Sunday, July 31, 2011

My favorite science fiction joke

I'm guest blogging at The Night Bazaar about my favorite science fiction joke.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Age ain't nothin' but a...problem

In a recent Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Alter talked about the dangers of having your literary characters, especially detectives, age in real time. She cites several examples of authors allowing their characters to develop the infirmities and declines that come with advancing years, as well as those who freeze their heroes in time so that while the world changes, they don't.

The original detective heroes like the Continental Op and Philip Marlowe didn't face this worry. Their series were relatively short compared to what we now consider a successful run: seven novels and some short stories for Marlowe, compared to 21 for John Sandford's "Prey" series; Agatha Christie's Miss Marple racked up 12 novels, against 40 for Robert B. Parker's Spenser. Sam Spade, the quintessential tough-guy detective, exists in only a single novel, The Maltese Falcon.

The appetite for series now requires at least a book a year, and authors with contemporary settings have to face the fact that the world changes around their heroes. Do the heroes change with it? Some do. James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux, once young enough to be played in a movie by Alec Baldwin, is now 73. Michael Connelly's 60-year-old Harry Bosch has to deal with the vagaries of contemporary retirement. But some, like Spenser or Kay Scarpetta, don't. In fact, the biggest surprise in the article was how many authors began with their heroes aging, and then arbitrarily froze them in time when the series became successful.

It made me think about Eddie LaCrosse's age, and how that affects his ongoing adventures. I created his prototype character when I was 18, but I wanted him to be worldly and sophisticated, so I made him roughly 35, which is his age in The Sword-Edged Blonde. At the time I thought that was mature enough to give him the perspective I wanted. However, by the time the book actually came out I was over 40, which meant I was now writing about a character a decade younger than me. Further, and strange as it seems, I'm continuing to age. So I'm faced with the dilemma of what age Eddie should be in each book.

Luckily I'm freed from the worries of the modern world, since Eddie's world is fantasy and only changes when I change it. But I still want him to be believable, and part of that is aging. I don't have a set time frame, like Stephanie Plum (Kinsey Millhone ages one year for every 2 1/2 books, so she'll be about 40 when the series concludes). But he does progress. In the framing story of Dark Jenny I think he's about thirty-eight, settled into his relationship with Liz and established in Neceda. In the next book, Wake of the Bloody Angel, he's about the same age. Which works out to real-time again, one year per book, by default. But it's not deliberate, therefore I can't be held to it. Ultimately, Eddie's as old as I say he is.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A free market of idiots

I'm enough of an ex-journalist that I've read with interest about Britain's scandal-plagued scandal sheet News of the World. Short version: to feed its tabloid readership, the paper hacked into the e-mails, phones and private records of politicians and celebrities, to great financial success. So far so good, but then they broke into the voice mail of a murdered teenage girl, even deleting some of her messages so that her parents believed (falsely) that she was alive. That was the line, and they crossed it.

This has been roundly condemned, as it should be, and it's brought a lot of attention to the nature of British media, also as it should be. Those on the left are trying mightily to attach the scandal to Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corp and owner of News of the World (and of course Fox News here in the US). He's, of course, denying any knowledge of these actions.

But I don't think Murdoch is utlimately to blame. I think the blame lies here:

Let me be clear: it's not the magazines. It's the person buying them.

Murdoch and his kind do nothing more than obey the first rule of business: give the people what they want. From gossip to innuendo to outright lies, his various media outlets have one thing in common: success. If nobody cared about celebrities, he wouldn't be in the gossip business. If people turned off news that was repeatedly shown to be biased, and with occasional outright fabrications, his news shows would either straighten up or go dark. And if there wasn't a ravenous appetite for sordid details, the phone of a dead girl would not have been hacked.

Every person who buys a magazine with a Kardashian on the cover, or watches the Octomom on TV, or reads Perez Hilton online is as responsible, if not more so, than Rupert Murdoch for the state of media and so-called "news." These consumers have created the environment that promises economic rewards for hacking the phone of a dead girl. The defense is that these magazines are "harmless," that celebrity gossip is "just for fun," but now we've learned that "fun" might extend to the private e-mails, voice mails and medical records of 9/11 families (the FBI is investigating that). Is that "harmless?" Because once you've exhausted celebrity culture (and please, God, I hope we're close), the only things left are private citizens with the bad luck to suffer public tragedy. And that could be any of us. Our worst nightmare could be marketed as "just for fun."

So, let me be plain: supporting this crap with your money and time makes you the problem, not the people who produce it. Stop buying it, and they'll go away. That's how an intelligent free market works. But a free market of idiots leads to this:

Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: the anti-western Doc

I love movies about the 1881 showdown in Tombstone, AZ between Wyatt Earp and the Clanton gang. My favorite is Tombstone, but I won't sleight Gunfight at the OK Corral, My Darling Clementine, or Hour of the Gun (which actually starts with the gunfight and follows the events afterward). I can't stand Kevin Costner's epic, sprawling Wyatt Earp, which demythologizes the central character to the point that you actually wonder why anyone would make a movie about him, yet still holds him up as a hero.

But it ain't nothing compared to the demythologizing in Frank Perry's 1971 film, Doc. Even the poster brags about the tear-down:

Stacy Keach plays Doc Holliday, former dentist and current tubercular gambler, drifting across Arizona to join his friend Earp in Tombstone. Earp is played by Harris Yulin, a ubiquitous character actor who you'll instantly recognize even if the name doesn't register (he even played a Cardassian in Deep Space Nine). Also co-starring is Faye Dunaway as Kate Elder, aka "Big Nose" Kate, Doc's mistress.

With Doc as the central character, we're given the legend from the side. Earp may be the marshall, but he recognizes that in Tombstone, it's the sheriff who runs things. He runs for that office, and makes a deal with the Clanton gang to turn over one of their own at the appropriate time to secure Earp's victory. This view of Earp as not just a brutal man but a corrupt one leaves Costner's arrogant misanthrope in the dust. Doc is Earp's friend, but when he realizes what Earp's done he's caught in a quandary. How that resolves is one of the most cynical depictions of human nature I've seen; it makes Glengarry Glen Ross look like Amelie.

Stacy Keach and Faye Dunaway.

But unlike the Costner film, which seems to think Earp is still deserving of heroic status even after he's shown to be pretty much a total prick, Doc earns its cynicism. Doc is a flawed man who sees himself honestly, and allows himself a brief respite of thinking his life might be salvageable despite his tuberculosis. When he realizes it isn't, he goes with the flow and accepts his fate. The story takes place in a Western world that goes Sergio Leone one better: everyone is dirty and dusty, and at times you can almost smell their unwashed bodies. And the music, by songwriter Jimmy Webb ("MacArthur Park") is low-key and based in period sounds; there's no Elmer Bernstein flourish here.

Harris Yulin as Wyatt Earp.

Doc isn't a feel-good Western, for sure, nor a flawless one: many scenes seem cut too early, as if they needed another few moments to play out. But Keach's performance is so open and minimal that it draws you in, and Yulin's take on Earp never fails to surprise. If you're a fan of Westerns, or just of familiar tales told in new ways, I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Interview: Genevieve Valentine, author of Mechanique

Recently I reviewed the debut novel by Genevieve Valentine, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti. I thought it a brilliant and intriguing book, and as a writer, I wondered about the thought process behind some of the concepts. Genevieve was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

The bones (in the story, circus aerialists have their human bones replaces with light, hollow copper one) represent different things to each character who receives them. What inspired them, and what did they represent for you, the author?

Appropriately enough, bird skeletons were a large part of the influence on the bones. I was looking them up for something unrelated, but the physiology was really interesting and stuck with me as I started writing about what exactly made the performers in the Circus Tresaulti so different. For me, the bones were always a tangible symbol of the sacrifices you make for something you love, though the self-destructive aspect of it often goes hand-in-hand, depending on the character.

The narrative jumps among several voices and points of view. Why did you choose that form?

When I sat down to begin I just started writing, and the scenes I wanted to get down first came first, in the perspective I thought made the most sense. By the time I had the breathing space to sit back and worry if it was going to work, I loved how it was coming together too much to think about stopping.

The story doesn't have a specific setting, either geographically or in time. Why did you decide on that?

I approached it with the idea that the deep aftermath of a war takes on this air of inevitability and surreality, as if it both defined and took place outside of the world now. With a war as big as the one that's implied here, that devastates natural resources and completely shifts the practice of government, old nations and eras slowly cease to matter. It doesn't help that the Circus operates in this landscape as they themselves are a bit unstuck in time by the magic that holds the Circus together.

How well did the artwork by Kiri Moth capture your sense of the story?

SO WELL. Sorry for the caps, but it's awesome. The cover alone is so detailed and evocative that no one could ask for more, but for me, some of the interior art pieces truly hit home. My two favorites are probably the griffin, which is so perfect it's become an emblem for the Circus in earnest, and Elena on the trapeze. The grace and introspection and loneliness of that moment is exactly how I had pictured it when I was writing, and seeing the recreation in my inbox the first time, I clutched my pearls like a dowager.

Thanks to Genevieve for answering my questions. You can find Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti at all the usual outlets.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine

Bruce Springsteen says his classic song "Born to Run" is about people looking for "connection." The great crime novelist Andrew Vachss fills his stories with people forming "families of choice" to retain their humanity against the brutal outside world. And in the same vein, the heart of Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti shows how the bonds of family can form between and among people who otherwise have nothing in common.

If you have to give it a genre, I suppose Mechanique counts as steampunk. Or fantasy. Some aspects verge on science fiction. But it plays with these conventions as much as it does with narrative form. It's not set in the past, like steampunk, and it's not about technology, like science fiction. Its landscape is post-apocalyptic, but with no set time frame (or even confirmation that it's actually set on Earth). And there is a sense of magic to what happens, but it's so grounded, so organic and mundane, that it's as far from the standard tropes as you can get. None of this really matters, though, because ultimately it's about people-building, not world-building.

Via a fractured narrative point of view, we learn that the circus, led by the enigmatic woman known only as Boss, features performers that are part metal, with hollow copper bones to make their feats that much more astounding. One even features the enormous metal wings shown on the cover, but he's dead when the story begins. Which doesn't mean he doesn't figure in things, because Valentine jumps back and forth, changing point of view and time frame whenever it suits her. The story is most often told by Little George, a boy of indeterminate age who works as Boss' go-fer. Through him we learn the complexities of the Tresaulti personalities, and a bit about how some of them came to join the circus. It's a real tribute to Valentine's skill that this is never confusing or disorienting.

If there's a criticism to be made, it's that the plot takes so long to get going, it almost seems like an intrusion. For its first half Mechanique is a brilliant high wire act of a mood piece; the events of the second half jar only because of their relative normality. But that's minor, and ultimately the second half wouldn't work without the emotional investment of the first.

I've known Genevieve for several years now, mostly as a delightful raconteur at conventions and a deliciously snarky columnist. I'd read some of her short fiction, but nothing prepared me for this, not even hearing her read the first few chapters at last year's World Fantasy Convention. She's created a unique world here, and made a brilliant debut as a novelist.

Come back Wednesday for an interview with Genevieve Valentine.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Guest blogging on why I'm no longer a Star Wars fan

At the Borders SciFi blog, I talk about why I'm no longer a fan of Star Wars. It has nothing to do with who shot first. Read about it here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Guest blogging on the (re)claiming of Lois Lane

I'm guest blogging at SF Signal about Lois Lane, and how she changed between the original cut of Superman II and the 2006 restored "Donner Cut." Stop by and leave a comment!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Look back in chagrin

Recently I've been revising an old manuscript that I originally wrote over a decade ago, and haven't touched in at least seven years. It's an interesting window into the past of my own creative process, and some lessons I've since learned are vividly displayed in all their teeth-gnashing glory. Here are some examples.

1) A little description goes a long way. I described the physical settings in great detail, thinking at the time that the action wouldn't work without it. I try to always make my action scenes use the specific geography I've set up, so that the reader gets the sense that these events could happen nowhere else. I now know that back then, I seriously underestimated the reader's ability to comprehend. For example, I had this as a description of a creek:

"The creek occupied an open ribbon of ground fifty feet wide, and the grass beyond it grew high enough to hide anything."

I thought that readers needed to know that the width of open ground would accommodate the events about to occur. However, in revision I realized this was didactic overkill. Whatever image of a "creek" the reader conjures will work quite well, and has the virtue of getting the reader to contribute to the story's reality.

I also tended to give exact measurements when they weren't necessary. For example, "[it] landed hard on its belly ten yards away." In context of the scene, knowing the precise distance is pedantic and unnecessary.

2) There's a fine line between ambiguity and confusing lack of information, and I often have trouble seeing this line until someone points it out to me. In this story, the plot was set in motion by a man wandering out of the desert and promptly dropping dead. We never found out who he was, where he came from, or why he carried the McGuffin he brought. In re-reading I realized this was a huge dangling plot point that might--and probably should--annoy the reader. So while I liked the ambiguity and wanted to keep as much as possible, I filled in some more detail and implication, so there's at least some sort of explanation.

3) Elmore Leonard, a man who should know, advises, "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." I had clearly not grasped that concept. If the tone of the dialogue isn't clear from the dialogue itself, then in most cases you need to back up and rethink the words. Certainly I did.

4) My chapters have gotten shorter. The first five chapters of this book averaged 17-18 manuscript pages, while my more recent ones are between 13-15. This is an observation, not a value judgment, since in one sense a chapter is as long as it needs to be. But evidently mine need to be shorter than they used to.

And finally,

5) The chapters may be longer, but this book was short. Really short. 350 manuscript pages, when my average for the Eddie LaCrosse series is between 400-420 (and even that's short compared to most fantasy novels). As I revise, I've found places to legitimately add more detail and incident, but I internalized too much journalism to tolerate any padding. And that's another important lesson: like a chapter, a story is as long as it is. Some stories might need multiple volumes of a thousand pages each; then again, some might just take 400 or so pages. Maybe less.

Yes, a lot of these lessons caused me to wince, clench my teeth and look away in both disgust and horror. The urge to think, "I can't believe I wrote something so bad" is pretty strong. But it's also incorrect. I wrote this story the best that I could at the time. I improve with each story I write, with each comment and suggestion I get from my editor, and with each book I read. The process doesn't end. So if you're an aspiring writer out there, and you resurrect an old manuscript that makes you want to give up writing forever, remember two things: a) it was the best you could do at the time, and b) you're better now.

And that should always be true.