I had such high hopes for Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress. But instead of a fun, cheeky look at the world of D&D through the eyes of a girl, I got an appalling mess of tacky stereotypes paraded out as ‘humor.’
I tried to quell my misgivings; I hate to give up on a book I’ve anticipated reading for a long time. So, despite the fact that the book opened with her whining that her gamer boyfriend didn’t bail on his friends to spend an hour or two in rush-hour traffic to come change her tire (and, like, OMG, didn’t he understand she was wearing WHITE PANTS!!1!one), because apparently the fairer sex can neither operate a tire iron nor figure out how to call AAA, I kept plodding along.
My misgivings increased as she described her job at Wizards of the Coast, and complained that there was no one to “commiserate with” about how weird and nerdy everything was, and how she had to “endure” her coworkers talking about aspects of gaming (Side note: Who in the sphincter of hell is in charge of hiring at Wizards of the Coast?). Ugh, a guy came to work dressed up as a Stormtrooper, and nobody else wanted to talk about what a weirdo he was. Poor her.
Not content to confine the offensive attitude to her own beliefs, she included a questionnaire answered by her five closest friends, where they proceeded to espouse how creepy and sad they thought D&D players were. Beating a dead horse seems to be the author’s strong point, because she couldn’t seem to quickly address stereotypes about D&D players and move on to, you know, the game she was supposedly writing about. Instead she chose focus on how much the world looks down on the lil’ cave-dwelling, neck-bearded, grimy losers before eventually tossing in a few condescending acknowledgements that they’re not all like that.
In the middle of her tolerance speech about how people should embrace stereotypical gamers instead of trying to change them (generous of her, I guess…?), she refers to nerds as “socially retarded.” That’s the part of the book where she’s trying really hard to encourage people not to look down on gamers. Her attempt to wear a Dungeons & Dragons shirt in public ends with her getting embarrassed after less than an hour (like, ew, people think I’m one of those creepy basement dwellers!) and asking to borrow a friend’s sweater.
Then there are the nonsensical ramblings about shoes and lipstick that leave the reader scratching their head and wondering what it all has to do with the game. Her explanation on gearing up a character is derailed by a discussion about how her character is buying Jimmy Choos at Nordstrom while everyone else is buying weapons.
But I think it would be best if I gave you examples of the content, and let you judge for yourself if this book seems like it would help you learn to play Dungeons & Dragons:
“Sorry, ladies, there are no bonus points for being able to walk in heels over cobblestones or remembering the anniversary of the day your best friend’s divorce was final. There are no deductions for clumpy mascara or visible panty lines. Come to think of it, maybe there should be.”
“Prior to my first game, I spent some quality time with Teddy creating my character. By “creating my character,” I mean using my mechanical pencil to twist my hair into an updo and building some Stonehenge-like creations with twenty-sided dice, while Teddy filled out my character sheet.”
“Picture a star who could remove her toenail polish with hundred dollar bills if she were someone who actually took care of her own toes. This person hates to see nurses and lunch ladies go without cashmere hoodies and MP3 players. If she’s feeling frisky, she might buy you and 349 of your neighbors a brand new Pontiac. But watch it–if she’s feeling wronged, she won’t think twice about outing you on national television. Don’t mess with a Lawful Good celeb.”
“Poor Ursula had a hard time finding scale armor. Yuck. That stuff is so unflattering and it’s almost impossible to find scale mail leggins in her size. Nobody makes a decent pair with a twenty-two inch inseam. I gave her the name of my seamstress.”
Here’s the thing. I know lots of lady geeks who manage to blend geeky and “girly” in a way that doesn’t insult anyone’s intelligence or completely detract from the subject they’re writing about. Shelly Mazzanoble is not one of these ladies. She took an idea that could have worked if it was handled a bit better and just flailed around creating an unreadable mess. At every turn the actual subject matter (the game) was preempted and shoved to the background to make room for yet another joke about lipstick, handbags, and designer shoes.
If the goal of Wizards of the Coast was to make this girl throw up her hands in defeat and buy a book on playing Warcraft instead of Dungeons & Dragons, they succeeded.
Redshirts by John Scalzi exceeded my expectations on every count; plot, concept, and characterization. I went into it a little hesitant, because I’m not really a big Star Trek fan and I had never read anything by Scalzi before. And most of all, I was unsure that the concept, which seemed amusing enough, could sustain a full length novel. How do you stay true to the convention of redshirts, two-dimensional characterization, and silly classic science fiction plotting, yet still satisfy modern readers who expect so much more from their science fiction?
I’m very pleased to say that not only was the concept worked into a clever plot, but every minor quibble you may have nagging at the back of your mind is actually addressed by the end of the book, resulting in quite a few instances of, “Oh my god, he did that on purpose! Scalzi, you clever bastard!” I actually had to throw out a good 80% of the notes I jotted down while reading Redshirts, because almost everything I thought was a fault turned out to be part of the ride. It was masterfully done, and Scalzi’s background as long-time SF writer and stint as president of the SFWA really shows. He’s well versed in both tropes and predicting how readers will react to the most subtle of cues. He walked the fine line between staying true to the tone of the source and imprinting his own personality on the story.
The one caveat is that this is truly a concept-driven book rather than a plot or character driven one. If that’s something you really don’t like, Redshirts may not be for you.
The plot revolves around Ensign Andrew Dahl and group of Universal Union crewmen who have just been assigned to the star ship Intrepid. The setting is essentially the Star Trek universe with a few strategically changed names to avoid copyright infringement. The ‘redshirts’ of Trek fame start getting wise to the fact that going on an away mission is a death sentence for anyone but a handful of important bridge officers. While most of the existing crew know this and try to cope with a mixture of denial and clever avoidance schemes, Dahl & Co shake things up and try to figure out the cause behind the mysterious circumstances that make serving on the Intrepid so much more dangerous than any other comparable ship in the Universal Union.
Only a very cursory familiarity with the Star Trek franchise is necessary to enjoy Redshirts. If you’ve caught a few classic Trek reruns over the years, you’re all set to enjoy the ride.
This is a video from last year’s W00tstock at San Diego Comic Con. It’s a skit John Scalzi wrote based on Redshirts. It doesn’t involve any of the characters from the book, and there’s no spoilers; it’s just a humorous short that introduces you to the concept.
What happened to the short story? I’ve been frustrated with the lack of real analysis this subject receives, despite the fact that both writers and literary critics have been bemoaning the loss of this medium since at least the mid 90s.
Short stories have declined in popularity, and I think part of the problem is that everyone is quick to blame readers and, to a lesser extent, publishers. Missing from most debates on the subject is any suggestion that short story writers could possibly have anything to do with this phenomenon. While a decade working in retail gives me a horrible gut reaction to the phrase, “The customer is always right!!!1one!” it must be acknowledged that anyone creating a product has to stop and consider the wants of the consumer.
Saying that everyone is just too lazy and stupid to properly appreciate short stories is not constructive, but almost every essay I’ve seen on the subject seems to accept this as a foregone conclusion. Stephen King is one of the few writers I’ve seen confront writers on this issue, rather than blame the readers:
What’s not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.
Excerpt from What Ails the Short Story by Stephen King
The rise of the internet age has created an upswing the demand for short media. Individual songs outsell albums by a staggering margin. Anyone hawking blogging advice will admonish their readers to make blog posts as short as possible, and to cut topics into bite-sized pieces; as much as that frustrates me, most pro bloggers have the site stats to prove that their most-read and most-linked-to posts are the low-content bullet point type. Traditional publishers and authors bemoan the fact that Kindle seems to be flooding the market with much shorter novels than have been traditionally popular, and that people seem to prefer them.
That last one especially stands out to me. If people are reading shorter novels in record numbers, why hasn’t the short story market seen any improvement whatsoever? Short story markets shrink ever more as novellas and novelettes continue to be the darlings of Kindle sales. This suggests that people do want to read shorter fiction, but the short stories they have read failed to inspire their interest. I want to see more writers and critics focus on what works in short stories, what doesn’t, and how to get people more invested in them.
Here are a few problems I’ve noticed in my various attempts to get back into reading short stories over the years:
Problem #1: Over-reliance on the twist and/or ironic ending.
You know how we all got sick of M. Night Shyamalan’s twist endings after about two movies? And how Tales From The Crypt stories often seemed to involve some jerk getting his comeuppance directly because of events he set into motion? This one stems from the fact that plot-driven short stories don’t have much time to weave together multiple plot threads and resolve them in a satisfying manner. It might work for a while, but obviously once people have read more than a few short stories, it starts to feel less satisfying. That’s why we generally prefer movies and novels that use the traditional rising action-climax-denouement model.
Problem #2: Creative writing teachers have too much influence over modern short story writers.
“Explore the five senses” is advice all too often given to students in creative writing classes, resulting in the baffling practice of wasting limited space with descriptions of how everything smells, tastes, and feels. Has anyone ever sat down to a story and wished to read a detailed account of how it tastes, feels, and smells to take an ice cube out of glass of iced tea and rub it over one’s skin? I know I sure haven’t, but that doesn’t stop a multitude of writers from injecting such random minutiae into a story format where every sentence must justify its existence.
This practice should be limited to times when it brings depth to a pivotal moment; a parent holding their newborn for the first time, someone in a hospital overwhelmed by sensory input as they wait for test results, etc. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a short story is only a few thousand words long, if that. If a writer is trying too hard to paint a picture for the reader, there isn’t much room left for a story.
Problem #3: No room to explore the culture or story setting? Just make everything weird.
This one is a cornerstone of speculative fiction short stories. When in doubt, just make the first few paragraphs describe a world or character so weird that the reader (supposedly…) will be instantly curious. Like the twist ending, this method doesn’t hold up to repeated use. It also runs the risk of holding the reader at a distance instead of giving them something to relate to.
Problem #4: Can’t think of a story that can be set up in the space confines of a short medium? Skip the story and have people just stand around and think about stuff.
Modern literary fiction. The genre that solves every problem associated with writing in the same manner: Make a ‘story’ with no direction of any kind, without taking a position on any sort of moral issue, avoid interesting conflicts that have consequences for the main character, and smugly inform any detractor that the whole point was symbolism. Remember, anything resembling something so base as a plot is low brow and juvenile.
Clearly this is a limited selection of problems with modern short stories, but I think it’s an import step in moving the discussion towards acknowledging what is going wrong on the writers’ side.
If you’ve never heard that phrase, spoken with an apathetic Irish brogue, you’re missing out. The IT Crowd is a show I’d heard of from time to time in geeky circles, and I’d seen it mentioned on a number of “must see” British TV lists, but it languished in my Netflix queue for quite a while before I discovered what a gem this show is.
The IT Crowd centers around the IT department of a large corporation, herded by a social butterfly who lies through her teeth to get the job despite knowing nothing about computers. The cast is flawless, and most of the plots are fairly original (it helps that like many British shows, the seasons are too short to require filler episodes). The characters also tend to get equal treatment, and it’s refreshing to see a sitcom where one character doesn’t slowly become more and more outrageous until they steal the spotlight (see: Sheldon Cooper, Stewie Griffin, etc.)
There are a few minor flaws in an otherwise wonderful show; it tends to reinforce the stereotype of women just pretending to know about tech, and plays up the basement-dwelling stigma of nerds a bit much. But overall the show pokes fun without being mean about either characterization. There was, unfortunately, a very transphobic episode in the last season, and it culminates in what is definitely the show’s cruelest moment.
I’ll leave you with a clip from the show’s first episode, where we meet Jen for the first time. It sets up her penchant for unabashed lying, which remains a character flaw she struggles with for most of the show:
Author’s Note: I decided to split this into two posts, as it quickly became longer than I expected. I was always taught to open with criticisms and finish on a positive note, so today I’ll be doing my best bad cop routine.
Supernatural’s eighth season is a vast improvement over the seventh, but it’s still falling short of its glory days. This series has taken the word ‘repetitive’ to previously unimagined heights.
The ‘return to its roots’ mantra that has been tossed about by both the writers and fans since season 7 began puts an overly optimistic spin on things. The preferred method to return the show to its roots after the universally lambasted sixth season appears to be reliance on a rigid formula.
It goes as follows (don’t worry, it’s not really a spoiler, as this actually happens on many seasons of Supernatural): After a season spent fighting The Big Bad, one of the Winchesters makes a big sacrifice and gets sent to a hellish dimension of some sort in the season finale, then miraculously reappears on the next season’s premiere. The remainder of the season will be consumed by flashbacks of the hellish place, hints that the time spent in the hellish dimension was even more horrible than you’d imagine (hampered slightly by the fact that viewers could imagine a far more horrific place than the show’s budget can create), examples of how the hellish place changed the person who went there in some fundamental way, and finally the big reveal of how the brother escaped.
Heck, you were probably getting bored reading about the generic hellish place, and it only took you a few seconds to skim that paragraph; imagine reading it for a whole year, or even several years.
The other brother will have countless flashbacks of what life was like while his sibling was in the hellish place, and he’ll express both guilt for allowing himself to enjoy it and his feeling that something was missing without the life of a hunter. As the season progresses, his flashbacks will take on a bittersweet dichotomy: Increasingly cloying scenes where the viewer sees just how much he wants to hang on to the life he had while the brother was gone, and a growing certainty that the old life must be forever abandoned now that the brother is back. Finally some big event will happen that makes the decision for him; it will most likely involve violence against the woman he wants to stay with.
Flashbacks are best when used very sparingly, regardless of the medium. The problem with Supernatural is that the writers don’t seem to see any problem with basing entire seasons on them, and season eight seems to be ratcheting up this tendency to extreme proportions. This is doubly problematic because shows like Supernatural, by design, also rely heavily on foreshadowing and premonitions of the evil to come, played out over massive story arcs. That means that a huge swath of screen time is taken away from the here and now. The episodes that do focus entirely on the present often end up being fluff and filler episodes, only tenuously connected to the rest of the show.
What is lacking is a significant amount of episodes that progress the plot in the present time. That type of episode should be the rule, not the exception.
The Winchesters’ relationship also seems to have stagnated. Here’s the thing with tension: It is always ruled by pacing, uncertainty, and exposure. There is rarely enough time given between the brothers’ spats and tantrums, so there is no longer any tension in the fights.
If the viewer knows for a fact that the brothers will quickly be at each other’s throats again, even if they resolve their current argument, there is no tension. There needs to be the possibility for a happy, friendly relationship if we are expected to have an emotional investment in their arguments. As it stands, Sam and Dean feeling angry/betrayed/undervalued/ignored/whatever at one another is just background noise. It is always there. They need to have some story arcs where the brothers are getting along very well in order to sell the drama when they are fighting.
George Lucas sold off the Star Wars universe to Disney to the tune of 4 billion dollars. If that announcement isn’t shocking enough, Disney has already set a very approximate date for the next Star Wars film: 2015. (Also, I vote Nathan Fillion for Han Solo) . Disney has a trilogy planned, with more possibly to come after that. There have been hints that we can expect a much bigger Star Wars presence in the Disney parks as well.
Am I terrible, disloyal fan if my very first thought was, “Well, it’s not like they could do a worse job than Lucas?” I love Star Wars. I respect and admire George Lucas for creating it. But I hated the new trilogy. Maybe if the filmmakers are held accountable to someone, rather than being surrounded by hired yes-men, we can expect a modicum of improvement. It won’t be anything like the original Star Wars, but neither were the prequels.
Perhaps the biggest question for the comic book community: Will this impact Dark Horse’s relationship with Star Wars? Can we expect a new comic series from Marvel?
November is National Novel Writing Month, know affectionately as NaNoWriMo. In this quantity-over-quality dash to a 50,000 word finish line, tens of thousands of aspiring novelists put aside the excuses they cling to year round and just hammer out a (very short) novel.
The gist of National Novel Writing Month is that it’s an opportunity to let go of your inner critic and get your ideas onto the page. An oft-repeated NaNoWriMo axiom is that “November is for writing, December is for editing.” This has led to some backlash from the writing community at large, as detractors claim that it encourages poor writing skills and lackluster novels from amateurs.
While there’s no arguing that writing for speed rather than quality results in a lot of dreck, the point isn’t really to create a publishable draft in November. For those who are trying to make a go as a professional novelist, it’s a way to get into the habit of writing a set amount every day, no excuses allowed, and to find other aspiring novelists to keep one another accountable. The companionship offered is an added boost that gets people inspired to do what they’ve been putting off for years or even decades. For people who have no interest in being a professional published author, it’s simply a time to get together with like minded people and encourage one another while doing something fun.
While anyone can participate in NaNoWriMo without signing up at the website, the forums provide many people with camaraderie and fun features to make the most of this yearly event. Here’s a very brief summary of what one can expect from the forums:
The most common method is to set a daily word goal of 1,667 words (roughly 3x the words of an average blog post) to add up to 50,000 by the end of the month. The NaNoWriMo website calculates a user’s word count when one uploads a file (the document is neither read nor stored on the site; it simply adds up the words), and one “wins” by reaching the minimum word count by midnight on November 30th.
If you’ve been struggling for years to get past the first few chapters–or even the first few pages–of your novel, give it a go. And just remember that the point isn’t to create a publishable manuscript on the first go; it’s to create the skeleton of a book you can fix after you’ve taught yourself to sit down and just write every day.
Because John Green makes just about everything better, I’ll leave you with his video on NaNoWriMo:
While no great book can be written in a month, no great book can be written in a first draft no matter how long it takes you to write it. Books are made in revisions.
Paranormal Activity 4 would probably have been more satisfying as a stand-alone movie. As the fourth installment of a series, with the other films leading up to this conclusion (in the promotional poster’s own words, no less), it left a lot to be desired.
It didn’t seem as if the audience got the same feel for the family as in previous films. The mother and father floated in and out of the movie without making much of an impression. Only Alex and her boyfriend Ben really came across as having any personality. The acting was not at fault; everyone gave a decent performance. The parents just didn’t get much screen time, and when they did, they were given generic “parent things” to say and do. There was none of the homey warmth of Kristi’s family or the snarking of Katie and Micah.
The trademark thumps and drags were thankfully kept to a minimum, as they no longer invoke the same fear they once did. One of the film’s more brilliant moves was to explore the effect created by Xbox Kinect’s sensor dots; this led to most of the movie’s scariest moments, and it’s a safe bet that a lot of audience members rushed home to try it out with their digital cameras. And this being a ‘found footage’ movie, the new modus operandi was webcams on the family’s laptops.
There were a few odd inconsistencies. The home is equipped with a security feature that announces when the exterior doors are opened, but this is never actually used for scary effect. It makes you wonder why you spent the movie listening to that bland automated voice announcing, “Front door, opened,” if it was never going to be used for the obvious. There were several scenes where it didn’t make sense that the security system didn’t announce an arrival or exit, which begs the question: why write it into the script in the first place? It was reminiscent of the second film, where the family had a large guard dog who very rarely seemed to notice the crashing and thumping that the humans always heard, and who was never called out to by the owners when they were nervous.
The most disappointing aspect is that it seems to completely negate the events of the first two films–and by extension, the existence of the fourth movie itself. Unless there is a fifth installment planned to explain what happened between films two and four, it would seem that nobody thought out the implications of this movie. The end was also somewhat overdone; again, unless there is another film planned to explain it all, it leads to more questions than it answers, and they’re the sort of questions that suggest the creators simply figured people will sit back and appreciate the fear factor regardless of how much it seems to conflict with the previous movies. Given the cult status of the first film, it seems a shame to throw it all away for a quick scare.
Random sidenote: As of the time I’m writing this, there is something bizarre going on with the imdb page for PA4. There are two black cast members listed in lieu of the parents, the boy who plays Wyatt is not listed, and Ben is listed as another Alex:
This season’s premiere of the Walking Dead opened with a lot of action, but unfortunately the characterization was not a huge improvement over last year. This seems like it’s going to remain a show I watch in order to see what happens rather than because I’m rooting for the characters (besides Daryl, naturally).
I’m torn because I love zombie properties, but I’ve always favored character-driven rather than concept-driven television. It’s a new experience for me to sit and watch people I really don’t like for 44 minutes. No matter how cool a scene is, it’s very hard for me to be invested in it if I don’t care about the characters. Even with the characters I do like, it’s more of a lukewarm appreciation rather than the passion that I normally feel towards my favorite characters. To be fair, that may also be because most of the characters I like are minor ones, and their stories have been abbreviated in order to accommodate the unending and uninspiring soap opera between Rick, Lori, and Shane. Despite all hopes the contrary, Shane’s death hasn’t put the slightest dent in the writers’ enthusiasm for this tortuous and wholly unnecessary drama.
Michonne was by far the biggest highlight of the episode; I spent most of the premiere wishing she and Andrea had more screen time. The prisoner reveal at the end brings the hope that the cast might be rounded out with a few more likeable people. If only we could count on Rick, Lori, and Carl all going the way of Dale and Shane, the show would look as if it were going to be downright good, especially with the eventual addition of the Governor. Is it wrong that I find myself rooting for him just because I know he’s going to challenge Rick?
On a more unfortunate note, it seems the writers–for reasons known only to themselves–decided to take a page from George Lucas’s handbook and set up a romance between a child and a teenage girl, to take the characters to new heights of repulsiveness, and possibly to prove that the writers just aren’t terribly fond of women. This is one trainwreck I hope gets dealt with quickly rather than be allowed to drag out over the course of the season.
Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy is a refreshing take on the zombie novel. These books are recommended for anyone who loves zombies but has become tired of the standard template that most of the genre’s writers seem to follow.
Feed, the first entry in Grant’s trilogy, takes place a full generation after the dead began to rise; the protagonists, both in their early 20s, were born around the time of the initial outbreak (know as The Rising), and never knew a world without the threat of zombie attacks.
While zombies are the impetus behind the plot, they don’t take center stage like the zombies of most novels, and the book is richer for it. Any zombie novel can only have so many scenes about zombies, or else the reader would become quickly desensitized to them. The failing of most zombie stories–both books and movies–is that they fill out all the space between zombie encounters with the same tedious tasks of barricading shelters and gathering supplies, with the occasional attack from other survivors, and possibly one character dragging the other characters on an ill-fated quest to reach a child and/or spouse.
Mira Grant (pseudonym for fantasy novelist Seanan McGuire) decided to tell a story where the characters do interesting things between the zombie encounters. Though it would perhaps have less action, the books would be compelling even with the zombie scenes deleted; the characters, plot, and worldbuilding can stand on their own.
I just find it interesting that kids apparently used to cry when Bambi’s mother died. George and I both held our breaths, and then cheered when she didn’t reanimate and try to eat her son.
Feed and the subsequent books focus on a team of news bloggers who stumble upon a conspiracy revolving around the zombies that have turned most of the world’s surviving population into hermits too scared to leave the safety of their homes.
Georgia Mason, leader of the website After The End Times, blends the modern appeal of blogging with the nostalgic memory of hard hitting investigative journalists from a time when the news was about something more noble. She’s also a strong female character that’s perhaps a bit more relatable to the nerdy chick crowd than the average urban fantasy heroine; she may be good with a gun, but there’s nary a set of leather pants or a back tattoo to be seen. Her adopted brother Shaun Mason fulfills the lovable ass-kicker role well, and the cast is rounded out with the other bloggers for After The End Times.
It’s a solid read, but as I’ve attempted to demonstrate, it’s not the traditional zombie tale. If that’s what you’re after, this is one you’d be better off skipping.