Thursday, September 27, 2012

Side Project Announcement!

I wanted to let everyone know that in addition to this blog and my posts at MightyGodKing, I will also be posting irregularly to a blog I'm co-writing with my wonderful wife. This will be a sequential tour of my personal favorite era of Doctor Who, the novels published during the so-called "Wilderness Years" between the end of the old series and the beginning of the new. (One of the surprises that may come up is that the end of the old series and the beginning of the new doesn't come quite when you'd think it would...)

The blog is available here, and I invite you all to wander by when you have a moment. It'll encourage us to keep going with what is, ultimately, a Herculean labor...albeit a labor of love. Whether you loved the New Adventures, or whether you just kind of heard that there was a series of books out there and want to know more, stop on by!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Storytelling Engines: True Story, Swear To God

(or "And Then You Threw A Squid At My Window")

When it comes to finding ideas for an ongoing series, sooner or later just about everyone comes up with the same idea: Why not just talk about myself? After all, the reasoning goes, I can never run out of stories as long as I live if I just write a sort of semi-fictionalized diary about my life and the lives of the people around me. Day-to-day living will provide endless inspiration, neatly circumventing the difficulties that writers who make stuff up for a living have to deal with. It sounds almost too good to be true...but by definition, it is true!

And for certain values of "true", it is. When you're writing an essentially autobiographical series, like Tom Beland's "True Story, Swear to God" (or Jennie Breeden's "The Devil's Panties" or Harvey Pekar's "American Splendour", to name a couple of other examples) you do have a constant source of inspiration in your day-to-day life. You really can't get writer's block, because autobiographical writing shares as much with journalism as it does with fiction. (Although it should be noted that there is always an element of fictionalization, no matter how honest you're being with yourself. You're selecting which incidents to report, which details to recall, and even the best memory is anything but perfect. Short of wearing a helmet-cam everywhere you go, you can't possibly get it perfectly real.)

That said, there are plenty of pitfalls specific to the autobiographical form...ones that in some way explain why most writers find it easier to make stuff up. First, you're constantly sharing your life with the reading audience. That requires a lot of unflinching honesty about yourself, because while we all like to think that we're charming, funny, honest, upstanding, decent paragons of virtue that are also dead sexy to boot, we sometimes aren't. Sometimes we do things that we really wish we hadn't, and the temptation to erase those less-than-flattering details can be enormous. For that matter, sometimes being absolutely honest about ourselves shows people something they'd just as soon not read about. Not everyone, I suspect, wanted to keep reading TSSTG after reading about Tom, fresh off a promise to a skittish Lily that he wouldn't hold his decision to move against her, complaining for a full issue about all the hardships he was going through because of his decision to move just for her.

And even if you do feel like you can be that honest about yourself, you have to ask whether you can be that honest about everyone around you. Your real-life friends and loved ones might not take so easily to their private conversations being reduced to grist for the fictional mill, and you have to take into account their reaction when you're writing. Balancing the committment to your audience with the committment to your family is not easy; the last thing you want is to have to write "Issue Three: In Which My Wife and I Fight About the Way I Wrote the Fight in Issue One."

Assuming you do have the skill to write yourself honestly and sympathetically, and assuming you have the skill to do the same for your family (or, alternatively, the skill to convince them that it's okay to write them as jerks) you run into the next big obstacle. Is your life interesting? Certainly, we all assume that our lives are exciting, terrifying, hilarious, and filled with larger-than-life passion. It feels that way to us. But the life of a cartoonist is filled with hours of sitting in front of a desk drawing. Once the whirlwind romance of meeting a woman and moving to Puerto Rico to be with her is over, how much of your story is going to be "And then we made dinner! And then we snuggled up and watched a movie! And then we went to bed!"? It's something you have to weigh when you start in on an auto-biographical comic.

Everyone's got a story to tell about themselves, they say. And for certain values of "true", that's absolutely true. But when you really look at how hard it is to describe your own life, in terms that are honest and engaging...you begin to understand why some writers are tempted to just make stuff up.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Eighteen

I know I've mentioned this before, but comic books did not actually provide a very good guide to how my life was going to be when I got super-powers. Especially when it came to meeting other superheroes. In the comics, it's so common it's got an entry on TV Tropes all to itself; when two heroes meet for the first time, the first thing they do is assume the other one is a villain and start pounding.

In real life, it totally doesn't work that way. First, none of us are stupid. We did kind of notice a whole bunch of unconscious guards, and an even larger number of freed prisoners who didn't look especially menaced. Even in the heat of battle, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the weird-looking guy in the junkshop armor and the woman whose hands were shimmering with unearthly light might have been responsible for that.

Second, none of us are stupid. When you run into a room and see someone who's obviously got superpowers, and you don't know what they are, the last thing you want to do is just start punching. What if their super-power is they have acid sweat, or that they can make you feel all the pain inflicted on them, or their bodies are actually portals into the Dimension of Angry Telepathic Frogs? You look pretty stupid, is what. (And ouchy. Stupid I can handle, but ouchy less so.) Superheroes fight like cats do, lots of sizing each other up and trying to look like someone you shouldn't mess with and deep down, in the back of your mind where you hope it doesn't show, calculating your odds of getting your butt kicked and wondering whether you should just run away.

So that was pretty much how we met Shining Dragon Fist and Neutrino Man. Not that either one of them was called that, then.

"I'm Captain Light," Josh said. "You might have heard of me." It was almost funny, watching him meet other superheroes. He was totally different from the way he talked to me. He lowered his voice a little, stood up straighter...he didn't actually add "citizen" to the end of all his sentences, but you could imagine him doing it with a straight face. (Well, with as straight a face as you already had. When I said 'almost funny', I really meant 'I was trying so hard not to bust out into giggles that my face got flushed.' Which is actually really weird looking on someone with light green skin. But I digress.) He finished up with, "We're here to rescue you."

Shu bowed low. "I am Shu Mai, the Shining Fist of the Celestial Dragon of the North Wind. We are most deeply gracious for your assistance, and I offer my own humble skills in return."

"I'm um, Kevin." Kevin waved. (In case it wasn't obvious, he wasn't Neutrino Man then.) "Am I supposed to have a cool name? I mean, I could probably think of one if you need one, but I really don't want to start thinking of this as a career choice or anything. I'm just trying to help out."

John Q. Public smiled. "Helping out is like shingles, my man. You get it once, it gets into your system and you're stuck with it for life." He looked over at Lord Raptor, who was just beginning to get those shifty eyes that suggested he was wondering if we were distracted enough not to notice him sneaking away. "Too bad it works both ways."

And of course, that left it to me to be the practical one. "Um, hate to break up the introductions, but there's still a lot of bad guys. How many prisoners are there, and do we have a way to get them out of here?"

"No," said Lord Raptor. "You don't." His eyes were doing a mile-a-minute shifty, now, but his voice was calm and confident. "My men are disorganized at the moment, but that won't last forever. If you leave this base, I can guarantee you the automatic defenses will cut your prisoners down before they've gone fifty feet. Even if you disable them, you couldn't possibly stop all of my Raptor transports from killing them from the air. You're outnumbered, outgunned, and frankly outclassed. Your best bet is to surrender now."

"Spoken like a man with a lot to lose," John replied, charging up his stolen rifle. "Do we need to go over the whole question of your courage?"

"Yes," Lord Raptor snarled back. "We do. Because I guarantee you, my men will settle the score. Seventy-two people, Mister 'Public'. You will not get them out of here alive. You have my personal word that dead or alive, I will ensure that those fatalities are on your conscience. I'm not without mercy, of course. If you surrender, I will arrange for an exile in another dimension once we've solved the problem of powering the portals. Not the most comfortable of fates, but better than your current dilemma."

John glared back. "You think that we're just going to hop into one of your portals and leave the Earth to--"

"Oh!" Kevin cried out. "Oh, oh, I think-- Yes, if we just-- Oh, this is so clever..." He suddenly became aware of everyone staring at him. "Sorry. I just figured out how to get everyone out of here. Us included. The portal chamber, where I came from. I hacked into their computer system and sealed off the route between there and here, I didn't want to have to fight anybody I didn't have to. We can get back there without running into any guards. Then we just have to set the portal to a destination here on Earth, somewhere safe, and we can herd everyone through!"

"I thought the portals couldn't be sustained that long," Josh replied. "How are we going to get them going without a power source?"

"We've got a power source," Kevin said, his face alight with excitement. "You!"

TO BE CONTINUED...

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

You're A Mean One...

I suspect, at this point, everyone has heard about the video of Mitt Romney explaining how he thinks 47% of Americans are happy to depend on government for everything they need, how they think they're entitled to food and shelter, and how they would never vote for a Republican because they know Republicans are going to force them to stand on their own two feet. (No, I'm serious. He really said this. The whole video isn't released yet, so I'm still hoping for some juicy details on his Horcruxes.)

I listened to it, and I read about it, and I talked about it...and one person made a comment that suddenly made the entire campaign make a lot more sense. This commenter (on Andrew Sullivan's article on the whole mess) said that this was the first time they'd heard Romney sound comfortable and natural the entire campaign, that his awkwardness and stiffness disappeared when he started talking about how nearly half the country are parasites and leeches.

And that's when it hit me...that's why Mitt Romney seems awkward. That explains the forced grin, the leaden jokes, the quarter-hearted attempts at connecting with people on his campaign stops. It's not that he doesn't know how to deal with people, it's that he hates them. As soon as the behavior was placed into context, I recognized it instantly. We've all had to spend time around someone we really disliked, in a situation where we had to be polite with them for one reason or another. And when we do, we behave with that same stiff formality and over-rehearsed politeness. We even crack the half-hearted jokes. And deep down, what we're really thinking is, "God, I cannot wait to get away from these idiots/jackasses/insert epithet here."

I even realized that I recognized the smile. In 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas', when the Grinch has to lie to Cindy-Lou Who (who was no more than two), he gave her a sickly, pathetic imitation of a natural grin before telling her that he was only stealing her Christmas tree to fix it. THAT GRIN IS MITT ROMNEY'S SMILE. Tell me I'm wrong, here.

Thankfully, Mittster Grinch doesn't seem likely to steal this Christmas. Although, if Obama wins and someone retaliates by breaking into my house on Christmas Eve and stealing all the roast beast, I know who I'm telling the cops to investigate.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Silence Vs Weeping Angel

I keep seeing this one all over the Internet as an example of one of those "immovable object meeting irresistible force" paradoxes, so I thought I should address it here.

This really wouldn't last long.

If the Weeping Angel and the Silence looked at each other, the Weeping Angel would be frozen in place until the Silence looked away. At that point, the Weeping Angel can move, and it can still see the Silence, so it wouldn't forget the Silence. It'd just charge up to it and zap it back in time 80 years or so.

At that point, it would perhaps wonder why it felt so full, but it wouldn't be much of a contest.

Monday, September 10, 2012

When the Bully Squeals

Has anyone else noticed a major reversal of roles in this year's Presidential campaign?

I mean, normally by this point, we'd have seen at least one prominent Democrat going on 'Meet the Press' (or equivalent program) to decry the Republican's unethical "dirty tricks", and their talking-head counterpart from across the aisle delivering a message of "hey, everybody does it, it's just part of campaigning, and if you can't take the heat stay out of the kitchen." It's been a ritual from 1980 ("welfare queens") to 1988 ("Willie Horton") to 2000 ("invented the Internet"...or, if you're paying attention as early as the primaries, "illegitimate black baby") to 2004 ("Swift Boat") to 2008 ("secret Muslim"). But this time, it's the Republicans who are shocked--shocked, I say!--that the other side isn't conducting themselves with proper decorum. They're upset that their candidate's finances, previous political decisions, and career are campaign issues, when everyone knows that the focus should be on the other guy. Unsurprisingly, that's not been much of a persuasive argument, but why is it happening?

I think that for one thing, this is the first time in a long while that the Republicans have put forward a really bad candidate. This isn't to say that they haven't put forward poor Presidents before...one of the ugly things about democracy is that it takes different skillsets to run for office than to actually govern, and not everyone has both...but Reagan and the Bushes were savvy campaigners. They knew how to turn on the charisma in front of the cameras, they knew how to set and frame a narrative, and they knew how to deflect attention from their shortcomings. Romney...doesn't have that. His attempts to be charming come off as awkward and stilted, his efforts at framing a narrative (Obama's not the person to help America out of the hole created by the Mystery Person Between Clinton and Obama Who Was Probably A Democrat Or Something) sound like shrill appeals to racism and stupidity, and his response to questions like, "Why didn't you thank the troops at your convention?" was, "I wanted to talk about important things instead." This man is fundamentally inept at the basic business of getting into office.

And that's a real problem, because the other thing is that for all his "nice guy" image, Barack Obama is a very ruthless campaigner. He's excellent at framing a narrative (his treatment of McCain in 2008 is the kind of thing they should write textbooks about. Not only did his criticisms of McCain as "erratic" ring true, they also prevented McCain from making any kind of game-changing decision in the later stages of the campaign.) He's very personable. And yes, he's very good at getting the media trained on Romney's tax returns instead of the unemployment rate (assuming, of course, that you blame Obama for that and not the Mystery Person That Republicans Pretend Never Existed.)

And that, I think, is why you're seeing such howls of protest from the Republicans. Because after years of socking the other guy in the balls whenever the ref isn't looking, their candidate just walked into the ring and said, "By the way, I'd just like to announce that I'm not wearing a cup!" They're vulnerable and someone's actually taking advantage of it, and they're finding out pretty quick that they can dish it out, but they can't take it. And speaking as a lifelong Democrat...it's just part of campaigning, and if you can't take the heat stay out of the kitchen.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

How Big Is Too Big?

Hi all! Sorry I went incommunicado for a while, but I went pretty much directly from one of those "two-day intensive courses" (I'm now certified in USPAP, though! For those of you who know what that means...) to preparation for DragonCon to DragonCon to recovering from DragonCon. That left very little time for blogging, especially as I didn't bring my laptop on the trip.

For those of you who've never been to DragonCon, it's one of the larger conventions out there, although still a pretty distant second from San Diego Comic-Con. In 2011, it drew 46,000, and it's only getting bigger. When I went for the first time, back in 2001, it was probably closer to 20,000. Needless to say, that's a pretty big gang of people crowded into one convention. And yet, it'll probably be even larger next year. Is that a good thing?

On the one hand, it's still fun. Every year, a bigger draw means more people doing cosplay, more money coming in to attract more and bigger guests, more parties, and more friends coming. Capping membership cuts people out of the experience, no matter how the cap is handled (first come first serve, lottery, et cetera.) Who wants to be the one person in your group of friends who doesn't get to go? On the other hand, expansion can't be continued indefinitely. Already, the logistics of simple day-to-day operations during the con are becoming virtually insoluble problems; elevator capacity is at its limits 24/7 for the entirety of the con, walkways are congested to potentially dangerous levels (the fire marshall for Atlanta is practically on a first-name basis with the DragonCon organizers, except that they probably only address each other in four-letter words) and lines stretch around the block for practically every panel. Moving the con from one hotel to five does reduce congestion to some extent, but there still tends to be a "hub" mentality centered on the Hyatt (the original site of the con), and lateral expansion produces its own set of challenges, as you now have to walk a block and a half between panels that don't get spaced any further out in time.

Ultimately, a decision is going to have to be made to cap membership...and I suspect that the con organizers might be nearing that point. If it gets up into the 80,000 range or higher, just walking around the con is going to become a logistical nightmare, let alone things like getting food, sleeping, and oh yes that business of actually enjoying yourself at the convention. It's the kind of decision that I'm glad I don't have to make, because no matter how you slice it, someone's going to be unhappy. But I'd be surprised if they can go five years without having to put a limit on the number of badges they can sell at the rate they're expanding. SDCC has already had to cap its attendance, and while they don't have the ability to expand laterally from the convention center like DragonCon, that kind of expansion can't go on forever.

I'll be kind of sad, I think, when it gets to the point that I can't go every year because I missed my chance. But lucky for me, there's always another convention out there, I wonder if registration is open yet for CONvergence?