Monday, August 24, 2009

Top Five Writing Improvement Articles

I’ve been writing this blog for nearly three years, and I thought it would be helpful to compile a list of my top five writing improvement articles for quick access.

1. Writing To Your Strengths Or Weaknesses – Should you write to your strengths or weaknesses? The answer varies depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Writing Tools – As writers, we need to consider which tools will help us the most with our craft and have them at the ready.

The Callous Editor – To edit our own works well, we must divorce emotions from the process and make hard choices.

Writing Exercises – When thoughts seem locked up tight, try some exercises to get the sludge moving again.

The Jab – We need good openings to our stories, and this article shares some advice and an example from my own writing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #23

“Between Two Treasons” by Michael J. DeLuca – Periphas leaves his centaur master, Eurytus, to infiltrate a gathering of sorcerers who hope to gain enlightenment in defending their home nations against the centaurs. Though Periphas has lived with the centaurs for most of his life, the longer he remains with his own kind, the more he struggles between serving Eurytus and saving humanity.

This was one of the best stories I’ve read in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. The fantasy world is unique, and I found the interactions between Periphas and Eurytus intriguing. Nice pacing as well. At some point soon, I’m going to check out DeLuca’s “Of Thinking Being and Beast” that appeared in Issue #9.

“Oil Fire” by Kate MacLeod – Bearing the mark of an exile for theft, Puabi hides in the houses of the dead while continuing to read from the priests’ library, immersing herself in the ways of magic. When the father of her dearest friend, Enanatuma, dies, Puabi reveals herself for only the second time since her banishment ten years ago. Enanatuma asks for help in securing her household, but Puabi’s only solution is through the unpredictable magic she wields.

I liked the consequences of magic in this story. There are no simple solutions in life, and deceit and manipulation cause only further grief. Clever and thought-provoking.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Writing Dialogue

Dialogue is part of what makes a character stand out; it may even be one of the most telling things about a character. By no means is this an exhaustive list, but here are a few thoughts on the matter.

1. Listen to people talk. You don’t want all the characters to sound like you, so take into consideration how other people speak – the phrases and words they use, inflection and so forth. By becoming aware of the variety around you, you’ll have more ideas about how to give characters distinctive voices.

2. Be consistent with each character. Once you identify how a character speaks, don’t stray from it. This can be particularly difficult over a long stretch of time because you may forget what the character sounded like earlier in the story. If you’re not sure, review your previous dialogue for the character.

3. Allow your characters to break grammatical rules. Real speech is raw and broken. It isn’t polished.

4. Don’t try to capture dialects with sentences that are difficult to read. I hate reading stories with odd contractions that try to convey an accent: “He’da shun’t gawn ‘in dun s’well.” Fantastic! You’ve made me work so hard at picking apart your sentence that I’ve forgotten what I’m reading. Try subtler ways of reflecting an accent. Spell one or two words phonetically (e.g. “suh” for “sir”) or use words specific to a region (like luncheon).

Friday, August 07, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

I just came out of seeing “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”. I think a viewer’s opinion on the movie will depend heavily on how much he or she enjoyed the television show.

I’m probably in the target audience for this movie. The cartoon came out when I was around seven or eight years old. I collected the toys, quoted the taglines and wanted to be one of them. “Yo, Joe!” was one of the coolest phrases I’d ever heard.

The movie tried to capture all of that and bring it back relatively unchanged. This isn’t a movie that tries to make a realistic what-if scenario, like “Batman Begins”. This is about a cartoon in live-action form. You don’t ask questions about how a terrorist organization builds an enormous military base beneath the polar ice cap. You don’t think twice about how people walk away from spectacular car crashes or how futuristic/implausible many of the weapons and machinery are (after all, a caption indicated that this was the near future).

One thing I didn’t really like were the camera shots during fight sequences. It seemed like the cameraman was taking a few punches, too. I hope this doesn’t become the new trend of action movies: to violently shake the camera while carnage ensues.

Ah, but this is G.I. Joe, after all. We must have fights, we must have explosions, and we must have over-the-top plotlines that leave gaps. Someone has to give the obligatory, “Knowing is half the battle” (which I felt Dennis Quaid did with utmost dignity). And of course they have a colossal underwater base! They’re Cobra! (Incidentally, does anyone else understand why Cobra Commander became evil? I didn’t quite understand his motivation. Crud, there I go thinking again!)

It’s best to let go of logic and pretend you’re eight again; otherwise, I think you’ll be disappointed. The eight-year-old in me thought it was great, recalled many of the toys I collected (and still keep in the basement) and thought the characters were really cool. Balance that with my current age (32), and I think it’s a good movie so long as I don’t analyze it (or think about how many scenes were stolen from other movies – did anyone else feel like they were watching the Millennium Falcon escaping from the second Death Star?).

I’m sure I’ll have a few laughs with others about some of the logistics, but I had fun watching it. I’d recommend it for any Joe fans out there. Just don’t think like an adult.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Doctor Who

My wife and I rented the first season of the relatively new "Doctor Who" series. Yes, I realize it has been out for several years, but I’m just now getting on board with it.

"Doctor Who" has actually been around for quite a long time (dating back to 1963), but it is the iteration that began in 2005 that I’m watching. The series is about a time traveler known as “The Doctor,” who is accompanied by various companions as he explores space and time. There’s a good mix of humor and adventure, and though many of the episodes from the first season (I mean the 2005 season) are stand-alone, they fit together into one continuous plotline.

I was sad to discover that the ninth doctor (that is, the ninth actor to play the doctor since the show’s creation), Christopher Eccleston, only appears in the first season. Eccleston portrays a whimsical, winsome doctor with a hilarious smile (“that goofy grin” as my wife calls it), and it’s going to be a little odd for me to get used to a new face in the role. People who have followed the series since its inception would probably say, “Get used to it.”

The show has pretty good special effects, yet it retains some of the BBC cheesiness that I crave at times. The stories are well told, with great character interactions. If you’re a sci-fi fan, I highly encourage you to check this out if you haven’t already. Oh, and the theme song will stick in your head like glue, but you won’t mind.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Fantasy & Science Fiction - August/September 2009

“The Art of the Dragon” by Sean McMullen – A two-mile long dragon appears from nowhere and begins destroying all architectural works of art across the world. With the credentials of an art historian and survivor of the attack on the Eiffel Tower, Scott Carr is selected for an elite group in Britain who try to understand the dragon’s origin and purpose.

The opening was strong and compelling, but I found the concept behind the dragon disappointing and implausible, even for a speculative story.

“You Are Such a One” by Nancy Springer – The middle-aged protagonist is driving to a funeral for one of her distant relatives. Plagued by a recurring dream of wandering through a strange house, she is startled to discover the house of her dreams along her route. When she inquires of the caretaker, she discovers something even more peculiar than her dreams.

The second-person narrative is refreshing, and I think it works well for this story. I was hoping for more closure, but perhaps I simply failed to grasp the ending.

“A Token of a Better Age” by Melinda M. Snodgrass – An imprisoned centurion awaits his chance to fight for freedom in the morning. He meets a patrician sentenced to death who asks the centurion to listen to his fantastic tale and report it to his mother.

I enjoyed this story until it became so outlandish that it turned sour. The historical settings and characters were well written, but once the plot became laughable, I lost a lot of interest in this piece. I think the enjoyment of this story will depend upon the reader’s personal theological views.

“Hunchster” by Matthew Hughes – Out of the small group of poker players in Lee’s garage, a young man nicknamed “the hunchster” has an odd way of playing, relying upon hunches rather than trying to read the other players.

Simple, surprising and humorous. Hughes presents an interesting tale that’s a quick read.

“The Bones of Giants” by Yoon Ha Lee – After years of existing in the rim of the Pit with the undead as his caretakers, Tamim despairs of life and nearly commits suicide. He postpones his plan when a young necromancer asks him to accompany her as she attempts to overthrow the sorcerer who rules the rim. Should they complete her quest, she promises him the death he desires.

An appropriate amount of creepiness and dread sets the tone, and I really enjoyed how Tamim and Sakera (the young necromancer) interact. I think this has been my favorite story by Lee that I’ve read so far.

Icarus Saved from the Skies “Icare suavĂ© des cieux” by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud (Translated by Edward Gauvin) – A man discovers to his horror that he begins to grow wings on his back, and he takes whatever measures necessary to hide them from everyone. His love interest, whom he eventually marries, sees his curse as an impressive gift and hopes to see them grow so large that one day he’ll be able to fly into the air in plain view of everyone.

I kept thinking of the scenes around Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand as I read this. I empathized with the protagonist, which is a sign of good writing when I consider how fantastic his condition is.

“The Others” by Lawrence C. Connolly – Clone iterations of a woman named Cara explore a new world, one clone at a time. The third clone, Gamma (who thinks of herself as Cara), was injured while defending a village of intelligent natives from a deadly fang-claw. Alpha, who orbits the planet, creates more clones to assist Cara in destroying a nest of thousands of fang-claws in order to save the villagers and prevent the fang-claws from overtaking the entire island.

This was my favorite story of the issue. I’d read Connolly’s prequel to this, “Daughters of Prime,” and this is a great continuation of that story. It isn’t necessary to read the other story before reading this, but if you have the chance, I highly recommend it as well. I like the action and tension throughout the tale, and I’m hoping Connolly might keep this series going.

“Three Leaves of Aloe” by Rand B. Lee – Amrit’s daughter has caused too many problems in her school and is facing permanent expulsion unless she’s implanted with a nannychip as a safeguard against disobedience. Amrit faces a great deal of opposition from her daughter at the thought of being chipped, and Amrit isn’t certain about how she feels about the idea until she has an insightful and disturbing conversation with her uncle’s young wife.

The setting and culture of India seemed unique to me, and I think the freshness of the scenery kept the story moving more than the actual plot. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the story; I just don’t think I would have liked it much if the author had tried a similar plot set in America.

“The Private Eye” by Albert E. Cowdrey – JJ Link has psychic abilities, talents he uses at the local casino until he’s banned due to his winning streaks. When a local girl is kidnapped and held for ransom, the local police and FBI run out of leads and turn to JJ for help. The young man learns how far his powers can go towards solving mysteries, but JJ’s interest is to simply retreat and live a life of solitude.

I don’t know how Cowdrey consistently writes so well. Honestly, I’m dumbfounded. If he hasn’t run a writing clinic yet, he needs to. And if such a clinic takes place, I need to find a way to attend. Yes, this is another good story. Read it.

“Snowfall” by Jessie Thompson – Harlan Ellison’s pick for the 60th anniversary of Fantasy & Science Fiction is “Snowfall,” and I can see why he picked it. This was a really moving, artful piece, and I won’t even attempt to summarize it. I highly recommend reading this if you can.

“Esoteric City” by Bruce Sterling – Achille Occhietti’s lifetime of successes are a result of his prowess as a dark magician, particularly in the art of necromancy. A long-term associate named Djoser, an ancient Egyptian priest he raised from the dead, comes to escort Achille to hell in order to meet with Achille’s former boss and master. Achille’s master warns him of a dreadful encounter he must soon face.

The humor around Djoser carried this piece for me. I wasn’t that interested in the main plot of the story, but I’d like to read other stories featuring Achille and Djoser.