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Monday, March 31, 2014

Analyzing the Disney Villains: The Ringmaster (Dumbo)

Origin: Dumbo (1941)

I didn't think I could do an entry for Dumbo. Then I read that he's a villain in Disney's Villain Revenge, so that means I gotta evaluate him, I guess. Who knew? I'd have thought it'd be the red-haired bully. I still can't watch the movie without wanting to shove a broomstick up his ass.

Motivation: A bruised ego. The existence of a big-eared elephant makes his circus go wonky. He can't show Dumbo in the elephant's tent -- that causes too much trouble. So he's not only down one elephant, but two. Got to make money off this somehow, so he uses Dumbo as a living maguffin in the clown's fireman gags. I guess it says something about freaks being diminished in acting roles.

Character Strengths: I got nothing. He doesn't even show up at the end. This is really the protagonist's story. But maybe his biggest strength is mending his ways. A lot of Disney villains never get that far. For at the end, he sees the talent that Dumbo has, and gives him his deserved fame, plus a personalized railcar.

Evilness: Minimal. The guy is just trying to make it in show business. He doesn't have an evil streak, as far as I can see. He's just stern and bossy.  You can't really blame him for imprisoning his mother. Dumbo's lucky he didn't have her euthanized.

Where is his hand going?

Tools: He's got a whip.  And an assortment of alcoholic clowns (although props for them being enthusiastic about their jobs). But at least the clowns have aspirations of putting on a good show. These days they'd be portrayed as working stiffs doing the least to get by.

Complement to the Hero: Does Dumbo even know there's a ringmaster? Does he know what that is? I'm not entirely sure Dumbo is sentient. He needs a mouse to do his talking for him.

Fatal Flaw: I don't know. He doesn't really serve as an obstacle to the hero's triumph.  It's Dumbo's confidence in himself (combined with a unique ability) that makes him win out. It was nothing the ringmaster did.

Method of Defeat/Death: After Dumbo learns to fly without his magic feather, he terrorizes the circus clowns, giving them PTSD. They'll never be able to go to the zoo again. (Usually it's the other way around, with clowns sending people into therapy.) Dumbo buzzes the ringmaster, sending him into a washtub with an elephant-clown face on his butt. I've seen more dignified Disney deaths, but not many.

Final Rating: One star

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)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

White Guy Includes People of Color In His Book, Gets Lynched

These days, I feel obligated to include people of color (PoC) in my works, because the SF community is really bearing down on publications and works that don't include them. There's no particular target but anyone who exhibits the slightest tint towards misogyny, even in jest (I'm thinking of the Hugo host kerfuffle) gets eliminated. And anyone in one of these minorities will always tell you how there needs to be more representation.

Jim C. Hines recently had a 2 week series of guest bloggers talking about this. People of all sorts of genders, non-genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, mobilities (handicapped), mentalities (autism), medical conditions (albinism). And basically, all of them really just wanted more and fair representation in fiction. Not the evil albino, not the asexual wheelchair guy, not the white princesses, not the war-like Muslim, and more than binary representation of gender. (Didn't see any religion on the list. Is no one suppressing Jews anymore?) They're good posts and I learned a lot.

Thing is, there's no way I can do what they want me to do.

I know Jim C. Hines is trying to spread awareness, but it feels like white writer's guilt. Like if I don't include at least one of these minorities in my work, I'm screwing up. Well, if I write about dwarves, am I supposed to make one of them black? Do I have to explicitly state that then? Do I have to give that black dwarf black characteristics? And if I do, what would those be in a fantasy setting? They don't have urban culture in Rivendell. Just what am I supposed to do?

I'm xenophobic. I have no problem with any of the above divisions. If I think of a story that involves them, I will write it, but I usually don't. My characters tend to be more hubs around a plot. I almost included a handicapped character in my latest novel, but I cut her out because she became extraneous (but plenty of potential to put her in for the potential sequel). Whether I "got her right" or not is meaningless. But I'm too afraid of screwing it up farther if I actively write about minorities, because I just don't know enough about their lifestyle.

I live in a Minnesota suburb, which is not known for its diversity. I don't know anyone within one degree of separation who's of a non-binary gender. I'm not a product of divorce. I have no childhood traumas to draw from.  I don't know anyone of a non-Christian religion. I don't know anyone handicapped. I don't know anyone with an autism-like learning disorder. I don't know anyone with a medical condition that affects their ability to work or integrate with people. Except for the Indians I work with, no one really talks about their background.

Everyone I know are white males and females, married, dual-income, starting families with 2-3 kids and/or dogs. I can't write what I don't know. And one person's story won't be another's. I don't think you could be taken seriously with a lesbian, red-haired midget, but they do exist (Ashley from Pit Boss). I can't be the writer those minorities want me to be. Any different race or type I write would be in name only. And morally speaking, would you rather I write about over-represented peoples or under-represented peoples wrong?

But I guess the onus is not on me to provide stories with under-represented people in them. It's on editors to accept stories from under-represented authors and/or containing under-represented characters. What I don't see is two weeks of guest blog posts from editors and publishers about diversity.

 It appears that people are writing the stuff, but they're either not getting picked up or not getting marketed. I'm sure there's a reason, and I'd like to know what that is. I just know that if you're looking for diversity, you won't find it here.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Writing Macros for OpenOffice

Hey, guess what I did? I converted my Word Macros into OpenOffice, so now you can use them with your favorite free alternative to Microsoft.

Actually, I recommend these macros over the Word ones, as there are various improvements to the coding. They're not as fast as Word's (but nothing in OpenOffice is as fast as Word), but I think they work a little better.

One thing to note: a lot of these macros use the OpenOffice's highlighting function (A.K.A. character back color). For some reason, this doesn't play well with Word's highlighting function. So if you open a document in OpenOffice, highlight stuff, then open it in Word, it's hard to get rid of/clear the highlighting.

How to Install
  1. Open up OpenOffice Writer or LibreOffice Writer (which I use).
  2. Go to Tools->Macros->Organize Macros->OpenOffice Basic
  3. Expand My Macros->Standard->Module 1
  4. Click "Edit"
  5. Copy and Paste the content of standard.bas into the Macro editor. Ctrl+S to save.
  6. Go back to Tools->Macros->Organize Macros->OpenOffice Basic
  7. Highlight "My Macros" and click "Organizer"
  8. Click the "Libraries" tab
  9. Click "New" to create a new library
  10. Name it "Private"
  11. Click "Edit"
  12. Copy and paste the content of private.bas into the Macro editor. Ctrl+S to save.
And that's it! Let me know if you find any bugs or issues by emailing me or leaving a comment.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Books I Read: January - February 2014

Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer by Jeff VanderMeer

This was a fantastic resource for someone like me whose almost in the game but not quite. It's one of the only books I've read that has more to do with the promotion/publishing game than what adverbs to choose. It provides much needed guidance on how to promote, how to plan for your future, how to have an effective public marketing appearance. This book tells you how to do that.

The second half talks about how best to set up habits, mental health, and so on. But not so much about the nitty-gritty writing advice, which was just fine by me.

The problem is that, even now, it's a teensy bit dated. It still mentions MySpace as a valid source of social networking, and bypasses Twitter. Also, the material tends to be really dry. It feels like reading a text book at times. It's thick enough to be one. I wish the text was broken up into some diagrams or lists for easy access.

But I feel this book was a necessary read. Definitely if you're a first time writer. It provides a jumping off point for creating a marketing plan and the do's and don'ts of the public persona.

The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

This book is about a female clockwork automaton. She's an alchemist living on her own, but she's still technically beholden to her creator, since he has the key. She's hired by gargoyles (real stone gargoyles) to find a way to stop them from petrifying forever.

I picked this up because it was on a list of robot books with a different spin. The book has great world-building, great description. It reminded me of Dishonored or "The Wise Man's Fear" in terms of how sheerly vast this world is. You only see a little bit, only what's on the surface.

The problem was that it was too slow-paced. Few events of significance happen throughout the plot. There's a lot of plates in the air, but they never come down. I felt like the gorgeous writing was compensating for the lack of plot. And the end result was that the style got in the way of the story. Character motivation was lacking too. Or at least I didn't get it. The characters do things, but I never got a sense of their back story to figure out why, or why it was important to them. The non-humans start getting indistinguishable after a while.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I've got to be honest. All I could think of is "Are they gay? Are they gay? Are they gay? Are they gay?" Then one turned out to be and it's like "Are they both gay? Are they both gay? Are they both gay? Are they both going to be gay?" And then they were.

This is probably just me. I hope it is. I mean, look at its description: "But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be." That's word for word. A lack of tangible events is a sure sign that something's controversial is going down.

It's pretty good, but not great.  It has earmarks of "The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep", "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian".  I have no problem with the homosexuality, but the "are they or aren't they" ambiguity hung like a cloud over me during reading.  It distracted me.  Like if you go on a date with a nice guy, but lose your ring in the middle of it.

The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones

I was practically jizzing all over the starting pages. It's so genre-savvy, it hurts. The basic premise is "What happens to Alice after Friday the 13th?" (assuming no Friday the 13th Part 2). It hosts a cast of potential Final Girls living through the sequel, waiting for the killer to strike again, full of fake-outs and jump scares. Everyone's anticipating the slasher's return, but is the slasher really the one they need to worry about?

The problem was once it got past the initial prologue, it got pretty incoherent. It's not bizarro fiction (like the site I heard it from), it's more like horror. For one thing, the whole story is written like a pitch in front of a studio executive. Paragraphs start "Aerial view: the school. Students are milling around..." or "Point of view on Millie. She stands in front of the pipe as if something is going to come out." It sounds like someone narrating the screenplay/treatment.

This was remarkably effective for the cinematic aspects (the jump scares and dread moments) as it forced your mindset to the exact image the author wanted. However, the narrative itself got pretty confusing. I had a lot of difficulty following the plot, the characters. There are plot threads that aren't touched on, and some that go on too long, like this phone call thing where they're trying to figure out how to spring a friend, who they're not friends with, out of a police interrogation. And then at the end of part 1, we find that the main character has trapped the slasher at her house. But nothing comes of it.

That being said, I would LOVE to see a movie like this. A love letter to B-movie horror, something that plays with tropes. I think this is a great, GREAT concept. It was just not well executed in this book.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Well, I liked it better than "Cat's Cradle". This one is less tongue-in-cheek, more about the grimdark of war. Maybe that's why it appealed better to me. The story structure is wacky this time too -- this time with non-linearity. I'm not sure if it's science fiction or not -- the stuff inside seems too ridiculous to take seriously (with the Tralfamadorians). But the war stuff and the post-war stuff feels pretty important. It's a rare experiment with form that succeeded. I think if you're starting out on Vonnegut, choose Cat's Cradle if you're a girl, Slaughterhouse-Five if you're a boy.

So after all this, what's my conclusion of Vonnegut? I'm still not sure of why all the hubbub, but I do understand why people like him. For some reason, he was an "it" retro-author during high school (Disturbing Behavior comes to mind). Maybe he was an author of his time (especially since a lot of his works deal with Cold War era stuff).

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman

A re-read, and this time I got the 30th Anniversary Edition. Still an excellent story, but I forgot how closely it follows the movie (which is not unusual, given the author wrote the screenplay). My favorite parts are the ones that got excised from the movie -- Inigo's father, the Goldman commentary, Fezzik's origins, Humperdinck's characterization, the Zoo of Death. The parts from the movie, I find myself hearing Wallace Shawn and Cary Elwes' voices in my head.

And I can never tell which one is better. See my diatribe about remaking The Princess Bride for more info. But the great thing is, one doesn't negate the other. Both can be enjoyed for what they are.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The 2013 Nebulas and Where You Can Find Them

BEST NOVEL (40,000+ words)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Jay Fowler (Excerpt)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (Excerpt)
Fire with Fire by Charles E. Gannon (Amazon Excerpt)
Hild by Nicola Griffith (Amazon Excerpt)
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Excerpt) WINNER!
The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata (Excerpt)
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (Excerpt) (Six Chapter Excerpt)
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (Excerpt) (Six Chapter Excerpt)

BEST NOVELLA (17,500 - 40,000 words)
"Wakulla Springs" by Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages (Full)
"The Weight of the Sunrise" by Vylar Kaftan (Full) WINNER!
"Annabel Lee" by Nancy Kress
"Burning Girls" by Veronica Schanoes (Full)
"Trial of the Century" by Lawrence M. Schoen (Full)
"Six-Gun Snow White" by Catherynne M. Valente (Excerpt)

BEST NOVELLETTE (7,500 - 17,500 words)
"Paranormal Romance" by Christopher Barzak (Full)
"The Waiting Stars" by Aliette de Bodard (Full) WINNER!
"They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass" by Alaya Dawn Johnson (???)
"Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters" by Henry Lien (Excerpt)
"The Litigation Master and the Monkey King" by Ken Liu (???)
"In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind" by Sarah Pinsker (Part 1, Part 2)

BEST SHORT STORY (less than 7,500 words)
"The Sounds of Old Earth" by Matthew Kressel (Full)
"Selkie Stories Are for Losers" by Sofia Samatar (Full)
"Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer" by Kenneth Schneyer (Full)
"If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" by Rachel Swirsky (Full) WINNER!
"Alive, Alive Oh" by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Full)

Nothing much to not about this year's nominees. I see quite a few females up here. There are more non-unique female nominations than male, and not by a small margin. That's nice to see.

Related Articles
2010 Hugos
2010 Nebulas
2011 Hugos
2011 Nebulas
2012 Hugos
2012 Nebulas
2013 Hugos

Interestingly, I have not heard any reports about this. Only way I knew was from John Scalzi's blog. Interesting. Makes me wonder if the Nebulas are still worth it, if anyone cares but SFWA people.

Also, eight nominees for novel? Really?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Learn How to Succeed in Business Without Pissing Me Off

Let me tell you a little anecdote that compares good business to bad business.

Last Sunday, my family and I decided to go out for lunch. My eldest had a coupon she had gotten for reading achievement (she gets something like that every month). The coupon was for a local Italian restaurant. You know the kind -- you pass by it every day and people say it's good, but you've never went. So this was a good time to use our "Buy one adult meal, get a kid's personal pizza free".

The place was tiny. Maybe a dozen tables, and you had to walk single file to get back to the dining area, the space was so small. We went there on a Sunday at noon...

...And they weren't serving any meals. They were having some kind of Sunday brunch buffet. No pizza or spaghetti. Confusedly, we sat down. My wife went to see if we could get menus, while the waiter came up to me, and I had to awkwardly ask about this buffet thing. Because if it's one thing Italian places are known for, it's breakfast buffets. The waitress was very tall, with a nose piercing, but she was pleasant enough.

She said that it ended at 1:00. Yay. But my wife found out that the kitchen was willing to make us something from the menu. Great. She asked if the coupon was still good (because she always does that, even though there's no reason it wouldn't be).

And then noticed it was only valid Monday through Thursday, for dinners. The waitress went back to see if they could/would still honor it. But they wouldn't. So since we didn't want to eat breakfast, we looked around, got up and went to Subway.

First of all, why do you make a coupon like that? If you're a small, struggling, local business, you want to get word out as far as you can. You want all the incoming families to experience you. Coupons are a great way to get butts in chairs. Why make one that restricts when you can use it? Why prevent users from accessing your content? That's as stupid as closing a web site during business hours. And the other thing is this unexpected breakfast buffet that superceded the regular menu.

This is why, unpopular opinion as it is, I don't really care for local businesses. Because you never know what's going to happen or what you're going to get. When I go to McDonald's, I know that a hamburger there will be the same as every other McDonald's I've dined at. I know it will always be available (provided it's before 10:30).  Every menu will read the same, every restaurant will look the same. If I go to Taco Bell, I know they will have tacos, no matter when I go. There ain't going to be no damn breakfast buffet on Sundays.

Now here's an example of some good business practices. My Steam inbox, with no reason or prompting, suddenly blipped up with a coupon in it. 25% off Broken Age. It said it was sent because of "Customer Loyalty". Said customer loyalty is just from buying "Psychonauts" a long time ago on a Steam Sale for, like, 4 bucks.

 I enjoyed the game a lot, and I have respect for Tim Schafer. But I really had no interest in playing "Broken Age". It's a point-and-click adventure game, and I grew out of those. Or at least now I find them boring. However, with this nice coupon (for a not-insignificant discount), and the good buzz around the game, I bought it anyway.

The coupon automatically applied when I went to check out. Didn't have to enter a code or anything. No restrictions. Didn't have to prove it was for the game I was buying or some Gold Platinum version or Special Edition. Showed me exactly how much it was getting off. Bing-bang-boom.

Now that's good business. Getting the customer to buy something he/she wouldn't have bought is the ultimate goal of any salesman. Whereas this restaurant, I really have no reason to go back there. I didn't even like what I saw when I was there. People say you need to support local business, but the majority of the ones I go into, I don't like.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Books Where The Movie Is Better

The post was inspired by someone commenting on my Amazon review of "How to Train Your Dragon" by Cressida Cowell. The person replied (paraphrased from the badly spelled typography) "You recommended to kids that they choose the movie over the book? For shame."

Damn right, for shame. I'll take my shame all the way to the bank. Do you know how many terrible products are out there for kids? Movies, especially. Because parents will do anything to get their kids to shut up for ninety minutes and kids can't work the DVD player. Plus they've had so little life experience they don't know how to tell the good from the bad. So, yes, I would rather my kid see a good movie than read a bad book. Here's a few examples.

Mary Poppins

I consider this to have the biggest Bad-Book-to-Good-Movie gap. I haven't seen "Saving Mr. Banks" yet (I plan to), but I think I can conjecture what Walt was thinking. The book contains disconnected stories, stodgy British characters, and a stifled imagination. Disney saw the potential in the story and enhanced it like a photo in CSI. The right cast, the right songs, the right sets. Not to mention the story, the themes, the motifs are spot on.

Quite simply, Disney nailed it.  I can't think of many family movies that are better. And the book completely lacks any of the enchantment or whimsy. It's poorly written to be accessible to kids and the characters just act crabby. And need I mention the excised chapter where they go on a racist adventure to Africa?

Forrest Gump

In the book, Forrest becomes a professional wrestler. He wears a brown body stocking, greases himself up, and goes under the moniker "The Turd". Need I say more?

This book is not a quirky look at the baby boomer generation. This is a sleazy farce about a retarded man from the south. There's no charm, no inspiration, no romance. Forrest Gump is a selfish jerk. He's the one that screws up his relationship with Jenny, not her. Instead of going to Vietnam, he gets into the space program and goes up in a rocket with an orangutan. Then he crash-lands on a desert island populated by cannibals. Do you see what I'm saying? The plot is like a contrived children's book for adults. Like a one-year-old tried to write like Lewis Grizzard. How Robert Zemeckis saw an oscar-winning movie in this, I'll never know. But that's why I'm not in the business.

Bridge to Terabithia

The movie actually follows the book pretty closely. The problem is that it never updates the material.  And adds in all this too-perfect Disney bullshit. Everything is "so magical". Every unimportant thing is wide-eyed, wondrous, imaginative whimsy enough to make one puke.

The movie takes the visualizations of their "imaginary adventures" too far. Or so the advertising would have you believe. To the point it sucks the life out of them with scenes full of CGI that go nowhere. It tries to make Terabithia the end-all-be-all of the plot.  The book uses it as a vehicle for better scenes the movie skips, like dealing with the stock bullies, or the Key Monster/boy's father, or the Mary Sue-ness of Leslie.

How to Train Your Dragon

The book that started this post. These two are about as unrelated as you can get. It reads like a journal, full of illustrations and pictures, inksplots and one-page jokes. The Ren & Stimpy grossness and chopped-up insets that cater to short attention spans make it feel like a product, not a book. It has nothing to do with a boy bonding with a wild animal. It's not about coming of age, or family versus duty. At one point, Toothless sprays feces all over the inside of his house. Have I convinced you yet?

Howl's Moving Castle

I'm not sure if this suffers as much from "the book is bad" syndrome as "someone told the story better" syndrome. First off, no one beats Miyazaki when it comes to the family movie. Visualizations, drama, not talking down to the audience. It keeps the pace up. It clearly defines the characters. It illustrates the romance between Howl and Sophia.

I feel like if I say anything bad about Diana Wynne Jones I'll be punished, but I just felt the movie did it better. The book just meanders from small thing to small thing and then tries to wrap it up at the end with some "magic can do anything" closure. The movie takes out the unnecessaries and adds in some new things. I'm not saying the movie is the bomb -- it changes the ending and abandons a bunch of plot threads open -- but I think it's a better use of time than reading the book.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Well, you've got Wes Anderson. That's one. Stop motion animation. That's two. And a script that takes a good concept and adds to it. That's three.  You're out book. And far be it from me to disrespect Roald Dahl. But the book is over before it's begun. The movie follows the plot well, but it adds so much more. The quirky humor, the immersive world.  And it never insults the audience. Roald Dahl always wrote for children, but there's nothing in this movie that all ages couldn't enjoy.

Let the Right One In

Simply put, the book is too wordy. I don't know if that's because it's Swedish culture, or badly translated, or what. The movie follows the book quite closely, but seeing it on the screen leaves a much greater impact, like the pool scene at the end, or the woman in the hospital room. The only thing it's missing is a little bit of backstory on Håkan. And the visual nature of the movie better captures the cold bleakness of the land. Lindqvist just couldn't capture that imagery. Like I said, maybe it was the translation.

The Lord of the Rings

And we'll close with a controversial one. But hey, don't take my word for it. Even John Scalzi agrees with me (or I agree with him). Basically his point is that the book is not the best medium to tell this story, because it's not "great literature". The film version takes out all the boring junk that Tolkien gets flack for. The silly, unnecessary scenes that serve as allegory (Tom Bombadill), the history book passages from a fictional world, all the language and linguistic stuff. Thus, the storytelling is better in the movie.

The movies take the books, put them in a pot, then boil them down to their essential ingredients like an oil or a reduction sauce. The end result is that the plot never stops moving, the characters come through with strong personalities and motivations and arcs. That's hard to do over a trilogy. (Note: This does not apply to The Hobbit. That is a different kettle of po-tay-toes.)

So in conclusion, LOTR is still a great book. But if you see the movie, you will get a better emotional experience and a stronger version of the story.