Better Writing for a Better Tomorrow

It turns out that rebuilding an sf/f publishing civilization from the ruins left behind by the Boomer generation requires a lot of effort on a lot of different fronts.  The one that we upstarts in the publishing world seek to rebuild is a complex civilization, and carving our own pale imitation of it out of the wilderness of modern publishing takes a lot of work.

  • Jeffro Johnson’s archaeological efforts to understand our roots were instrumental in showing us what we we’ve lost, and how we might regain it.
  • A whole team of people have helped to perform triage on the dying patient of sf/f.  By exploring the roots of the terminal disease purposefully injected into the culture and tracking the slow decline over the decades, they have helped us understand how things came to their current grim pass.
  • The grand vision of Brian Niemeier helps us understand how we can inject the necessary antibodies into our own work to inoculate it against the creeping disease memes of the enemies of civilization.
  • The solid investment and nurturing of publisherCirsova demonstrates the existence of a market and proves the sustainability of the business model.
  • The marketing genius of Jon Del Arroz spreads the word of the blossoming sf/f Elysium free from the mud-eating modrenists, a missionary work that benefits all of us working in the trenches to restack the rocks of sf/f into something resembling the grand cathedrals of yesteryear.

The efforts of these fine gentlemen have been supplemented by a host of others too numerous to name here.  We all engage in the day to day vivisection of Hollywood’s bumbling attempts to combine political action with entertainment that resonates, and cheer along with renegade publishing success stories like Nick Cole and Gardner Fox.

And yet, there’s one aspect of this thing of ours that has gone unheralded for too long, and that’s the nuts and bolts of stringing words together in a conscious way.  The technical side of writing might be the least glamorous aspect of rebuilding an sf/f civilization worth living in, but it might also be the most important.

One of the great problems facing the OldPub dinosaurs is their decision to go all in on the Clarion Workshop style of writing.  The gray-goo McDonald’s style “adventure” fiction hawked by the merchants of NYC suffers from more than just hollow shell philosophies and naked propaganda – the Clarion Workshop style of writing is just plain dull as dishwater to read.

If we’re going to compete on what passes for an open market these days, we’ve got to do better.  And when it comes to building a better writer, no one has done better work than Xavier Lastra.  A solid writer in his own right, Emperor Ponders regularly drops detailed blog posts delving into the mysteries of lost methods of writing that are as fun to read as they are informative.  Take a quick scroll through his posts and you’ll see what I mean:

The act of speaking, as well as other auxilliary descriptions (like the speech tone) are placed before the things being said. It makes sense, really, because first you describe the action (he spoke and how) then the result. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, this style has fallen out of fashion and now forward dialogue tags are literary unicorns. They have been replaced by dialogue tags written after or, with increasing frequency, in the middle of the speech.”

Latching a narrator onto a single POV has many unintended consequences, and these are unfortunately invisible until they explode in your face, so one can read (or write) texts that should be, in theory, bristling with excitement but, in reality, are dull and shallow.

I’ll show you a trick to help you with indirect characterization. Well, actually, I will tell you why you shouldn’t do that — or not as much as is common nowadays.

But that’s old news.  Recently, a new challenger has arisen in the form of Real Paul Lucas.  His recent summary review of Cirsova – a single post covering two weeks worth of my own blog-fodder reviews – veers off into a technical writing tutorial that anyone working to string words together to elicit an emotional reaction should read.  Scroll down to his review of The Idol in the Sewers by Kenneth R. Gower and you’ll find this:

Everything in the story is told at a remove, through slightly abstracted descriptions. The story telling concentrates on the things within the story or on the attributes of the characters, and not so much the characters themselves.  It’s hard for me to explain without going into a little detail, so here’s the first sentence of the story.

“The sewer’s fetid stench threated to overpower Kral Mazan completely.”

The first ‘character’ in the story isn’t Kral Mazan, but the sewer. It has a stench. To use the jargon, the sewer is the subject (the doer), Kral Mazan is the object (the recipient of the action).

And then keep reading.  And then think about what he says when you sit down to the keyboard.  Everybody knows that the passive voice leads to weak writing.  Like a good lover, prose should not just lay there flat – it should actively participate in the story.  No one wants to read about things that simply exist, they want to read about things that act, that strive, that pursue aims and goals, that drive a story forward.  It looks to me like Mr. Gowers has avoided the dreaded passive voice trap by finding objects that can act.  A stench threatens.  A torch burns.  A rat scurries.  All of these provide motion and deliberate action, but none of them draw the reader’s eye toward the protagonist.  That’s a problem.  And calling our attention to that problem allows us to avoid falling into the same snare.

That’s solid writing advice, and I for one appreciate Mr. Lucas taking the time to share it with us.  We need to do more of this.  The kind of growth that arises from these discussions are vital in rebuilding what we have lost.

Go forth and do likewise.

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Pup Kult Stephenson

Is it just me, or did this feel a lot like a Stephenson novel?

It features the weird future of Snowcrash and the abrupt lurch of an ending of…

Well, pretty much every novel Stephenson ever wrote.

Not a complaint.  Just an observation.  Nick Cole’s first-person spycraft novels typically feature first person tales written in the present tense.  We’ve seen it in the Galaxy’s Edge series, the Wyrd novel that follows the spy-slash-lounge-singer, and now twice in the Soda Pop series.  It’s a heady feeling, reading his works, and Cole’s skills at manipulating the reader are legendary.  In this series, he does Ready Player One a step better by ditching the snark and ironic self-awareness and simply embracing the love of the IP’s that get referenced throughout the novels.

Good stuff.  The world will be a better place once Virus Films gets the scratch together and builds the army of technicians required to bring these films to life.  Of course, how they show all those Hollywood properties while keeping within the bounds of “Fair Use” should prove as interesting as the narratives themselves.  Once might almost say that doing so is half the battle.

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Cirsova – Moonshot

Gag stories.  They’re a lot harder than most writers realize, particularly when the joke at the core of the story has to sustain several thousand words.  Not joke stories that amount to one long setup for a snappy punchline, but full blown shaggy dog stories that revolve around an absurd situation.  Most humorous concepts wear out their welcome long before the words “The End” appear in fancy script in the reader’s mind’s eye.

Not so with Moonshot.  Michael Wiesenberg finishes off this issue of Cirsova in style with the story of a rejuvenated NASA proving her chops by landing a Wisconsin barn on the moon.  Not content with lampooning the bureaucratic hobbling of scientific inquiry, Wisenberg spoofs Midwest practicality with a light touch, and even manages to deftly cram some serious orbital physics lessons into the story.  Where Moonshot lacks the belly-laughs of a Ring Lardner story, it more than makes up for it with a constant haze of amusement that reminded me very much of a Garrison Keillor work.  And that’s a huge compliment.  Keillor was a master at the enthralling story that hovers for long periods just on the cusp of open laughter, with a steady dose of light chuckles sprinkled throughout the narrative.  If Keillor was a science nerd instead of a literary nerd, Moonshot is the kind of story that he would have written.

A fitting end to a fine issue, and a great bookend to the Tarzan tale that kicked off this second volume of strange and wonderful tales.  Really looking forward to Issue Two.




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Cirsova – The Elephant Idol

This might be my favorite story in this issue of Cirsova.  Xavier Lastra, the author of The Elephant Idol, is a good friend of mine.  He has edited a few of my short stories, and his blog has played a vital role in improving my writing.  Reading this story reminds me of exactly why, when he speaks about writing, one should listen.  Many of the recent crop of new writers seeking to revive the sf/f genre after its long bout of SocJus cancer have written at length on the trappings of sf/f, myself included.  We wax prolific about the old masters, about how to keep your political messaging subtle and unobtrusive, and about how to write for a better tomorrow.  Xavier is one of the few who rolls up his sleeve and writes about the nuts and bolts of wordcraft.

He also writes in English as a second language, so it’s doubly not fair that he can string words together so more prettier than writer me.

The Elephant Idol presents a simple heist tale gone wrong.  And by wrong, I mean about as wrong as a heist can possibly go.  I’m talking Lovecraftian wrong.  And I’m not just talking “stick some tentacles all up in there – BOOM, Lovecraft”.

Instead, I’m talking about somebody messin’ where they shouldn’t have been a-messin’ and winding up in a Very Bad Place.  The action takes place in an opera house filled with colorful characters who get even more colorful when a ragamuffin thief makes the mistake of stealing the wrong idol.  The curse he brings down upon his head transports him into a hellish upside-down version of the opera-house populated by cancerous funhouse-mirror versions of the colorful characters already introduced.  It’s a freakish and foul place that evokes a truly original sense of mystery and uncertainty and danger.

A lot of people talk about finding new ways to do Lovecraft without tentacles, but Xavier just went out and did it, and he did it in a way that adds a touch of honest to goodness romance?  Full marks for this unsettling tale.

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Cirsova – Seeds of the Dreaming Tree

Lost tribe tales set in the modern day fell out of fashion shortly after the last few corners of the map were filled in by intrepid explorers.  The extra challenge of squeezing a bit of mystery into our digitized and sanitized world thwarts many a good adventure tale. Harold R. Thompson’ neatly sidesteps the issue by creating a new steam-age world in which a scientist and her guide attempt to recover the seeds of a possibly magical demon tree.  It might rightly be considered a steampunk tale, but it feels so much like our own world that it’s easy to forget the place names aren’t from around here.

Once again Cirsova presents a compact quest, and this time adds a dash of truly dark and alien menace.  Squint your eyes a bit, and you’re reading an Indiana Jones story, complete with two-fisted action, native death cults, Daddy issues, and a bit of surprise occult activity.

A solid entry overall, my personal preference would have been to go full historical.  The hints that this Dreaming Tree exists in our own world, that the events might just be autobiographical, would have added a bit more impact to the story.



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Quick Movie Hits

Long flights with no laptop and an empty reading queue on the trusty kindle make things so dull that one might be tempted to run through a quick scan of the free Hollywood fare provided by the airline.  That’s how I discovered the little gem of Stan and Ollie.  This time around the results possessed considerably less sparkle.  My own interest in Hollywood films has flagged so much that I barely recognized most of the titles, but gave a couple of interesting looking covers a shot, and came up empty.

Escape Room amounts to a low-rent Saw where the people in the death trap dungeon don’t deserve to be there and don’t give you any reason to root for their survival.  It’s a fun puzzler let down by the presence of a vacuous leading lady, an obvious “surprise” reveal, and a rushed ending that sets up a too-obvious sequel.

The latest Mark Walburg empty action movie, Mile 22, really wants to be a smart boy.  The action sequences are great.  The simple escort mission has defined stakes and enough little twists to keep things interesting.  It’s let down a little by a face-heel turn at the end that feels a little cheap given the heavy-handed red herrings blasted through the film, and the lack of any real clues along the way.  But it’s a Wahlburg movie – no one goes into one of those looking for an intellectual challenge.

Which leads to the biggest annoyance of the film – Wahlburg plays a dumb person’s idea of a smart person.  That’s his entire personality.  His character is a super genius, you see, and the film-makers show us this in two ways.  One, he completes “world’s hardest jigsaw puzzles”.  Two, he constantly pauses in the middle of conversations to go off on bizarre rants about…stuff.  In most cases, he just explains things that everyone in the room already knows in a very convoluted way.  He snaps a rubber band on his wrist to keep himself focused, because as a smart person, he needs the reminder.  Otherwise, his attention tends to drift away into his own thoughts even in the middle of public firefights against teams of black clad assassins.

I can’t provide a full review Into the Spider-Verse given that I bailed out when Peter Parker got ganked like a chump twenty minutes into the film.  What makes Spiderman is not his powers or his costume – it’s the character.  Remove the character, and you’ve removed the heart and soul of Spiderman.  It’s a bait and switch, which we all know is a con.

There was a fourth film in there somewhere – it was a long flight – but I can’t even remember what it was, it was that forgettable.

So…yeah.  Not good.  At least I managed to finish the excellent Soda Pop Soldier and Pop Kult Warlord.  The latter of which features an ending as abrupt as any Neal Stephenson book.

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1994, December 1980

 You can just barely see the background of the amazing cover of this issue of 1994 includes a Mount Rushmore that has been expanded by two faces – a nice touch indicating that our dinosaur riding caveman is from the far flung future. Presumably that year fourteen years away from the publication date of 1980.  Billed as an “adult” magazine, most of the adult content is actually pretty childish in nature, aside from one gratuitous scene in which the hero and his recently adopted lady-sidekick prepare to embark on a dangerous mission by getting it on.

Most of the tales are light fare, and ultimately forgettable.  Sci-Fi Writer on the other hand, shows how little things have changed in fandom over the last forty years.  The titular author and protagonist is a short, balding, and tubby man with a greatly outsized sense of his own importance.  There’s a shot at the author, whose best work consists of warmed over copies of Issac Asimov Vodkanov’s work.  A short and stocky and balding author with a greatly inflated sense of his own importance sounds really familiar.

There’s even a shot at how pedos are drawn to sci-fi fandom wherein the Mr. Rimmjobbe promises to teach his benefactors how he picks up little girls at the Hollywood playgrounds.

They knew.  Even back then, they knew.

Being an optimist, I’ll assume the author is taking cheap shots at sci-fi fandom throughout the story. This would be a Mary Sue story if it wasn’t drenched in ironic deprecation of writers and sci-fi fandom in general.  Our long nosed author with the receding hair line gets approached for easy sex by a buxom fan/author, and proves not to be up to the challenge.  He’s a sci-fi author whose work could save the future – hence his targeting by aliens target him for destruction to stop him – but we’re shown what sort of hack writing he produces.  Rimmjobbe is a caricature of the sort of sci-fi author whose delusions of grandeur rival those of an Ignatius P. Reilly.  Even as he is sentenced to an 80-year prison term he strikes that gamma pose, insisting that this is what he really wanted all along.

All that’s missing from Mr. Rimmjobbe is a brag about his banhammer.

Of all the stories in the magazine, Sci-Fi Writer might be the most prescient, but another tale included an interesting bit of trolling in the pre-internet era.  Set in the last days of humanity, when the ozone had been fully depleted and the earth’s atmosphere choked with smog, things are looking grim for the home team.  Interestingly, the cause of the heat death of the earth wasn’t industrialists, but do-gooder environmentalists who worked to ban nuclear power.

That’s an interesting shot at anti-nuke activists from what otherwise might be considered a counter-cultural magazine.



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More on Warren Publishing

Been doing a bit of adherence to Jeffro Johnson’s general rule of “don’t read anything written before 1980” lately, and that means checking on the long boxes full of black and white comics down to the local Nerd World.

I’ve got a reputation there as a bit of a cheap-skate, waltzing in looking for the Alterna titles, and rarely dropping more than a couple bucks at a shot. Don’t blame me, blame the Big Two and your Diamond monopoly, shopkeep. An honorific I’m proud to wear, but one I’ve failed to live up to as when the Alterna shelf is bare and the Arkhaven shelf non-existent, that leaves me plunging into the long boxes.

As a result, you can check out my review of “The Rook” here.

One bit of not so fun trivia to add to that: According to the Infogalactic page on Warren Publishing, it turns out that he hired Gloria Steinam in 1960 to work on a satire magazine called Help!.  Said magazine also introduced a young comedian named John Cleese to an illustrator named Terry Gilliam.

For all that it’s 1980’s demise consigns it to the dustbin of history and nostalgia-nerds these days, it turns out Warren Publishing has a lot more fingerprints on the current state of fandom than most realize.

And that’s not even getting into the critical role Forrest J. Ackerman played in both the early days of Warren Publishing and in the early days of fandom’s pedophile problem.

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Marvel Zombies

With the recent announcement of Marvel Studio’s decision to go all woke all the time, a great many pundits are darkly heralding the imminent demise of the Devil Mouse.  The common consensus on Team Western Civilization holds that the “get woke/go broke” maxim will soon lay low the house that Walt built.  Allow me to voice a note of dissent.

The world loves empty spectacle.  All the flat characters, meaningless drama, empty action, and bland dialogue in the world won’t bring down a film filled with lots and lots of splodey-splodey.  Aquaman was a DC movie with all that implies and even following on the heels weak sisters like Batman vs. Superman and  Justice League it nearly cracked the billion dollar mark.  Disney’s ‘live action’ remake of The Lion King looks like cold mud on a hot roof, and people still forked over half a billion dollars worth of tickets in the opening weekend.

Or take the Transformers franchise.  It’s worst performer, Last Knight, still managed to triple its budget and earn Bumblebee a shot at the screen.  And that’s more than a decade after we all realized that the franchise was all chrome, no engine.

For all the tepid praise heaped on Marvel’s Endgame duology, it delivered exactly what the film-going audience wanted to see – sound and fury.  A whole lot of noise just crammed in between credit sequences is Marvel’s strong suit, and all of these titles will play right into that.  They can keep blasting out movies like this for at least a decade after the last clear hit – and they will.

No, Marvel isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  Like all of our major IP franchises, Hollywood will ride that horse right into the ground.  You can count on Marvel trubdling along X-Men style right on into a Phase Five, sucking up all that sweet foreign lucre and blaming all their failures on Chads who don’t embrace their anti-Christian Trojan Horse messaging.

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Sounds Good!

Can confirm.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Saint Tommy when I paid for the pleasure.  It’s going to be even more fun to share with you all the savage glory of a New York Cop battling the forces of hell.

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