Ray Bradbury’s Gabriel’s Horn and the other side of Sci-Fi

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It’s common in the ol’ realm of science fiction to have spaceships. To have lasers and stars and monstrous alien creatures battling hordes of space marines in galaxy-spanning wars. Technology is often at the core, and devices that would seem like magic to us are used like we use our phones now. The story starts well past the point of familiarity with these wondrous things, and is more about the characters and setting than it is with the technical wizardry on offer. In Star Wars, the idea of jumping to lightspeed or death by a thousand lasers is treated with as much surprise as waking up to a refrigerator in your kitchen. In Ready Player One, the idea of the Oasis is already cemented in the minds of the characters when we meet them – its purpose is clear, and the knowledge of how to use it is well-ingrained in society.

Gabriel’s Horn, a Bradybury short story, illustrates the other side of sci-fi, where new technology and ideas are introduced to a society with strange, unusual effects. In this case, the “technology” isn’t even all that wondrous – a tribesman finds a trumpet, something he believes is a great weapon, albeit one he cannot understand. It fails, after all, to kill deer on a hunt. Fails to protect him and his tribe when blown. We, the audience, know that a trumpet isn’t going to ever kill anything, but if you saw a rounded metal object that looked similar to the guns your enemies used to hunt your friends, you too might believe a trumpet capable of grievous harm.

It would be easy to turn the story into a comedy – a play on how dumb these people must be if they can’t figure out the purpose of a trumpet. Instead, Bradbury takes pains to show that his characters are as clever as they are desperate. Willing to try anything to save themselves from mysterious invaders, who come periodically to hunt their defenseless prey. Gab, the primary protagonist, observes the invaders, puts together plans to outwit them, and demonstrates more than enough intelligence to get the gist of what a trumpet might be used for… which is when you grasp the real sci-fi element of the story: a civilization exposed to something of which they have no conception.

Gad does not understand the concept of music, so he cannot know the trumpet’s true purpose.

And so we see, instead, what other uses might be made of something so far away from its intended place. It’s fun, it’s clever, and Gabriel’s Horn is a reminder that sci-fi can work just as well with the characters learning about their world, rather than already enmeshed within it.

A couple things:

1. March in Wisconsin is a strange time when you rediscover your lawn is a half-frozen mess of yellowed, dead grass. As if to spare you the horror, nature will hide it with snow from time to time throughout the month, giving you time to adjust to the ugly view outside your windows until, in April, rains come to turn it into a muddy soup. Knowing that you’ll be disheartened by these events, the temps play around the 40-50 degree mark during the day, tempting you to step outside without a heavy jacket, breath fresh air for a few moments, and remember that there is, in fact, a world outside your own house.

2. I remain convinced that Peanut Butter Patties are the optimal Girl Scout cookie. I also remain confident in, and nauseated by, my ability to eat a box of them in a day.


Tomb Raider and character through action

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We’ve seen so many of them – the fast-moving sequence where a character dashes, dodges, darts and dives through one stunt after another, with maybe a pinch of violence thrown in there to spice things up. It’s hard to find an original action sequence these days, and harder still to find one that helps build up character in the process.

Films and stories often do this through dialogue peppered in the action – accusations, questions, and flat exposition while two people slug the crap out of each other. It’s more fun, though, to learn about a character by what they do.

In Tomb Raider, there’s a sequence early on where our protagonist, Lara, is riding a bike as part of a contest, pursued by other bikers. At a certain point, desperate to evade capture, Lara lifts her bike into the back of a moving truck and hides with it. This, while perhaps not strictly against the rules, is definitely against their spirit. We learn, in that moment, that Lara isn’t above doing a bit of cheating to get what she wants.

This might not seem like a big deal, but the move reinforces Lara’s prior actions and shows she’s not afraid of the consequences of being caught. She’s wild, she’s free, and she’s willing to risk her reward entirely for a better chance to win. Those traits come back again and again throughout the movie, and we’re not confused or put off when Lara tries similar gambits in much greater danger, because the story has set us up to believe that’s who she is.

What I really like, though, is the extra thought that goes into how Lara would act in a certain situation. It’s easy to put together an action scene in your head, to plug the characters into their positions and let the movement run. What’s harder, and far more rewarding, is taking that same situation and viewing it through the lens of your character’s eyes. How would they see what’s happening in front of them? How would they, with their worldview and life experience, react?

It’s a challenge. One that, when successful, allows your audience to believe in a character’s actions even when they’re in a setting so far outside the realm of everyday life.

Like, say, an island full of maniacal madmen and mysterious tombs.

A couple things:

  1. Starshot, my next book, is almost done with the editing process (and it’s sequel is closing in on first draft completion). I’m trying a slightly different method with these – namely, writing the first few before releasing any, because it’ll be more fun for readers if the sequel is days away instead of months or years. Either way, I’m having a grand time exploring this strange universe.
  2. Now that it’s warm outside, our cats are clambering to go outside again. We’re not a fan of decimating local bird populations, so we leash them to a stake that lets the two kitties prowl around our little garden and firepit, where they can sunbathe but are otherwise mostly harmless to wildlife. What it really means for me, though, is that every breakfast for the next six to seven months will be eaten to the melodious song of desperate meows from a pair of cats that want nothing more than to sniff their way through grass. It’s a true delight.

Black Panther and the well-drawn side character

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There are numerous reasons to like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, but if I have to pick one, and given the standard size of these posts, I do – then it’s the full, dynamic characters the movie constructs.

This goes beyond the titular Black Panther himself and Killmonger, the villain. Most stories are going to invest a lot of time in their leads, and this one isn’t much different. Where Black Panther really builds its own quality, though, is through its supporting cast. The players movies bring in for a scene or three to propel the protagonist to the next objective, the ones that often have all the depth of cardboard.

By my improvised count, Black Panther has nine substantial side characters, of which 7 or so have real arcs and motivations. The question here, though, is not what those arcs are, but rather how we can find ways to incorporate similar arcs and depth into our own fiction.

Weirdly, I think the best place to define these arcs is outside of the story you are writing. Instead, take the character into the proverbial void of your notebook paper and sketch them out as if they were the star of their own lives. Put together a quick list of what they want, where they came from, and, maybe, some of their interests. It’s not reams of paper, and shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

And guess what? You won’t use most of this in what you’re writing. You shouldn’t.

Black Panther certainly doesn’t. What it does, and what you should do, is use pieces from that list to flesh out the scenes in which these characters do appear. This is a minor spoiler from the movie, but one of the side characters remarks, in a scene, that she dislikes having hair. Later, she remarks that “guns are primitive”.

Neither of these remarks are necessary, neither help Black Panther stop the villains, but they add color and dimension to her character. They help us, the audience, form an idea of her world-view, which helps us make sense of her actions down the line. What we don’t get is some elaborate history of why she holds these opinions, or a drawn-out conversation about the lines. The creators may have those in their back pockets, but we don’t need those, because this is still a side character we’re talking about. We’re not that interested, but we should believe in their authenticity.

So now that we’ve scattered bits and pieces of our characters on a page, we can look at developing an arc for them. In simple terms, an arc is something that begins at one point and ends at another – in a story, that journey generally results in a change of perspective. In Black Panther, the arcs that characters go through are numerous and varied, though they’re not all complex, and most fit in with the progress of the story.

This last bit is important – you want your characters to develop as the plot moves along, and ideally all of them wind up somewhere different than where they started (otherwise, what’s the point?). But, especially for small characters, you don’t want to derail the narrative with low-stakes side stories just to check that arc box. Rather, try to define their own arcs to fit their role in the larger story.

In Black Panther, one of the characters firmly believes she can do more good by operating on her own than by being part of the established Wakanda government. She wants independence, and to do things her own way. Over the course of the story, in which she finds that her skills are needed in Wakanda to keep the things she loves, well, alive, she changes her mind.

She learns this not by embarking on some random solo journey that sees her absent at a time of great need, but rather by actually being present in Wakanda, where the main action is, and realizing how badly her home needs her there. The main story flows along, we never really leave the protagonist/antagonist, but she completes her arc nonetheless.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough – Black Panther has great characters, most of whom are more than one-scene jokes or plot devices, most of whom feel like real people, which is what makes it a great movie.

Check it out.

What “Last Week Tonight” teaches me about Exposition

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Wait, I hear you saying: this here is a nonfiction show! It’s got comedy, sure, but the crux of what Oliver’s doing is spreading facts!

Guess what, folks: Novels, short stories, and comics are in the same business. The sole difference is the world to which those facts apply.

For folks who don’t know, Last Week Tonight (which I’m shortening to LWT for the rest of this post) is essentially a weekly adaptation of The Daily Shows’ comedic news format, though I’d argue that LWT is more serious its predecessor really was. A big portion of this comes from the show’s format, in which half or more of its running time in a given week is often devoted to a single story. We’re often talking 15 minutes or more on one subject, and often these aren’t headliners – a week ago, LWT spent a long time going over the Italian election, which is undoubtedly important to the world, but doesn’t quite have the attention-grabbing focus (in the US, anyway) of, say, gun control or North Korea.

In a graceless pivot, these segments parallel what most authors and screenwriters have to do to immerse audiences in the worlds they’re creating. In the stories they’re telling. You, as the creator, need the audience to sit there and absorb information about your piece, especially at the beginning, and be entertained at the same time. This challenge increases the farther away from ‘reality’ your work gets – consider, say, the opening crawl of Star Wars. Lucas effectively shoves paragraphs of floating space text at you to give just enough context, and, thanks to a rousing score, you manage to stay awake long enough for the spaceships to start shooting. Harry Potter opens with a tease about normalcy, which, since the cover talks about a magical stone and shows a wizard, you’re not really buying, and its at the start of the 3rd ‘graph where it drops the word secret. Now you’re intrigued – what secret is so terrible that these ordinary folk can’t bear? That holds you long enough to find out about the boy, and then we’re off.

Learning is hard. Gathering new information and making sense of it all is hard. Constructing a new reality on the fly to match the needs of a work of fiction is, well, work.

LWT makes this process easier by interjecting comedy. It leverages jokes, intercut breaks, and sometimes-random segues to keep you engaged. If you’re chuckling every couple of minutes because an expose on a mining CEO is being delivered by someone in a squirrel costume, you’re going to pay attention when the real points get delivered. If you know, at the end of Oliver’s next spiel, there’s going to be something funny, you’re more likely to listen so that you’re in on it when the joke eventually drops. In that way, LWT keeps you engaged even while delivering a straight shot of information to your mind.

The challenge, in fiction, is to keep that same loop of information and entertainment going. You want your audience to know what the Shire is, and how hobbits work, but if they’re going to bother learning about that, you have to tease them with a magical ring and a distant dark lord first. If you’re going to introduce a vast world of warring families, kingdoms and power struggles, maybe in the middle of that you have a boy catch some brother-sister loving and get shoved out a window. Keeps the audience invested.

So next time you’re looking at how to get an audience engaged in your world, take a cue from LWT and interject some action, comedy, or dialogue that doesn’t require knowledge of your universe to understand. It’ll help relax your readers, and buy you time to pass along the crucial, need-to-know details of how your world works.

Squirrel costumes are a bonus.

A couple things:

  • I’ve found it slightly ironic that I selected paperless for some tax documents, only to have the CPA require them in paper form, so now I’m printing them off (using the paper, and paying for my own ink) just to put them all together in an envelope and send. I cannot wait until everything is just done through secure electronic submission. Please oh please.
  • I read this review of a new Chrysler minivan and immediately went back to my childhood, thinking about how awesome it would have been with one of these. As a childless adult, I’m not ashamed to say the tech in minivans these days is pretty amazing. Who wouldn’t use a built-in vacuum?

Lester Dent and Formula

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Productivity and creativity are two concepts often placed at odds with one another – the idea being that good art takes time. This isn’t really borne out by evidence, and a statement I rather prefer is this one: The art takes the time the artist requires.

Lester Dent, a pulphouse author from the late 20’s and 30’s, is a grand example of this – the man churned out story after story for monthly magazines at an astounding rate of speed (especially when you consider the pen-and-paper/typewriter equipment he was working with). He wrote well over 150 novels in a 30 year career, plus many, many short stories. These weren’t Epic-Fantasy tomes, but Dent wrote over 200,000 words a month, as this piece states and which seems in the realm of possibility, considering his output, that means an average of 6000 words per day. An average paperback page contains 250 words or so, meaning Dent cranked out 24 pages every day of fiction. Equate this to an artist like, say, Bob Ross who could put together a complete landscape painting in a single 30-minute show.

Dent and Ross don’t get their productivity through some magical incantation. They didn’t, to my knowledge, perform some ritual sacrifice or discover a fallen meteorite that granted them superhuman abilities. Rather, they used formula. They kept their work, mostly, in line with a template that worked for them. Knowing when certain things had to happen for his characters let Dent focus on setting and dialogue. He could merrily type away, note when he’d reached a certain part of his story, and then kick the next section off without pausing to ask “what happens now?”.

The point I’m taking away from this isn’t that, to be productive, we all need to follow what Dent and Ross did. Instead, we might look to them for inspiration, for the drive to find a formula that works for us, whether we’re writing fiction, making movies, or even just knocking out a day’s worth of tasks. There’s value in making templates, even if you don’t think one could apply to your situation/goal. Give it a shot. See what you can come up with.

I mean, if I could come up with a formula for wrangling my cats consistently every day so they didn’t destroy my house, that’d save me so much time. And furniture.

A couple other things:

  • Dent also managed to snag a pilot’s license, climbed mountains, and passed electrician/plumbing exams, at least partly because of the time he saved by adhering to his process. I’m sure, with that extra time, I could play more with my overlords; the cats.
  • I’m late to the game, but the current workout show of choice is The Americans, which is proving to be a fascinating, fun dive into an early 80’s thriller. I love that their ‘day jobs’ are as travel agents – something that gives plausible excuses for being active at all hours and often away from the office. Wonder what current-day spies prefer to have as their undercover gig of choice – remote software developer? Uber driver?

Wyoming is Cold

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You rarely see temperate desolation. It’s either scorching desert, or, as in Wind River‘s case, an expanse of Wyoming wilderness where, as Jeremy Renner’s wildlife ranger states, “It’s too cold to snow.”

The movie, which is available on US Netflix now, is a taut, interesting thriller that uses a familiar combination of young, naive hero out of her element and an older, experienced mentor to guide her. The difference, to me, is that Wind River spends far less time with the rookie than with the Renner’s weathered hero.

This turn could backfire – it’s harder, obviously, to convey the history that has made a person who they are than to start with a blank slate. Wind River does this with a mix of show-and-tell, with numerous physical cues in Renner’s appearance, the setup of his house (pictures of unexpected loved ones), and, most interesting, an opening conversation with his ex-wife that immediately sets Renner’s character up as one who both knows the costs of his decisions and accepts them anyway to live the life he wants.

Anyway, it’s worth a look if you want a murder mystery with more character depth than clues to solve. Also, hard to get enough of the shots of Wyoming wilderness. Having been out that way before, it’s definitely gorgeous and worth a visit. Bring your skis and snowmobile.

A couple things:

  • Continuing to love the voice recorder over my phone. Holds a lot more dialogue, and it’s easy to plug into the laptop and transcribe. If you’re serious about dictation, look at getting one of these. I use one by Sony that’s relatively cheap and superb.
  • Starting Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero, which is something like an alternate, real-world version of Scooby Doo where the kids are adults. Giving me IT vibes, but with more comedy.

A Snowy Morning

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There’s a thing with March in Wisconsin (and, I imagine, with anywhere in the chillier parts of the world) where the ground can go from muddy grass to covered with a half-foot of snow in an evening. It remains beautiful for a few days before descending back to its brown sludgy awfulness.

It’s still gorgeous now, and it’s still snowing.

My back is already dreading the shoveling to come.

Couple other things:

  1. Like that Shape of Water picked up Best Picture and Del Toro Best Director. Both are risk-takers, and both explore themes and characters too often left aside in favor of more standard, safer things. Cool.
  2. Finished N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth trilogy. Generally enjoyed it, and the last book, and overall structure, is a great example of making the past relevant to a current story without dragging the reader through onerous flashbacks.
  3. Editing through book one in the new series, which is a return to space-action science fiction, but with an alien twist. Working on completing the first three books or so before number one comes out, which is why this is taking longer, but it’s a cool new universe to explore. Archivos has been instrumental in helping keep track of everything, so make sure to look at that if you’ve a need for a world-building toolkit.


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There are interesting phrases that come up in NK Jemison’s Broken Earth Trilogy (and this happens in virtually all Sci fi and Fantasy novels) which have, from time to time, broken immersion for me. Concepts that are so layered in the current “Earth” history that to present them as things characters would know or use in other worlds is a cheat that, for the most part, is easy to overlook.

Take, for example, the concept of measurement. It’s useful to say how far away something is when you’re describing it. Or how high a character stands. However, saying a character is six feet tall is a strange thing in a fantasy world – unless you assume that they, too, would decide to make the basis of their measurements the “length of an average man’s foot” and, for the yard, the length of a man’s nose to the end of his arm. If your world is dominated by alien species and dragons, such measurements seem especially arbitrary.

Or the verbal cues used by characters – phrases that clearly come from the author’s cultural experience or background. Even in narration, these idioms and other turns of phrase would seem natural to someone talking today, but assuming they would develop independently in a world so unlike our own seems like a stretch.

But what is the solution? To scrub a manuscript of anything remotely resembling current-day English?

No. While I don’t think relying on quips and sayings common now (because they may not be common tomorrow) is a great plan, using general concepts at the expense of teeny bits of logic is worth it. Your reader, after all, is the primary audience. If they can’t understand what’s going on because you’ve developed your own metric system and speak entirely in self-developed turns of phrase, well, they’re going to hate you a lot more than if your reptilian worm monster refers to its height in yards.

But I do think, as authors and creators of anything, it’s important not to hedge on key things. It’s important that your characters are authentic to their setting. That they talk and act like someone in your world would, and not like someone in, say, your local mall.

Do that, and readers will happily let you fudge the little things. After all, I keep coming back to Jemisin’s trilogy, which is excellent, inches and all.

Archivos and World-Building Tools

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The Internet is, in many ways, like an island on which random chests of treasure appear. While wandering its jungles, you might stumble upon something new, something incredibly value and entirely not what you thought you needed.

The most recent treasure for me is called Archivos. It allows you to strew about all the little nodes sticking around your mind from your stories and connect them all. Like one of those maps with pins and yarn going between every sticking. You put pictures on your characters, on your races and your events. Sort them all into a massive timeline and then upload maps that you’ve hand drawn to ruled notebook paper so everyone can see the exact distance between the calamity and the heroes awakening.

It’s quite neat. There’s a certain thing that happens when you start writing: your brain, after a minute or so of warming up, begins to spew forth such a racket of randomness that it’s nigh impossible to keep straight over whole novel, let alone two or three or four. Continuity errors start popping up, from the minor (she was a blond a minute ago, now she’s a brunette) to the major (didn’t he die in the last book?). To chase down and confirm these potential story-bombs, you have to hunt through your previous work to see just what you called so-and-so, or what the name was for that alien, or when the big balloon blast occur?

Archivos, provided you take the time, which is not insubstantial, to enter all the data in the first place becomes a repository for the randomness. It allows you to take the things that would normally be carving up your brain and put them into a friendly, web-based interface. You can look them up later, and even attach fancy photos if you have an image in your head.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Archivos is very similar to the StoryShop app I wrote about earlier. Like StoryShop, Archivos isn’t really accessible off-line, at least that I’ve found. But unlike StoryShop, I don’t use it for writing. You can’t, really. It’s there for storing knowledge. A story bible creator, and in that it works just fine.

Which means I’m now making due with a bunch of tools, which I’ll list out here:

  1. Archivos for story bible/tracking
  2. Scrivener for writing.
  3. Dragon for dictation.
  4. Photoshop for graphic design.
  5. Vellum for print/ebook formatting.
  6. WordPress for things like this blog and my publishing website
  7. Hootsuite for social media jazz (just because it saves time and allows effective cross-posting)
  8. MailChimp for Newsletter jazz.


A Better Aquaman: The Shape of Water

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I saw The Shape of Water recently and found it functioned like a beautifully rendered vision of someone’s dream. Someone who had either been reading a lot of Aquaman comics, or doing a fair amount of drugs while sitting in front of an aquarium. That’s the thing about movies: they are visions. Those of the director, the writer, the actors, the cinematographer, and a whole assembly of people who have come together to enact what was, at one point, a jumbled imagination in someone’s mind.

The Shape of Water executes his vision not flawlessly, but with cracked exuberance. There’s so much joy in its shots; those austere labs, tiny apartments, and diners. The movie spins Soviet intrigue, mad scientists, and the creature from the Black Lagoon together for… love. It works, and it’s fun to watch the plots whirl around because the cast does everything they can to sell their characters.

It all leads to a satisfying, if unsurprising end. I didn’t mind though, because what makes this movie so fascinating isn’t the main plot. It’s the intertwining lives of everyone involved in this madhouse.

There are little details strewn about this movie. Cracks filled in that would normally be left to the void in other films. We get a wholly unnecessary, and yet wonderfully appreciated side story involving the main character’s best friend: an out of work commercial painter. He’s trying to work up to spilling his affections for somebody, and happens to eat a whole lot of pie he doesn’t want to in the process. That, plus his difficult search for a job in this new world of photography, plays out in a few scenes that add a touch of color to the movie. The Shape of Water reminds you that this is all happening in a real world, where everyone has the same problems we do. It’s not Marvel Comics. World annihilation is not on the table.

But there is a water monster. One that obeys the horror movie principle by keeping its mysteries to the edges of the story, where we (and the characters) are free to speculate about what it really is.

So is The Shape of Water good? Is it worth seeing?

I think that depends on your appetite for imagination. There are certain boundaries that are stretched in films like these. In director Guillermo Del Toro’s other work too. If you like Pan’s Labyrinth, or even Hellboy, you’ll find plenty to enjoy about this one. If you find things that stretch realism, well, unrealistic, then perhaps the sight of a merman is enough of a giveaway that this one’s not for you.

There’s silly fun in seeing science-fiction oddities come to screen. To have them so widely nominated for Oscars, as the Shape of Water has 13 nominations currently. Seeing a whole vision come through all the Hollywood machinery intact is a delight in and of itself. Like going to an art gallery and spotting a master’s paintings. Even if they’re not your favorite, you can still respect the craft involved and take some joy in witnessing that kind of effort.

So there we are then. The Shape of Water is a master class in filming a fairy tale. I say go see it. I say open your eyes and ears to something little different, something that is by turns absurd and by other turns heartfelt and by most turns beautiful.