Book Magic

outliers-volume-1It’s been a long and very exhausting two months, but we finished it at last. Outliers: 2016 is now available in paperback. Forthcoming posts on the Outlier’s main site will cover more about the actual content of the series. I’m more drawn to the technical how.

Usually when people find out about publications I do, they approach with “hey, I got a story of my own.” I’m sympathetic to people who want to tell stories, but many personal experiences have educated me in the difficulties in producing quality books. I’m certainly not trying to crush anyone’s dreams, but I do think many folks underestimate the incredible amount of labor it takes to get to print.

I’ve come to suspect that events like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) have become more part of the problem than the solution. The event tends to promote an erroneous idea that writing a novel is easy. The timing creates a spike in material that builds slush mountains (not piles) at larger publishers, or hemorrhaging on Amazon and other self-published distributors throughout the winter.

Amazon and other services who promote NaNoWriMo do not care how much poor quality material is produced because even if only a few copies are sold to the author’s immediate family, they still make a profit. Or else they would pull the plug so fast, you’d wake up the next morning to discover indie publishing all but died overnight.

Instead, a lot of what goes into publishing is primarily about 1,001 magic tricks, such that readers never know, never spare a thought to every minor detail. To borrow from Christopher Priest…

The Pledge. 

Something ordinary, seemingly a book. These days, for a story to be exceedingly original is very rare, such that the description will sound similar to what others have written. This is fine, but there are unsaid expectations: hopes of proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, formatting, page numbers, etc, etc, etc.

The strange thing is that the more there are of these simple but professional elements, the more ordinary is the book in question. This is because of our expectations caused by prior generations of book publishing. And by applying these elements, we would not otherwise be distracted from…

The Turn. 

The pledge is the responsibility of the formatters and editors, to convince us of something grounded. But the turn, the second act in which an ordinary story does something extraordinary, that is up to the writer. The turn is the point where true magic is unveiled, when we are shown emotions that we didn’t expect to feel from reading.

Sometimes, that is to experience something in writing that we wish for ourselves.
Sometimes, that is to discover and explore an idea we had never considered.
Sometimes, that is the twists and turns of plots that subverted our expectations.

It is the most important magic, for it conjures something we never thought we could think or feel. And that is why we read until…

The Prestige.

All stories end. The extraordinary becomes ordinary again, and people have to go back to reality. Such is the demand of the natural universe.

But if the spell is good, then the magic will travel from the reader’s mind to their mouth. Emotions always want an outlet, or such we wouldn’t bother writing to begin with. And it is the goal to create something worth discussing, so that the magic can spread and live on. Thus the prestige is left to neither editor or writer, but the reader. They have to want to believe in that magic.

That’s what goes into creating a story. And I suspect, that’s more than most expected to weave.

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Stranger Things Season 1 Review

Stranger thingsUntil indicated, this review is spoiler free. If you’ve seen it, skip below for analysis.

No one saw it coming. No one. Like an alien invasion or a paranormal event, Stranger Things is a bolt of 80’s goodness out of the blue.

On a cold night in November of 1983, young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears in his hometown of Hawkins, Indiana. As the search gradually begins, spearheaded by the haunted Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour), Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) has strange revelations as to the whereabouts of her missing son. Her antics grate and worry her eldest child Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) who starts his own investigation, eventually crossing paths with Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and plain crossing her new boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery).

Meanwhile, Will’s friends Lucas, Dustin and Nancy’s brother Mike (Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo and Finn Wolfhard respectively) decide to buck the rules and search for their missing chum despite the danger. Instead they find a strange girl in the worlds named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and are pulled into a far greater mystery that is part man-made, and part not…

There are absolutely no limits to the 80’s references in the show. Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer gently borrowed ideas and hints from a myriad of movies and shows, or even just used toys and games of the era. These ranged from hints of Aliens to Stand By Me, The Goonies, E.T.A Nightmare on Elm Street and It (although that was released in 1990), to impressions of Yoda. Yet despite the reliance on nostalgia the show stands on its own, entertaining whether or not the audience is familiar with these titles.

AlphabetThat last point raises a critical question about whether or not the show is suitable for younger children. The show’s heroes range from adults to teenagers to kids, pulling in audience from all age groups, giving appeal for the whole family. But although most of the violence happens off screen and the gore is subdued, some of the scarier elements risks nightmares for the youngest. This is especially true during the mesmerizing finale.

That said, Stranger Things is the engine of fan conversion. The perfect blend of science fiction and horror, carefully balanced between concerned and aware adults as well as a group of lovable children. No one is immune to the charm of Lucas, Mike and especially Dustin who all flip from their goofiness to concern just as real kids do. And although Stranger Things is a quintessential homage of the best of a decade, the show is a phenomenon no one can, or should, resist.

Analysis and spoilers follow from here on. 

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Genre Writing (And Keeping Your Audience In Mind)

SciFi

Coming down off the high of writing my first novel, I’ve returned to short story writing. I picked out four submission windows which interest me. Amusingly, I’ve jumped the vein of crime and horror writing and have been focusing my time more and more on fantasy, and am keeping an eye on science fiction. This was all part of my plan to alternate writing “what I know” and slowly expand and improve on what I don’t.

Of the four submission windows, two are fantasy, one is modern-meets-fantasy and the last is military science fiction. These days, it’s important to mention the intended sub-genre. Especially with fantasy, lest the editor be swarmed with Western medieval stories.

It’s not that Europe mythologies are bad or can’t be done well. The problem is that it’s too easy, too accessible. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, The Witcher and Game of Thrones along with the books can easily trick hordes of fans into believing they are experts on the original mythologies and/or histories from which these works originated. One submission window I saw sometime back described the resulting work as, “fan fiction with the serial numbers filed off.”

I’ve long begun my research on the cultures of one particular story I have in mind and the pieces are coming together slowly. But while I was at a family reunion for the fourth of July, a story came to me like a bolt out of the blue. The idea had everything I really need: The characters, the plot, the themes.

What made me laugh was that this story idea was for the genre I am least ready for: Science Fiction.

It’s been three years since I last attempted an independent (as in, not built on any pre-established intellectual property) science fiction story. After my last rejection, my friends explained to me that the intended publishers are tremendous believers (not just fans) of Star Trek. That it was the greatest sci-fi show ever concocted.

Since then I’ve figured that you can really learn a lot about a person from the kind of sci-fi they like.

I’ve wondered why that is and I would guess that as “science” is seen as a measurable metric of progress, science fiction can easily emphasis a positive view of the future. It’s not difficult to see science for the acts of technical, biological or chemical engineering. But stories have also investigated application of the scientific method on politics, history, sociology and exploration, some of which take us off the desired path.

I’ve barely saw more than a few scenes of the original Star Trek television series. But I have watched the original six movies, and both the movies and several episodes of The Next Generation. And yes, both of the J.J. Abrams films. The universe is surprisingly optimistic about our species, as most of the problems tend to revolve around foreign crises, the occasional distress call, time traveling to fix or prevent problems. Intra-humanity problems often take a backseat to Klingon aggression or Borg threats.

Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t some humanitarian pride hinted with Star Trek, as the Federation tends to cast us as a fairly advanced species compared to many of our war-inclined galactic neighbors. Although to be fair, I think most of its fans would stop short of saying the series depicts a total utopia. But if Star Trek is the pinnacle of our views as to what humanity can be, every franchise, book and movie after that slowly steps down that scale, away from the suggested, bright future.

I think from there, one could go down the list and classify each kind of science fiction for each kind of person. Very often, I suspect that it’s less about whether or not people are into sci-fi as a total genre and more about whether the sub-genre is to the audience’s taste. People who would roll their eyes at Star Wars and Star Trek could very well love Blade Runner or The Hunger Games, while never realizing that the latter is post-apocalyptic and both are varying degrees of dystopian visions of the future. Likewise, I remembered an amusing article which reminds us all that the family friend film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is steampunk.

So try to keep this in mind when working with your lab rats beta-readers to best figure preferred genres and tropes.

Dead Space: The Best Blend of SciFi and Horror

After reading this blog post, this picture will take a whole new meaning.

After reading this blog post, this picture will take a whole new meaning.

Science fiction and horror are like a pair of abusive lovers.

SciFi attracts horror with its possibilities and potential. Horror pulls science fiction in because it’s a “bad boy”, something SciFi is constantly told not to date but that only makes horror more enticing. The result is often a bad mix that seemed so promising at first, only to end in violence and a lot of screaming. Anyone remember Prometheus?

Afterwards, SciFi gets up, dresses and takes the walk of shame home, hoping she doesn’t wake up horror. Her friends, fantasy and time piece fiction, tease her and tell her to stop seeing him. So SciFi goes back to work, becoming interesting and credible again. She has a date with crime fiction, which results in Looper, a great movie.

Suddenly, the phone rings. She risks a glance. It’s him. No, not just horror. Someone more meaningful than that.

Him. The one that got away.

She doesn’t want to answer the phone. If she does, it’s a chink in her armor that he’ll exploit. Or did SciFi hurt him, walking away? She saw his violent side and yes, it scared her. But he did not hurt her. Only scared her.

No, it was more than that.

He explored her to the fullest. She helped her see more, reach for the stars. Together, they created an amazing world, rich in detail and history. They crafted a wonderful story that played on the old rivalries of church and state.

Before SciFi realizes it, she’s driving over to his place. No fancy dinner, no coffee. There is no fine dining nor wining. She knocks. He’s at the door, and takes her hand. He leads her straight to the bedroom.

They do not pass Go. They do not collect $200.

Yes. He shares with her everything. The tight spaces, the darkness, being bound together. Even his ugly side, his inner monsters, are something special. They beg to be explored, their behavior intriguing and meaningful, a Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll. And she was his Nicole, the one he hallucinates about.

Being apart from SciFi is what hurts him.

Dead Space is the best sex that science fiction and horror ever had. And before you ask, yes. He used the handcuffs.