11.23.2004

Flipper to Create Peace in Middle East, Next

Boing Boing points to heroic dolphins who save swimmers from villanous shark who later claimed he'd only wanted a wing. A U.N. meeting off the coast of Sicily unveiled plans for dolphins to sequester carbon and avert global warming. Kofi Annan was reported to have gotten a charley horse from all the bobbing, but he said he needed to get back in shape, anyway.

discuss this post at our messageboard

Space Constraint III & MFA

Simon Owens of the blog with blissfully brief insights, Lit Haven, [LJ feed] pointed out this essay from storySouth on short shorts. The author, Jason Sanford, more or less said what I said here with more force (although I didn't think Stern's short was the most successful of that collection--perhaps it was the best available online).

As often happens when the MFA is held up as a sign deteriorating quality in fiction, Sanford strikes a few true chords but simplifies the case against MFA programs. Madison Smartt Bell and others have given good defenses of the MFA. Some writers claim to help young writers find their own voices (memory fails to cough up where I read that).

Bell thought that MFA writers in his experience often had many original voices but the problem came when a writer tried to incorporate all criticisms. (My own experience revising critiqued stories is that often the critiquer--no matter how specific--doesn't always know exactly what the problem is or at least the best way to solve it and maintain the artist's vision. If they say something should be shaded darker, maybe another area should be lighter. So turning the criticism to different angles may resolve voice problems, as well as tossing out illegitimate critiques (although those, too, may have grain of truth in them if you're will to ponder around the diatribes). Karen Joy Fowler had similar advice succinctly put: If they say your story should be longer, maybe it should be shorter or vice versa.)

I would take issue with his implied statement that short shorts are easier to write. It may take less time to put the first draft down, but to get the words right can take seven years--at least for some.

On the other hand, if "Hills Like White Elephants" were scribbled on a cocktail napkin to pay off a beer tab, should we care? Does the gestation period matter?

discuss this post at our messageboard

11.17.2004

Matt Peckham reviews games

I'm not a gamer, really. I've never been good at anything that requires true three dimensions like Zaxxon, which I sucked at. But after reading Matt's fiction for a few workshops, I follow his reviews and enjoy his little fictionally powered embellishments.

On Doom 3:

"little or poor character development (unless you count escalating emotional hysteria)"


On Rome: Total War:

"The central Roman Velite group is about to be baptized in flaming arrows...."


discuss this post at our messageboard

11.16.2004

Movies without real characters

The Incredibles were incredible. That's all I really need to say. It's one of those rare movies I want to see again--not because of any admirable art or craft, but just because they told the story so compellingly. Almost every line and scene seems fresh (though no doubt it's had a precursor elsewhere). Advice: go with duct tape if you must attend with someone who wants to tell you what happens next. If you need a story teaser, then: the superheroes of the world get sued into hiding.

Team America is tough to criticize since they are out to make fun of everyone who wants to get involved in the current mess we're in. The puppets are a great gag to hang the story on. Kim Jong-il takes the biggest hit--I hope, undeservedly so, though we've got to have a scapegoat, no?--but he gives the funniest moments:

"Hans Bricks! Oh no! Oh, herro, great to see you again, Hans...."

"Let me see your whole palace or else."

"Or else what?"

"Or else we will be very very angry with you, and we will write you a letter telling you how angry we are."

"Okay. I'll show you, Hans. You ready? Stand a little to your left. A little more...."

What's funny in a sadly humourous way is that one group may not get the ridicule inherent in the flashy suits and theme song and the hokey Americana scenes--or maybe I sell them short (they probably wouldn't attend, anyway, once they heard the South Park folk had created the movie). If you think only one person or group is to blame for the problems of the world, you probably fall into one of the three groups ridiculed and won't enjoy the movie.

Polar Express had great illustration and North Pole-mechanized imagination--if you loved the original, you'll revel in the movie that embellishes further into the imagination with a little more story--but it's difficult to hang a story on a tale that never really had one to begin with. Unlike The Incredibles, although some of the movements are incredibly life-like, the shoulders, hands, and mouths don't capture much of real movement. Otherwise, they've made real strides in CGI. Go to bask in the imagination and recapture some of that old Santa/kid spirit--if you ever had it. Or take your kids. They won't notice the lack of story but soak up the spirit--that is, for me anyway, most of the Christmas tales I loved as a kid never had a proper story, either.

discuss this post at our messageboard

11.14.2004

Planned Obsolescence

The Book Guys talk with Mark Bauerlein of the National Endowment for the Arts about the recent survey of reading habits in the US.

It's dismal news all around, but it gets worse. Wired magazine brags about the school of tomorrow: "Media Center: The library is designed less for books and more for interaction--online and in meatspace. Bookshelves of wheels, overstuffed chairs, and Wi-Fi create a coffeehouse vibe." Woo hoo. The library is no longer a library but a media center--if that name change doesn't tell the whole story, I don't know what does.

Book Guys mourn how the videotape is replacing the essay in some schools. This is not the primary problem, however. The primary problem is when we become incapable of dissecting what people are truly telling us (which mostly involves the how of telling--see below). We can peer beyond the flashy advertisement world we live in--yes, even Wired is designed for our eye-catching age. Unless we can peer beyond words, see them, and break them down in front of our eyes, we will become victims of all the master word-wielders. (Surely there's a story idea there.)

As we read less, how will we know which few books to stock in our shrinking library (but hey, we can push the books around on wheels--how cool is that)? Can we blame declining reading rates entirely on computer games? Can we blame ourselves? Laura Miller at the NY Times suggests maybe it's true. Putting aside Matthew Cheney's eloquent rebuke of popularity for the moment, Miller points out that all the National Book Award nominees "[hang their collective] hat on sidestepping readerly expectations."

Miller goes on to point out that two aren't even novels but "dispensed in fragments reminiscent of prose poems. One good thing about prose poems is that they aren't very long, and one good thing about novels is that, while long, they aren't prose poems."

But her most potent point, which some writers and many writer-wanna-bees may bemoan, is that "[m]ost of us, if forced to choose, will pick a strong story over perfect writing.... Readers, as a rule, care more about what an author writes; other writers are often more impressed with how. Beautiful sentences, formal experiments and infinitely delicate evocations of emotional states abound in these five books, but those woebegone souls in search of a good story will have to keep looking, elsewhere."

Don't get me wrong. I am crucially concerned with the how--the how affects the what, without doubt. But I worry that we've put way so much emphasis on the how that we've forgotten the what. To paraphrase, the Buggles: did writers kill the literary star?

discuss this post at our messageboard

11.07.2004

SF on Radio BBC 7

During the weekdays last week, BBC broadcast Stephen Baxter's Voyage dramatized--well done apart from a heavy-handed social message--which you can listen to here temporarily. They announced Terry Pratchett for next week.

discuss this post at our messageboard

11.06.2004

Space Constraint, part deux: The Other Hand

I am inordinately fond of short shorts and am dismayed when writers don't take it as seriously as other forms. You can say much in just a line or two. Ezra Pound, in explaining "In a Station of the Metro," wrote, "A Chinaman said long ago that if a man can’t say what he has to say in twelve lines he had better keep quiet." Some ideas deserve a larger canvas, but some small ideas use inordinately large canvases.

I recall Howard Waldrop once told us: If you think you have a novel idea, it's a novella. If you think you have a novella, it's a novelette. If you think you have novelette, it's a short story. If you think you have a short story, don't write it.

Which goes to show not only the need for brevity but also what Waldrop thinks of too much brevity. For too long, the subgenre of the genre has been home to the bad joke, devaluing what could have held much promise, which is to say neither that we don't need humor nor that anyone's to blame except a busy writing schedule allowing little extra time to make a short short significant. To find a gem among the old Asimov 100 Great... or Microcosmic Tales takes a lot of hunting. Amazing Stories seems to have discontinued their 1000 word game after three issues. Just as well though I hope it doesn't discourage the genre.

On the other hand, Eileen Gunn takes the genre seriously--both in Infinite Matrix and in her own two examples from her Stable Strategies collection.

Even lit-folk don't always take the genre seriously. Jerome Stern's Microfiction anthology has one diamond among few other gems. In less than 250 words, Rick DeMarinis' "Your Fears Are Justified" packs a wallop with three well-characterized characters:

In the Clinic City hospital I have to share a room with a heart patient. "What are you here for?" he asks. "Brain tumor," I say. He perks up, interested. "How's your ticker?" he says. His wife, large and phlegmatic, visits twice a day. The whisper. "You're terminal?" she asks, coyly. It's as if she's asked me about the weather in Des Moines. "Not that I know of," I say. "Brain tumor," her husbands whisperes, nudgeing her. They exchange loving glances. I know what they are thinking.... They want my heart.

Other stories worth studying from Microfiction:

Molly Giles' "The Poet's Husband" has a nice, resonant moment. Robert Shuster's "Eclipsed" captures a potent, child emotion we never lose. Pamela Painter paints the picture of a ham against marital discord's aftermath in "The New Year." Virgil Suarez's "Anti-Cain" shows how much politics can be stuffed in a tiny space. Joanne Avallon's "All This" is amazingly compact in time yet discursive yet delivering one imagistic blow to tell a lasting truth that isn't new but one we pretend to forget (not unlike Ron Wallace's "Worry" though the impact wasn't as thorough).

Stories (though that term does not always apply) worth reading:

Roberto Fernandez's "Wrong Channel" has good humor. Fred Chappell's "Painted Devils" shows machismo at full throttle. Natalia Rachel Singer employs lyric language. Tom Fleming's "Conception" and Stuart Dybek's "Flu" have a nice touch. Jamie Granger tells the old tale of "Stone Belly Girl" as does Betsy Kemper tell her own age-old injustice in "This Is How I Remember It." Ursula Hegi varies the theme on Sylvia Plath's life. In Russel Edson's "The Bridge," the male character speaks of looking for a sign that may already be there. Padgett Powell regrets "A Gentleman's C."

What I like about Stern's Microfiction is that most of the stories make an attempt that, like Peggy McNally's "Waiting," while it may not resonate for me no matter how I look at it, it must resonate for someone, one can tell, just by the way it's set up.

Finally, James Kelman sums up the feeling of telling a hard story to tell:

Ach, I dont want to tell this story....

Obviously the story has to get told....

Mmm, aye.... I don't want to tell it.

But you've got to tell it. Unless... if it's no story at all.

Oh, aye, christ it's a story, dont worry about that.

What often unites the better works is capturing poignant emotional moments that radiate meaning deeper than they seem they should. Before sending out prose, ask if it's a story, and if it is, what's it about? What words will carry the reader beyond the page?

discuss this post at our messageboard

11.05.2004

Boston edited poetry at The Pedestal

Bruce Boston edited the current poetry issue of The Pedestal. The best appears to be Lincoln Michel's discursive piece which has nice lyrical moments throughout. The best line that stuck out in my first reading was Charlee Jacob's "souls in a slow winter's march."

discuss this post at our messageboard

11.01.2004

Space Constraint: What We All Can Learn from "What We All Can Learn from Popular Fiction"

That's the title of an article in the ultra-short do-it-yourself magazine, Bottom Line.

The magazine itself is actually worth having if you don't want to wade through fat nonfiction books just to find what you need to know. The article writers are usually highly qualified in their respective fields.

That said, I think Gary Hoppenstand, PhD, overstates his case a bit, touting bestsellers for their intrinsic values. For example, in the lone science fiction writer category, he writes of Michael Crichton, "Crichton's novels force readers to confront problems created by technological progress. Jurassic Park dealt with cloning...."

But maybe that isn't overstating so much as stating to an audience which may not appreciate the finer points of fiction. Maybe a tax lawyer would find articles on tax shelter also necessarily oversimplified due to the space constraints. Maybe Hoppenstand's cases might have carried more weight if he had the room to explain what he meant.

discuss this post at our messageboard

10.31.2004

Fortune Cookie Says, "Love Truth But Pardon Error" or Why I Didn't Cover the Other Debates

I don't know if it was a Chinese, Japanese, or Asian-American fellow (or someone's redneck granny locked in a kitchen closet with nothing else to do) who invented the fortune cookie, but I love them. I'm not fond of the cookie, but the fortunes--like those wonderful, worthless prizes in Cracker Jacks. My favorite fortunes come from a Chinese buffet across the street from a mall, where the main ethnicities eating include Sudanese, Latinos, a handful of Asians, and a smattering of European mutts like myself. It's almost always packed. Maybe they're seeking their fortunes. We all look like we could use some.

The above was an actual cookie quote. It is true, isn't it? But we prefer to love error and pardon truth, no? Especially in politics.

Don't worry. I'm burnt out on politics this is my last post on the matter for a long time. I still love politics in theory but I hate it in practice, mangled by our love for error.

I just visited some folks who have a Bush/Cheney sign in their front lawn. One of their signs had been stolen. When I told them I was fasting for the election, they assumed I meant for Bush.

"You mean you're not fasting for Bush?"

"No," I said, "for peace--peace for our country during post-election blues, peace for Iraq and Afghanistan and Israel and Palestine."

Surprisingly, this upset them. How could I be religious and not vote for Bush? Of course, on the other hand of politics, some religious folk like Jesse Jackson try to tell us, you're only religious if you're a liberal--seriously. He spoke at either the Cleveland or California lectures and said that Moses and Jesus were liberals. I can see a case for Jesus (although you'll find he makes a number of non-liberal remarks like "The poor will always be with us," etc.), but Moses? He's the fellow who brought the law--all those rules that liberals love to hate.

Love truth, pardon error.

My first ever psychology course taught that those of the same ideology who only hang out with the same ideologues become more extreme. You want to know why our nation has become polarized? Look no further. We need outreach and understanding--no more trumped-up charges and deaf ears to other perspectives. As Gail Collins said in "On the Media" [http://www.wnyc.org/onthemedia/transcripts/transcripts_102204_paper2.html], "Most people are happiest reading things that reinforce opinions that they already have."

You can read my post again on Hitler's Blind Spot or watch the film yourself, but the lesson you learn--if you are open to learning--is that the problem is not ideology, but the zealots who use ideology at any cost: because I'm right, I can do whatever I choose. This is what has killed both parties for me: zealots on both sides who think they're so right they can keep Nader off the ballots because of signatures that may or may not be legitimate yet get upset when Republicans question questionable signatures. Or zealots who think they're so right that they tear up Democratic voter registrations.

Love truth, pardon error.

It's not just in this country. Why is the war in Iraq going badly? Listen to this NPR series:

http://www.npr.org/rundowns/segment.php?wfId=4114270

Someone has to let Syrians and other muslims know that this is not a war against them and their religion. If you were an atheist and felt fellow atheists were attacked, you'd probably join the fray, too. Christian, Buddhist, whatever. It doesn't matter. Every religion or atheist philosophy has had zealots performing foolish acts in the name of their belief. What we need are more moderates for outreach and understanding.

I became disenchanted by Bush--not that I was ever particularly enchanted--from the lack of removing whatever was corrupting his government: from the CIA agent exposed to Abu Ghraib, no one was even politely let go. And, according to John Zogby, Bush listened when a zealot discouraged Bush's attempt to create peace between Palestine and Israel. "Take away dross from the silver, and there shall come forth a vessel for the finer. Take away wickedness from before the king...."

I became a Kerry fan early this year, preferring his performance at the Iowa primary debate and his online platform, most of which I agreed with. I said then that if he said something egregiously wrong, I might not support him. Science magazine reported Kerry as saying something like, "Science should not be guided by ideology." Mary Shelley? Nathaniel Hawthorne? Jonathan Swift? What did these writers have to say about such kinds of science? But it was not an egregious error, and Barth Anderson said that Kerry later qualified his statement, which put me at ease again.

Kerry was, otherwise, very cautious in his claims, infuriating loyal Democratic zealots, but endearing me. When Dean claimed that Bush caused the Spain bombing and Kerry said that that was not his perspective, I cheered.

Kerry seemed willing to wait for the truth before he made claims. His performance at the debates only reestablished my favor for Kerry. (Cheney, however, proved Edwards a liability, and the media failed to investigate Cheney's claim that Edwards had one of the worst attendance records in the Senate--how can Edwards lead if he's not there? But I would not have been electing Edwards, and Edwards could have later redeemed himself by improving his attendance.)

Love truth, pardon error.

Post debates, I thought President Bush's harping on Kerry raising taxes--when Kerry already said he would not--looked desperate, which I took as a good sign for Kerry's election. However, Kerry took a similar desperate move: He accused Bush of wanting to raise a draft.

Wait.

Who will raise a draft? Who called for more troops in Iraq? Which party's senator sponsored the two Senate bills--S.89 and H.R. 163--to raise a draft? Democratic senator Ernest F. Hollings. How can Democrats blame the draft on Republicans when they sponsor the bill?

http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d108:S.89:

http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d108:H.R.163:

I wanted a cautious candidate for President. Sure, if a draft is drawn, I think it would make more ethical sense for Kerry since he actually went to Vietnam, a vastly less popular war. Bush did not go, so while he has certainly the ability to do so, he has the lesser ethical claim.

But, please, let's deal the American people honestly. If there are plans to open up the draft, who is more likely to do it?

So that's why I'm fasting for peace and not for a particular president: so that peace may come fast.

Good luck to whomever becomes President but know that neither have a mandate to carry out partisan zealotry, so please don't.

discuss this post at our messageboard

10.29.2004

The Character of Horror and the Myth of the Average Joe

I'm reviewing horror for SFSite.com, and stumbled on a common problem: character, there isn't any. Maybe I'm exaggerating, a little, but too many are written as blank slates. Some beginning writers justify this with saying they want to create an everyman so that anyone can see themselves in the character's shoes, but I think we automatically want to be in a character's shoes--that's why we read. It's not the species or race (almost anything by Hal Clement or Octavia Butler), the sex (The Left Hand of Darkness) or the age (Ender's Game unless you were a preteen when you read it), or the mental capability (Flowers for Algernon), but the logic of the character's actions. If an action makes sense in the context of the environment and capabilities at the character's disposal, the reader will identify.

There are two obvious extremes of characterization (obvious because of their extremity) that help writers to quickly sketch a vividly realized character. One is the crazy or really weird character common to the literary story. Writers do this often to get noticed by a literary magazine, to do something that hasn't been seen. The other is the object or affectation of the character's that distinguishes this character from the others. He's the thin man, the fat man, the girl with the bone through her nose, the three-legged dog, the boy who stutters.

But neither rendering has much to do with character except that they both quickly sketch what a character appears to be, but appearances don't capture the reality of a character. Actions characterize the character (or, in the case of Hamlet, inaction, which is still an act). Graham Joyce's Smoking Poppy begins with an everyman who loves his daughter, who describes the love he has of his daughter's smell. It captures the sentiment of the character and, therefore, why we should follow this character through hell to chase after his daughter.

We are all characters. That is, we differ from one another. Often we may see ourselves as average, but the world sees us differently, sees us as we cannot see ourselves. We all have annoyances. Consider the divorce rate in our country. The way you hold your mouth or speak out the side of it may charm me, but aggravate the piss out of someone else. The way you crunch potato chips at volumes of a television commercial may annoy me, but strike someone else as humorous.

The protagonist in Stephen King's Bag of Bones was so unadorned as to be rendered invisible. It may be no coincidence that the ghost was illustrated in the original hardcover. She was the only vividly realized character. (This isn't to say that King can't do character, as you can see from "Low Men in Yellow Coats" from Hearts in Atlantis.) My suspicion is that King based the character in Bag of Bones too much on himself without ever having looked at himself from the outside to see what made King King.

This may be what happened to these horror stories. We believe ourselves the everyman, the average joe. But that are many layers to us that await discovery (which is why I react strongly to those uninterested in self- or character-discovery). It requires a strong constitution and a hard, honest look to peel back those layers, sometimes complex, sometimes simple: Is your character so vocally against prejudice because he's prejudiced? Is your character homophobic because he's gay? Is he cruel to her because he doesn't want to admit he loves her? Does she aggravate him to be cruel to her because she feels she doesn't deserve to be loved? Does your character walk into a coffee shop to drink coffee or to be seen? Does he attend Republican conventions and listen to Rush Limbaugh to brown-nose his boss? Does she attend liberal rallies or rail against simplified Republicans in order to look cool with her liberal friends?

The questions of life are hard to answer because they are sensitive. It may be you aren't interested in answering in them. That's cool. You may be a plot man or a big-idea man. If so, write to your strengths. Do you write cool, weirdnesses that crop up in the world? Then skip straight to them. Drop the sections where you extensively describe human relations outside the speculation. If you do plot, skip straight to the roller coaster ride.

It is possible to get just as deep as a character writer through plot or idea. Actually, idea writers are usually a little deeper in the profound questions about life and society, but sometimes the story gets neglected when the focus is only on the ideas. The important thing is to be the writer you are, not the writer people say is the cool thing to be. If you prefer reading plot-oriented fiction, chances are you should write it. Don't let anyone tell you speculatively oriented fiction is any less profound than literary because there are plenty of examples to the contrary.

discuss this post at our messageboard

10.27.2004

Back in the good old days when television was a virtue...

"I didn't used to do things like [wax over her partner and good friend into large octagonal cells]. I used to be more patient, didn't I? More appreciative of a diverse spectrum of human possibility. More interested in sex and television."

--Eileen Gunn's "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" in her new collection from Tachyon.

discuss this post at our messageboard