Friday, April 29, 2011

The Art of Saying Without Saying

The most important thing I took away from my semantics course in university was the concept of implicature. It blew my mind in a "of course, of course, so true" way when I learned about it, and it's stuck with me enough that it gets heavily used in my writing. This isn't to say that writers who don't take semantics classes don't know and don't use implicature, because they do. It's an incredibly handy writing tool. Just saying that's where I first picked it up.

Enough rambling. What is implicature? It's suggestion. Saying things without saying them. Speaking between the lines. For instance, if I say, "I ate some of the cake", I mean that there's still cake left. That's implicature. If I say, "I ate some cake", there could be some left, or there could not be. That's not implicature, that's just words. Implicature is also highly contextual. If I'm asked, "Did you eat the cake?" and I answer, "I ate some cake", suddenly the sentence I just said wasn't implicature, is. I'm saying, "I didn't eat the whole cake".

There are a number of different kinds of implicature, all explained in the link above, but I want to talk about the ones that stem from violating conversational rules, because they're the coolest—and not just because they let writers slip more information into scenes than the words themselves convey.

There are four Gricean maxims that govern conversation. A guy called Paul Grice discovered them, hence the name. The maxims are (shamelessly copy-pasted from Wikipedia because while I remember the concept, I've forgotten the terms):

1. The Maxim of QualityBe truthful. Do not say what you believe to be false. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

The point of conversations is to convey information. If you lie, this falls apart.

2. The Maxim of QuantityMake your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange). Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

If you ramble or over-explain, the important information (if there was any) will get lost in the TMI. Also, people might punch you if you're always providing more information than required.

3. The Maxim of Relation - Be relevant.

Tangents, not a good thing. If someone asks you about your family, talk about your family, not dinosaurs, model trains, or your fear of flying.

4. The Maxim of Manner Be Clear. Avoid obscurity of expression. Avoid ambiguity. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity). Be orderly.

If you utilize an overabundance of lexemes and morphemes to convey an elementary concept, you're doing it wrong. It's much easier to have a conversation when people know what you're saying. Ambiguity is also bad because it's so often highly confusing. 

Now, we assume the cooperative principle ("Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged."), and Grice's maxims, are always in effect, because they so very often are. This means that if you're Luna Lovegood and have a habit of saying random things when people talk to you, they're going to assume what you're saying is relevant, even when it doesn't sound that way. Implicature's going to come into effect.

Violating the Maxim of Quality - Savvy writer 1: "Do you think authors bashing authors is a good idea?" Savvy writer 2: "Of course! What could go wrong?"
Implication - Writer 2 is being sarcastic. (But both speakers must know about author-bashing scandals and the speed of information flow online for it to work.)

Violating the Maxim of Quantity - "Do you like this book?" "It's incredible! Fantastic! Unputdownable! It changed my life! So inspiring!"
Implication - This is a really good book.

Violating the Maxim of Relation - "Do you like this book?" "I barely slept last night."
Implication - Speaker 2 loved the book so much they stayed up all night reading.

Violating the Maxim of Manner - "Where's the nearest good bookstore?" "There isn't one."
Implication - Either there isn't a nearby bookstore, or the nearest bookstore sucks. Possibly not the best example I could come up with, because Speaker 1 will likely have to ask for clarification, but hopefully you get the idea.

Of course, these are only four examples. Implicatures and maxim violations are all over the place, and I'm betting you use them every day. Pay attention. Look at how they work. And then, if you're a writer, use them. Like I said above, they're great ways to slip in information through subtext. Implicatures are also good ways to convey characterization, because the way characters respond in conversations can say a lot about them. Think of Luna Lovegood. Think of the man who shouts obscenities when you say hello to him. Think of the mother who responds to "I'm hungry" with "You're looking heavier these days".

Above all, remember that everything your characters say has to be relevant, and that first person narration counts as one long conversation. "They" say not to use more words than you need to, and implicature is one of the reasons why.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In Which Anassa Shows Off

Kevin Hearne, author of Hounded which is on my TBR list for looking awesome, is holding an ARC giveaway. To be eligible to win, one must create a nerdscape or beerscape, photoshop it, and comment on the giveaway post with a link to it. Giveaway ends April 30, so there's still time for entering. A nerdscape is a photo of a book, action figure, and junk food—easy enough, although I really only have one action figure to my name and the only junk in the house right now is Easter chocolate.

Without further ado, I give you "Assimilating to L-Space":

Yes, that is a nearly complete Terry Pratchett collection! I believe all I'm missing are Dark Side of the Sun, Carpet People, Interesting Times, and I Shall Wear Midnight. I'm not trying to acquire all the spin-offs like Folklore of Discworld and Nanny Ogg's Cookbook. When I have all the novels, I'll be happy. (This photo also contains the Hogfather and Color of Magic DVDs, a book of Discworld trivia, and a book of literary analysis of the Discworld books, which I recommend. Also Argonath bookends, a Cyberman, and a Jayne hat, because I can.) I am waiting impatiently for the DVD of Going Postal to get a North American release, because I'm not letting myself watch it until I own it.

So, Kevin Hearne, there you go. There's my entry.

If you've been following The Plumbing Saga on Twitter, you'll know that I finally got to move into my living room/bedroom last week. If you haven't been following the Saga, all you need to know is: pipe burst, carpet went squish, month-long repair process, awesome landlords. Because I'm excited to have my main bookcase back, I took a photo:

From the top, we see my sweaters, my urban fantasy, my other fantasy and science fiction, and my non-SFF (including a nearly complete Vorkosigan Saga and a half-complete Gaiman collection, since I'm missing the graphic novels). Then there's Pratchett, my non-fiction, my antique books, and my epic poetry. We do not see the other bookshelf, which lives in my 'office' and contains three TBR shelves, and two shelves of reference material, including eight dictionaries in four languages, four grammar books for three languages, and my complete Shakespeare and Chaucer.

I'm going to need a new bookcase soon…

Since I've spent this entire post bragging, I'm totally cool if you want to brag back at me in the comments. What do you collect? What awesome things have happened to you lately?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Year of the Superhero - X-Men Trilogy

Over the last couple weeks, I've rewatched the X-Men trilogy. Not the Wolverine movie, which I've heard is horrible and am therefore avoiding. I like Hugh Jackman, but I don't like him that much. All three movies have been fun and gave me lots of action scenes, mutant powers, and, erm, Hugh Jackman—but they're flawed, too, especially with regards to pacing. Like many adaptations with huge fan followings, the X-Men films try to stick as much canon, wow factor, and fan service into the story as possible, to the detriment of the plot. I don't mind too much because I don't watch summer blockbuster movies expecting Oscar-worthy performances and fabulous scripts. I expect Oscar-worthy special effects and sound editing, if anything, and X-Men does deliver that.

First of all, the superpowers. Might as well get that out of the way first, right? One of the things that draws me to the X-Men is the incredible range of powers that seem to be possible. As long as I don't think how they're possible in some cases, I'm good. (Perhaps it's like in Wild Cards, where the powers are psi-based?) The sheer range of powers intrigues me. There are people who can manipulate elements, people who can control objects, people who read minds, people whose appearances have changed, people who heal quickly or teleport, people who do combinations of all these things. It's easy to imagine yourself as a mutant. What power would you get?

Of course, there are downsides to mutation. There's the gay rights and anti-anti-Semitism parallels, of course, since mutants are feared, persecuted, and second-class citizens. They play up the anti-Semitic stuff in the movies, though I don't know if that's the same in the comics. Magneto's a Holocaust survivor regardless of medium, however. But the powers themselves can provide downsides, like with Cyclops, who can't open his eyes without blasting everything to pieces, unless he has his glasses. In other superhero canons, superpowers cause angst of the 'oh, if only I could tell my loved ones' variety, and the occasional accident. The powers in X-Men seem more realistic, or at least more thought-out, because they're so often a double-edged sword.

Quick aside: When I originally watched the first X-Men film, I didn't understand why it started in Auschwitz. I was even dense enough not to realize that the screaming Jewish boy was Ian McKellan. But now that I'm older and aware of the anti-anti-Semitic messages of X-Men, it makes sense. Starting in 1940s Poland sets the stage for not only the one movie, but the whole series.

Another thing that makes X-Men, or at least the films, feel more realistic to me is the exploration of the world. The first movie's about people trying to thwart a terrorist threat. The second's about the same people trying to stop a military operation to destroy mutantkind entirely. The third's about the fallout from a 'mutant cure' announcement. Whereas Batman Begins touched on issues of politics and policing, and the Spider-Man trilogy is about Peter Parker fighting bad guys with media persecution, X-Men actually goes for political plot lines and a more international scope. Notably, there are Canadians, Brits, and Germans as well as Americans in the X-Men team.

I noticed something else for the first time during this rewatch. One level the films are about mutants as a whole, illustrated by the ensemble cast and the 'few fighting for the rights of many' plots, true. But on another level, they're about Wolverine and his quest for identity. He's the rough, wild man who's brought to Xavier's school with no memories, and who's set on the path to find them. He falls in love. He saves Rogue at the end of the first movie. He finds out his origins in X2, and then refuses to learn details. He goes off alone to find Jean in the third film, wanting to save her. For someone who's verging on anti-hero at the start of the trilogy, he certainly ends up rescuing people and acting heroic a lot. And yes, I realize that the films have to have a more concrete protagonist even with an obviously ensemble cast and they picked Wolverine because hey, Hugh Jackman. I just find it interesting that he's got a trilogy-long arc, instead of being dropped after the first movie in favor of a different protagonist*.

I mentioned in my opening that the in-jokes and references to X-Men canon kind of detract from the plot. There wasn't much reason to insert Angel into the third film, for instance, and it kind of amused me that although Kitty Pride was in the other two films, she suddenly became a main character in X-Men: The Last Stand. But seeing those characters—and Beast, and Nightcrawler—was fun, and the scriptwriters did a good job of working the new characters and the fan service fighting into the plot without making the movie too clunky. Kudos to them for that. I also enjoyed seeing the Easter egg-type references, with Hank McCoy and Moira McTaggert appearing on TV screens, and birth names of mutants appearing on a government database. So really, not complaining too much. The fan service works for fans, because we kind of expect that it's going to be there (and Wolverine fighting people's fun). I can't comment on whether it works for non-fans.

You'll notice a trend as this series of posts continues. I'm much more a Marvel girl than I am a DC girl. I prefer Spider-Man, X-Men, Ironman, even the Fantastic Four to a degree, to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Marvel's more grey and complex, I think, and as I've mentioned here and in the Spider-Man review, there's a greater air of realism. And, as with Spider-Man, I'm going to be tracking down X-Men comics at some point too. They look to be even more fun than the movies.

* As I would expect Hollywood to do.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Criticism, Expectations, and Assumptions

In my quest for new and interesting things to read and watch, I come across negative reviews. We all do, yes? And I've noticed a tendency—a lot of negative reviewers dislike the book/movie/show because it doesn't meet their mistaken expectations. One of the greatest doozies I've seen recently, for example, was a negative review of The Diary of Anne Frank, annoyed because Anne hadn't had the decently to write at an adult level and talk about the conditions in concentration camps. Yes, really. I also saw a review of a different book saying, "I read this because I liked the movie, and this is nothing like the movie, so it sucks".

I see this a lot in SF movie reviews as well, that reviewers will go into the theatre and complain about all the action when they expect a deep, meaningful story, or they'll go in expecting an action flick and get said deep, meaningful story, and they'll tear the movie apart because they'd come primed for the wrong thing. Green Hornet, for instance, was an action flick that was criticized for its action. Inception was criticized for being too thinky. This happens a lot with blockbusters, and nearly as frequently with adaptations.

Of course, the adaptation thing is a little different, because the whole fandom-comparison thing gets factored in. It's only a little different, though, because when you translate stories between media, things will change. They have to. Complaints I've seen: Scott Pilgrim, Watchmen, Lord of the Rings. I'm still annoyed with Jackson's changes made to Two Towers, but I also understand that they do make for a better story, as a whole. We saw a similar sort of complaint with the Ginia Bellafonte Game of Thrones article. And what's up with non-SFF fans reviewing SFF all the time? Of course they're not going to "get" it.

So why can't we appreciate stories for what they are, rather than what we expect them to be? We should, right? It's unfair to creators, unfair to our fellow consumers, unfair to ourselves, to criticize a book for not being what we wanted. Is a fluffy urban fantasy any better or worse than a hard-boiled, dark one? Is an intellectual heist film any better or worse than an action heist? Is Agatha Christie better than Dan Brown? They have different audiences, or the same audiences in different moods, and different tropes and scenarios to play with, based on genre and audience expectations.

Arguments can be made, of course, based on literary grades of writing quality, based on the emotions evoked, based on acting quality, but the fact stands that movies, books, TV shows, and video games are entirely different animals from each other, and every subgenre or sub-subgenre is a different animal as well. Equating apples to oranges to mangoes doesn't work. They're not the same thing. You wouldn't put them in the same salads. So why pick up a bestselling novel and then complain that it doesn't compare to Dickens? Are we really expecting the same kind of descriptive social commentary from Jonathan Kellerman and Stieg Larsson? Not to mention that they're mysteries and Dickens, as a rule, isn't?

Sigh. I wish we were better at recognizing biases and filtering them out in public fora. We'd get a consistently better level of reviewing and more reviewer honestly, which has to be a good thing. This isn't to say that negative reviews shouldn't exist. I want to know if a book's writer can't keep their tenses straight and has no idea about plot. I want to know if the actors are pretending to be cardboard. But I don't want to know that Charlaine Harris's novels suck because they're not as dark and disturbing as Anne Rice's or Stephen King's. That's not real criticism and shouldn't be treated as such.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Another blog award!

I have a second blog award! Thanks, Annikka, for honoring me!

    The rules for this award are:
    • Thank and link to the person who nominated me.
    • Share seven random facts about myself.
    • Pass the award along to 15 new-found blogging buddies.
    • Contact those buddies to congratulate them.
    I've already thanked Annikka, but since she'd be one of my 15 blogging buddies, I want to say a little more. Annikka's awesome. She's dedicated and creative. She writes fantastic blog posts. She has an incredible level of perseverance which I envy her for. If you haven't checked out her blog, at the very least, do so.

    So, my seven random facts…
    1. I've never broken a bone, though I have some interesting and embarrassing scars.
    2. For instance, there's a 3/4-inch long scar on my right knee from where I accidentally inserted a metal strip into my flesh.
    3. I will wear a Jayne Hat on non-fandom occasions, in the hopes that a fellow Browncoat will recognize it. This hasn't happened yet.
    4. My parents gave me an Easter basket on Saturday. I haven't finished it off yet. This counts as restraint.
    5. I can produce nearly all the sounds in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
    6. Five (or is it six?) generations back in my family tree, there are Trolls.
    7. I am two degrees from Peter Jackson, and therefore probably six degrees from most of Hollywood.
    And my 15 bloggers… Well, okay, 9, and that's scraping. Apparently I don't know people online either?
    1. Hannah - One of my trusted beta readers. She blogs about music, faith, sci-fi, and writing, and the interplay between the four. I love reading her posts.
    2. Jami - Jami writes a lot of helpful posts about writing mechanics and basics like characterization, and the comments always have great discussions.
    3. Brooke - A fellow geek, which is always good. :) Brooke's posted on everything from the Hero's Journey to word choices to queries and revisions. Lots of helpful posts I'll be revisiting.
    4. Reece - Reece is fairly new to blogging, but he's already got an archive of interesting, writing-tip kinds of posts. I'm looking forward to seeing what else he has up his sleeve.
    5. Scooter - I indirectly met Scooter through #UFchat. She's another wonderful person with a lot of neat posts on her blog and is currently doing a series on psychopaths. How can I say no?
    6. Gypsy - She hasn't posted in a while, but her archived posts are a fountain of information. She's a big fan of fairy tales, and it shows.
    7. Ovid - And now we get to blogs written by people I don't actually know. Ovid retells mythology and other classic stories in colloquial, profanity-laced free verse, and is absolutely brilliant.
    8. Geoffrey Chaucer - Another pen name, though he'll deny it. Chaucer parodies comments on pop culture from a 14th-century viewpoint, complete with historically accurate spelling. I don't drink anything when I'm reading his posts.
    9. Wendell Howe - A temporal anthropologist from the 27th-century. He travels to various locations during the 1800s, and posts about his discoveries and encounters. There's a lot of cool history on his blog, but his Twitter was a lot more.
    So go, give their blogs a read! And thanks again, Annikka!

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    Writing Pet Peeves

    I'm passionate about writing and language. Yes, I know. Shocking, isn't it? And like anyone with passions (or anyone, in general), I have pet peeves. I'm going to steer clear of the trope peeves today, because who wants to read a post about slapdash endings, Mary Sues, love interests who're too obviously a match, "As you know, Bob", and side plots that are tangential at best? Instead I'm going to talk about my grammar peeves because they're obviously more exciting.

    Pet grammar peeve #1*: Absence of serial commas. High school English taught me that it's "apples, oranges, and pears", not "apples, oranges and pears", and so my first instinct on seeing the latter is to assume a typo. But it's not a typo because some style guides recommend dropping the second comma, and the number of commas is arbitrary anyway. Doesn't stop me twitching.

    Pet grammar peeve #2: Double prepositions. You know, "out of", "off of", "out from", and so on. As far as I'm concerned, those strings can be reworded more succinctly. There's no difference between saying "he came out of the building" and "he left the building", or between "the cat jumped off of the table" and "the cat jumped off the table"—barring dialect and connotations, of course. I know there are situations where "out of" works better than "left" or "from". I've written some, even. But I try to use the minimal number of prepositions and I wish others would too.

    Pet grammar peeve #3: Verbs with unnecessary prepositions. Some languages, like German, create a whole new meaning when they stick a preposition onto a verb. Not so, English. What function, exactly, do the prepositions do in the following: stand up, wake up, fall down, climb up? When do you ever stand down from a chair? When I think of climbing and jumping, I think of an upwards motion more often than not, and when I think of falling, I normally think of a downwards movement. Is it even possible to wake down or wake over? When the meaning of the preposition is obvious from context or encoded in the verb, it grates on me to have the preposition there anyway.

    Pet grammar peeve #4: Inconsistency. Plot hole inconsistency bugs me, yes, but I'm talking about grammar inconsistency here. This is the overly anal part of me talking, I know, but why write one list with a serial comma and one list without? Or put punctuation inside end quotes only 70% of the time? Or type -- for two-thirds of the novel, then switch to — for the last third? It strikes me as lazy editing, somehow.

    I blame a couple things for these peeves. There's my perfectionism, for one thing. My complete language nerdery. The insane number of English classes that drilled grammar rules instead of more advanced writing lessons. The fact that I've edited books and other publications enough to see these things repeated ad nauseum. But I'm aware that hitting people  isn't cool, especially in public and especially over something as trivial as grammar, so all you're going to notice is a twitch, and I try to be nice when covering documents in red ink. I'm actually less restrained, but only slightly, with some of my other peeves—like why, exactly, everyone has to stand three stops before they need to get off the bus? When they know everyone else is leaving at the stop as well? It just makes the aisles more crowded, making leaving take longer! Aarggh!

    What usage issues peeve you? What other things do, dare I ask?

    * I call it Alfred.**
    ** No, not really.

    Friday, April 15, 2011

    Girl, Geek, but Not a Girl Geek

    So, the big thing today in my internet circles in the New York Times' article on the HBO Game of Thrones series. According to it, women are only interested in fantasy for the sex, and HBO had to add sexual plot lines to woo viewers. Um. No. There's an excellent rebuttal over at Geeks with Curves, which says everything I want to on the subject, only better. There's also an article about Game of Thrones that gets it right, or at least right-er because there's more to viewing habits than just "strong women characters". I love strong women, but I'll watch or read things without strong women if I'm promised superheroes, space ships, gun fights, sword fights, aliens, explosions, really awesome scenery, allegories, intrigue, and/or popcorn. I suspect I'm not alone.

    You'll have noticed, of course, that most things on that list, with the exceptions of scenery, allegories, and popcorn, are stereotypically male things. Girls are supposed to like romance, male eye candy, frills, flowers, baking, fabric arts, and children, leaving everything else to men. Lots do. I do. I too got all gooey at the end of Pride and Prejudice and through most of Julie and Julia. I am inordinately fond of musicals. I did ballet. I can bake cakes and cookies and enjoy doing so. One of my favourite tops is pink; the other has flowers. But that's not all I am. Not by a long shot. I like a lot of guy stuff too (see the list above). I hate skirts, make-up, and styling my hair. I get as excited over pictures of swords as I do pictures of kittens, and I watch crime shows for the science and dead bodies more than I watch for the shipping—though if Booth and Brennan, and Castle and Beckett don't get together eventually, I'll scream.

    In short, I'm a geek. Does my sex determine what parts of geekdom I enjoy? No. Does my gender? Well, culturally yes. I might've gotten into gaming if the guys playing Magic in the school library thought girls could play too, for instance. Then again, when I hinted, at the age of 5, about Nintendo, my parents said no, we'd rather you read books, and that played a part too. Of course, these days I thank them for that. But, point is, being female doesn't mean liking only feminine things. Many women like fewer girl things than I do (and many like more, including the girl I went to District 9 with). It should be culturally acceptable to stand up in a pink floral dress, with cleavage, and say, "That alien invasion was awesome, I want to dissect something, and I'm signing up for broadsword lessons."

    Luckily, we're getting there. The movement for strong female characters is part of that, as that's a way to prove to men (and women) that women don't have to like only girl things, that they don't have to be passive and shallow, and that they can be just as active and masculine as men, should they choose. There's a whole anti-'girl gamer' movement too, where women who game are trying to make headway against the stereotypes of 'girl gamers are less good', 'girl gamers are hot', and 'girl gamers like pink, frilly characters'. Because of my tastes, I occasionally end up in aisles or theatres with a heavy male presence, and though I'm looked askance at sometimes, and though I think a guy once left the SF aisle just because I entered it, I've never felt unwelcome and nobody's pulled chauvinist crap with me because of it. There've been guys who've been pleasantly surprised to see my reviews littering the shelves of the SF section at work.

    However, as the NYT article that started this post proves, female geeks haven't made it quite yet. The writers says she doesn't know anyone who'd pick The Hobbit over Lorrie Moore, which is all well and good, and it's already been pointed out that she could've gone looking for female Game of Thrones fans. Perhaps she didn't look because it didn't occur to her that such people could exist? She wouldn't be alone in that. Lots of people are surprised by geek women, especially, I think, scientist and engineer women, and that needs to change. We're just as smart and just as normal as men. We deserve the same recognition and ubiquity.

    I may be a girl. I may be a geek. But I won't answer to 'girl geek' happily at all. I'm just a geek, thank you.

    Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    Year of the Superhero - Ghosts of Manhattan

    George Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan is billed as a steampunk superhero novel, which is how it found its way onto my reading list. I like steampunk. I like superheroes. A mix of the two sounded great! And then I cracked the book open last week to discover that not only is there a steampunk superhero, but he's a steampunk Batman. He shares the attitude, the protectiveness, part of a costume, the secret identity type, the propensity for wanton destruction and weaponry. The story itself revolves around mobsters and staged murders and a mysterious mob boss, and features a straight-cop detective along with the Ghost. It's fun, it's full of action, it reads quickly. So, y'know, all good there.

    Unfortunately, I've got more quibbles for this book than I have for others. Mostly this is a factor of my reading tastes, I think. I'm used to stories that have a bit more than just the action plot, be it social commentary, character development, side plots, or whatever. I'm especially used to steampunk novels (Dream of Perpetual Motion, Boneshaker, Difference Engine) that have strong social undertones, rather than the muted commentary Ghosts of Manhattan does. The former have a lot to say about how technology's altering society for the worse. Ghosts of Manhattan talks about organized crime and people drifting through life without a purpose, which strikes me as a 1920s thing rather than a steampunk thing. The rich of New York were constantly partying in our reality too.

    Anyway, we're not talking about steampunk here, we're talking about superheroes. (Though can I say, the steampunk weapons, devices, and vehicles in Ghosts? Awesome.) The Ghost has the hard-boiled, cynical vigilante thing down, though it's never quite explained why he feels the need to do dress up and fight people. Yes, protect the city. Yes, organized crime is bad. Yes, traumatized WWI vet. But I feel there should be something a little more. However, he's very good at getting the job done and the backstory would probably weigh the book down a little, so I'm not quibbling a lot. Also not quibbling about the random mystical stuff that crops up here and there, because I'm not sure it would be steampunk without at least a little random mystical stuff.

    I had a tough time enjoying the characters too, but again that's my fault, not George Mann's. Mann's characters are fully realized, if a little devoid of probably-unnecessary backstory. I just like a little more snark in my MCs, and the book before Ghosts was Cloud Atlas, one of those books that's so good it's guaranteed to spoil whatever comes after it. 

    So: cool hero, cool story, cool inventions. I read the book quickly, or at least it felt like I did. If you like action stories, you'll like this. The fights are fantastic! Ghosts is a little weak on the mystery elements—the clues come a little too conveniently for my liking—but I did think I had the villain pegged several times when it was somebody else entirely. It's largely a story of archetypes, on one level, which works because so many superheroes and villains are archetypes. The Ghost feels like he could've come from any of the early comic books, and that's certainly a good thing. 

    I know I've complained about Ghosts here, but I definitely enjoyed reading it and don't regret the time it took me to do so. It's certainly not a bad novel. If you're interested in reading it, do so. If you're not, well, don't.

    Monday, April 11, 2011

    Robert Munsch, Fantasy Author

    I was shelving books at work the other day when I realized who my first fantasy author love was. I generally credit Tolkien as my first exposure to fantasy, followed by Douglas Adams for science fiction, but that's actually not true. My first fantasy writer, that I remember at least, is a guy named Robert Munsch. He's Canadian and has been going strong since the 1980s. In fact, he was going so strong back then that's he's one of the icons of my generation, and the generation after mine, at least in Canada. I can't speak for his icon status for the kids growing up now, however.

    Robert Munsch writes picture books with a bent for audience participation. There are actions. There are sound effects. There are absolutely ludicrous scenarios. And many of the books currently branded as "Classic Munsch" explore fantasy, sci-fi, and the power of imagination. They paint pictures of worlds where it's possible to live in subway stations, or be fathered by giants, or find small children in deep pits in sandboxes, or in sock drawers. Children fly airplanes and drive fire trucks. I couldn't get enough of them … and I may still sneak in a couple pages when I'm supposed to be working.

    An incomplete list of his books:

    • Mud Puddle - Every time a girl goes outside, a giant mud puddle jumps out of where it's hiding and attacks her.
    • The Paper Bag Princess - A princess travels to a dragon's cave, outwits the dragon, and rescues her prince, after a fashion.
    • David's Father - The new kid in school has a dad who uses a shovel for a spoon and has giant furniture. (He's adopted.)
    • 50 Below Zero - A boy's father is a chronic sleepwalker, which isn't really a good thing in the middle of Canadian winters. Luckily, hypothermia isn't a problem and the dad thaws quickly.
    • Purple, Green, and Yellow - Brigid likes coloring herself with markers. One day, she colors so much of herself that the only way to get rid of the colors is to take a pill that makes her invisible.
    • A Promise is a Promise - An Inuit girl trades her siblings to a sea monster in return for going free.
    • Jonathan Cleaned Up—And Then He Heard a Sound - A boy discovers that the reason people keep rushing through his living room is because his house has been rezoned as a subway station.
    • Alligator Baby - A family's new baby ends up swapped for an alligator at the hospital.
    Now, these books aren't high literature. The language is simple and sound effects often span a page. But y'know, they're aimed at 3-6 year olds, and they work just fine. A lot of the stories are surprisingly complex, too, and good launch points for discussions. Munsch writes a lot of non-SF books as well, which are just as good, and are about things every kid dreams about or can understand (Thomas's Snowsuit, I Have To Pee!, Pigs, The Fire Station, Stephanie's Ponytail). They're fun, and the simple languages means kids can read the books themselves, and I definitely recommend Munsch to parents looking to entertain their toddlers and kindergarteners. Especially if said parents are geeks and/or attempting to instill feminist/egalitarian outlooks. There are a lot of girls, doing a lot of awesome things.

    Do you have favourite picture book writers? Who was your first introduction to fantasy?

    Friday, April 8, 2011

    Superhero Round-Up

    I know I probably shouldn't do two superhero posts in a week, because predictability and ruts are bad things, but I had to get up early to let in the guy who's currently sanding drywall mud off my walls* so I can't quite brain enough to write an essay this morning. Luckily, some awesome superhero-related stuff has shown up on the internet lately, so I can spam you with it. Bwahahaha! *cough*

    First of all, everyone needs to read this essay on why Dr. Horrible as a retelling of Spider-Man. It's about a thousand times better than my post on Dr. Horrible (or, for that matter, Spider-Man), and is pretty much genius.

    Second, clips from Thor!

    And footage from Green Lantern, courtesy of WonderCon!

    Now, I was going to watch these movies anyway. I know nothing about Green Lantern at all, except that there's a ring and lots of different races, and well, Kenneth Branagh plus Norse mythology plus Marvel superheroes is bound to be epic. But seeing the new footage of both films makes me want to see them more. Especially the stuff from Green Lantern, because it looks like it'll be more than an origin story—there'll be bits of space opera in there too. The CGI looks decent. I hope it holds up on the big screen.

    Green Lantern and Thor are definitely the superhero movies I want to see most this summer. I'll be going to Captain America too because, like Green Lantern, I know next to nothing about it. (It's set in World War Two and the guy has a famous shield that's cameoed in Iron Man II.) X-Men: First Class I'm waiting on more footage and trailers before making up my mind. On one hand, it looks reasonably forgettable. On the other, it features new heroes and looks better than Wolverine, at least. Also, James McAvoy is in it. But there are so many other films coming out, I don't know whether I want to shell out for this one too.

    Anyone have other superhero stuff they want to share? Which superhero movies are you looking forward to this summer?

    * long story

    Wednesday, April 6, 2011

    Mental Yoga for Writers

    I've spent the last couple days rewriting rewrites. Last week I wrote a new first chapter, but the final scene was incredibly weak and I ended up cutting it. But I couldn't end the chapter on the previous scene because I hadn't introduced enough of the themes, arcs, tension, what-have-you, and there was no way I could without adding a new scene. So now the chapter ends on a note of "something's wrong here" rather than "I have to take a shower", which … yeah. You see why I had to write a new scene.

    The very first draft of this novel started with my hero lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. My villain was a beat cop who was randomly pulled out of crowd control to assist on a case. There was a third narrator, who managed to talk for a whole third of the book without contributing to the story at all.

    My next bit of rewriting is to fix Chapter 3, which was Chapter 1 before Chapter 1 got more interesting. There are five, maybe six, things that I want to get into the chapter, and I'm currently playing with their order to find the maximum awesome. Specifically, when do I want the doom-y email to show up? At the very beginning to set the panicking off immediately? In the middle, as one more straw on the camel? At the end, as a cliffhanger? I've already dropped two of the my favourite, long-standing scenes because they don't work anymore.

    I think a lot of beginner writers, or at least I get this impression from other peoples' blog posts and a smattering of personal experience, get caught up with their original ideas for stories and can't see their options, even when they're pointed out. I'm guilty of this. I insisted for three drafts that I couldn't start with a fight scene because the fight scene wasn't part of the story, when actually, the fight scene is definitely part of the story and I was being stupid not to include it.

    The initial vision of the story is sacred and immutable, you see, and writers can be possessive and defensive when you attack it, but I don't think that's the whole reason for why people refuse to change their stories for the better. I think a lot of people just can't see how a tweak or a twist or a deletion could improve the story. They don't have practice being flexible.

    Flexibility: the ability to change tack quickly; the ability to consider multiple perspectives and options; the ability to brainstorm; the ability to say, "I'll try it"; an important skill in a writer's toolbag of tricks. An important skill in anyone's bag, actually. Rigidity gets us nowhere in the end.

    It can be hard to learn flexibility, true, and the lessons usually come through errors. I got most of my lessons early, from my parents' gentle "What if you did this?" corrections and from extracurricular drama-type programs. When you're given an ice cream scoop and asked, "What else is this?" or when your set breaks five minutes before a performance or when a cast member quits, you learn to improvise pretty fast. I'd imagine the experiences of raising or teaching children are good for flexibility too, as are … well, most jobs, actually. It boils down to practice.

    When you're stuck on a scene or you're getting feedback that something's not working, step back and ask yourself three questions. "Why isn't it working?" "Why can't I change this?" "What if this happened instead?" And then follow those trains of thought where they lead. Write them down if you have to. Brainstorm. Do a mindmap. Weigh your options. Your story will be better for it (and if you, then you will. Practice and all that, right?)

    Sunday, April 3, 2011

    Year of the Superhero - Batman Begins

    I have a number of fuzzy memories of Batman. I know I've seen Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, and the greater part of Batman Returns, but besides the characters, I can't tell you anything except that I thought they were fun but really kind of cheesy. I also remember watching episodes of the 1990s cartoon after school, but the only images left are of Batman jumping off buildings. A lot of my knowledge of Batman and Arkham and Gotham comes from cultural osmosis.

    So Batman Begins is not my first encounter with the character, but it's the first major one, the one that's going to be 'my' Batman, in a way. A confession: I watched it for the first time last week. It didn't interest me when it was in theatres, you see, at least not enough to drive into town alone to watch it. I found it interesting, and fun, and true to what I know of Batman, but I'm not sure how much enjoyment I'd have gotten if I knew nothing about Batman at all. (Luckily, I think just about everyone knows a little about Batman these days.)

    I enjoyed the mountaintop ninjutsu training. Don't know whether the comic book Batman is a ninja or just really good at martial arts, but hey, never passing up ninjas in a movie, and it totally makes sense for him to know that stuff. I felt all the training, and the montage of Bruce's criminal activities, went on a little long. 'Twas cool and everything, but when I'm tempted to fast forward…. I liked that we got the background of why Bruce went to those lengths (Falcone, the murder of his parents' killer), because it grounded everything a little, and because I didn't know about those aspects of Bruce's past. I knew his parents were dead and therefore his motive, but… yeah.

    I also really liked the action scenes in Gotham. Gotham would not be Gotham without an excessive amount of grit, and Batman would not be Batman if he didn't wantonly destroy public property in the pursuit of justice. I commend Nolan for making that level of destruction fit the mood of the scene, and not make it silly and pulling the audience out of the story. Would have been easy to do, I think. Batman would also not be Batman without his toys, and so the scenes with Morgan Freeman (!) were a lot of fun as well. Especially the bit with the Batmobile.

    I haven't talked about the post-ninjas story yet, and I should. I'm probably in the minority, but I didn't mind that Scarecrow, Ra's Al Ghul, Carmine Falcone, and corrupt cops were all part of it. It worked for me. Double-crossing, secret agendas, and alliances between criminals make for good story and good tension. I also thought the twist on the poisoned water supply trope was nicely done, though flashing between the action in the aftermath and the guys watching the water pressure was a bit much. Did we really need them to tell us the stakes when we already knew them? Ah well. Minor quibble.

    Other things I enjoyed: Setting up the Batcave, Alfred, the understated Bruce-Rachel dynamic, Rachel herself, Gordon the long-suffering good cop, the way the cops treated the idea of a vigilante, the score, the little nods to reality in the problems with the masks and the need for a grappler gun, the bit about the Joker at the end.

    Batman Begins is an odd movie, though. Lots of great stuff in it, but it felt almost like two short films tied together. We see Bruce Wayne learn to fight and get his morals on. Then we see him donning the cape and fighting crime. The two aren't linked together very well narratively. I don't get much sense of ongoing character development. Bruce mentally becomes Batman during the climax of the ninja sequence, and then we get a standard Batman-fights-bad-guys story. He doesn't change that much between returning to Gotham and the end credits. What does change, we're told by Al Ghul, instead of being allowed to see for ourselves.

    Overall, though, it's an enjoyable movie, better than the average superhero film, and could be watched just for the fight scenes because they deliver, they really do. I'm glad I saw it, whereas I kind of felt Batman Forever was a waste of my time. (I gather that's normal, though.) And now that I've seen Batman Begins, I can now let myself see The Dark Knight. I put that off because I wanted to watch the movies in sequence, and because I took Heath Ledger's death really hard.

    Friday, April 1, 2011

    I am SO in!

    Good news, guys. I'm finally able to quit my job and write full-time! A distant cousin in Libya passed away a while ago and the legalities of the estate have just been finalized. I'm due for a bank transfer of $3.7 million pretty soon, which is going to help, let me tell you. No, don't worry, I'm not going to move into a mansion or find new friends or anything, and the money I need to send my cousin's executor's pretty reasonable, when you consider the political situation in Libya right now.

    Anyway, here's the plan for when I get the money:

    • Write full-time, obviously
    • Help my parents pay off debt
    • Buy a lot of merchandise from ThinkGeek
    • Go to more cons
    • Possibly bribe an agent
    • Hire a scriptwriter to turn the WIP into a movie or a TV show, I'm not picky
    • Help Annikka get to Texas
    • Fund a couple projects my friends are working on
    • Buy lots and lots of books
    • Travel the world
    Yeah, I know, not the most exciting stuff in the world, but hey, I'm not an overly exciting gal. What would you do with the money, though?

    ETA: Yes, this is indeed an April Fool's joke. Hopefully that was obvious from the start? My job is far too awesome to quit even with that kind of financial windfall. I don't have any relatives in Africa. I'd be more fulfilled getting an agent honestly than through a bribe. Plus, y'know, I recognize spam when I see it.

    However, the note about Annikka needing to get to Texas is entirely true. She really does need to get down there, ASAP, and doesn't have the cash to make it happen. But she's selling stories and has a Paypal donation button, so you can help her. Please do.