Friday Recommendation

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It’s finally happening! The book that kickstarted for me a lifetime of sci-fi and fantasy is finally coming to theaters!

 
In all honesty, if you haven’t read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, now is the best time to start. It’s a fantastic introduction to one of the most iconic sci-fi series ever written. While it will be difficult for the movie to do it justice, it is still worth a read.
 
A few years ago, humanity was almost destroyed by the Buggers, the first and only alien race to come to our awareness. Somehow humanity prevailed, but they have only retreated into the depths of space. So that we may be more prepared, the nations of Earth start a controlled breeding program to train a new and better form of leader, strategic and tactical child prodigies. Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin is the best of these.
 
This is a very powerful story for anyone regardless of genre preference, and I highly recommend following it with Ender’s Shadow. Both are among the best books I have ever read.

 

Writing Prompt: What also floats?

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Write a story about a witch escaping a burning/drowning/hanging. The character can be an accused witch or the genuine article. Your choice.

If you’re feeling brave, try to set the story in a time period other than The High to Late Middle Ages through the Colonial Period to the Revolutionary Era (1000-late 1700s)

Nitpicking Disaster: Redshirts

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John Scalzi might be a great writer. I wouldn’t know. People tell me Old Man’s War and Fuzzy Nation are pretty awesome. I guess I’ll just have to take their word for it, because after reading this gutter sludge, I don’t think I’ll read another book by John Scalzi again.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and dive into the tank of fecal juices that is Redshirts.

“Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is even more thrilled to be assigned to the ship’s xenobiology laboratory, with the chance to serve on “Away Missions” alongside the starship’s famous senior officers.
Life couldn’t be better . . . until Andrew begins to realize that

(1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces,

(2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and

(3) sadly, at least one low-ranked crew member is invariably killed.

Unsurprisingly, the savvier members belowdecks avoid Away Missions at all costs. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is . . . and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.”

Let’s take a trip down the winding road that is my mind as I read this.

Oh! A Star Trek farce by John Scalzi. I’ve heard of this guy! He’s supposed to be really good from what I hear. Blah blah blah blah blah ship Intrepid blah blah Away Missions…. Lethal confrontation with alien forces. Blah blah always survive these encounters. And… low-ranked crew member is invariably killed.

Ok. That sounds interesting.

Blah blah blah…. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is . . .

Man I could really go for some chicken strips right about now.

…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

Boy! I really hope this isn’t a book about a bunch of characters in a TV show who suddenly become self-aware.

There are some good blurbs.

Hey, it’s only $6! Heck yes!

Guess what. Guess. Go ahead, guess. I know you can do it. Guess.

I was right.

(*Friends, family, countrymen, I am warning you now. You can not stop the wrath of nerd-Hulk. Scroll past the next paragraph to escape the rampage.*)

If I can guess the entire plot to the whole book before I’ve even opened it, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!!! The only reason some ****-head put crap like this through is because it’s got John freakin’ Scalzi’s name attached to it! What kind of chips and dip**** would even put his name on this! John freakin’ Scalzi! That’s who. Sweet Cheez-its on a crab-cake! Where’s my Dr. Pepper?

Ok. ALL CLEAR!

I’m done. Sorry about that. To summarize, never go with the first idea that comes to mind. Think about your ideas for a while, let them stew, and eventually you’ll come up with something that’s maybe not wholly original but far less predictable than this story turned out to be. Given that, I think we know Quick (or not so quick) Fix #1.

Quick (NOT) Fix 1: Dig a Little Deeper

Alright, I’m not sure where the whole “there are no bad ideas” schtick came from, but… Really? You’re really serious about this. Are you absolutely sure that writing a story about TV show characters becoming self-aware isn’t a bad idea?

1) It’s cliche.

2) It’s lazy.

3) It doesn’t make sense.

So we’re gonna cut this one to the nub. No more TV-show-characters crap. We’re done with it. It’s gone. Instead we’re going to stay in-world/universe.

“A few years ago, before he was in charge of the Intrepid, the captain discovered something he shouldn’t have. The Union then promoted him from redshirt to captain of his own ship. They keep sending him and his crew on dangerous missions in the hopes that they might silence him without getting their hands dirty. He keeps throwing redshirts in the line of fire to save his own skin and those of his senior officers. Then this Andrew guy shows up, AND… shenanigans ensue.”

Ok. I know we can poke holes in this, but the point is, I’d rather hear a story about that than the crap I ended up reading. Let’s take this concept a little further. I want to make everything that was written on the back cover (see above, before I started ranting) occur within the first quarter to fifth of the book. During that time we’re building setting aboard the Intrepid and in the world as a whole while providing a status quo for our characters. Andrew soon realizes something is wrong and charges the captain with gross incompetence. Andrew and his fellow redshirts take over the ship. He becomes acting captain and begins to learn the responsibilities and weight of command.

As a cool benefit to this, you can keep the captain around to act as a source of direct conflict, in a sense a Saruman to the Union’s Sauron. Also he can be a devil on Andrew’s shoulder, always questioning his judgment and feeding off his uncertainty (Gollum, as long as we’re using LOTR analogies).

Quick Fix 2: Horse Before the Cart

One of the things I’ve realized about Twilight, may it burn in hell forever, is that there is no evidence to support the backstories we’re told. There is nothing in all four books to indicate that any character is who their backstory says they are. Scalzi’s Redshirts falls to this sin as well. Basically we get a backstory to explain who a character will be before we actually know them. Huge no-no. The evidence– a character’s actions, words, and personality– must come before the backstory. To put it another way, a backstory explains why a character acts, thinks, or speaks the way they do. In Twilight, may it burn in hell forever, as in this we get a backstory without any prior evidence to corroborate it. In fact Redshirts has an entire scene in which every hero’s backstory is told before we even meet them. I believe it’s within the first ten to fifteen pages of the story. It reads like a military briefing. What the hell?! This is not character building. This is so far beyond lazy writing. It’s– It’s– *nerd-Hulk*

Gah! Son of a banana-slug eating weregoat and a tango dancing Dalek! My niece can tell better stories than this, and she’s four. What in earth, heaven, and hell makes Scalzi think that this constitutes character development?! Somebody took Stephanie Meyer’s creative writing class.

I think it’s passed now. On to number three!

Quick Fix 3: One of Us… One of Us… One of–

Let’s talk about this protagonist Scalzi’s saddled us with. Andrew. Andy. Mandy pandy Andy. Andy the pansy. Handy Andy. Okay. That’s enough of that.

Andrew joined a monastery. He spent more than a few years there as a monk before joining the Intrepid. Now when I first heard this I thought, “Oh, that’ll make for an interesting character.”

It doesn’t. He talks just like everybody else in this series. Every character’s voice sounds exactly the same. In other words if you forget which name goes with which face, you’re screwed. But lucky for you, Scalzi tags every single line of dialogue with “____ said”. No beats. No free dialogue, because every single character talks exactly like every other character. If he didn’t use “____ said”, there’s no possible way you could tell who was talking.

Alright. Challenge time.

Watch the Avengers. See? It wasn’t difficult or painful. It’s an awesome movie, right. Well maybe not “watch” per se. Play the movie with your eyes closed, either that or read the script if at all possible. Can you tell who’s talking? It’s likely. This is why I’m a devout Whedonite. All hail Lord Whedon, may he live forever.

And that’s one of the biggest problems with Redshirts. Scalzi goes so far to prove that these otherwise dispensable characters are three-dimensional that the entire book falls flat on its face when no character is distinguishable from any other be it by words or actions. They are faceless redshirts. Simply put, if Andy is a preacher, as the story claims he is, he needs to talk like a preacher. That goes for every character. They need to be affected (I hope I used it right this time.) in some way, in any way, by the backstory you’ve given them whether you decide to share that with your audience of not. And that effect needs to be apparent in the way they talk. Scalzi needs to take a page out of Joss Whedon’s, may he live forever, book.

Uno:
Don’t settle for the first idea you have. Think on it. In this case we’re going for something in-world and doing away with the TV characters come to life plot. Because, if for no other reason, it’s been played out.
Dos:
A character’s personality comes first then the backstory. I should not have to say this.
Tres:
Make the characters distinct, especially by their words. Your audience should be able to tell who is speaking without you tagging it every time.

–What really pisses me off is the soapbox John Scalzi keeps going on about. He prattles on and on about how writers are becoming lazy and simply kill off characters to raise the stakes and build tension. Really John Scalzi? Really?! WE’RE lazy? GAH!!!

(Late) Friday Recommendation

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Sorry for being late. I was working inner Mondays repair of John Scalzi’s Redshirts. It’s a doozy, but it sure was fun.

As writers we have one of the greatest jobs in the world. It has two fundamental rules.

1. Write

2. Fill your brain with stories: books, games, movies, shows, anime, comics, plays, etc.

So gather ’round dear children, and I will speak of a tale from an eighteenth century that is not our own. I am speaking, in particular, about Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood.

This is Mr. McClellan’s debut, and while he does make a few mistakes, he makes far fewer starting out as some experienced writers I know. *coughJOHNSCALZIcough*

I hadn’t heard the term before, but someone referred to this as a “flintlock fantasy” set in a country that is an eighteenth century French analogue going through a revolution. McClellan takes a huge risk early on by splitting his story into four different POVs. He handles it very well though. Each and every character is distinct and memorable. So much so that I’m actually looking forward to the second installment in this series.

The story is interesting and utilizes a multi-magic system concept that is reminiscent of Sanderson yet completely its own. McClellan’s storytelling has even been compared to the likes of Sanderson, Weeks, and Rothfuss….

Really, he has the cinematic flair and world-building of Sanderson, but Weeks writes like s**t. And to compare his writing to Rothfuss is an interesting claim, but it really lacks his poetic style that made him famous. Sanderson is an apt comparison however. Check it out.

Writing Prompt: Witchy Woman

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Since this is a speculative fiction blog, this writing prompt will be especially appropriate.

We’ve seen epic fantasy based on Greco-Roman mythology. Norse mythology has received the same treatment. And Celtic mythology. And I swear to God in heaven we’ve seen more than enough epic fantasy based on Arthurian mythology to choke on… twice.

Do you know what would dingle my dervish? Fantasy based on a foreign– or perhaps not so foreign– mythology. Write an epic fantasy based upon a mythology founded in the Americas: Voodoo, Aztec, American historical, Native American spiritualism, etc.

Friday Recommendation

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One boy versus a cult of evil librarians who secretly rule the world. Now that’s just ridiculous.

You may know that Brandon Sanderson was chosen some years ago to finish The Wheel of Time that Jordan started. And since, he has started his own daunting fantasy epic. What you probably do not know is that outside of eternal battles with deities and sprawling histories, Sanderson also wrote a middle-grade series.

Part children’s fantasy adventure and part hilariously unreliable farce, Alcatraz Vs. The Evil Librarians is a hero’s autobiography and an attempt to dispel the falsehoods about his own life.

Actually, now that I think about it, the synopsis is very similar to that of Name of the Wind. The tones could not be more different. Where NOTW focuses on the tragic shell of a man from the legend he used to be, Alcatraz is a farce with an unreliable narrator who is battling paper monsters, exploding teddy bears, and a penchant for breaking things.

Nitpicking Disaster: Man of Steel

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It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s– it’s… a tarred and feathered fat kid trying to fly.

It’s no secret that DC’s latest movie about a man wearing his underwear on the outside had all the impact of a limp noodle, but why? And can it be fixed?

1. A Long, Long Time Ago…

The prologue is so standard it’s almost fan service, however there’s a problem. It’s redundant. About an hour later Jor-El provides us with exposition that makes the prologue completely unnecessary. Orson Scott Card says in his book, “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy”, most prologues can be removed entirely from the story. We can, so we will. Either that or we move it forward to Jor-El’s expositional narrative. Replace it with the prologue– streamlined hopefully– told through his point of view. Redundancy solved. And no more baby penis, something else this movie could have done without (thank you Zack Snyder).

2. Start at the Beginning

Well not the actual beginning. We’ve already discussed the prologue. The story, itself, is the problem. From Kal-El’s crash on Earth, we jump forward thirty years. Then back twenty-five. Then forward again twenty-three. Then back…. See the problem? Start at the beginning. It’s that simple. Starting this story at the beginning and telling it chronologically to it’s logical end solves so many issues this story has. The story won’t be so disorienting– always a problem when jumping between timelines or POVs–, and theming for this story won’t be so hard to find. This way you don’t have to show the audience why certain parts of the story are important or meaningful to the protagonist. We’ve been there. We’ve seen it. We know why it’s important. Set up these character-building moments early, then the story won’t feel like it’s hastily tied together with twine and scotch tape. “Hasty”. That’s a good word for it. The entire story feels this way.

3. Missing the Whole Point

It’s not that I’m saying they didn’t do the research. Unless checking Wikipedia doesn’t count as research which would be ridiculous, right? It seems like all the facts are there, but the impact is gone. And no, I’m not necessarily talking about the Superman killing Zod thing. Like I said, Snyder and Goyer may have gotten their facts straight, but they missed Superman entirely. So much effort was spent explaining what Superman is and how, that they miss the more important questions. Who is Superman, and why?

Since superhero origin stories are often character stories, the actions and decisions of the character need to be believable and reasonable and include a conviction that leads the character to become a hero. Focusing on how rather than why makes Clark Kent feel less human, and Superman unrelatable.

The only change I could recommend for this is a stronger focus on his childhood and early years. The goal is not to make Superman feel alien to the audience. Make us relate to him as a human first–

Better yet, read All Star Superman, Man of Steel, Superman: For All Seasons and Superman: Birthright. After you’ve read all that, you won’t need to read the wiki on Superman. You’ll understand who he is, not what he is.

These are not the only issues I’ve had with this story. More to come.

Friday Recommendation

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Let’s just face it; all this sparkling, angsty, spineless storytelling has me a little down. I need a pick-me-up, a tiramisu maybe, or time spent watching cartoons with my nieces, or simply a good book. No, a ‘good’ book won’t do the trick. I need a great one to break me out of this funk. I might even need two.

1. “Interview with a Vampire” by Anne Rice

All the honest, violent, bloodsucking, macabre vampire goodness any fan of gothic horror or horror in general should need. In actuality this is such a strong staple in horror and vampiric literature that if it’s not already in your library, it should be.

The story is told from the point of view of Louis, a vampire, as he recounts to a journalist the events of his transformation and the two-hundred years that follow.

This was a beautiful story when it was new, and it remains so thirty-five years after its release. I would recommend this to anyone wanting to see vampires written with equal parts poetic prose and grim atmosphere.

2. “Let the Right One In” by John Ajvide Lindqvist

This is perfect vampire lit
right before it went to _____.

Here’s a hint: it rhymes with “lit”. Lindqvist released his debut novel in 2004, one year before the Twilight trainwreck. And it. Is. Vicious. This is one of the most disgusting vampire books I’ve ever read. Actually…. It IS the most disgusting one I’ve read, but I couldn’t look away. It was too good.

Lindqvist makes a beautiful statement about the darkness in every human heart by telling the story of one bullied– slightly sociopathic– child as he builds a relationship with the girl who moves into the apartment next to his.

I will not say any more than that. Pick up this book at Half Price. Read it, but be prepared to feel slightly disgusted with yourself and the rest of humanity afterwards.

These two books should tide you over if you haven’t already read them. If you have, read them again, because they are the only comfort I have as proof in modern fiction that vampires weren’t always whiny sparkle-fairies.