Monday, March 30, 2015

I'm Going to NerdCon: Stories

This Friday, Hank Green announced NerdCon: Stories, a convention for storytellers of many mediums, would be coming to Minneapolis in October.

This Saturday, I registered for it.

I've been feeling that now is the time to go to a new convention. We all know Convergence didn't work out, but I think that's because it was an all-encompassing sci-fi crowd. Diverse interests with subject matter plus an established history means its something that needs to be enjoyed with friends. And young people have friends -- friends who aren't married or have kids, friends who can drop life for a weekend, friends with plenty of disposable income (and time).

I'd been thinking about looking up Minicon, another MN convention that I was considering at the time. Now that I think about it, it seemed more mature than Convergence, but Convergence looked more fun. I think the website was better too.

Then this came up, and it seemed so up my alley, I thought "I can't miss this". Not only is it focused on story-telling, it's taking place in my hometown (well, you know, metro area). Not to mention, it's being headed by Hank Green, a powerhouse on YouTube. I don't know what it's going to be like, it's a first year convention. But the only person I knew of at Convergence was Seanan McGuire, and I'd only read Feed, and didn't have a strong reaction to it. In fact, she was kind of intimidating. But NerdCon has more star power than the Oscars. I'm going to see all the giants' shoulders.

There's going to be story-tellers of all walks of life: novelists, poets, video game designers, comedians, tabletop game makers. Of course, you've got Hank Green, who just can't stop doing awesome, along with his brother, John Green, one of my all-time favorite authors. That alone would be enough to wow me, but it's not over. We also got John Scalzi. John Friggin' Scalzi, the king of all writers on the Internet. The guy who came out and changed science fiction in my lifetime.

Oh we're not done yet. We got Patrick Rothfuss, all-around nice guy (and possibly a shaved bear) who created "The Kingkiller Chronicles". He's the guy who got to play Dungeons and Dragons with Penny Arcade. He got to SIT on the stage with them and play an RPG. And Rainbow Rowell, author "Eleanor & Park" which I gushed over. And we got Mary Robinette Kowal, one of the correspondents on "Writing Excuses" (which I used to listen to religiously). We got "Welcome to Night Vale". We got Lev Grossman, who wrote "The Magicians" which I liked. And big names like Holly Black and Maureen Johnson and Jacqueline Carey, who I'm always hearing about on various blogs.

These aren't just authors I've read. They're authors I gave five star ratings to. Out of the 484 books I've logged on GoodReads, only thirty-eight have five stars. That's seven percent. An author has a better chance of being in a car accident than getting five stars from me. But these are MULTIPLE. And I'm going to be in the same room with them. Little unworthy me is going to be in the same building as John Scalzi and John Green.

Makes me think I've got to step up my game. I've been slacking the last few months. Writing fan fiction, feeling unproductive and lumpy, moping about my publisher going down, and coasting off stories I've already written and been passed around more than a French whore in World War II. I've got to get back into the game, producing finished copy. Real authors finish things. I'm going to be in the same room as real authors. I'm going to see them as real people. I may even get something signed -- it would be foolish not to, with all these heavy hitters around and whose books I actually own in paper form. But I'd be SO nervous, and I'm just not an autograph guy. But I guess I got six months to work up my guts to it.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Day That Never Comes

You ever have those days where everything on your body itches? Like little gnats are nipping you? Or spots of your skin are dry? And then you get irritated and depressed? I feel like that these days. Even though I'm writing like a madman, I feel like I'm making no progress. I've got 100,000 words of written prose that won't see the light of page, it's all fan fiction. Plus it's nowhere near done yet.

Plus my acceptance rate's been low. My high was 17% at one time. Now it's steadily dropped to 4% in the last six months. Haven't been getting feedback from any agents or ideas. It's been very blah.

One good thing that happened is that 50 Foot Romance did finally get published by Stupefying Stories. And I'm the cover story, see?

That's Jessica right there. Pretty cool when you see your characters live. I can't wait till I'm big enough to get fan art.

But yeah, besides that, it feels like a dry spell. Musa folded, so I'm shopping two manuscripts at the same time. Only three of the nine short stories I'm shopping around have never been published, and I can't figure out what's wrong with those three. I've spent my last few months finishing Defender or working on the Merm-8 galleys or a novella that I don't know what to do with. There's only one me and only so many hours in the day.

All right, that's enough depression for one post. Here's a picture of Medusa blow-drying her hair.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Books I Read: January 2015 - February 2015

Joss Whedon: The Biography by Amy Pascale

I'd been looking for a book about Joss Whedon since December. There had been a few biographies, but then I saw this one was about to come out. It looked the most official -- even having a foreword by Nathan Fillion -- so I waited.

It becomes little more than an IMDB page after a while. I don't read many biographies, so maybe this is what they're like. I wanted to know more about his family life or his writing life, I didn't need to know what happened with Firefly or The Avengers. I already follow the guy. I already knew that. Except for his early life, there wasn't much I didn't already know from Twitter, Wikipedia, and various viral YouTube Comic-Con panels.

I did like that it goes under the covers of certain things that happened and affected the evolution of some of my favorite show, like the online influence on Buffy. It was one of the first shows to embrace its online presence. The downtime on Roseanne led him to write the script for BtVS.

I feel like this book was intended for people who don't know much about Joss Whedon. Like bigwigs who are like "who is this Joss Whedon fellow all the kids keep talking about? I wonder if I should hire him for a spec script". It's more about his work than his personal life or mental life. I suppose it's better that his life isn't a National Enquirer saga, for the sake of his stability.

Paper Towns by John Green

Looking for Alaska, the happy version. Both involve a crush on a manic pixie dream girl that turns out to be an actual human (and a disaster).

Since this is Green's book after Looking for Alaska, I can't help but feel this is the remains of him wringing out the last feelings for his lost Lenore. That doesn't mean it's not good. In fact, it's great that it continues the same themes of one of my all-time favorite books -- putting a girl you barely really know on a pedestal. But where LfA was a boarding school book, this is more of a questy mystery.

And this time, there's more of a resolution. Which makes me think the author made a concentrated effort to make Paper Towns more commercial. There's quite a few more characters to keep track of, ones that don't always distinguish themselves in the woodwork. Also, like The Fault in Our Stars, there's a few instances of teenagers doing things they never would. I would love to know what differences Green made in his writing processes for both books. It's lighter and sweeter. Like all the things we wanted to say to Alaska, get said. If you didn't like LfA, you won't like this. But if you liked Abundance of Katherines or TFiOS, you might.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

I picked this up because A) I liked Bossypants B) it was a top book of 2014 and C) Parks and Recreation is the greatest thing EVER. Start watching it, if you're not. The book follows the same formula/style as Bossypants. There is no linear walkthrough. There's not much about her life before she moved out and started comedic acting. But you do get a nice spread of her life, like an appetizer sampler. It made me think that maybe she's funnier than Tina Fey. And if not, she certainly makes herself out to be more hardworking.

She talks mostly about her professional life. There's a few cute moments about her kids and a snippet or two about what it's like being divorced (but nothing about Will Arnett specifically). But mostly it's about her work, and I think that's because she is her work. She's like Seth Green, she's been working non-stop since she realized what she wanted to be, and it pays dividends.

It's not terribly insightful, and, like the Joss Whedon biography, it focuses on the professional life, but I found it funny and interesting. But I couldn't put it down. I started it on my ski vacation and all I wanted to was come back so I could keep reading (it also helped that my feet were on fire).

Crave: New Adult Sport Romance (The Boys of Winter Book 1) by Victoria Vaughn

Hmm, well what do you say about a novel that's free on the Kindle and features a shirtless man on the cover that looks like Smith Jerrod from "Sex and the City". I read this because I was thinking of writing a romance taking place at a ski resort. But this is not the kind of book I want to write. The biggest problem with the story is that the main character doesn't have a goal. The inciting incident is seeing her boyfriend cheat on her, and she drives off to Colorado because... I don't know.

And that's the problem. These characters don't exist beyond this book. They have no back stories. They didn't exist before and they don't exist after. They have no histories, and thus, no dynamics between each other. The first person narrative also means a lot of thinking and insight into someone who's quite shallow. She has no thoughts other than which and what man is cute. The central storyline (concerning the hunk on the cover) is concluded 3/4 of the way through, which makes the story construction haphazard. I believe there are better books out there.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

As wonderful as everyone says it is. Hillenbrand is a great storyteller and should be a leading voice in narrative non-fiction. Even five years later, this book is all over the airport bookstores. I learned more about war from this book than anything by Hemingway or Vonnegut. When you learn about WWII, it's mostly the European theater. The atrocities committed by the Third Reich have no comparison. But after reading this, it makes me think we owe Japan a few more bombings.

I feel like there should be a 1920's Barnum & Bailey poster for this book that says "You will not BELIEVE a man can go through all this and still live to ninety-seven". The man's story writes itself. The true test of any narrative is making the main character suffer, and this man suffered more than most fiction characters. And the story matches star for star.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

V/H/S: Viral

I saw V/H/S: Viral last night, and I had to rant about my disappointment.  I've been a real fan of this series from the first.  The anthology format lends itself well to the genre.  The best horror stories are short stories -- "The Call of Cthulu", "The Raven", "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream", "The Monkey's Paw", "The Lottery".  Short and sharp, like a knife stab, seems to be the best medium for fear.  Five Nights at Freddy's is essentially a short story in game form.  Even stories of two sentences can have poignancy.

But all these stories are solid.  They don't have to fill in everything, but a good horror story -- a good STORY -- has to allow you to put two and two together.  Viral doesn't do that.  And that's one of the flaws of any found footage movie.  But I haven't seen it so prevalent as here.

The biggest problem with found footage, one that a lot of filmmakers seem to forget, is that the whole point is that this could have happened.  Someone taped it and found it and uploaded it somewhere.  The Blair Witch Project says it all: "A year later their footage was found."  But all the subsequent movies are eschewing that for the difficulties found footage gives.  But V/H/S allows experimentation.  And the premise lends itself to the very plausible short amounts of cam footage in a variety of settings.  And no story lingers too long to wear down suspension of disbelief.  Except for this film.

The first movie had some great stories that properly used the medium.  The first (which stars Hannah Fierman, who I've mentioned before) consists of a group of teens trying to make an amateur reality porn by picking up girls at a club.  It evokes memories of a similar scene in Leaving Las Vegas, where the college boys immaturely hire a hooker so they can tape it.  In VHS, though, it ends badly (of course), but not in a "karmic vampire death" kind of way.  And the medium enhances that.  Just like it does for all the stories -- a Skype communication, a slasher that can only be viewed THROUGH a video camera, a honeymoon recording, a Halloween party.

The second one wasn't as good, in my opinion.  There are fewer segments, and they are hit and miss.  The "eye implant" was too slow and confusing and the alien costumes in the last segment were ridiculous.  But I liked the "zombie with a GoPro" for its originality and "blood cult documentary" for the body and mind horror.  The acting is worse and the characters are less likable but production values are higher.  At this point I felt I could always count on SOME gold in these movies, and I looked forward to Viral, hoping that it would address a new premise -- online video and viral sensations.

Nope.  It's essentially confusing garbage.  None of the segments made any sense.  The wraparound doesn't give any character background, just meaningless, cheesy shots with bad acting, straight out of Cloverfield.  He's supposed to be obsessed with viral videos, but there's no evidence of that until there's some nearby ice cream truck going in circles on a police chase, mowing down helpless pedestrians who get in its way.  And somehow its passing makes cell phones initiate some kind of call or video that acts like Stephen King's "Cell" or Pulse and the main character's girlfriend is in the phone yelling or suffering or something.

You can't broadcast to cell phones via a local van.  That shit has to go up into space.  It's not like a television.  It would have to be some kind of computer program.  And what is this thing trying to do?  And the annoying white kid ends up being "the chosen one" to upload all the VHS videos and end the world?  I don't get it.

It's not without some merit.  "Dante the Magician" was good, but it's derivative.  It follows the District 9 semi-documentary format.  But there are times where it eschews even this to provide cinematic shots.  And there is no better way to take the audience out of a found footage film than a shot that couldn't exist.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon did this, but at least there was a clear transition.  Two-thirds of the movie is basically a Nightline profile on a Jason Voorhees type.  Not via third party either -- she actually interviews the guy, stays in his house, asks how pulls off tricks like appearing in two places at once or faking death.  But the last third, once the twist is revealed, becomes a regular movie, because... that's what it became.  The documentarians are now part of the story.  But Dante becomes a forgettable Twilight Zone episode.  But there's a transition there -- you know what it's doing and why.

The two others (yes, there are even fewer segments this time) have good premises, but end badly.  A "twin from a mirror universe" story has tremendous potential, but uses hand-puppet penis monsters for cheap, unexplained body horror.  The last had potential too -- some stoner teens set out to make a Jackass-like video -- but the characters are unlikable and it ends up as a plotless gory action scene.  And I'm not even going to talk about "Glorious Vortex" -- the last segment that was so "out there" it couldn't even be included in the full movie.

Johnny 5?

This isn't like El Topo or something by Kubrick where it's an intricate puzzle or a film that's art and symbolism, with characters that are stand-ins for bigger meanings.  This is a horror movie meant to shock, scare, and provoke visceral reaction.  And I can't have a reaction if I don't know what's going on.  Confusion is not equal to fear.

It upsets me and that's why I had to write about it.  I could have come up with way better ideas for segments than what was produced here.  How about a vlog series that goes wrong?  Teens react to a snuff film?  A Twitch TV gaming stream is rife with horror potential, from Swatting to "Freddy becomes real".  Unboxing videos, unwanted exposure that ruins lives, gang videos, devil babies, parkour body horror, cause promotions.  It's a deep well.

I once read that writers should read both "best books" and "worst books".  The best books leave you inspired, but thinking "I could never write that".  The worst leave you motivated, saying "I can write better than that!"  This is clearly the latter.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Five Nights Thoughts

I was thinking how, for all its cult fame, I haven't seen much Five Nights at Freddy's cosplay.  Usually Dorkly and Kotaku are full of those features.  And the characters seem right up a costumer's wheelhouse.

Then I remembered the first game hasn't even been out for a whole year yet.  It came out in August last year.

Then I remembered convention season goes full swing in Summer.

Then I became afraid.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Who is the Protagonist in The Little Mermaid? (Follow-up)

So I got my kids to watch "The Little Mermaid", and honestly, I hadn't seen the full film for quite some time.  In the context of my last article about who the central figure of this movie is, I began to wonder, what if Prince Eric is the protagonist?

Let's think about this. For one, he's the first person we see, usually a giveaway.  Ariel doesn't appear until eight minutes in, after two other scenes.  Also, Eric is the one who finally defeats the antagonist, not Ariel.  Even though he doesn't know Ursula from Adam, maybe she represents the Mrs. Wrong he's been trying to avoid -- a bride with bad motivations.

Like all good protagonists, there is something he wants and forces that act as obstacles to it.  The kingdom wants to see him "happily settled down with the right girl".  Why the kingdom's a full of gossipy yentes, I don't know.  I always figured it had something to do with royal inheritance or power shifts.  Prince Eric must have a real close relationship with his people if they're so nosy.  There's a great unwritten fan fiction about the Princess of Glowerhaven somewhere.

Anyway, Eric tells his sidekick that he's not interested in a marriage of convenience or power or arrangement or wealth.  This contrasts his role in the original fairy tale where the prince is actually kind of a bad guy.  The titular (pun intended) mermaid falls in love with him, sleeps outside his door, follows wherever he goes.  The prince ignores her and marries someone else.  (Not for love, if I recall.)  She's so devastated, she almost kills them, but chooses to end her own life instead.

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked.  Another factor is that he has a change.  His quest is to accept the reality, rather than the dream.  Sir Grimsby's worried that he's too picky or searching for something he'll never find.  He astutely notices Eric's affections for the mute girl, and advises him that "far better than any dream girl is one of flesh and blood.  One warm and caring and right before your eyes."

When he throws his flute into the ocean, that symbolizes his capitulation of finding the mystery maiden.  Life's full of tough choices, in'nit?  One could argue that this demonstrates a lack of change.  But the dramatic irony is that it's the same girl.  So, if Vanessa hadn't come along, he would have gotten what he wanted all along.  Reminds me of an O. Henry story.

And last, we learn a moral from his quest -- if you accept reality instead of the dream, the dream might become your reality.  And from what I've learned in my personal life, I think that's true.

Love you, honey.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Analyzing the Disney Villains: Governor Ratcliffe (Pocahontas)

Origin: Pocahontas (1995)

Captain Hook's personality in Alameda Slim's body. Ratcliffe is one of the weakest antagonists I've ever seen. The movie doesn't even need him -- it's West Wide Story. He's merely a symbol for Mother England. You know, the whole REASON their trip was funded and provided in the first place? The name even has the word "Rat" in it, and it's not a clever pun.  That kind of move telegraphs the weakness of your character.

But you know what, fuck Disney for screwing with this guy. They propagandized him into a greedy, capitalistic slob who will destroy everything to get what he wants. Guess what -- that's what he was paid to do. That's what John Smith was supposed to do, but he was busy rolling in the grass with a fourteen-year-old. You might as well say Scrooge McDuck is a villain (and don't tell me he found his entire fortune by treasure hunting). And I can't even talk about the historical inaccuracies -- I gotta stick to the plot. So here you go.

Motivation: Greed. Pure, simple, and heavy-handed. They try and throw in some back story for him like this is his "last chance" to become successful for "those backstabbers in court". Couldn't be more meaningless. A tossed in bit of dialogue does not a motivation make.

Character Strengths: I like how they call him "Governor Ratcliffe" when he does no governing whatsoever. How can you call yourself a poltical leader of a piece of land with no buildings on it?  In fact, he's one of the few Disney villains that loses the loyalty of his troops before the end (Scar being another ignoble example).

 His time-filling song does some good to motivate the men on the search for gold. But after a few digs, they're already discussing mutiny (side note: who exactly is the captain on this voyage?) After that, his only recourse is to redirect their anger to the Indians.

Evilness: See above, regarding scapegoating the Indians for his own shortcomings. He takes the prejudices already held against them and exploits it. Of course, when Pocahontas and John Smith's love "conquers all", Ratcliffe shoots anyway, wounding his golden boy. Here's a guy who doesn't know when he's licked. Lust for greed and power turns into petty vengeance, grasping for any victory. What did he expect to happen after he pulled that trigger?

Tools: Okay, do I have to talk about Wiggins and the dog? No? Good. How about the ship full of strong, hearty men ready to serve... that show immediate progressive thought and begin plans to overthrow him? Geez, it's like the American Revolution extremely condensed.

Complement to the Hero: The movie makes a point to feature exported characters on both sides. Chief Powhatan is just as bad as Ratcliffe, but he gets a free pass because he's an Indian. His motivation isn't sinful, he's just afraid and angry. It doesn't matter that they're in a constant state of war, and have no interest in expanding their horizons. They're a noble people.

And then you've got John Smith -- the fit, blond all-American Englishman voiced by Australian Mel Gibson. Remember how I said Disney likes to make poncey and foppish villains? This one turned it up to eleven, enough for people to start taking notice. His villain song even includes the words "hey nonny nonny".

Fatal Flaw: I don't know how Ratcliffe got into his position, but he sure doesn't know how to keep it. His poor leadership skills are only a contributing factor. The greed and wrath keep him blind to anything happening around him. He's a worse listener than Hiccup's father. When you have to keep saying "This is my land and I make the rules here", it is clear that you are not.

Is that the drunk guy from Tangled?

Method of Defeat/Death: Ratcliffe leads his men to the Powhatan village, just in time to see Pocahontas save John Smith's life. The chief listens to the colors of the wind while Ratcliffe yanks a gun and fires. John Smith does his best Kevin Costner and jumps in front of the bullet musket ball (that somehow traveled hundreds of yards up and still hit its mark), and the men realize he's crossed a moral event horizon. They tie him up and thrown him in the boat back to England while "I Will Always Love You" plays for John Smith and Pocahontas.

Final Rating: One star

Pinocchio's Villains (Pinocchio)
Sykes (Oliver and Company)
Alameda Slim (Home on the Range)
Rourke (Atlantis: The Lost Empire)
The Evil Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)
Ursula (The Little Mermaid)
Dr. Facilier (The Princess and the Frog)
Gaston (Beauty and the Beast)
Willie the Giant (Mickey and the Beanstalk)
Hades (Hercules)
The Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland)
Jafar (Aladdin)
Shan Yu (Mulan)
Man (Bambi)
Clayton (Tarzan)
The Horned King (The Black Cauldron)
Mother Gothel (Tangled)
Cobra Bubbles (Lilo and Stitch)
Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians)
Madame Medusa (The Rescuers)
Captain Hook (Peter Pan)
Amos Slade (The Fox and the Hound)
Madam Mim (The Sword in the Stone)
Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Scar (The Lion King)
Prince John (Robin Hood)
Edgar (The Aristocats)
Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective)
Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)