Sunday, October 31, 2010

Designs on Halloween

Here's a shot of the "meta-pumpkin" I carved last night. I should have stopped there because in a late-night fatigue-carving fest, I made the following mistakes: forgetting that pumpkin flesh is not cardboard, being surprised by the thickness of this pumpkin, and making the designs a little too big.

This was the original design. Mark accused me of making another klansman-style ghost; I thought ghosts were supposed to have pointy heads. Using circle sections probably didn't help. I tried a retro look with a Scooby-Doo phantom as a model. Um, no pictures of the finished product (nothing to see, here; move along...)

Scary kitty! I got the head a little -- er -- "off". Mark says this one looks like a Cubist style cat. I like it; I just need to put the head back onto the body. If we'd had another pumpkin and more time, I would have tried to carve this design.

I got a little compulsive on this one. I never could get the legs to come out right.

Yep. I used a compass to make this bat, too. (Background on loan by an artist-friend going through his Pollock stage.)

And... all our Halloween preparations have been lit by the comforting green glow of our Lava Lamp!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Fall Thursday

Halloween bats adorn our house this year. The big Balinese bat kite is in an upper corner of the living room, and various-sized bat cutouts are stuck to the lamp shades.

The fall weather has come to the Willamette Valley. It is dark and gray today. I have just realized that it is very dark, and that I should turn on a light so that I don't begin to hibernate.

Thank goodness for Lava Lamps, although I have to install a timer on the thing to make sure that I don't loose a half-hour staring at the green lava blobs rising and falling and merging into each other.

Oh! And I need to submit a story -- right now!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More "Girl Genius"

As I found myself reading more and more of Girl Genius, I found myself drawn to it and I wondered why. The art was fun, but I wanted to take a closer look at the story elements.

The world of Girl Genius is a world ruled by "Mad Science" -- which isn't really science, but rather science fantasy. There's nothing wrong with science fantasy, Star Wars uses it all the time. Specifically, Girl Genius is set in a 1900-ish Europe that uses a Newtonian kind of pre-petrol mechanical technology: think the machines from Flash Gordon, only substitute the nuclear power and gas with wind-up springs and coal. For medical technology, think Victor Von Frankenstein, with a few (essentially) magic potions thrown in.

In terms of aesthetic, think Jules Verne and Alphonse Maria Mucha -- Oh; remember Princess Leia from Return of the Jedi? (Did I mention the (mostly) cheese- and (not quite as much but still nice) beefcake?) -- with a little bit of Art Deco on the edges. This is probably the appeal of Girl Genius -- the romanticism of the late 19th and early 20th century, and artistically (or divinely) inspired but ultimately knowable technology.

Turning away from the physical world building, we come to the social setting. In Girl Genius, Europe (excluding England) is held together by a despotic overlord. Vassal barons and princes administer local fiefs. So that's another reader hook: The Age of Empire! Hey -- wait a minute; what other science fantasy story had an Empire ?

The society is stratified as follows:
  • Sparks -- these are genius scientist: might be good, might be bad, but they're definitely crazy (it's the "Mad" in "Mad Science")
  • Royalty -- It seems that a large number of royals are also sparks.
  • Minions -- Non-sparks; the go-fers.
  • Jägermonsters -- mutant, jar-head, vaguely Germanic, comic cannon-fodder. Think flying monkeys, only with no wings. Think Klingons, only more slap-stick.
  • Other specialized soldiery -- it seems every other little kingdom or spark has its own, pseudo-Balkan legion of costumed military.
  • Local peasantry -- somebody's got to be conscripted into the armies or at least form a torch-carrying mob.
  • Constructs -- think cousins to Frankenstein's Monster
  • Clanks -- in-world slang for semi-autonomous (steam or spring-driven) mechanical devices
So in this world, who you defer to and are deferred to by depends on if you are a spark and how good of a spark you are. Sparkiness in the world of Girl Genius is a quality you're born with. It's the renaissance Great-Chain-Of-Being meets The (New Style) Force; it's rolling an 18/100 for your IQ in old AD&D. It's what you've got to work with, so don't waste time trying to be something you aren't; if you're a minion, be the best minion there is -- because there's no way you'll be a spark.

In terms of Story Goodness, it's fun to read about Special People doing Special Things. The down side is that it can lead to a focus on The Chosen One. Girl Genius attempts to defuse The Chosen One Syndrome by having conflicting prophesies and information.

Having a stratified society means many story elements revolve around the characters discovering, redefining and rediscovering power relationships.

Zooming in from the cultural to the individual characters, we're never completely sure if a character is someone bad trying to be good, or someone good trying to be bad. The only thing we're mostly sure of is that most of the major characters, who are almost all sparks, are slightly crazy (or have a fanatical devotion to something). Probably, good versus bad is the wrong metric; a closer one would be self-centered or other-centered. The sparks are still mostly crazy, though.

Part of this moral ambiguity is that, in addition to power relations, no matter what social strata one comes from in Girl Genius, one has An Ulterior Motive:
  • Finding the Lost Kingdom
  • Finding the Secret Power Artifact
  • Returning Home
  • Total World (or at least European) Domination
  • Clearing the way for a vaguely messianic person
  • Keeping the Secret Identity a Secret
  • Destroying, Containing or Subverting a Perceived Threat

Now add on a few Dysfunctional Family Dynamics:
  • My Dad is a Ruthless (Benevolent?) Despot
  • My Mother wants to possess me so she can further her evil plans to rule the world
  • My Single Parent is too busy with Byzantine double-crosses to pay attention to me
  • My Sibling has become a cyborg
  • My primary caregiver is a ravening control-freak who makes modern-day helicopter parents look like permissive hippie-'rents.
  • Our family had to create its own version of a witness protection plan
and you have a typical Girl Genius character. In summary, a character can be summarized by their place in the social strata, their self- or other-centeredness, their ulterior motive, and their dysfunctional family dynamics. Gee, is this sounding like it might resonate with... say, teenagers ? Or game-designers.

Throw in cheesecake, beefcake and meta-reference,... and... serialize !

Oh, right -- and, like Star Wars, there are huge machines blowing up in the middle of battles. (Hmm; Star Wars, only with dirigibles...)

Can't forget that.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Quick-N-Dirty "Girl Genius" Description

I recently, um, read Girl Genius. It wasn't fun at all; it was, er, research into the Gaslamp and Steampunk genre.

My quick and dirty description of Girl Genius is...
  • Film The Wizard of Oz on the set of Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang (painted by Alphonse Maria Mucha).
  • Have Caractacus Potts in the Role of the Wizard, played by Jack Nicholson -- or, better yet, Stalin.
  • No; wait, have Dr Victor Von Frankenstein in the Role of the Wizard -- er, I mean Stalin.
  • Substituting for Dorothy is Tank Girl, played by Very Busty Emma Watson.
  • Instead of Flying Monkeys, think vaguely Germanic, comic-relief Klingons.
  • Multiply the Winkies (the singing, pike-toting guards of the Witch's castle) a few times and put them into slightly kinky leather harnesses.

So, it's sort of like a softer-core Heavy Metal with more gallows humor, prat falls, and clothing. Oh, and more wind-up toys.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Short Story Business Model

Lately I've been thinking about the business model for writing and how it affects the short story form, writing as a vocation, and the publishing process.

It must be in the stars or something. For starters, KWAX is holding its bi-annual fund drive, Realms of Fantasy is closing (after a resurrection lasting 18 months), and I've just read about a web standard that would stream fonts.

For those of you just tuning in, there's a notion that writers write short stories, submit them to a market, the market buys the story and pays the author. The market turns around and submits a collection of stories it has bought to readers (and advertisers), and receives money for their efforts.

A writer at my level receives five cents a word from professional short story market sales. That's $50 for 1000 words. To put that into perspective, as a technology trainer and maintenance guy, I made roughly $20 an hour; so -- assuming I sold every story I ever wrote -- I'd have to write, edit, polish, and send out 400 words every hour (or, 2400 words in six hours every day) to make the same amount as I did helping folks with their computers (but without health insurance).

The short story submission process (at least for me) has a 90-95% rejection rate -- meaning in practice, I write ten times as much as I actually sell. (So to factor in non-sales, make that production rate 4,000 words an hour or 24,000 words in six hours in order to sell one 2400 word short story).

This is, of course, assuming that there are markets out there buying my short stories. There are, but if I limit myself to the science fiction and fantasy genres, the number of markets falls.

And this brings us to Realms of Fantasy, which is another sad statistic in the trend of paper publications versus electronic ones. Following the news of Realms' second death, the editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, a free on-line speculative fiction market, Twittered that he was tired of being blamed for print media's death.

(As an aside, Clarkesworld pays ten cents a word. They publish two short stories a month and occasional collections. Authors may only be published in Clarkesworld twice a year. The stories I submit compete with those by Cat Rambo, Jay Lake, Mary Robinette Kowal, Robert Reed, Peter Watts, and Nina Kiriki Hoffman -- so it's sort of like Writers of the Future, only for seasoned writers; or the lottery.)

In summary: short story writers work hard to produce stories that have to be submitted multiple times before they're sold (if they sell at all) to a professional market. More experienced (and presumably better) writers sell more. And print markets are going away.

The question becomes: if the demise of Realms of Fantasy is part of a trend of subscription print publications giving away to free electronic publications, how should short story writers adapt?

The secondary question is: if the market shrinks so that only a few free on-line publications (i.e. Clarkesworld, or something like The New York Times) default into accidental monopolies, how can a new short story writer get published at all, much less make any kind of money?

One answer is: "Sorry, honey -- to quote Ms. Le Guin, 'writing to make money is a damn-fool idea.'" I think this is very true for the short story form. It seems to me the folks making a living writing are writing novels (except that only the Glam Stars of writing don't have some kind of day-job or sugar-spouse). So write because you like to write, because your short stories and a dollar will get you a cup of tea at the cafe.

Another answer is, in the age of the internet, writers (and other artists) might try to become their own editors, publishers, and debtors -- in other words, their own content providers.

Some folks post their writing and put an "electronic hat" at the end; a PayPal button and a text along the lines of "If you've enjoyed this story, please contribute whatever amount you'd like." I'm not sure how well this works. Based on my experiences busking at renaissance faires, it probably helps to be well known, have a little dog, or be five years old. And really loud.

Then there's the proposed streaming type face model. You pay me (the writer) a small monthly subscription fee, and that allows you access to my short stories. Bruce Holland Rogers does this -- he e-mails a short story a month to paid subscribers. I haven't spoken with Bruce about how well this works, but I do know that Bruce has a day job.

Of course, the difficulty with self-publishing is that one has to build a subscriber base. Which means marketing, social networking, and other business things that take away from time spent writing. Perhaps authors could band together to form a kind of "authors' web ring" -- in addition to the PayPal button at the end of a story, the author puts in a button that takes the reader to another story by another author in the ring. Your mileage with a distributed editorial board may vary.

To go in a different direction, I could widen my scope: write non-fiction (because, as Ellen Kushner notes, people say they only want to read The Truth), romance, or take a cue from Dan Brown and write cliffhanger-ending chapters in a thriller. Or would that simply delay the inevitable -- science fiction and fantasy are simply the first, but all the print markets are going?

Maybe in the age of the internet, the short story form and the written word are going by the wayside. Entertainment consumers want icons they can press, and content they can watch or listen to (and fast-forward through). I can see a hybrid web site with a story inventory like AnthologyBuilder only with Pandora's interface (wait, isn't that PodCastle, and Escape Pod?).

If written short stories are no longer in fashion, but audio-books and video are, perhaps I should create a training program that teaches people how to those. After all, isn't that what all those writing seminars and workshops are all about? Which isn't writing; it's writing about writing.

Or maybe I should just go work for Google.

Thoughts? Comments? Answers?

Monday, October 18, 2010

When Authors Twitter

I've been following some authors on Twitter. I wanted to see what they were doing, so following them on Twitter was a kind of electronic job-shadowing.

Writers' updates on Twitter break down into the following:
  • I wrote 10,000 words today.
  • I'm locked in my office, in the middle of writing 10,000 words.
  • I _wish_ I wrote 10,000 words today.
  • Announcements about chocolate/coffee/tea/cola/wine.
  • I'm at [cool place], with [cool person(s)] doing [cool things].
  • Read my book/article/blog.
  • Home/Pets/Family/Health updates.

Probably what I've learned is
  • the folks who have books for sale on bookshelves are more likely to be Tweeting the first two types of messages;
  • the other updates really don't tell me much about the craft of writing; and,
  • Ursula K. Le Guin does not Twitter.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dream of Being Killed

Last night I had a dream... it was a spy dream, with lots of intrigue, romance, and flying. It wasn't the pleasantest of dreams, sort of a mix of being on the run from killers and being stuck at Arcosanti.

We join the dream in progress, near the end:

In the course of the dream a flying assassin, sent from my boss, managed to kill me (this is the second time last night someone in my dreams had murderous intent). I'm not sure how, I think I was shot from the air. In some ways it was a refreshing change from when I've been some Mongol Lord's Concubine killed by assassins because someone thinks I know too much (I hate it when that happens).

What was different about being dead this time was I wasn't simply lying there in a suspended, timeless blackness -- this time I had a vision and the assassin taunted me. The vision started out with blackness. Then a narrow orange track unrolled upwards at the middle bottom of my sight and cut the black in half. I recognized it as a Hotwheels track. I was looking at it from above; then there was a perspective change, and I was looking back along it as it disappeared to the vanishing point.

From the vanishing point I heard the accented voice of my assassin. He sounded vaguely Russian, like Arnold Schwarzenegger. "So, you're finally dead." he said. "Can you feel that?"

I had a vague sensation of pressure, more like my spine was expanding or compressing because bones in my feet were being crushed together and everything was connected.

"Eh, you're disconnected, then," he said. Somewhere along the way the Hotwheels tracks disappeared and I was floating in darkness.

Surprisingly, the dream went on. I'd crawled into an old half-abandoned hotel lobby. I managed to prop myself up in a hallway niche and look across the hall at a mirror in an opposite niche. I was in a kind of three-piece suit: dark jacket, white shirt, pocket hankie in a breast pocket. The suit was slashed with all sorts of horizontal two inch slashes. As I rose, (and as I inhaled, too) green iris swords grew out of the slashes. I couldn't see my legs, but I had a very strong impression that my torso was attached to my lower body by a very large thick iris sword. I hunched down a little and the plants -- which I'm pretty sure were growing out of me -- contracted.

I'm not sure what this dream is trying to tell me. Somewhere along the lines it's telling me not to weed iris beds and not playing Second Life just before bed. But I think that's not the main message.

I should add that while there are some elements in this that remind me of some dream elements that I've managed to turn into a short story, I'm not quite sure how any of this could be part of any fiction I write ... unless...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

When Writers Are Startled by Traffic

Last night, as I was walking to the local Red Box, I was surprised by a taxi. It was behind me.

I had taken two steps into the crosswalk when alarm bells went off in my head. A car engine. Behind me and to my left. Getting louder. I simultaneously jumped back and looked at a taxi as it careened past me, straight through the intersection.

The taxi had zoomed down a hill behind me. The driver's ability to see me probably wasn't helped by the fact that I was wearing my Grey-green Cloak (which Mark insists is going to get me killed some dark night) and that the crosswalk sight-lines are blocked by an electrical box. (And I always assume Eugene drivers are trying to kill pedestrians, anyway.)

The crossing light was still green, so I crossed, clutching a Scooby-Doo DVD to my chest. And thinking, "What if the taxi had turned right and I had been killed?" The very fact that I was returning the video had been one of those life bifurcations; it's possible that Mark could have been crossing the street at that time instead of me.

What if my ghost was given a chance to go back five minutes -- would I try to change the choice? (Yes, I'd just seen Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.)

What if I really had been hit and didn't realize it? Maybe I was some sort of Grey-green Cloaked Phantom, eternally trying to return a Scooby-Doo DVD to a Red Box two blocks down the street? Would I always appear before a corner accident to presage another traffic death? Or would I haunt the corner to keep pedestrians from it?

I safely spent the rest of the journey returning the DVD to the Red Box and myself to my home, imagining ninja moves I would have to make to jump over careening taxis next time.

(Uh, no; I still plan to wear the Grey-green Cloak... why do you ask?)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Creative People's Desks

Creative people and their desks. I think I"m in the "if I filed it away I'd file something away forever" camp.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Writing In Longhand

This weekend I had the luxury of writing longhand in an espresso drive-through turned cafe on the coast. Actually, make that cafe expansion tastefully added onto the long side of a drive-through. The cafe was narrow, but wide enough to accommodate a truncated bar and some tables. Luckily, the stereo was low, and alternated between manic "let's dance while I sing risque words", and "I'm depressed that you don't love me (which is my fault)" music.

I think what helped was that there was not enough room in the cafe for any major distractions. Okay, and the rain was coming down sideways, so even if I did want to go outside, I would have gotten blown halfway Newport.

I wrote in longhand using an archival ink pen into my small black sketch book there for about three hours. What I noticed the most was that my hands didn't out-pace my thoughts. Word processors, which I love, sometimes make it to easy to write what I want; and then the sentence looks at me and sort of says, "Now What?"

Using the pen and page, I was able to kind of work ahead of the transcribing process, with the result that my writing was less stop-and-go than it is with the keyboard. When I was ready for a break, I sketched little pictures for a few minutes and then got back into the writing.

Um, yes; for once the stories that other patrons were telling sparked story ideas (instead of being irritatingly distracting). And I suppose the cocoa helped, too.

PS: Thank you, Mark, for letting me have a large chunk of time!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Painting from the Met

I actually have a red and silvery shirt a little bit like this... No hat, though... hmmm.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Baptism and the Liturgiacl Cycle

My niece was baptized over the weekend. This is the garment she (very briefly) wore. I am unsure of the lineage of the robe -- I believe my father's father wore it, which would make it a christening gown from around 1910. In any case, I wore it to my baptism, as did my sister and numerous cousins.

I'd always assumed that it was completely hand made, but looking at the stitching, some of us are pretty sure that machines were involved at some point.

The baptism presented some challenges for me personally, as October 3, 2010 was not exactly a cheery day in the Episcopal Liturgical Calendar. Specifically, Psalm 137 reads, "Happy shall be he who takes your [the daughter of Babylon's] little ones / and dashes them against a rock." And Luke 17:5-10 has some interesting things to say about salvation and master-slave relations.

However, I was able to overlook two-thousand year old scripture (by repeating "It's a metaphor" to myself between winces) and appreciate a ritual that knits a family together into a community bringing up children well.

And the readings don't come close to the reading a few baptisms back: "Better to throw the child into the Red Sea with a millstone around its neck than bring it up in a wrong relationship to God."

So kids, repeat after me: "God is not a gang-leader with a list of retaliations for previous slights -- and even if He is, it's not okay for you hurt infants and toddlers."

Forged by a Roommate ...

Okay. This is too funny -- and weird -- not to share.

Nathan Koren, one of my apartment mates from Arcosanti, took my WOTF photo and added some bits from John Boorman's "Excalibur."

Saturday, October 02, 2010

John in a Tuxedo

I was recently sent some photographs from the 2007 Writers of the Future Workshop. I haven't gone through them all yet, but this one stuck out.

I am not sure what part of my acceptance speech this is, but it looks like I'm about to say, "Let us pray." Or something. I'm guessing that I'm making an astronomy reference. Or else I'm threatening to sing "I Feel Pretty."

There's something to be said for the power of tuxedos -- a lot of the photos I'm in I look goofy (and happy). Okay, I probably look just a little goofy in this one, too. And this is a good thing to remember when I'm beating myself up about writing.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Oct 1 2010 Writing Update

This week I managed to clean up a manuscript and send it out. It was good to get it done. And then I just happened to find a story at a professional market that had a similar setting. I was initially terribly annoyed because in the competitive world of speculative fiction, writing a story that could even remotely considered derivative of already published story is about the same as two folks showing up at the Ascot Opening Day in the same hat.

After swearing (the house was empty), I consigned myself to the platitudes: great minds think alike, and anyone who thinks they're original has never studied history.

Next week's manuscript is the fun manuscript with the post-read plot-disintegration. It's a fun goofy read with mistaken identity. I need to clean up the more confusing aspects of it -- in other words, figure out how to let the reader know who is who without tipping the characters off or making them seem stupid.

The third manuscript I've been working on is for the Wordos' Halloween Shorts Reading. Like many of the short stories I've been writing lately, the story wants to explode into a novel and I've got a mangled mess of plot, vignettes, dialog, and character sketches.

4000 words worth. That's 3000 words too many. With no actual story. Yet.

I'm sure that's a metaphor for something....