Thursday, December 29, 2005

King Kong As A Dirty Old Man

During the Xmas holidays, I and some of my relatives went to the cinema. My sister and her hubby went to see Disney's NARNIA movie, while me and my old mother went to see Peter Jackson's KING KONG remake.

Mom walked out halfway through KING KONG, saying out loud: "This is ridiculous."
(That was a bad sign. Normally she loves science fiction films.)

When the heroine started climbing after Kong up the skyscraper, I was tempted to walk out, too.

And just before Kong fell off the skyscraper, when Kong and the heroine exchanged looooooong teary-eyed looks, I thought: "If they start French-kissing, I'm OUTTA here." But, having paid good money (and being a cheapskate) I stayed through the entire film. It didn't improve.

Why does this remake fail as a coherent piece of storytelling? The easy answer is, it's too badly pieced together, overlong, and full of inconsistencies. (For example, how did the natives suddenly disappear from Skull Island?)

But personally, I reacted most strongly to the significance of making Kong an old, aging gorilla instead of a monster-as-primal-force-of-nature. Briefly put, Peter Jackson's KING KONG is a "Horny Old Man" plot.

Look: here you've got this hot young thing visibly and explicitly falling in love with a grumpy, scarred old gorilla with a human personality. This is a completely different Kong from the 1933 and 1976 versions. Both previous versions made Kong a beast in his prime, a larger-than-life figure.

Also, in Jackson's version, the young heroine is more in love with than she's sensibly afraid of a giant hungry monster who might kill her just as well as play with her.

In other words, when you ask yourself "What's it all about?" you think "It's about an ugly old man needing the love of a much younger and prettier person, and how to make this seem noble, romantic and rebellious - despite the fact that it's so overwrought, self-righteous and downright perverse."

It's the kind of plot that Bernardo Bertolucci did in LAST TANGO IN PARIS, or perhaps Thomas Mann with DEATH IN VENICE.
I loathe "Horny Old Man" plots! They pander to dirty old men, and I'm not one.

Also, the ending of Jackson's KING KONG is a big stinking lie. It wasn't "Beauty killed the Beast" in this version. It's the director Carl Denham - a metaphor for the director of KING KONG if there ever was one - who, against the forceful protests of the heroine, captured Kong and brought him to New York. And yet he says "It was Beauty killed the Beast" and we're supposed to believe it. I didn't.

So what went wrong?

Well, it appears the scriptwriters and the director got confused about what their story is "about"... and precisely for that reason, because they didn't really know the meaning of the story they wanted to tell, it turned into a "Horny Old Man" story. How exactly this came to pass is beyond me (Peter Jackson isn't that old) ... but maybe they took the "Kong" character too literally - he's supposed to be a monster, not a real person.

And what are monsters? Emblems of fear and guilt...
When you miss the point of a metaphor and interpret it literally - "he's this big gorilla, and there's just one of him, so logically he must be old and lonely"- you get fundamentalism, shallowness and ultimately stupidity.

Now go see the original version. It makes more sense - and it's less racist, too. Yes, it's true. Watch that scene in the 1933 version, where the Skull Island natives and Denham's expedition work together to block the gate that keeps Kong out. It shows, without the need for lofty speeches, that the natives and the "whites" are in the same boat.

But in Jackson's version, the natives are monsters - mindless, vicious murderers, totally without redeeming features, barely human - and so Jackson tacks on an idiotic, phony "message" bit just at the end, and thinks he's taken a stand against racism.

(Yeah, it's the scene where a bystander says Kong pointlessly climbed the tower because he was one of those dumb animals who can't think... while a single African-American man walks past to imply that the bystander is "really" talking about him. The pot calling the kettle black, eh, Mr. Jackson?)
Lucius Shepard has a very good (negative) review of the film here:
"Everybody Loves-a Da Big Monkey"

Thursday, December 22, 2005

My Short Story in BYZARIUM

The webzine BYZARIUM bought and published my short horror story "Nightmare Number Six" in it December 2005 issue.
Read it for free here.

(The story's title was inspired by Robert Bloch's story-poem "Nightmare Number Four".)

Films About Writers & Writing

I like film just as much as reading and writing. Trying to depict the writing process on film is rarely successful, since most of the "action" takes place in the writer's mind.

But here are some interesting, entertaining (and scary) movies about writers and the writing process:

WONDER BOYS (2000) - Based on the novel by Michael Chabon, this movie is really about procrastination and aging. The protagonist has been stuck on his unfinished Great American Novel for years, while younger and hungrier colleagues are experiencing their first major success. How does one fail gracefully? A love song to the loser in every writer.

IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, (a.k.a. JOHN CARPENTER'S IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)) - This is a guilty pleasure. A horror hackwriter, inspired by Stephen King and H.P.Lovecraft, becomes so successful that his books become real. Silly, yes, but makes you think about what fiction means to people.

MISERY (2000) - based on Stephen King's novel, this is a writer's own personal nightmare: the crazed fan who won't let him "bury" a popular character - she'd rather bury him!

BARTON FINK (1991) - may not be to everyone's taste, but it has several interesting things to say. First, this writer protagonist is an unpleasant, pretentious character - he thinks he's writing for "the common man" but he's not. Second, it portrays a writer who sells out to Hollywood - and fails. Third, it deals with writer's block.

Enjoy these movies when you're stuck in your own writing...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Feedback - Rules Of Thumb

Not all editors give you a pre-written rejection slip.

Some offer substantial constructive feedback, and suggestions for improvement. I'm glad when I receive such feedback, even when I don't agree with all suggestions.

Now, receiving reader/editor feedback is a test of your true character....
If you can't bring yourself to listen to ANY suggestion, no matter how trivial, you're a crank. Cranks rarely write stuff that others want to read.
If you mindlessly accept ANY suggestion, no matter how absurd, you're spineless. You'll become a rich, successful Hollywood script-hack -- but you'll never be a good writer. (Cry all the way to the bank.)

So how do you know if a suggestion is worth listening to? A few rules of thumb:

1. Always, ALWAYS take spelling advice seriously. I don't care if you've got a degree in linguistics, I don't care if you won the 1994 national spelling bee - look it up in a dictionary.

2. When someone suggests that a character name or the story/novel title should be changed, it could be either good or bad advice. People can show unbelievably bad judgment in their choice of names - just look at the names some people give their own babies! Trust your instincts.

3. Plot changes: If the suggested change makes the plot more difficult to follow, REJECT it. If the suggested change makes the plot easier to follow, CONSIDER or ACCEPT it.

4. Never take writing advice from your parents. (Never ask them.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Men Writing Women, Women Writing Men

Should you expect male writers to be better at depicting male characters than female characters? What about women writers? Does every writer reveal his/her gender bias in prose?

This is a fascinating subject - read the discussion thread on the ASIMOV's Messageboard, where I put in a comment.

The gist of my argument in that thread is that any character must be placed in a believable context(setting) to make sense. Stereotypes become all the more glaring if they occur in a setting where you wouldn't expect to find them in the first place.

Of course a female character can be wimpy, helpless and neurotic - if you put her in a credible setting. For example in the upper middle class, a mental institution, or in serious trouble.

But if you place her in a spaceship crew going to Mars, she's a stereotype. (Helpless, neurotic persons can't become astronauts.)

Another common example is when characters in a historical context behave in a way that is too modern for the setting. I read one of Jean M. Auel's novel Stone Age romances (as a teenager, you learned to find the sexy parts), I reacted to this: one Stone Age character talks about being "depressed".

The term "depressed" implies a whole apparatus of knowledge, culture and ideas of the human psyche which plain couldn't exist 30-50,000 years ago. Prehistoric people didn't know what a "mind" was, and the earliest written stories (THE ILIAD, GILGAMESH etc.) suggest very different concept of the "soul".

Homer would not speak of "depression". With that word, the character reveals itself as out-of-place in the Stone Age setting, just as if she had said "Got some Prozac?"

When you write a character, remember: the more out-of-place your characters seem, the more your story resembles comedy. If it is comedy you want to write, that's fine...

Friday, October 28, 2005

"Nobody Sleeps With The Writer"(2)

Well, the script reader turned down THE FATHER MACHINE... but she had lots of really good advice on how to improve it, and encouraged me to do so.

Considering it was my first movie script ever, I'm upbeat. I'll rewrite the script... :)

Saturday, October 22, 2005

"Nobody Sleeps With The Writer"

There's a saying in Hollywood: "Nobody sleeps with the writer."

I try to bear that in mind while I wait for the response from a minor movie-production company.
Said company asked my agent to send over my movie script THE FATHER MACHINE.

The script was based on a comic-strip I published in the 1990s in the defunct Swedish comic-book SVENSKA SERIER (literally "Swedish Comics"). A plot summary can be found here.

Will they buy the script? I'm not going to lose sleep over that! But it was fun to try and write a script... I Googled the websites that post classic movie manuscripts, so I could learn how the pros write.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Notes From The BOK & BIBLIOTEK 2005 Tradeshow

I was in the booth of Wela Förlag at the BOK & BIBLIOTEK book tradeshow during the last days of September+first days of October. It's a pretty big event held in Gothenburg, Sweden every year.

I'm rather tired after standing there in the booth for 4 days straight, but some memories are still vivid:

-A woman told me that both her husband AND daughter are reading my novel TERRA HEXA with equal enthusiasm... from a portable computer (PDA) screen. (They wanted her to buy the printed book, though.)

-An old man in a dirty overcoat asked me whether the title "TERRA HEXA" has something to do with witches ("häxa" in Swedish means "witch").
When I gently explained that "Hexa" is Latin for "six"(pronounced "sex" in Swedish), he then said the book must have "sexy" content. I asked him (not so gently) to leave.

-A young woman who had read my novel and liked it, asked me when the sequel would be out. (Next year.)

-A strange, fat young man said I should hire him to draw a comic-book based on my novel. He showed me drawings that would have embarrassed a 7-year-old. When I gently (honestly!) told him I'd prefer a more experienced artist, he walked three steps to the booth right next to ours, and repeated his sales pitch!

-People really liked the marzipan I had made for the occasion and was giving away for free. (It was supposed to be blue, like my book-cover, but turned out poison-green.)

-A sales rep from the big distributor Richters (a.k.a. Damm) was impressed by hearing I'd been published in China, and received a copy of TERRA HEXA for review.

-I met some people I hadn't seen in a while, and located an old classmate I had been trying to find for several years. (He has a very common name. Imagine trying to find "Tom Smith" in a U.S. phonebook.)

All in all a nice experience, and I'll be there again next year.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Avast, mates! 'Tis Talk Like A Pirate Day!

Ahoy, landlubbers! If ye happen to see many pirates in yer town today, it be because September 19 be Talk Like A Pirate Day.

So be a mate, lads and lasses, and talk like a pirate today! Arrr!

Saturday, September 03, 2005

All Writers Are Liars, Especially If They Claim To Be Exiled Nigerians

I get a load of Nigerian Banking Scam e-mails every day... today I received the first one which actually used my name.

I was insulted and annoyed, that a fellow writer of outrageous fictions could think I wouldn't be able to tell a fiction from the truth. How unprofessional! How gauche!

Now, I'm not saying the "Banking Scam" people aren't gifted writers, in their narrow field. They have a certain skill in coming up with variations on the tired theme "I can make you rich tomorrow if you send me money today." And it's hard to really feel sorry for the fools who are greedy enough to fall for such an obvious lie.

I even wrote a satire of the email scam, in the horror story "The Last Weblog Of Jonathan Lippincott."

But I would never go so far as to suggest, as in this bizarre tale, that a paid agent should seek out the scammers and... make them go away.

No, I'm convinced that a little voodoo curse I picked up from my relatives in Kap Verde will suffice. Soon, grave and inexplicable misfortune will befall the Nigerian Banking scammers who tried to approach me. Their teeth will rot and fall out. Their children will fall sick. Their parents will die in mysterious accidents. The scammer who wrote the email to me will suffer the greatest curse of all: his genitals will shrivel and die away, and his body will emit a disgusting smell which drives away all people around him.

This will happen, and nothing can stop it. Would I lie to a con artist?

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Happy Blog Day!

Today, Aug.31 2005, is Blog Day - so here are five links to weblogs which I think deserve attention (and which relate to the theme of this blog - the craft of writing).
Have a Bloggerful Day!

1. GapingVoid: "How To Be Creative"

2. 14theditch - the weblog of writer Jeffrey Ford

3. Iowahawk: "Ingmar Bergman's 'Hazardous Dukes'" (a parody in which the Swedish film classic THE SEVENTH SEAL is crossed with the redneck TV-show THE DUKES OF HAZZARD)
4. MoorishGirl - the weblog of writer Laila Lalami

5. Conversational Reading - the weblog of writer Scott Esposito

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Losing Your Nerve

You're probably familiar with the myth that drugs and drink "stimulate creativity."

I think the myth confuses "creativity" with "nerve." When a man has to get drunk before he dares to approach a woman and talk to her, he might tell himself and others: "Alcohol shtimulates my libido!" But his real problem is, he's afraid. And we know what alcohol really does to the libido.

The issue, then, is fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of imperfection (the most paralyzing of all anxieties), fear of ridicule. Writing skill is a combination of abilities, but losing your nerve can wreck your writing life completely.

It fascinates me how individuals are prepared to risk their health in the most reckless manner possible - drunk driving, bungee jumping, walking on the edges of rooftops, paintball fights... but ask them to read a speech (or sing a song) before a live audience, and they freeze up with terror.
Talk about keeping your priorities straight! :)

Ditto with writing fiction: would-be writers and active writers alike are gripped by paralyzing fear. What to do?
I'm no psychiatrist... but why not try this:

1. Write under a pen name. If you're afraid of having your name associated with (and shamed by) your novel, use a pseudonym. Like a clown mask, it provides a measure of ego protection. And in any case, "Rex Mackenzie" is a cooler writer name than "Melvin Poznovski."

2. Regression therapy. Imagine yourself as a kid playing with crayons or Lego. You're eight years old, and you write. See what happens. (Then grow up. You can't remain a child forever.)

3. Listen to really loud rock music while you write. It works for others. It can work for you. (Be careful so you don't damage your ears, though.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Yep, that's me. I'll wait for the movie. Got other books to read. No, I'm not Catholic, not fanatically devoted to the Pope, not part of the Spanish Inquisition... just not interested in yet another conspiracy theory involving the Vatican.

To further convince me that I should remain The Last Man On Earth who hasn't read that bestselling novel, here is Geoffrey K. Pullum's analysis (or should I say evisceration) of the mangled language, style and syntax in THE DA VINCI CODE:

"The Dan Brown code"

By the way, I have a theory about the success of that book: let's call it "Displaced Paranoia." For obvious reasons, many people today fear a certain form of religious extremism which can lead to terrorism and oppression. But since this fear is so great, people are scared even to express it.

And when the pressure of this anxiety becomes almost unbearable, people will find a "safe" outlet for it: the fear and paranoia that they cannot digest or express, is projected onto the Vatican - a religious/political institution which was once feared and powerful.

To put it bluntly, THE DA VINCI CODE offers a perfect straw man for today's anxiety about religious fanatics. Do you want to sell millions of books? Do you worry that your writing skills just aren't good enough? Find that perfect target for displaced paranoia, and your success is guaranteed!

For example: if there is a widespread fear of, say, global warming, you don't write about the subject directly. Instead, find a "straw man" subject with a conspiracy theory attached. Your novel might be about a Russian supervillain who threatens to change the climate by artificial means... or an ancient conspiracy of Freemasons to cause the flooding of European cities.

The plot of your novel doesn't have to make too much sense, as long as it
A) Presents a metaphor for what the public really worries about;
B) Offers a paranoid conspiracy theory which blames a harmless institution/group as "behind it all."

Friday, August 19, 2005

Story As Process of Events, Vs. Story As Character Development

There are two basic ways you can depict history - real history, that is - and they also apply to writing fiction:

A) History as a process of events.
Why bother with individuals? Let's just look at "the system" - all peoples, all institutions, the world as a whole - and watch them interact. In the greater scheme of things, what the individual thinks, feels, says and decides matters not.

The forces of history are supreme. We're just going with the flow of things. If Hitler hadn't been, somebody just as vile would have been there instead, doing roughly the same things. It was that time of the century.

Apply this principle to a novel, and you get a very grand panorama of nations, factions, groups and nature's forces (the Sun, the Earth, the cosmos, the echosphere), clashing mightily over time. It can be awe-inspiring, if done right, but may also come across as cold and impersonal (which it probably is).

And if you're not up to the task, the story is guaranteed to turn out utter crap. There's a thin line indeed between the sublime and the pompous.

B) History as Character Development.
Why bother with the big events? Focus on the individual - how she grows up, how she is shaped by genes and environment, and what becomes of her.
By understanding one person, we will understand the whole of The Human Condition.

Many novels are written with this approach, and you have to be a real schmuck to fail at it. Because this is how every single human being perceives history: as "The Story of My Life" - the early years, the adolescence, maturity, and old age. This story is intensely personal, and universal.

But it has severe limitations. Does everything have to be about YOU? Galaxies collide, stars are born - what's that got to do with YOUR ingrown toenail? (Or with my receding hairline?) Absolutely nothing!

So it's perfectly valid to write a story where characters don't get into play at all. (A classic example would be Olaf Stapledon's STAR MAKER. )

But... who will read it? And you can bet your ass the critics will despise it. The cultural paradigm is still "We are all individuals!" (-Monty Python's Life of Brian)

Try to seriously express the notion that human individuals are not (and cannot be) in control of their own lives, and you will be shunned... also by people who claim they are the instruments of Fate/God/History, but really are just narcissists with a God complex.

OK, enough with the philosophy. What I'm getting at here is that is dead simple.

Your chosen point-of-view in fiction-writing -- impersonal/distanced, or personal/intimate -- will, whether you mean it or not, reflect a certain view of the world. Do you wish to depict "how things work?" Are you focusing on "how does this person work?" Can you fuse both perspectives? You can, but you don't have to.

The choice is yours (assuming there is a choice, he-he!)...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Quotes From the INTERCON 2005 Panel (3, Final Part)

Intercon 2005 Panel "Militarism and Space Opera - Why Are These Themes So Popular in SF?" - 3rd and Final Part
(Continued from the previous post)

From right to left: A.R.Yngve, Elizabeth Moon, Öyvind Myhre, Heikki Sörum, and Gunnar Bakken(?).

In the Einsteinian universe of course we cannot have any sort of intergalactic war. It takes too long a time. You cannot reach Alpha Centauri in less than 4.3 years, stationary time. Then you'll need another 4.3 years going back.

We will in all likelihood have various local conflicts of a military nature between ourselves (in the future)... but nothing like intergalactic war. Unless, of course, there's some flaw in the Einsteinian universe that allows us to travel faster than light. I doubt it...

Now, interplanetary conflict is possible - it takes only a couple of months to go to Mars - and there's a real possibility of a war between the powers of the Earth and the colonies on Mars sometime during this century.

(An audience members talks about Peter F. Hamilton: in his books, future colonists on other planets change genetically, in order to survive in the alien environment.)

The evolution of the human brain from Homo Habilis until early modern humans took at least 1 million years for the brain to triple in size. Now, that is fantastically fast... and if you have less than a million years to change a human organ, evolution itself will not do it. You have to modify people artificially.

In Peter Hamilton's book, was this genetic operation artificial or natural?

(Audience member replies: A combination of both.)

A combination is (of artificial and natural genetic change) is certainly possible. What was the name of this island in the Southern Atlantic... where there was a small population - and it didn't have sufficient genetic variety to survive long term. It dwindled and dwindled, its fertility dwindled with too much inbreeding. And it got down to a very small number of people, who were finally evacuated, if I remember correctly.

When you have a small population, which any space colony is likely to be for a while, you're going to run into the problem of insufficient genetic variability. It would be reasonable to carry along some extra variability that you could then add in.

But probably, as you (Myhre) are saying, you're not going to get a species - speciation - in historical time. What you could do, however, is to add a few things artificially - which we now are getting the capacity to do. Which might actually produce humans who could not interbreed.

(Someone asks: Are the supersoldiers of military science fiction realistic?)

Yesterday I bought the DVD of the movie RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II. And it struck me - as I watched Rambo decimate the entire Russian and Vietnamese army, singlehanded: "This is a science-fiction film!" (Audience laughter)

He's got weapons that don't exist yet! Those fantastic little nitroglycerin-tipped arrows he uses to blast choppers out of the sky... where did he get those toys?

(Heikki (?) makes a comment about how the Russian soldiers in that movie always shot and missed.)

Yeah, they're all cross-eyed.

(An audience member makes a comment about the perceived lunacy and disorder of the Vietnam war and/or any real battlefield.)

There is lunacy. Definitely. I think it may depend somewhat on unit structure. I know that when I was in, my branch was considered much more disciplined than my husband's branch, for instance.

And I would be appalled when I went home on leave, looking at the way those people wore their uniforms. Like, "Hmf! Ridiculous."

You would've hated my platoon. We were a bunch of slackers.

There are slackers. There was disorder on a level of nobody quite knowing what was supposed to be going on. The level I'm speaking of was the difference between the soldier and the warrior.

Everybody that I knew, in the units I served in, were certainly obedient to discipline - with the exception of Saturday night and a few other times - going wild occasionally but only occasionally.

And the people I know - that I've known since, who consider themselves warriors, were never under anybody's control. At all. I certainly saw enough of what we call FUBARs. When things go totally wrong and the whole division, the whole group...

We spent 2 years (in Moon's Marine Corps unit) doing some programming one time... and were told - at the end of it - that we'd been doing it in the wrong language! So you know, stuff goes wrong... but my experience was fairly disciplined within the branch I was in.

But programming requires discipline.

No, the Marine Corps requires discipline.

(An audience member asks about how the unforeseen "human factor" affects military planning.)

The human element is definitely one of the spanners in the works.

(An audience member comments: so much of war is mostly about waiting.)

That's perhaps the most unrealistic thing about Military SF: something happens all the time. (Audience laughs)

But you know what happens with readers, if you don't have something happen all the time! (More laughter)

(An audience member comments: in real military life, things frequently don't work: for instance, ordnance that doesn't go off - this rarely happens in fiction.)

(Agrees) How many of you have read David Drake's work? The difference between his "Hammer's Slammer's" work and a couple of short stories that he wrote - I think, fairly soon after he came back from Vietnam - is astounding!

And it is so realistic that you can smell it, the hairs stand up on your arm, and you're ducking and saying "Please God, get me out of this place, I don't want to be here!"

(In contrast to these short stories) the "Hammer's Slammers" stuff is exciting and bloody... and if you don't mind a certain bloody-mindedness, it makes a good page-turning read... but it's just "military SF." This other thing he wrote, is good military fiction - for any war, for any writer. It's brilliant.

REDSHIFT is another (short-story collection of his), that has a lot of that reality - I think one of his later ones - he got away from writing slam-bang things for a while... and REDSHIFT is brilliant.

(Heikki makes a comment about depicting the human side of war.)

I think there are some people who aren't that interested in the human side (of war). There is a market for military fiction - not just science fiction - which appears to be entirely for the "guns and glory" crowd.

They're purely masculine-oriented, purely about "the soldier as the hero," the soldier as the person of courage, as the person of honor - and it's all fighting and killing and fornicating.


By the way... I have to mention a special subgenre of War/Military SF, that's Alternate History.
Where you make up an imaginary historical conflict - "what if... "

And there is one particular sub-subgenre (of Alternate History) that is sort of "the bottom of the barrel" (Moon laughs)...

There are people who actually write war fantasies about say, World War II, where the bad guys win. I've heard that in Japan, there's a very popular type of books where Japan wins World War II - heroically... (NOTE: Yngve here said "World War III" then corrected himself)

And I have seen American comic-books titled "Luftwaffe 1945" - which have these sort of masturbatory fantasies about the glorious high-tech weapons of the Third Reich. And my jaw just dropped: "Americans write comic-books glorifying the Nazi war machine??"

The young ones do... How many of you read Newt Gingrich's "1945"?

If that isn't a wish-fulfilment fantasy... I'm sorry: I do not think that's a good book, I do not think it's good military SF. Although there are people who come up to me and say "Why don't you write something like that?"

(An audience member(?) suggests he'd like to see a military SF book where a major character is unexpectedly killed in action.)

If you kill off the protagonist you don't have readers for very long. That is one of the facts of publishing.

Yeah, I heard that from my former agent: "You can't kill off the hero; the readers will hate that."

You can kill off some of the heroes. You should kill off an important person now and then. (Much laughter) But you can't kill your main character and have a consistent readership... because they become highly annoyed with you and they go away.

They become attached to the character.

Well, I get attached to the character! But I can't get too attached. Then on the other hand, you've got writers who will pick their character apart in pieces... like David Weber did with Honor Harrington. You know - first you lose this body part, then you lose that body part...
(Audience laughs) Okaay...

But in SF, you can always attach new body parts...

Well, remember she can't have some of the attachments. She can't have regeneration.

But there was one horrible one - this is really, really bad. It was supposed to be a fight against an intergalactic alien that came down to conquer Earth ever so often... and Earth people had to fight them every time.

And one book of this type I read - the heroine is specially trained in all these ways - she gets up to the alien ship... and in the course of the fighting she loses three limbs: both legs, and one arm.

And she had a special suit that cuts off the circulation, so she doesn't immediately bleed out. But at one point the author comments that "she (the heroine) found it easier to roll across the floor, now that she didn't have legs."
(Audience laughs)

And at that point I burst into laughter, and had to show it to my husband - oh no - we had to read on and find out how she got out of there, how she killed the alien with one arm left. She lost part of that arm on the way out.

(And there was much rejoicing among the audience.)

Like the Black Knight in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL? (Yngve makes a very poor impersonation of The Black Knight)

I don't know what this person (writer) was thinking! They wrote it as if it were dead serious.
It was hysterically funny - and yet at the same time, when I think about a writer who could write that scene and not understand it was hilariously funny... that was someone with a deficient sense of reality.

The psychology has to be real, and the physicality has to be real. I remember reading a book where someone was shot in the chest. And the author got rid of that by saying the character's breastbone was very thick. (Audience laughs) And he was just knocked out for a while.

I have dealt with chest wounds for gunshots. No, that doesn't work!

(An audience member - Heidi Lyshol? - asks about the "repeating plot clichès" in stories about war. Certain things always seem to happen in this type of fiction.)

Well, most of the situations we write about have a "set" format.

If you write about somebody who's unhappy in their job, you know there's going to be a bad middle manager. We know there's going to be other employees who are disgruntled, and other employees who are trying to fight their way up the ladder, and are backstabbing the one who's not happy with his job.

Most of the stories we tell do have a common structure and are fairly repetitive. Military fiction makes it pretty obvious - but I see this in other books... consider mysteries: somebody's dead, and somebody's going to figure out who did it! You have the detective, the detective's friend or subordinate, the people around the dead person, the police...

And people like the predictability?

Oh yes!

Could you mention one Military SF story where a human person fights a war... and then suddenly realizes that he wants to belong to the other side? That he defects and starts a new life among aliens?

Bujold has written some characters like that. There's one in, I think, her last Miles book...
A character who falls in love with someone from a totally different culture, and deserts. And causes a diplomatic problem. It's a good story.

The reality is, there are people who want to change sides, and there are people who just want to get out of it. And if your publisher gives you the space - enough books, enough wordage - you can make it more and more complex.

If you have to write 80,000 words in one story, there's a limit to how much additional stuff you can put in.

(Here a discussion ensues between panel members and audience, about predictable "fairy-tale" style plot patterns with stereotypical heroes. Bad sound quality made it impossible to transcribe this part of the recording faithfully.)

Which reminds me: recently, listening to the story again of Lance Armstrong's life - you couldn't write that and sell it; nobody would believe it! But it really happened.

And it's affected a lot of people (who heard the story of Lance Armstrong), because that's the kind of story that many of us tell ourselves inside: We started as nothing much, we're making a life, we're making progress...

When little children want to play games in the backyard, they want to be the "good guy."
My childhood playmates had to remind me that I couldn't be Robin Hood all the time. Sometimes I had to be the sheriff of Nottingham. We all wanted to be the hero.

And for a lot of children there's a "savior" aspect to it. As well as wanting to be the hero who fights, we want to help somebody else.So many people are built that way - I think it's part of the human hardwiring.

There is always this inherent danger in Military SF, and it often happens, that it degenerates into basically a power-fantasy. You give people (in books) these invincible miracle weapons...

Yeah, Stirling's books, for instance.

Or that book which I won't mention, where someone simply presses a button, and a whole planet explodes...

I thought that was a movie.

Yeah, that one too. (Laughter) Then it becomes a fairy-tale.

(Myhre talks about a novel/series where aliens at war with humanity breed human-killing monsters, created to kill.)

When finally there is peace, what do we do with these monsters?

That's always a problem - what do we do with the soldiers after the war? They can become a "political liability."

These are monsters (in the books he describes) that have been bred specifically to kill...

Yeah, they can't do anything else.

Is that an argument against "super-soldiers" in science fiction?

Take one of the very first war stories... Odyssevs. He's a war veteran! A half-crazed war veteran who comes home from a long war with Troy... people are trying to take his property on Ithaca - it's almost like FIRST BLOOD.
(Ominous voice) "They pushed him too far."

(Elizabeth Moon laughs)

It's a problem, but - it's kinda funny... You know, my husband came back from combat and settled back into life, and doesn't have bad dreams.

Maybe it's because both he and I are military, we could talk about it - and the fact that we could discuss it, helped him. He was a primarily involved in the medical corps, but he did get involved in some fairly difficult things.

So not all veterans are "liabilities" - but some certainly can be, and part of it has to do with how society treats them when they get back. A lot of Vietnam veterans, because they got so much flak when they got back, did turn into liabilities. I don't know if they would've been (that) otherwise. A lot of World War II veterans were not.

(Someone - Heikki? - talks about the importance of returning soldiers to "have something to come back to," to be integrated into society.)

A problem with many Military SF stories is that they basically paint the situation of perpetual war. There is no peace. There's just -

(And there the tape ran out... only a minute before Yngve made a sophomoric joke about trying to find the bathroom on the Death Star.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Quotes From the INTERCON 2005 Panel (2)...

Intercon 2005 Panel "Militarism and Space Opera - Why Are These Themes So Popular in SF?" - Part 2
(Continued from the previous post)

I met one woman who wanted to talk to me about something military, and I told her "I'm not active duty anymore, you need to talk to someone who is." And she said "I don't want to talk to a soldier."

Well, gee, I'm sorry, that's the only way to find out. Be one, or be close to one. I think that those who are close to or actually themselves have been in the military as I am, we have a better feel for what a soldier's mind is like, for the kinds of conflicts you get into.

I've been in situations myself that were very conflicted, very difficult to deal with, and that I still think about 30-40 years later.

Is there any place in the modern military for the warrior personality, rather than the soldier personality?

In a regular war, definitely. Guerrilla war, any irregular force has its place for them (warriors). Special Forces of different kinds, SEALs, SAS, all that sort of things.

The warrior personality does not have the same approach to discipline that a soldier does.
For instance, one woman said to me, when she found out I've been in the Marine Corps: "Oh, you must be a warrior!"

I'm not a warrior, I'm a soldier! The soldier is completely disciplined, in the terrifying sense, that you become the tool and you do not have the right make certain kinds of decisions yourself.

The warrior is independent. It's what makes a warrior fantasy different from military fantasy.
Because a warrior can go out there, take a dislike to some tyrant, go chop heads off his guards, undermine his castle or whatever. It's all entirely up to him, he's an independent actor.

The soldier does what he or she is told. Up to the point where there is a conflict with your training - which unfortunately some of our people have not learned, but we certainly had a lot of training in that specific thing - exactly when it was legal to disobey, what you had to do to make your disobedience legal. And the fact that you were supposed to take the consequences (of disobedience) - there would probably be a court-martial.

But that is a difference; you don't hear about "court-martial warriors."

The warrior is responsible for his own acts. The soldier is a tool and doesn't expect to be held accountable or responsible for his acts. The Nurnberg Trials taught us otherwise -

They were supposed to teach us otherwise.

Yeah. But except for that, the soldier is under somebody else's responsibility.

If you are a commanding officer, you are responsible for what you told your troops to do. And if you are a Commander-in-Chief you are also responsible for what you told your troops to do - although bringing that fact home to commanders-in-chief has been quite difficult!

I want to talk more about the conflict in the soldier's mind... these conflicts would not be nearly as strong, as long you'd only been killing "bad-guy monsters" - rather than other human beings.
For instance, you can't find much remorse among the soldiers in STARSHIP TROOPERS.

That's a seminal example of inventing a dehumanized enemy (Yngve is speaking metaphorically - or he's mixing up the metaphors?). They're insects, so you just want to stomp on them.

By the way, STARSHIP TROOPERS has of course been sent up as parody by other writers. Even the movie is in some sense a satire of the book. My favorite example is Harry Harrison's novel BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO... where the hero is basically press-ganged into the imperial army, to fight the supposedly evil alien lizards.

And when he finally finds one of the enemy, the enemy lizard is about this tall (Yngve shows with his fingers: 6 centimeters). And he was told they were 7 feet! But the War Office decided that no soldier would be afraid of an enemy who was this tall (6 cm), so they had to tell the soldiers they were 7 feet tall.

There's a book titled ON KILLING. It talks specifically about what it takes to train people to kill, and what it does to people when they have killed. The common reactions of soldiers who have killed in combat, the problems they have for 20-30 years after.

It talks about the need to dehumanize the enemy, to make them into bugs, or lizards or something, in order to get people to kill them.

Shortly before I left the United States, I saw a TV documentary - interviews with Kosovans and Albanians (from the Yugoslavian Civil War). And on both sides, young men - quite nice-looking young men with families, they looked like normal people - but on both sides, they would say of the other: "Oh, they're just animals. It doesn't matter how many of them we kill."

That ability to dehumanize has been in the species for a while. It is still being used, still being forced on people. The child warriors that are kidnapped in Africa, and turned into fighters at age 12-13... they come to believe that the people they kill aren't really people.

But the odd thing is, that underneath they know it's a lie.

When these men get to be 60, they will be thinking: "What did I do?" The faces of those they killed, the cries, will come back to them. You can try that (the lie), but it will take more and more energy to hold that fantasy - that the enemy is not real.

There's a minority of people, who discover when they're being trained to kill people, that they like it.

And most of those people... become insane. Their entire background has said killing is wrong. If they go to war and kill because they were ordered to take the village, and they feel bad about it afterwards... fine. But what do you do, if you discover that you are the monster? You are the monster who likes it.

It happens to a minority. They can go two ways: either they become completely inhuman, acknowledge themselves as "I no longer feel part of the human race. I am the alien, the nonhuman one, and therefore I can kill them, because we're not the same species."

Or they can be struggling for years until they finally lose it - and often commit suicide - to realize that they are the person they've been warned about for their entire childhood.

A very few - a tiny memory - are able to integrate that with the military discipline. And even though they enjoy killing, they discipline themselves; they never allow themselves to be angry in a situation, to be tempted to kill except in a military situation. They avoid things like the Special Forces, because they know that would tempt them.

Have these people been warrior types?

No, I don't think so. Because they accept the discipline of the conventional military.

During the civil war in Rwanda in the early 90s, the Hutu-controlled government media used this analogy that the "others," the Tutsis, were "cockroaches." So the Hutu population was basically instructed by radio to go out and kill "the cockroaches."

Now, is it coincidence that a government's propaganda likens people to insects when it wants to enforce a genocide... and that science-fiction writers tend to, when they want a completely dehumanized enemy, to describe them as insects?

I think that changes through history. In the Pre-Civil War South, black people were shown as "monkeys." That was the choice, not "insects."

And that continued even after the Civil War, through the Reconstruction and the very bad years in the 20s and 30s particularly - and even a bit into my childhood: "We weren't killing people, they were just monkeys. They were subhuman."

So whether it's dogs, rats, or pigs... whatever is considered vile by that culture, will be chosen to dehumanize them (the target).
(The third and final part of the panel will be posted on this blog.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Quotes From the INTERCON 2005 Panel (1)...

The above photo is from INTERCON 2005, Norway, the panel debate on "Militarism & Space Opera - Why Are These Themes So Popular in SF?".
From right to left (no pun intended): A.R.Yngve, Elizabeth Moon, Öyvind Myhre, Heikki Sörum, and Gunnar Bakken(?).

I have not yet transcribed the whole 1-hour tape from this panel (which occurred on July 31), but here are some quotes:
Elizabeth Moon:
I'm not sure the line is always that firm (between military SF and Space Opera).

One of my books might start out an adventure story, some military creeps into it, you get interested in that, it leans toward military SF, you think that is too serious; you throw in something as idiotic as a hot-air balloon, or a horse; it wanders back toward being Space Opera, and then gradually - for me - the series is going to end up being military SF - but it can take six books for me to get there.

Heikki Sörum:
We can't really imagine a past, our future, without serious conflict.

Öyvind Myhre:
Primitive man didn't have war - there wasn't the resources for it.
In a well-organized society, we have an accumulation of power and riches - things to catch hold of - and there's no way to take away these resources from anyone without force.

Early literature was all about this fight for power: who's going to come on top.

There's one thing that makes science-fictional war stories unique from "mainstream" war stories: in this genre we have a complete freedom to shape the conflict situation and how it is fought.

You can invent weapons, enemies and situations that don't or can't exist. And there's the inherent danger of the genre, of inventing a straw-man enemy who represents whatever the writer is against.

You can set up the odds, so that either it seem impossible for the "good" side to win - or you start cheating by inventing a miracle weapon at the last possible minute - push a button and Kaboom! the enemy just vaporizes - Jack Williamson did that in THE LEGION OF SPACE.

I think there's a thin line between science fiction and mainstream war fiction. Take Tom Clancy's books: He will invent what he claims are weapons presently under development - and while these books seem realistic, there is a strong element of fantasy in them, from my point of view.

You have no doubt in old war stories - non-SF - the people who write them always know who is good, who is bad. That's how they're written, and it's one of the attractions, like cowboys-and-indians movies. You know which side is supposed to win. In real life that may not be the "right" side, there may not be a clear victory.

This kind of of story is very satisfying, very comforting to people, and that's why it can be very dangerous - if you become comfortable with something that is not real, and you expect the world to be like that - you're out of luck.

STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE FOREVER WAR, ENDER'S GAME... what makes these books so popular?

The ones that are popular are ripping good stories. They have all the characteristics of an excellent story: you have a main character who is faced with a serious dilemma; has to fight their way through it; characters you can attach to and care about.

Most people would not characterize Lois McMaster Bujold's books as military SF - and yet, through all the Miles Vorkosian books, the main characters are military people; they're either veterans or active duty.

Her handling of the military aspects is good, her handling of how it affects Miles and the other is excellent, it's very realistic... and yet people continuously refer to these books as romances, because some of the characters fall in love with each other.

Soldiers do fall in love each other! Here's a marine (Elizabeth Moon) who married an Army guy. I know all about falling in love with military.

I'd like to quote Steven Francis Murphy, a real Gulf War veteran, what he wrote on the ASIMOV's Message Board...

"Why is it that so many writers seem to focus on the pyro, the technical, and the doctrinal/tactical, while glossing over the human side with a patina of their own personal views?"

And he describes the peculiar schizoid nature of a soldier's mind:

"I'm proud to be a soldier; I hate to kill people; I have to kill to protect my buds; I feel guilty about what I've done; I'm proud to have taken part."

That's a very complex psychology, and would be interesting to write or read about. But how many writers succeed with that?

A few do. If a person has not been a veteran, or has not known one closely, in the family usually, and listened to stories, to understand what veterans are going through, then you can't write it.

I think a lot of the (gung-ho, military-glorifying) sort of books are written by people with no military background. They may have read other writers' military SF, but they haven't themselves ever been around soldiers that much.

There's more, but I'll post it later. Thanks to Steven Francis Murphy for letting me quote him.

Monday, August 01, 2005

ELIZABETH MOON On "Autism & Science Fiction"

As Guest of Honor during Intercon 2005 in Oslo, Norway (July 28-July 31), Elizabeth Moon held a lecture about her experience with an autistic family member... and how there is a connection between autism, Science Fiction, and aliens in Science Fiction.
The experience clearly inspired her writing of the Nebula Award-winning novel THE SPEED OF DARK (2002).

This is a compressed account of Elizabeth Moon's lecture - and the conversation which followed in the cafeteria afterward.
Elizabeth Moon's autistic son was unable to speak at age 2 1/2, but he could read and write.
Psychologists told her that her son's condition was incurable.

But Moon, who had worked as a computer programmer for the U.S. Marine Corps, decided to approach her son the way a computer programmer does: "Don't blame the CPU if the program can't process all the input!"

She studied the then-available knowledge about the human brain (which she found lacking), compared it with the studies of animal behavior... and arrived at the insight that "behavior is communication." While the psychologists at the time did not adequately try to analyze the behavior of autistic children, Moon mantained that "all behavior has meaning" and studied it as if it were animal behavior.

Moon mentions as an example, how a horse grazes in a field - it takes one bite, walks around, takes a bite at another spot, and so on. Instead of dismissing the horse's behavior as "random," we understand it is "sampling" the grass - just as humans "sample" tidbits of the different foods on a plate. So why condemn autistic behavior as "random" or "pointless"?

She studied her son's behavior to see what it communicated, and found that he couldn't perceive patterns in motion - but he was interested in patterns that stood still.

He also showed a delayed reaction to speech. Instead of simply assuming he was "retarded," Moon analyzed the way he processed information (i.e. speech).

The son could read words well - but if you spoke the same word, he couldn't hear it. And like other autistics, he didn't understand the meaning of pointing.

Many autistics can't perceive brief sounds - i.e. consonants (b, c, d, f, g, h, etc...), but vowels are long enough for them to perceive (aaa, ooo, eee, etc.). Naturally, this impedes their learning of language.

So Moon started to train her son to recognize consonants, for instance in the facial expression of the speaker. She made great progress, taught him to process and use speech, worked with other autistic children... and realized that her son was normal.

Moon asks: "What do autistic children want out of life?" The same things as any other person: They want friends, they want to be comfortable... they want a good life.

They are very sensitive. (As an example, Moon mentions how a neck collar tag can irritate an autistic child much more than a non-autistic child.)

But they meet much rejection and prejudice - especially from "experts" - or from frustrated parents/relatives who don't understand their behavior - and so many autistics, who are treated as "aliens," come to believe they aren't human.

We make autism worse by treating autistic behavior as "pathological" (i.e. "sick").

It is our choice to either accept or alienate people whose perception-patterns are different from ours... which leads us to fandom and science fiction.

In (science-fiction) fandom, Moon says, she finds people who are comfortable and relaxed among each other.

There is a high quota of science-fiction fans with Asperger's Syndrome - a form of "mild autism."
Typical of Asperger's Syndrome is to be
1. socially awkward,
2. very verbal
(can talk obsessively about one particular subject for a long while),
3. intensely interested in certain "pet" subjects (fly-fishing, fountains...)
4. showing other autistic-like symptoms.

Autism symptoms may vary, but are all in the area of perception difficulties. More research is needed - and better research.

It's not all bad to be in the "borderlands" of autism. It is possible to understand and communicate with autistic people.

Moon says she herself had Asperger's symptoms as a kid ("I was pigheaded, bossy, insensitive"). But she reminds the audience: whatever your behavior is, you're not "bad in your own mind." The same goes for different cultures.
How many of us, Moon asks, are ambassadors for cultural understanding? She likes to write about how different people perceive the world.

Having said that fandom is an environment where people with Asperger's can feel at home, Moon also warns: "Any group can become a comfortable hiding-hole." You should give people a little nudge - without being judgmental - to "try other things" too. Then you can help people out of their hiding-holes.

Is autism increasing? Rather, it's NOT going up - but people who once would have been classified as "retarded," now get diagnosed as autistic or Asperger's.

There are social environments where people with autistic/Asperger's behavior fit right in - such as nuns in a convent! But in an army platoon, the members need to "bond" well, so Asperger's doesn't really work there... except possibly as a single "mascot" member with highly specialized skills.

There seems to be a connection between Asperger's Syndrome and synesthesia. Moon herself has mild synesthesia: she associates certain numbers with specific colors.

We compared Moon's mental "color chart" for numbers with those of some audience members, and came up with interesting variation patterns.

At this point in the conversation, sitting in the cafeteria after the lecture, Moon had to declare herself "wiped" and retired for the evening. (Seeing as she was surrounded by eager people with Asperger's symptoms, we could have continued talking until she collapsed... )

August 1, 2005

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

"Sometimes It's Better To Write What You Feel, Than What You Know"

I'm fascinated by weblogs. Each is unique in its own way.

While many blogs exist to spread and discuss information (such as news, movies, books, hobbies), they are also means of personal expression. And of course, many fiction-writers now have weblogs.

One thing strikes me when reading the weblogs of people who write, or aspire to write: sometimes, their weblog writing is MORE expressive, more emotional, than their fiction (short stories, excerpts from novels).

They seem to have more to say - and find it much easier to express it - in their weblogs, than in the fiction they write.

Most aspiring writers look to an established writer as their "ideal" to follow, and try (often very hard) to emulate or imitate their favorite successful author.
They may focus intensely on style, or detail... and yet, something is missing in the result. I read a piece of this fiction, and my gut reaction is:

"This writer is holding back. His weblog is full of feeling and soul, he has things to say... but when I read his fiction, it's like he's not really expressing himself. Something was in the weblog, but not in the fiction."

It could be that weblogs ARE a superior medium for self-expression: fiction is too rule-bound for most people who wish to put their thoughts into text. (In that case, the Death of the Novel might be at hand... mua ha-haa!)

Or, the writer tries too hard to emulate others, instead of "emulating himself." (OK, clumsy term, but you get the point.) The "ideal" becomes an obstacle to self-expression.

The only solution is to break free of the model, the ideal. If you want your stories to sing, you have to listen to what's inside you. It's a Zen thing.

Sometimes it's better to write what you feel, than what you know.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Harry Potter And The Peerless Pastiches

The British newspaper The Guardian has a hilarious Harry Potter feature going: "The alternative Potter: Dumbledore's death" .

The contestants have produced several laugh-out-loud funny pastiches of Harry Potter - for instance, "Dumbledore's Death" as written by Charles Dickens, by Frank "Sin City" Miller, by Dr. Seuss, by Lemony Snicket, by Jane Austen, by Helen Fielding, by Douglas Adams (the list keeps growing)...

These pastiches are not only very good (my favorite: As written by tabloid newspaper The Sun - "OLD GIT DIES!"), they are also exercises in style from which any writer could learn a lot.

Read them and see how style affects content... how you can depict a single event from many different perspectives.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

So Many Books, So Little Time

How things change!

I remember the bad old days - before, before the Internet - when it could take weeks, months, YEARS to locate a rare book. You had a local library, but it had a limited selection. If you wanted to borrow other books, you had to travel to a bigger library in another city.

Now, virtually all books ever written are at your fingertips - that is, if you have Internet access and can use, or Project Gutenberg.

Do you get "Pile-of-Books-I-Should-Read-But-I-Never-Get-Time" Anxiety? It's not uncommon.

Research used to take days. Now you can do it in hours, minutes even. Google it!

And the inevitable question arrives: Why write new fiction at all? What can it add to the now fully available mass of existing works? When all books are within your reach, is there anything left to say, any story yet untold? (Except, of course all the bad and boring ones.)

Please post your opinions in the Comment field.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Story As Ritual

According to Friedrich Nietschze's theory in "The Birth of Tragedy", theatre emerged from Greek religious rituals. And even today, over 2,000 years later, the power of ritual casts a long shadow over the stories we read, hear and see.

Now, Nietschze is complicated stuff and I want to keep this blog as brief as possible (and don't get me started on much I loathe Wagner), but let's put it like this...

When you watch, say, a professional wrestling match (which I do sometimes), you'll notice how predictable these events are.
The pattern in a pro-wrestling match never changes:
-The "good" wrestler enters, greets the audience, projects his persona.
-The "evil" wrestler enters, sneers, offends the audience, projects arrogance.
-They fight; the "evil" wrestler cheats - and may win the first round;
-...but eventually the "hero" wrestler "reaches deeper down than ever before", beats the evil wrestler senseless, and wins.

Most popular fiction follows a similar pattern. You think James Bond movies are repetitive? Ian Fleming's James Bond novels were just as repetitive - he knew the winning formula and didn't change it one bit - and readers loved them that way.

Most readers have strict expectations and don't want to feel cheated. The ritual is supposed to be followed.
Good triumphs over evil.
Society is preserved.
A sequel is promised.
The Heroine marries the Hero at the end.
The detective Solves the Case.
The Dark Lord drops off a cliff.
The White Middle-Class Guy prevails, and the Darkies are Kept Down.

Would it kill the fans if, just once, the heroine said at the end of a paperback-romance like Her Outsourcing Prince: "You may be a rich alpha male, but I don't want to marry you. You have some personal issues that all the love in the world couldn't change. Bye... - The End" ...?

As it happens, there are successful exceptions to the rule: Gone With The Wind ends in divorce.

Writers should be aware of the rituals. If you follow them too rigidly, the story becomes mundane. There are always ways to put a fresh spin on the expected ending.

In the movie industry, films are test-screened with alternate endings. Maybe writers could also try to write several alternate endings, and "test-screen" them?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

But Is It Funny?

You all know how bad writing is often unintentionally funny.

It is a hallmark of the really inept writer that when he/she tries really hard to be dramatic... or profound... or (God help us) "steamy"... the reader breaks out in loud guffaws.

On the other hand, being deliberately funny is not easy.

What makes fiction comical? What is funny?

1. Laughing at unpleasant things. Every culture and era has its taboos and anxieties.
The most basic form of humor centers around aggression and injury: the pratfall.

2. Making fun of human weaknesses. (Pick one...)

Humor has its own peculiar form of logic. It's great when a joke starts with a setup, goes through a series of elaborate steps, and then climaxes in a payoff or punchline. Start with a simple joke, and the more you can build on it, the funnier it gets.

I also think that a sense of humor is important even if you're not a comic writer, or even if you're not trying to write funny.

Why? Simple. Because a writer with a lacking (or non-existent) sense of humor won't notice when he's writing "unintentionally funny" - and is thus more likely to make a fool of himself.

I could quote many examples of writers of that kind... but they would only get mad at me. (That's another drawback of not having a sense of humor: high blood pressure...)

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Our Summer of First Draft Is Replaced By the Winter of Rewrite

Last night I finished my next novel TERRA HEXA 2 ... and celebrated on the town with wine, women and song...

That's the fantasy version. Now the REAL version of events:

Last night I completed the writing of the first draft of my next novel TERRA HEXA 2 ... and took a rest before starting the lengthy process of proofreading, revising and rewriting.

Writing and finishing the first draft gives you a buzz. You think: "Yes! This is good! Best thing I ever wrote!" But you're not finished - the buzz is a side-effect of the writing process.

The work that remains AFTER the first draft makes all the difference.

After you finish the first draft, let it lie for a few days (or weeks, if you have time). Then re-read it, from beginning to end, fix the small errors, and take notes about what could be changed or omitted.

Often you will find that some character details are missing and should be fleshed out, or that there is too much exposition in some part, or some internal inconsistency.


-You forgot to give the villain a motivation for his behavior.
Did he have a unhappy childhood? Is he stupid? What's in it for him? Don't automatically assume that anyone who disagrees with the hero is "bad". Follow the money. If anything else fails, greed - smart greed - is a perfectly good motivation.

-You got lazy.
Your protagonist is hanging from the edge of a cliff, and a horde of bad guys are charging in from all sides. What does he do?
From out of nowhere, a cave opening suddenly shows up in the cliff wall. Your hero climbs into the cave, which leads to safety. Is this great plotting or what?
Or what.
The escape route would have made more sense if it had been presented or at least hinted at earlier - like, three chapters earlier. This is called "foreshadowing".

When important plot points are suggested/hinted in advance, the reader is more likely to accept them. Or it looks like you're just making stuff up as you go along (which you are, but you're not supposed to tell the reader).

-You wrote the characters of the opposite sex with much less personality (than those of your own gender).
Now, don't panic! Everyone does this, and I mean everyone. It's just how human beings behave. But it can be fixed, or at least patched up.
Go back to the characters of the opposite sex, and ask yourself the basic questions:
-Where did they come from?
-Who were their parents?
-How did they grow up?

-Have they got family? (Very common mistake: to write characters who have no past, no friends, no social role, no job except to assist the "hero" character.)
-What do they want out of life, and how do they expect to get it?

-You didn't do your research.
Poul Anderson, in his essay "On Thud And Blunder", points out that horses are not automobiles: you can't drive them at full gallop for miles without a pause. And yet, many writers treat horses like sports cars - wrooom! off you go, to the next plot stop.

Whenever a realistic detail is important to the plot, read up on it and make sure you've got it right. This is called research, and it pays to do it also after the first draft.

-You made spelling and grammar errors.
I shouldn't have to mention this... but every first draft is packed with misspellings and bad grammar. How many times will you have to re-read your manuscript to fix them all?
Five times.

Are you starting to regret that you wanted to write a book? Good. if you can get past that regret, you're on your way to becoming a real writer.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Some Plots Can't Be Justified

What types of story plots really piss you off?

For example, when the hoary old plot twist "It was just a dream!" occurs, people react differently - some like it, some feel cheated. (The "It Was Just A Dream" plot CAN be used well, for instance in many of Philip K. Dick's stories and novels. But it can easily be abused.)

It's a very common misconception that the writer "gives away his soul" in the characters he writes, while the plot is just a framework on which to hang the characters.

I think it's the other way around: the plot gives away the real message between the lines, and the characters are of secondary importance. We tell stories not to admire the imaginary persons' personalities, but what they do and why they do it.

If you see it that way, certain plots become too disgusting to stomach, because they clash with your convictions. I can forgive flaws in the story's characters, but I can't forgive plots with flawed messages.

Here are some examples:

1. "Saddam Hussein Writes The Plot" plots:
Saddam Hussein wrote a novel (I kid you not) about a warmongering usurping tyrant whose actions and policies were justified. Any story where the protagonist is a warmongering usurper/tyrant/emperor but it's always justified as "Good For The Country" or "Part Of History's Great Plan" makes me cringe.

2. "Horny Old Man" Plots:
A middle-aged man (usually a white middle-class type) goes to bed with a much, MUCH younger person... and the plot creaks and strains to make this seem extraordinarily Noble and Romantic and Rebellious...

...but strip away all the huff and puff, and all you're left with is a Horny Old Man.

(Incidentally, these stories are almost always written by Horny Old Men who think they are being terribly "intellectual". There are also examples, though much fewer, of "Horny Old Woman" plots.)

3. "Genocide Is Cool" plots:
Any plot which hinges on the hero killing off 100,000-1,000,000,000 (or more) "enemies". There is no way I'm going to admire such an atrocity, no matter what the excuse is.

(However, such plots have the potential for becoming award-winning, bestselling cult books, a fact which makes me very very depressed.)

4. "The Gadget Saves The Day" plots:
What John Boorman did right with the movie EXCALIBUR (and so many others fail at) is that when King Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone, this does NOT automatically remove all obstacles or make everybody obey him.

In the real world, entire empires and peoples will not suddenly become enslaved by a magic trinket. That's just impossible. (Except in some SF and fantasy.)

5. "Talk About Your Feelings" plots:
A plot in which no resolution or significant change occurs, except that the protagonist gets to Talk About Her Feelings. Very Nice and Humane and Kumbaya... and So Boring.

This may seem merely like an example of a "weak" plot (i.e. it lacks an underlying message and is only under-written), but I think it does carry a message.
Namely, that feelings are SO important that as long as the character has the "right" feelings, she can do whatever the heck she wants and not be responsible for it!

I'm sure you can come up with other examples of Plots You Hate.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Computers Are To Blame!

Before typewriters, authors wrote by hand (like, say, Charles Dickens).

Or they dictated (even later writers, such as Georges Simenon of the famous "Inspector Maigret" series, dictated to a secretary).

I wrote my first novel (unpublished, but available online here) on an electric Army Surplus typewriter.
It made a tremendous noise, like this: Hummmm... chakk-chakk-chakk KA-CHUNGG! Whizz... Chakk-chakk-chakk-chakk KA_CHUNGG!
(My neighbors must have hated it.)

And then came computers.

Have you noticed how long most novels are today? It's not just because publishers want them that way. (The strategy seems to be that if your books have thick spines they will visibly stand out from, and take shelf space from, competing books.)

The prime reason why books are so long today is that those evil, evil computers replaced typewriters. Suddenly, writers didn't have to think before they wrote. They could just pour out words and proofread on the fly, thanks to the Spellcheck function.

The computer-as-writing-tool makes us all self-indulgent. (I stand accused.) For instance, with a typewriter you would think twice before planting a three-page infodump in your manuscript. It forced the writer to be economic with words, to get to the point.

With a computer, it's so easy to show off every little irrelevant tidbit you dug up in research, you can't resist putting ALL of it in your manuscript.

So would I go back to using a typewriter?
Heck, no!
Too much bother with the paper and noise and correction fluid and typing-arms getting stuck...

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

There Ain't No Such Thing As Writer's Block

People have different work rhythms and cycles.

Some write in bursts of activity, lasting day and night, followed by extended periods of exhaustion. Others like to do it in the evenings (*cough*), some write in the morning... others work strict office hours, writing from 09:00 to 17:00.

But almost all writers find themselves at some point "unable" to write, even when there is time and energy to spare. You have the opportunity to sit down and write, nobody's pointing a gun at your head, your family's not starving... and yet you do not write. Why?

The late Douglas Adams was "late" also while he lived - he was notorious for not keeping deadlines. What was he up to? I don't know.

And there are people like Stephen King or Isaac Asimov, truly obsessive-compulsive writers - you couldn't stop them if you tried. But even they must have had their dry spells.

You can call it what you like - writer's block, fear of the Blank Page, procrastination, creative drought, waiting for inspiration... doesn't matter. Either you write, or you don't. "Writer's Block" is just a word. (OK, two words.) I'm not going to give you or myself any excuses.

Nothing gives me an ulcer like those poseurs who say (nasal tone): "Well you know, I want to be a writer..."
Well, who's stopping you, then? Are you waiting for your Official Writing Permit? Is Seinfeld on tonight? Just ****ing do it!

This little rant is aimed at myself too. Been procrastinating for several weeks. And I hate myself for it.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

What's In A Name?

Did you know, that while Margaret Mitchell was writing her epic novel GONE WITH THE WIND (not her first choice of book-title, by the way) at first she named her heroine "Pansy O'Hara"?


Luckily, the movie producer convinced Mitchell to choose another name - Scarlett O'Hara.

In fiction writing, names are important threefold:

1. The name of the story
2. The names of the principal characters in the story

3. The name of the writer.

If you find it hard to come up with varied and original names for your fictional characters, try the BabyNames index of names.

In my first draft of TERRA HEXA, the musician character was named "Pete". I am a little dyslexic with people names, and often mix up names in real life, and also when I write fiction. I kept mixing up "Pete" with another character's name, and misnamed them several times.

After I changed "Pete"'s name to "Mick", it became much easier to tell the two characters apart.

"Gulliver Foyle" is a cool character name. "Max Power" is not.
"Trapper John" is a cool character nickname. "Two Sheds" Jackson isn't.
Variations on Tolkien names - such as "Frodorithim" - are so lame, it's not even funny.

Picking a good title for a story or novel is even harder. I try to keep it short. The ideal title should be 2-4 words long, and memorable. And in the name of all things holy, do NOT try to cook up convoluted, pretentious titles like "DEATHSTORM: FATE OF MAN" (I made that one up, but there are many, many such titles around - especially in the Generic Fantasy genre!).

Finally, if your own name is very difficult to pronounce, you might consider a pseudonym. Many times I've thought that "Yngve" just isn't a very good writer's name... it's become a running joke in science-fiction fan circles.

Stephen King was lucky with the name he was born with.... it's excellently suited to put on book covers. It sings, you know?

And... if you're about to become a parent, you should really think twice about how you name your newborn baby. I mean, what kind of demented sadists name their offspring "Melvin" or "Pansy" or "Biff"?
Parents tend to be unbelievably shortsighted when they name babies. The rule of thumb shouldn't be "What sounds cool right now?" but "Am I certain that my kid will NOT be teased by other kids for his/her name?"

(Obviously, the same rule applies to the title of the book you write.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Scanned Images From Chinese Magazine KE HUAN

I've scanned some pages from the April 2005 issue of the Chinese science-fiction magazine KE HUAN, where my short story "See" is printed.

See them HERE.

If you are curious about publishing in China, check out articles on the excellent Zhwj site, or Danwei.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Problem of Visualizing the Impossible (For Thousands of Chinese Readers)

The Chinese science-fiction magazine SCIENCE FICTION STORY/SCIENCE FICTION PICTORIAL MAGAZINE (.ak.a. "KeHuan") has published my short story "See" in its April 2005 issue.

(I just got a copy of the mag by snail-mail, and will post scanned images.)

"See" is fairly short - about 1500 words - and deals with my favorite subject: perception, how we perceive reality.

The plot is dead simple: the nameless protagonist, only referred to as "she," wakes up and finds that everybody's perception of reality has been profoundly altered. In fact, the change is SO profound, I couldn't draw a picture of it...

Why does this matter? Because as a writer, I put the highest emphasis on visualizing what you write, to "picture" it - or you won't be able to accurately describe it in words.

Even though I couldn't draw the story's weird and scary changes in visual perception, I could imagine them in my mind. And this alone made it possible to write them down with meticulous attention to detail - a mix of realism and surrealism that you might experience in a dream.

That the story was translated to Chinese, proves that its theme is not bound by my language or culture: it deals with imagery, not abstractions or conversations. Chinese, Swedish or New Zealander, you can "understand" what happens in "See", even though its events are impossible and surreal.

I also think that the story works on a metaphorical level: the change in perception mirrors the "flattening" effect of modern media and the Internet, that makes the whole world come "closer".

Another new Chinese magazine, WORLD SF (not to be confused with SF WORLD) is set to publish my short story "Telephone Conversations" in its June 2005 issue. (It was originally posted on my old homepage under the title "Keeping Up With the Cloneses", a pun which couldn't be translated to Chinese.)

This satirical story also deals with perception, but in terms of prejudice and bigotry... namely, how a narrow-minded housewife sees her neighborhood through the distorted "lens" of her preconceived notions and self-delusions. She's also a comic monster and was a fun character for me to write... because you can't trust anything she says.

(I'm planning to re-post both stories on my homepage, later.)

Friday, April 15, 2005

Money, Money, Money...

Since I don't have to write for a living, it's not a matter of life-and-death that I get paid huge fortunes for my novels, short stories and whatnot...


It's a matter of personal integrity and self-respect that I won't get shafted (ripped off, had, scammed, bushwacked, bamboozled, tossed in a ditch and left to die) by publishing people.

If you are trying to get published, you will sooner or later encounter people who

A) avoid paying you money, despite having promised to pay you;
B) ask for up-front "expenses" cash;
C) try to seize all rights to your work.

If you are offered a contract that contains any of the following items, throw it away:

1. The publisher claims all rights, forever. (Read: no time limit or geographical limit is set for the publishing rights.)
2. You, the writer, pledge to perform various services for the publisher, apart from having written the work.
3. Royalties are not offered for sales of your book.
4. You are asked to pay fees of some kind (for example, "editing fees").
5. The publisher/agent/middleman behaves in a dictatorial manner, as if the writer was some kind of serf.

Before I got published for real, I encountered dishonest agents, arrogant assistants, crooked publishers... and I shunned them all.

A helpful resource you must use is the Preditors & Editors index. It lists all known agents and publishers in the Western World, and contains warnings about specific agents/publishers with shady records or a criminal past.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Fiction & Fact...

Art imitates life.
Life imitates art.
Life inspires fiction.
Fiction inspires people's actions.
Fiction thrives on wild, unrealistic, contrived ideas.
Real events can seem wild, unrealistic and contrived.
You write a story and the readers say: "It's too far-fetched. I can't believe it."
Then a real-life event occurs, and you think: "It's too far-fetched. It doesn't feel real."
If life is a dream, why write down your dreams at all?
Alfred Hitchcock put it this way:
"Movies are like real life with all the boring parts taken out ."
Is that the secret of fiction: an edited version of reality?
I have no idea.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Big Deals & Critics

This is one rare and special experience in my writing career:

As this is being written, a major publisher in a distant country is negotiating with a certain (*cough*) person to translate and publish his debut novel there.

I can't say more at this point... perhaps the deal will close, perhaps not. But I'm very excited.

Meanwhile, critics in my home country are mostly positive to my debut novel. A few reviews are VERY negative. (If you can read Swedish, the reviews can be found here and here.)

I am listening to the criticism, and it does have some minor influence on the sequel I'm writing now... (Yes, yes, I WILL pick up the loose plot ends... yes, yes, I WILL give a bit more space to characterization!)

However... any writer must learn this lesson, and painfully so: You can't please everybody. You never will.

Critics will always find something to nitpick about (Lousy rotten karmic retribution, muttered he, quoting Homer Simpson). Even when you're successful. Especially when you're successful.

I wouldn't say negative criticism is driven only by envy (it's not), but I have a theory about where it comes from...
1. The critical reader approaches a work of fiction with very specific personal needs.

2. The critic hopes that the reading experience will satisfy these needs.

3. Said needs are perhaps clothed in lofty language about "style" and "theme" and "principles" (yadda yadda), but those are only so much window-dressing. The critic's needs are at their core emotional, exactly in the way that the writer's emotional needs pushes the writer to write.

4. The critic's needs may vary, but often circle around

4 A) Loneliness.
EXAMPLE: "I want friends and love and connect with other people. I will experience these things vicariously, by identifying with the characters in this book. I don't think of myself as a critic, but as a reader."

4 B) Lack of self-esteem.
EXAMPLE: "Nobody listens to me! I can't write! I can't get published! I'll make'em listen. I'll show the world I'm good enough to be a writer."

4 C) Narcissism.
EXAMPLE: "All books should reflect my perfection. Any book that I fail to identify with is not a part of me, and therefore not perfect, and therefore beneath all respect."

4 D) Idealism.
EXAMPLE: "I follow the Sacred Principles of Art, and will inspect this book to make sure it follows slavishly my Sacred Principles."

5. If the critic fails to gain the anticipated (and perhaps fleeting) satisfaction, he/she will feel cheated, even resentful.

In some cases, the critic's reaction closely resembles that of a rejected lover ("How could she do this to me, that heartless strumpet!")

Please note that I'm not saying this is wrong. I'm only trying to understand critics as human beings (instead of just seeing them as heartless monsters, which is dishonest but more fun).

Loneliness (See point 4 B) is just as much a driving force for the average writer as for the average reader. We are human beings. We want to connect. That is why writing exists in the first place.

So, dear critic, if you fail to gain satisfaction from my fiction, please don't hate me. I'll try harder next time.
And if you do not listen... then to hell with you!*

(*Conan the Barbarian, 1982)