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Category Archives: Science Fiction

W: When Characters Attack!

W: When Characters Attack!

What happens when a writer grows weary of his characters?

What happens when they fight back?

One is reminded of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempting to rid himself of Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls, or the author in Stranger Than Fiction whose protagonists never make it out alive.

Or perhaps the writer realizes she’s dug herself into a literary hole and doesn’t know when or how to end the story. (Lost, I’m lookin’ at you. And you, too, Once Upon a Time, which should have lasted only a season or two, before you misused your great cast and intriguing premise to go screaming off the rails into soap opera badlands.)

W is a 2016 South Korean television drama in the vein of Stranger Than Fiction, Secret Window, The Truman Show, The God Hater, and other stories where the characters confront or interact with their authors, their audiences, or their creators. In this series, comicbook characters become aware of their fictionhood and enter the real world to confront their creator.

First, the protagonist learns why a shadowy figure is trying to kill him and turns the tables on his creator. then the villain also realizes he can enter the other dimension, and demands of the creator a face and an identity.

How the story begins:

Kang Cheol has a few loyal associates upon whom he relies, but when a mysterious woman saves his life more than once, he’s intrigued. Although the police are seeking her as a material witness and a suspect in the multiple attempts on his life, Kang Cheol hides her in order to protect her not only from the police but also from his murderous stalker.

Meantime, his television station, W—which stands for Who and Why—broadcasts and solves cold cases that the police have abandoned. He has earned a golden reputation in society for his ingenuity, wealth, generosity, and dogged pursuit of justice.

Oh Yeon Joo is alerted by her father’s fellow artists that he is missing. He went into his office one day, and although he was never seen leaving, he cannot be found. As she’s standing in his office, searching for clues, a bloody hand reaches through his art tablet and pulls her into the world of W. Without valid ID, money, or other resources, she attempts to navigate the comicbook world and find a way back to her own.

Oh Seung Moo has made his fortune and his reputation with W, finally rising from obscurity to fame with the bestselling series. Why, then has he written an abrupt ending for the protagonist—a bloody death without the satisfaction of a solved crime? After all, fans have been awaiting the revelation of the villain who killed Kang Cheol’s family.

But Kang Cheol will not die, and he begins to affect the story from the other side of the tablet. Seung Moo is no longer in control of his creation.

Has Seung Moo run away, unable to cope with success? Or is he suffering a common literary malady—an inability to properly resolve the story?

And why does Kang Cheol believe Yeon Joo is “the key to my life”?

The answer to that, my friends, is a plot twist.

At only 16 episodes long, W is fast-paced. However, it does slow down a little on occasion, allowing the viewer to catch his or her breath and often poking gentle fun at kdrama tropes.

The cinematography is excellent, and the special effects—as characters pass from one world to the next, or as pieces of the comic are drawn and then appear in the webtoon world—are top-notch and deceptively simple. Some effects are in-camera rather than digital, lending a level of reality to the cartoon world.

W would fit nicely into any of these genres: horror, fantasy, thriller, mystery, suspense, romance, action, and more. It is twisty, unpredictable, and references many kdrama tropes then refreshes the cliches to turn the story in unexpected directions.

The reason for so many genres intermingling is due to the story being hijacked by the characters, who don’t know the cartoonist’s plans but simply want to live. And to live on their own terms.

Story themes include existence, humanity, determining one’s own life/destiny/future, and the roles and relationships among god/creator, devil/antagonist, and allies and enemies. Choices have consequences—and the choices and consequences become manifold as fictional characters no longer follow the plot but assert their wills on the story. Viewers of varying philosophies or worldviews will find this an intriguing tale.

Currently, W is available on Viki, which allows viewers to comment during the show. However, during your first viewing of the show, I suggest turning off the scrolling comments at the top of the video window, as they can be distracting, annoying, downright funny. Best to watch without them, until you view the show a second time.

 

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Gotcha Covered

Last night’s writer’s meeting was ill-attended; only three of us showed up. However, that allowed me to seek advice from the librarian who leads the group, and ask her how the exteriors of books affect 1) inclusion in the library’s collection, and 2) reader choice.

Concerned about my preference for simplicity in artwork or design, I was surprised — and yet not — by her responses. Sure, if the artwork is cheesy and/or seems at odds with the subject matter, the staff might have a laugh, but what’s most annoying to them are book covers so minimalistic they reveal nothing about the content. She mentioned one publisher that tends toward such spareness there’s no artwork or even a description of the plot. Just the title and the author’s name.

So simplicity of decoration is fine, but tell readers about the story. Give ’em some reason to choose your book.

“If the reader flips to the back to read the blurb, you’re almost guaranteed they’ll check out the book.”

Then she looked at my rough draft for the cover of Thieves Honor. It looked like a thriller, not science fiction, but the fix was easy: She suggested I flip the background image, so the front became the back, and vice versa. The color gradiant and the angle of the light changed, giving the illusion of outer space rather than what the photo actually portrays — a table, a wooden chair, and the light from my computer screen all running together into a tie-dye abstraction of formless color.

The current draft of the front cover:

in-progress cover (c2016, KB)

in-progress cover (c2016, KB)

So, can I get away with no focal image on the cover, or is some artwork still needed? And is the look too “homemade” to be taken seriously?

For reference, the original image in its original orientation:

Abstraction (c2016, KB)

Abstraction (c2016, KB)

 

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Book Bag

Book Bag

I used to have a book bag, a cloth receptacle for hauling my loot back and forth from the library, either when I walked or when I rode my bike there on a Saturday. Nowadays, we have digital bookbags — Kindles or Nooks or other e-reading devices — that are much lighter and more compact than the paperback-stuffed backpacks of yesteryear.

Here are a few suggested additions to those book bags:

1) The Big Shutdown by John Whalen

TheBigShutdown

The Big Shutdown. An entire planet is about to be made obsolete. Chaos rules as Nomad gangs terrorize what’s left of Tulon’s cities. Jack Brand, ex-Army Ranger, semi-retired Tulon Security Officer, searches for his missing sister, Terry. His journey takes him from desert wastelands to a domed city, and beyond. Along the way he meets the unforgettable Christy Jones, But love will have to wait until Brand finds his sister, and soon the last ship will leave for Earth.

“The Big Shutdown” is a new, revised edition of “Jack Brand,” a space western classic first published in 2010. Out of print for two years, Flying W Press brings it back with an introduction by Johne Cook, Overlord of Ray Gun Revival, the e-zine where the stories that became a novel were first published. Also included is an additional story from Whalen’s “This Raygun for Hire.” series, featuring Frank Carson, a futuristic trouble shooter for hire.

2) The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly by various authors, and compiled by the editors at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly magazine.

HFQ 6x9 front cover ONLY-cropped

Tales gathered from frozen pre-history, sweltering jungles, and smoky mead halls, legends of this world and whispers of other worlds briefly glimpsed — here then are gathered works of adventure and danger, love and fury, seventeen of the best from the early days of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

Fiction by Richard Marsden, James Lecky, William Gerke, R. Michael Burns, Christopher Wood, Robert Rhodes, Dariel R. A. Quiogue, Jesse Bangs, P. Djeli Clark, and David Pilling.

Poetry by Danny Adams, Joshua Hampton, W. E. Couvillier, John Keller, Megan Arkenberg, Joshua Hampton, and David Sklar.

Introduction by John O’Neill of Black Gate Magazine.

3) The catalogue of books available at Oghma Creative Media, which publishes a wide variety of genres, including this recent offering:

TheJudasSteer

Is Blood Thicker Than Water?

Three years ago Aubrey Fox’s husband, a Pittsburg County Undersheriff, was discovered in a remote pasture, dead from an unknown assailant’s bullet. With few clues and even fewer leads, his case went cold. Aubrey was left to mourn as best she could, a loss made even greater for lack of closure. Who killed Mark and why? Meanwhile, life went on with two teenagers and a herd of cattle to feed.

When the local sheriff pays an unexpected visit and hints that someone higher up has reopened her husband’s case, Aubrey begins her own investigation. What she finds on his computer casts a wide net of involvement, but who pulled the trigger? Who would believe the results would render the face of organized crime in the United States as wearing a Stetson and hand-tooled Lucchese boots.

4) And, although this book has been out since the end of January 2015, it is now available on Kindle Unlimited, and is free for a few days (until Saturday, November 14):

Dragon's_Rook_Cover_Keanan_Brand_Susan_Troutt

 

Captain Gaerbith is heir to a secret: the location of a lost sword he cannot touch. In a village far from the battlefield, Kieran the blacksmith remembers nothing before the day when, as a young boy, he was found beside a dead man, a dagger in hand. Maggie is a healer’s apprentice, and earns her way as a laundress. Her shadowed past and crippled hand make her an object of suspicion and ridicule.  Far to the north, the king’s daughter—Yanámari—plots to escape the royal city and her father’s iron control.

King Morfran seeks a Kellish blacksmith who can recreate the lost sword, false proof of Morfran’s right to the throne. However, the true sword is made of etherium, the only metal capable of harming Dragons, and it can be wielded only by a descendent of Kel High King.

Forces are aligning, old prophecies are fulfilling, and in the east a fire glows in Dragon’s Rook.

Note: Apologies for the varied sizes of the book covers. No favoritism or slight is intended.

 

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The First Principle – day 3

The First Principle – day 3

A young adult perspective on this month’s CSFF Blog Tour novel:

Marissa Shrock‘s The First Principle wasn’t exactly what I expected. For one thing, It read like a spy thriller rather than like other books I’ve read in the same genre, which was refreshing since Christian-young-adult-dystopian-sci-fi is a pretty narrow genre.

There aren’t many pauses in the action – but that’s once you get to the action. The suspenseful moments are almost stressfully so, but the story gets off to a bit of a slow start, since Vivica doesn’t gain a big, personal conflict that the reader cares about until a couple of chapters in when she discovers her pregnancy. Even then, there’s still more pages to traverse before the suspense actually sets in.

The story itself deals with issues that are very real in the world today and that many people don’t want to talk about. In fact, this is the first story I’ve read that actually handles the issues of abortion and teen pregnancy with more than a passing mention. Not only that, but neither of those issues is glossed-over or given a prepackaged answer; rather, Vivica’s situation is discussed fully and with a lot of questions and struggles, and the Biblical response is presented in a good way. Also, the story isn’t kept “clean” and “safe” for the sake of not offending anyone; rather, it is allowed to handle realistic scenarios realistically.

FirstPrinciple-258x400The conversion scene in this book is also well-handled. When a character does finally accept Christ as Savior, there is no big to-do. Problems don’t all magically get better. Consequences are still consequences and the world is still an uncomfortable place. There are no rose-colored glasses involved, just inner peace and grace that the character sometimes has to struggle to accept.

I also like that not everything ends happily or easily, yet enough of it does end well enough that the reader can be satisfied, and that forgiveness is a big theme, yet so are consequences and responsibility.

I have one major complaint, that being that the title of The First Principle is never actually explained or even referenced in the book anywhere that I can find. What is the first principle exactly?

Overall, though, this is the best Christian-young-adult-dystopian-sci-fi that I’ve read so far, and while I’ve begun to tire of dystopias in general, I am looking forward to any sequels that may follow The First Principle.

Here is where I digress from the book a bit and talk about the genre: as I’ve said above, it’s a very narrow genre, and the seemingly-endless flood of dystopias on all fronts is especially beginning to grate.

Therefore, I would like to issue a note to authors in which I remind them that variety of concept is a good thing (you don’t just have to write whatever’s selling right now) and refer them to Amish Vampires in Space for an example of a story with a serious tone and message but also a mild dose of humor – mainly due to the creative blending of genres – and a noticeable lack of everything-going-to-pot-in-the-government.

I’m not saying everybody needs to start writing books like that one; just that it’s time to do something creatively different genre-wise from what’s being done right now.

~Jamie, age 17

For other perspectives on the novel:

Julie Bihn
Thomas Clayton Booher
Beckie Burnham
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Carol Keen
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Megan @ Hardcover Feedback
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Nissa
Jalynn Patterson
Chawna Schroeder
Jessica Thomas

 

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The First Principle – day 2

The First Principle – day 2

(read Day 1 here)

When I learned the genre of this month’s CSFF Blog Tour book, my immediate response was negative: “Noooo! Not another YA science fiction futuristic dystopian!”

For the sake of family and neighbors, the wailing was internalized.

However, I read a sample of the book and then the back cover copy, and decided to give this one a shot.

And I’m glad I did.

The First Principle by Marissa Shrock is a smooth, easy read, and could easily be finished in one day, although I read it over the course of several. The ill-tempered editor in the back of my brain did not stomp around and throw his arms in the air, which left me free to enjoy the novel.

Well, to be honest, there were times when he looked up from his desk, his eyes narrowed. Those occurred in the first portion of the book — in the first long dialogue between ex-boyfriend and baby-daddy Ben and protagonist Vivica — and at two or three other places later in the story, probably because teenage speech and behavior annoys him. 😉

Shrock gives us an intelligent lead character with skills as a computer hacker, and these come in handy as Vivica graduates from using her abilities to aid herself and her friends at school to escaping those who want to abort her child.

FirstPrinciple-258x400The rebels she joins are not all secret agents. Many are everyday, likable, good people, much to her surprise, and they are endeavoring to be nonviolent toward other humans even as they refuse to bow to the tyranny of a totalitarian government. However, the media and the government leaders label them terrorists and assassins.

Hidden and aided by different rebels along the way — Ben included — Vivica uncovers a plot by government insiders to frame the rebels while staging a coup.

But not only is the national leadership in turmoil — there’s a mole inside the Emancipation Warriors. Is it Jared Canton, or is he, too, being framed?

And who keeps revealing Vivica’s information to the very people from whom she’s running?

The First Principle is recommended reading for teens to grownups, male or female.

Tomorrow, my niece will be giving her evaluation off the novel. Meantime, feel free to visit these stops along the tour:

Julie Bihn
Thomas Clayton Booher
Beckie Burnham
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Carol Keen
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Megan @ Hardcover Feedback
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Nissa
Jalynn Patterson
Chawna Schroeder
Jessica Thomas

 

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Scathing: Receiving Criticism, Avoiding Labels, and Redacting a Review

Scathing: Receiving Criticism, Avoiding Labels, and Redacting a Review

Ever been labeled something that puzzled you?

Recently, a fellow writer wrote that I was unethical. At first, I thought she meant someone else, and thought, “What does she mean? That’s not true of that person,” but then realized she referenced a blog post I wrote last year regarding how pride can get in the way of receiving feedback or criticism. No names were mentioned. In fact, the only person readers knew was involved was me, and I admitted that even now, after decades as a writer, my pride is still sometimes stung by harsh criticism.

Hey, even the most thick-skinned of veteran writers still wants his work to be liked and read, no matter how many bestsellers he has behind him. (I’d like to have at least one bestseller, but that’s a goal yet to be reached.)

Another label put on me in the past — this time by a publisher — is “the editor who makes authors cry”. That is not an appellation of which to be proud. By no means. My goal has been and always will be to help authors produce their best work. Sometimes, they can be so in love with their creations that they cannot see flaws or weaknesses, missed storytelling opportunities, or clunky sentences. When an editor tells them what needs revising, they don’t receive the news well.

There is an implied compliment in the fact that someone else is taking the time to not only read one’s work, but to help one improve it. However, we writers often react with affront, with offended pride and scathing words toward the “clueless”, “high-handed”, “overbearing” editor. We don’t see his/her true intent. All we know is that we didn’t receive the praise and the rubber-stamped approval we desired.

Before we slap labels on folks and burn bridges we might need to rebuild, might I suggest a bit of reflection? Some distance? Perhaps a walk, a rant to a friend, a scribbled diatribe in a journal? A good night’s sleep? Prayer? Something that allows us to grow calm, to be objective, and not to say or do something we’ll regret. (Related reading: “What’s Your Filter?“)

We may find — as I did while editing Dragon’s Rook — that snarky, scolding feedback that shoots wide of the mark can still contain something valuable. When I stepped back and looked at the advice with cold objectivity, I saw a couple pieces I could use. As a result, I tore apart one scene that had been troubling me. The reconstructed version is many times better than the original.

So, then, what should I do when I’m now the one giving the ugly, scathing criticism?

Write it all out, and then don’t say most of it.

Recently, a PR firm requested I review a new novel by a young author. After reading the back cover blurb and the dark, well-written prologue, I had high expectations for the book. Below is the review. For the author’s sake, it will not be posted elsewhere, and has been edited here to obscure the author’s identity.

~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~

Although marketed as contemporary literary fiction, this novel could also be described as speculative fiction, a mix of modern and futuristic, of post-apocalyptic dystopian and the quest for utopia-via-enlightenment, of a perverse coming-of-age/search-for-meaning story with a science fiction existentialist-absurdist tale.

Try saying that ten times, fast. 😉

[Story synopsis, character list, and website links have been omitted to preserve author anonymity. However, quotes from the novel text remain unaltered, but for the characters’ names.]

It is not often I write a review like this. I want to write only the positives, but the cons are weighty. To be blunt, this book needs an editor, for content as well as mechanics.

It runs the risk of being “a tale…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5). The writing is often preening and pretentious, but that could be the result of a conscious stylistic choice on the part of the author, matching the attitudes and egos of the characters.

Yet it sometimes feels like the writer is trying to make use of every high-sounding turn of phrase he can conjure or every word he can find in the dictionary. One is left wondering if, by the sheer volume and length of words, the author believes he has communicated—but, perhaps, I am not the audience for this work. I can wax lyrical with the most poetic of the poets, but prefer straightforwardness to roundaboutation.

Macbeth^Orson Welles

Orson Welles as Macbeth

As Macbeth might say, “Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly,” (Act 5, Scene 5).

Despite proofing errors (the repeated use of “causal” in place of “casual”, for instance) and some awkwardly-constructed sentences or phrases (what are “cathartic muscles”?), there remain many quotable lines:

“I take it you’re the self-proclaimed chosen one?” (Leroy) asked. “Prophets are rarely successful. Even when they are, society kills them.”

(Walter’s) thick lips gave way to a line of crooked teeth. “Hence, it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.” (p77)

Later in the same conversation:

“The day is not calm when you discover humanity to be ripe for the taking.” (p78)

And some lines read like refugees from a modern-day “Jabberwocky”—they have a sound and a rhythm, and therefore the reader might almost think he understands their meaning or the author’s intent. But repeated readings reveal, no, the words really do make no sense.

This paragraph on page 121 transforms from poetic imagery to lyrical nonsense:

The notes of a distant piano played a melodic Bach and a blue Chopin to the beat of Kerouac. The sounds were unremitting as they’d always been in her mind. Real, but at the same time not real. Resonating. Vibrating. For she was a lollipop made of cherry and petrol, more given to the depths of trench coats and dark alleys; lethal-red lipstick, rocking a tear that was not a tear, but moisture secreting the nostalgia of an instinct held away from mankind by the missing link. From the real show and state.

Thank you, Google Translate. Sense to make, you do not.

The novel’s subtitle—[redacted]—is a clue to how readers are expected to view this work. The publisher’s mission statement, as well as the author’s explanation for the story’s existence, seem overly earnest, betraying a certain immaturity and youthful desire to ‘make a difference’:

[mission statement redacted]

Below is a quote from the introduction:

In the novel you’re about to read, I do not seek to victimize technology, nor to condemn our evolution, but to instill the realization that we are the product of our own thoughts, our own ideas, our own dreamed of reveries. We are the discomfort and leisure of humanity, the bright flame and its grey ashes. By nature we are born free.

Can’t argue with that last line. No doubt the author and I would find agreement on several other points. But how does one “victimize technology”?

Confession: I skimmed the second half of the book. Perhaps the story improved as it progressed. However, despite seeing interesting passages, I was not compelled to continue. The green-visored, cigar-chomping curmudgeonly editor who lives in the back of my brain could tolerate no more, and he suspects that publisher, editor, author, and the originator of the “editorial review” on the back cover are one and the same.

Nonetheless, [name redacted] is talented and intelligent, and is definitely an author to look for in the future. Give him time.

And his website waaaaay outclasses mine.

 

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The Stars Were Right: a review

TheStarsWereRightThe Stars Were Right by K.M. Alexander is a space opera, fantasy, street-gritty noir, crazed-villain sort of yarn set in the far future but filled with analog tech alongside gleaming splendor, and non-humanoid races mingling with humans in the many-leveled city of Lovat.

Waldo Bell is a caravan master who, along with his non-human business partner, Wensem, carts freight between two main metropolitan centers. The most recent journey was hampered by a mysterious, oversized cargo that slows progress, and the caraveners are happy to be off the road and flush with money. While Wensem returns home for a family ritual, Waldo wanders the city in search of food and old friends.

And is arrested for the murder of one of those friends.

He escapes, and goes on the run. In his attempts to seek aid and discover the real criminal, his alleged crimes compound as more friends—old and new—are killed. Hagen, the proprietor of an antique shop specializing in religious and cultic items, becomes a reluctant but valuable ally in the search for the mastermind behind the bizarre, gruesome murders.

And, along the way, Waldo encounters the possibility of romance with a woman who seems out of his reach.

I enjoyed this fast-paced novel, and look forward to reading more about the adventures of Waldo Bell and company.

 

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