Saturday, August 29, 2009

There was a time...

There was a time when I ate fairly healthy meals, got a lot of regular exercise, and spent anywhere from three to five hours writing, nearly every night.

Some days I miss being a teenager...

Of course, there are an awful lot of good things in my life now that just weren't possible then, but why let realism interfere with a well-crafted fit of nostalgia?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Wednesday Morning Music: End of the World

Rather than proceeding alphabetically (though I'm sure we're going to come back to that), this morning's selection is a playlist of songs to listen to while writing about - or waiting for - the apocalypse.

1. Nemesis - VnV Nation
2. Faded Flowers - Shriekback
3. End of the World - Great Big Sea
4. Save a Prayer - Dune
5. From The End Of The World - Electric Light Orchestra
6. (Nothing But) Flowers - Talking Heads
7. Stand Or Fall - Glow
8. Strange - Son of Rust
9. Waiting for the End of the World - Ideal Flaw
10. Lonely In Your Nightmare - Duran Duran
11. Bad Moon Rising - Rosa Chance Wells
12. Red Skies - Gene Loves Jezebel
13. Love at the End of the World - Sam Roberts

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? What would you play if the End was Nigh?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fanction as Writing Practice

I've been writing Fan Fiction (fanfic, for short) for over a decade, now.

Fanfiction, for those who don't know, is basically the practice of writing your own stories set in another author's world and/or using another author's character(s). It's a surprisingly common activity; or perhaps I should say, it's an unsurprisingly common response to reading a fun and well-told story: "I wish I could be there, doing that."

(The comic Girl Genius includes a humorous interlude which focuses on the creation of fan fiction by a character from the world of the comic. The interlude begins here, and runs about seven pages; it is entirely separate from the main storyline, so reading it will not spoil anything from the rest of the comic. By the way, if you aren't already reading Girl Genius, you should be - it's exceptionally well done. Or, do the authors a favor and buy yourself a copy; it's available as a printed comic book, too.)

Like any other sort of writing, fan fiction can be done spectacularly well, hideously poorly, or anywhere in between. It sometimes gets a bad reputation, usually owing to one of three reasons:
  1. It's fundamentally derivative. That is, it is based on someone else's work (by definition).
  2. A lot of fanfiction is very badly written - poor grammar, frequent spelling errors, and misused words abound.
  3. Fanfictions frequently borrow characters created by other authors, and use them in ways that are inappropriate, and sometimes deeply disturbing.

I want to stop and elaborate on that last item for a moment. I once read (as part of a class on Science Fiction) a fanfic in which two characters from the original Star Trek series were trapped on an alien planet. This was not, if you'll recall, an uncommon occurrence. In this case, however, the two characters were Spock, the half-Vulcan who almost never showed emotion, and "Bones" McCoy, who was perpetually angry at Spock's failure to act more human; and the event which trapped them was "psychic storm" which prevented them from beaming back to the ship and threatened to burn out their minds. The climax of the story had them huddled together, with Spock performing a Mind Meld to get them through the night - a strange sort of intimacy for these very different, somewhat antagonistic men. The story was well-written, and very true to the characters, but it was also exploring psychological territory that the original TV show would never have approached. I suspect that, for the author of the fanfic, that was precisely the point.

There are a great many fanfics in which the author has inserted an "idealized Me" character (often referred to as a Mary Sue) into an existing series. These stories tend, by their nature, to put the author's Id on display, often with disturbing results. As an example - which, for the sake of your sanity, dear readers, I will not link to - I offer a fanfic in which a teenage girl was accepted to Hogwarts. She was (unsurprisingly) exotic and attractive, and quickly turned most of the students on to her favorite bands and her goth style of dress. Where it gets disturbing is the bit where, in very short order, she is sleeping with Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy, and Professor Snape - and suffering great angst over the question of how she could possibly choose between them.

Despite these criticism, there are a great many people writing fanfics, and some of them are actually quite well-written (which, for me, generally includes being true to the source material).

My own experience with Fan Fiction is, as far as I can tell, a bit different from most. I first stumbled onto it when I was looking for information on the Bordertown series of books. Bordertown is a "shared world" anthology (or series of anthologies, really). In other words, different authors all took the same setting and wrote their own stories in it. (The series also spawned at least three full-length novels, from authors who wanted to do more with their characters.) So, naturally, the group that I had stumbled onto did the same: took the setting, and wrote their own stories with their own characters. This differs from the usual run of fanfiction mainly because the "original" characters are left almost entirely alone.

Later, I stumbled onto The Grey Tower, which is set in the world of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books. This was, again, entirely accidental; I was doing a search for a particular type of Japanese polearm. The Grey Tower, despite being set in a world created by a single author in a (quite long and excruciatingly detailed) ongoing series, uses much the same approach as the Bordertown group: everyone has to create their own characters - you can't use one from the books - and Grey Tower events must always take place "offstage" in regards to the original series. Moreover, characters and events have to be true to the spirit of the series; you can't introduce psychic powers, or a new system of magic, or that sort of thing.

So, granting that my experience with (and practice of) fan fiction is a bit unusual, I tend to think that it can actually be quite good as writing practice. That's particularly true if you're looking to polish your style a bit before starting on your own projects. Here's the thing:

To keep your setting internally consistent, you have to pay attention to the details. This is true regardless of whether you're inventing your own world or borrowing someone else's. In order to stay true to the original author's work, a fan fiction writer has to make a fairly close reading of the source material, and then do some careful analysis of how things work, and what does and doesn't fit in that setting. That same sort of thinking - How do these things work? What can we do with this element? How does this ability change the way our society works? - is quite valuable when you sit down to create your own worlds.

In my own fan faction, I do not use published characters. When I do use other people's characters, they are always from people I know, with whom I can consult to make sure I get the details and the behaviors right. This is, again, good practice for characterization.

Sites like The Grey Tower actually offer classes to help with some of these elements. They have an introductory class, which includes several lessons designed to help you explore your character. Other classes, such as Writing Combat, address other areas of writing. You can also get feedback on your writing (sometimes even if you don't want to hear it).

Now, obviously not all authors of fan fiction are going to put this much thought, or this kind of thinking, into their work. For the ones who do, though, I think that writing fanfics can be a good way to improve one's writing in general. Most people are eventually going to want to move on to creating their own worlds and their own characters, but spending some time really exploring someone else's world is not a bad way to start.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bad Horror Films: Dark Ride

BHF: Dark Ride
Lionsgate Films, 2006

Okay, so this is basically just me watching a Bad Horror Film. I do this a lot, and I usually speculate about how things might have gone if the script had been just a little bit... different. Usually, for Bad Horror Films, this means wondering what might happen if the protagonists had even a little bit of intelligence or common sense.

Tonight's selection Dark Ride. It's one of the Eight Films To Die For - except that they've been doing this for at least three years, giving us a bare minimum of twenty-four films to die for. I've seen others in this collection, and the quality varies widely. However, the rating information on the back of this one promises "strong grisly horror violence and gore, sexuality, nudity, language, and some drug content." So however bad the writing and acting may be, it'll at least have a few redeeming features...

I should warn you, as a courtesy, that there will be spoilers in this post. Don't read ahead if you haven't seen the film, and want to be surprised by the plot. (On the other hand... Come on. It's a Bad Horror Film, one of the most predictable beasts in the jungle. How surprising could it be?) Anyway, you have been warned.

Previews: It's always a good sign when the previews themselves have an R rating.
...Dear gods, I think they've decided to preview all seven of the other films.

The movie (finally): Opening shot, empty pier, two girls walking. I'm guessing this is a flashback to set the stage. They're wearing pretty generic school uniforms, look to be late middle school or early high school. They've gotten on a carnival ride... lot of stage smoke, things jumping out. They've been lulled into thinking it's harmless, so it's probably time for one of them to die.

Yep. One of them just got yanked up out of the seat. The one who was afraid to get on in the first place is busily freaking out. Even odds on whether she dies too, or whether she survives to return as a twenty-something. Oh, her newly-dead friend is now part of the ride... and the figure at the exhibit just reached for her. Both dead, then.

Flickery credits interspersed with bits of newspaper clippings and scary images, mostly from the ride. We're about ten minutes into the film now; hopefully we can start the main plot. Newspaper clippings suggest the ride has reopened, spring break is about to start, and there was something about an insane asylum.

Fade to a movie vision of a dormitory... (In the movies, dormitories - and, for that matter, parties - are always a lot more lively and active than they ever are in real life.)

Okay, so... we have the two girls, one blonde and one brunette; and we've already set up the blonde as the slut. The brunette, meanwhile, is angsty about her boyfriend. She's basically having a Define The Relationship talk with her blonde roommate, about her boyfriend. Boyfriend, meanwhile, expresses doubts about whether he still loves the brunette. The boys are pretty much characterized as the taller, socially-aware guy, and his shorter, nerdier friend. We're fifteen minutes in, and I already want to kill all four of them myself.

...And, we've just introduced a third guy - blonde, guitarist, smooth; leaving a female admirer behind to go on his Spring Break trip. He has a guitar, but somehow I doubt that'll be at all relevant later on. Frankly, he comes off as a little sleazy.

Okay, so we've established the five main characters, and I'm not so much hoping for one of them to survive as I am trying to decide which one I want to see die the soonest. This does not speak well of the acting, or the basic characterization. I doubt the effect was intentional.

Ah, good. The spooky gas station. Likely they'll hear about the Dark Ride, or receive an eerie warning, or do something stupid to piss off the locals. Okay, I think I like the creepy old gas station attendant better than any of the kids. Sadly, he probably won't reappear. And, yes, they did find a flier advertising the Dark Ride.

Apparently not content with implying that a lunatic had escaped (during the credits), the script writers have now flashed back to a sanitarium, "Two Weeks Earlier". Abusive orderlies are messing with one of the patients, and they're about to feed him meat in direct defiance of their instructions. So, naturally, they're going to die horribly and the patient's going to escape. Nice spooky growl and an Incredible Hulk-style ripping-out-of-the-restraints scene, though. Good splattery gore, too.

One of these days, I'd like to see a version of this scene where the orderlies are competent professionals doing an unpleasant (and underpaid) job. It wouldn't really change the outcome, and it would be a nice change of pace...

Back to the kids... They've decided to skip getting a hotel, and stay overnight in the dark ride itself. Less obvious than a haunted house, I suppose - but also less logical.

Oh, good. Now there's a hitchhiker. "I bet she's either a psycho or a nympho." Since she's an attractive blonde with no fashion sense, naturally they're going to pick her up. Okay, actually I guess it's just an ugly hat; the rest of her outfit isn't actually that bad. Ah, good, she's acting crazy in a transparent attempt on the part of the screenwriters to build suspense. She looks like a drama major trying to win the Golden Tree of Overacting. ...And, now she's stripped down to a bikini top. She wants to go with them on the Dark Ride, and she brought mushrooms. Apparently pot just isn't enough some days.

Now they're trying to interact... can we please just kill them? Singly, in a group, I'm not sure I care. The psycho hitchhiker is no better developed than any of the others, and she's flaky. I have, however, finally identified the main character; unsurprisingly, it's the angsty brunette. She has distinguished herself, at 45-50 minutes into the film, by staying behind in the van while everyone else goes to explore the Dark Ride. She's also been the main voice of opposition to the whole plan. So, she probably gets pushed into coming inside, but she probably survives the night. We'll see...

Blonde Surfer Dude (hereafter referred to as BSD - he was the one with the guitar) is exploring an upper floor and has managed to turn on the lights. I'm a little impressed that he went inside by himself, as that's a lot harder to do in real life than it looks here. I'd be more impressed if I thought it was supposed to be characterization, as opposed to, say, sloppy writing.

Things are popping out at them in spite fo the fact that they're walking through the exhibit, which strikes me as profoundly unrealistic. That sort of mechanism is usually tied to the progress of the ride. Also, they've just reminded me that BSD is half out of his mind on 'shrooms. Off hand, I'm not sure whether that makes his solitary upstairs exploration more or less believable.

Just a hint, guys: when you're breaking and entering, try to be sober. It makes you much less likely to be caught. Also, it makes you more likely to make good choices if something goes horribly wrong (as things so often do in Bad Horror Films).

Brunette is sitting alone in the van. If she had any sense, she'd be sleeping through the whole thing.

Psycho-hitchhiker just started talking about "negative energy". And it turns out that BSD knows about the twins who were murdered in the prologue. Oh, and apparently there was a deformed kid who lived in the dark ride. Oh, and BSD didn't mention this earlier because he wanted them to come. Now Nerdy Guy is telling them about how the killer was sent to a mental hospital instead of killed - apparently the twins from the prologue were his cousins, and he didn't see fit to mention this, either. It'd be a pretty good campfire tale, right down to the "no really, I know this is true because..." part, except that in this context the two guys are probably telling the truth.

Angsty Brunette just played a trick on her boyfriend, making him think she was dead. Turns out the boyfriend slept with someone else. Boyfriend is really angry about being tricked, and just stormed off. So we've now set up a situation where either the Nerd or the Boyfriend could start killing people... but since we did the flashback to the sanitarium, I'm thinking probably not - independent lunatic is more likely.

We're now at about 1:10, and nobody's died yet. But Blonde Surfer Dude has just left, by himself, to go turn the lights back on, and Hitchhiker Girl has slipped away also, so hopefully we'll make some progress pretty soon. Death... or bosoms?

1:11 - Bosoms.

The rest of the group - now down to the original two girls and Nerdy Guy - are trying to find their way downstairs. Boyfriend is still missing. Someone really should have died by now. I've been interrupted, so I'm not sure just how far along we are, but there can't be more than twenty or thirty minutes left in the film.

Oh, good. I think they've finally found a corpse... and I think it's Boyfriend. Girlfriend thinks so, too. If it's a joke, he has a much better costume than she did.

Yay! Hitchhiker girl's been killed. And BSD just knocked himself out. Psycho didn't stop to kill him, though. There's some possibility that Nerd Guy is actually the killer. It's also possible that this is all an elaborate party game that Nerd Guy planned out in advance, and nobody is actually dead.

The fact that nobody seems to be looking for weapons is deeply, deeply disturbing to me. Oh, and the girls have just separated, further lowering their odds of survival. The blonde roommate is panicking, so she's in no shape to face anything more dangerous than a chipmunk... Ah, good. She seems to be getting it back together. Oh, and she's trying to grab a hatchet out of one of the exhibits. Good for her. Going about it all wrong, but the instinct is good. Naturally, the masked Psycho snuck up on her while she was at it, so now she's running away.

Right, safety tip number two: when you're exploring someplace dark, always make sure you have at least three light sources with you.

Psycho just caught up with the blonde roommate, so she's out, too.

BSD just surprised Psycho on a balcony - I think he was sneaking up on the brunette - and now Psycho is chasing BSD. This is because BSD was too stupid to grab a weapon. Psycho hasn't used anything more formidable than a hunting knife so far, so even a mid-length chunk of wood would do a lot to even the odds.

We've now added a security guard, who's calling for backup from - it seems - outside the Dark Ride. Hopefully the kids will all finish getting killed before their Deus Ex Machina can arrive. Honestly, the standards for psycho killers have really gone down these days...

Oh, good. The backup is a pair of lazy security guards who are probably going to sleep through the whole thing. This is actually smart, pro-survival behavior on their part.

Finally! Psycho just split the security guard's head in two with a short saber or long cleaver. That tends to contradict the "just a big practical joke" theory I was considering earlier.

And now the brunette has jumped out a window. Since she was on the second floor and made no attempt to tuck and roll - she pretty much came down on her hands and knees - she seems to have a sprained ankle. Frankly, she's lucky she didn't break her wrists as well. On the plus side, she's out of the building and in the rain, which ought to make her somewhat harder for the Psycho to find.

Ha! Now she's driven off in the van, leaving Blonde Surfer Dude behind with the Psycho. Good for her. Unfortunately, she'll probably turn back in a fit of abject stupidity and try to save him. This is the moral equivalent of running back into a burning building: it sounds like a good idea, but it usually just leads to more dead bodies. Even odds on whether she dies as a result, or whether she saves BSD. Nerd Guy is still missing, too - so either he's the psycho, or the script writers want us to think he is.

Psycho just caught BSD. BSD is fleeing, but not very successfully. Brunette, as predicted, has turned the van around.

And, the dramatic finale (I hope): Brunette drives the van through the front door, knocking Psycho back into a wall of spikes and saving Blonde Surfer Dude.

Oh, look! Nerd guy just reappeared. Twenty bucks says he was the normal-looking brother of the deformed murderer who lived in the Dark Ride. If so, BSD is about to die anyway.

Ohhhhh, yes. Nerd Guy stabbed BSD, and brunette is semiconscious in the van. Nerd Guy was, in fact, the younger brother of Psycho. ...And, brunette woke up just in time to figure out the relationship. Nerd Guy thanked her for her help, and she's wandered out into the rain. I'm guessing there's some serious therapy in her future.

Final shot is a view of the Psycho's mask, fading back into darkness; possibly hinting that the younger brother will take on the job of murdering people in the Dark Ride.

All in all, not too bad. I'd have more sympathy for the characters if they had been more likeable to begin with, and if they'd made even a token effort to defend themselves, but it certainly could have been worse. The writers held off on the "kids getting killed in a spooky place" part until fairly late in the movie, which would have been a good idea if they'd spent the time developing the characters and/or if the characters had been more sympathetic to begin with. As it was, it just made me impatient.

The ending is a little unsatisfying, too. If Nerd Boy is going to live in the Dark Ride and kill people, he should kill the girl to cover his trail. If not, is he going to be arrested? There are sirens in the background. Is he going to run away? I suppose, since he only killed one person, and the girl was unconscious at the time (no witnesses), he could claim to be an innocent victim... but he's going to have a hard time convincing the authorities, since he brought everyone to the ride in the first place.

Oh, well. Maybe the next Bad Horror Film will offer more chance to critique the characters and their behavior. I seem to have spent most of this one criticising the film itself.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wednesday Music List: accident - adventure

For those of you unfamiliar with this game, the idea is to pull up your I-pod (or equivalent) and list a dozen or so songs from your playlist. This is a quick and easy way to share one's musical taste, but it also allows commenters to make suggestions of their own. We're starting in the A's, so...

1. Accidentally in Love - Counting Crows
2. Accidentally Kelly Street - Frente!
3. Accidents Will Happen - Elvis Costello & The Attractions
4. Accountancy Shanty - Monty Python
5. Acid Rain - Austin Lounge Lizards
6. Acrobat - U2
7. Across The River - Peter Gabriel
8. Addicted - Kelly Clarkson
9. Addicted to Love - Robert Palmer
10. Adonis - Laura Diamond
11. Advent - Jackopierce
12. Adventures in Failure - MC 900 Ft. Jesus

I'm not sure what this says about my musical taste, but there you go.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Zombie Homeopathy

This morning we were playing with Theron's toys. (Theron is my son; he turned three back in June, which was a bit over two months ago.) This was something of a command performance, since I just woke up. On the whole I would have preferred to be drinking my tea. My son, however, had other ideas. He wanted me to play with the zombie (an action figure), while my wife played with Octopus Monster (actually a stuffed-animal version of Cthulhu). More to the point, he wanted us to make Octopus Monster talk to the zombie.

So I'm sitting at the kitchen table, sipping my tea, and making the zombie talk to the Octopus Monster, when I spot this this business card lying amidst yesterday's mail. On the front, it gives the name and phone number for someone who claims to be a "Homeopathy Physician" (and actually puts "M.D." after his - or possibly her - name).

Well, the thing unfolds. So I open it up and look at the inside, and find:
Stimulate body and mind to heal naturally
Beneath this is a list of things that Homeopathy can cure. I call my wife over, because - in addition to things like "Allergies" and "Acne" - it has a bullet point for "Woman disease like Menstrual problems, Menopause, Uterine fibroid, Pregnancy related disorders, Brest lumps etc." That's an exact quote, by the way, so the erratic capitalization and misspellings are all part of the original card.

So I'm sitting there thinking, Homeopathic medicine cures Menopause? Seriously? Except that I'm currently the zombie, and my wife is currently the Octopus Monster, and our son wants us to make the two monsters talk to each other. This, naturally, pulls the conversation a little off track...

Octopus Monster: "Hi, zombie"
Zombie: "Hi, Octopus Monster."
OM: "What are you looking at, Zombie?"
Z: "It's a business card. It says homeopathic medicine can cure all kinds of things."
OM: "Do you need homeopathic medicine, Zombie?"
Z: "Well, I was hoping it would cure Rotting Flesh."
OM: "Yes, you do seem to have a problem with that."
Z: "It would be great if I could rub some powdered rose leaves..."
OM: "Maybe a poultice?"
Z: "...or maybe put a poultice on my arm and have the flesh grow back."
OM: "Well, maybe there is some sort of natural cure for that."
Z: {thoughtful pause}
Z: "Brains."
OM: "Oh, yes. The brains of the living."
Z: "Brains are homeopathic."

So there you go, folks. Brains are homeopathic medicine for zombies. You heard it here first.

One of these days, Theron is going to repeat something like this at school (or church, or somewhere equally inappropriate). I'm not looking forward to explaining our sense of humor. On the other hand, it'll probably make for some interesting parent-teacher conferences...

This entry will probably be cross-posted in The Book of Parenting.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Road Trip!

Right, so, I spent the weekend in Arkansas (in the Little Rock area) for a family reunion. My wife's family, really, but one of the things about being married is that they're now my family, too.

The trip was a very good thing in terms of helping me shake off my sinus infection. Unfortunately, our return has reminded me of exactly how awful the quality of what-we-laughably-call-air is here in Dallas. In Arkansas, I was fine; here, I can barely walk outside before my sinuses close up and my throat gets sore. I'm strongly motivated to try some pollution-reducing measures, like bicycling to work, except that then I'd have to breathe more of that sh*t. I'd end up with bronchitis or emphysema or both - or else I'd have to be riding the bicycle while wearing one of those old World War II gas masks.

I'd move - seriously, I would; it would be a lot healthier - but our entire social support network is here. Honestly, there are weeks when I wonder if even that is worth the amount of time I spend being sick, or sick-ish, as a result of breathing all this pollution.

The downside of the trip is that it seriously cut into my writing time. (This was entirely worthwhile overall, but that still remains a downside.) However, I did get a few things done. Mainly, I finished converting my plot for Warrior's Legacy into an actual scene-by-scene outline. This means that I can actually get started on the rewrite (as long as I can stay healthy enough to concentrate). I'm very excited about this.

I also made a little progress on a short story I've been working on for a friend; this has been strangely slow going, considering that I know the setting and the characters involved quite well. I may try to finish that (and two other, related projects which are also running late) before I leap back into the novel.

It's basically a matter of time and attention, and I'm not really overflowing with either.