing, rewriting, and generally making printworthy old stories, no new ideas have leapt out at me. I wrote The Evil Eye back in the fall, The Invisible Kingdom (v1.0) about three years ago, and Storm Seeker back in college, back before the Abigail and I were even dating! I'm not complaining, mind you. My habit of starting stories and never finishing them is a good one to break.

As I implied in my last post, I think this is a symptom of my long inactivity. Getting up in the morning and going to an actual job (well, an actual training for an actual job for five months, then a month off, and then an actual job) will be good for my creative muscles. With old input, I improve old ideas, with new input will come new ideas.

• • •

Speaking of input, I am currently reading a lot of podcasts. Er... listening to a lot of stories. You know what I mean: Podcastle, Escape Pod, and Pseudopod have been a big deal in my personal brainspace. I like to think that all this short fiction is also helping me improve the short stories I've been sending out, but we'll see.

I've also been slowly working my way through Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough. I don't know how many of you are aware of this, but I was a religion major in college (I actually wanted to be a rabbi), and I remain fascinated by the things people believe. There's not much diference between fantasy and religion - I say this with the utmost respect and affection for both. We are story creatures, designed to take in life and put out narrative, making sense of the world. Making a myth is one of the most beautiful and fundamentally human things we do, up there with love, heroism, and art.

That's probably why I find some of Frazer's attitudes frustrating. His insistance that magic is replaced by religion is replaced by science is pretty self serving - of course, Frazer and his buddies are the scientists - and Frazer seems to have no consciousness about this. Despite the fact that his book studies magic and religion, he seems pretty dismissive of both. The fact that Frazer also tends to use the "savages" of Madagascar and the Indies as examples sticks in my metaphorical craw as well. That said, I haven't finished the book yet, so I shall refrain from any definitive statements until I have. This is just where I am right now.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently purchased a whole mess of RPG books, which I've also been reading, which brings us too...

• • •

Gaming.

Actually, the world of gaming has been pretty slow lately. Both the Abigail and I have numerous other obligations which prevent us from playing with each other or anyone else nearly as often as we'd like.

Between the Abigail and myself, we are running Divine Fire, a highly fun, slightly goobery Mage: the Awakening chronicle about a former Promethean (zombie alchemists seeking the Golden Dawn of humanity) who turned Mage upon achieving her goal. In the previous chapter, Cleo discovered her secret past and helped her Promethean friends free themselves from an onerous enmity. In this chapter, Cleo has been discovering just how far she will go to keep her friends safe... and how far some other people will go to make this difficult for her.

I also had the honor to run a one shot of Changeling: the Lost for the Abigail, Becca, and our friend Nick. In this game, I experimented with an absent-yet-present Storyteller Character in the form of Auragas, the Summer King, who had recently died of complications during heart surgery. As his favored courtiers, the player characters had the opportunity to tell me who Auragas was through their narrative and the character creation questionnaires they filled out at the start of game. It turned out that Auragas was a basically honorable but ultimately complicated man who had tried to do his job well despite his foibles. However, Auragas could have just as easily turned out to be a total bastard who the player characters were happy to be rid of, or an utter paragon of virtue, which would have sent the session in a totally different direction. I had no idea who Auragas would be until game started, and it was tons of fun.

[For a more detailed write-up of the session, you can check out the Changeling: the Lost Livejournal Community].

• • •

Finally, lest I come across as a literary saint, I have something to own up to. I did not, as I promised, send anything to the Fantasy Magazine flash fiction contest. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect that I would, given the crazy that had invaded my life at that point, but that's not the issue. The issue is that I said I would, and I didn't, which is a shame, because now I know for a fact that I won't win.

• • •

That about covers today's Burning Update Experience. As I posted yesterday, and in accordance to the new schedule, I'll see you again on Friday.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Zeppelin Rides Again on the Winds of Change!

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I have good news, and I have bad news.

The good news is that the final results are in, the Oakland Teaching Fellowship is mine! I will no longer be an unemployed freelance writer and author, but an employed teacher, who is also a freelance writer and author. With money to spend, money will no longer be on my mind. Even given that I will have the Biology grades of fifty-odd (or more!) Oakland Unified School District students on my mind, I'm sure my creativity will benefit. In fact, I'll probably be able to mine my job for material - sitting in coffee shops being stressed isn't exactly story material.

The bad news is that my life will certainly be a lot more busy now that I have a "real" job, and as the song goes "something's gotta give." Unfortunately, the Burning Zeppelin loses out in this calculation. It would be stupid to cut into my limited writing time to write in a blog about writing, for example. If I cut into my the Abigail time... well, let's just say I'm glad my angsty poetry phase is behind me. So, Burning Zeppelin it is.

This doesn't mean that the Burning Zeppelin is going to crash, but it does mean that my promise to blog every single day is complete, as of today. I don't know what the final schedule is going to be, as I've got a lot of stress and life changes on stack for the coming months. For now, however, the Burning Zeppelin will fly on the following schedule:

Wednesday (when I have nothing going on in the evenings anyway)

Friday (when I can stay up as late as I dare)

Sunday (is a Sunday).

This schedule may make minor adjustments. Once per month, for example, when my man-cult meets on Saturdays, the Friday post may, in fact, appear on Saturday afternoon. I also reserve the right to make major course corrections as life keeps on coming at me, so Wednesday may become Tuesday, Friday may become Thursday, and Sunday... is likely to stay Sunday, but you never know. I do promise that the Burning Zeppelin Experience will continue to update at least three times a week with cool, compelling content, and other things that start with the letter "C."

• • •

I'd like to kick things off with a discussion of writing under stress. On some level, making time to write is just that. You make the time to write, you don't find it (under the couch?). That said, however, I'm sure there are a great wealth of coping strategies for writing under duress, and I want to hear about yours.

In the comments.

That you are going to post.

Now.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

= 1k Words

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Please allow me to direct your attention to the Fantasy Illustration Blog by Cynthia Shepphard (not, apparently, entirely unlike tea). I've been a follower of Cynthia's on livejournal for some time now, and I really like her art. Cynthia's paintings are wonderfully lush and full of incredibly intense colors. Her compositions are striking and dynamic, and she has a firm grasp of the fantastic and the surreal. To call Cynthia's work photorealistic would be a disservice - her paintings are far too real to be merely real. If you are at all a fan of fantastic art, I recommend checking her out, subscribing to her blog, and sending her money.

Of course, if you're into sending people money, you could also send me money. I wouldn't complain.

Cynthia hasn't posted any information regarding licensing yet, so you aren't going to see any of her paintings posted here as creative prompts. However, I have left her an LJ comment pointing her in the direction of Creative Commons licensing. If she gets on the Creative Commons train, I can guarantee that you'll see her art here on a regular basis. She really is that good.

Finally, please don't take my failing to add Cynthia's blog to my blogroll as an indication of a lukewarm endorsement. This blog is primarily about fiction, which Cynthia's paintings - however beautiful - aren't. I endorse Fantasy Illustration Blog (still not entirely unlike tea) whole-heartedly.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Wednesday Bonus Burn - Personal Effects: Dark Zeppelin

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I regret to say that I cannot endorse Personal Effects: Dark Art by self-made fantasy sensation J.C Hutchins. This is not because anything is wrong with the book, but rather for this simple reason: I haven't read it and I'm not likely to for a while.

We all saw what happened last time I made the mistake of talking about a book I hadn't read yet, and that's not an experience I'd like to repeat.

Don't you hate it when this happens? You get an Amazon gift card as a gift from your Hebrew school job and you stretch it admirably so that it covers World of Darkness: Inferno, Seers of the Throne, Summoners, Compass of Terrestrial Directions IV: The South, and Compass of Celestial Directions V: Malfeas. Then, the day after you spend the last imaginary cent of your gift card you discover thanks to I Should Be Writing Vidcast Episode 8 that this book that was hovering on the edge of your consciousness - Personal Effects: Dark Art - is actually something you want right now. And today is the official launch date. And you can't have it because you're out of gift card money and you're still really, really unemployed, so you're out of real money, too.

Yeah. It's a pain.

So, unless someone reading this has a spare copy of Personal Effects: Dark Art (or an extra $16.47 plus shipping and handling, or, you know, a spare job) lying around and would like to send it my way out of the goodness of your heart, it looks like I'm going to be behind the curve on this one.

What is it about Personal Effects: Dark Art that - belatedly, alas - attracted my attention? It began with the fact that J.C. Hutchins is a frighteningly effective self-promoter. He has been producing video and audio blurbs by famous writers and directors of horror and distributing them to his allies in the podcast community, running competitions on his website, and generally selling this project hard and fast.

Best of all, the book itself is a metatextual experience. It turns out that the book comes with a packet of documents - fake credit cards and driver's licenses, birth and death certificates, creepy looking artwork that J.C. refuses to comment upon - several of which lead to an ARG that lets the reader in on the action. There's the book you read, but if you're interested, there's also the book that happens to you.

I've got to wait until I've read it to comment decisively, but man, do I want this book. I don't know how good it really is, but it sounds great.

A Pullman, Paolini, Pierce Podcast Passion

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Tamora Pierce, Phillip Pullman, and Christopher Paolini have collaborated to produce a nine-episode podcast discussing such varied topics as worldbuilding, religion, inspiration, and animals. The entire series is available at one convenient imaginary location, and I recommend it solely based on the cast. I'll certainly listen to it myself when I get the chance.

I think my opinion of Tamora Pierce has been made clear. While I might not believe that Shakespeare is a demigod of the stage, I will gladly concede that Pierce is a demigod of the young adult page. My thoughts on Phillip Pullman are a little more complicated. I think he is a very good writer, and the series that brought him to my attention - His Dark Materials - is really a remarkable piece of fiction. However, it isn't that I object to his philosophy, but rather that I think he pushes it little too hard and makes it a little too obvious. Pullman is for me what many people have told me C.S. Lewis was for them. Descriptions of Paolini's books have never called out to me, but if he impresses me on this podcast, I may have to give them a chance.

In any case, enjoy! I'll post more thoughts on the series when I've listened to it myself.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Bard

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You'd think after my post about paladins, this one will be about the bard as a roleplaying and fantasy concept. Not so, alas. Instead, I would like to direct your attention to this article at Flashlight Worthy, a site of book recommendations and reviews. The article lists some of the best fiction set in Shakespeare's world, a world like Shakespeare's world, and/or featuring Shakespeare as a character.

I must confess that most of these premises do not thrill me. Though a theatrically inclined guy, I have never been an enormous fan of Shakespeare. Oh, sure, I appreciate the artistry of his verse and the sophistication of his plots and characterizations - especially when compared to some of his contemporaries - but I really see him as one brilliant author among the many brilliant authors and playwrights of the past, not a theatrical demigod.

What I really don't get is exactly what this post is about: Shakespeare adaptations and riffs. I don't find Shakespeare's plots to be the most fascinating thing about Shakespeare. Most of his stories are historical adaptations, fairly transparent farces, or iterations of plots and themes are were as old as dirt when Shakespeare was alive and are even older now. What makes Shakespeare brilliant, in my mind, is his artistry... which is exactly what you lose when you "adapt" Shakespeare or make him a character in a totally different story.

To complete my true and total alienation of my audience: I also think that arguing over who Shakespeare "really" was is completely goobery.

All of that said, however, a lot of people I really respect - including my wonderful fiance, the Abigail - never get tired of seeing Shakespeare plots finding new life, so there must be something there. If any of my audience wants to take a look at the books listed on the far side of the link and let me know which are the best - or make a recommendation of any kind in regards to this subgenre - I'll be happy to take you up on it.

While I'm on the topic of the Bard, I ought to confess that despite everything I wrote above I once did it, too. The game was Exalted, the player was the Abigail, and the character was Delicate Orchid, a rich merchant's daughter with a bad case of asthma, and had thus been raised in a wealthy "gated community" situated in the tall, air-conditioned (and more to the point, filtered) apartments of a First Age ruin. Orchid is a good example of mixing humor and drama in a game, as the character exalts as a Lunar and comes to grips with being a member of a society composed primarily of self-consciously barbarous barbarians... and she a Delicate Orchid who has never been outside because before the gods fixed her lung problem, a bad case of hay fever would have killed her. The best part was when she nearly panicked about the thought of being allergic to herself.

In any case, the moment I'm referencing took place during Orchid's rites of passage. She was tasked with arranging a marriage between a pair of star-crossed lovers in a half-civilized border town with a strong ethic of dueling and tragic/heroic suicides. I had a lot of fun playing those two hormone-crazed teenagers as really, really keen on killing themselves for love (just like so-and-so from the epics!), with Orchid acting as their divine patron, delivering messages and desperately trying to keep them alive. Her parting advice "take this girl to your aunt's in the country and get her pregnant as fast as possible!"

So, I suppose there's life in old Shakey yet.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Weekend Bonus Burn: Force of Habit

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It's daylight. I'm in a café (the Abigail chased me out of the apartment so she can work on a paper). It must be time to write a burning zeppelin post!

Not quite. I do enjoy my weekend lazies.

I don't feel that this week's posts have been quite up to my usual quality, so I'll toss you a bone. Have a look at May 24th's Worlds of Tomorrow, a regular feature at Escape Pod. Worlds of Tomorrow is Escape Pod's movie review (similar features are found at PodCastle and Pseudopod). The episode to which I am directing you discusses the (old) smash hit Armageddon.

I have fond memories of Armageddon. I enjoyed it a great deal, though I liked it's sister-movie, Deep Impact, even better. In fact, 1998 was the year I first discovered that every movie comes out twice, as rival studios aggressively compete to see whose take on a given concept would fair better at the box office.

Although Deep Impact's humanity appealed to my softer side, Armageddon is not without virtue. In his review, Pseudopod host Allister Stuart nails down exactly what was brilliant about Armageddon. If you've seen the movie and want to be confirmed in your good taste or are looking for an excuse to watch it, I recommend Worlds of Tomorrow.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

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Don't worry, the Abigail and I are fine. No, I'm breaking up with iCafe, the free wireless equipped internet cafe where I once spent my days fruitlessly searching for work, writing, and sending out short stories. I've been forced to retreat to the somewhat less snazzy Happy Doughnut across the street. When there's money in my bank account again, I'll probably go back to my first love, Tart to Tart.

I understand that the proprietors of coffee shops need to make a living, and they do that by selling coffee and sandwiches, not providing a roof and walls for my unemployed self. For fuck's sake, though I'm not costing them any appreciable money by sitting there. My computer doesn't draw that much power, my use of the internet doesn't take up that much bandwith, and my ass doesn't take up that much space. They can afford to be generous. The pricks.

More importantly, this sends me a clear message about what the shop's priorities are. They don't want to be a gathering place for the community, they want to make a buck. When I've got money, they're happy to welcome me, but when I strapped for cash, they toss me out. Well, that's fine, that's their prerogative, but it's a poor way to do business. When I do have money again, I'll take my business somewhere that has never ceased to be welcoming, like Starbucks or Tart to Tart.

I'll call this the aggravating cap to an aggravating week. Hopefully the weekend will be better.

• • •

  • Have you ever been kicked out of a coffee shop you were happily writing in by greedy, short-sighted shit-for-brains?
  • I know this is mostly my rough week and lack of sleep talking, but is it wrong for me to wish really, really hard for iCafe to burn down?
  • Even if I also wish that no one is hurt in the conflaguration?

Good Advice

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Azathoth

A lonely mother gazing out of the window
Staring at a son that she just can't touch
If at any time he's in a jam she'll be by his side
But he doesn't realize he hurts her so much
But all the praying just ain't helping at all
Cause he can't seem to keep his self out of trouble
So he goes out and he makes a difference the best way he knows how
Another zombie laying cold in the gutter
Listen to me

Don't go chasing Azathoth
Please stick to the demons and the gods that you're used to
I know that you're gonna have it your way or nothing at all
But I think you're moving too fast

Little precious has a natural obsession
For knowledge that he just can't reach
He reads all the books that his mind can handle
But all he can say is baby it's good for me
One day he goes and takes a glimpse in the mirror
But he doesn't recognize his own face
Sanity fading and he doesn't know why
HPL sing him to his final resting place
Ya'll dont'hear me

Don't go chasing Azathoth
Please stick to the demons and the gods that you're used to
I know that you're gonna have it your way or nothing at all
But I think you're moving too fast

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Burning Retirement Plans

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I have come to an important decision about how I will spend my retirement. When the time comes, the Abigail and I will retreat to a (non-burning) zeppelin with our pet talking dog. From there, we will travel the world having adventures with our grandchildren (or small mentees; I'm not picky).

That's right. I've seen Up. Becca, the Fiancigail, and myself went to see it last Saturday after Becca's birthday party.

I've come to expect a lot from Pixar, but they have not yet failed to exceed and impress. Up is probably the best so far (though I can't claim to have seen everything Pixar has put out; WALL-E, for example, remains a mystery to me) (I'm getting a little too fond if this parentheses-and-semicolon thing; perhaps I should stop).

In addition to painting a picture of my ideal retirement, Up was an example of almost everything right in a story. It had incredibly genuine characters, imperfect but ultimately loveable heroes and a despicable, but ultimately human villain. In terms of the storytelling craft, Up is visually gorgeous, with excellent dialogue and more than adequate pacing (more on that later).

Most importantly, Up is an example of why I write fantastic fiction. On one level, Up is the story of an old man who finds a new reason to live after the death of his wife. On another level, Up is the story of an old man who decides to fly his house (via helium-filled balloons) to South America so he can live in the place he and his deceased wife had always fantasized about settling. These stories are intertwined, so that Carl is literally carrying the memories he can't let go of on his back, and when he chooses between life and death at a crucial moment, it is to let those memories go crashing to the ground and fly away into a brighter future. Symbolism, drama, and a sword fight atop a zeppelin. Golden.

Other highligts of Up (in easy-to-read bullet form!) include:
  • Doug. On the one hand, he is a dog who can communicate like a human being, but on the other hand, he still a dog. He has dog concerns and dog reactions. He even tells dog jokes! Talking animals who aren't totally humanized are rare in fiction.
  • Another rare wonderment Up achieved with ease is compelling geriatric heroism (old guy sword fight for the win)! If you look at most fantastic fiction, you'd get the idea that heroism ends at 30. Not, so Carl proves, not so at all.
  • Russel: a child character who acts like an actual child, not a small, dumb adult. This alone is worth the price of admission.
  • Zeppelin!
Lest you think I was totally won over by a movie clearly written explicitly for me, Up did have one flaw. Or rather, a difficulty to overcome that it did, perhaps, somewhat inelegantly. On the one hand, Up needed to tell the story of Carl and Ellie quickly and efficiently, so that Carl is a comprehensibly grumpy old man, not just another unpleasant old fart. We need to understand what Carl is sad about, and we need to feel it down to the roots of our hearts. On the other hand, like any fantasy story, Up needs to establish its internal logic as soon as possible, so that we are not shaken out of our suspension of disbelief when something too unexpected happens. Up choose to emphasize the story of Carl and Ellie over establishing its rules, which meant that when houses uproot themselves and begin flying, dogs start talking, and the laws of physics and biology generally start inverting themselves, it's a little more jarring than it could be.

That minor issue aside - and in the final arithmetic, it truly is a minor flaw - Up is a brilliant movie, and I recommend it with my whole heart.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Mourning

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Today, the Zeppelin wears black.

It's not the death of David Eddings that has me down - though that's certainly a part of it. Although my father was a fan of the David and Leigh Eddings writing duo, I can only definitively claim to have read one book in the series, Polgara the Sorceress, given to me as a gift by a non-fantasy fan friend. To let you in to the joke: Polgara the Sorceress is a retrospective of one of the Eddings' two epics, the Malloreon, from the point of view of one of it's most mysterious and powerful characters. It's intended to be read by fans of the Mallorean who want an insider's view of the story. It was certainly a weird reading experience.

As an aside, there ought to be a word for reading a series out of order, that sense of displacement and mystery that weirds, rather than ruining, the experience of the books. I've done it twice, and it's a fascinating feeling.

Anyway, what's got me down here at the Burning Zeppelin is a death much closer to home: the death of a story.

Stories are a lot tougher than people. Unlike, say, my brother (not that I've tried any of this with my brother - honest!), a story can have its innards torn out and rearranged, and survive, none the worse (in fact, often the better) for wear. A story can be left in a cabinet with no food, water, or ventillation for years, and still be just as fresh when it comes out as it was when it went in. When part of a story falls off due to a tragic computer accident or lost notebook, the rest doesn't bleed. The stump is smooth and ready to grow again. Stories are tough, but they can die.

About five years ago, I wrote a story called Useless Nick. It was the tale of a future, set in the shadow of an interstellar war. With the war over, the huge intelligent spaceships that had won the war for the good guys - the Behemoths - were gradually being decomissioned and given new jobs. The main characters were a crew tasked with finding M.I.A. ships, repairing whatever damage had caused them to go missing, and bringing them back to earth for reassignment. Useless Nick himself, a cartographer accidentally assigned to the squad, proves his worth communicating to a damaged ship with astrophysical metaphor and becomes part of the crew.

Ever since starting my Burning Rejection Letters Experiment, I've been wanting to find Useless Nick, brush it up, and fire it off. I've switched computers twice since them, leaving both machines practically smoking wrecks in my wake, but I've always been confident that I could find my story in the maze of old data.

No such luck. After about an hour spent poking through ancient files thanks to the magic of firewire, I am forced to concede that Useless Nick is no longer where I thought I'd left it... which means, I fear, that it's nowhere at all. It's all gone. While I've had stories survive long hiatuses, extensive remodeling, and the loss of a few hours (or days) of work, I've never successfully started from scratch. A finished story - a solid piece of fiction - is a such a delicate weave of words and themes, I can't imagine starting again.

So, hats off for Useless Nick. Like the phoenix it may rise from the ashes, but probably not.

• • •

  • Have you ever had to accept defeat and admit that a story had gone missing? How did you handle it?
  • Any advice for starting a story over from scratch?
  • If I know you in real life and you have a copy of Useless Nick, for God's sake, email me!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Burning the Midnihg Zeppelin II: Archetypical

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Well, here's your post. Just under (over) the wire, and made by an exhausted Zeppeliner. Tomorrow's will be better, but today's exists, and that's what counts.

That isn't to say it's very good. Allow, if you will, me to direct your attention to Alt.Universes, a new and clever blog about fantasy, roleplaying, and writing... hey, that sounds familiar! Fortunately, there's nigh-infinite room in your hearts for blogs. I hope you'll give Alt.Universes a chance.

Specifically, here's a neat post about fantastic archetypes and how to use and abuse them.

Enjoy, and watch this spot tomorrow (later today?) for more burning zeppelin.

Urk!

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I beg a thousand pardons for the lack of a zeppelin yesterday.

There will be one today, presently.