Saturday, May 31, 2008

Off to Camp / Percussion Recital

This morning, we loaded up the truck and I dropped Russell off at the church where the troop meets.



Here, Russell is posing with his Scoutmaster, Mr. Usher.



After we dropped Russell off, we took Reanna to her recital practice session. She takes lessons from Wes Hawkins at Rhythm is Life Percussion Studio. Got her back, had lunch, then went to the recital.



Reanna played two pieces. Her solo piece was "Maple Leaf Rag." You can hear it on marimba in the video below.

video

She also participated in an ensemble piece called Technology. I can't post the video, but here is a photo of her with her glockenspiel.



It's always quiet after recitals. The kids have nothing to work on, so they get to rest for a few days, at least until the next lesson.

-----------------

Today's yard plant is my lemon tree. This one isn't mutant or non-growing, as you
can see compared to the height of the wall. Lots of good lemons every winter.

New BSA Uniforms

Anonymous posted a link to see the new Centennial BSA uniform. I'm just posting to make it a hyperlink. Just watch the movie on the first page.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Calm Before the Storm

Got a large envelope in the mail that contained a surprise. Audrey got a certificate that proclaimed she made the honor roll for 4th quarter.

This evening was really the calm before the storm. Reanna had her percussion lesson, and when we got home, I helped Russell pack for camp. His backpack, purchased for Webelos, is too small for a week, so he's using mine. Maybe a good thing I'm only going for the last night. I can use his.

Reanna has a percussion recital tomorrow. She has a rehearsal at 10:00 and the recital at 2:00. Russell leaves for camp at 9:30, so at least we can do only one trip.

---------



This is my grapefruit tree. The fruit is sweet, with pink meat that is mostly juice. Very tasty. You can see some green grapefruits growing near the top right. Those won't turn yellow until the temperature drops significantly, probably in November or December.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Eagle

This evening I attended my first Eagle Scout court of honor in, oh, probably twenty-five years.

Follow that link, it has some pretty cool information about the Eagle Scout rank, the badges, and the requirements. It's something I never managed to do. I believe I had the requirements for Life Scout done, but they came back and told me I needed one more merit badge. I probably could have contested it, but it just wasn't that important to me in those days. It probably wouldn't have taken much pushing to get me to finish it, and in some ways I wish I had that push. But, that just wasn't the way things were done in our house.

The direct eldest male line of our family is 4 generations of scouting. My grandfather worked as a neighborhood commissioner, what is now known as a unit commissioner. I don't think he was active as a boy, probably because he immigrated at age 9 and language differences and culture shock might have kept him out. I don't know, and it's too late to ask.

My father earned the rank of Star scout, but showed he had the Eagles Stuff as an adult leader. He was my Webelos leader. (My mother was Cubmaster for a spell.)



Here I am in 1975, a 10-year-old Webelo heading off to Webelos Weekend with my Webelos Leader, Mr. Novy. He was never "Dad" in uniform. I'm the guy on the right. And, yes, I did earn Bear but mom didn't sew it on the uniform yet. It was eventually. She didn't make me start sewing them on until I earned First Class I think. I still sew them the same way and I despise the glue-way to apply patches. Must sew them on. I have a devil of a time getting mine off when it's time to change them, but I don't leave a big spot of goo.


My first scoutmaster was a guy by the name of Kermit Momson. I still remember chanting "Kermit! Kermit! Kermit!" Kermit's boy turned 18 and left troop 82 leaderless. My father stepped up to the plate and became Scoutmaster. He stayed Scoutmaster for a year or two after I left for college, stepping down only when he moved to Missouri.

I will argue to the day I die that I earned Life. I became co-Tiger leader when my son started Cub Scouts. I then served as Committee Chairman, Cubmaster, then Assistant Cubmaster. When we crossed over into Boy Scouts, we joined Troop 316, where I am a newly minted Assistant Scoutmaster.

Russell earned all the cub scout ranks and just two weeks ago earned the rank of Scout. Only 6 more to go and we will have the first Novy Eagle.*

I heard a rumor today that the BSA is changing the uniform again. (Last time was when I was about 15.) I have not seent he new uniform but I'm told it is designed to be very functional. If anybody has a link to a picture, I would be interested in seeing a preview.

* I should point out that my sister's husband is an Eagle, and their eldest is working on his Eagle Service Project. (See comments yesterday's post.)

----------------






This is my mutant orange tree. There's new growth on it every year, but it never gets bigger. (!?) It does have the sweetest oranges I ever tasted. Sometimes the birds leave a few for us.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Preparing for Camp

Russell and I went through the list for scout camp this evening, then went out to buy a few odds and ends. We found a cool fanny pack with double water bottles, great for the arid climate. It looks something like this one.




Looks like I'll be going afterall. They have a lack of vehicles for the return trip, so I'll likely be going up on Friday and driving back on Saturday. I should get to see the big bonfire. Scout camp bonfires are a lot of fun, and I haven't been to one in probably 25 years. Okay, there was a bonfire at Webelos Weekend, but that's not really the same. No OA tap-out for one thing.

-----------

Weather is heating back up again. Was not quite hot enough to turn on the air conditioner in the truck, but it's forecast to hit 100 degrees again on Saturday. This time, the hot weather is probably here to stay until October.

Got the pool into shape and the kids and dogs went swimming for the first time this year.

-----------

This is the little kumquat tree, one of the most producive in my yard.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

It's official

My oldest child, Audrey, turned 13 today. I am officially the father of a teenager, though she's been acting like one for a few years already. The guitar, amp, and accessories I bought her a couple weeks ago is partly her birthday gift, but she also got an iTunes gift card so she can download that whateveritis she listens to.

The temperature is climbing again. Last week we hit a record low. Not temperature, but a record low atmospheric pressure. It was the lowest atmospheric pressure ever recorded in Phoenix. No wonder we barely got to 70 degrees three days after hitting 110. We should be back in triple digits by the weekend.

This is what a Norfolk Pine looks like when it lives in the desert. Pretty scraggly, but the thing hangs on year after year.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

We managed to catch a little family relaxation that included, yeah, the good stuff.



It also included some wiffleball. Russell spun around after missing this pitch.



We tried to get Cookie to play, but he would have none of it.




We found that the desert spoon in our pool has a new asparagus growing from the center. This is our second flowering desert spoon. One of the plants in the front flowered a few years ago. Hopefully I can get a picture after it flowers and post it here.

A Few Ground Rules

I know that a lot of family members on both my wife's side and my side are following this blog, as are some people who are not related. I thought I'd take a moment to explicitly state what you will and will not be likely to find here.

You are likely to find:
+ Updates on my writing (or lack thereof)--the original intent of this blog.
+ Discussions of writing and fiction in general.
+ Updates on the Iapetus Project and our musical household in general.
+ Pictures of life in our household.
+ Book reviews.
+ Opinion on world and local events.
+ Whatever strikes my fancy at any given moment.

You are not likely to find:
+ Anything related to my full-time employer.
+ Family politics.
+ My opinion of my wife's or my relatives (positive or negative).
+ Political campaigning.

These items are considered "dirty laundry" and should not be aired in public.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Spring 2008 Piano Recital

Today was the annual spring piano recital. Reanna played 9th and executed very well. After her evaluation last month, the judge named her and her piece as one he particularly enjoyed. Here she is playing Polonaise (BVW Anhang 119) by Johann Sebastian Bach.

video

Here, she receives her purple ribbon for superior honors.





Audrey played a piece by modern composer Martha Mier. This is Dandelion Rag.

video

And receiving her purple ribbon for the sixth consecutive year.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Memorial Day Tradition

Sorry no post last evening, I spent the night changing the patches on my Scout uniform from the Cub Scout to Boy Scout patches.

Today marked the 5th consecutive year that Russell and I helped to decorate the National Cemetery in Phoenix with American flags for Memorial Day. With the cool, rainy weather, I expected to see half the usual number of people. Just like every year, there seemed to be more than ever.

Before we start, this desert cemetery looks something like this.


Troop 316 had a decent showing. This isn't all of us.



Hundreds, maybe thousands of scouts, parents, and even bikers get together at 6:45 in the morning. It gets hard to find a place where there isn't already somebody working.



Russell and I get a photo taken every year.




In under an hour, the job is done. With all the flags in place, it looks something like this.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Wild Weather

Monday, our high temperature was 110 degrees. Tuesday, 108. Today (thursday) was 74 degrees with rain. We might not get out of the sixties tomorrow. I don't know what's going on but I'll take the cool days. We'll have plenty of hot ones this summer. Too bad we can't average them together. They call that San Diego.

-----

This is really cool. Absolutely blind luck. On the other hand, when you think about an infinite universe with stuff in every direction, it was inevitable this would happen eventually. Glad it happened in my lifetime.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

P.I.L.O.T.S. Culmination

This evening we attended the 6th-grade "P.I.L.O.T.S. Culmination." They can't have a 6th-grade graduation, so instead they have a ceremony to cap off the school's 6th-grade service program. You can see about the three committees and PILOTS here.

Here is Reanna in her dress, waiting to go on the stage and take her certificate.



When we got home, Rica noticed a flower on the golden torch cactus near our driveway. The palm frond is not part of the cactus, of course.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Danger, Nanotubes

I just came across an interesting article on carbon nanotubes being as dangerous as asbestos. Next thing we're going to hear that buckyballs are as dangerous as when I hit a golf ball.

The Heat is on

A second day of very hot temperatures graced the valley of the sun, though we only hit 108 today. A big low pressure system is on its way, so the temps should be dropping. The next three days are forecast to hit 98 84 79. Thermal whiplash, but I can't complain about the 79 on friday.

The kids are finishing up school. Wednesday is the last full day, thursday is the last day, but only a half-day. The big end-of-year piano recital is this coming sunday. I should have some video to post. I have some from last week's band concert (Reanna's), but I haven't reviewed to see if anything is decent enough quality to post.

I worked more on the new short story again this evening. It might be the ticket to get me writing regularly again. I'm not sure how good the story is going to be, but the important thing is that it's growing.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sundries

I started work on a short story last night and put another 500 words in this evening. A week or two back, somebody commented that I might try a short story. Since I'm still making negligible progress on the novel, I don't have much to lose. I could use some new short fiction inventory anyway. No spoilers on the story now.

---

Since I have so much sheet music written for Bb instruments, I decided to try something so I could use it with my guitar. I can capo the second fret to use Eb saxophone music, but I would have to capo the 10th fret to change the key to Bb. Instead, I took the drop D tuning to the extreme. I dropped all six strings two half-steps and voila, guitar in Bb.

---

Record today in Phoenix. Not only did we get a record high temperature for May 19th at 110 degrees. Yesterday and today also marks the first time in recorded history that we had the first day at or above 100 degrees consecutive with the first day at or above 110 degrees.

---

I don't mind that I bought gas at $3.57 per gallon when the rest of the country is paying more. It makes up for the time the pipeline from LA broke and we were paying a dollar more than everyone else.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

M*A*S*H

TVLand just aired the series finale of M*A*S*H. I don't think I've seen it since it first aired. Seems like the show has been on in syndication forever. It's aired somewhere every day of the week, so anybody who has been on this planet for more than fifteen or twenty years knows the characters like family. It just takes 2 minutes before you can say to yourself "oh yeah, this is the one where Hawkeye ....."

I've never understood the magic behind getting emotionally involved with fictional people, despite the fact that I write and get attached to my own characters. MASH 4077 is like family, and the rerun of the finale is as emotional as it was the first time. The episode was really very well constructed to deliver the most reward for the fans who watched for what, ten seasons?

---

The answer to yesterday's post is Lou Whitaker.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gerrold.com

Take a look at my friend David Gerrold's new web site design. I had some influence on the logo at the upper left. He bounced several variations off me while I was in Northridge, CA this past February. The site is still under construction, so I don't know if that is the final version. It looks like something is missing, but maybe he decided not to use it.

The site looks great, though.

Fighting Writers Block

Fighting the affliction of what is commonly called writers block is crucial to being productive. We've all sat staring at the computer screen not writing. How do we fight it to stay productive?

One technique is to write boiler plate--that is, write whatever comes to mind, even if it's crap. That can sometimes be enough to keep the momentum going. Occasionally, it turns out better then you expect and you wind up with something to sell. Other times, you just chuck it.

Better is research. That isn't necessarily online or in a book, but it could be. One of the exercises Orson Scott Card assigned during his writing class (the one open to everyone, not the bootcamp portion) is the index card exercise.

Basically, you write a story on one side of the index card using as few words as possible. Boil it down to the essentials. Five cards--five stories--are used. Two story ideas come from library research, two come from simple observation of everyday objects, and one comes from interviewing a stranger.

Of the 5 index card stories I wrote during the 2005 bootcamp, I fleshed out three and sold two. The one I didn't sell is really part of a novel that I will write down the road a piece.

It's a good exercise that teaches you the technique of generating ideas. That's what writers mean when they say ideas are everywhere. They are, you just need to know how to find them. Once you understand the process of generating ideas from whatever is around you, you start seeing ideas all around you.

Orson Scott Card also has another method that he calls "thousand ideas in an hour." I won't go into that because it's well documented in his book Characters and Viewpoints (highly recommended). It is a brainstorming technique created specifically for story generation.

To me, the "thousand ideas in an hour" is bringing out the big guns, when you just can't find a story idea any other way. It can be powerful, but I've never needed to use it to build a story from scratch because I don't generally have trouble coming up with ideas. I do sometimes use it to generate an aspect of a story I have in mind.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Writers Block

Yesterday, I mentioned writers being asked where they get ideas. That segues right into the topic of writer's block. But first, a little side discussion.


Last night, we had simultaneous band concerts at the elementary and middle schools. Reanna had her last band concert as an elementary student, and Audrey had her last concert of the year as a seventh-grader. I was with Reanna, but I heard that Audrey was given an award for most outstanding female 7th-grader. She apparently has a new nickname, "The Machine," apparently because the band teacher doesn't direct the pieces at a fast-enough tempo.

Okay, writer's block. You know writer's block, when the muse refuses to visit. I think it's a crock. Oh, I've had days when I couldn't think of anything to write, but it's generally because I'm too lazy to do the story construction methods I know. Writer's block is a symptom of waiting for the muse to grace the writer with a visit.

Story ideas are everywhere. Let me give you an example of what a writer can do when there isn't a great idea delivered by the muse.

One day I was between good ideas but didn't want to take a day off from writing. Instead, I did what Nick Mamatas calls boiler pot--writing something to keep the pot boiling.

On that day, I sat at my computer and noticed a hole in the wall from a nail that once hung a picture. I started thinking about that hole, and asked myself a question--what if the hole in my wall was really a tiny black hole that was consuming my wall. I threw in a twist and made the black hole 2-dimensional, just for kicks.

Couple the above idea with soemthing I learned from David Gerrold--a story doesn't have to be very fictional to be good fiction. I used myself as the point of view character and just rolled with it. I sold Hole in the Wall to Atomjack magazine, and they used it as the lead story of their first issue. All this from writer's block.

Now, there are other reasons that a writer might be blocked. Stress can really keep you from the right frame of mind to write. Let's face it, life interferes with your plans.

I'll discuss some ideas for fighting writers block next time.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Even More Motivation

For the last couple of days, I've been talking about motivation for writing. Attitude and Fortitude has been the catch-phrase I seem to have grabbed.

The thing is, nothing gets written without those two traits. A can-do attitude is absolutely required to write. Fortitude is required to finish a project. I see it in the new writers in our writers group. They struggle to finish even short stories, at least regularly.

In some ways, short stories can be addictive. They are not easier to write, but they are faster. You can finish a short story in a week or less and move on to another idea. Assuming you have enough ideas, you can build momentum and have a lot of inventory to sell in a short time.

That brings up a couple of issues.

1) Short stories don't pay very well. Considering that your chances of selling to one of the top venues early on are pretty slim, there has to be a pinch of 'labor of love' in the effort.

2) Ideas are often a problem for a new writer. It's the infamous question every writer gets--where do you get your ideas? That's the obverse of the coin that says they might steal my idea on the other side.

One of the steps in becomming a serious writer is the transformation from where do I get ideas into ideas are everywhere. They really are. Oh, every once in a while the muse will deliver a doozey and drop it in your lap. More often, you construct the story idea from bits and pieces collected over time. That time could be days or weeks, or it could be minutes of intense brainstorming. Either way, ideas are literally everywhere.

Another realization is that writers won't steal your ideas. Why not? Because writers have so many ideas piled up inside their head that they don't need yours. Anyone who really would steal your idea probably won't know what to do with it. Either way, the idea is safe for you to use.

Monday, May 12, 2008

More on Motivation

Yesterday, I posted about what it takes for a wannabe to become a writer. Fortitude and attitude. Today, I'm going to discuss something a little different. What does a writer do to keep going?

This has been on my mind lately. I finished my last project in October of 2007. It's now May of 2008 and I've probably written no more than 25,000 words of fiction all year. It's a pathetic word count.

There were some unusual circumstances involved, but there's also an unhealthy dose of lack-of-interest. I have a novel sitting in the Baen slush pile, so it isn't a question of finishing what I start. I have the start of a new novel sitting on my hard drive. That word count will grow, but it's not growing quickly enough. I've hardly worked on it, preferring to work on my guitar skills instead.

I'm not sure if it's a case of my creative juices needing to be rerouted into whatever catches my fancy in a given year, or if it's just a case of me writing the wrong story.

I'm still recovering from several extremely stressful months at work that left me mentally fatigued and without the energy or time to write much. Until September, I had been writing almost every day. I can't seem to get that back. The thing is, you can get hundreds or even thousands of suggestions on how to get back on the wagon. They won't help. Ultimately, it comes down to the same thing the new writer faces: attitude and fortitude. It's something the writer must decide for him or her self.

So that's my struggle. I want to get moving on the novel, but it just seems to drag. I don't think it's the story, it's just me, and its soemthing I have to overcome on my own.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Motivation

Writing is hard work. It's not something to be taken up lightly. Any writer with a minimum of success will run into people who claim they want to be writers, or want to write a book. Often, if you ask them about what they've done, the answer is either nothing, or I have fifty pages of a book sitting on my hard drive.

I went through both of those phases. Nothing, or nearly nothing, is the wishful thinking of a wannabe writer. Sometimes it goes in fits and starts, with a few short stories every few years. Later, the aborted novel attempts begin.

The difference between a writer and a wannabe isn't publication, it's attitude and fortitude. Finishing a novel is a major event, and most people don't finish because it's hard. It's damn hard to sit down and open that file and put something into it. That's the hardest part of becomming a writer.

I became a writer in October of 2004. That's when I started the novel I finished. The effect of finishing a novel is profound. 1) You have a finished product. 2) You know you can finish a long project. 3) You learn something about writing and finish the project a better writer than the one who started it.

My first novel ended up being completely reworked after two years. The writer who wrote it the second time was a completely different writer than the one who wrote the first one. I had grown so much that I removed an entire sub-plot and still doubled the word count from 74,000 words to 115,000 words.

Bottom line, you can do it if you decide to do it.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Book Review: Datashark

A few months back, my father sent me a copy of a novel published by a St. Louis small-press called Neshui Press. The novel is called Datashark, by Ryan Jones. For some reason, the novel is not listed (?!) on the Neshui web site.

Datashark is a techno-thriller. Recall I discussed a week or so back that the techno-thriller is a cousin of sorts to hard SF, and I think the fans of both genres ought to mingle more often. But, I digress. As always, I try to review with minimal spoilers.

The novel is the first published for Ryan Jones. He does a credible job of story-telling with a plot that is really a cross between cyberpunk and techno-thriller. The ending leaves no doubt in which category this book falls.

There are certainly some first-novel mistakes. (We all make those. When a publisher finally nibbles at mine, you can point them out to me.) The book is written in multiple points of view, to the extent that I lost count of the number of POV characters. I also had some trouble keeping track of who is who, something I expect when I read Tolstoy, not a modern novelist. At times, there are three points of view on a single page, separated only by a section break, and that gets a bit dizzying.

I also occasionally had some trouble willfully suspending disbelief, but that can be something of a fingerprint of the genre. When things go wrong in a techno-thriller, they have to go very wrong. In the case of Datashark, there are two conspiracies. On one side, a power-mad Lieutenant General (3 stars) and his cronies have control of a super-secret NSA facility intended to wage cyber-war on America's enemies. On the other side, a group of mostly government employees is monitoring government corruption and is ready to take action.

The lines are a bit too clean for me, despite one character apparently put in to blur them a little. Successes and failures seemed a bit too easy. Then again, I sometimes have similar issues with Tom Clancy's work, so Jones is in good company.

That aside, it is a fast-paced story with good underlying tension and plenty of action. The military encounters are believable, with description enough to visualize the action, but not so much to bog down the reader with excessive play-by-play. The book was obviously well researched, and it's difficult for a reader not "in the know" to find where the research ends and the extrapolation begins.

Despite the few structural weaknesses I mentioned above, I enjoyed the book. It's a pretty fast read with probably a PG-13 rating. The book had a satisfying conclusion, though I think had Jones just ended the story sans epilogue it would have been more effective. Overall, I'll give the book 3 of 4 stars. Well done for a first novel.

National Astronomy Day

Today has been proclaimed National Astronomy Day by the people called "They."

Here are some interesting places to explore as you celebrate this exciting day.

Lick and Keck Observatories

NASA

NASA Kids Club

Exoplanets

Hubble Space Telescope

Carl Sagan

Stephen Hawking

Nine Planets

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Iapetus Project

I finally came up with a name for my musical ambitions, so I thought I'd document it here so I can point to it and say "I had it first."

It took me some time to find a name that wasn't already used for something else. I started with the list of moons in Pink Floyd's Astronomy Domine. Oberon, Miranda, Titania, and Triton. All used for something. I went on to a few other moons like Io. I finally found one that hasn't been used for anything but a team researching the actual moon--Iapetus.

Iapetus is a strange moon that exhibits two colors and an equatorial ridge that looks artificial. There's a close-up a little over half way down the Wiki page.

So, my musical ambition is now officially called The Iapetus Project. The name is mine. You can't have it. Many steps remain before I can record anything, not the least of which is buying a 16-track recorder. This is the recorder I'm considering.


Also on the list is cleaning out my home office. I need to get rid of a bunch of stuff, including the roll-top desk that is buried in clutter. I don't know what to do with my bookcases. They're packed and there isn't anywhere else to keep them.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Sing, America, Sing

This evening was the annual 5th grade program, Sing, America, Sing. The show is probably the beat of all the programs in any grade, and always brings out that patriotic spirit in me.

This is the third year in a row our family participated in the show. My son, Russell was part of the swing dance segment. He is the young man in the red vest at the front of the stage during the beginning of the video.


video

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

That Time of Year

It's that time of year when everything seems to happen at once. The kids have something going on every night.

This evening, my wife's cousin came to visit. They are in Tucson for a week and drove up to Scottsdale for a few hours with my wife and her mother. I, of course, work in Tempe. It's a good 22 miles from the house and even farther from the restaurant through traffic.

My daughter had a flute lesson this evening, also. I managed about 45 minutes with the family before carting Audrey off to her lesson. The kids all enjoyed the visit, and so did I for what little I was there.

All the running around isn't good for writing time, especially when I'm sharing the time with my guitar. I'm making good progress learning guitar, but at the expense of the novel. It remains under 10,000 words, though it's getting close.

Tomorrow, we get to watch the 5th grade show, Sing, America, Sing. It's essentially U.S History: The Musical. It's actually pretty good, though this is the third year in a row we get to see it. We get to see everything three years in a row.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Fun on the Freeway

This evening, I had the pleasure to get on the freeway to drive home, only to discover the freeway was closed due to an accident at a major interchange. Fortunately, they were able to divert traffic on the freeway that crosses the one that closed.

I take Loop 101 most of the 22 miles I drive to work. It's an insane freeway, where there are days that the minimum speed is 75. The City of Scottsdale installed traffic cameras on their leg of the freeway in an attempt (of questionable legality) to slow the traffic.

The locals know where the cameras are, and at least I know what triggers them. Still, I typically see one flash per commute.

The section where the dump truck flipped, near the intersection with Loop 202, is under construction. The left lane merges to the right. The right lane doesn't show up for a couple hundred yards, so the traffic is a genuine cluster----. Of course, people don't use the brakes when merging, they have to be in front. I'm surprised this wasn't the cause.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Sundries

Also Ran

Back in February, I announced that my story Oh, Mallary! had been nominated for the James B. Baker Award for best short story published in a Sam's Dot Publishing publication. (can anybody say conjugate?)

I did not win.

In the category of short story, the winner is:
416175, by Laura Sanger Kelly.

This years judge was David Lee Summers, editor of Tales of the Talisman and all-around nice guy. Remind me to give him a wedgie next Coppercon. :)

-----------------

Grayman

My Codexian colleague Gray Rinehart, inspired by my previous two posts, has some comments on his blog that covers some of the same territory. Take a look for another perspective.

------------------

Fledgling Writer

My writers group (Creatively named SFFW for Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers) met this evening. We meet every other Sunday in a sort of three-part get-together. Part one is for news and progress reports. Part two is a round-robin critique of a designated person's work. Part three tends to be discussion where the the more experienced writers discuss some aspect of the craft with those less experienced.

This evening, we critiqued a snipet by an unpublished writer. Like most new writers, she brings raw talent and a few things she does well, along with some aspects of the craft that need work. The piece she submitted for critique was intended as an exercise in changing points of view. At 1900 words, the piece was very short for multiple points of view, but then, she intended this as an exercise.

I was pleased to see that she tried this in something short. Reason being, short fiction is a great laboratory. Any wannabe writer, even those with the most grandiose ideas for a series of novels, should write some short fiction first. It allows the writer to try focusing on a single aspect of the craft with relatively minimal investment of effort. A 3000-word short story shouldn't take a normal person more than two weeks to write and polish.

If the experiment works, the writer has product to sell. If it doesn't work, only a few hours are wasted. Wait, wasted isn't the right word because the writer leanred something along the way.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Who is Right?

Continuing on yesterday's topic. As I mentioned yesterday, Orson Scott Card has written about the demise of science fiction. (If anybody has a link to this, I'd appreciate sharing.) I don't think it's dead, just maturing.

Who is right? I think we both are. Let me explain.

Card is probably right that SF is no longer the avant-guard genre it once was. The edges have been pushed out very far by the New Wave crowd. Dangerous Visions of the past are commonplace today. Furthermore, science and technology are getting so complicated that most writers can't hope to understand it in depth.

That said, there are scientist-turned-writers creating SF. Gregory Benford comes to mind first. Hard SF is in good hands.

Hard SF isn't the whole genre, though. So if there are so few Dangerous Visions left, what purpose does SF hold today? (And note: I am talking prose, not on the screen.) I think the future of SF is what it originally was--to entertain. SF has matured and most of the tropes have been done. That doesn't kill the genre.

Space Opera is alive and being done well, not pulpish. Iain M. Banks published The Algebraist in 2004, a shining example of what space opera should be. It holds true to the tradition of SF by making social commentary on top of a fun story. That I managed to guess the ending takes away nothing from the experience.

There is still room for the occasional Dangerous Vision, whenever anyone can come up with one. In fact, with these ideas becoming sparse, those stories will garner plenty of attention when done well. There is also room for prediction and social commentary. The former is pretty much a fingerprint of SF, the latter can be done in any genre.

No, SF isn't dead, it's just matured. The ingredient for keeping the genre alive is to maintain the tradition and keep the story fun. After all, people read fiction for entertainment. As a writer, I am an entertainer. I owe my readers a little fun.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Fantasy vs Science Fiction

Further thoughts on the track I've been taking this week. Fantasy vs Science Fiction. Why is Fantasy selling better than Science Fiction? I don't mean now, I mean for the past fifteen years.

Is Fantasy inherently better than Science Fiction? Clearly, that's an answer that can only be a matter of preference. There's nothing inherent in any genre that makes it better than any other (true even for the high and mighty Literary genre.) Any genre can produce a masterpiece, and any genre can produce swill.

So if Fantasy isn't necessarily better than science fiction, why does it sell better? This wasn't always the case. Though much of the twentieth century, science fiction drew a much larger audience than it does today.

Think about the evolution of SF. It started as an offshoot of mainstream in the late 19th century, with authors like H.G Wells and Jules Verne. It went through the pulp era where almost anything could see print. Some of our revered names got their start there--Jack Williamson, for instance. It went through the golden era, where story and plot took over. Here, we have writers like Frederick Pohl. Up to this point, science fiction sold, but it wasn't taken very seriously. It was just plain fun.

Things changed in the sixties, driven by people like Harlan Ellison, who wanted to use the genre experimentally and push the boundaries of style and of content. Behold, the birth of New Wave SF. This era, as important as it was in the maturing and acceptance of science fiction as literature, I believe contains the kernel of the demise of the genre (most against the wishes of the participants, I can assure you).

Science Fiction explored places other literature was afraid to go. From literary trips like David Gerrold's With a Finger in My I to Philip Jose Farmer's present tense Riders of the Purple Wage, stories opened new ideas to explore. They are worth a read, and Ellison's Dangerous Visions, and Again, Dangerous Visions are the most influential science fiction short story collections of the mid-twentieth century.

After the two Ellison anthologies, there were no taboos. It made for interesting reading, but after a few decades, it seems that most of the places that were considered dangerous in 1967 are shown on television every day in 2008. They aren't all that dangerous anymore.

So, the genre matured and now has gray around the temples. Couple that with the major victory on the big screen--science fiction is king of the movies--and you have a recipe for losing interest. Too many stories were depressing, dystopic, or just plain dark. Occasionally somebody would come up with something unique, like William Gibson's Neuromancer. This novel was the prototype for the cyberpunk sub-genre, but that played out and became mainstream SF after a decade. But then, why read when there's something on the silver screen?

Ultimately, I believe what the New Wave movement did was allow science fiction to take itself too seriously. Readers started losing interest, meanwhile, fantasy sales climbed. Why? Here's what I think. Fantasy is still fun. That's it. That's the whole reason fantasy sells better, it's still fun.

Orson Scott Card has published opinion that science fiction is essentially a dead genre, with not much left to say, and not much left to prove. I disagree.

Fantasy, on the other hand, I believe might be really starting to run out of things to say, at least to a par with science fiction. How many times can a group of adventurers go on a quest? The focus has shifted and diversified over the years. Today, a lot of fantasy is pushing the limits of not only science fiction, but also horror, mystery, romance, and probably other genres. It's starting to borrow from outside fantasy or being published AS a work of another genre entirely. These tendrils could be because it's getting harder and harder to do anything unique in fantasy.

So the situation today looks like a mature SF is stagnant and a maturing fantasy looks to be moving in the same direction. Is there hope? I think there is. I think the future of science fiction lies in returning to its roots. Focus on story and making the story fun is paramount. Much of the material published in the past five years have taken that to heart. They have been fun to read.

To be continued...

Thursday, May 01, 2008

More About SF - Pseudo-Fantasy

Second-to-last post I talked about hard SF. (Last time I talked about a guitar string.) This time, let's go back a few posts and pick up on something I assigned to the category of science fiction but called pseudo-fantasy. What is pseudo-fantasy?

I threw out the example of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern. It's the book that put her on the map, but I must confess that didn't get through it. Since what I read was many years ago, I'm going to use another example for the sake of discussion.

This is a book I reviewed in June of 2007 here on Frothing at the Mouth. It's a novel by James Maxey called Bitterwood.

I'm trying to do this without any serious spoilers, but if you want to read the book and have absolutely no hints about his world, do not read on. Come back when you've read it.

Are the hard-core newly minted Bitterwood fans gone? Good. Let's carry on.

Maxey writes what is essentially a solid fantasy story featuring dragons. As you dig deeper into the story, you discover that all his fantastic aspects are explained away scientifically. His magic? It's all forgotten technology or science. His dragons? Genetic engineering gone rampant. Everything about his world is well and plausably explained, and that makes it a science fiction story disguised as fantasy.

I get the impression that Maxey likes to have his fantasy universe grounded in reality. James, if you're reading this, would you post a comment about why you decided to go the pseudo-fantasy route with the Bitterwood universe?

----

In other news, some bozos left a campfire unattended in Grand Canyon National Park, starting the X fire.

People, if you don't know what you are doing, leave the matches at home! This part of the country is very dry and will ignite if you look at it wrong.