Friday, May 30, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (a movie review post)

There are times when a movie fails to work for me because it's an adaptation that fails to actually adapt the source material. However, the source material for this movie has become so broad that you can't accuse it of not being faithful to it because you just can't tell what it's trying to be faithful to in regards to said source material. That said, there is one image that will always be associated in my mind with the "Days of Future Past" story line:
And, yes, Wolverine actually dies in that issue but 1. It ended up being a future that was prevented. 2. It was before Wolverine had become "too big to fail" (too popular to die). You'll see none of that in this movie. No, my problem with the movie is that it fails to be faithful just to the Fox X-Men franchise and, really, there's not so much there that it's impossible to do.
But more on that in a minute.

Yes, there will be spoilers. Consider yourselves warned.

As a movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past is fine if somewhat (a lot) predictable. The opening fight against the sentinels is fantastic. Well, except for the part where Kitty Pryde can send people into the past. What the heck? The powers of Kitty have long been established, not just within the comics but within the Fox X-Men universe, so giving Kitty the ability to send people consciously back in time seems a bit gratuitous. If they wanted a mutant to do that, why not just put in a mutant to do that rather than give that power to someone who shouldn't have it? Or, you know, include Forge in the lineup, because he would have made a nice addition to the movie.

The other main issue I had with the movie was Xavier's struggle with what amounted to drug addiction. That whole thing felt easy and contrived and, while I get that they needed to present Wolverine with some obstacles to overcome to complete his mission, that one felt gratuitous. The idea that Xavier would sacrifice his mutant ability so that he could walk again and pretend to forget his pain was too far outside of the character we know to really be believable. At least, that's true coming at it from the standpoint of the comics. Maybe, it's plausible looking at it from just the movies, but I'm not feeling it that way, either.

But, really, the movie is fine. Well, except for the appearance of Quicksilver, which was completely out of context. We get Quicksilver but not the Scarlet Witch nor even any mention of her. Also, there was no acknowledgement that Quicksilver is Magneto's son and only even a very vague possibility of that even being true in the movie. So why use the character if you're not actually going to use the character? Just make that some other character that only exists in the movie universe. Honestly, it felt more like a jab at Disney and Marvel Studios who have Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch lined up for the next Avengers movie.

However, the scene where he saves everyone in the kitchen is fantastic.

But, really, the movie is fine. It is. It's enjoyable. The cast is great. Of course, Jackman carries the film. His performance of Wolverine continues to be flawless. And Jennifer Lawrence was so much better in this one than she was in First Class. I continue to like Shawn Ashmore as Bobby Drake, and I really wanted to see more of Bishop and Blink, and I don't mean more of them in combat. It would have been nice to see them as characters, too.

All of that said, the thing that disturbed my enjoyment the most was the feeling that the whole movie was an excuse for Bryan Singer to fix all the problems he caused when he dropped out of X-Men 3 to go off and make that horrible Superman movie. So let's look at that a moment:
Singer had a plan for X-Men at the time. No one really knows what that plan was because he didn't share much of it and I kind of doubt he even knows, now, what he was doing then. But, in the middle of pre-production for X-Men 3, not only does he go off to make Superman, but he convinces James Marsden (Cyclops) to go with him (and some of his writers from the previous X-Men movies). Understandably, Fox gets pissed at both of them and vows that neither will ever work with them again and, just to prove their point, kills Cyclops off during the opening sequence of The Last Stand.

From there, a bunch of stuff happened in X3 and the other X-Men related movies that Singer wouldn't have done but, you know, he wasn't there. Fox and Singer make up; Singer returns to X-Men; Singer wants his characters back, those characters being Cyclops and Jean Grey. Basically, Days of Future Past is a story that creates a brand new X-Men world and allows Singer to ignore all previous X-Men continuity. He gets to bring back Cyclops and Jean and do whatever he wants from this point on. Until he decides to, again, abandon Fox's X-Men and leave someone else to try to figure out what he was doing. The whole thing lessens my enjoyment of Days of Future Past, which may not be fair to the actual movie, but Singer bothers me enough that I can't just ignore it.

In the final analysis, if you've liked the X-Men movies, there's no good reason that you won't like this one. Probably, it's one of the top three out of the, what?, seven movies. I think my count there is correct. As a series of movies, the X-Men movies still fail to approach what Marvel has been doing over at Disney but, as a single movie, this one is probably on par with the Iron Man sequels. It's good; it's just not awesome.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Lies Writers Tell... To Other Writers (Part Two -- Your First Novel Sucks) (an IWM post)

As I mentioned last time, we writers have convinced ourselves of a lot of untruths, and, you know, it's fine to believe an untruth if that's what you want to believe. My kids, the two younger ones at any rate, still choose to believe in Santa Claus. At least, I'm fairly certain they know he's not really real, but they want to believe in him so they choose to do so. It's part of Christmas at our house so they choose to believe and that's totally okay.

Now, it would be a different story entirely if they were out telling their friends that their families were doing it wrong if they didn't have Santa as a part of their Christmas traditions.

However, if you ever sit it on a kindergarten class at Christmas time, those kids really believe in Santa -- I mean, really really believe in Santa with their whole hearts --and they will set out to tell anyone who might happen to say that Santa isn't real just how wrong he is. And that's where we writers are with this first lie (and I think it's the biggest, most damaging lie we tell): Your first novel sucks!!!

* * *

For the rest of this post, you will have to hop over to Indie Writers Monthly, and you really ought to do that.
1. You'll get to see a list of some very famous first novels.
2. You'll get another "lie" song.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Worcestershire Sauce Dilemma

Not to talk about food again, but I'm going to talk about food again. But not really. It's more about shopping; it just happens to have to do with shopping for food. That being the kind of shopping I do most often.

Worcestershire sauce is something I use frequently when cooking. Mostly, I use it on meat, but I use it in other things, too. For a long time, I've been buying Lea & Perrins', which is kind of the standard for Worcestershire sauce. They are the originators of it as a brand, a brand that's been around 180 years or so. It's good stuff, and they have a few different varieties, though I mostly just use the original.

Now, I don't know how it is everywhere else in the country, but food prices around here have been going up quite a lot lately. A gallon of milk has gone from being in the $3.00 - $3.50 range to the $5.00 - $6.00, and we drink a lot of milk. A pound of butter has done the same. And don't even get me started on the prices of pork and beef. That stuff has gone insane.

All of that to say that I am having to be a lot more aware of food prices, right now, than I was, say, six months ago.

So there I was in the condiment aisle looking at the Worcestershire sauce since I knew I was almost out. I was looking for the large bottle, but they were out. Which is when I saw that the small bottle is now the same price as the large bottle used to be. Since they were out of the large bottles, they hadn't put a new shelf tag up with the new price, so there they were right next to each, and the small bottle price was the same as the previous price of the large. I just stared at it.

But, as I was staring, I noticed the Safeway brand of Worcestershire sauce. Now, I've always known that the Safeway brand was sitting right there next to the other. I've had to push it out of the way before or picked up a bottle of it because it was in the wrong space or whatever. However, this time, I really looked at the Safeway brand. I glanced down at the price: It was half that of the Lea & Perrins'. For the first time, I wondered what could possibly be the significant difference between the two. And, so, for the first time, I bought the off brand.

Well, not the first time I've bought an off brand; I actually buy the Safeway brand on a lot of things, but it was the first time I bought the off brand on the Worcestershire sauce. (So far, I haven't noticed a difference, but it hasn't gotten the full range of testing, yet.)

Of course, I'm not here to sell you Worcestershire sauce. I don't care one way or the other what you put on your slabs of meat or if you put anything on it at all. It's just that the whole thing made me wonder, even while I was standing right there in the grocery store staring at the shelf and the prices, if this is the same process readers go through when deciding to buy a book that is not traditionally published. And I don't know if it is, but I suspect it might be.

Or something like it, anyway. Maybe not with actual physical books in a book store since a bookstore is pretty much guaranteed to only carry traditionally published books, but do people buying books for their e-readers ever look at the price of a traditionally published e-book and think, "I'm just not paying that much for an e-book." I know I do. Actually, when it comes to traditionally published books, I almost always buy the physical book, often because it's actually cheaper than the e-version (which is just wrong). And I'm buying fewer and fewer physical books. Basically, there are only a few authors left for whom I'm willing to spend that kind of money, which, I suppose is leading me to a place where what I will be buying is independently published material.

And I have to tell you, so far, I haven't noticed a difference. I mean, it's just hard to be worse than Snow Crash (traditionally published). And, in fact, my favorite book of 2012 was Demetri and the Banana Flavored Rocketship (independently published), so, looking at all of this from a value standpoint, I think we might be getting to a point where we get a lot more for our money from independently published (which includes self published) books, especially once you've figured out which authors you like. The only catch is that you have to be willing to try them to see if they're the kind of sauce you like. Just, you know, when you find one you like, make sure you leave a review and let other people know, too.
Just sayin'.

So here are some suggestions:
Pick up Shadow Spinner: Collection 1: Tiberius (Parts 1-5). Beside the piece of Shadow Spinner that you get, you'll also get "Like An Axe Through Bone" by Bryan Pedas, the author of the Demetri book that I just mentioned.
Or grab Shadow Spinner: Collection 2: The Man with No Eyes (Parts 6 - 12) which contains "Augurs of Distant Shadow," a great new take on vampires, by Briane Pagel.
And, if you like Augurs, you can follow it up with "The Magic Cookies," which contains another piece of his vampire lore.
And don't forget Shadow Spinner: Collection 3: The Garden (Parts 13-21) which contains "A Nightmare Named Ricky" by artist extraordinaire Rusty Webb.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Wind in the Door (a book review post)

Moving on from my review of A Wrinkle in Time, we come to A Wind in the Door.
I never read this one when I was a kid, so I was coming at it completely fresh. And, at first, I thought it was making a difference in my reception of the book, because, at first, I was really enjoying it. The first third of the book was really good. I was impressed and everything.

Yes, there will be spoilers.

This one is two years after Wrinkle; Charles Wallace is in school and is having difficulties fitting in. He also thinks he's found a dragon in his brothers' garden. The first part of the book deals with the search for this dragon, and all of that section is interesting and enthralling. Including finding the "dragon," which turns out to be a cherubim. That spouts fire. I'm still not clear on why the cherubim spouted fire, but it did. We also meet Blajeny, a giant obsidian dude who is some kind of Teacher.

And that's where the book starts to fall apart. The first thing, which could be overlooked if it was the only thing, is that Calvin just happens to show up as Meg sneaks out to go looking for, well, she doesn't know what she's looking for. In fact, there's no clear reason why she sneaks out of the house. Here's the conundrum: It's after bedtime. Meg sneaks out, which is not the issue; the issue is that Calvin just shows up. Sure, he has his own reason for being there but, ostensibly, he should know that it's after the Murry children's bedtime, so why is he coming over to their house when Meg and Charles Wallace are expected to be asleep?

The next real issue is Blajeny. He's supposed to be a "Teacher," a term which is never really explained and, I suppose, shouldn't need to be explained except that he never teaches or does anything like teaching. What he does is announce to Meg that he is there to be her Teacher and that she will have three trials. So this is his method of teaching, to announce that she will have trials but, oh, he can't tell her what they will be or how to overcome them. He will, though, giver her the cherubim, Proginoskes, as a partner but, no, he doesn't know what the trials will be, either. This is another one of those tropes that I am overly tired of. And, well, how would Blajeny even know how many trials there would be if he didn't know what they would be, something he admits later. Basically, this was some ordeal he, some very powerful cosmic being, couldn't fix himself and needed Meg, a teenager, to do it for him.

Most of the rest of the book is torture. As soon as they get to the first trial, which is to determine the real Mr. Jenkins... Okay, hold on a moment. There was this scene in Wrinkle with Mr. Jenkins where he is questioning Meg about the whereabouts of her father. He seems to have an overly intense curiosity about it. Meg even wonders why Mr. Jenkins cares, basically, calls attention to the behavior to the reader, then... nothing. The character doesn't enter the book again, and I was left wondering what the heck that was all about. When he turned up in Wind, I thought, "Oh! We'll get to find out what Jenkins is up to" But no. Jenkins is up to nothing except being lame.

So, okay, Meg has to figure out which is the real Mr. Jenkins because he's been copied by fallen angels called Echthroi who want to X existence. But to start with, they want to X Charles Wallace. Yes, the "X"ing is how it is put in the book. They want to X everything. Why they copied Mr. Jenkins is never explained and has no logic to it other than a contrivance because Meg hates Jenkins but has been put into a position where she has to save him. What we get, then, is two chapters of Meg whining about how she can't do it and Proginoskes telling her she has to or he will X himself. They just kept going around and around that argument:
"I can't do it."
"You have to."
"I can't."
"Then I will fail the trial and will have to X myself."
"No, you can't do that."
"Then you have to choose." (Or, as they said in the book, she had to Name him.)
"I can't do it."
OH MY GOSH! Seriously! I needed two chapters of that! (More than 30 pages in  the edition I read (nearly 1/5 of the book).)

And once they get through that? Well, Jenkins joins their little team and we spend most of the rest of the book bouncing back and forth between him and Meg both going on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about how they can't do whatever it is they need to do. Oh, yes, and Jenkins asking to just be sent back to Earth. "I'm no good. Why am I even here? Just send me back." Or something to that effect.

Not to mention that, again, the person (Blajeny in this one) provided who should be able to answer questions and explain what's going on and what to do and all of that fails to answer any questions and leaves them on their own to figure out what to do. Which, you know, sometimes is what you need to do with kids but not when someone's life is in the balance. It would be like coming up on a car accident and the ambulance is there, but the EMT tells you to take care of it instead then refuses to answer any questions about what you should do and, in fact, wanders off when you're focused on the guy bleeding out.

Mostly, I have found these books, so far, to be a place for L'Engle to dangle her ideas and philosophies with not enough story to really make the books worthwhile. Both books have focused on love as major plot device (the climax of the Wrinkle being Meg saving her brother by, basically, saying "I love you"). The message, then, of A Wind in the Door is that love is an action, not a feeling, and that's something I agree with, but I don't need 50 pages of anguish over it. I also don't need half of the book explaining and re-explaining "kything."

So, as I said last time, these books may be great for kids, but I'm just not being able to get into them as an adult. There are too many shortcuts and too many devices without reason and not enough answers both to the questions the characters have and the questions that I have as a reader. If you loved these as a kid, cherish that, but don't try to go back to them now. If you never read them, it's probably better to just not.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lies Writers Tell... To Other Writers (Part One) (an IWM post)

Being a writer's a tough gig. Okay, no, wait: Being a published writer is a tough gig. It's the difference between sitting around in your house and playing guitar merely for your own pleasure – or, maybe, the pleasure of a few friends – and playing on stage in front of an audience. An audience which may or may not have actual people in it and an audience which may or may not even be listening. So you go up on stage and play your heart out and no one responds and you don't really have any idea of how good you were. It's a tough gig.

Because it's so tough, we've come up with little lies to tell ourselves to make the seeming rejection less hurtful, and these lies would be okay if we only told them to ourselves...

And that's your teaser. You'll have to hop right over to Indie Writers Monthly to find out what we do with these lies and what they have to do with math. Copernicus and Galileo put in guest appearances as well. So click the link for the post.

Don't forget that we are also accepting your submissions of Time Travel stories for our first ever annual!
Click this link for all of the details about that!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Food and Reading: Why the Two Go Together

When I first met my wife, she didn't like steak. Actually, she didn't like any kind of "slab of meat" whether it came from a cow or a pig. Her previous experience with slabs of meat had been mediocre at best. Basically, her parents, when she was growing up, didn't know how to cook meat and, inevitably, what she would get was a tough, unspiced, piece of leather-like substance that needed a laser to cut it. Which she didn't have. Which meant she had to saw on it with a knife for several minutes per bite. But that was okay, because it took so long to chew that she had plenty of time to saw off the next piece.
We at a lot of chicken at the beginning of our relationship.

But, see, I didn't understand her position about the meat. My experience with the same kinds of "slabs of meat" was completely different but, then, my mom was a cook. She had this metal mallet thing with different sized spikes on either end that she used to pound steak with before she cooked it. There was never anything unchewable in our house. Mostly, I never even used a knife when I was a kid unless I wanted to spread peanut butter (and, no, Briane Pagel, I never put peanut butter on steak).

However, there was even more to all of this than even I knew.

Every once in a while, we did get steak or pork because it needed to go in something, like steak fajitas and, because we had it, every once in a while, I would just cook steak or pork chops. At first, my wife's reaction was "wow! this is good!" BUT "I don't like meat." She was so invested in the whole not liking meat thing because of her notion about how it wasn't good that, for a while, every time we had it and she liked it she thought it was some kind of aberration. Some accident. The next time would be back to how it was when she was growing up, so she actively campaigned against there being a next time.

But I'm a guy, and I like slabs of meat. Which is where it gets kind of interesting because, to me, a slab of meat was a slab of meat. So the slabs of meat we ate were, well, fairly cheap slabs of meat. Which is what I'd grown up eating and I liked just fine.

Of course, I didn't have a hammer like my mom had so, although the steak we had always tasted good, it was sometimes a little tough. Still, it was enough to cause my wife to eventually change her opinion about slabs of meat.

I'm not sure exactly when it happened or why, but, at some point, we tried a slightly more expensive cut of meat, New York strip. Probably, it was on sale. The difference was amazing! I mean, AMAZING! Oh, my, gosh, the better cut of meat held the flavors of the spices so much better, and it was incredibly tender all on its own. Then we tried a rib-eye cut and it was even better! I love the rib-eye!

See, I didn't know, except theoretically, that there was a difference in the experience of the meat. Previously, the rib-eye I'd had had not been well-cooked or well-spiced, so it didn't actually compare well to the, basically, crappy cuts of meat we'd been having at home. My wife, also, was astounded. We don't eat the cheap cuts of meat anymore.

The point here is that sometimes (frequently) we don't know that something is, well, crappy until we've had something better. The thing we're used to just... is. We think that's how it's supposed to be and as good as it's going to be. It happens with food, and it happens with books.

With books? What?

Yes, it happens with books.

Frequently, we get stuck on reading particular types of books or just one or two particular authors. Sometimes, there is better quality stuff out there, but we've established whatever it is as part of our "reading identity." For instance, part of my reading identity during high school (and something I carried into college) was that I was a reader of Piers Anthony (and, really, I hate to keep using him as an example of this, but it is what it is). I read everything he put out. I even tracked down a couple of out-of-print books he'd written early in his career because my goal was to read every book he ever wrote. A goal I gave up during college when I finally started branching out in my reading and discovered that there were so many better books out there. Or, at least, books I liked more.

Which is why you should taste new things. Like, every time you have the chance, taste new things. What's the worst that's going to happen? You won't like it. Big deal. So you don't eat (read) that thing again. And on the other side, you will find things that you absolutely love. Or can learn to love. I didn't used to like broccoli, after all, but that might have been because my mom always boiled it (in the South, anything that's not fried is boiled); the point is that now I really like broccoli. A lot. But it did take some getting used to.

So don't get into a reading rut. Try new books. Try new authors. Even if you like what you're reading, now, you might find that it's really just the cheap cut.

Also, remember, we are still taking submissions over at Indie Writers Monthly for your time travel stories!
Just click the link for all the details! Real prize money involved!

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Wrinkle in Time (a book review post)

So here we are back visiting another book from my childhood. Here's the background:

I first read A Wrinkle in Time when I was about 10,

fourth or fifth grade; I loved it. The idea of a tesseract, a wrinkle in space and time, was just... it was amazing! I think, really, the book began and ended there. Okay, not quite; I also loved when they wrinkled onto the 2-D planet. And I think my friends and I tried to bounce all our balls in unison at least once or twice to mimic the kids on Camazotz. My nostalgia for this book says it's great.

At the time I read it, I didn't know there were more books and, then, the next book I got a hold of was A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third in the series. I did my first oral book report on that book but, now, I don't remember anything about it. The book, not the report. The report went... poorly. It was my first lesson in public speaking, and I never let nerves get the better of me again after that. At any rate, I never read A Wind in the Door and didn't even know there were two more books in the series until recently when we were getting them for my daughter. So, see, I thought, "Hey, I never read some of these and don't really remember much about the two I did read, but I loved Wrinkle when I was a kid, so I'll just read them all now!"

Which may have been a mistake...

A Wrinkle in Time did not live up to my memories of it. Not even close. The book does a lot of things that I just can't stand, now, as a reader, although I can understand the attraction of the book to kids, and I would still recommend it for kids not yet out of middle school. It does, after all, have some amazing concepts in it; they just don't make up for the places the book fails me as an adult reader.

My biggest issue with the book is the withholding of knowledge. Specifically from Meg. It's one thing to withhold from the reader, but I'm overtired of the whole thing where the characters in books (or movies) who have information withhold it from those who don't for no good reason. And there is no good reason in Wrinkle. Meg is constantly asking questions, and Charles Wallace, her mother, and the Ws just don't answer her. Frequently, it's passed off as "there's not time for that, right now," but, then, they spend tons of time just not doing anything in which those questions could have been answered. If you don't want to reveal the answers to your character, don't have your character asking the questions.

Beyond that, though, there are too many other unanswered questions. [There will be spoilers.] Questions like:
Why do the "witches" care if Mr. Murry gets rescued? The vague answer in the book is not sufficient.
If the "witches" do care, why did they wait so long? Ostensibly, I suppose this is because he was finally going to "break," but I don't really buy that. Why wait that long?
Why didn't IT just take care of the children? There's no good reason for allowing them to roam around.
Why is Charles Wallace hanging out with the giant brain when Meg goes back for him? No one else is hanging around with the giant brain, so why is Charles Wallace even still there?
Why are the "witches" stealing blankets and messing around with an abandoned house at all if they are just going to leave at the end of the story? None of that stuff made any sense at all.

I could go on.

Another thing I have really come to dislike: the giving of "gifts" that will help the heroes but not telling them how to use those gifts. How dumb is that?
"Here's a red button. Only push it if you really need to."
"What does it do?"
"I can't tell you that."
"How will I know when to use it?"
"I can't tell you that."
So Meg's usage of the spectacles that were given to her were less used as a "last resort" than as a "well, I can't think of anything else to try."
As a plot device, this ploy is rather lame.

The last major issue for me is the rather arbitrary behavior of some of the characters. Okay, mostly Meg. Specifically, the scene near the end when she's mad at her father then suddenly isn't. After spending years working with teens (and just knowing about people) that's how absolutely no one behaves, especially teens. But it's the arbitrary behavior of the "witches" that bothers me most, because, really, none of it makes any sense.

Now, I can see the attraction of all of that for 10-14 year old. I think frequently their worlds do look pretty arbitrary, so they don't question any of these behaviors; I certainly didn't when I read the book at that age, but, as an adult, an adult that knows that there generally are causes and reasons for things, I was left unsatisfied.

Basically, reading this book now, it feels to me like a skeleton of a book. Like it was the draft that L'Engle didn't go back to to flesh out. Or, maybe, it was the need to keep it at an appropriate length (as deemed by the publisher) to be desirable for the intended audience. All I know is that it needed more for me, now, as an adult then it needed for me, then, as a kid. Which is a significant point since the book is aimed, generally, at middle grade readers. It does leave me feeling somewhat ambivalent about the book overall, though. I will be continuing on in the series, though, so I'll let you know how those go as I get to them.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Anticipating the "Why?" (an IWM post)


It's one of the most dreaded questions in the world. Well, at least if you're a parent, at any rate. I mean, what business is it of your kid's to know "why?" she needs to do something, right? Or "why?" she needs to do it the way you're telling her to. Or "why?" she needs to go to bed RIGHT NOW! And, sometimes, all you're left with is "because I said so!"


You'll have to go on over to Indie Writers Monthly to find out the rest of what I'm talking about, and, trust me, you want to do that. I mean, not only do you get to find out about how author need to anticipate certain questions, but you'll also get to find out about how my daughter and I deal with that ever persistent question.

And don't forget that we're also accepting time travel stories, right now. Find out the details here!

Note: There are two separate links there. The FIRST ONE is to the post. The SECOND ONE is to the details about the story submissions.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Time Enough for Time (an IWM post)

The time for the first Indie Writers Monthly annual is almost upon us. This year's theme is, and this is probably my fault, time travel, which is all kinds of awkward for me, because I hate most time travel stories. Especially those Star Trek type time travel stories which fall apart faster than a Nilla Wafer in milk if you look at them too hard. But, still, that's the theme. And guess what! You get to participate!
Yes, we are actually taking submissions on this one and there is even PRIZE MONEY!
But you have to get through me to get to it.
Okay, I don't know if that's exactly true, but I'll be one of the people reading the stories and passing judgements on them, so, well, impress me.
I'm only sorta kidding there.

Hop over to Indie Writers Monthly for all of the details and get that story written.
Don't worry; I can't win the money. But it won't stop me from having my own time travel story in there.
What are you waiting for? Hop in your DeLorean... um, I mean: Hop in your time machine and click that link and get to writing!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The High Cost of Magic

I've mentioned before that I play Magic: The Gathering. Well, sort of. I mean, I sort of play. I used to really play, and if you want to read more about that, you can go here, but, these days, I only sort of play.
I just don't have the time or money to really compete, right now, but it is fun to go play a tournament every so often. However, in the short time I've been back into playing again, I've noticed a disturbing trend. Now, stay with me even those of you that have never heard of the game, because I have a point, so I will try to keep my technical talk as general as possible so that you can follow along.

Cards in Magic have a cost to put them into play. In general, that cost becomes higher the more powerful the card. So, for instance, a goblin,
which is weak, only costs 1 to put into play while a dragon,
which is quite a bit more powerful, costs 6. In the past, these costs were basically unaffected by the cards rarity. In the above example, the goblin is a common card (easy to get) while the dragon is a rare card (difficult to get). But this wolf
is a rare card and has the same casting cost of 1 as the goblin while this common wurm
has the same cost as the dragon.

What this did for Magic was allow people to play at whatever level they could afford. You didn't have to own tons of rare cards. The rare cards allowed slightly more flexibility and some advantage but not an overwhelming advantage. The same Terror card, a common and cheap to cast,
could kill a rare card as quickly as it could a common card. Basically, you could build a strong deck without having to have rares in it. In fact, I used to keep a deck built entirely of commons (with a few uncommons) around just to show people you didn't have to have the rares. People would bring their competition decks to test against my common deck (which always resulted in sales for the store I worked in when I would beat them).

This model of Magic was a good one. It allowed a broad base of players to play and to play on a fairly level playing field. You didn't have to own thousands of dollars worth of cards to be able to compete.

That model of Magic no longer exists.

Just within the last couple of years, Wizards of the Coast has switched to a model that lowers the cost to put rare cards into play. For example, this Loxodon Smiter
only costs 3 to put into play and he has some pretty fantastic special abilities. It's half the casting cost of the above dragon and wurm and nearly as powerful. This common card, not nearly as powerful as the Smiter,
costs 5 to put into play. To which you might say, "There's still the Terror card," but, no, they took that card out of the game, so there is no card that will destroy a creature that's that cheap to cast. What you have instead are things like
which costs 3 (as opposed to Terror's 2) and only works on flying creatures (but is, at least, common) or
which costs a whopping 6 and isn't even common; it's an uncommon. Perhaps the best example can be seen here. Lightning Bolt
was a common card that could deal damage to a creature at a cost of 1 but has been taken out like Terror has. The closest to it is
for double the cost, which may not seem like a big deal but, trust me, it is. And it's still not enough to take care of that Smiter from up above.

All of that to say that Wizards of the Coast has shifted the focus of the game from one that allows people of all financial means to play to one that favors the players with lots of money to spend gaining rare cards and the even harder to get, but even more powerful, mythic rare cards.
What this has caused is fewer players showing up to tournaments. I don't go more than once every couple of months, but even I have noticed it. And, after talking with some of the guys in the game shop that hosts the tournaments, player numbers are about half of what they were two years ago. What you end up with is fewer players spending money on packs and cards. Sure, those fewer are spending more money than they were before, and it may make up for the attrition rate of players for a while, but that can't last for forever. The end result is a strong but small player base where once you had a very large player base. In the end, it's bad for the game.

The cost of Magic, both in the game with the casting cost of the cards and outside the game on the wallets of the players, has become too high.

Of course, this kind of problem is not restricted to the guys at Wizards of the Coast.

When I was in high school, I was pretty big into the Xanth novels by Piers Anthony.

The series involved the use of puns. In the beginning, the puns were few, just added in as a bit of fun, but, by book four, Centaur Isle (get it?), the puns were becoming part of the story and, later, in such books as Isle of View (get that one?), the puns had eclipsed the story. The reason was a fan-based one. Fans of Xanth began sending in puns to Anthony, and he would work them into the story with acknowledgement to the sender at the end of the book. But he lost the story somewhere in doing this and lost readers like me that wanted that story thing to be involved. He was left with a loyal but small fan base and, although Xanth is still going on, there is no call for any other kind of writing work from Anthony because he has become just that one thing.

I think authors can easily be pulled into traps like this. Basically, they can focus in too much on writing just one kind of thing because that appears to be where the money is. They lock themselves into just writing fantasy or just writing romance or just writing... whatever because "that's what people want." Usually, by the time you've realized you've put yourself in a box, it's too late to get out. As Anthony says, publishers don't want anything else from him anymore.

David Eddings did the same thing after the success of his The Belgariad. Everything he wrote after that was just that same story over and over again for two decades because that's "what people wanted."

All of that to say (all of that because I wanted to talk about the whole Magic thing since it's something that I've noticed and am not happy with) that it's a dangerous thing to narrow your focus too much to only appeal to a particular audience. The more you narrow, the more people you will lose.

So, yeah, I like fantasy and stories with fantastic elements, but I don't want to be "just a fantasy author." I don't want to get locked in like that. I want to write good stories, all kinds of good stories, so I'll keep trying new things. Some of them may not work.

But some of them will.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Old Man's War (a book review post)

Disclaimer: Portions of this review are going to sound like I liked the book much less than I did. Just know from the beginning that I liked the book. I'm going to read the next one. But I'm still going to talk about the things that bothered me as I was reading. Mostly because they allow me to talk about some writing things within a context that gives an example of what I'm talking about.

Also: Although this is a traditionally published book, (if I have my facts straight) it started out as an indie book published serially on Scalzi's blog where it was "discovered," so I'm sort of looking at this from the aspect of covering an indie writer, albeit an indie writer that has made it big.

But let's get on with the review.

The first thing to note is that the book is in first person. Now, this is my own bias, but I'm beyond tired of first person stories. Unless there is some specific reason for first that can't be accomplished in third (like the tone of The Dresden Files and the fact that first person is part of the whole detective genre thing), I'd rather not see first person for a long, long time. Like I said, this is my own thing and may come from the fact that almost all I see is first person stories from the middle schoolers I work with despite how often I tell them to write in third. I only mention it at all because it does cause an internal groan from me at this point when I open a book and it's first person.

The next thing springs out of the first thing. There's this thing that frequently happens with sci-fi writers (sometimes fantasy, too, with magic systems). They come up with these brilliant sci-fi ideas, and they want to share them with you. Like, for instance, if I want to have a teleporter in my story, but I can't just have the teleporter because that's been done a lot, right, so I have to have some cool idea about how a teleporter works; that's what makes it mine. And, if I have the idea, I want to share it with you. In a third person story, this isn't such a big deal, because you can include a description in the narrative and it doesn't necessarily seem out of place. However, in a first person story, it's usually like inviting someone into your house then explaining how the TV works and the computer works and the cell phone works. The thing is, most of us don't have more than just a vague idea of how those things really work, so when a character in a book who is just a normalish guy starts explaining how high tech gadgets work, then it feels out of place.

Fortunately, Scalzi doesn't quite fall prey to that trap. Rather than have John Perry explain all that stuff to us, he has it explained to him, which makes Scalzi's desire to share his clever ideas mostly acceptable. Actually, the first clever idea is more than acceptable, because there's a political reason for the tech, and that was interesting. The second clever idea is also acceptable because it's something that's happening to Perry, but they start becoming gratuitous after that because they're things that most people wouldn't have an interest in knowing and are actually frequently accompanied by "you don't have the math" to explain why Perry doesn't and can't understand the things being explained to him, yet he persists in having the people give the explanations while maintaining that he doesn't know what they're talking about.

The other thing I had an issue with was that Perry was the cleverest guy around. Which isn't of itself an issue except that he would point something obvious that no one else had ever thought of. This is actually a major plot point in the book, that Perry notices something that decades worth of people, many who should have been much smarter than him, have completely dismissed as irrelevant or trivial. It was a thing I couldn't buy into. There wasn't even a "yeah, we noticed that, but we don't know what it means," which could have worked. Instead it was, "yeah, that's nothing. It doesn't mean anything." Which, of course, was wrong.

Beyond that, I had a difficult time having any emotional investment in the book. I was never worried about Perry or, even, really cared about him. I think it was the first person and the style he used within the first person. It had that feel of someone sitting right in front of you telling a story, but, you know, the guy is right there in front of you, so you know everything comes out okay in the end, so to speak. It made it hard for me to engage beyond a surface level.

That said, it was a great surface level book. The world (multiverse) that Scalzi has created is interesting, and I want to see where he's going with the meta-story. Perry's voice as the narrator was engaging so, even though I wasn't worried about him, I did want to know what was happening. It was engaging right from the beginning, too, so there was never any point where I thought I might not be able to get into the book. The parallel opening and ending was a nice touch.

In short, it's a quick, light read. If you like space opera, you ought to read this book.

The new issue of Indie Writers Monthly is out!
You should pick up a copy today! I know I will!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Encouragement Does Not Equal Support (an IWSG post)

We have a very supportive household. Mostly, it's my wife's doing. She's the one that instituted it, at any rate, but I think it all came out of a discussion we had years ago about the lack of support I had when I was growing up and the abundance of support she had. So, back then, I couldn't really see the importance of support because I'd never had it.

We'll skip over the parts where I wasn't allowed to play sports or learn a musical instrument and go straight to high school. During my junior year, I talked a buddy into learning some Abbott and Costello skits with me for some thing or other we had to do at school. Initially, it was just "Who's on First?" but, we were so good, we got asked to perform at some function or other and did that, too. Which led to other performances and learning other skits (including my favorite, "Costello's Farm"). We had quite a number of performances during our junior and senior years. And my parents didn't come to a single one.

During college, I was in a drama group and we frequently performed in the area, and my parents never came to any of those performances, either. In fact, the only performances my parents ever came to were when the youth choir at my church sang at church because, well, they were already there and, actually, they often missed those, too.

So... We, my wife and I, made an actual decision, a conscious decision, to support our kids in their endeavors. Even when it's not easy. Even when giving them a little "Break a leg!"-do-a-great-job encouragement would be so much easier. So that means we go to things. We go to lots of things. We go to softball practices and softball games. We go to accordion lessons and accordion performances. We go to choir concerts. We go to plays and musicals. We go to improv shows. We spend money on tickets to a lot of these things. We make the effort to show our kids we're there for them, supporting them (and the organizations they're with), even when we'd rather say, "Okay, that's enough. We hope you do a great job tonight, but we're staying home." And trust me, when you have a week like this one where you're only home one night of the whole week because there are performances and games every other night, it can be tempting to skip the support and just go for the easy dose of encouragement.

And that's the thing: Encouragement is easy. It's the support that's hard to do.

Encouragement is nothing more than patting someone on the back and saying "good luck." It really doesn't take anything to do. There's no real effort involved. Now, don't get me wrong; encouragement can be nice: It feels good, but, really, it's completely insubstantial. It doesn't do anything real.

Support requires an effort. To put it in another context, support is more than just wishing fellow authors "best of luck" with their releases. Support is more than just cover reveals and blog hops. Support is more than just adding someone's book to your "to read" list on goodreads.

Actual support is buying the books of your author friends. And, sure, I get that not everyone can buy every book by every person just like we don't go to every performance of the same show (but we do go to at least one performance from each show); most of us just don't have the money for that. But I make an effort to pick up at least a "book" or two a month from someone I know (even if I know that I'm not going to have time to read it soon) and, really, with so many people using the $0.99 price point, it's hard to legitimately say you can't afford it (skip one Starbucks latte a month, and you can support three or four different authors!).

Actual support is reading the books that you've picked up from your friends. This is kind of a big one for me, right now, because I've been being tired for a while now of seeing on the blogs of indie authors the constant chatter about traditionally published books like Divergent and The Hunger Games. When you're an indie author but can only ever talk about traditionally published books -- and not just books but best sellers -- it really sends a wrong message. It's an unintentional message, but it's there all the same, and that message is "only traditionally published books are worth talking about." I make an effort to always have at least one indie book that I'm reading. [In fact, I just ordered a Kindle (my first portable device) to facilitate, specifically, reading indie books, because I haven't had time lately to do that while sitting at my computer.]

Actual support is, after having read someone's indie release, leaving a review. A real review. Not just a "yea! I loved this!" (which I've actually seen left when it's apparent the person didn't read the book at all (my favorite being "I went to high school with this guy and he wrote this book. It's good. You should read it."))
Just to say it, I review every book I read. I believe in supporting the authors.

This stuff has been bothering me for a while, the fact that there is kind of this constant talk about how "supportive" the blogging community is when what it actually is is encouraging. The blogging community is great at encouragement. There's no lack of "good luck!"s to be found. But actual support has proven to be few and far between. Since this is a "support" group, I thought I'd mention that encouragement does not equal support.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Amazing Spider-Man: Shockingly Emotional (a movie review post)

Let me just state right here at the beginning that I am still not in favor of Sony's reboot of the Spider-Man franchise; however, seeing that they have, and that this movie is based off of the previous (un)Amazing movie and not Raimi's series, I have to say... okay, I'll sum it up like this: This one made me tear up.

I think I've mentioned before that I don't cry at movies.

I'll try to keep this as spoiler free as possible, but I am going to talk a bit about the set up. More movies need a good exposition; it sets up the emotional impact.

There's a significant difference between "starting in the middle of the action" and starting in the middle of some action. Increasingly, "starting in the middle of the action" is a bad thing to do. AS2 chooses to start in the middle of some action, the obligatory car chase. This action scene, though, serves as the setup for much of the rest of the movie: we see that Peter is haunted by the death Captain Stacy (and his admonition to safeguard Gwen by staying away from her), Spider-Man saves Max Dillon (though, in one of the few just nonsensical moments in the movie, he stops to save this one guy from getting hit by a car while doing nothing to stop the dozens of cars that are being destroyed), and we are introduced to Aleksei Sytsevich.

This scene sets up two of the three major conflicts for the movie: the romantic conflict between Peter and Gwen, and the physical conflict between Spider-Man and Electro. The third conflict revolves around Peter's continued exploration into the deaths of his parents, a story line they are developing at a nice pace and are handling better than expected. [This is spoilery, but, being someone who never knew his father, the scene between Peter and May was excellent. His assertion to her in the face of her reluctance to tell him anything that "it's not about you" is so right.]

And that's as far as I can go without giving things away but, from an emotional standpoint, this movie is way beyond the first one. Garfield really brings you along on his emotional ride as both Peter Parker and as Spider-Man, and I don't think that's a small thing. Like I said, I teared up.

Emma Stone put in a great performance as Gwen Stacy. Jamie Foxx was much better as Max Dillon than as Electro, although it's hard to tell how much of anything he did as Electro. Dane DeHaan put in a convincing enough Harry Osborn [although I'm not sure how I feel about them bringing that character in as Peter's "best friend" when they hadn't seen each other in a decade]. And Paul Giamatti was almost unrecognizable as the Russian thug Aleksei Sytsevich. Sally Field continues to not really do it for as Aunt May, but I'll give her a pass, sort of, for that one scene with Peter about his parents.

Also, kudos for introducing us to the character of Felicia, whom I have to suppose is Felicia Hardy and the future Black Cat.

The only real flub of the movie is a stupid science thing they did during a discussion about spiders and how spiders have cells that can "self repair" while humans don't. If humans' cells couldn't self repair, we'd all die the first time we got a cut or a broken bone or whatever. Sure, they're trying to talk about the rapid-style healing/regeneration of, like, Wolverine, but they do it in a piss-poor manner that makes it sound like people can't heal from, well, anything.

But that moment aside, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a much better movie than its predecessor. This one has all of the emotional impact that the first one was missing, possibly because they are no longer relying on what we ought to already know about Spider-Man and telling us what we don't know about Spider-Man. Their Spider-Man. So, again, if you like super hero movies and lots of action, this movie is for you but, unlike with most of these kinds of movies, you might want to bring a tissue for this one.