Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Top Fifteen Horror Flicks

My post over the weekend draw hardly any hits. That'll teach me to post on a holiday weekend!

Ooooh, I just love horror movies! I know so many people don't, but for those of us who do, horror movies are a special treat, at least when done well. I always have to watch them alone, since my wife won't watch them, and she's made my sons afraid of them. When I was their age I was an old hand at watching such films.

Let me note up front that I won't include movies that I already used on other lists, such as Alien, Aliens, or Hardware. They are horror movies, but also sci-fi, so I put them there. If I did include them here, they would be at the top. Note that I am choosing based upon what I enjoy watching the most, not upon which is scariest. I'm also not including ones that some might list as horror, such as Stephen King's Stand By Me or Shawshank Redemption, because to me they don't quite fall into the horror category.

1. The Silence of the Lambs - I was loathe to put this here, as to me it is more suspense than horror, but I don't plan on doing a suspense list, so here it is. The acting and directing are superb, and this is one taut and suspenseful film.

2. John Carpenter's The Thing - It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly why I love this one so much. There's just something about being trapped in Antarctica on a little base, and the storyline is done brilliantly.

3. IT - There are a lot of great Stephen King movies (along with some clunkers), but of the horror flicks, this is the best, in my opinion. So many great actors, both in the children's storyline and in the adults'.

4. Scream - Smart and funny mixed in with the chills and gore.

5. Final Destination 2 - I like all of the movies in this series, but this one is the eeriest and scariest.

6. Fright Night - A cool mixture of horror and comedy. I love how nobody believes the poor kid and he turns to a cowardly television horror host for help.

7. The Lost Boys - Slick and funny as much as it is scary, and again it has some great actors in it.

8. Exorcist 3 - The first one was just too sickening for me to enjoy watching, the second sucked. This one is amazing, with the best actors of any of the films. It's sad that so few have watched this one, the best of the franchise.

9. Graveyard Shift - A bit low budget, but to me it only seems to add to the realistic feel of this scariest Stephen King movie.

10. Shaun of the Dead - More comedy than horror, but this English sendup of zombie flicks is a must-see.

11. Salem's Lot - Not the horrible original, but the tv miniseries starring Rob Lowe.

12. Arachnophobia - Another great horror/comedy. Millions of spiders coming to get you!

13. The Dark Half - A downright scary Stephen King movie. The book is incredible, but Tim Hutton does a creditable job of bringing it to the screen.

14. 28 Days Later - Perhaps the best of the zombie flicks, though I really enjoy the newer Dawn of the Dead also.

15. Descent - I watched this in a theater in Manila, never having heard of it before. It's one of the few times I thought a movie was truly frightening, while also being fun.

Honorable Mentions:
Sleepy Hollow
The Shining
From Dusk Til Dawn
Jurassic Park
The 6th Sense
Resident Evil
Wrong Turn
I Know What You Did Last Summer
An American Werewolf in London (also the one in Paris is decent)
Brotherhood of the Wolf
A Nightmare on Elmstreet
The Hitcher
The Mist
The Blob
Night Watch/Day Watch (slick Russian horror)
Joy Ride
Snakes on a Plane
The Fly
Sometimes They Come Back
The Hills Have Eyes
Pet Sematary

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Intro Chapter for Sci-Fi Novel

Some beta readers have given me feedback suggesting that my main character is thrust into the action so quickly that we don't get to know her first.  While I did want to jump quickly into the drama, I can understand wanting to first know something about a character. It's so hard to balance the need for some early excitement with the also important need to relate in some manner with the POV character.

So, I have tried writing this short new chapter to see if it works for introducing my main character. I'd love to know your thoughts on it. Does it work? Not? This is a sci-fi thriller set in Moscow in the year 2138.


It’s too easy to say one hates working with corpses.  Who could enjoy the smell of embalming fluid, the mannequin rigidity, the cold of a body that had once been full of warmth and dreams?  Zoya had prepped bodies for more than six years now, painting their faces to a ghoulish mimicry of life, so relatives and friends could view their loved one without having to face the stark horror of the empty shell death leaves behind.  She was used to cadavers, but she never stopped hating being around them.

Generally she listened to music while she worked, since it helped take her mind from the peculiar canvas upon which she plied her art.  Her preference was for ancient rock tunes, from the quaint times when people played their own instruments and wrote their own songs.  Lennon and McCartney, Waters and Gilmour, Plant and Page...demigods of a long lost age.

She hummed along to Hurdy Gurdy Man as she sketched a final line of purple lipstick onto the grossly fat man on the stainless steel slab.  She stood up to get a better view of the face, and jumped as someone dug fingers into her side from behind.

Snapping off the music from her slot interface, she whirled and was swept into the arms of her brother Georgy.

“Hey, little Sis.  Did I scare you?”

“Georgy!”  She pretended to punch his shoulder.  “Won’t you ever grow up?”  Despite the tender warmth she always felt around him, she felt a chill now.  He had never visited the morgue before.  A day’s worth of stubble scratched her cheeks as he kissed them; he was always so meticulous about shaving.  Something must be wrong.  “Why are you here?”

He stepped back, still holding her narrow shoulders in his steely grip.  “I need you to do something for me.  You know I’d--”

“Georgy!” she interrupted.  “You swore you wouldn’t involve me.”

He nodded.  “I wouldn’t ask this if I had anywhere else to turn.  You know that.”  He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small package, a rectangle of old-fashioned brown paper tied off with twine.

“You have lots of friends, Georgy,” Zoya said.  “Don’t do this to me.”

“My friends can’t help me now, Sis.  You’re all I have.  Take this.”

He thrust the package at her, but she backed away, holding up her hands like a shield.  “I won’t ruin my life, even for you.”

Georgy set the package on the table next to the cadaver.  “I’m sorry, but I have no one else I can trust right now.  Please, just bring it to me tomorrow, say around ten.”  He pulled a small Web cable from a pocket and snapped it into the slot interface hidden in the black hair behind his left ear.  “Here, let me show you where to go.”  He reached out to plug the other end of the cable into Zoya’s slot.

“No, Georgy!”  She shoved his arm back.  “I won’t do it.”

Gently, he took her shoulders again and pulled her face close.  “Look at me, Sis.  What do you see?”

Zoya stared into his deep brown eyes.  There was a hunted, haunted look she had never seen before.  “You’re afraid?”

“I’m terrified, Zoya.  I fucked up so badly this time.  You have no idea.  I’ve got to disappear for awhile.  I need some time to prepare, and I can’t have this on me.” 

He used the moment to slide his hand up close to Zoya’s ear, and now he slipped the cable end into her slot.  Instantly, she saw the location where he wanted her to go.  It was in a dangerous, deserted part of old Moscow; a crumbling wasteland where only the drunk or the dangerous ventured.

“Yugo-Zapadnaya?  I can’t--”

“Don’t tell anyone where you’re going.  I have a safe house there.  You’ll be fine, you’ll see.  Tomorrow, around ten, okay?”  He pulled out the cable and leaned in to kiss her cheek again.  “I owe you big time.”

“Georgy,” she moaned, but he had already turned away, walking swiftly toward the morgue exit.

Zoya sagged against the edge of the table and dropped her eyes to the small package.  Fear made it difficult to swallow.  Fear for Georgy and for herself, though the fear was tinged with anger that he had forced this upon her.  She closed her grip around the package, and her hand brushed against the clammy skin of the corpse.  An image filled her mind of Georgy laid out on the slab while she rouged his cold cheeks.  She shuddered and tucked the package into a pocket of her lab coat.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Top Fantasy Movies

First off, let me say that Google didn't allow me to log in last night, so I couldn't respond to all the wonderful comments to yesterday's post until this morning. I loved hearing your thoughts and learning about some movies I hadn't seen.

I can't do a top ten with fantasy movies, first because there are simply far more of them that I like than with science fiction, but also because the quality level in fantasy is much iffier than with sci-fi usually, so some movies that I enjoyed also bothered me with their low quality.

I don't have my movie collection here with me as I write this, so I Googled a top 100 list. I think some of my favorites are not on there, so I am most likely leaving off some that I really love. I also disagreed with many of the movies on the list, as they were not fantasy movies, in my opinion.

I believe the quality dropoff from the first few to the others is significant, so I will rate my first few and then simply list a bunch of honorable mentions.

1. The Harry Potter movies - I'm including them all together, since to me it would be silly to list them apart. I could tell you that The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite, though. It might seem heretical to those who know me that I list this ahead of the Lord of the Rings movies. Let me explain. I absolutely love the LOTR movies. They are awesome. However, I find myself watching the Harry Potter movies over and over again with my sons, and there is simply something undeniably fun about them. While I love the LOTR films and do rewatch them, I have to give Harry the tiny edge simply due to rewatchability. On another day, I would swap their places, though, as they are so close as the best two fantasy franchises ever.

2. The Lord of the Rings films - I am only talking about the extended editions, as I ignore the theatrical versions. The Fellowship of the Ring was the best of them, but all of them are wonderful. I couldn't have asked for a better translation of the movies into film. No one could have done it perfectly, so this is as close as I think it can be done.

After the above two, everything has to pale in comparison! I can't list the rest in order, since so many of them fall into distinct types of fantasy to me, or are not even really fantasy as far as I am concerned, yet I know so many of you will consider them to be. If a really awesome fantasy is not listed here, it is probably because I didn't consider it fantasy (or it just didn't quite make my top list).

The Princess Bride - This one probably does deserve the number 3 slot. It is a timeless classic, and I can watch it again and again without growing tired of it. It blends wonderful fantasy elements with such wit and humor, while giving us unforgettable characters and dialogue. It's very nearly a perfect fantasy movie.

Now let me do some clear fantasy movies before I move onto the borderline ones and cartoons.

Dragonslayer - It's low budget and a bit corny, as most fantasy movies were before Peter Jackson taught everyone how to do it properly. I actually wouldn't put it high on my list, but this one is a clear fantasy, and it isn't so bad.

Willow - Again, a real fantasy, and despite some cheesiness, it is fun and has some great characters, such as Val Kilmer's roguish warrior.

Labyrinth - Some poor special effects, but that is what we always got with fantasy movies before Harry Potter and LOTR. It's still a very good movie, especially for kids.

Time Bandits - Oh, I really love this one, probably because when I was a little kid the only way to watch movies was to go to the drive-in (we were too poor for theaters), and my mom took us to see this one a couple of times and it stuck with me. It is just so FUN and funny, and there are so many tiny cool details. What's not to love?

Okay, now let me list my favorite cartoons, some of which are true fantasy and some of which are very borderline.

Fire and Ice - I always loved the art of Frank Frazetta. He can't do his full-blown magic over the course of a film, but it is still quite good. The story is fairly standard 70's-style fantasy fare, but I enjoy it nonetheless.

Wizards - Fantasy with some sci-fi elements. There are lots of nuances to the story, so it pays to watch it a few times.

Shrek - Fun and funny fantasy, cleverly done, at least in the first one.

The Nightmare Before Christmas - Borderline fantasy as are the rest of the ones listed below, but what a brilliant movie. The soundtrack is incredible, and Tim Burton manages to make each character in a vast cast distinctive and truly memorable.

Monster's Inc. - One of the best and funniest cartoons I have ever seen.

The Incredibles - Not as wonderful as Monster's, but very close.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit - I really love this one, too, but it's not really a fantasy, in my opinion.

Toy Story - Ditto

Howl's Moving Castle - I don't have a taste for Japanese animation styles, but this movie is just too fascinating to ignore.

Finally, the movies listed in other fantasy lists that I consider very borderline fantasy; I really enjoy all of these:

Dark City
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Jurassic Park
Pirates of the Caribbean (the first one only)
Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the Gene Wilder version)
Sleepy Hollow (more horror than fantasy, but very good)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Bridge to Terabithia
King Kong
The 13th Warrior
Edward Scissorhands
The Goonies
Robin Hood (the Patrick Bergen and Uma Thurman version)

This is going on too long. I suspect you will let me know where I have missed some. I imagine there will be a few 'duh' moments!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Top Ten Science Fiction Movies

I heard a vicious rumor that top-10 or top-100 lists draw the most hits on blogs, so I figured I should test this theory out. It has been funny to see how, in a writing blog, it is not the posts on writing that generally draw the most views and comments, but rather unrelated posts, such as my one last week about food. Perhaps I need to find a way to write more entertaining posts about writing.

Anyhow, I thought I would start my top-10 experiment with an easy one -- my choices for the top ten science fiction movies of all time. You will notice that there are few old ones here, as my taste is rather limited in regards to older films. There are also some I won't list that I see on other top lists, because I don't consider them to be sci-fi.

1. Blade Runner -- Hands-down the best science fiction movie of all time, in my opinion. The soundtrack by Vangelis is the most beautiful soundtrack I have ever encountered. There has been a lot of fighting amongst fans over which versions of this film are the 'good' versions, primarily because some fans hate the Harrison Ford voice-over that was added to the theatrical release. I have to say that I enjoy all the versions. I love the movie without the narration, but I also think it is really good with it. The hard-bitten, world-weary sound of Ford's voice only adds to the noirish quality of the movie, at least for me. Each and every scene in this movie resonates deeply with me, and I cannot imagine any greater beauty ever being brought to the screen.

2. and 3. Alien and Aliens -- What a duo of fantastic sci-fi movies, and each so different from the other! Alien (directed by Ridley Scott, who also did Blade Runner) provides a realistic-seeming take on a deep-space ship stopping at a planet due to a distress signal. This movie is the very essence of tension and suspense. Aliens gave us heart-thumping action as space marines return to the lost colony to try to reclaim it. Supposedly they are there to rescue any survivors, but in reality they are there for very different reasons...

 4. Serenity - Truth be told, I prefer the television series Firefly, as it goes into far more depth with the characters and story lines. However, a movie has limits on how long it can be, and they still did a fine job of bringing some terrific space-cowboy action. I recommend checking out this film, and then running as fast as you can to your PC to order Firefly!

5. The Road Warrior - Mel Gibson is perfect as Max in this post-Apocalyptic film that sort of but not really follows the not-so-great Mad Max movie. Maybe it's a male thing, but I always enjoy well-done survival of the fittest movies like this. Having to scrounge amongst the waste just to survive wouldn't be fun in real life, but it sure is in a movie.

6. and 7. Star Wars episodes V and IV - No need to link to these, as everyone has seen them, right? Episode V, called The Empire Strikes Back, was the best written of all these films, while episode IV was the original that started it all, and it does still have that magic. There's not a whole lot to say about these, as everyone knows them too well!

8. Back to the Future - I suppose this one is only borderline sci-fi, though it certainly has the right elements mixed in with the more contemporary stuff. This movie is simply a lot of fun, and very cleverly done. The cast couldn't have been chosen any better. The follow up movies were not nearly as good, but still fun.

9. ET - I won't link this one either. Who hasn't seen it? Steven Spielberg has a deft touch for these types of movies. He adds loads of realistic little touches and details to his films that really make them work. As a kid, I loved the D&D parts and also the Halloween stuff. Young Drew Barrymore stole the movie, in my opinion, with her adorably funny scenes.

10. Hardware - I couldn't resist putting this little known movie here. It is a very well done Australian low-budget flick that is a little like a scarier version of The Terminator, only funner. A scavenger in a post-Apocalyptic world picks up the remnants of a destroyed machine out in the war zone, thinking the scraps might make his artist girlfriend happy. She loves it and begins using the parts in one of her metal sculptures. However, the scrap turns out to have been an advanced type of new war machine, and once it can get access to electricity, it can piece itself back together. And it sees everyone as a threat. I love the dirty pig of a next door neighbor!

I couldn't end things without naming some others I really like: Brazil, The Matrix, The Terminator (1 and 2), Children of Men. I didn't bother with cartoons, or I might have added Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and I also left off zombie films and such, as they don't seem like sci-fi to me.

What favorites of yours did I leave off?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Movie and TV Science Fiction Can't Show the Real Future

My science fiction novel didn't come out of the blue. I've had plot points, characters, and technology ideas for it rolling around in my head since I was a teen. The ideas I have for future technology aren't so much ideas as they are things that I truly believe will happen (barring something happening that stops us from progressing).

I've recently been watching the follow-on series to Battlestar Galactica, called Caprica. I've also watched a ton of science fiction movies, such as my favorites Blade Runner and Aliens. What I noticed recently (since I've been doing a lot more active thinking about future tech) is that movies and tv shows always scale back the realism of technology in order to make things watchable. It makes perfect sense, since audiences want things to be watchable. However, it does mean that my book may not translate well into movie format, since I am being as realistic as I can.
In far future shows we still see people using things like cell phones or computers. In Caprica they have people putting devices over their eyes in order to enter a virtual world. See, I think reality will be far more impressive than that. I don't think interaction via calls or the internet will require any such devices in the not too distant future. I think we will have full digital/mind interfaces that will allow us to deal directly with trusted sources. Once we have advanced enough interfaces, they should be able to add a form of wireless to the interface, thus eliminating the need for external devices. We could 'see' anything necessary directly within our minds. We could place calls directly from mind to mind via the interfaces.

This all sounds fine, but it makes for boring movies. Cyborgs look cool when they have obviously robotic parts, rather than the more realistic version, which will simply look human. Putting a device over your eyes to see a virtual world works better for audiences, as does using an external phone, rather than the actor being able to do everything solely within the mind. I believe the more advanced we become, the harder it is to make our technology translate in an interesting manner to the screen.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Low Brow Taste

I have low brow taste.

I think it comes from growing up very poor and developing a taste for the types of food that I grew up with. I have been to really good restaurants and tried their supposedly really good food, but it literally doesn't taste good to me. Offer me a choice between a free dinner at a five-star French restaurant or paying for myself at Taco Bell, and I will be eating 2 tacos and a bean burrito with Pepsi. Sorry to make so many of you cringe, but that's the flat-out truth. Taco Bell was so cheap when I was in college that I ate there pretty much every day. It cost me $2 for the abovementioned meal.

This is the thing my wife hates most about me. She is my polar opposite when it comes to food, a caviar and wine girl if there ever was one. Give her a choice between something that looks amazing but tastes like crap verses something low brow but good tasting, and she will pick the presentation or pedigree any day.
Living overseas means being away from all the foods I crave most. It's the number one thing I miss due to my life away from the States. I dream of Red Lobster, Arby's, Village Inn, Schlotzsky's, Denny's, Pizza Hut, Papa John's, Hot Dog on a Stick, and so many other junk food places. I dream of firing up my oven at home and being able to cook up some Gorton's Crunchy Fish fillets with Ore Ida Texas Crispers french fries, or perhaps a nice Tombstone pepperoni pizza.

No, I am stuck with all these local foods that taste pretty crappy to me. June 21 can't come quickly enough, when I will get to spend a few weeks back home and get some decent food for a change!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

I've had Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn novels sitting on my to-read shelf for years. They are so long that I always put them off in order to read shorter things first. I was really looking forward to them, though, since I had read a short story by Williams set in the same realm of Osten Ard. This short story was called The Burning Man, and it is one of my favorite shorts ever. I even read it twice and plan on reading it again soon. It can be found in the Legends short story collection.

I'm almost finished with the first book of the series, The Dragonbone Chair. It is slightly disappointing to me, in that the short story really highlighted so many elements that I love in fantasy, while this novel has mixed those elements that I love with other elements that I cannot stand. For instance, changing trolls into tiny people. Sorry, but for me trolls are big, hulking monsters. We already have tiny people, whether they be gnomes, dwarves, or leprechauns. Also, I really didn't enjoy him using Inuit-sounding names and words for the trolls. Finally, he has elves in his book, but decides that it is somehow more original to call them Sithi rather than simply call them what they are. I don't mind the word 'Sithi', but it always bugs me when someone decides to simply give a new name to something we are already familiar with.

It doesn't bother me at all that relatively little happens for the first hundred pages or so. I am one who enjoys world building and character development, so this was fine with me. Reading this book, I keep seeing elements that I saw in Martin's ASOIAF series, and since this came out shortly before Martin began writing his series, I can't help but think that Martin was influenced by Williams to a degree. Martin does it all much better, though.

What elements do I see as similar between Martin and Williams? Some may seem farfetched, but here they are:

1. The coming of an unusual winter is a strong theme in the story.
2. A very unusual throne, i.e. made of blades with Martin, made of dragon bones and skull in Williams.
3. Major lord character losing a hand.
4. Wolf character playing a major role.
5. A character that is the 'Hand of the king' in both stories.
6. A sword named 'Needle' in each.

There are other similarities that kept striking me as I read, but none as clear to me as those listed. (Some are simply standard fantasy tropes, so no big deal that they are in both.)

I don't mind if Martin got ideas for his epic from Williams. The stories are very different, and Martin took everything to a much higher level. I'll always be grateful he wrote his series. Now, I may have only given Williams three stars so far at Good Reads, but I will continue on and hope that he gets better as the series progresses.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Fantasy Movies Must Use British Accents

I've been looking over my large collection of fantasy films, trying to figure out what exactly made me like some and dislike others. What caused me to write this post, however, was watching Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman in 'Season of the Witch', a movie so bad I couldn't make it to the halfway mark.

What I found when I looked everything over was that I absolutely cannot stand seeing a medieval setting with actors using American accents. It flat out doesn't work for me. Yeah, I know that British accents were not the same way back then, but a good British accent, at least from an American perspective, adds a touch of old-world authenticity, whereas an American accent kills the movie dead.

Try to imagine the Lord of the Rings movies with every character speaking in our flat American phrasings! Ugh! At least the American actors in LOTR and Game of Thrones alter their accents enough to make them passable.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Writing Science Fiction

I've found that writing a science fiction story is very different from writing a fantasy. This probably sounds absurdly obvious, but I think you need to actually try writing both before it slams home just how significant the differences are.

For me one of the major issues is voice. I have to use a completely different voice for a story set in the 2100's than I do for a fantasy in a medieval setting. I actually find that fun, and the few readers I have had so far seem to like this voice better than my fantasy voice.

The hardest part for me has been dealing with technological issues. For almost any action that a character takes, I have to ask myself whether the means of performing that action would have changed over the years. It's not just a matter of whether a character will have a flying vehicle or not. Will you need cash in any form? Will you need to even use thumb or eye scanners, or will advances allow, say, your apartment door to recognize you in some even more advanced manner, such that you don't need to actively do anything for it to open up and let you in?

Since basic mind/data interfaces are already being developed, I expect very advanced ones to eventually become affordable to the masses. Imagine inserting cards into your head to directly access data, from languages to history to...whatever. In that case, I think the need for judges and juries would evaporate, since the authorities could simply plug into your data interface and scan your mind directly to see if you are guilty or innocent. You may no longer have to take tests, as they could simply scan your mind to see if you have the requisite knowledge and understanding. My story begins with a character graduating from college after plugging in for about twelve minutes for the university to scan him. I have to think like this for everything, even the smallest daily activities. This really slows things down, but if I don't do it I will end up with a story filled with inconsistencies.

I think I have a lot of new ideas, ones that I feel are logical and I fully expect them to happen at some point in the future. But I haven't read every science fiction novel ever produced, let alone every short story, so there will always be those who will look at what I do and say that so and so already did it. I think these people will miss the point -- I may come up with ideas that in a general sense have been done before, but the specifics of how I do it are most likely unique.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Flowery Description

In yesterday's post I talked a bit about overuse of adjectives. I have some real strengths as a writer, but like all of us I also have weaknesses, and one of them is description. I will never be a literary writer. Writing beautiful prose doesn't come naturally to me, so I always feel that my prose is too stark, perhaps too simplistic.

I took the suggestion of some of yesterdays commenters and tried to write an intro paragraph to bring out more about the summer season in Moscow where the poplar seeds fly like snow all over the city. I look at what I came up with and it feels strange, unnatural, as if I'm faking it somehow. I wonder if some of my more literary inclined readers might look at what I am trying to convey and see some clearly better means of expressing it?

I want to introduce the character Zoya, who normally loves the poplar seed season, but she's been forced to come to a part of the city that frightens her. This is my awkward attempt:

Poplar seeds floated on the summer breeze, as they did each summer in Moscow, a reminder that winter would come again before too long.  Zoya loved strolling through the flurries, watching the white drifts pile up along the curbs and in the gutters, her thrill dampened only by having to visit this abandoned part of the city.

She stepped carefully over broken sections of concrete.  Trash and glass littered the yellowed grass and weeds that lined the sidewalk.  A sound from the building to her right brought her to a halt.  A crash of metal followed by a yelp.  A wild dog, she thought.  Perhaps a pack.  Why did I let Georgy talk me into this?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Overuse of Adjectives

I've been a bit perplexed, both happy and sad, that my new science fiction book is getting far more rave reviews on Authonomy than my fantasy book did. After only a week on the site, my book is already number 1 under thrillers and number 2 in sci-fi. It's great to see people liking the work you do, but I consider myself mainly a fantasy writer, and I only started writing the sci-fi book because it fit into the backstory of my fantasy series. I'm guessing it is because there are so many readers who don't want more Tolkienesque fantasy, along with the fact that the 'voice' in the sci-fi thriller has to be quite different from what I use in fantasy.

Here's a quote from the latest review I got on Authonomy:
"Damn! This is a good read. Fast-paced, interesting characters and a rich setting that is both fantastic and believable."

Another recent one:
"This is science fiction the way I like it. I would have read chapter one in the bookstore and bought it on the spot."

You can't complain about that!

One reviewer perplexed me, though. He said I used 'far too many descriptors' in a paragraph. I understand that overuse of adjectives is supposed to be a bad thing, but I just don't see it. Perhaps you can help me to understand? Here is the offending paragraph:

Fuzzy white poplar seeds floated on the summer breeze.  Zoya stepped carefully over broken sections of concrete.  Trash and shattered glass littered the yellowed grass and weeds that lined the sidewalk.  A sound from the abandoned building to her right brought Zoya to a halt.  There was a crash of metal followed by a yelp.  A wild dog, she thought.  Perhaps a pack.  Why did I let Georgy talk me into this?

Yes, I see how many adjectives I use, but to me it detracts from the building of the world to remove any of them. I can't see removing 'fuzzy' or 'white' from the description of the poplar seeds. 'Pukh', as these seeds are called, is a weird happening in Moscow each summer, where a veritable blizzard of the stuff floats all over, almost like snow. I want the reader to know early on that it is summer, thus 'summer breeze' and 'yellowed grass'. And the trash and broken things are to let the reader know she is walking in a run-down part of the city.

What are your experiences with description?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Being Authentic in Writing

For speculative fiction writers it is often said that we need as much authenticity as possible on our books in order to make our created worlds believable. I keep running into situations, however, where being authentic hurts the story for some readers.

The most recent example of this has to do with the second chapter of my science fiction thriller, in which I use Russian mafia antagonists. I tried to make these characters as authentic as I could, based upon my extensive experience with Russian Mafiosi. They were all over the place in Moscow when I lived there. You couldn't even tell who was genuine and who wasn't, because there were so many young men copying their styles.

The problem is that some readers have complained that the Mafiosi in my story are too clich├ęd, yet that is precisely what makes them authentic. Russian mobsters, at least in the 90's, seemed to take pride in imitating famous mobsters of the past, such as Al Capone or the Godfather. Other than their clothing (they seemed to like track suits and flat-top haircuts), they didn't try to be unique. The more outlandish and unusual I make my Mafiosi, the less authentic I am being. If my Mafiosi seem overly brutal and speak like thugs, it's because that's the way they really behave in my experience. I suppose many would say that the story is what matters, so forget being authentic and just make the characters memorable. I do want to make the characters memorable, but I prefer to do it within the constraints of what I know these folks are actually like in reality.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Big Explosion

Okay, I was going to title this 'Moscow, part 3', but lovely Victoria Caswell pointed out that it was probably my boring titles that were keeping readers away over the past two days. She suggested I spice the title up.

The Russian mafia wasn't the only danger to be faced in Moscow in the '90's. Russians seem to have an odd connection with Serbs, so when the US began bombing the Serbs in 1995, there was clear anger directed at the embassy.

On September 13, 1995 I was working in the old Embassy building on the ring road. I spent most of the morning on the 9th floor, where the executive offices were. I went to lunch and then got sidetracked by some other work. As I began walking back toward the building, I was told that it had been attacked by a rocket propelled grenade. The person didn't know more. I hadn't heard anything, so I continued toward the back entrance. Had I gone to the front, I never would have gotten in, but few people used the back entrance. I came to the door that only the marine guard could open remotely, and I wouldn't have gotten through there either if at that moment a marine hadn't come bareling through it, allowing me to slip in.

I didn't notice anything strange in the building except that it was mostly devoid of people. I went up to finish my work.

Later I heard that a car had raced up on the ring road, a man had jumped out with the RPG and fired it into the 5th or 6th floor (I can't remember which now), and the car raced away. I could see the shrapnel holes in the wall and the hole where the RPG punched through. I was told it struck a large copy machine, and that perhaps the grenade had not detonated. No one was injured, thankfully.

Diplomats have no natural constituency back home to support us. When Congress wants to make cuts, they usually look at us as the easiest target to slash without raising a cry from the US public. The news likes to project an image of diplomats as coddled. They never bother to admit that from the end of the Viet Nam war until the newest wars began, more diplomats were killed overseas than military personnel.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Moscow, part 2

The mafia attack in yesterday's post wasn't the only one I witnessed while living in Moscow, though thank goodness I never saw any that were really dangerous to my health (barring a truly crazy twist of luck).

I had a friend named Gary who was the opposite of me when it came to socializing. He had no hint of shyness to him. He 'made' me go to clubs with him, and I am grateful for it, because even though I don't drink or really enjoy going to such places, Moscow in the '90's was an amazing time to visit and soak up a truly unique atmosphere. The only frustrating thing was that there were lots of very pretty young women being far friendlier than I had ever experienced in the US, yet embassy rules forbade us from dating them (this rule was dropped after I was there two years, thank goodness or I never would have been able to marry my wonderful wife). I got to watch Gary have girlfriend after girlfriend, while my options were limited to the few non-Russians who sometimes made an appearance.

One day Gary met a Belgian in our favorite club, a dingy, smoke-filled underground room called Krizis Zhanra where there was usually pretty cool live music and loads of young Russians and foreigners. Gary's new girlfriend wanted to drag us to a dinner party at her foreigners dormitory. We took the metro to a rather seedy part of town where the poor foreign students were housed. I was introduced to a very pretty but rather overly bold Belgian girl named Sabine, who proceeded to tell me lots of facts about myself, though she had never met me before. She got most of them right, too.

Gary and his girlfriend Ann wanted to go up to the roof to look at the city lights. The elevator didn't work, so we had to climb out onto a rickety fire escape to climb up the fifteen stories to the roof. It turned out to be a (mostly) good idea, since snow was just starting to fall, and the city looked particularly nice with all the lights coming on. We were standing there at peace when we suddenly began hearing odd popping sounds. We were confused for a moment, but then I followed the noise to one edge of the roof and looked down.
On the road in front of the dormitory were two parked cars, and a third car was speeding away from them. Two men stood in front of the parked cars firing pistols at the speeding car. We spent the next five minutes or so (since we had such a high view, and it wasn't as dark as the photos here) watching as the men leapt into the cars and gave chase to the first. The cars split up, but we never saw the end of the chase as they finally escaped our sight.
This night was the inspiration for my first Moscow scene in the book, which I have take place in an ancient, crumbling dormitory in this very part of town. The place has been abandoned over the decades as the Dark Times caused a contraction in the population, and a mafia group has taken over a room in the building as a safe house.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Moscow, part 1

I've been getting some writing done lately, which is amazing considering I went through about a two year slump. I was so twisted up between editing my first novel and trying to figure out which of the next two novels that I wanted to work on (not to mention a couple of short stories I wanted to polish up) that I ended up not getting much done on any of it.

I'm six chapters in now on my science fiction prequel to The Shard. You could check out the first three chapters on bookcountry.com if you like (though in the meantime I have switched the order of the first two chapters), or easier yet use the link on the right to the six chapters on Authonomy. It would be nice to get some five or six star reviews to counter the writers there who go around giving rivals one or two stars.

A large part of the inspiration for this story came from the four years that I lived in Moscow, from October 1993 to October 1997. I thought I might tell a little bit about that. **disclaimer: everything in these posts is strictly my own personal experience, and none of it can be taken as the view of the US government.

I started working for the State Department in August of 1993. They first sent me for language training at the Foreign Service Institute in Rosslyn, Virginia, which I thought odd since I had just completed three years of Russian language at the university, while these courses were starting at the beginning. Anyhow, I did eight weeks of that before they shipped me off to Moscow.
My mother was really nervous about me going, because events had really gone to heck there just at the time I was scheduled to go. You see that picture of the Russian parliament building smoking from all the tank fire? That building is directly across the street from the newer part of the American embassy (behind and to the right of the parliament in this photo). See those nasty tanks? Yeah, it was a fun time.

I was warned when I arrived that there was a real danger from sniper fire. One of our marines had been clipped in the neck from a huge empty lot across the street. Many believed it was the KSV (KGB) who were using the opportunity to harass us.

At first I was housed at a French hotel. The first year I was there they had me working night shifts. I would take the shuttle at 10 PM and return at 7 AM. One night in November I was waiting to depart on the shuttle. It was snowing, and the driver was standing under the hotel entrance smoking and waiting for 10 so we could leave. Across the street was a row of kiosks. Suddenly three black cars (Volgas, I think) raced up together and screeched to a halt across the street. Several guys hopped out, ran to one of the kiosks, and started spraying bullets into it with some sort of automatic rifles. It only took fifteen seconds or so before they had all hopped back into their cars and sped off.

The shuttle driver and I looked at each other and silently agreed that it was time to go, regardless of the official departure time. I learned as time went on that Moscow at that time was very similar to Chicago in the 1920's. Mafiosi were everywhere, and there were assssinations and bombings just about every day. I didn't write anything down, but I certainly internalized many of the mafia stories from those years, and I began piecing some of them together into the first inklings of a story. It wasn't meant to be science fiction at the time, but later when I was trying to improve a sci-fi plotline, the old mafia story seemed to fit right into place.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Been There, Done That

Let's say you grew up on Dungeons & Dragons (or other similar role-playing games like MERP). You love that type of world and you now want to write about it. You people your world with all the elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls, and dragons that you loved so much from your gaming days. You know in advance that a lot of readers will be turned off by this, since they've seen it a few times before and these readers never like to read anything similar to what they've read previously, but you aren't worried about that because you know there are still lots of readers out there who do like these types of stories.

So, you write and you write, and eventually you finish. Then you are dismayed when all your beta readers keep telling you how so many scenes remind them of Tolkien. How can this be, you say, since you were not thinking about Lord of the Rings when you wrote your story.

Well, it's simple really. Tolkien did it all (or pretty close to it). His books were so in-depth that as far as taking a party of mixed races and having them move about on a map (in pursuit of a grand, epic adventure, naturally), you are pretty much out of luck if you don't want anyone to draw any parallels to Tolkien. Want to move from one place to another? Okay, have the characters walk. Oops, Tolkien did that. Ride horses or ponies? Check. Ride in a cart? Check.

How about you come to a river? Take a ferry across? Nope, he's done that. Find a ford? Been there, done that. Ride a boat down the river? Cross on a bridge? Check and check.

Swamps or marshes? He's done it. Forests? He's done it all. Mountains? Cross in a pass? Find an unknown path? Find caves that lead you through it? He's covered them all. You might as well just have some big eagles swoop down and pick you up, but he's done that, too. I guess you could have the characters rig up a hot air balloon to carry them across, but that, at least to me, is a more modern version of fantasy than suits my D&D-inspired tastes.

I got some spot-on feedback on my book recently, and I am grateful as heck for it. I will really be able to examine some scenes and figure out a way to make them a little more unique. The only way it bothered me was in knowing that I had already tried to avoid Tolkien's more famous stories, yet some scenes still reminded the reader of parts of The Hobbit or LOTR. The fact is, much of my story was inspired not by either of those books but rather by the part of Beren's story in The Silmarillion where he escapes from Dorthonian by crossing under the mountains. That piece of his story always stuck with me, because Tolkien teased us by saying that Beren endured much horror during the crossing, but he didn't go into specifics. I always wanted to do a story that dealt with an extremely hazardous crossing beneath a mountain range. I didn't intend it to be like Moria.

The problem is that there are only so many realistic variations of passages under a mountain, and Tolkien pretty much hit them all. Rough stone, worked stone, small rooms, big rooms with pillars for support, chasms, bridges...there's not much else you can realistically work with, yet Tolkien did all those.

My reader was right, though. I may not be able to avoid Tolkien altogether, but I can at least ensure that big moments of the journey don't fall within similar settings. In other words, if I currently have an important battle taking place on an underground bridge, it's probably best to move it to someplace else so it doesn't make readers think of the ending of the Fellowship movie or book. It would have been embarrassing to me to have the book published and only then to hear from readers about such similarities, since I didn't know they were there, so to this friend I say, "Thank you."

To those who would say, "Well, don't use elves and dwarves and such.", I can only respond that this is my passion. I spent years playing D&D and living within this type of world. I always rued the fact that no one was ever publishing any stories set in such a world that dealt with it in a truly serious manner. Tolkien took his world very seriously, and that's why so many love him. The official D&D or Dragonlance novels? Not serious (at least in my view).