Category Archives: Writing Ponderings

The Bots of Old

Way back in 2008, a handful of you may have read the first story I ever sold, “Shades of Red”, in the (web)pages of the sadly defunct A Thousand Faces. It was this big superhero epic that was probably too much story for the 8 or 10 thousand words I crammed it into, but that’s neither here nor there.

One of the characters was Asta, a private detective who happened to be an android. I didn’t really get into his origin much (maybe a hint or two) in the story, but I had it in my head. There are some drafts in my laptop somewhere of his story, a noir detective story featuring Asta’s first case, which was solving the murder of his own creator. Off the top of my head, I remember a disgraced former cop with whom he teams up, a lesbian black widow character, and a climax in which Asta has to battle a giant robot. Set in 1930s Chicago.

Anyway, like a year later Penny Arcade came out with Automata, which is extraordinarily similar. I think there are significant differences (my world isn’t flush with robots, for example, so Asta doesn’t face the animosity Carl does – however, in my story, his human detective pal is Jewish and that was going to be a thing), so I guess if I wanted to every blow the dust off Asta and get his motors firing again I could.

There’s been a resurgence in this sort of pulp sensibility over the past few years, so maybe it’s something I could finish and sell. Still, seeing such a similar concept done so well by Mike and Jerry pretty well eroded my desires to do so.

Anyway, I just happened to come across a link to Automata and it reminded me of all this. Carry on.


Trekker’s Guide

In a few hours I’ll be heading out to see the latest Star Trek flick. I’m on lock down to avoid spoilers, but I’m getting good vibes! Hoping it makes me feel better after Iron Man 3 delivered several swift brutal kicks to my midsection.

So today I came across this, the original 1967 writer’s guide to Star Trek. It’s a blast. There is a lot of great material, especially at the beginning, on what makes for good science fiction. I haven’t had a chance to go through all of it, but here are some real gems, like



The less [science fiction terminology] you use, the better. We limit complex terminology as much as possible, use it only where necessary to maintain the flavor of the show and encourage believability.

IMPORTANT: The writer must know what he means when he usesscience or projected science terminology. A scattergun confusion of meaningless phrases only detracts from believability.

(This second one would have been nice for some of the later series to follow, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Incidentally, I’ll be at the Dallas Comic Con this weekend and might meet, among others, LeVar Burton. If I do I can’t guarantee that I won’t break down into a blubbering emotional wreck trying to pass on a Reading Rainbow/Star Trek fan fiction manuscript.

(Note to self, get to work on Reading Rainbow/Star Trek crossover.)

Stand Up

Friend, former roommate, and fake uncle to my child Alex is working on a documentary about stand-up comedy and the potential offensiveness thereof that needs some financial assistance. You should help!

I’m a big fan of stand-up comedy, though I wish there were venues for it in my vicinity. There’s an Improv, and occasionally the big acts will pass through at the House of Blues or some-such, but there aren’t a ton of great dives you can just go to on a random weekend night and see too-soon-for-prime-time comics working on their craft.

Or maybe there are and I just don’t know about them? (Not that I really have time for that anyway.)

Stand-up has a lot in common with flash fiction. You’ve got to refine things to the sharpest, most concise version of this story (and most of the great jokes are stories). The best jokes of all can imply a whole story with just a few words. I think a lot of people overlook the writing portion of being a comedian, but they have to work on that shit. Even if I thought I could write good jokes, I’m not sure I would ever be up to the performance aspect of comedy.

I actually just wrote a story featuring stand-ups and jokes. It’s probably pretty offensive, but my gauge for these things is broken. We’ll see if it goes anywhere.

What I’m actually more worried about more than edgy jokes is that the reader has to project a lot of acting onto the characters. You can only insert so much into the text to indicate how dialogue is supposed to sound. There’s a contract you have to make with the reader –  roll these words around in your mouth until you laugh. Emphasize this syllable, not that one. Please time this right. Please make this funny for me.

Be Afraid!

So I’ve come across this fascinating study (thanks to a podcast I listen to, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe) that examined the frequency of emotional mood words in literature over the past century or so. They found that, generally speaking, use of emotional language has decreased since 1900.

My initial thought is that this is an artifact of the shift in writing styles – we use a lot less adjectives and adverbs than our predecessors. That’s usually where a searchable mood word would be, right? Today, when we see “he said angrily” we cringe and mentally delete the angrily. I don’t know if that’s something they accounted for, or if you even could efficiently account for it. I see there’s an email for the author. Maybe I’ll ask!

What struck me especially was that the mood of fear: “Notably, the mood of Fear, which declined throughout most of the early century, has increased markedly since the 1970’s, in contrast to the continued decline of other moods.”

There’s also this. A bunch of smart people talking about things they fear, and far too many of them are afraid of technology.

We are terrified! Mostly for no reason. Though, since we are currently living in a state of perpetual for-profit war, we’ll probably have quite a few legitimate fears coming up in the next few decades.

Anyway. Fear is something I think about a lot when I’m coming up with stories, particularly science fiction. The easiest sci fi story in the world to write is one where the science and technology backfires and everything goes wrong. But when I start to write one of those I stop and don’t have the heart to finish it. I don’t want to present science like that. I want to present science as what it is – simultaneously mundane and wonderous. It can be troubling, can raise ethical concerns and what not. But to just have every story be “Oh gods it’s turned on us and now we’re going to die what have we done?” is problematic. I love Terminator and Jurassic Park, but don’t want those to be the default setting for my science fiction.


The past week or so I had a few brainstorming sessions with Jens, as we are world building and plotting and character building  in preparation of what we hope will be a novel of epic proportions. Between that, associating with people like these, and  living close to one of the most ridiculous cities in the nation makes me realize how immensely depressing Texas can be. (I am deeply hoping I can get the hell out of town the first weekend of February.)

Primarily, this is brought home as we are world-building. We’re coming up with these vibrant, colorful, interesting cities with skylines full of towers, fantasy hydro-electric plants, airships, trains, canals, slums full of kraken-worshiping mutants, etc.

You know, the usual. And there are places in this real world of ours that are just as interesting.

Texas is not one of them. I can’t walk a block without seeing a slab of concrete full of idiotically huge trucks. Beside these parking lots hunkers a string of donut shops, tanning salons, pizza joints, huge pharmacies, and dental offices. Half a mile down the road, you will find the exact same thing, only there donut is spelled doughnut. Across the street from these stand more of these outlets, only half the stores are empty, and further down there is an identical outlet under construction. If you want, you can jump on the highway and drive ten miles (which will take you at least half an hour in traffic) to reach any number of other areas that look exactly the same, or go downtown, which is full of more parking lots. It’s hard to find a coffee shop that’s open past three or four in the afternoon (that isn’t a Starbucks), and local bookstores are nonexistent. Everything is built to last only as long as it needs to until the next corporate entity comes along to knock it over and build something equally unimpressive. An eon from now archaeologists will snicker at the suckers who get stuck digging up ancient America instead of ancient Europe.

Unless you’re a musician, building a community of artists is difficult; I feel extraordinarily lucky to have found the handful of peers that I have. Even with our close-knit group, finding places to gather can sometimes be a chore. Most would rather live somewhere else. This just isn’t a place conducive to creativity.

I shouldn’t pick on Texas, since this is a widespread phenomenon across the US. It’s just easier because I live here, and because just a year ago I was in a city that was awesome in pretty much every way that things suck here.

And don’t get me started on the politics or the “Texas is awesome just because” mentality, which seems to do nothing but leave people contented to live with what is actually a pretty shitty status quo.

I’ve been picking at this post all morning and now forgotten what my original point was. I guess this is all just a side effect of creating a playground for storytelling. There’s always been an escapist element to reading, and perhaps we shouldn’t go comparing fantasy to reality too much.

Post Script: To end on a happier note, I should say that cooperative world building with a like-minded writer, especially one as talented as Jens, is mind-blowingly awesome. The logistics of it are daunting, but when it comes together the process is extremely fun.

Mad Middle Men

Jens wrote an excellent post about self-publishing via the intertron, go forth and read. Then come back.

The past ten years or so have seen a massive amount of conflict between the internet and traditional publishers of all sorts – record companies, book publishers, radio stations, comic strip syndicates, television studios, etc. In many ways it’s the same old feud that has always happened whenever new technology comes along, whether it’s FM radio, VHS, cassette recorders, whatever. The titans of the old industry can’t keep up with the times, and thus fade to obscurity if they can’t adjust. We’re seeing this with those pricks over at the RIAA right now. And, I suspect, we are seeing it with the current batch of book publishers, whose attempts to sell via the new e-readers may be doomed to become little more than a novelty rather than the revolution they should be. I will explain.

The current struggle we’re seeing between the internet and publishers is not one of old vs new industry, though; it is a gang of middle men versus the artists. Historically, that’s what publishers are – a group of editors, salespeople, and lawyers who pay the artist some amount of cash to produce content, which, until recently, only the publisher had the resources to promote and distribute.

There are lots of ways various artists are circumventing all of that. I doubt I need to go into how self-published creators are becoming successful. And in the process, they often get to keep their properties and their profits. This is common knowledge, right?

Theoretically, publishers serve a secondary purpose, that of a filter, right? These are supposed to be people who can recognize good content. I would say on the whole, though, they have failed us in that regard. Failed us terribly.

I thought this was particularly interesting from Jens:

Many ebooks produced by major companies sell, incredibly, in the $6-12 range. JA Konrath prices his at $2-3 and makes up for it with volume – volume and the amazing 70% royalties Amazon pays.

I’ve had this conversation with a few friends recently. I was looking at the prices of the books in Amazon’s Kindle store and was impressed by the prices, but not in a good way. It was no cheaper to buy the electronic books than it was to grab cheap paperbacks. And this isn’t even counting the cost of the device, which I consider ludicrous (maybe I’m just a cheap bastard, though). I get the (debatable) value gains of an e-book over a print copy, but I also understand that it costs the publisher less to put out that file than it does to print a few thousand copies (that may not sell) to send out to bookstore shelves. If iTunes can, with massive success for all parties involved, sell songs for a buck, there’s no reason a book publisher can’t sell a digital book for $2-3.

Is the Kindle (and related products) awesome? Absolutely. I can’t wait for someone to invent a nice big color version for my comic book addiction. But their business model and philosophy needs to catch up before people lose interest, shrug, and toss this luxury aside in favor of the next flash-in-the-pan gadget.

Content should not be considered a luxury, I guess is what I’m saying. Publishers should want an e-reader in everyone’s hands, and we writers should want that, too. E-readers should do for fiction what mp3 players have done for music. Make the pretty leather-bound edition of our novel the quaint luxury that I put on the shelf to impress visitors, not the digital ink.

Surely 100 million people buying books at $3 a piece is better than 3 million buying at $10 a piece? Not just for the companies, but for society as a whole?

Because, ultimately, things are evolving to where the artists no longer need these people who are attempting to control and bottleneck our content. In their panic, those people are probably going to screw things up for all of us.

All Star Superman, part Deux

DC finally saw fit to release the second half of Morrison and Quitely’s All Star Superman in paperback. I raved a bit about the first volume a while back, and got to read the rest of the story this past weekend. To my great irritation, an absolute edition was announced shortly before I received mine in the mail. You’ve won this round, DiDio.

With the first volume I was most struck by just how amazing they made Superman. He was powerful and could perform phenomenal feats, and the reader feels great just watching him do these things. All of Superman’s greatest traits are showcased, from his selfless compassion to his intelligence (which is often overlooked).

Some people complain that Superman is too powerful, and they can’t identify with him as a result. That’s all bullshit. It’s not like more the modest powers possessed by the likes of Spider-Man or  Captain America are attainable by us lowly humans, either. Even non-powered heroes like Batman are far better than any real person ever will be. Powers are little more than plot devices, anyway. They aren’t important. The personality behind them is what matters, just like any other genre. Kal-el of Krypton has plenty of personality to identify with.

The second volume is focused on another theme: the world is a better place with Superman. To me, this is vital. In my years of studying stories of heroes, from the epics of Gilgamesh and Beowulf to The Odyssey and Star Wars and Seven Samurai, one of the most important questions asked of any good hero story is whether the hero and their deeds makes their world a better place. Gilgamesh returns from his quests for immortality to discover that his people haven’t just gotten along just fine without him, they’ve actually thrived in his absence. Beowulf’s heroic deeds brought nothing but trouble on his people. The motley band of surviving ronin at the end of Seven Samurai muse on what it means that the people they’ve historically oppressed are capable of turning on them or abandoning them when the warriors are no longer needed. What does it mean to be a hero? And who gets more out of the experience? Is it worth the collateral damage?

By the end of All Star Superman volume 2, I’m convinced that this is a book that has found a hero who makes the world a better place. His legacy is inspiring. His actions improve lives. He has stopped evil that wasn’t somehow his own fault. Even when he’s just a character on a page, Supes changes things.

I’ll need to reread volume 1 and then this one again to really catch everything (it’s that kind of book), but my initial impression is that this book has effectively made the case for Superman. Not that he really needed any help, but it’s nice anyway.

Quandry Modo

Woke up to a fresh new rejection today, this one to “The Organization,” a flash piece I wrote a while back. It’s a sort of romantic comedy/GIJoe-super-espionage parody piece. I like it, but I can see why they rejected it. If you’re not familiar with the sort of genre the piece is having fun with, it would seem like a lot is being left out. I suppose I could expand the story, really flesh out the universe and everything, but it seems like the people who would have fun reading this story might find that unnecessary and even tedious. Like sitting down to Get Smart but having to sit through twenty minutes of someone explaining to you what a spy is.

That’s part of the danger of writing genre I suppose, especially these days. We often rely heavily on what’s been written before, and simply stand on previous writers’ shoulders.

You can see that flaw really well in Cameron’s Avatar. All the characters and even the technology are derived from archetypes that are used all the time in science fiction. One glance at Sigourney Weaver’s character will tell you she’s the Compassionate But Stubborn Scientist that we’ve seen so many times before. Five seconds after he appears on screen, we understand that Giovanni Ribisi is the Greedy Corporate Guy. Then meet Hardass Military Dude. He’s got scars. Trust me when I say they do deep!

Similarly, most of the technology in the film we’ve seen in dozens of video games and even Cameron’s old movies. Those dropships and armored exoskeletons all look awfully familiar!

It’s all shorthand. The writer doesn’t have to spend much any time developing these personalities because we immediately know who they are, how they’re going to act, what their motivations are, etc. It’s just unfortunate when the writer doesn’t bother to take them further than the attributes and stats on the pre-generated character sheet (which Cameron, unfortunately, doesn’t do).

It is handy for some situations, though. In flash, for example, you don’t necessarily have space to do more with a character. So you can reassure the reader that this is Standard Security Guard Sleeping At His Post or Pseudo-Lesbian Who Doesn’t Shave And Wants To Save The Whales and move on. Nothing particularly lost. In parody and satire, you’re relying on those sorts of archetypes, even if it’s your job to show how they’re silly or shatter them. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was based purely on reversing the Blond Running From a Monster Does Something Stupid and Dies archetype.

Either way, if the audience doesn’t know the archetype, the effect is lost. So do I try to shop the story elsewhere, where the editors and audience will immediately recognize the genre parody, or do I try to expand the story and try to net a larger audience? Hurm.

(You can do it in comedy, too – one of my favorite running gags in Monty Python’s Flying Circus was that any time someone started to tell a “If I could walk that way…” joke they would be interrupted. We all know how that would have ended, so there’s no need to finish it – you can basically get two jokes with one stroke by interrupting them.)