Friday, October 14, 2011

Changing Forms

I was up at my parents' last week, doing general visitery things and being a good daughter. And as happens when I'm home, I got to talking writing with Dad. He's about the only person I feel able to talk over my frustrations with, both about my own writing and about the industry in general. (After all, if you talk about frustrations on the internet, the internet will jump on your head and maybe tell prospective agents on you.) One of the things that came out of our discussions was that my frustrations over my novel not being the novel I want it to be, no matter how hard I try, could be because the novel was in the wrong form and/or not playing to my strengths.

This appears to actually have been the case, because I've shifted the form slightly and am writing again, finally. More on that at the end. I realized something else, though—I see a lot of writing blogs talk about style and structure, about how to write what sells, and about how to fix problems with the plot, with characters, with description, with mechanics. I see blogs talking about how to get out of writer's block by starting something new, having zombies attack the main character, or about how writer's block doesn't really exist and have you seen their post about fixing plot problems? I don't see many, if any, posts about solving problems by stepping back and asking yourself if the story's being told the right way, if it has the right narrative form or point-of-view. Those sorts of problems probably happen less than the other reasons for block, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

I'm not going to talk about that process of stepping back. Hopefully you already know how to do that. Nor am I going to talk about point-of-view (POV) shifts, because there are plenty of other people talking about those. So that leaves me to list narrative forms, in the hopes that they'll spark a revelation in at least one blocked writer. This is probably not a complete list. Feel free to add to it.
  • traditional narrative - a single narrator in any POV, telling a story; may focus on a character, a group of characters, a society, an age, a civilization…. The possibilities are, as with any of these forms, unlimited.
  • reflective narrative - technically falls under "traditional narrative", but enough of a shift that I'm giving it its own bullet; the narrator speaks from a point after the book ends, shedding wisdom and insight on events in their past.
  • multiple narrative - any story with two or more narrators, describing events from multiple points of view or telling interweaving/parallel stories; often gives the story a broader scope.
  • nonlinear narrative - a story that jumps between different points in time.
  • frame story - a story that's given a context for being told—a series of discovered letters, an interview, a person editing a manuscript, etc.; will most likely have two narrators, one with much less prominence than the other.
  • epistolary novel/diary - a story told through letters, diary entries, email, etc.; can be told by one or more people.
  • script - a story told through dialogue and physical actions, rather than prose.
  • visual narrative - a story told through pictures (photos, film, drawings, etc.), rather than or alongside prose.
  • verse novel - a story told through poetry, rather than prose.
Of course, these forms can be combined. I'd say graphic novels and comics are a blend of script and visual narrative, for instance. Reflective narratives can easily show up in any of the other forms. Scripts can be frame stories or nonlinear. You don't need to stick to just one, either, if mixing them up works better. 

I can't tell you if you're blocked because you've using the wrong narrative form or if you're blocked because of something else. Obviously. You need to step back from the thick of the story and work that out yourself. But don't think, like I did, that the first form you choose is the only form the story can take. Be flexible. Try out other forms, if they strike your interest.

For the record, I'm switching my novel from a dual narrative to a frame story that drops one of the narrators and adds in another as the "framer". It'll require a whole lot more new writing, but I think it'll be a better book for it, in the end. It's so good to have the words flowing again.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Year of the Superhero - After the Golden Age

After the Golden Age is … I'm still trying to decide as I write this, unfortunately. I think the cover copy did it a disservice, in that it seemed to promise me one book when I got another. The plot summary is neat—accountant daughter of famous superheroes must help take down supervillain—but it got me expecting a cutthroat story about assembling evidence and a lot of time in the courtroom, when the story itself is more about personal journey, family, and acceptance of one's lot in life. Which is not a bad story, at all. It just wasn't what I was expecting.

After the Golden Age is set in a fairly typical superhero world. Commerce City could stand in for just about anywhere. It has superheroes—the four members of the Olympiad, as well as a handful of teamless heroes. The Olympiad works out of a command centre at the top of a skyscraper, mounts patrols, checks the police scanner, and responds to supervillain-type threats, which annoys the police. There's also a supervillain, the Destructor, who's been a thorn in everyone's side for a generation and has crazy, mad scientist schemes that are "bound to work this time!" even if he works in an escape plan anyway. There do not appear to be superheroes elsewhere, and the reasons for powers existing in Commerce City isn't explained until near the end of the book.

But that's all background. Celia West, main character, accountant, and daughter of half the Olympiad, is more interesting. She has issues centering around how disappointed her parents were that she didn't inherit powers, and she's trying to make up for a mistake in her past. It's not going so well, and when she starts helping with Destructor's trial, it only gets worse. She also gets kidnapped enough that she reads hostage video scripts sarcastically and is pretty good at sizing up bad guys. As the story progresses, she starts taking a more active role in her life and the mystery (because there's always a mystery, we'll get back to that), and learns that heroism isn't just about powers and costumes. All the same, I can't help feeling that she could've been better realized, that we could've seen more of her personality outside of her reactions to events.

Like I said, I'd expected a cutthroat trial story, with Celia tracking down evidence in death-defying ways, and that wasn't what I got. The trial takes up maybe half the novel, at most, and we don't see very much of it, or of people putting together evidence. (They're trying to get the Destructor for tax fraud, not property destruction, murder, and the other things he's guilty of.) The story's about Celia coming to terms with herself, and the central mystery involves who's behind the current crime spree, since the Destructor's under way too much security to mastermind it himself. Or is he? As Celia's tracking down evidence against the Destructor, she starts uncovering hints that there's maybe more to the kidnappings, the Destructor, and superpowers than everyone suspects. As mysteries go, it's a fairly predictable one. I caught a lot of the clues before I think I was meant to, and anticipated a lot of, but not all, the twists. It also has an urban fantasy vibe, which isn't surprising considering that's where Vaughn got her start.

There are some moments surrounding superpowers and superheroes that I found interesting. The Olympiad and Destructor are still effective in their hero/villain roles once their identities are revealed, for instance, and welcome the publicity even. There are some sweet moments in which Spark, Celia's mother, cooks food with her bare hands and such-like. There are some not-so-sweet flashbacks where Celia's dad tries to test her for powers. There's mention of the consequences of telepathy. And, so far uniquely in my quest for superhero knowledge, the accident that caused the powers is also responsible for the protectiveness the heroes feel for the city. When they say they "have to" do their job, they mean it.

Ultimately, this isn't a particularly memorable story. Sure, I enjoyed reading it, but I didn't take anyway anything new from it. Everything superhero-wise (which is why I read the book) appears elsewhere—the nature of heroism, the growing-up narrative, the realistic examination of heroes and their powers—and I don't think After the Golden Age does those any better than the other stories. It was definitely an enjoyable read and a good story, but it kind of pales in comparison to some of the other books I've read this year. Oh well, on to the next book…

Monday, September 26, 2011

Thoughts about History

I was thinking about stories and history and life the other day, about the sorts of books I read and how I feel when I read them, and about the local history I know and share, and I realized something. For me, there are two types of history. Maybe this is normal, but it's not, but I think it's interesting enough to merit a blog post all the same.

The main type of history is, of course, world history, all the facts and stories we've gathered about the span of human existence. It's epic and complicated, fantastic and scary, repeating and fascinating. It's sometimes hard to separate facts from fictions or synthesize what actually happened from all the varying reports. Most importantly, the people who populate this kind of history don't feel like people. I can read about Sumerians, Romans, Ming Chinese, Elizabethans, 19th-Century Americans, and men in WWII trenches, and unless I'm reading firsthand accounts, nobody feels real even though I know they were. There's an aura of fiction to this kind of history, and one I'd imagine historians and historical novelists have to push past at every turn.

And then there's the history of the places I know intimately, the stories about specific events and people who shaped the parts of my province I know best. While there's still a slight sense that the events aren't real, it's still a lot more grounded. I can point to landmarks or stand on hillsides and say, "This is where such-and-such happened" or "So-and-so could've been here then". I took a walking tour of historic Vancouver a couple weeks ago and had a strong feeling of "yes, this happened" because I could see the streets, knew the buildings, and, importantly, knew that the people being talked about were the same rough-and-ready types who had first colonized the area I grew up in. When I think about this type of history, I have a sense of ownership, that this is my history and something to be proud of.

This divide between world history and local history parallels my reasons for reading histories and historical novels. Most historical fiction I read or want to read, I choose because I want to know what life was like in a certain place at a certain time. The biographies and histories I choose are picked for the same sorts of reasons. I want to expand my knowledge base and find things out. But the novels, bios, and histories I've read about British Columbia—the gold rush, the ranchers, the loggers, and so on—I read because I know the basic stories and want to see how they're realized on the page. I use those books more like a time machine than an archive, and when I'm reading them, there's a deeper sense of "this could have happened" than I get with other historical fiction. I also get the time machine effect through firsthand accounts, as I alluded earlier.

I imagine this is probably a pretty common thing. History's always more immediate when you can see where it happened, or when you can see artifacts. The sense I got of European history, and the ancient world, while I was touring Europe so many years ago was incredible. And of course, local history often has a folklore quality to it. We tend to mythologize important people and events, and tell our children about them at a young age. The biggest hero of the area I grew up was a guy named Billy Barker, who found a motherlode that spurred a gold rush that built a city and drew ranchers into the area. Without him, the town I grew up wouldn't have been founded. There were other rushes, and other miners in the area first, but he's the guy everyone's heard about. I also learned the mythology of the fur trade, the Northwest Passage, and Canada's explorers.

At what point does local history become the more global "characters-not-people" history? How long does it have to be before the cultural memories fade? How much area can be called local? (My schoolbooks mythologized the colonization and exploration of the whole country, but the only bits at felt real are the bits that happened to BC.) Is this mythologizing of history what created the world's myths? I don't know. I don't even know if there's a single answer. But it's something interesting to think about, isn't it?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Captain America

If you've been following this series, you'll know that Marvel movies make me grin like an idiot. Captain America was no exception. It was fun and exciting and a little bit cheeky, and I barely have any quibbles at all.

(Yes, I know Captain America came out weeks ago and I watched it opening week. I just didn't feel a blog post about it till now. On the upside, this means I don't have to worry as much about spoilers as usual.*)

I went into the film knowing the basics of the character through fandom osmosis and the theatrical trailers. Captain America is a whole-hearted boy scout type named Steve Rogers, who gets enhanced through "scientific" means to become a super-soldier. He has a sidekick named Bucky, and together they fight Nazis. Then Cap, as he's affectionately known, gets frozen, then thawed out later to lead to the Avengers. The trailers also told me there'd be a British love interest and Hugo Weaving delightfully chewing the scenery. I expected Hollywood gun fights and superhero quips, and I got that—but the film was more serious than I'd expected too, and there were some twists and turns in the origin story that I hadn't anticipated.

The film starts with a modern-day scene in the arctic, the discovery of a downed plane, and a suspiciously familiar shield (if you've seen Iron Man 2 and the Captain America trailers). We skip back to 1941 and go through Cap's entire origin story until he crashes the plane. The movie ends with Steve Rogers waking up in a hospital bed and discovering that he's not in Kansas the 1940s anymore. Normally I don't have much patience with frame stories like this, because I feel the frame is generally unnecessary, but in this case I like it. That first scene sets up a mystery and a sense of anticipation that lurks in the background for the rest of the film, and the final scene establishes more or less where the Marvel movie-verse is going to go next. Take those scenes out, and you're left with a run-of-the-mill origin story with a definite conclusion that necessitates a lot of explanation when The Avengers comes out. I'd have less patience with a "yeah, so we found him and unthawed him" scene in Avengers than I generally do with frame stories.

The origin story itself is pretty standard. Steve Rogers tries and fails multiple times to enlist, is taken under the wing of a scientist and brought into a super-soldier program, and proves himself and is rewarded with enhancement. He metaphorically stumbles around a while trying to find something useful to do, then becomes a badass hero who destroys Nazi facilities with a crack team of soldiers. He finally ends up in a one-to-one fight with his nemesis, the Red Skull.

With the WWII setting, the story could've gone a couple ways I'm glad it didn't. It could've been a really gritty war movie, full of dirt and blood and bodies, and make a statement about how awful war is and how comrades become family, etc. Or it could've been a goofy action film à la Indiana Jones, with campy Nazis who never seem to come close to committing actual atrocities and are basically a tame threat.

What we got instead was a war movie that pays tribute to how hard and gritty and bleak the war was at times without really getting into it, and a bunch of Nazis that, while kind of goofy looking and ineffectual in the Hollywood way of not hitting targets, did pose a fairly big threat to our protagonists. Their retro-futuristic energy weapons were a large part of that. If they'd just been guys in weird outfits…

I really liked the retro-futuristic look of the technology. I know that a lot of what I saw in terms of transformation chambers, secret labs, planes, and energy cannons didn't actually exist back then, but it all looked like it could have. I had a bit harder time accepting that with the level of technology displayed in 1941, we haven't come further than the technology seen in Iron Man, though. I mean, there's a proto-type flying car in Captain America! Even if it failed in the film, if Howard Stark could do that then, why does his son only have cars on the market in our universe? Or should I accept that the holograms and AI in Iron Man are in some way the outcome of things Stark Sr. was dreaming up back in the day? I think I'll take that option…

I nearly bounced in my seat and squeed when the cosmic cube showed up near the beginning. I didn't because I was with people who hadn't seen Thor** and didn't want to spoil them. Or scare them. I get the impression that the cube wasn't initially linked to Thor and Asgard in the comics, that maybe it still isn't, but I think it's a stroke of genius that it is in the films. It ties the continuity together, and has implications for The Avengers. I enjoyed the demonstrations of just what the cube's power could do, and I thought everything the Nazis did with it was twice as terrible because they were perverting a holy/alien artifact. Which ties into the Nazi-occult thing, too.

Individual character time… I liked Cap. I was a little worried going in because I thought he'd be either really naive or too much like a boy scout, but my fears were unfounded. He was a solid, nice, likable guy, but he didn't come off as a caricature. He was a person, a person with his head on straight, and a person who grew up over the course of the film.

The supporting cast all delivered good performances as well. I'm a little in love with Howard Stark, who has incredible flair and does crazy things like his son does. I'm definitely in the faction who wants him to get his own film. Peggy Carter, the love interest, was good as well. I was glad to see that she got to be active and badass, but wanted to see more of that. It felt like she was sidelined by the men a lot, and yes, I know that's realistic to the era, but … *sigh* I also thought the romance aspects were a little heavy-handed at times, but believable 90% of the time.

I liked Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull too. He played up the sinister, creepy madness of the character, ending up slightly on the Indiana Jones side of the war movie equation, which is where a villain like him needed to be, I think. This is a comic book movie. The baddies are allowed to be a little unbelievable and cartoonish at times. But damn, he was creepy, and he pulled off the infodump scenes pretty well to boot. My only quibble with Weaving is that he had the worst German accent of any of the German characters. It wobbled. It occasionally went a bit Aussie. The vowels were slightly off most of the time. You'd think an actor of his caliber could do better, especially since he must've had a vocal coach.

But apart from the Peggy and Red Skull quibbles, this was a solid, enjoyable film. I think my favourite Marvel characters are still Iron Man and Spider-man, but Cap is fun and I'm looking forward to seeing him again in The Avengers next summer. I've got a good sense of his character and background now, and see some possibilities for how he'll interact with the rest of the team.

* Not that I ever avoid spoilers, really, but I worry whenever I put them in.
** Yes, I know. I plan to fix this soon.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Science Linkage!

(a.k.a. Anassa is too tired to think of a better title.)

I have another post up at Science in My Fiction today, this time on mountains, volcanoes, and solar system geology. I highly recommend it, since I'm totally not biased or anything, and then coming back because I've been archiving interesting science articles again.

One group of mad scientists has recently created bullet-proof human skin, from spider goats. I'm now envisioning soldiers, stuntmen, and superheroes with this stuff grafted onto their bodies, and will applaud any burn victim who opts for this treatment.

Another group of scientists have come up with brain-mimicking computer chips. Robot uprising and singularity ahoy?

Yet another group of scientists have developed a chemical to make organs transparent. It's being described as a major medical advance, and I agree.

And on a societal front, we have research on hyenas that ties complex societies to intelligence and evidence that Homo erectus could sail, because we've found their tools on Crete. And the discovery that dolphins don't whistle, but actually have "vocal chords" thrills me to no end.

As does this video, actually. This could seriously revolutionize agriculture, if it takes off.

And on a more generically inspirational note for genre writers, here's a lecture about unintended consequences of inventions and actions. Everything we do as a society, and everything we create is going to do things we don't want it to, for good and for bad, and really great sci-fi gets that. So watch, and write! (And comment?)


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Originality Is a Lie

Yesterday someone told me there was never anything new on TV and justified the statement by listing shows similar to or which may have influenced a show which shall remain nameless, but which is currently airing and which I'm enjoying. I both agree and don't agree with their statement, but refrained from saying anything to their face about it. I save my best arguments for the blogosphere. Aren't you lucky?

You see, there are only so many stories out there. Every show is going to fit into one of those basic plots. And TVTropes has pretty much proven that there is no truly original idea. Somebody will have used that character, that situation, that trait before you, and hundreds of people will use it after you. It is impossible to be truly unique, especially since art is never created in a vacuum. Also, if you look through TVTropes for any length of time, you realize that some of these ideas go back to the start of recorded history, and probably further back than that. They've obviously stuck around because they strike a chord with people. Why shouldn't we expect people to still use the ideas today? They've been proven to work.

Like I said, though, I do agree with the "nothing new" statement to a degree. There are an awful lot of crime dramas, and a fair number of legal dramas and medical dramas, on air right now—enough that my reaction to green-lit show announcements is occasionally "oh no, not another one". Even sci-fi/fantasy shows seem to be borrowing from those subsets (Torchwood, Eureka, Alphas, Warehouse 13, Supernatural, Haven, and the upcoming Grimm). Would it hurt the networks, or the cable channels, to give us more shows without an episodic mystery underpinning? And networks do have a habit of copying from each other, which is why we have so many crime-medical-legal dramas, and why there's about to be a show about 1960s stewardesses after the success of a show about 1960s advertising executives.

However, I don't write off shows (or films, or books) because I've seen the core plot, or tropes, or formula before. I expect them. I expect that the first film about any given superhero will be an origin story. I except that any team of crime solvers will have a comic relief character, a strict boss, a tough-but-fair type, and a hero. I expect sitcoms to be about slightly dysfunctional groups of people stuck living or working together. I write off shows for lack of originality, or rather, I watch shows that display originality. Supernatural's kind of like Buffy and kind of like X-Files and kind of like horror movies, but it's also about family and "home", and it has different takes on monsters and an interesting take on religion. Bones is kind of like CSI with more skeletons, but it's focused on the lab people, not the detectives. Basically, I want to see people take the tropes and plots we've seen again and again, and do something different.

Interestingly, I've seen this "nothing new" argument leveled at TV and movies far more often than I've seen it leveled at books, though the backlash against repetitive stories occurs with both. I know from #ufchat on Twitter (admittedly a very small sample) that people get tired of the same mysteries with the same romances and same monsters. Anything different gets praised or at least mentioned. The publishing industry and reviewers will quite often point out the "different" parts of stories, as will I at my dayjob—and negative reviews are frequently "it's just like X". This happens again and again in film and TV reviews too.

I'm not sure which of my conclusions is more accurate. Does the ratio of books to shows lower the proportion of negative to positive feedback for books vs. TV? Or are readers less vocal about their dislikes compared to watchers? Are there fewer book reviewers compared to TV reviewers? Is it a mix of all these?

I'd like to see less backlash against "unoriginal" work, period. Everyone inspires everyone else and everything gets reused. We need to accept that and appreciate the ways creators do new things with old material—because, voice of experience here, that's really hard.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Musical Interlude

I'm not up to doing an awesome written post today, or a mediocre one even, so instead I'm embedding some awesome music videos. Listen to the first three, watch the last two, and have a great weekend!

 And for the visuals as well:

Monday, August 15, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Our Gods Wear Spandex

I'm not just reading superhero fiction and watching superhero movies this year. Admittedly, that's the bulk of my research*, but when I come across a non-fiction work that interests me, I'll pick it up. Case in point: Our Gods Wear Spandex by Christopher Knowles.

Knowles' thesis is that superheroes are now what gods were then. They're fantastically powerful, they save us in times of peril**, and they are "worshipped" by their fans. He gives a lot of information about comic book history and the parallels and influences withs gods, mysticism, and the occult that crop up within it. I buy the thesis, because yeah, I see the parallels, and I think I've run into this idea before. I don't always buy that the support evidence supports the thesis, though, and there were some moments where my Inner Feminist™and Slightly Outer Fangirl™ went rawr. So I'm kind of conflicted about whether I liked the book or not.

The book starts with chronologies of super-beings and evolved humans, detectives, and religious and occult groups (Masons, Rosicrucians, spiritualists, etc.), all of which served as prototypes in some way or other for important comic book tropes. We wouldn't have had Batman without Sherlock Holmes, and wouldn't have had the Asian Guru of All Power and Wisdom™without the Victorian New Agers. There's also biographies of important Victorians and Edwardians involved in the occult (Aleister Crowley, Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) with relevant links to comics. 

Then Knowles starts charting the history of the pulps and then comic books, pointing to the first characters who could be called 'super' and noting the prototypes for later, actual superheroes. He mentions the strange and surreal plots, mystic elements, actual appearances by gods, and more that I've already sadly forgotten, and does a pretty good job of tying it back into the chronologies I just mentioned. The rest of the book is basically Knowles leading us from the Golden Age through to 2007, when the book was published, with discussions of landmark works and creators. He mentions occult and religious influences whenever applicable: Horus links to the Falcon, Superman gets his power from the sun like Ra, Wonder Woman is an Amazon, and Batman, Wolverine, and Hellboy conform to what Knowles calls the Golem Archetype. 

Unfortunately, there are problems with the text. Most importantly from a scholarly standpoint, Knowles seems to be trying too hard to prove his thesis. A lot of the links with the occult he lists are credible and work in his favour, but others seem to be pushing the connection with the occult a little far. Knowles mentions creators with interests in myths and magic and says that they deliberately put occult themes in their work, whereas I'm more willing to believe that those themes slipped in subliminally or in a kind of "oh crap, how do we explain this?" manner. (I don't deny there was an influence, though.) And he also says things like "Superhero Name was also the nickname of So-And-So Unrelated Creator", which I see as trivia and coincidence and not supporting anything. A lot of Knowles' arguments are based on his own research and opinions, by the way. He rarely quotes another scholarly source and I don't think he ever provides counter-arguments.

The next problem I have is with the book's reading of female heroes. Knowles took a moment in the history of occultism chapter to talk about initiation rituals involving bondage. When he gets to the chapter on female superheroes, he makes a point of mentioning their revealing outfits and how erotic it is to see them get tied up all the time, and links this back to those bondage rituals. Can't a girl get tied up without connotations? I've seen readings of Wonder Woman that have her as a feminist icon until the 60s and 70s tamed her. Knowles has the opposite reading, that she wasn't a proper female role model until she left her powers and lived as a human. The same kind of reading is placed on other female heroes, notably Elektra, who he tears apart for being masculine, dominant, and assertive. Oh, and of course there are a couple mentions that most comics fans are male, with the implication that the female fans don't really count because they're an extreme minority. Feminist SMASH!

Last problem: The Slightly Outer Fangirl™. She was happy to see Knowles say things like, "fans identify with Spider-Man because he's like them—scrawny, nerdy, socially awkward, and dealing with bullies all the time"***, largely because that's why she identifies with Spider-Man. She was slightly unhappy that he seems to think that socially awkward is the only way for a comics fan to be. And then (for a relative meaning of then, because I think this happened first) he says that cosplayers are acting out of the same impulse as Ancient Greeks**** when they dressed up as gods, i.e. that cosplayers are worshipping the characters they dress as; and that cosplay comes from comics fandom. One, I think "honouring" or "sharing love" are better verbs than "worshipping". Two, I always thought cosplay started in, or at least became a Thing in, Japan because of manga—which do count comic books, in a way, but Knowles never mentions them. Three, cosplay's evolved way past superhero costumes, and I'm pretty sure it had done so long before 2007. Do we then say that people who dress as Link, the Doctor, Susan Sto-Helit, or Severus Snape worship those characters? I suspect Knowles would say, "But they're superheroes, see, look look, totally counts!"

The fact that Knowles stretches credibility with a few of his occult link-ins stretches the credibility of all the links for me. If he can't be bothered to try to appear unbiased and/or scholarly about his thesis, then I'm inclined to see that as him pushing an opinion rather than presenting an argument. And if he's going to impose his (older) (male) viewpoint on comics and fandom, I'm going to question his opinions, being, as I am, younger and female. 

All that aside, the bulk of Our Gods Wear Spandex is interesting and informative, and can be read as an overview or a launching point for further research. (It's not exhaustive and not meant to be.) Knowles has a number of intriguing ideas and makes a number of connections that I hadn't thought of. I see the history of comics more clearly now, will be reading them with a more informed eye, and don't regret reading the book. At the same time, though, I am approaching the information Knowles lays out with a skeptical eye because a scholar to my standards he is not. I advise anyone picking this book up to do the same.

* I love that I get to call it that.
** Superheroes get more popular during times of national crisis like war.
*** I paraphrase. The book is no longer on me.
**** I think it was the Greeks?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Links and Science!

You may have noticed that I didn't blog this week. That's because every time I sat down to start a post, the post I promised Science in My Fiction was more demanding than anything I had planned. It's on the science in Cowboys and Aliens, or more specifically, the lack of thought-out science. It's up now, which I hope will make up somewhat for the lack of posts, and allow me to write a post or two for next week. Go read it!

And since we're talking science today, here are some links I've collected lately:

Dolphins are the first mammals to sense electricity.

Glimpses of Roman culture, via Pompeii. If you're a Pompeii nut, you've probably heard most or all of this. If you're not, read on!

Map of all the water in the solar system.

Electronic circuits skin

And more links, this time with a comic book theme!

First Avengers concept art

Timeline of the Marvel movieverse

What comics could learn from superhero movies

How much does it cost to run a science lab?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Fiction and Zombies and Mash-ups, Oh My!

I'm starting to get annoyed by the word mash-up. It's being used too widely and at the expense of other, better descriptors. It's become a buzzword, which means that it's nearly meaningless.

I wouldn't have this problem if the connotations of mash-up were more positive. For me, mash-up means "goofy, silly, poorly thought-out, capitalizing on a trend". The first use of mash-up I ran into was in reference to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—"a Jane Austen-zombie mash-up". I liked PP+Z. It had a good hook, and pretty decent execution. But then everyone jumped on the bandwagon and within months we were inundated with titles. Some of those books, or at least the hooks that pitched them, sounded dubious. "How," I asked myself, "is Little Women improved with werewolves, or Huck Finn with zombies?" The reviews I've read seem to confirm this.*

So mash-up went from describing a blend of apparently incompatible ideas to describing a blend of apparently incompatible ideas that doesn't succeed. The core meaning's still there, of course, but when a good mash-up shows up or a book/movie/game/show is pitched as one, I think people are more likely to write it off. "It's a mash-up," they say, "so it can't be any good, really." (Possibly this is what I'm doing with Little Women and Werewolves, et al.)

And now on to what sparked this post: I've seen Cowboys and Aliens described as a mash-up, and I don't think it is. Cowboys and aliens are not incompatible ideas the way the way regency romance and the living dead are. It's fairly easy to imagine cowboys and aliens interacting, after all, whereas a large part of the hook for PP+Z was how they were going to pull it off. If Cowboys and Aliens is a mash-up, so is Midsummer Night's Dream, which is essentially a romantic comedy with fairies. If Dream were a movie today, yes, I'd go watch it because hey, fairies, but I'd go in expecting it to be kind of bad and the fairies to be not entirely necessary to the story. I'm certainly going to go into Cowboys and Aliens expecting to be entertained, but nothing more—not because it's a Hollywood summer blockbuster, but because it's been pitched as a mash-up.

So what are the other, better descriptors I mentioned? How can we describe fiction that blends ideas without resorting to the shorthand du jour? Option one is to pitch it as X meets Y—the OK Corral meets Independence Day, romantic comedy meets English folklore. Option two is to form a compound noun—alien invasion western, fantasy romcom. I'll also throw out blend, mix, and combination as possibilities. Firefly is not a cowboys-space mash-up, it's a show about the Old West in space, or a space western. Calling it a mash-up would do it a disservice, and the same goes for a lot of the other work that's getting labelled as such. I think more people would pick up those books or watch those movies if mash-up never featured in the blurbs.

My suggestion, then: If we're going to use mash-up to describe anything, let's use it for the creative works with apparently incompatible ideas—Julius Caesar and unicorns, to throw an idea out there, or Adam and Eve and pirates. Anything we can imagine scenarios for, and anything that can be described without using mash-up should be. The word is perfectly functional, but the more functions we give it, the more it's used when it doesn't have to be, the less it's going to mean, and what use is a descriptive word without meaning?

Interested in mash-ups? The Qwillery has a thorough list of them.

* True story: I work at a bookstore and we can't move Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters for anything.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Green Lantern

During university, a couple friends and I often found ourselves doing a late night study-and-chat session in the dorm lounge, with bad sci-fi films in the background. One night, I called every single plot point in the movie within a minute of it happening. "The mom's going to disappear." "The dad's possessed." "That teacher isn't going to believe those kids." "It's going to rain in 5, 4, 3…." "He's going to drop that flashlight."

Green Lantern was kind of like that. The film felt predictable, like the writers had listed every important action/superhero trope and written the script to fit them all, but their hearts weren't in it. They were basically following a formula. Hal doubts himself; Hal is presented with opportunity to stop doubting himself. Hal gets snapped at by love interest; Hal saves love interest; love interest falls for Hal. So on, so forth. Jami Gold has done a great deconstruction of the flaws of the film, with bonus! writing! instruction!, here and here. Go read her posts 'cause otherwise I'd be repeating everything here.

Since Green Lantern wasn't a good movie, it would be easy to write off Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern Corps, and all the space-cop hijinks that surely appear in the comics. After all, if the movie sucks, the 'verse must suck, right? But that would be too easy, and doing the character, etc., a disservice. The Green Lantern has a fanbase, so the comic has to be good. Unfortunately, I only have the movie to go on at the moment, so I'm sure I'll be missing out on complexities and nuances. If you're a Green Lantern fan and reading this, feel free to chip in in the comments.

Hal Jordan: Has the potential to be an interesting character. Depending on the writing, he'll either be a Tony Stark-like playboy without the mad science, or an American son doing good in the world, along the lines of Superman. I'm not sure I'd be sold on either interpretation—if I want a kooky playboy, I'll probably pick Tony—but they could both be cool and complex enough to carry a series and capture fans.

The ring and lantern: An interesting idea, though the 'power of will' stuff feels like the product of a late-night brainstorming session with alcohol. I like that the ring chooses its wearer. I like that the ring isn't limitless and occasionally needs to be recharged. I like that the ring functions as a communication and warning device (I'd wondered how Hal was going to know about extraterrestrial crime). And I really, really like that you can basically do anything, create anything, if your will is strong enough. They could've had more fun with that in the film.

The Green Lantern Corps: Again, interesting. Lots of potential. As I understand it, the comics don't always follow Hal (or the other human Lanterns), so we can meet an infinite number of characters, with infinite body shapes, infinite personalities, who'll solve problems in ways that Hal wouldn't think of. And the team dynamics! And of course, because there are so many alien races, from so many sectors, and they fight crime, that means all kinds of crimes, on all kinds of worlds! (I'm probably over-thinking this and the comics won't be nearly as cool as my imagination. C'est la vie.)

Sinestro: Again, potential. He's arguably the most complex character in the film. He's got a stern, warrior spirit. He's a good leader. He wants to be the best he can be, and to fight as well as he can, and if that means wearing the yellow ring instead of his green one, so be it. Which means he's weak and doubts himself, if only a little. I often favour villains over heroes, and Sinestro's another example of that. I want to know more about him, because his backstory and POV are bound to be really cool.

Hector Hammond: The other candidate for most complex character in the film, though a poor one because he's largely shown as "wimpy scientist". However, he does have daddy issues and a crush, and could redeem himself if he really wanted. It's a shame that he was so flat and had so little screen time in the movie, because he could've been a pretty great villain in his own right, instead of a mild threat leading up to the big showdown. I found it interesting that he'd known Hal for a long time, as kind of friends with him. In most canons, that personal connection would set up a major enemy, not a minor one.

Parallax: He has an interesting origin story, but as an ex-immortal alien I'd expect him to be more powerful and harder to defeat. All he seems capable of is sucking yellow skeletons out of people, roaring, and the occasional bout of mind control. I think Green Lantern might've been better as a trilogy, with the Parallax line spread out. Film 1: Hal defeats Hector. Film 2: Hal defeats a bunch of fear-controlled people, aware of Parallax as puppet master. Film 3: Hal defeats Parallax. Or perhaps that would be the three acts of the film, and we could skip the origin story? Anyway, yeah, Parallax is cool. I could certainly see more of him.

The other elements of the film—the love interest, the military—are too flat and basic for me to get much out of them. I like that the love interest was skilled in a couple areas, all typically male, but at the same time, that struck me as both "Eh, really? You're trying too hard, writers and "Does doing man things make her hotter, guys?" She seemed smart and sensible, at least, so that's points in her favour.

Even though I've said most of the main elements are interesting and have potential, I'm not sure I'll go further  into the 'verse. If I come across something, yeah, I might pick it up and take a look, but I won't seek it out. There's something about superpowered space cops that doesn't "fit" for me. I have a suspicion that the comics will be pretty flat, pretty black-and-white, and fairly formulaic. And anything with "cops" has connotations of Law and Order and CSI, for me—very serious, not a lot of humor. Part of the appeal of superheroes for me is the camp, the quips, and so on.

All that aside, I am glad I watched the film and got introduced to the characters and their powers. More to think about. Maybe I am writing the 'verse off too soon, maybe I'm not. Like I said, if I see something, I'll take a look. Maybe that'll change my mind.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I Am a Big Fat NERD

I've seen Green Lantern and will be writing a post on it, but not yet. Not today. Instead, I'm doing an Awesome Science post, because I haven't done one in a while and I didn't want to spam my Twitter feed last night. So here are some links that've caught my eye lately:

All non-African humans are part Neanderthal. I can't describe how happy this makes me, on several levels. First off, we have definite proof of interbreeding now. I was always kind of in favour of that theory, and the periodic announcements of "maybe we did interbreed" got me pretty excited too. Nothing compared to this, though. And then of course we have the feat by which we got this proof—comparing modern human genomes to DNA derived from 50,000-year-old bones. Science is amazing.

A gorgeous Bornean rainbow toad, thought to be extinct.

An electron microscope photo of a hydrothermal worm. Warning: clicking will give you nightmares.

Three-billion-year-old life in the Great Lakes. Except I'm not totally convinced the microbes date that far back. Couldn't they have evolved from aerobic to anaerobic as they discovered a new environment?

Microscopic food photography.

A short documentary on karakuri, also known as traditional Japanese robots automatons. Very lovely. I want my future to have robots like these.

Karakuri from Matthew Allard on Vimeo.

Have you heard of any neat science lately? Share it in the comments!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rewrites: Practice is Helpful

I took French and German in high school. The languages themselves have a pretty low role in my daily life—I don't read foreign news, I don't speak the languages at work, I don't write in them, etc. But studying those languages taught me things that I apply to my writing. I learned about cases, idioms, and translation, and how people of other cultures think, which I don't think anyone will deny is helpful to a writer. But I also learned something even more awesome. I learned how to rewrite sentences.

If you've ever studied a language, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, well: when you're learning grammar in a formalized, school-type setting, you "get" to write sentences, paragraphs, letters, essays, recipes, and all kinds of texts that demonstrate or drill in the lesson of the day. In German, for example, any verbs in a subordinate clause and any verbs after a modal (e.g., can, will, ought, must) get shunted to the end of the clause, so you get stuff like "I want to the store go" and "because I short am". Because this is slightly tricky for English speakers, I was assigned a lot of practice paragraphs, which I often got to make up based on a prompt.

… Unfortunately, I didn't always have the vocabulary to deal with the topic. I was prone to thinky-thoughts and metaphors and convoluted sentences even then, and it's hard to convey those when you only know how to find tourist attractions and buy food. Even looking words up didn't always help, so I was forced to stop and think about what I was writing. Specifically, I thought, "Is there a simpler way to say this?"

There usually was. Sometimes there was a simpler word I could use. I could split the idea into multiple clauses. I could use multiple sentences. In really terrible cases, where I'd written myself into a corner because no language is designed to convey the images in my mind perfectly and I'm a fan of hugely complicated sentences, I'd have to restart entirely. I maintain that this process—recognizing a problem with my writing, identifying the problem, trying various solutions until one of them worked, repeating the steps—helped me become a better writer, long before I knew that writing was something I wanted to do.


The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Let's assume that we can't use 'lazy'. It has the wrong connotation, or the narrator/POV doesn't have the concept, or something.  What else can we use, then? Alternate words might be 'sleepy', 'tired', or 'bored'. Not quite the meaning, but they get the job done. We could also use a phrase, such as "the dog who didn't want to do anything" or "the dog who didn't like working".

This is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.

This sentence is very hard to follow. Too many clauses. We need to break it up a little.

  • That cow with the crumpled horn tossed the dog, who'd worried the cat. The cat had killed the rat that had eaten Jack's cheese.
Not the best solution, but again, it gets the job done and we can worry about smoothing things out later. However, I'd prefer to show the sequence of events in order, more gradually, as happens in the original rhyme. That way we can space out the events and maybe elaborate on them a little as we go.
  • One day, in the house he had built for himself at the edge of the forest, Jack made cheese. He hung it from the rafters in a bag of cheesecloth, and left to gather wood. As soon as he'd gone, a rat scurried up the drainpipe, through a gap in the wall that Jack didn't know about, and was soon nibbling at the edges of the cheese. Jack's cat, Mr. Mouser, saw this and …
We could string that out even further, if we wanted, and turn it into a full-fledged adult plot or at least several paragraphs, rather than the text of a picture book. I'll leave that to you, though.

She gave her book to the girl, and she liked it.

Ambiguous! Who is "she" in the second half of the sentence?
  • She gave her book to the girl, who liked it.
  • She gave her book to the girl, which made her happy.
Er… we still have ambiguity in the second example. Trying again:
  • It made her happy to give her book to the girl.
Yeah, now we have a sentence starting with 'it' but at least we know who's happy.

After a long day of work, in which I will walk around and climb ladders and organize shelves and help customers and clean and put out stock, I will travel approximately 30 minutes via public transit and foot in order to watch the final, ultimate, very last Harry Potter film at midnight, with friends, who'll be holding our place in line from at least dinner time, and it's the only thing I'm going to think about all day.

Agh, another long and convoluted sentence! This one has the problem of too much information, along with being maybe a little hard to follow, so what are we going to do this time? Take out the needless and redundant stuff.
  • I'm going to the last Harry Potter film tonight, with friends. I'm excited!
Of course, these sentences were deliberately found/written as easy examples. The sentences I come up with in my writing are generally worse and require more trying and more thinking before I find a workable solution. But y'know, that's okay, because the more I rewrite sentences and the more terrible examples I fix, the better I'll be at rewriting in the future. It's all about the practice!

So here's a challenge for you: Find a text—a blog post, a news article, a book, an email, whatever—and rewrite it. If it's badly written, make it well-written. If it's well-written, make it terrible. If it's one genre, make it another. Adopt a different writer's style. Make it your own style. If it's past tense, make it present. If it's first-person, make it third. The goal is to rewrite the work in some form, for the experience and the practice. I bet it'll be eye-opening, because it is for me.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Characters From Life

Yesterday I noticed that I've begun picking minor characters almost exclusively from people I meet at work. Sort of noticed, anyway. Re-noticed. I've been characterizing from life for years, but it wasn't till yesterday that I sat up and said, "Hey, yeah, that is what I'm doing." And I'm sure in a year or two I'll have the same moment all over again.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not stealing peoples' identities wholesale*, but I'm taking personality types, behaviours, and ways of speaking, and giving them to my characters. A walk-on character, one who only appears for a scene, who maybe gets a single line, gets one trait to distinguish them. The more they're around, the more I borrow from my customers. I've yet to take anything from people I commute with, largely because I don't see enough repeat faces and buses aren't the most social of situations. People don't talk to strangers or move around much on buses, so it's harder to people-watch.

It's highly recommended by People In The Know for writers to people-watch. It helps with dialogue, characterization, voice, and all kinds of things. So if you're a writer, you probably do this already. Maybe, if you're like me, you watched people long before you became a writer. Maybe it was the reason you became a writer, or one of the reasons. A fascination with people and what makes them tick is certainly a factor in the stories I tell.

One of the reasons I lift personality traits rather than personalities is because that's simply easier. A minor character doesn't need to have the same weight as my protagonist, whether on the page or in my mind. When I'm reading, I barely pick up on the personalities of walk-on parts, because what they say or do is generally more important to the story than their appearance, and I'm sensitive to that knowledge when I'm writing.

The other reason I only lift traits is because I'm worried about someone I know reading the book and recognizing themselves. Call me paranoid but I'd rather not be sued for defamation of character, or anything else. Then again, lifting a specific, uncommon trait could still bring down a lawsuit, but so far, I haven't had a minor character demand anything more than a generic trait of a demographic. A high-powered businesswoman who snaps at store clerks who ask her to get off the phone is a completely different animal from the woman who comes every few weeks to talk to me about vampire novels, because we've established that I know more than my coworkers on the subject.

Watching people also means less research for me in other areas. I've met people who conform to stereotypes, people who don't conform, and people who only conform until you get to know them. When I'm creating characters I don't have to work at avoiding stereotypes as much as a result, and can create deeper, more layered people. I can base my characters on people I've encountered instead of starting from scratch—and yes, that includes main characters. Of course, I still have to make sure that unwanted stereotypes haven't crept in, because that's the 21st-Century responsible thing to do, but again, I have a knowledge base that includes non-stereotypes so there's less research needed.

I'm not a Person In The Know by any reckoning, but I do recommend that if you write, you should make a habit of noting what people around you do. It is helpful, if only because it makes populating scenes a lot easier. Need someone to bump into the protagonist on a crowded street? Need a redshirt? Need an amusing byplay to lighten the mood? You'll have a list of people and situations you can stick in, and won't have to dredge your mind. And of course I recommend going for generic traits or people who don't really know you, over specific traits and people who do, but bear in mind that I'm biased because that's what I do.

Where do you get your characters from? Do you people-watch? Do you share my paranoia?

* that I'm aware of

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Ironman

Most superheroes are presented as physical weaklings who become strong, and often American stereotypes to boot. They gain powers, they gain a motive, they fight bad guys, they get a costume, they fight bad guys, roll credits. Tony Stark, on the other hand … well, we can't deny he's an American stereotype, but he's about as far from the squeaky-cleanness of Clark Kent as it's possible to get. He's a hard-drinking, hard-partying, irresponsible, womanizing weapons manufacturer. He should be unlikeable. He shouldn't be someone we look up to. And yet…

I think it was a smart decision to humble Tony at the very start of the film. Afghani insurgents blow him up and capture him for nefarious purposes, and thus allow Tony to see his all-American Patriotic Weapons in enemy hands. That would break most people, and depending on how you read the film it may break Tony too. Suddenly Tony's brought down to the level of the common man and given a choice—give in to the insurgents' demands, or invent something that would allow him to escape. And that's where we see his strength. Tony Stark presents as a playboy, but he's got principles that he stands by, and he stands up to authority, both classic superhero traits. (Of course, Tony stands up to positive authority too….)

Some superheroes fight individual villains with individual motives—the Green Goblin wants Spider-Man humbled and killed, Kraven wants to prove his prowess as a hunter, Doc Oc wants to continue his experiments and get revenge. Some superheroes fight individual villains with larger, more widespread motives—the Joker wants ultimate control of Gotham's underworld, Loki wants control of Asgard and to prove his worth, Lex Luthor wants money. And then some superheroes fight individual villains who are representative of larger forces, and that's Ironman, at least in the first movie. He's a weapons manufacturer who fights terrorism and a corporate American who fights corporate America. In this era of wars and politics and Americans shouting their own praises and a lot of the world (Americans included) upset with the wars, politics, and shouting, Tony Stark is somebody we can get behind.

Of course, that's not the only reason why I like Tony Stark. I also like him for his crazy, manic Tony Stark logic (Insurgents still have my weapons, so I'm going to build a supersonic metal suit with an EMP and a flamethrower), his ability to fast-talk everyone around him, and the chemistry he has with Pepper Potts. More on that in a sec. Also, since I might as well admit to being occasionally shallow, Robert Downey Junior takes off his shirt a couple times.

Earlier this week I had a conversation on Twitter with @AmaliaTd and @SuSmithJosephy about superheroines as treated by Hollywood, specifically the fact that no matter how awesome they are in print, they're weakened on film and turned into damsels in distress more often than not. Ironman's the rare beast where strong women get to be secondary characters and do stuff in their own right. Pepper Potts, Tony's personal assistant, while admittedly the only woman in most of the film, gets things done, outmaneuvers Tony on several occasions, doesn't take his BS, deals out snark of her own, and has an important role in the climax. In a sense you could say she saves Tony's life. And then Tony doesn't win her heart at the end, not quite. Admirable, in a Hollywood film. I seem to remember the same strong women thing going on in Ironman 2, but since I've still only seen it once, I'll hold off on commenting.

Ironman also feels like the most science fictional superhero 'verse I've encountered so far. Most superhero worlds have some aspect of science fiction to them (mostly mutated DNA and advanced technology), but Ironman takes things a step further. Tony Stark's a genius inventor, after all. He has a robotic house, several lab robots, several Ironman suits, holographic blueprint programs, and of course, he also as the arc reactors. A lot of the stuff is, if not possible today, nearly possible, and that manages to make the film simultaneously "gosh wow cool future!" and grounded in reality. I've seen similar technology on Youtube.

(Yes, I know that Tony Stark's world is also the world of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four, all of which definitely have science fiction elements, but somehow, even with the Marvel Studios continuity, Tony's Malibu home seems more advanced and real than anywhere else except maybe Asgard.)

I'm not as hooked on Ironman/Tony Stark as a character as I am some of the other Marvel characters—I'm not very likely to pick up an Ironman anthology this year—but I've yet to watch the film without getting a splitting grin within a couple minutes. And I have hopes that the humor, pacing, and characterization in Ironman find their way to The Avengers, because they'd make that movie awesome. Since Joss Whedon's helming, I may actually get my wish. Also, I really do need to acquire Ironman 2….

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tolkien and Me

The first novel I remember being read as a bedtime story was The Hobbit.

The first novel I remember reading was The Hobbit. I finished it, then turned back to "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit." I still have that edition. It's well-worn.

The Lord of the Rings was also a bedtime story. I can still remember the tune Dad sang for Tom Bombadil's song, though I think the elvish songs were read as poetry. I'm not sure I understand everything in the book, but I certainly enjoyed it.

I have an unused Tolkien diary from 1995 illustrated and signed by John Howe. That isn't as impressive as it sounds. Howe went to high school with my dad.

Dad had a bunch of Tolkien art that used to be calendars back in the 1970s. Some of the images were as I pictured the scenes. Many weren't. I'm not a fan of the Hildebrandts. I'm only somewhat a fan of Nasmith.

I have seen the Bass-Rankin Hobbit twice.

One summer—I think I was twelve—my family roadtripped across the Prairies to rendezvous with family in Winnipeg. As one does when one is a writer, Dad scheduled readings in bookstores in most of the cities en route. In the McNally-Robinson in Saskatoon, I found a fairly cheap boxed set of The Lord of the Rings, and begged money off my mom to buy it. Guess what I read for the rest of the trip?

In grade ten, I spent a glorious lunch period clustered around a table in the library, debating with the other kids who ate lunch in the library which hobbit in that promotional photo was Frodo. I'm pretty sure I was arguing for Dominic Monaghan. Several subsequent lunch hours were spent talking Tolkien.

In December 2001, my whole family drove into town to see Fellowship of the Ring in the big, fancy, first-run theatre. (I say big and fancy because it had carpet and five screens, and because we'd recently moved from a different town, which had a single-screen, second-run theatre. Ah, city living!) Even Mom and my sister enjoyed it, though neither of them were big fans of the book and Mom kept asking who the people were. We repeated this ceremony for the next two films.

The first half of my first year of university coincided with the hyping up of Return of the King. I spent much more time online looking at production diaries and movie rumors than I probably should've, and also managed to discover internet fandom at the same time, though I didn't realize it was a Big Thing until several years later. To prepare for Return of the King, I also rewatched the other two films and reread the novels, on top of my assigned reading list. It's entirely possible my roommate thought I was insane.

I own the theatrical editions. I own the extended editions. I have watched each at least twice, including all the extras. I'm slightly ashamed to say I've only listened to the actor commentaries, and not the post-production and art design ones. The extended editions are by far the best, and I agree with many fans that what Peter Jackson changed in The Two Towers was upsetting, disappointing, and unnecessary. I have seen at least three documentaries on Tolkien and his works, and one documentary on John Howe.

To date, I have made three abortive attempts to read The Silmarillion.

I need to reread The Hobbit before the movie comes out. I should probably also reread LOTR because it's been a few years.

And none of that, not as a kind of weird little girl and not as a bigger teenage fan, not as an adult who's been tracking The Hobbit's progress via the internet, has excited me as much as this photo:

(Entertainment Weekly)

We have a Bilbo! Yay! This movie cannot get here fast enough.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Things What I've Been Doing

I know I've been absent a bit lately, both here and on Twitter. (Okay, fine, one "missed day" of blogging isn't exactly absent, but it feels like it to me.) My excuse? I've been busy, and I haven't had a lot of ideas for blog posts. I should probably do another Year of the Superhero post soon—either for Green Lantern, when I see it, or something I've previously seen.

What I have been busy with? Well, in the last few weeks I have…

  1. Seen X-Men: First Class. It was fun, and gave some interesting backstory to the previous movies, and showed a whole other side of Professor X. I don't regret watching it by any means, but neither do I feel the urge to blog about it at length. There isn't much in it, thematically or character-wise, that didn't crop up in the original trilogy.
  2. Seen Wicked, which was also fun and which I also didn't regret seeing, but I'd been expecting something more, based on the fandom. I thought the book was kind of meh when I read it a few years ago, but it tells a better story and you get a better sense of the characters. The musical felt like they'd condensed the plot down to the bare minimum and lost a lot of the characterization at the same time. I'm not sure I would've followed the musical well if I didn't already know the story. Also, perhaps I'm spoiled because I grew up with Rogers and Hammerstein, Disney, and various other "classic" musicals, but I was expecting more to be going on with the minor characters than there was. More story.
  3. Edited for money. Twice! Dad had a manuscript of poems that needed to be … typeset … I think it was, but the publisher didn't have time to copyedit, so guess who got to do that? It was always amaze me, I think, that experienced writers can still make simple punctuation errors. Also, a family friend puts together the company magazine each year, and in the name of nepotism, I do most of the line-editing. We're right in the thick of things now, which is why I have…
  4. Not done a lot of writing. Also, I'm stuck. If anyone has suggestions for what a young man would do to a friend he's mad at, because the friend put him in a very uncomfortable situation by promising it wouldn't be uncomfortable? He's not the sort for lots of physical violence (he might punch the guy once), but everything else I can think of is coded as female or childish. Sigh.
  5. Watched episodes of House and Sanctuary. Since editing mode generally means I'm not in writing mode, and since I've had a blargh over the weekend, I've been watching TV by computer until I'm wound down enough after work to sleep. Not much to say on this point beyond that, except that watching House while eating isn't an inspired idea.
  6. Unpacked boxes. Turns out that 6 years is about how long my parents are willing to store their kids' stuff. A couple weeks ago Dad drove 10 boxes down to me, and I've been picking away at them, getting everything sorted out. This has been an exercise in both Mess (piles of packing paper everywhere) and Nostalgia ("Hey, forgot I had that!"). A lot of this stuff is going to be boxed back up, but I need to see what all I have before that happens. Hence the continuing piles of paper and the stacks of empty boxes.
  7. Read my 24th book of the year. Just wanted to say that. Also, acquired two more, because my bookshelves aren't quite overflowing yet.
  8. Gained a backlog of blogposts. If you've posted in the last couple weeks, I probably haven't read it yet. I'm working through the list, though.
So that's been my life. What's new with yours? Anything exciting?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Accuracy and Continuity

I'm reading a book right now. (I know, this isn't news.) It's hard sci-fi, but the sort I like, which means the scientific details and speculation don't revolve around computers and spaceships. I'm enjoying it. It's fun. I may have stayed up too late last night to keep reading. However, there's one minor aspect of the story that bugs me whenever it shows up, and which pulls me out of the story as a result.

Let's say you've got an alien. It's humanoid, but because of the shape of its vocal tract, it can't produce one of the sounds found in English. You make a point of telling your readers this, with demonstrations. Yet a couple chapters further on, you have dialogue in which this alien is producing that sound, and you introduce an alien character whose name, in her own language (i.e., not English), has the sound as well. Um. I know linguistics isn't the author's speciality, but really, a little bit of thought on the part of the author or their editor should have caught that.

This is why accuracy and continuity (and research) are good things.* I'm willing to forgive a lot of things as a reader, and I'm willing to forgive this in the long run because it's a minor detail and I'm liking the book, but huge errors and glaring lacks of research are never fun. I don't like dropping out of the story like that. I expect authors to know at least as much as I do, especially since they research and all. I'd imagine I'm not alone in this—which is why writers should research and check for continuity even for small things. I would've caught the speech sound thing, so why couldn't they?**

I know facts get missed, research gets dropped due to time constraints, and authors think, "Nobody'll notice!" when in fact, someone always does. I am as guilty of that as the next writer, and am sure I'll be getting all sorts of … interesting fanmail when I'm finally published. If I want to be absolutely perfect on every front, I will never finish researching, let alone writing. At some point I'll have to start fudging things. (Let's not get into my angst over that, except to say yes, I'm angsting, and there's an interview I need to do that I'm terrified about.) But I still maintain that small details aren't hard to verify, and large details should be verified as much as possible—but who wants interesting fanmail?

* Not to say that the author in question didn't do research because man, did he!
** There are some who'd say I have high expectations. Me? High expectations? Never! Perish the thought.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Sense of Place

I wrote this post for two reasons. I went home last week*, and I've been reading. Home's kind of a fluid concept, you see. It's my apartment, my neighbourhood, my city, my home region, and my parents' house, which is what I mean in this case. My family's moved six times that I remember, though the last two houses I haven't lived in as much as visited occasionally. I'm most strongly bonded to the Cariboo, because that's where I spent the greater part of my childhood. It's cattle country, forest country, gold rush country, small-town Canada. I could wax poetic, but I won't unless I'm begged to in the comments. Point is, when I'm asked where I'm from, I don't say "Vancouver" and I don't say "Keremeos", I say "Williams Lake" because that's where I graduated from, and when I'm seized with homesickness or want to show off my roots to my friends, I pull up pictures of grasslands, snow, fir and spruce forests, and rodeos.

How does this tie into reading? "Home" is a setting. It's important to every character. And the location they're in now is also important, but in a slightly different way. "Home" shapes a person, defines their values and outlook and attitudes. The current setting may do the same, especially if it doubles as "home", but it provides a lot more too—dangers, hangouts, classes, ambience. You know, those background things that contribute to the story.

I could veer off now and talk about how where a character's from shapes who they are and how they'll approach the current setting and situation, but that's a big and messy topic. Maybe I'll tackle it later, maybe I won't. Instead, I want to talk about the three degrees of setting that I've noticed: background, descriptive, and realized.

Background setting is the sort you barely notice. Sometimes it's a sign that a writer isn't trying or is just starting out. Sometimes it's not something that's necessary to the scene/chapter/book. For instance, "I turned left into an alley" may not need a lot of description because most people have seen an alley before. Same with "We landed at JFK, found our luggage, and hailed a taxi" and "My jerk of an ex was at the laundromat when I got there." The crowds at the airport and the color of the walls would slow the transition down, and the smell of soap may not even register to someone focussed on another person.

Setting becomes a kind of shorthand in those instances, and that's cool. But when a writer says, "This book is set in New York" but doesn't give any sort of local flavor, doesn't recognize that the city has a culture (or twenty), that's also background setting. At a story level, merely giving a nod to setting isn't good. Readers can't picture everything, and if a setting just gets lip service, there's a good chance the writer didn't research—which means there'll be mistakes. Imagine a NYC where everyone drives everywhere, has the same accent, has the same fashion sense, is middle-class, and can afford a large apartment… Yeah.

Descriptive setting is one level above that, and is, at least in the sorts of books I read, the most common. There's a sentence or two about every location, and information about the larger setting (city, country, era) worked in in small chunks. I get a sense that the writer's done the research, and I have enough info to picture a scene in my head. I also get character information out of the descriptions—how someone decorates their apartment or describes a setting tells volumes.

On the scene level, we're talking about things like "The kitchen was bright and sunny. Two green enamel pots sat on the wood-burning stove, and a pie was cooling on the lace-trimmed window ledge." and "Rain poured down on the city of Ithyra, funneling off the photovoltaic roofs and forcing the cars to ground level. The climate controller was unaccountably offline and nobody knew why." These kinds of descriptions set the mood for the scene, and prime readers for what's coming. You wouldn't expect the kitchen scene to include ninjas or gun battles, and you wouldn't expect a heartwarming story in the Intrepid British Youngster vein to take place in Ithyra.** 

On a book level, all those smaller descriptions add up to say, "This book is set in Place and Time and the writer knows what they're doing. They've even done research and stuff. Can't you picture this place?" but that's about as far as they go. Books where descriptive setting is the upper limit are great fun. They're interesting and educational. You can't entirely drop the plot into a different setting and have it work. But at the same time, descriptive setting books don't transport me.

Realized setting transports me. It's one of those "I know it when I see it" things, unfortunately, but basically, all the descriptive setting stuff blends with the story and the characters and the dialogue to give the reader a sense of actually being in Place and Time. It's inconceivable that the story could be anywhere else. It takes an incredible amount of work to pull off, but it's so very, very worth it. I'm talking about books like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, Dickens, Hardy, Thackeray, and Tolkien (to name some well-known examples), which leave me in a puddle of writerly goo gibbering about wanting to write like that when I grow up. And I do want to, really, that would be fantastic—but I'm not there yet, so I'm forgoing examples. To give some would probably mean writing an entire book anyway, due to the nature to realized settings, and … yeah, working on that. Someday.

Note that I'm not talking only about fiction, though that's where setting's most obvious. I've read memoirs and event histories where descriptive setting is all that's needed, and I've read memoirs and event histories where I'm in that place while the action is happening. It's pretty cool, getting a sense of what it was like living there and then. And I've also read non-fiction that's about facts and arguments rather than stories (a socioeconomic book comes to mind), and setting doesn't factor into those much at all. It all depends on subject matter and context—but if you're telling a story and you're not doing anything with setting, you should get on that. It's important.

* Hence the lack of posts, if anyone was wondering.
** Though more power to you if you pull that off. Intrepid Youngster sci-fi would rock.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Amazing Spider-Man

A couple weeks ago I signed a copy of Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2 out of the public library. Reading it was an interesting experience. I’m mainly familiar with superheroes through movies, after all, with a smattering of TV shows and fanworks filling in gaps. This means that Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman is the baseline for my understanding of the character, and that I’ve always accepted the sequence of events in the movies as the way those events happened in the comics. So yeah, the comics opened my eyes.

A few things struck me right off. Where I jumped into the story in Vol. 2, Spider-Man had already been around for a while, and his powers, hangups, origins, and several major recurring villains had already been established—so I don’t know for sure how close the film stuck to the canon origin story. I can tell you that while the Green Goblin’s origins translate to the silver screen well, they appear much, much later in the comics than his introduction as a villain. I was almost done with the omnibus (so, about 2-3 years into the run) when I learned them. Doc Oc’s origins appear to be in Vol. 1, as do the Sandman’s. Venom and the Hobgoblin don’t feature this early in the comic canon, so I can’t comment there.

Everyone’s character, just about, is recognizable between the comics and the films, the exceptions being Harry Osborne, who’s introduced in the comics as a jerk and a bully; Gwen Stacy, who wants to like Peter but keeps getting mad over accidental brushoffs; and Mary Jane Watson, who the comics have a classic 60s party girl who says things like ‘groovy’ and ‘daddy-o’ and the films have as a determined yet vulnerable girl from an abusive home. Are the film characterizations from one of the Spider-Man reboots? Or are they unique to the movies?

I mentioned in my discussion of the Spiderman movies that one of the things I like best about Spider-Man is how he never seems to catch a break. That’s in the comics too, of course. It’s too intrinsic to his character not to be. But comic-Peter seems to have it rougher, in that there’s more time to spend on his lack of money and social problems, and easier, in that film-Peter always seems to need money while comic-Peter only needs to worry about funds when it’s important to the plot, and never seems to need to scrounge for cash for his web slingers, tracking devices, or costume materials. For that matter, the bad guys rarely worry about money in either medium, even when the plot involves a heist. However, that’s kind of expected of comic book baddies, I think. It’s certainly part of the quirky charm of the medium.

Speaking of quirky charms, I want to talk about the dialogue for a sec, the witty banter especially. There’s an awful lot of it. It can go on for pages at a time and generally includes bad puns—and yet it gets across a fair bit of characterization all the same. There’s a sense of bravado in Spider-Man’s quips, as though it’s his defense mechanism and if he stops quipping, he won’t be able to enter a fight or handle himself while he’s in one. There are enough ‘hey, that gadget was expensive!” lines from him to reenforce his poverty. We also get a sense of his intelligence, through some of the things he references. The villains’ quips tend to be a bit more bombastic and grandstanding—”Now I have you! You won’t get away! Today, I finally defeat Spider-Man!”—but still, there’s enough variation between the different villains to get a sense of their character. (I’m ignoring the dated language, since that’s not relevant to the plot of the comics at all, but it certainly lends something to the reading experience as well.)

I talked to a comic-reading friend when I was just about done the omnibus and mentioned how the quips, while cool, where kind of wearing. She said, “You know there’s so many of them between Stan Lee had to hit a certain word count to get cheaper shipping, right?” Funny how a small thing like that can have such a big influence on how people perceive superhero universes, isn’t it? I can’t imagine a world where no superhero has a witty comeback and no villain monologues.

I also noticed during my reading of the comics that they are an incredibly male medium, or at least they were during the 60s when these issues were first printed. On one side, there are the fights and explosions and action. On another, there are Peter Parker’s girl problems and string of girlfriends/love interests. On a third, there’s his general geekiness which I imagine was designed to make him an everyman, and which probably had an effect on why geeks in particular like comics and superheroes. There’s also a fair bit of morality slathered throughout the comics—Peter’s the man of the house and it’s his duty to care for his elderly aunt; he’s a good boy so calls home when he’s running late; he knows how to treat a lady—and a fair bit of ribbing and self-referential moments from Stan Lee and the other creators.* Stuff like, “In case you were worried this wasn’t a Spider-Man comic after all” and “Chee! Why do they always have to shoot at me?” I see that as a guy-to-guy thing, not a guy-to-girl or girl-to-girl.

I’d also imagine that if a woman’d written Spider-Man in this era, there’d be a lot more empowered female characters and fewer female stereotypes. Of the three young women/girlfriends we meet during Vol. 2, one is a secretary, one is a wealthy college girl and model, and one is an aspiring actress. Betty-the-secretary and Gwen-the-student both seem to define themselves in relationship to the men around them. Mary Jane was only introduced in the last couple issues of the volume, so I can’t say if she’s the same, but my guess is she is. There are notably no female villains, nor are there female henchmen. The only other major recurring woman in Spider-Man is Aunt May, who’s frail and needing care, and is otherwise a pretty standard mother-figure. She often comes across as clingy, to the point of delusion at a few points. How can she not see that her college-aged nephew doesn’t need to be coddled as if he were six? But hey, her interactions with Peter provide him with some good angst, so I’m willing to go with it.

One last thing: the formulaic structures of these comics is deceptive. I tend to think of superhero comics as consisting of “bad guy shows up, hero fights him, hero loses, hero rallies, hero wins” and being stand-alones. You can pick up any issue and nothing would’ve changed from the last time you did. And this is partly true, at least with Spider-Man. You’ll get that formula, guaranteed. But there’s also other stuff going on, that’s set up issues before it goes anywhere, or which continues over several issues. For instance, in Vol. 2, which is about 20 issues, Peter’s relationship with Betty falls apart as she starts seeing someone else; he pines for Betty then gets a new girlfriend; Aunt May falls ill but Peter doesn’t find out for several issues; we meet Mary Jane months before Peter does, in teasing glimpses; and characters who turn out be connected initially seem not to be. It’s pretty cool, really, and speaks to a greater amount of planning than I’d given Stan and co. credit for. I should’ve expected this. I knew about the plot arcs going in and any writer worth their salt is going to build a world that allows for a lot of complexity, including relationships that can come out of the woodwork to spice up the story and multi-issue threads to keep readers coming back. It’s one thing to know this; it’s another to see it.

Reading these issues of Amazing Spider-Man has left me with a new appreciation of the movies (what changed, what stayed the same) and a desire to read a more modern comic omnibus, probably Marvel but not more Spider-Man. I want to see how things changed as the second and third generations of comic book writers rose through the ranks. How do they handle the plot arcs differently? Are the issues less episodic than they were? What are people doing these days to make the witty banter less campy? Perhaps DC’s announcement to restart all their series at #1 will be an opportunity to see that. Jumping in at the start of a reboot sounds infinitely easier than jumping in partway through an established series. I hate playing catchup when I don’t have to.

Thoughts, anyone? Suggestions?

* Yes, this is a polygon.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Animal Culture

Wednesday I mentioned that I chose to do non-dayjob work rather than write a blog post. Most of that day was devoted to researching and writing this article, now up at Science In My Fiction. I'm always fascinated by how similar animals are to us, especially when it's something to do with intelligence. I hope you have as much fun reading the post as I had writing it.

(Also, here's a video I didn't include in the post, but which is relevant to it.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Well, actually, I do. They're tasty, especially in oatmeal or dipped in cocoa. But I don't have a blog post today. Not a proper, think-ful one, at any rate. I chose to do some non-dayjob work for other people, and may yet do some writing for myself. I didn't want to spend time coming up with, then writing, a blog post on top of everything. I'm actually considering doing that, period—write first, blog when I feel like it. Thoughts? I'd likely blog once a week anyway.

Here's a taste of one of those non-dayjob work projects, my next Science In My Fiction article, coming Friday:

Monday, May 23, 2011


I had the idea today to post about how musical harmony is like writing. There's the plot/melody, but the other notes (characters, setting, theme, rhythm, tone, etc.) shore up the piece to create a greater whole. And then I realized that last sentence was my entire thesis, and someone had probably waxed poetic on the subject already, there being only so many metaphors for writing…

I'd love to spend time pondering the universe and coming up with a different subject, but honestly, I don't have the time today. I'm writing this in the wee hours of the morning, even, as I'm getting up early to catch a matinee of POTC4, and I know I won't have a) time to write a long post before I leave and b) a brain with which to write anything. So instead, I'm just going to say, "Going on blog holiday. Be back Wednesday!" and hope nobody kills me for it. You're all nice people, right? You understand that these things happen?

That said, if anyone has questions or topics for me, things you want to know, comment away! I won't guarantee I'll talk about everything or answer any question—"What's your address?" is kind of stalkerish—but I'll answer anything I can. Goodness knows I spend too much time thinking of blog topics these days…

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Masked

Masked is a collection of superhero fiction, mainly by people who write comic books. It's got everything—powered heroes, unpowered heroes, young heroes, old heroes, heroes branded as villains, villains branded as heroes, climactic battles, internal battles, crazy inventions, postmodern deconstruction, straight-up entertainment. Granted, not all of that's in the same story, but it's all in the book. Some of the stories I liked less than others, but in a short story collection, that's always the case.

Most reviews of anthologies do mini-reviews of each story. I'm not, and since this isn't exactly a review, I feel justified in doing so. Instead, I've got some general thoughts I want to share.

Many stories in this book are set in worlds with a plethora of superpowered people. The existence of the powers may or may not be explained, but superheroes and supervillains are everywhere. I saw this in Soon I Will Be Invincible too, and it's an allusion to the comic book universes of Marvel and DC, where people get powers all the time through a variety of methods, and have done so for years. The Wild Cards universe is another example of this. There's often a lot of mad science in these worlds—death rays, killer robots, secret lairs with bubbling chemistry sets. It's good fun, though the over-the-top nature of these worlds can get a little wearing.* Do writers choose those worlds because that's what we're conditioned to think of, after 70-odd years of comic book history? Do they choose them to comment on that 70-year-old tradition? Do they feel that's the only way to get a bunch of superpowered characters?

The stories without whole social classes of heroes and villains tend to give people powers through medical experiments. There's one case of mystical energy, and another case of teenage black belt. For all my complaining in the previous paragraph, I liked these stories least. Fun and compelling they were, yes,  but at the same time, I felt the writers were trying too hard and missing the mark on superheroes. So … apparently I need those crazy universes to feel at home?

I enjoyed the deconstruction in this anthology, as well. The writers aren't afraid to play with the nastier sides of superheroism or have bad guys for protagonists. One of the stories breaks the fourth wall. Several stories deal with various aspects of retirement. And there seems to be more of an attempt to make the characters into real people rather than leaving them as archetypes, even when the archetypes are being played off, for the sake of the story. There's one story with a reporter girlfriend as a side character, and she acts like a Reporter Girlfriend, but feels real all the same.

The main thing I remember, several weeks after closing the book for the last time, is the way a lot of the stories clicked with me. For me, this is what superhero prose should be like. The stories are, by and large, not about superheroes and not about defeating a villain. They're about people who are people first, heroes second, and if a villain is defeated, the battle sums up the other, equally important struggles that have run the course of the story. That's what I'm trying to do with my novel (please may it work) and I'll likely be mentioning Masked as a read-alike, unless I find something better.

So my verdict? Really good anthology, with great stories. Definitely read it, if you're into superheroes, but don't be like me and blitz the book in a week. It's to be sipped between other stories, not gulped.

* Note: I am reading an omnibus of Amazing Spider-Man issues right now, and this is affecting my judgement on these matters. The pulpiness of those is really wearing at times.