Monday, December 31, 2012

Axe-grinding vs Story-telling

Unless you receive a Federal subsidy large enough to blind you to things like sustainability, liberty, and basic mathematics, you might not like the direction the USA has taken in the last decade or so. Or you might think that the government exists to tax your enemies, subsidize your friends and get large enough to make sure nobody can escape its clutches.

The citizens of a representative democracy are responsible to know what its gubmint is doing and replace corrupt rascals with just statesmen. The only problem is that both parties prefer to put no one but weenies on the ballot.

Let's be clear: I think the Republican Party is every bit as corrupt as the Democrat Party.

This poses a problem for the writer who is also a citizen: what do do about this?
I've seen Sarah Hoyt, Ric Locke, and Larry Correia tackle this problem in turn. If you like guns, you can get an articulate argument for training responsible citizens in gun handling, and defense so that the crazed murderer can be immediately confronted with a violent response. (When seconds count, the police are only minutes away.) And if you hate Communists, Sarah Hoyt can regale you with tales of Portugal under the left. I have no doubt that if Ric Locke or Robert Heinlein were alive to day they'd be doing likewise.

I have friends whose politics are as contradictory to mine as night is to day. And they've poured their politics into their writing making all the villains like me and all the heroes like them. This makes their stories as readable as a Jack Chick tract. Tolerable if you agree, intolerable if you do not. The ratio of axe-grinding to story-telling is over ten to one.

I've also seen slightly more sophisticated tales wherein the labels are scrubbed from the heroes and villains, but they act out allegories of good and evil while sermonizing about the virtues of their position. Atlas Shrugged comes to mind here. It's a little better than a Chick tract, but I still skipped past the 20 page sermons by John Galt, et al. Here the ratio of axe-grinding to story-telling is improved, but still heavy-handed.

I thing Michael McCloskey gets the balance right in "The Trilisk Ruins" (5 stars). The gubmint is the antagonist and it doesn't matter whether the administration is Republican or Democrat. (Both parties signed onto the USA PATRIOT Act after all.) The heroes are "criminals" who aim to misbehave. They spend a fair amount of time when they're in civilization scrubbing logs of incriminating evidence and bribing bureaucrats to overlook minor infractions. And they find the Feds like to infect everyone's computer with dormant spyware.

None of this gets in the way of a ripping good yarn. The hero and her handsome male companions go rocketing off into space in search of treasure with the gubmint a few steps behind trying to stop them and/or steal the treasure for themselves. I figured the axe-grinding to story-telling ratio was fairly light-handed, but I should get a 2nd opinion from a statist.

Many times you'll read an SF story wherein the aliens are just like us, but with some prosthetic makeup on their nose and funky jewelry (Bajoran), or pointy ears and eyebrows (Vulcan), or spots on their skin (Trill). Why, you might ask Gene Roddenberry? Because more elaborate makeup and alien get-ups cost too much, he'd say.

McCloskey has no such constraints. He devises aliens with tri-lobed brains, or 20-lobed brains, and he gives them really alien forms. Like 40 limbs, no sense of smell or hearing, but a sense of mass. And he gives this a plausible explanation without getting bogged down in technobabble. High marks for making his aliens alien.

Often you'll read Science Fiction with artificial intelligences and lots of networked computers and there's a sense that technology is just magic with wires. Not so in "The Trilisk Ruins." Communications protocols, encryption, and other terms of the geek's art are handled intelligently without any hand-wavy bull.

"The Trilisk Ruins" is the first novel in a series. If you buy this and like it, be prepared to buy a few more follow-up novels. I just did.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

More About Mr. Perfect

I've blogged about avoiding superlatives, and beaten up that nice Mr. Mike Smith about his superlative protagonist.

Just now I found something that underscores what I'm talking about. Here's a link to an article about things overachievers do. It gets depressing at the end when it says they don't write books. Sigh.

The point I derived from this article is that if you're really, really good at X, then you'll be less good at A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, Y, and Z. If that was tedious to read, it was tedious to write. And now imagine that instead of just reading each letter, you were getting a Ph. D. in it? Sounds unrealistic? It should.

If your dashing knight is the best swordsman in the world, then s/he's got no time after swords practice for mastering the violin, or piloting a star fighter, or figuring out how to romance members of the appropriate sex?

If you see any of my ebooks, you'll see the art of Joanne Renaud. We've become friends because I am not an artist. She is. I've hired her to do art for my books. She's good. Yet she reminded me of something that weirded me out some years ago. Did I say I'm not an artist? Keep that in mind.

My sister was cleaning out some of the papers from my dad's house. And some of my teenaged papers were mixed up in them. She sorted them out, and returned them. I saw some landscapes and a picture of a superhero with a jet pack and ray gun.

"Who drew these?" I asked.

"You did," she replied.

I could not imagine any time at which I had been interested in doing something like that. I could not remember making those pictures. They were completely unfamiliar to me. I'm not an artist.

This bothered me a bit and I racked my brain about how these drawings had come to be. Over the course of a couple days I remembered having some time on my hands immediately after graduating from High School and before I started working in my full-time job. In the summer of 1973 I wasn't an artist. I wasn't anything. Just a kid who'd finished school with pretty good grades and a diploma from Kent City High School (The worst high school in Kent County, Michigan back then. I was told.)

In the decades afterwards, I've applied myself to studying Mathematics, Computer Science and Software Engineering. Then I applied myself to writing and storytelling so that my artistic expression is seen in my writing. Not the graphic or visual arts.

Who I am is informed by these activities. The culture of the geeks I ran with helped form my values and attitudes. When I ran into artists in my various writing groups, making purdy pitchers was something they did, not me. Thus my shock and denial that I had dabbled in producing something I was now interested in only as an observer and consumer. This is sort of the inverse of my blog post about reading like a writer.

I'm not anything special and where I aspire to be special, I relate less well to the book-buying public.

I once wrote a writing mantra about making your protagonist someone you'd want to get on the train with. And that means your protagonist has to be someone normal humans can relate to at some level. Stan Lee does this when he makes Peter Parker an awkward high school student. C. S. Forester does this when he lets that nice Mister Midshipman Horatio Hornblower get beat up for doing something right. 

Look again at what those overachievers do: they trim away parts of their life that are unrelated to their goals.

Overachievers are unbalanced characters.

An overachiever in X will be an underachiever in something else. To make your characters believable they must be in this sense realistic. Maybe your ninja is the best swordsman in all Japan, but he sucks at marketing and promotion.

Think about your characters' strengths, and now imagine a list of everything that remains. Regard those things as weaknesses. Sherlock Holmes was an embarrassment to his family when John Watson disclosed he was a flat-earther. Just ask Mycroft.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Summary of Mantras for the Writer

This post serves as a central point of reference to which all my writing mantras can be linked ad seriatum.

I started this business of writing down my writing mantras and explaining them with a great deal of energy, and I foolishly bundled five of the mantras together in one long post. A few shorter posts would have been better. I calmed down a bit and I wrote a shorter explanations after that.

#1 Work your opening paragraph to death.
#2 Give no excuse to dismiss your work in the opening pages.
#3 Bracketing a story often works.
#4 So does “in media res.”
#5 Make your reader want to “get on the train” with your characters.
These all bear on considerations of the opening for your story. They may seem self-explanatory, but they're elaborated upon here just in case they aren't.

#6 Evoke sympathy for the hero, then evoke identification with his story goals.
Because I was reading like a writer, I realized there was a method to C. S. Forester's madness when he had everyone be so mean to that nice Horatio Hornblower.
In the universe of hard-hitting dialog, you will seldom find a laundry list.

I clumped together these mantras because they both deal with something I'm less comfortable with and less interested in: poetry.

#11 Put not your hope in adjectives nor prepositional phrases, either.
#12 Modifiers in general should be replaced with stronger nouns and verbs.
#13 Use a thesaurus as often as you drink Tabasco.
The writer needs a vocabulary. With a vocabulary you can know what word has the exactly-right shade of nuance when you want an action, or when you want a being. A lame vocabulary will cause you to decorate your nouns and verbs with crutches like adjectives, adverbs, and propositional phrases. You can't fix a lame vocabulary by going to the Thesaurus.

14    Minimize use of dialog tags.
15    A bit of body language can cue who’s speaking.
16    As well as the intent of the speaker: interrogator vs interrogate-e.
17    “Proper names can cue who’s speaking, Mulder.” “Is that so, Scully?”
18    But if you must use a dialog tag, use “said.”

All these mantras concern dialog tags. Too many of them make your prose wooden. "With some creativity, you can eliminate all dialog tags," he boasted.

#19 Vary your sentence structure.
#20 If all your sentences start with the same first word, see the previous mantra.

See dull sentence. Bore dull sentence. Bore.

#21 There are no new plots, but there are plenty of fresh characters

Here's where I confess the dark secret that lies behind my first Finding Time story.

The unrequited desires of each of your characters are spurs in their sides, the air beneath their wings, and some other metaphors you can supply. These "wants" pull your story forward.

Just like contented characters are death to stories, harmony is moribund thereto. You should always have some conflict, even if it's just over who goes through the door first.

Action scenes are fun and confusing. Clarity of expression is always paramount, but action scenes need to convey the tumult more clearly than whether the chessmen are precisely aligned or how they're feeling.

#26 Alternate slow scenes and fast scenes.
Remember how those action scenes are confusing? A slow scene after it is a good place to explain in detail what just happened.

#27 Show, don’t tell. Depict sensa to the reader and let him/her interpret it.
#28 Show, don’t tell. Witness, do not preach.
The reader likes you to interpret the meaning of a scene as much as s/he likes you to chew his/her food.

#29 Read your stuff aloud at least once
The process of speaking the words aloud gives you the chance to hear unfortunate combinations of sounds that can prove a distraction to your readers.

#30 Remove things that “go without saying.”
If a word goes without saying, you shouldn't say it. Many words can be reasonably inferred.

#31 A character acts toward a goal because s/he is motivated, but faces a conflict.
You have to give your characters reasonable motives for their actions. Combine them together and you have the architecture of the story.

#32 All these mantras have exceptions.
The idea is not that the mantras become false, but that there are domains where they are less effectual, and that there are other mantras that may be more effectual at that point. The wise writer then chooses a trade-off that best improves the story.

#33    Everyone’s writing stinks until they write a million words.

Don't take my word for it Ray Bradbury said it. If you disagree, write a million words and compare your output before and after.

#34 If you are right and the group is wrong, nod, smile and slowly back away.
If you turn your writing group into a debating society, you're missing the point.

#35 If two different groups say the same thing, you really are wrong.
You are in a writing group to hear what the voices inside your head are not saying.

#36 Others who ignore these mantras will get published ahead of you. 
You can do everything right and find someone who doesn't may get ahead of you.

#37 Read like a Writer.

To a writer, reading is no longer a passive leisure pastime, but an opportunity to steal learn.

#38 This list is not finished...

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Monster Hunter Series

As a tender lad I had nightmares fueled by a combination of 1960s Cold War hysteria and Evangelical apocalypse preaching. The end-of-the-world nightmares were particularly frightening because the ground would crumble beneath my feet. I feared falling into the abyss.

Until I learned that I could fly in dreams. And then ground crumbling beneath my feet became an annoyance. That's what I told my kids. Just learn to fly. But my daughter dreamed of monsters and I told her to dream up a gun to shoot it. There are not that many problems in my dreams that cannot be solved with a sufficiently large calibre gun.

I don't know whether Larry Correia learned to destroy the terror of nightmares this way, but he writes like it. I've read four of his novels, and reviewed them. And I decided I should create a single place where you can link them:
I hope you'll enjoy them as much as I did.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Christmas Chair

It was 1980 and I was working for the government and my bride of less than six months, Mary, was working for WRBS doing the morning drive-time on-air shift. We had just moved from West Michigan to Laurel, Maryland.

All family was several hours away and we were on our own. It was a good time as we found our own solutions to the nuts and bolts of living and we established new rituals for the holidays with neither parents nor kids to distract us. It was a good time.

I had discovered just a little while earlier that I was a Puritan and thus I felt a need to reinterpret and reexamine all the things that I had taken for granted—for instance, Christmas. That first Christmas far from home, making a home, was the time and place to reinterpret the holiday.

Let’s recap. Christmas occurs on the 25th day of December and we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on this day. Thus you might reasonable expect Jesus to have a birthday of 12/25/00 or some such, but this is not the case. Contemporary Christian scholarship now says Jesus was born a few years earlier. Moreover, we also think Jesus was born in a different season than winter. (Else the shepherds would not be out in their fields watching their flocks by night.)

So where did this December 25th business come from? It came from Pope Julius I. In 350AD he declared Christ’s birth should be celebrated on this day. Why this day? Lots of European Pagans celebrated on December 25th, which is close to the Winter Solstice. I figured Pope Julius I intended to glom onto the pagans’ holiday and make it his own--typical Roman syncretism, baptizing a pagan holiday and declaring it to be Christian. A quick review of the Pagan religions operating in Europe during this period will turn up a fair number of coincidences between Rome’s rituals and pagan ones. As a good Calvinist I wasn’t going to participate in any of that Roman Catholic—Pagan syncretism.

This extended to the Pagan practice of bringing an evergreen tree into one’s house. Animism believes that spirits inhabit things. And the spirit of the tree is strong enough to overcome the spirit of winter, as evidenced by the tree’s ability to remain green through the winter. This notion of spirits in trees is why one knocks on wood. It is to invoke the spirit of the tree to ward off misfortune.

That is just Animist thinking, and I was no Animist then and I am not one now.

Thus I decided there would be no Christmas tree in my house. You can keep your Roman syncretism and Pagan Animism. I would have nothing to do with it.

And thus the trap was laid.

The weeks leading up to Christmas came and I did not buy any Christmas tree or decorations. I would see trees on sale at the shopping center, and I’d summon my will to walk past.

Mary and I planned to fly back to Michigan the day after Christmas to see our families. I had the week between Christmas and New Years off, but Mary had to work at the radio station on Christmas morning. This meant that she got up at oh-dark-thirty and left for work hours before I rolled out of bed.

Christmas morning dawned and I awoke alone in the apartment. Padding around in bare feet, I looked around. There was no Christmas tree.

Someone had stolen Christmas, and that someone was ME.

Something snapped and I had to do something. I scrounged around the apartment looking for materials. We were just married so we didn’t have a lot of extras. I found a broom, a sheet, a kitchen chair and a table lamp. The kitchen chair had a cheesy green Naugahyde upholstery seat and the sheet was a pastel green color. I set the chair in the corner with the table lamp sitting on it. Then I fed the broom handle through the back of the chair and placed the sheet over it. It looked like a chair covered with a sheet. Then I took some books (I’ve always had plenty of those.) and put them around the perimeter of the sheet, pulling it out to give the assembly a sort of lumpy conical shape. The lamp beneath gave off a sick pastel light.

It was the best I could do and it sucked.

Eventually Mary came home from work. I don’t know what she thought of the Christmas Chair, but we sat on the couch that Christmas evening in its muted glow. It was good to be together.

The next day, we flew back to Grand Rapids and enjoyed our families with their real Christmas trees for a few days.

The first thing after we got back, Mary and I went to the Big-T Lumberland and found the biggest artificial Christmas tree they sold. It was 60% off.

We still use it decades later. It has gotten threadbare in places. I've patched broken parts and Mary suggested getting a new one last year.

I wouldn't think of it.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Monster Hunter Legion

If you like guns, and dislike the old horror-movie trope of "our bullets have no effect on the monster," then you should check out the Monster Hunter International series of novels by Larry Correia.

The latest Monster Hunter novel is "Monster Hunter Legion." It continues the series reprising the roles of most of the characters you've gotten a chance to meet in the previous novels. What's cool about this novel is the unique way Correia has found to recycle some well-loved characters from previous novels.

Monster Hunter Legion goes to Vegas, baby. The challenge our monster hunters face is making sure that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

The premise of the story is that during WW2, both the Allies and the Axis powers pursued wonder weapons programs using physics and metaphysics. And at least one metaphysical weapon developed at Los Alamos were about twice as dangerous as the nuclear bomb. Scared, our boffins buried it and hoped it would stay that way. Of course, it doesn't.

A theme running through all the Monster Hunter books is the notion that the government is a mindless behemoth that blunders along pursuing policies that have a great deal of collateral harm. In Legion, government policy decisions move from indifferent to malevolent as we see bureaucrats vie for power using innocent citizens and monster hunters as cannon fodder.

I think the good news is that government is as stupid when run by Santa Claus as it is when run by nice Mormon millionaires.

Larry Correia loves guns and he knows lots of first-responders. If Godzilla were to try to eat Detroit, he knows the sort of fellas who'd take the call. And of course, his monster hunters would be listening on their police scanners so they could show up to blow daylight through that Japanese import.

In a series of novels like Monster Hunter, the characters take on the life of their own. You read about them and when a new novel comes out, you get to visit with some old friends. That's one of the pleasures of a series of books. I don't really think Dirk Pitt as Matthew McConaughey, or Al Giordino as Steve Zahn, because I got to know them long before the movie came out by reading all the early Clive Cussler novels. Same goes for Jack Ryan who really isn't Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, or Ben Affleck, because I read all the early Tom Clancy novels. The difficulty as a series goes on is that these characters tend to wear out. The smart author thus has multiple characters to whom he can pass the torch.

This means each novel should introduce new heroes and villains at a pace commensurate with the rate at which they are being killed off. And every novel should kill off at least someone significant. If you always kill off someone who's just been introduced, your audience notices and begins looking for Red Shirts. This is why villain design is very important. If the hero must defeat the villain in each novel, then your really-good-at-evil villain must either fake his own death at the end, or die.

Maybe I should write a novel where the villain goes to prison, becomes rehabilitated and spends the rest of the novel trying to repay his debt to society while "heroes" are trying to kill him off, thinking his humanitarian efforts are just nefarious schemes.

Larry Correia knows how to kill off good guys as well as bad guys. And if you like those good guys, then you miss them. In Monster Hunter Legion, the good guys get an assist from the ghosts of lost compadres.

Monster Hunter Legion does a good job of introducing some new good guys, disclosing some more of force of evil who's pulling the strings. Some of the story-questions that remained partially understood at the end of Monster Hunter International are elaborated upon here. Mr. Correia is very good at raising a story question, then answering it in part. He's also very good at the incomplete infodump. Perhaps you've seen the Thin Man movie where the detective gets a call from an informant, and as he's taking down the information, a gunshot rings out killing the informant mid-infodump. There's no such phone calls, but there is a very satisfying interview with Management that illustrates this.

I can go on, but I won't. Just get Monster Hunter Legion and find out for yourself. 5 stars of 5.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Free Will And Madmen

This world sees violent, evil acts by murderous individuals.

When the evil is particularly heinous we seek to assign blame. Someones flew airplanes into buildings? Someone shoots up a school? Never let a crisis go to waste.

A headline crystallized my thinking: "What if nobody or nothing is to blame for ...?" (I take pains never to utter the name of anti-martyrs, lest the repetition of these nobody's names encourage like-minded losers.) When a crime is sufficiently horrendous, the mind recoils and we think, "surely, the perpetrator must be mad."

Maybe, or maybe not. I have no desire to understand evil as much I have a desire to eschew it, punish it, and prevent it where possible. Then kill it.

The notion which stuck in my craw is "blame." If we believe that men are mere automata set into motion by forces outside themselves, then those forces which bring about criminal acts are to blame. But if we think that men are free moral agents, and if we hold men responsible for their criminal acts, then "blame" rests on the shoulders of the perpetrator.

We can never say, "nothing or nobody is to blame," because we can ALWAYS say the perpetrator is to blame. Even when the perpetrator is a madman.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Driving Miss Manuscript

#37 Read like a Writer.

I write and I read. I started writing after spending a few decades reading. Now I read differently.

When I was a tender lad, I'd ride in my car with my dad driving. Mom didn't drive. We'd go over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house. I'd look out the window and take in the scenery, the neighbors, the golfers when the weather was warm, the birds, and an occasional deer back away from the road. Or, as often as not, I'd have my nose in a book blissfully unaware of anything save the occasional bump in the road.

I might look at the radio to find out what station was playing, but I seldom looked at the dashboard. I didn't notice whether the speedometer was 35 or 70 mph. I didn't notice whether any of the gauges for oil pressure or temperature. And I didn't pay much attention to the road conditions, traffic, or signage.

Then I took driver's ed and got a driver's license.

The trip to Grandmother's house changed. We were in the same car with the same parents and the same siblings driving the same road.

But I noticed that Dad would cut the corner when he turned left onto our street. That wasn't how I was taught. And I noticed that I was watching more than just how he turn, but how he solved the navigation problem of where to turn. All those things I did not pay attention to heretofore were now getting noticed.

It is a different thing for a non-driver to be a passenger than it is for a driver to be a passenger. Every so often I'll go up in an airplane with my friend Scott. He is a pilot. I am a passenger. If I ever get my ticket, flying will change, too.

I hope you've experienced something like this yourself. You've had some activity where you've transitioned from mere spectator to participant.

If you write, you should take a fresh look at how you read. When you read, do you notice how the other guy turned a phrase?
Do you notice how characters move through the story?
Do you notice whether they have realistic motivations for their story goals and actions?
Do you see how the various "rules" (or mantras) of writing are obeyed, broken, or played against one another?
Do you recognize the problems the other guy faced in putting his story into words and can you learn from how s/he solved them?
Maybe this is too much work, or it takes the fun out of reading. That's fair and I understand.

You don't have to read like a writer every time, but I'll wager your writing will improve if you read like a writer at least part of the time.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Few Bad Men

I've griped about how I think Dr. Who and BBC Sherlock failed when it came time to depict their protagonists' nemesis. In the case of Dr. Who, it is another Time Lord called "The Master," and in Sherlock Holmes's case it is Professor Moriarty. Every Batman needs his Joker and every Superman needs his Lex Luthor.

Thinking through your antagonist is as important as your protagonist and his/her love interest.

My complaint with BBC Sherlock is that Professor Moriarty seemed exactly like The Master who seemed like a nasty schoolboy. True, nasty schoolboys personify evil, but they needn't be taken that seriously. (Unless putting one over your knee and spanking him is not an option.) I guess that's my complaint: If the villain is just like someone you've spanked, s/he falls short of being taken seriously.

Likewise, fellas with monocles and long-haired cats don't work for me. But instead of enumerating what's wrong with other villains, I'd like to say what I think is right with one. I seek a Specification for Antagonist Design.

In one sense, anything that's to your hero's advantage should have a corresponding advantage in your villain. The Doctor is special because he's a Time Lord. Then the Master is a Time Lord, too. Sherlock has mad deductive skillz. So does Moriarty. But they needn't be the same sorts of advantages. They can be formidable, but different. Maybe your villain cannot shoot webs from his wrists, but he has robotic arms coming out of his back instead.

In World War II, the Japanese Zero was a superior aircraft in several key aspects. Nevertheless, the Americans learned how to avoid its strengths and exploit its weaknesses. Avoid a turning fight against a Zero, and if you can't, get outta Dodge. That's how conflicts work in real life and that's how your stories should work.

Stories without conflict suck. And where conflict is concerned, it takes two to Tango. Thus you want to think carefully about your protagonist's dance partner(s). The best villains have several admirable qualities about them. Sure, Gabbar Singh is evil, but he's got a sense of humor and irony and he loves to laugh--before he shoots them. Darth Vader was a sensitive soul easily disturbed by his co-workers' lack of faith--before he choked the life out of them. The Operative was motivated by his faith.

Most Westerners share a cultural heritage of the Greek/Persian conflicts of antiquity. We relate to the independent-minded Greek hoplites who are vastly outnumbered by a host of Persian slaves, but win because they are free men who can seize the initiative on the battlefield while their opponents await the commands of their masters. Thus your story will resonate better with Western audiences if you have a feisty band of Rebels outmaneuvering the giant Empire.

The circumstances needn't be martial. You can write the same conflict between Preston Tucker versus the Big Three automakers with the same asymmetry.

Because companies are generally larger than readers, it's common to make some Corporate Type the villain. Given the amorality of common corporate governance, this is not a stretch. But Big Labor and Big Government work just as well in the role of Persians waging a war of attrition. And since the only good politicians in Washington are Whigs (and long dead) you can show bipartisan villainy. If you want to make Big Religion the villain, choose one that is not in the habit of chopping people's heads off.

That's where I'm at right now. I'm putting together a villain who's motivation is money. He won't blow up the world, because that would destroy all the shops where he spends money. He won't kill everyone, because then there would be no one left to be minions. He doesn't feed his minions to sharks, because it reduces minion-morale. However, his minions are well paid, they have full health insurance with dental, and a generous 401k matching plan.

In other words, he's exactly like me, but with a few billion dollars.

Well, he's different from me in one regard: I'd waste time in the third act gloating about the details of how my nefarious plan works. This villain would just kill the hero and move on to the next item on his Things To Do Today list.

Solzhenitsyn said the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man. This means you should show the stuff on the good side of the line in the villain's character. Once upon a time, that might have meant being a pious, church-going man, but the Hollywood stupid tax has made religion a telltale of villainy.  In choosing the good you put into a villain, you risk making him more sympathetic than your hero.

So, what good attributes do you think should inhere within the character of a villain?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

My timing is either Really Good or Really Bad

Did I say how something about buying ebooks from Baen?

Let's pause for a moment to remember who we're talking about when we're dealing with Baen Books. These guys sell Science Fiction books, and the market for science fiction books include a disproportionate number of geeks like me. Geeks like me were the early adopters of ebooks. Yes, I own a SONY Reader--one of the first ebook readers that came out when the Kindle first did. And yes, I paid way too much for it.

Moreover, Baen has been one of the best publishers to embrace the hacker ethics of anti-DRM and giving away the titles that would otherwise go out of print.

It's a great loss-leader to have a series of N books with a give away of the first half of the series. We'll just give you a taste, a sample, to get you hooked. Baen learned this way back when.

Put all these factors together and it made sense for Baen to put together a book-selling-and-giving-away operation that was independent of Amazon's Kindle site.

But not playing nice with Amazon had its downside as I discussed above. Sure, I can follow the procedure outlined in that note, but it's a lot easier to push the Buy-Now-With-1-Click button. For an early adopter like me, the procedure I used to buy Sarah Hoyt's Darkship novels makes a lot of sense.

Nevertheless, the world of ebooks and ereaders has evolved from us early-adopters to the mainstream. In the years that have elapsed, Amazon has dropped its DRM requirement, so the hacker ethic is now OK with buying ebooks from Amazon's Kindle store.

This morning I read here that Baen and Amazon are getting in bed together. My post about buying ebooks then and now is soon to be obsolete. You want a Baen book, just click on Buy-Now...

The downside, if there is one, is that Baen cannot give away books for free or charge $6.00 for titles that would otherwise go for $9.99.

So, if you know of any Baen titles you want to buy at $6.00 or snag for free, you'd better move fast before Baen's agreement with Amazon goes into force.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Buying Books Then And Now

In 2009 I purchased Darkship Thieves as described below. Just now I purchased its sequel, Darkship Renegades and I'm updating what I originally wrote back then. And added what I've learned.

How Books Are Were Bought In 2009

I was minding my own business, surfing to my favorite blog. Instapundit. He linked to a SF novel twice. The second had an interesting author's story of how the novel got published.

This interested me enough to want the book. But I was not going out and I doubted Barnes & Nobel has it on their shelves this soon after release. So, I clicked the Amazon link that Professor Reynolds helpfully provided. Sadly, I learned the book is not available on the Kindle.

My sadness was short-lived. "Hey, the publisher is Baen." Those guys aren't luddites. There's got to be an electronic copy available somewhere. So, I bypassed and went to see if they were selling an ebook that I could download immediately. I could.

A few mouse clicks later, I'd purchased the ebook for $6.00. A relative bargain. Moments later, I received an email with links to download the book. I clicked on the link for epub format (for my Motorola Droid and also my SONY Reader) and also mobi format (for my Kindle DX). They arrived on my hard disk and I unzipped them to a scratch directory.

Then I fired up Calibre and imported them into its database. (Think of Calibre as iTunes for ebooks.) Then I plugged in my Kindle DX and told Calibre to upload it. Then I repeated the procedure with my Motorola Droid.

Altogether satisfactory. Less time that it would take to drive to the bookstore. Cost is $6.00. And completely DRM-free. This is the way the future of books and reading should be.

How Books Are Bought In 2012

Inflation may have hit food and gasoline, but not ebooks. The price is still $6.00.

Meanwhile, Baen has streamlined the buying process. Buying the ebook directly from Baen is still the only option, but you can tell them to deliver it directly to your Kindle (or iPad).

I love Calibre, but shlepping cables from my laptop to my iPad is annoying.

Delivery from Baen to your Kindle is now a 2-step process.

First, you go to your Amazon account's Manage Your Kindle page. Find the link and click on Personal Document Settings, and add to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List.

Second, copy the email address that Amazon uses for your specific Kindle device under your Send-to-Kindle E-Mail Settings. When you click on the link from Baen, you'll find an option to have them send the ebook to your Kindle, and that's where you'll paste the email address you just copied. Click the button and Baen will do the rest. Painless. Easy.

Let me know if you have any difficulty with these instructions.

(Of course, after you buy Sarah's books, I'll be much obliged if you'd consider Finding Time or The Aristotelian.)

Isaac Asimov vs Gene Roddenberry

Isaac Asimov is a Science Fiction demigod. And he was a Science Fiction demigod back in 1966 when he wrote an article in TV Guide wherein he ragged on the science fiction shows airing at that time. In addition to being a Science Fiction demigod, Asimov was also an author of textbooks. I don't write textbooks, but I get annoyed at bogus science when I see it in science fiction stories. In 1966, I was an 11 year old, and I picked up on some of the same errors that he did.

In addition to savaging Lost In Space, Asimov also made disparaging remarks about the other TV show that premiered that fall: Star Trek.

The fella getting disparaged over Star Trek was another Science Fiction demigod: Gene Roddenberry.

And they exchanged letters as described here. You really should read their correspondence. It's amazing.

What I found particularly helpful reading the Roddenberry/Asimov correspondence is how Asimov did not create an enemy with his critical remarks about Star Trek. Instead, Roddenberry came back with a gracious reply to Asimov's criticisms that displayed a great deal of admiration for Asimov's work. (Did I mention that Asimov was a Science Fiction demigod back in 1966?)

Both men were adults and nobody felt so insecure that he got mad or defensive. Instead, they went on to correspond most profitably and Asimov provided helpful suggestions to Roddenberry. I think that it was because both men loved Science Fiction and that could put criticism into an appropriate context.

That's what we should do when someone rubs our fur the wrong way. If there's something wrong with The Aristotelian or Finding Time, then I should hear it, own up to what's real in the criticism, and fix what I can. The fella pointing out the flaws isn't my enemy as much as my ignorance of the writing craft or my laxity in not paying attention to detail.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Red pill or the Green pill?

Are you going to take the Red pill...
... or are you going to take the Green pill?
I've rambled on about how much I hate dystopian novels. And how I intend to write prose that is anti-dystopian.

Sarah Hoyt, et alia, have suggested an alternative they call Human Wave. Human Wave is basically old-fashioned Humanism (neither Secular nor Religious, just Humanism qua Humanism) that's contextualized within the motifs of Science Fiction.

That's a fine sentiment. I like humans. I really like cute little humans and attractive female humans--particularly the one to whom I'm married. But I've always thought "man is the measure of all things" to be a bit too uppity. Not humble enough.

Thus I now feel more of a co-belligerent of Human Wave than an unequivocal ally. Instead, something got me thinking about the future and how my writing should engage the future.

Let's suppose I take all the problems in the world and consider worst-case scenarios. The great terror of my childhood was nuclear war.

Maybe there will be a nuclear war, and the radiation will keep growing so that we'll all die. And if that happens, the last survivors would live in Australia, drive race cars, and take suicide pills. That's not a fun day On The Beach, is it?  
Conversely, the survivors in such a scenario would have the time and resources to build underground or underwater habitats with sufficient shielding to protect against radiation. OR they could build rockets and live on the moon for a century or two while waiting for the radiation to half-life away.

So, do you want to keep calm and carry on or do you want to get excited and make things? Do you want the Red Pill or do you want the Green Pill?

(You'll note that I did not say Blue Pill.)

When I was a wee lad (That sounds better in a Scottish brogue.), you could drive through Gary, Indiana and you would see an orange haze in the air from all the steel making. The river in Cleveland caught fire.

Today you can fill your lungs with air that's a lot cleaner. You can go to the beach and take a dip in water that's a lot cleaner, too.

(But I live in Michigan. It's too cold to go swimming. At least, not until we get some more Global Warming, please.)

What changed between then and now is that our parents saw problems and set about to fixing them. They fixed them so well, that the remaining pollution problems became much more subtle, and more questionable.

That's the green pill. You see something is wrong, and you set about to fixing it.

Is the planet too hot or too cold? Don't Stay Calm and Carry On, roll-up your sleeves, build a thermostat, and hook it up. What about unintended consequences? There's risks in anything and we're already dealing with unintended consequences of everything else that's gone before.

Once Upon A Time the world of the future was not a dystopian place. Stay Calm and Carry On was WW2 and on the other side of the Atlantic. The American way has been to see a problem, and do something to try to fix it. We Get Excited And Make Things.

Happily, today most of the things that are worth making are within the scope and skills of one or a few tinkerers. The Maker Movement is a bunch of folks doing art installations, starting companies, subverting monopolies, and engaging in creative destruction. A lot of us are engineers and computer geeks. Note the word "us" because that's who I am. You may have noticed my experiments with the Raspberry Pi.

I also write. And after you read my stories I hope that you will want to get up and invent a jetpack or a flying car. Or a cure for cancer. Or a better way into space.

Those more worthy than I: