Monday, December 17, 2012

Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1950

I have another Retro Review on Black Gate.  This one is a review of Galaxy's November, 1950 issue (which was their second issue).  Check it out!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

This weekend, my wife and I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  Neither of us have gone to the movies to see anything in 3D, so we thought we'd try it out.  Honestly, I think I could have watched it in 2D without missing anything significant.  But I'm not a 3D fan, so take that with a grain of salt.

As for the movie itself, I felt like it moved too slowly.  Beyond that, I disliked the added dialogue.  By that, I don't mean that the dialogue needed to match the book verbatim, but the additional verbiage was full of bad jokes.  For example, Bilbo refers to something as being crochet, and one of the dwarves says he loves that game, if you've got the balls for it (or something along those lines).  Gandalf relays a tale of the Took who could ride a horse and how he decapitated an enemy in battle, knocking the head into a rabbit hole (which I think is directly from the book); then he adds, "And the game of golf was invented as well."  Golf - in Middle Earth?  By far, the worst offender was the goblin king, who traps the party and asks what Gandalf will do, and when Gandalf responds physically, the goblin king replies, "That'll do."  Oh, it was horribly cheesy.

Now, I did like some aspects: I liked the scene with Bilbo and Gollum, and I liked seeing Erebor in all of its splendor.  Oh, and the plot with the Necromancer was intriguing; that's one thing I wish had been explored a bit more within the novel.

How would I rate the movie?  Well, it wasn't bad.  But it wasn't good either.  It's not a movie I feel like I need to see again anytime soon.  And it gives me pause on whether or not to see parts two and three in theatres.  Because with a young family, three hours out of the house is a luxury, so we're very cautious in how we use it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Matthew Wuertz on Facebook

For those not already aware, I have a Facebook page as well: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Matthew-Wuertz/111486095643756

I like using Facebook for quick links or quips.  It also links back to posts from this blog.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Touch of Speculative Humor

I think some speculative stories need an injection of humor.  I'm not writing about stories that are entirely comedic; instead, I mean fantasy and science fiction stories that include humorous breaks.

I enjoy humor, and I enjoy making humorous quips with friends and family.  And I find that just as laughter breaks the tension in real life, so it does in fiction.  But that's the catch - by employing humor, it will break any existing tension, even if only momentarily.

Here are some dos and don'ts around speculative humor:

Don't use cliches.  Take my elf; please.  No, please don't.  Perhaps a character uses cliched humor as part of his/her identity; that's fine, but it will have a different effect.

Don't use humor you don't enjoy.  If you're trying to force something to be funny, it won't work.  It's like twisting someone's arm and ordering them to laugh. 

Don't expect everyone to match your sense of humor.  What's funny to you may not be funny to me.

Don't break up all tension.  Tension can be a great thing, like taut strings on a violin that's perfectly tuned.  There are movies that bug me because the director/screenwriter decided that the tension was perhaps a bit too much, so they injected something silly because there was humor earlier.  For example, Gimli's part in the movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings went a bit too far at points; yes, we get that he's short, but please don't break the tension of Helm's Deep. 

Okay, so this is just a list of don'ts.  So use caution with humor.  Add just a touch as needed (if it's needed at all).  It's a noticeable spice within your story's ingredients, and if you add too much, your story risks becoming a long-running joke.  By this, I mean that your intent wasn't to write a comedy, but because your plot became rife with silliness, you're left with a mess that audiences can't connect with.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1950

I wrote another article for Black Gate's site about Galaxy Science Fiction.  This latest article is a review of Galaxy's premiere issue, which debuted in October, 1950: http://www.blackgate.com/2012/10/14/a-review-of-galaxy-science-fiction-october-1950/

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Don't Get Lost in the Battle

With high or adventure fantasy, battles tend to be part of the genre.  What better way to draw to a climax than sending thousands of armed soldiers against each other, perhaps led by some savage who can kill 1,000 by himself?

But before jumping into the fray, you might consider a few points to keep yourself from getting lost in the battle.

First, think through the logistics.  How many combatants are there?  What kinds of battle units are involved?  What is the landscape like?  How are the armies supplied?  What is the objective of each side?

Once you have a general idea of who will be skirmishing, take time to research what similar battles looked like.  For example, if you have an army consisting of cavalry, archers and infantry, how many make up each group?  From there, research historical battles involving similar groups.  It's not difficult to find strategies generals would use for organizing their forces and positioning them for battle.  Research how people fought with the weapons and armor that your armies employ. 

I don't need to do any research; I'm writing fantasy.  Don't let your genre excuse laziness.  Plausibility exists in fantasy worlds; we need something to hold on to while we explore the unknown.

Years ago, I was trying to write a battle between men and dwarves, and I struggled with how to write it.  So I called a friend who does Civil War reenactments to get his take on battles.  He had personal experience with mock battles, and I picked his brain on how fatigued he would get, how hot he would get, the level of confusion involved, etc.  He also read a lot of accounts of battles, which allowed me to ask more gruesome details, like how bodies would stack up.  Some of his answers led me to new questions I hadn't planned on asking.  These tangible details greatly helped me in anchoring the reader to the narrative.

Plan the battle at a macro level first so that you know how you want it to play out.  What movements will take place?  How will it be resolved?  How many casualties will there be?

After understanding the battle at a macro level (and perhaps describing it at a macro level), personalize the battle.  Let the reader follow the character (or characters) who matter.  A battle without characters means next to nothing.  Why should the reader care about the outcome?  And through that character, let the reader experience the reality of the battle with all of its excitement, dread, and whatever emotions you want to pull into the scene.

When you focus on individuals, be mindful of the macro level at the same time.  Otherwise your writing will be out of sync, making for a confusing tale.  The characters don't need this macro information, but you do.  If it helps to stage figurines while you write or draw crude graphics, do it.  Just keep yourself grounded in what's happening.

If you decide to change the battle, go back to your notes on the macro level and rethink all scenes in the narrative that are affected by the change. 

Stay focused, and read everything with a critical eye.  Ask yourself what is happening in all directions.  Take breaks and make new drawings or notes if you need to.  Even if the battle is rushing along, you don't need to rush your way through writing it. 

When the battle's over and you know you've taken into account all of the subtle details, you'll share in the victory.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Galaxy May, 1952

I have another Galaxy post on Black Gate.  In this latest post, I reviewed the first issue I've read, which was published in May, 1952: http://www.blackgate.com/2012/09/09/galaxy-science-fiction-may-1952-a-retro-review/

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Black Gate Article About Galaxy

Today, John O'Neill published an article I wrote on Black Gate's website.  It's about my new adventure of collecting issues of Galaxy.  Check it out here: http://www.blackgate.com/2012/08/15/discovering-galaxy-science-fiction/

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Passive Voice

I've read several books on writing advice, and not one favored passive voice in writing.  But does it have a purpose?
Passive voice is easiest to explain through an example, such as: The dog was hit by the car.  Note that the subject of the sentence (dog) is actually the recipient of the action rather than the actor.  The same sentence rendered in active voice is: The car hit the dog.  (Perhaps if you put the original sentence in all capital letters, it would become a passive-aggressive sentence.)

I find passive sentences to be apologetic.  I'm sorry you had to read this sentence, but here's the rest of what happened; sorry to trouble you.  They seem like a mopey friend who sighs before telling their latest tale of woe.

Preferring active voice over passive voice, however, is a style choice; it is not a grammatical rule.  As such, we have the liberty, as writers, to choose passive voice whenever we like.  We don't even need a flimsy "artistic license" argument.

One purpose for the passive voice is to draw attention to the recipient.  Perhaps the actor is less important or even unknown.  For example: The dog was hit yesterday. 

It might also help with comedic or dramatic timing, such as: The dog was hit yesterday.  But there wasn't a scratch on the spaceship.

Passive voice may also help with pacing or dialog (though there really are no rules for dialog since people ignore proper grammar in everyday speech). 

But I caution against throwing caution to the wind.  Just because we can do something, doesn't mean we can do it well.  Active voice is strong; it is direct.  It throws down words and means it.  Be purposeful in what you're writing, and if you can avoid the passive voice without sacrificing the story, do so.  There are times when it might sound better, and if so, go for it.  But those times should be few.

I will close with this passive-voice example to demonstrate that it does have its purposes:

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."  - Winston Churchill, 1940

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Making a Scene

Don't make a scene!  At least, not in real life.  But in writing stories, they can be quite useful.

Scenes are slices of a story (or they can be the entire story if there is only one).  They offer a way to split a story into smaller sequences.  You indicate a separation of scenes using the pound sign (#).  For example:

This is the first scene.  Some things are happening here.
#
This is the second scene.  Other things are happening here.

(When they're published, the editor usually changes these to blank lines or cool graphics, etc.)

Scenes serve a myriad of purposes, but here are some of the common uses:

1.  Changing the point of view (POV).  It is ill-advised (though certainly not illegal) to change POV's within the same scene because it confuses the reader.  For example:

Amy nodded to Bill, but she wished he would die; not necessarily a painful death, just something simple like a decapitation.

Bill smirked.  What was Amy thinking, he wondered.  She always had a creepy stare.

I've sometimes seen the term "head jumping" with this.  Even if you're writing third-person omniscient (meaning that the narrator knows everything), I would approach POV changes cautiously and probably stick with a single POV within a single scene.

2.  Changing the setting.  Part of a story may take place in the kitchen while the rest takes place down by the river.  Unless we're following the characters all the way to the river, it's best to break the two locations into separate scenes.  It's not mandatory, but if you want to make a clean break without writing a transition, the scene break allows for that.

3.  Passage of time.  This is probably a corollary to the previous point, but if part of a story takes place on Monday, and part of it takes place on Friday, it's probably best to separate the two days into their own scenes.  This is another area where you can write a transition instead of a scene break, or you could create a scene break along with a written transition. 

4.  Flashbacks.  I was just thinking about flashbacks the other day when. . . No, not really.  But if I did, I could jump to the flashback by employing a separate scene for it.

By the way, there is no rule around the minimum length of a scene.  If you wish to do so, you could have an entire scene transpire with a single word.  As long as you have a purpose in it, go for it.  But bear in mind that you're giving the reader a forced break each time you use it.

The number and purpose of scenes really depends on the story itself.  But as a reader, if I see a scene break, I know something has changed (POV, setting, time, flashback, etc.), so I'm prepared for that transition, even if it's sudden.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Trimming

I'm in edit mode (and have been for a while now), and it's in such a state that I start trimming words.  It's easy to fall into verbose sentences during a rough draft.  Like the Spice, the ideas must flow.  But when it's time to edit, bring out the clippers.

Here are a few patterns I fall into:

Failing to think of the right word.  Rough draft: Jim bought a ticket for the underground train.  Trimming: Replace "underground train" with "subway".

Cramming.  Rough draft: Jim soiled his crisp, white shirt and silk tie - a gift from his wife two years ago - due to tripping on the third step from the bottom and spilling decaf coffee on himself.  Trimming: Break this into several sentences and lose the non-essential details.

Extra words for no purpose (good for high-school essays but bad for stories).  Rough draft: Jim wanted to get to his hometown where he grew up.  Trimming: It's assumed he grew up in his hometown - otherwise it wouldn't be his hometown - so get rid of the phrase "where he grew up".

Sheer confusion.  Rough draft: Jim thought he could outrun ended up left around midnight.  Trimming: Figure out what in the world this sentence is supposed to say and get rid of the rest.  I don't see this too often, but it's usually a result of trying to edit while I'm writing the rough draft - always a dangerous proposal.  So I start rewriting a sentence before actually finishing it, resulting in multiple versions, awkwardly coexisting.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Frightening Villains

In some stories, it becomes necessary to introduce one or multiple villains.  There are various types of villains, but the ones I find most intriguing are those that are frightening; there is something unnatural about them.  They are chilling.  I don’t want to identify with such a villain or perceive some hidden heart of gold.  I fear them as I would fear a rabid dog because there is something not quite right in their thinking – something not quite right in their being.  They cannot be reasoned with, and we cannot empathize with them.  And though they may have changed from good to evil, they can never change back.

One example that comes to mind is Orochimaru from the manga/anime Naruto.  Orochimaru is a ninja from the Leaf Village who goes astray.  In order to learn as much jutsu as possible, he experiments on people, killing them in a secret hideaway within the village.  He later forms his own village and has his own following, but he doesn’t care about anyone but himself.  On the surface, Orochimaru seems like the typical power-hungry villain, but there’s something almost perverse in how he interacts with other characters.  His jitsu always leans toward the macabre, and he transforms his body into repulsive, serpentine shapes.

The second example that comes to mind is Satan.  Not the sit-on-your-shoulder guy in red with a pitchfork.  I mean Lucifer himself – the highest archangel who decided he was above God and led a third of the angelic host with him in rebellion.  Here is a person who was the greatest created being of all time and turned into the most menacing threat mankind has ever known.  In fact, the word Satan comes from the word “accuser” because he accuses men before God, yet he tempts humanity into utter depravity.  I think a lot of people are frightened by the demonic based on the popularity of films where the characters struggle against a demonic opponent in various forms.

A final example is zombies.  With zombies, all vestiges of humanity have been stripped away, and all that remains are remorseless beings with insatiable appetites for living flesh, especially that of humans.  Even their appearance is a twisted form of normalcy, often to reflect their undead status (assuming they are undead as opposed to alive and infected).  There are times I wish "The Walking Dead" wasn’t so compelling because it really creeps me out to watch it.

There is a time and a place for villainous characters, and I think there are also times when we should turn to frightening villains.  We are not excited about their appearance in the story; not because they take away from the story (in fact, they may be the story), but because our fight or flight reflex tells us to run.

Monday, March 26, 2012

This Isn't Working

I'm not the kind of writer who gets things right the first time.  My stories go through several edits at least.  To get published, one of the keys is figuring out if something's not working.

With rough drafts, it's a time to crank out ideas as quick as they come.  Grammar?  Marginalized.  Plot holes?  You bet.  Confusing dialog?  Yes, that character did just ask a question of himself that he answered in the form of another question - and I don't care.

Past that stage, when the story transitions into something much more organized, there comes a point when it seems like the piece is done.  Except it isn't working.  You may not be aware it's not working until it's not selling, which forces you to look closer at the story and discover that it's not working.  (I don't believe that just because a story hasn't sold, it therefore has problems, but I am suggesting that a second or third glance is in order if it's run through a lot of markets without any bites.)

Wait, is "not working" subjective?  I'm not so sure on that one.  Preferences are subjective, so to a degree, something like pacing can be subjective.  But if the story has a pacing problem, it's noticeable beyond a preference for a certain type of pacing.  For example, I may have a preference for a story that starts out a little slow and builds into something fast, but if I read a story that starts fast and then meanders to a crawl before picking back up, I would cite that as a pacing problem.  I'm not against it because it started fast but because it drastically lost momentum in the middle.

So there are two challenges - the first is finding the problem (or problems).  For that, read with a critical eye or look for personal feedback if you're not spotting anything yourself.  The second challenge, which can be just as duanting, is resolving the problem.  In one of my published stories, I struggled with narrative issues due to how the protagonist interacted with other characters.  I sensed a problem and went with what I thought was the best solution, though I never felt settled about it.  The editor saw the issue as well, and it took several more drafts before the best solution found the light of day.  I had almost given up hope at one point, but persistence paid off.  Once complete, I knew I had an actual working solution, not just my best guess at a solution.

Solving the issue may take a complete rewrite from start to finish.  With one of my stories, I recongized halfway through the rough draft that it needed to be a first-person narrative.  Normally, I would not advise starting over before completing a rough draft, but I couldn't just go forward without fixing what was behind me; I needed resolution immediately.  So I printed out what I had, opened a new document and started over. 

Don't leave junk behind.  Whether you see issues during a first draft, a "final" draft, or three years after submitting it to markets, fix the story.  Even if it hurts.  Even if you have to put other stories on hold.  You'll gain valuable experience in the process and become that much keener at editing your work in the future.  Plus, you'll end up with something that has a much greater chance at publication.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Notes

At the 2010 World Fantasy Convention, I spoke with Howard Andrew Jones, and he showed me a small notebook he carried around with him that he used to record his thoughts. I assumed these were writing ideas or the megalomaniacal musings he’s prone to (those who know him can back me up on that), but I didn’t actually read through it.


A short time later, I decided it was time to invest in a notebook of my own. And I already had one on hand that my wife had given me as a gift. It’s a hand-sewn, leather-bound cover with a leather strap to tie it closed. On the inside, it has pockets on the left and the right so that I can slide the covers of a notebook within. But I don’t just use any notebook; I use a notebook of thick, unlined parchment paper with a rustic look to it – not the bleached-white pulp found at a supermarket. I love the way it feels, and it gives my notes more of a fantastical feel, making them twice as good in my mind (okay, not really – but they do look cool).

I record ideas for new stories as well as notes on existing stories. I keep my notebook with me most of the time, so I’m rarely dropping ideas. Not that all ideas lead to stories or that all notes get folded into existing stories. But if a noteworthy thought comes to mind, I’ve got it. I’ve found this to be quite invaluable.

I think what helps is that my notebook is special; it’s not just some piece of paper shoved in my pocket, and I’m not just using some Smartphone app. It’s ink on a page. It demands to be used.

I recommend purchasing something unique to your personality – something you’d find worthy of your ideas. Then try it for a month. See what you jot down. I think you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll record in the notebook and how you can expand a wisp of a thought into something tangible within the moment.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Abyss & Apex

Abyss & Apex accepted one of my science fiction stories for publication!  "And Our Lady Splendor" will appear in the 3rd Quarter Issue, due out in July.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Better Left Unsaid

I’ve played musical instruments for over twenty years, and I learned that while the notes are important, the rests (the moments of silence for your instrument) are equally important. Such omissions are also pertinent in writing.


I don’t mean that there should be large whitespaces between words or scenes. Instead, what I’m referencing are the pieces of narrative and dialog that we purposefully withhold from the reader. Let me provide an example of two pieces of writing and ask which is stronger.

Example 1:
“Hey, Don,” Evan said. “Did you go to the basketball game last night? We used to all go every Wednesday, so I was surprised I didn’t see you there. It was a great game; the home team came from behind to win by three points at the buzzer.”

“Of course not,” Don said. “Jenny used to go to the games, too. Then she broke up with me. After four years together. I still can’t believe she dumped me for Frank.”

“Actually, I saw her there with Frank. They looked pretty happy – holding hands and laughing.”


Example 2:
“Hey, Don,” Evan said. “I didn’t see you at the game last night.”

“Those games just make me think of Jenny,” Don said. “She wasn’t there, was she?”

Evan nodded slowly. “With Frank.”


Personally, I’d rather avoid the info dump in the first example. And I might even like something more elusive than the second example – revealing the relationship with Jenny through subtle hints. And I might give Frank a last name of Khan so that Don can scream it in frustration (yes, I’m kidding).

Besides allowing the reader to think, omission also prevents unnatural dialog. For example, if a story begins with two characters meeting at a football game, they wouldn’t say, “Well, here we are at the game that we planned on attending three weeks ago.” Work those details in, if necessary, through other means. Don’t slap the reader in the face with it: “Here, you need this information!”

Some things are better left unsaid, especially details that can be revealed subtly. Trust your readers. Trust your readers. Trust your readers.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Why Elves?

Among the myriad of established fantasy races, I continue to find elves captivating. They come in numerous forms and varieties, but I usually enjoy their presence as a reader and a writer.

A number of years ago, I’d written a short story around elves playing a game. There wasn’t much to the story, and it never sold before I locked it away, but on one of my rejections, an editor wrote: “Why elves?” Looking back, I realize the editor didn’t see anything in the plot requiring elves (likely because there wasn’t much of a plot). But at the time, I found it comical. What other race would I have used? For me, it was an exploration of this fascinating race, and I hoped to capture a slice of their lives.

Years later, I figured out that my failure in the story was a lack of plot. I had characters playing a game of no consequence in a generic setting. My next attempt was to take a human character and thrust him into the elves’ environment. What this allowed was an entry-level point of view – someone with limited knowledge of elves who would take everything in and point out anything he found curious or unusual. The character’s observations were my observations as I dreamed of their world and what they were like.

The challenge in writing about elves is to avoid clich├ęs without violating key aspects that make elves what they are. In the end, it becomes a balancing act. But what I find most alluring about elves is their illusiveness - the ineffable qualities that humanity cannot understand. Whether it’s their craftsmanship, magic, language, longevity or intelligence – there are aspects of elves beyond my grasp. Regardless of what I might create, I always want to retain an enigma around them.

Ironically, the mystery I admire creates a superiority I detest. Because elves have inexplicable skills, humans become inferior. And the elves know it. In some stories, humans are prey to the elves’ amoral (or perhaps immoral) whims. Even Tolkien’s elves had a darker side, according to their deeds recorded in The Silmarillion.

Despite their arrogance, I won’t shun the elves. I’m drawn toward them, like so many stories of humans discovering the fey folk in the deep woods, never to return. We need more elves in today’s fantasy.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

On Writing Well

For Christmas, one of the gifts I received was On Writing Well by William Zinsser. This is a resource I highly recommend for all writers, regardless of the type of writing you do - yes, even bloggers.

The subtitle indicates that the book is a style guide for writing nonfiction. While this is true, fiction writers can learn a great deal from the book as well. The principles of good style apply to all writers.

One of the things I enjoyed about the book was that Zinsser didn’t universally dismiss adverbs (they often come under attack by writing guides). Instead, he advocates simplicity and specificity. If there is a verb that connotes the adverb plus verb you started with, replace the two words with one. It isn’t that adverbs are evil, but they are often used unskillfully, resulting in clutter.

Zinsser calls attention to the loose style so many of us employ without thinking. In fact, it is precisely because we fail to think that we fail to write well. Rather than questioning the words and phrases we choose, we mimic the clunky jargon that surrounds us in the media and daily conversations.

If you want to improve your writing - again, even you, bloggers - and you’re willing to honestly examine your work, this book will illuminate flaws. I plan on keeping this one on my desk next to the dictionary.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Research

It’s important to take the time to do research for fiction. Research for fiction? Yes.

With any story, there are details around the plot, characters and setting which may touch reality. For example, I might write a story set in Paris. Regardless of how much fiction exists within the story, if I were to mention something inconsistent with Paris due to a lack of research, I would come out looking rather foolish.

I think this ties into why people use the adage: write what you know. While that can certainly save time – relying upon person experience – there are inevitably areas you don’t know anything about.

Even within fantasy writing, there are aspects of reality we need to research. Subjects I’ve researched for fantasy stories include horses, armies, armor, swords (and weapons in general), languages and medieval history.

I will say that bombarding the reader with researched facts risks boring the reader. But carefully entwining those facts in an interesting way will help the reader feel like an insider with the narrator and feel grounded within factual boundaries. If a writer fakes facts, it cheats the reader. As a reader, I would rather the writer avoid details than give false ones.


Take the time to look things up before you write (or at least before you complete the final draft). Your readers will appreciate the work.