Monday, February 28, 2011

The end of the world as we know it

After coming across a stellar recommendation, I am reading Damon Knight's "Creating Short Fiction." This is a library copy, and it's so old it has a date-due slip inside the front cover. Last night in bed, before going to sleep, I read a section called "getting ideas" in which Knight suggests writing stories about your worst fears. Those that he mentions for himself are drowning, mutilation and the fear of being afraid.

And so I drifted to sleep while thinking about my own fears. Some are generalized: I fear dying (but strangely enough, not death), and I fear that something horrible might happen to one of my kids. Some are more specific, such as my car going off a bridge into a large body of water and me and my children not being able to get out.

All the thoughts about fear and dying resulted in the first nightmare I can remember having in several months, maybe years. It involved my dad coming to my house and telling me quite matter-of-factly that scientists had just determined that the weight of all the things on the surface of the Earth had reached critical mass and the planet was going to collapse in on itself, becoming as small as a Ping-Pong ball and leaving all of us suddenly and without warning floating in the vacuum of space.

When I woke up this morning, I lay in bed and thought about the dream, and I realized that my subconscious was putting in its two-cents worth on my fears. Probably my biggest one is of some unavoidable cataclysmic event that wipes out not only me and my family but the entire human race. When I was a kid, I had a recurring dream of me and my sisters watching out our living room window as the sun exploded. But it can be anything: a huge meteor, massive gamma rays, the Big Rip, a black hole, a change in the Earth's rotation speed that strains the planet until it breaks. I also include threats from closer by, such as the Yellowstone caldera erupting.

I've read a few stories about species-killing events. Connie Willis' "Daisy in the Sun" and Stephen Baxter's "Last Contact" come immediately to mind. But could I face up to this fear and write my own version of such a tale? I'm not sure. When I'm working on a story, my mind is occupied with it for most of my waking hours. If I tried to tackle something that genuinely scared me, I would probably have nightmares for weeks.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Oscar results

I didn't do too shabby with my Oscar predictions. Sixteen right. The big ones I missed were Melissa Leo for supporting actress (I went with the riskier pick of Hailee Steinfeld) and director winner Tom Hooper (safe money was on David Fincher). I also missed costume design, original song, cinematography, documentary short subject, animated short film and live-action short film.

Bits and pieces

It's two hours to Oscar time. My ballot is filled out. I'm ready to start criticizing the stars' fashion on the red carpet. I'm also at work and supposed to be editing news articles. It should be interesting trying to balance the two.

When I walked out the door to work, my husband was busy assembling one of the two little-kid-sized soccer goals he bought this afternoon. We are co-coaches of our son's soccer team, and practice for the spring season starts next week. The park at which we will hold practice does not have a soccer field. This is not unusual in Arvada, as none of the parks has a soccer field. In past seasons, we have made do with cones, but not this year. We're going to cart our own goals out there to give the kids something to shoot at.

I need to order a replacement exterior door for the rental house and have it delivered for our handy tenants to install. It's awesome to have people living in our house who are good with tools and don't mind using them. However, if I order a basic steel door on the Lowe's website, delivery is $79. That's about half the cost of the door itself, for a three-mile trip from the store to the house. Talk about sticker shock. I'm going to have to think about this for a day or two and see if I can come up with an alternative way of getting the door delivered. It's hard when I live several hundred miles away and don't know anyone there with a truck.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Firefly update

I was wondering when Nathan Fillion (a k a Capt. Mal Reynolds) would chime in on the Internet campaign to raise funds so that he can make good on his off-hand "I want to buy Firefly" comment. Today he posted on Twitter:
It's beautiful to dream of more Firefly, but PLEASE DON'T SEND ANY MONEY. Just keep being great Browncoats, which you are!

He also says: I'm proud my coat is brown.

So there you have it from Captain Tightpants himself. Keep your money in your pocket. Or, if you're determined to contribute to the Help Nathan Buy Firefly campaign, they are now looking at various charities to give the money to. Now that's a good idea.

And the Oscar goes to ...

Oscars will be awarded this Sunday. This is my Super Bowl. I love to watch the show and criticize the dresses, and I even tune in for the E! pre-ceremony coverage. Unfortunately, I will be working Oscar night this year and so will have to watch from my desk.

My Oscar picks are a mix of who I think will win and who I think should win, with some blind guesses thrown in for good measure. The only category I'm really torn on is best actress because I think Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) could pull off a surprise win. Here are my predictions:

Picture: The King's Speech
Director: David Fincher, The Social Network
Actor: Colin Firth, The King's Speech
Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Supporting actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Supporting actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Animated feature film: Toy Story 3
Foreign film: Biutiful
Original screenplay: The King's Speech
Adapted screenplay: The Social Network
Art direction: The King's Speech
Costume design: Alice in Wonderland
Original song: If I Rise, 127 Hours
Original score: The Social Network
Documentary: Inside Job
Film editing: The Social Network
Cinematography: True Grit
Makeup: The Wolfman
Sound editing: Inception
Sound mixing: Inception
Visual effects: Inception
Documentary short: Poster Girl
Animated short: Day & Night
Short film: Na Wewe

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Nebula nominations

The Nebula Award nominations came out today. These are like the Oscars of fantasy and science-fiction, voted on by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. You can read the whole list here.

What I find interesting is the continuing shift in short fiction toward online markets. Among short stories, at least four of the seven nominees were published in online magazines (I say at least because I don't know what Dark Faith is). The Big Three (Asimov's, F&SF and Analog) did better in the novelette and novella categories. Even so, Subterranean snuck three nominees in the novella category, two of them available to read for free online.

Among the novel nominees, I've read Mary Robinette Kowal's "Shades of Milk and Honey" and I own Connie Willis' "Blackout/All Clear" but haven't gotten around to reading them yet. And I'm happy to see a Doctor Who episode among the nominees for dramatic presentation.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Is Firefly coming back?



There seems to be some confusion over what is going on with Joss Whedon's cult favorite, so here is my take. The Science Channel will rerun the complete series of "Firefly" with segments from physicist Dr. Michio Kaku (host of Sci Fi Science) about the science in each episode. There will be no new episodes. There is no reboot.

Don't get me wrong: I love "Firefly." I watched the show when it aired on Fox, I own the DVDs and I've met several of the actors at conventions with the autographs to prove it. One of my favorite con mementos is a photo of me, my sister and Nathan Fillion getting chummy.

The confusion started last week when Captain Tightpants got hypothetical with an Entertainment Weekly reporter and said "if I won the California lottery ..." he would buy the rights to "Firefly" and reboot the series, possibly online. Also, he would like to play Mal again. Now he is probably wishing he had kept his mouth shut because the die-hard fan base has taken his off-hand comment seriously. Fans have started a website and a Facebook campaign to raise funds for Nathan to buy "Firefly." Whoops.

Entertainment Weekly has gone into damage-control mode and posted about how unlikely it would be for 20th Century Fox to sell the rights. Not only that, Whedon, the actors, the writers and others involved in the making of the show are working on other projects.

Everyone loves a daydream, and that's what the hope of rebooting "Firefly" is. Best-care scenario might be a miniseries or made-for-TV movie, and I seriously doubt even that would happen. I loved every minute of the show and the movie, and I eagerly buy the Dark Hose comics. However, I've come to accept that after almost 10 years off the air, this show is not going to come back. I humbly advise the fans to do what the actors and production crew have done: Love what was, but move on.

(Edited to add: For those who want to watch the Science Channel airings of Firefly, they start March 6.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The day job

It has come to my attention that many newspaper readers (God bless you for continuing to subscribe!) do not understand how a newsroom works. So before you pick up the phone to speak with a staffer, read this. You might end up with a better idea of whom to talk to about your concern and what that person does:

Any given newspaper has a newsroom and an editorial department. The two departments do not mix. The editorial board and columnists are paid to express opinions. It is the editorial section that gains a newspaper the label of liberal or conservative. The reporters and editors of the newsroom are paid to produce unbiased articles that present both sides of any issue. Personal political leanings (which run the gamut in this newsroom) do not play into their professional work at all.

Despite the physical separation of the departments, their stories traditionally end up intertwined in the newspaper, and therein lies some confusion. Columns run on the same pages as news articles. The editorial pages are usually situated in the back of the nation/world or local news sections. Still, keep the distinction in mind. When you read a column or editorial that gets up your ire, know that the newsroom reporters who cover that same issue have not and will not express any opinion on the matter. They are professional journalists who do their utmost to make sure the coverage you read on the front page and in the nation/world, local, business and sports sections is fair and balanced.

Now a second major reader misconception: positions in the newsroom.

The most well-known positions are those of reporters and photographers, and the editors who give those staffers their assignments. I don't think those require any explanation. Then come the staffers whose names do not get into the newspaper, the behind-the-scenes folks: copy editors, page designers, online editors, photo technicians.

Three days a week, I work on the news copy desk. Copy editors, as you might expect, edit copy. We correct grammar and punctuation mistakes, fix factual errors, and write headlines and photo captions.

The other two days of the week, I fill in as wire editor (while the primary wire editor has her days off). The wire editor reads the nation and world stories received from our wire services (The Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) and decides which stories to put in the newspaper, how long to run them and where in the section to run them. The wire editor is not in charge of an army of reporters, spread across the globe, writing stories exclusively for your newspaper. Those reporters work for the above-mentioned wire services, and your newspaper buys the rights to print their articles. The wire editor also does not write articles and is limited in what she can publish by what the wire services choose to cover.

Several times a week, I take calls from readers with complaints about bias in our coverage. Some of those readers are quite passionate and do not realize (or don't care) that the person they are speaking to cannot do anything about their complaint. If you think you've found bias in an article, you might be reading a column or editorial. If it's a news article, check whether the article was written by a local reporter or originated with a wire service, so you know whom to talk to. If you're calling to ask that such-and-such get more coverage, know that your request must be balanced with the requests of other readers and with the good judgment of editors on how to allocate limited resources.

Most of all, keep in mind that we journalists are not in this business to push an agenda. We believe in the importance of an informed public armed with the facts and knowledge of both sides of an issue who can form their own opinions. Please remember that before you talk to a reporter or editor. We are not the enemy. Yelling at us won't get you anywhere.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I picked up this book because I wondered what the fuss was about. I finished it last night. So, is all the fuss warranted? (Spoilers ahead)

Mystery is not my favorite genre. I've read a few, and the focus typically is on the whodunit plot with the characters left as more of an afterthought. In "Dragon Tattoo," Stieg Larsson turns the formula on its head. Financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and hacker Lisbeth Salander are, first and foremost, good characters who happen to be investigating a possible murder.

Larsson was at one time the editor in chief of a magazine, which means he knows his stuff when he writes about journalism. So many tales about journalists get the most simple stuff wrong. I especially love how Blomkvist rails against professional colleagues who act as a mouthpiece for the companies they cover instead of digging deeper for the real story. I love how the struggling Millennium magazine lives and dies by its advertisers. Such details grounded the novel for me.

The only aspect of the story I did not like was how women tended to throw themselves at Blomkvist for the simple reason that he treats them like human beings, like this is an unusual concept. Even the independent and antisocial Lisbeth literally jumps into his bed at the first opportunity. Is Blomkvist the only decent man in Sweden? Each of the novel's parts opens with a statistic on assault against women. The plot involves brutal violence toward women. Makes me wonder a little about Larsson's worldview.

So, back to the original question: Is the fuss warranted? Is "Dragon Tattoo" worthy of its status as an international sensation? Hard to tell. I never do understand what is it that makes some books catch fire the way they do. I can say this: I enjoyed this book straight through. It is well worth the read.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Social Network

Spoilers ahead.

I'm sure you're all familiar with this little diagram:



This is a basic narrative structure. It is also something Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the script for "The Social Network," apparently forgot to use. "Social" is an excellent movie with snappy dialogue that deserves its Oscar nomination accolades, but it doesn't deserve to win best picture. Why? There's no climax. But, you say, every third-grader knows your story needs a climax! Too bad "Social" wasn't written by third-graders.

OK, I'm being harsh. Sorkin is a great writer. Usually. I was absolutely engrossed in this movie right up until the last 10 minutes, and I must concede that the movie is boxed in by its source material (it was based on a novel which was based on actual events). Too bad real life does not always structure itself in a way that lends itself to the big screen.

The plot revolves around the conflict and tension among Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, co-founders of Facebook, and Napster founder Sean Parker. IMO, the narrative should have built to an epic confrontation among those three men. Instead, the final key scene involves Parker's arrest when he is caught with drugs and an underage girl. Huh? OK, sure, that probably did happen. It would have made sense as the climax of a story about Parker's playboy lifestyle, but this story is about Zuckerberg, not Parker. So on that underwhelming note, the movie heads into its last scene (which is cute) without the benefit of a climax, the credits begin, and I am left wondering whether the rest of the movie accidentally ended up on the cutting-room floor.

I've now watched six of the 10 Best Picture nominees, and I still think "The King's Speech" will take the prize come Oscar Night.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Rewrite

Today, I am focused on a rewrite. The story is suffering from a couple of weak points: not enough emphasis on the motivations of the viewpoint character, and a tendency toward info dumps. I think I've come up with a way to solve both problems with the introduction of another character.

Right now, this story has two characters who are antagonists, one hunting down the other. Their not-so-friendly relationship makes it difficult for them to have a conversation that conveniently imparts information to the reader, which has boxed me into parsing out information in other ways that aren't quite working.

Hence, I'm introducing a "partner" character for my bounty-hunting hero. She will act as a foil for my main character, so as to put more emphasis on his motivations. And a conversation between the two will allow me to give out info without an info dump. The key is to give her as much depth as my other two characters, even though she won't be "on screen" for long.

Now, back to the writing.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The King's Speech

I saw "The King's Speech" yesterday with my sister and dad, in a packed theater. As happens quite often these days when I sit down to the sensory overload of a movie theater, I walked out with a migraine. However, the movie was sublime.

Here's the question: Is it really as good as its growing pile of awards would have you believe, or is it overhyped a la "Avatar" or "Titanic"? Time and staying power will be the best indicators of that. With less than 24 hours between me and my viewing, I would say it falls somewhere between the two extremes. I'm not sure it's the best movie I've seen from 2010; "Toy Story 3" still holds that honor for me. But the Academy isn't going to give Best Picture to animated fare, and "The King's Speech" is a worthy winner. The story is uplifting and epic. The acting, writing and editing are excellent.

I have not seen any of the other performances nominated for best actor. Even so, it's probably a safe bet to say Colin Firth deserves any and all awards heaped upon him. Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush are equally good, but their roles are not as showcase as Firth's.

Will the "The King's Speech" win best picture? I've watched five of the nominees so far and out of those, I say yes.

Next up: "The Social Network," assuming I can get around the "long wait" Netflix tells me is associated with that disc.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Winter's Bone

I watched "Winter's Bone" last night, as part of my mission to watch as many Oscar-nominated movies as I can before awards night. I didn't know what this movie was about before I popped in the disc, and I'm not sure whether I would have watched it if I knew. This is not an uplifting story.

Ree is 17 years old and caring for her two younger siblings and her mentally ill mother in a cabin deep in the Ozarks. The cabin isn't much. It's lacking in heat and electricity, and the couches double as the kids' beds. But that little building is their home, and they're about to lose it because Ree's absent, meth-cooking father has put the property up as collateral on his bond and disappeared. Ree needs to find him or risk losing everything.

This movie is populated with hard, dangerous people. The setting is similarly hard and unforgiving: a bleak, wintry forest. Ree herself is tough enough to survive in this harsh place, but she also has a purity and goodness. She patiently teaches her siblings their spelling and math. She also teaches them how to shoot and gut squirrels and instills in them the pride of the Ozarks: "Never ask for what should be offered."

Jennifer Lawrence is nominated for best actress. Her performance is subtle and real, but she won't win against the juggernauts of Natalie Portman and Annette Benning.

Next up: Finally going to see "The King's Speech" this afternoon.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

More on rejection

I love this post.

What Misty Massey says so perfectly about rejection is what I tried to say a few weeks ago. Writing is a tough business. The rejections aren't personal, but they sure can feel that way. And it is easier to give up rather than go through the painful process of growing a thicker skin.

Like the unnamed writer in Misty's post, I quit writing when I received my first rejection. You can read the details here. I regret putting my writing on pause for a decade; that is so many years in which I could have been learning the craft and improving my skills. Imagine how much farther along in experience and sales I would be if I had been writing all that time.

Anyway, the more I learn about the publishing business, the more I come to understand that rejection is the rule rather than the exception. And those who succeed are the ones who, after every setback, strap on their battered armor and go "once more into the breach."

A touch of spring

It's mid-February and, as usual this time of year, I have the winter blues. So here's a reminder of warmer days on the way: a photo I took last summer at the Littleton Historical Museum.




Friday, February 11, 2011

Tiny puzzle master

My daughter loves doing puzzles. I'm not talking about the simple, five-piece puzzles you would usually give to a preschooler, but 48-piece jigsaw puzzles. Her favorite one comes together into a prehistoric landscape populated with dinosaurs.

I tried to teach her the most efficient way to do a jigsaw puzzle: put together the edge pieces first and then fill in the middle. She didn't like that method and came up with her own. She sets down one piece, then picks up the next one and sees whether it fits with the first piece. If it doesn't, she sets it aside and repeats with the next piece, and so on through the whole box. After she's gone through every piece, she has five to 10 put together. She starts into the pile once again, piece by piece, and so on until the puzzle is done.

This method isn't the fastest way to complete a puzzle, but it is simple and surprisingly organized for a 3-year-old. The thing that impresses me the most is that she figured out how to do this all on her own.

Bits and pieces:
-- I wrote a few hundred words of new material today. Yeah for progress.
-- My dad, sister and I had planned to see "The King's Speech" last weekend, but an untimely snowstorm scuttled our plans. With no snow in the forecast this weekend -- in fact, we're expecting to reach 60 degrees -- we hope to make it to the theater this time.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Best of Every Day Fiction 3

Every Day Fiction has announced the lineup for its third annual Best Of anthology, and I'm proud to say that my story "Ripples" has been chosen for inclusion. From what I've read, the anthology's editors are shooting for a release date in May.

Read the full list of stories here.

How to create suspense

John D. Brown has an excellent series of posts going at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America website about how to build suspense in your writing. Check it out. You'll be happy you did.

No time to write

Sorry for the silence on the blog the past couple of days. I spent my days off on the phone and e-mail lining up repairs for the rental house, which left no time for blogging, writing or pretty much anything else.

Turns out we can replace two small busted panes of glass in the door that leads from the garage to the backyard for $150, or we can replace the whole damn door for $30 or $40 more. One of my sons busted out the glass with his fist a few years ago; he meant to knock really hard and ... well, next thing you know, we were in the emergency room. The dog also did some damage by scratching up the area around the pet door, which is why I would seriously consider replacing the whole thing. Replace the glass, and the dog damage remains.

So, as illustrated by the above comments, my mind has been focused away from writing the past few days. I did find time to polish a story and send it to my critique group, and I wrote up a critique for a fellow writer. But I have written no new material this week. I plan to fix that tonight after work. The goal is to spend an hour or two pounding away at a short story that so far is only about 1,500 long.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The good and not so good

Not so good: I got no writing done today.

Good: I spent most of my morning and afternoon on the phone and sending e-mails, trying to get all my ducks in order for renting out the North Carolina house. I've been doing some checks on the potential tenants (it's looking rosy so far) and getting estimates on a few house repairs that have fallen by the wayside over the past few months. There was quite a bit of housecleaning and child care that snuck into the morning, as well.

Not so good: We're expecting more sub-zero temperatures here tomorrow, along with another 5 to 10 inches of snow. That's coming on the heels of 6 inches of snow over the weekend.

Good: After Tuesday, we get off the weather roller-coaster for a few days with some dry, warmer weather.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mini Darth Vader

I couldn't care less who plays in or wins the Super Bowl. I watch for the commercials. Here's my favorite one for this year, probably because I can so see my own son doing this:

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Withholding info

I watched the movie "Salt" last night. I enjoyed the action sequences and the fact that it's about a woman kicking ass. I did not like how the script was written. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

The plot is based around the withholding of information: Is Salt an evil Russian assassin bent on starting World War III, or is she faking her bad deeds to get inside the Bad Guy Organization and take it down? You don't find out the answer until the last 15 minutes. I've been taught (and generally agree with this) that the reader/watcher should know everything that the main character does and real suspense stems from finding out whether that character can achieve his/her goals. Salt obviously knows her own intentions and plan, but we the audience do not. I very much dislike that.

Bits and pieces:

-- I've done very little on the writing front the past two days. I have to get my butt in gear tonight to finish a rewrite and do a critique.

-- It looks as though the house that my husband and I own in North Carolina might soon have occupants. We put this house on the market three years ago, right when the market collapsed. We have been pouring thousands of dollars a year into its black hole ever since. However, a couple with a young daughter and a dog are filling out a rental application today and indicate that they want to buy the house when they get their credit in order. Hallelujah.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bits and pieces

Mother Nature gave us a trade-off today: The temperature went up about 30 degrees, but it's snowing. The light, fluffy flakes have been coming down since mid-morning, coating the roads in just enough slush to mess up the evening commute. In my case, that's the evening commute to work, which is where I am now. (Shh, don't tell the boss I'm blogging ...)

The slow commute was all right, though, because I have a new audio book in the car: a Bernard Cornwell Sharpe book. (I honestly don't remember which one; the titles are all so similar.) When I picked it up at the library yesterday, I also got a hardback of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." I'm only a chapter into that one, so I have no opinion yet.

I'm deep into revisions on a short story that returns to my critique group next week. That's in addition to working on the first draft of another story. Three stories are out on submission.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tis the season

It's that time of year again, when I gaze with longing at the websites for various genre-writing workshops and wish I could go.

There's Clarion, Clarion West and Odyssey. All are six weeks long, which means they are designed for people without children or whose children are grown. Aside from the unaffordable tuition rate (at least, unaffordable for someone who's paying rent on one house and mortgage on another that has been on the market for three years), I can't imagine turning my husband into a single parent for the majority of summer break. If you're applying to attend one of these workshops, good luck! For me, they're not feasible.

Then there's Orson Scott Card's bootcamp. This workshop is feasible for me, but not this year. It's six days long and is generally in a different city every year. Last year, one of the two sessions was in Utah, which is within driving distance of Denver. I had hoped this year's also would be there. It's in Greenboro, N.C., which is almost next door to my previous residence (the one that won't sell). From Denver, it requires an airplane ride that I can't afford. Also, it happens to fall during the one week all summer in which I have made a commitment to be elsewhere.

So this summer, I will content myself with reading blog and message-board posts from those who are in attendance and will keep my fingers crossed for next year.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Sounds of the Night 8" available for purchase

You can now buy the Sounds of the Night 8, which features my science fiction story "Grounded." Here's a small taste:

Halb watched as his other body was pulled from the wreckage. Crews had sprayed out thick foam to extinguish the flames, and smoke lingered as the plane smoldered like old coals and what was left of the pilot’s body, his own body, was laid out on a tarp in the red dirt of New Kalahari.