Come to My New Blog!

If you followed a link here from a comment I made on somebody's google blog, I would love to have you visit my blog, but this is no longer it. While I may occasionally post things here again once in a long while, virtually all my content will be at from here on out. If you were curious enough to come this far, why not give me one more click?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

October Sky and Good Writing, Part I

I'd never heard of the movie October Sky before last year, but now I've used it in my classes two years in a row. It's a wonderful story about fathers and sons, about striving to be yourself and not who others want to define you as, about overcoming long odds, and math. :)

It hasn't yet ceased to amaze me how I'll start the movie, turn the lights down, and without me having to do much of anything, conversation and off task behavior will just die of its own accord, as the kids get totally hooked by this story. The kids are thrilled at the high points and concerned at the low ones. A quiet moment will come along, and you could hear a pin drop. Often there's applause when the movie gets to the end. This is a powerful story, and one the kids eat right up.

When you show the same movie class after class, you get a chance to move past the narrative, and see what's going on behind the magic. I've heard some folks recommend typing out or copying down published stories that you find effective so that you can get beyond the spell and see how the author accomplished it. I haven't yet tried that myself--spare time is just too hard to come by these days. :) But I can totally see how that could be good advice, because, among other things, I felt a similar effect as I saw this film repeatedly. Either way, the point is to get to where you're not pulled into the thrall, so you can see what's going on. (It's not the same exactly, but I didn't just watch the movie repeatedly; when you show a movie to kids in 50 minute increments, you do more than just watch the screen.)

I had a couple of observations I thought I could take away from watching this today, one of which I'll post now, and the other one I'll save.

A lot of what I've read on story structure talks about having disasters continually separate the protagonist from his or her goal, and either forcing the protagonist to regroup, or forcing the protagonist to revise the goal. At the end, when all seems the most hopeless, the protagonist finally breaks through. It gets to seeming like the protagonist can never have a moment of success of enjoyment along the way, and that hardly seems to represent all the fiction out there.

As I watched October Sky, it occurred to me that the pattern I was seeing was slightly different from that. There were disasters, true. And each low was lower than the low before as well. But there were highs too, and each high was higher than the one before. First Homer gets excited by the sight of Sputnik, but then he destroys his mother's fence. Then Homer gets help and builds a more powerful rocket, but he accidentally launches it in the direction of the mine. Then Homer and his friends regroup and create a launch site out of town, only to have their rockets explode before reaching a respectable altitude. Along the way he gets encouragement from Wernher von Braun, but gets discouragement from his father. He has a successful launch and gets written up in the newspaper, but then he gets arrested when he is suspected of starting a forest fire. Then we get a whole series of disasters, but once they're past, success again: Homer proves his innocence and wins the state science fair. This is followed by the biggest fight with his father yet, and by violence caused by the miner's strike.

Do you see my point? The highs get progressively higher, but always with some new disaster to make satisfaction fleeting. Until the end, of course. So it's really more of an oscillating function. Something like this, maybe:

(Yeah, I'm a big nerd, I know.)

Anyhow, I thought this was a useful way of looking at plotting, particularly for longer works. Next time I write something long, maybe I'll try to follow that kind of rollercoaster pattern.


The movie's only real moment of fail comes at the very end, and it's a minor shame. Homer's dad finally comes out to the launch site to see what he's been so obsessed with, and together they launch a rocket and watch it climb into the sky. Impressed, his father stands there, jaw agape, for a little while, and finally gives his son the first sign of approval of his choices and interests: he puts his hand around Homer's shoulder. Unfortunately, the camera's loving closeup, the father's slow arm motion, and the placement of the two actors makes it look like Homer's Dad has an entirely different sign of affection in mind. In every single class I show this movie, the spell is temporarily shattered and the class breaks into giggles when it looks like Homer's Dad is about to grab his ass:

I didn't crop it to look that way. That's pretty much a full screen shot.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Hero's Journey

I have a friend of a friend who is an author with a big house and swears by writing to the Hero's Journey. The Hero's Journey, or "Monomyth," is a series of tropes that are supposedly ubiquitous in stories from every culture. This was first pointed out by Joseph Campbell, and later elaborated on in the context of playwrighting by Christopher Vogler, and doubtless others as well. Here's a wikilink with a pretty thorough description of the structure.

I've seen it asserted online that pretty much every successful story can be analyzed in terms of the Hero's Journey--not that they elaborate on every stage of the journey, but that they focus on part of the journey while at least alluding to the rest of it. I'm not convinced that this is so, though. Certainly I can think of lots of novels--especially fantasy bricks--that adhere to this structure closely. I'm willing to concede that the same goes for a lot of short stories. But when I think of a story like "All I Have To Do . . ." or like Elizabeth Bear's "The Horrid Glory of Its Wings," I'm hard pressed to make the connections.

. . . hmm . . . let me rethink that. In "All I Have To Do . . . ," maybe the challenge Liz is confronted with is getting to the bottom of her ability and learning to live (or not) with it. She rejects this challenge through her drinking and her attempts to stay awake. Her road of trials could be when she befriends Ronald and they experiment with filming her and with attempts at lucid dreaming.
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Does that work? *frown* Arguably. But is it useful? If the connections can be as tenuous as I just outlined, how does that help me when I set out to write a new story, instead of merely shoehorning an existing story into the broad strokes of this structure?

I wish I had a good resource on the Hero's Journey for writers. Like every good English major, I have a couple of books by Joseph Campbell, but those don't focus on the craft side of storytelling, but on the analysis side. I'm not going to go out and buy a how-to book without knowing if it's going to be helpful--I have enough useless books on writing. I found precious little online on this topic.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Is steampunk a single genre?

I've been dipping my toes into steampunk--as a reader, not a writer--for the last year or so, just trying to see if it's something I enjoy reading, and if it's something I thought I might be able to write at some point. If I ever do write steampunk, it will likely not sound like a lot of other steampunk prose fiction out there, because I don't think I could pull off the pseudovictorian prose that a majority of the steampunk I've read affects. I have encountered a few examples, though, where the steampunk is all about the juxtaposition of modern contrivances with low technology. I could see myself doing something like that. On the other hand, I have no great interest in writing about England, but I could have fun writing something set in the United States or in Latin America--or in some totally unheard of land.

The more I read, though, the less convinced I am that all the things being bundled together to show how trendy steampunk is are in fact one genre.

(I'm no expert of course. I think I've made this point before: My blog, my aimless and possibly inaccurate rambling. I'm just thinking "aloud" here. If my facts are wrong, feel free to tell me where.)

I perceive of steampunk as being inspired by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. The Victorian overtones in steampunk are in homage to those two authors. For them it wasn't an affectation, though--it was their era. (Of course, Verne was not a subject of Victoria. Presumably the same stylistic choices that were common in English literature were common in French, or perhaps he was simply translated that way.) I've actually seen Verne and Wells classified as examples of steampunk, but that seems patently ridiculous. They wrote science fiction. Their science fiction bears the stylistic and technological stamps of their societies, but these are not self-conscious homages to an earlier age.

When it comes to fashion, what is the difference between being steampunk and being simply quasivictorian? Goggles? When people mod their computers or whatever, that is pretty clearly steampunk, because what they're creating is a Victorian-inspired version of something technological that never actually existed in that era. This is what a Victorian computer would have looked like if there had been such a thing. That seems pretty quintessentially steampunk. But if we're just talking about top hats and waistcoats and pocket watches and monocles, where's the steampunk in that?

A lot of writing on steampunk I've read refers to the original Wild, Wild West as some sort of proto-example of the genre. I love Wild, Wild West as much as anyone, but here, specifically, is where I am most unconvinced. I'd say pseudo-historical action tales including technology that didn't exist in the period in question has a long history as a trope. In how many Indiana Jones or Allan Quartemain type movies have we seen some millenia old native treasure trove feature automated devices putatively powered by carefully counterbalanced stonework or by underground streams or whatnot? Should we label these something like "stonepunk"? I don't think so because I don't think the creators of these movies and shows had it in mind to meld science fiction with historical settings. Rather, they had a particular setting in mind, and they didn't want to let the technical limitations of that setting interfere with the cool eye candy they wanted to pull off.

I'm not convinced that Brisco County, Jr. counts either, because Brisco actually is a time traveler. That makes this as much a steampunk story as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

What it all comes down to for me, I think is this: the literary steampunk I've read is largely based on imagining what could have been if earlier societies had managed to invent high tech items based on the technology available to them at the time. It envisions societies substantially affected by these inventions, though still recognizable historical. The nonliterary examples I'm familiar with seem to be more about style--James Bond in the old west, say. What would a fan of the Will Smith movie, or of the Jackie Chan Around the World in Eighty Days, make of the Victorian prose, "gentle reader" asides, and infodumps of written steampunk?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Short Story Analysis: All I Have To Do Is . . .

Good luck finding this one. It's in the Winter 2007 edition of Brutarian, and you'll spend at least as much on shipping as you will for the magazine, assuming you can find this issue for sale anywhere. Brutarian is a highly entertaining magazine featuring reviews of movies and records I've never heard of along with short speculative fiction. It reminds me a lot of the free arts weekly I used to read in Miami, crossed with Asimov's or something. I think I would seek it out if it weren't so dang hard to get a copy of.

Nick Mamatas's story was my favorite of the ones in this issue, but I'll tell you quite honestly that I'm not positive if I "got" it or not. It stayed with me anyway because the concept was fascinating to me. Liz is a teenage girl who experiences the dreams other people have of her. If someone dreams of having sex with her, she feels it, and wakes up with anal tears to boot. If someone dreams of strangling her, she feels that too. Gradually she learns that she is not only a receiver, but a sender. She can send other people experiences by way of her dreams. If I'd thought of this concept, there is still no way I would have written this story--but I wish I'd thought of it anyway. *grin*

The ending seems ambiguous to me--unless that's just me being dense. Liz starts out with plans for revenge on those who have wronged her--her parents, primarily--but claims to move beyond those fantasies and achieve enlightenment. In her enlightened state, she proposes to dream a dream of all of us, wherein we all "embrace the nothingness." She starts to do just this, and the story ends. Come to think of it, maybe it's not as ambiguous as all that. It seems to me like she decides to put us all out of our collective misery through death. She promises Nirvana, but, correct me if I'm wrong here, Nirvana in Buddhism isn't really heaven, is it? As I recall, Nirvana refers to ending the cycle of life and rebirth--to getting off the wheel. That seems to work with the whole idea of embracing the nothingness and of becoming "dead leaves on the damp earth."

This story defies analysis in terms of conventional structures I'm familiar with. Liz's ultimate goal just kind of coalesces in the last quarter. There isn't really a try-fail-try again thing going on here. I've seen it alleged that just about any story can be analyzed in terms of the hero's journey, but I'm struggling to connect this story with that structure at all, except by such vague connections that they may as well be meaningless. The only structure that seems to fit is the most fundamental of all--a character makes a choice, acts on that choice, and that choice has consequences. Liz is tempted to seek revenge. Instead, she (I think) chooses oblivion for us all, and sends us the dream that will make that happen. And then the consequence--we don't see that consequence because of course we are dead.

But all of that happens at the end of the story. I would estimate this story at about four thousand words long--again, a model of brevity for me to learn from. The first third, I'd say, serves to situate us in Liz's life. We get brief accounts of two of her mother's dreams of her, one of her father's, and one by her more-or-less boyfriend Ron. In the middle third of the story, Liz and Ron begin experimenting with the workings of Liz's experiences. She already knows what happens to her, but this appears to be the first concerted effort to really study and explore it. Then Ron threatens to use her condition against her, she turns the tables on him, suffers the dreams of others due to her newfound notoriety, and is visited by her father who explains to her that she can send as well as receive. The last third of the story, roughly, is when Liz goes to the mental hospital. There she gradually masters her ability and uses it to grant us all Nirvana.

That strikes me as a lot of set-up for that payoff. It works, though--for me at least--because the concept is so intriguing that I want to read on even before Liz figures out what it is she wants to do.

So what can I learn from this? I . . . am not sure, really. That traditional structures are a myth? The power of the concept to hook a reader? I'll have to think on this one for a bit.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sometimes I almost believe in muses

I'm just about done polishing "Spacelift." Not, necessarily, that it's polished, but it may be about as far as I can take it. As I was thinking about it this morning, I realized that I had no idea, now, why I had made one of the plot choices that I had made. It served the ends of the story, but I don't remember consciously thinking about it. I can analyze the effect that choice has on the narrative, but it's really as if somebody else wrote it.

Jorge's goal is to get to Magda, who is injured, before
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He gets to the ship's infirmary, only to discover that she's been moved to the airlock in preparation for transfer to another ship. He gets to the airlock, only to discover that he has no time to do anything, because the transfer is happening now. And so it goes.

But why did I decide that the ship Jorge and Magda were on did not have a fully-functioning sick bay, and that she needed to be transferred? I don't remember consciously thinking about it. I knew that he had to have obstacles, and getting to the infirmary and finding her not there would work, but why that specific scenario?

Here's what I notice as a reader: not only does it serve as an obstacle--it also helps Jorge. It keeps him in the game. After all, he's trying to get to Magda before the doctors do. If his ship had a real sick bay with real doctors, I'd have to come up with some other reasons why it wasn't Game Over for Jorge. And that's what kind of dawned on me today: I hear a lot about obstacles and conflict for the protagonists, but whatever the protagonist is striving against--be it an antagonist or just cruel fate--needs obstacles too. There's something keeping the bad guy from just walking up to the good guy and shooting him in the head. Maybe the bad guy's in hiding. Maybe his henchmen are inept. Maybe he hasn't figured out who the good guy is yet.

If the bad guy doesn't have obstacles, you end up with the silliness of many James Bond movies. You know what I'm talking about. The evil supervillain dude has Bond captured and tied up. Naturally, he immediately lodges a bullet in Bond's skull and the credits roll before a stunned audience. Wait--that's not it. No, first he brags about the details of his evil plan. Then he starts his Rube Goldberg Death Machine and leaves! He can't even be bothered to watch Bond die! He just turns the hourglass that will release the rope that's holding back the pendulum that will block the laser that will unlock the cage that will release the alligators that will step on the weight-sensitive plate that will trigger the nuclear device that will kill Bond. Because I guess he wants Bond to be dead and impressed.

You ever see a competition where one player is substantially more skilled than the other? You ever see the more skilled player play at less than his best, and let the inferior player keep it close? It's not terribly sporting, but he's doing it to keep the other guy in the game. I guess phony drama is better than no drama at all.

So thanks, Muse, for doing that automatically for me, so I didn't have to think about it!


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(Thanks--and (((hugs)))--to pmmonkey for the how-to.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Funny how "independent" and "undependable" have the same root

Last week my wife and I wanted to order a book for a friend whose birthday was coming up. We each decided to take advantage of the excuse and order ourselves something as well--kind of like when you go to the fridge to get someone a beer, but get yourself one too, right? Well I have a pretty lousy memory for things like this, but I finally remembered the links I'd seen to Indiebound, and so I decided to give my money to an independent bookseller instead of to Amazon. Amazon is terribly convenient, with its wishlists, its DRM-free MP3s, its frequent deals on shipping, its recommendations based on your shopping history, and with the wide array of products they sell. But they also have some business practices I find unsavory. For one, last year they leaned on small presses to use their subsidiary POD service as a printer, saying that if they did not they would refuse to stock their books. In Europe, they demanded that publishers give them better discounts than they give brick and mortar stores. The practical effects of this is that Amazon can undercut brick and mortar stores, driving them out of business.

I like bookstores. I want them to continue to offer me pleasant places to browse through books and see what discoveries I might make. Also, the consolidation of bookselling into fewer and fewer larger players hurts up-and-coming writers, because it gives the buyers from those chains an undue level of control over what gets published. Is there a point in publishing a book that Barnes & Noble won't stock? Well there would be if there were tons of booksellers other than B&N, but with the slow heat death of Borders, Barnes and Noble and Amazon are the big players, with Wal-Mart mucking up the works with their own predatory pricing.

For this and other reasons, I try to support when I can. But beyond that, I would like to see other choices beyond the mega-retailers. So the idea of an Amazon-like site that benefited indie bookstores seemed perfect. I happily placed our order--maybe not so much happily as smugly.

Well the days passed and still no books. I guess we'd gotten spoiled by Amazon--their books always seem to arrive an hour or two after we place the order--sometimes even before I hit submit. So I went to the website of the Orlando bookstore I'd placed the order from, and it said my order was "open," and "processing." Did that mean they hadn't even shipped it yet? By this point, I was kind of hoping it meant that, because then I could just drive downtown and pick up our order myself.

I tried calling the bookstore to see . . . but no luck. They closed for the evening at six. No problem; I'd call in the morning during my planning period . . . except they were closed, because they don't open until eleven. When I finally got ahold of them during my lunch, I learned that a glitch had prevented them from even seeing my order. Further, they didn't actually have the books I'd ordered in stock, because what they do when they get a website order is order the book themselves, and then send it along to you when it comes. So it's this friend's birthday, and we have nothing. The order hasn't gone through, and the book is not in stock.

I canceled the birthday book and left the rest of the order standing; my wife says I went too easy on them.

So I did a little scrambling, then. Barnes and Noble's website will tell you which local stores have a given book in stock. None had this particular book, but I was able to find one in Orlando that had another book that seemed like a good choice.

So what's the moral of the story? As I left school this afternoon, I was thinking the moral might be that stores that become big chains are as successful as they are because, frankly, they provide better service. They send things faster, they don't lose your order, and they have better hours. I mean, seriously? Eleven to six?!

But not so fast . . .

Because it turned out the Barnes and Noble website lied to me about whether or not they had the book in stock. Their computers said they did, but it wasn't on the shelf anywhere. So I guess this story doesn't have a moral--just like the rest of real life, neh?

Anyway, when you next decide to order a book, consider ordering from an independent bookstore. Unless you also want toys, music, T-shirts, or whatever. Or unless you're in a hurry.