Sunday, 20 September 2015

Back in London

After what felt like an eternity of waiting, my vacation for the year has finally rolled around and I'm back in London for a couple of weeks. It's been a tough one to wait for, since I booked the trip back in March (!) and hadn't actually left the US since September of last year (when I went to Singapore). That officially makes this the longest stretch I've spent in any one country since I went back to the US for graduate school eleven years ago.

Since arriving I've made the most of my time here: traveled on the Heathrow Express, visited the British Museum, bought a couple of books (including one at the brand-spanking new Foyle's) and watched Match of the Day. I haven't seen any friends yet, but that cycle of hanging out with people begins today, and continues pretty much unabated until I leave. 

As far as what I still want/need to do while I'm here, well, I've promised my sister a visit to one of the bars in the Shard, and there's a bunch more books I need to pick up, particularly at Big Waterstones on Piccadilly, which remains my favorite bookstore ever. I've also penciled in a visit to the BSFA's monthly meeting near Old Street, so I can hobnob with more SFF writers (something I've been sorely missing since I moved back to California).

And then I get a week totally offline in Italy, where I'm going for a cousin's wedding. So I might not be blogging as much as I'd like, but hopefully I'll be able to come up with the odd bon mot to keep folks entertained...

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A Catch-up on Writing Goals

At the beginning of the year I listed a number of writing related goals that I've set for myself, with the idea that if I set a lot, I'd be more motivated to accomplish them. I'm happy to say that I'm mostly right, but it's also worth noting how naive some of that was.

I never got around to properly revising any of my movie treatments from last year, for instance. But I have finished a first draft of a full screenplay with a friend back in London, so I'm counting that goal as broadly done. And I've been thinking of ways to expand these old outlines (or, um, finish the one that I didn't complete last year...), so that I can actually write them into full screenplays.

As far as the new screenplay treatments, I'm well on track with those. I set myself the goal of doing three, and as of mid-September I've done two. They aren't necessarily the ones I planned on at the start of the year, or as long as I was thinking, but they're done, so this goal is pretty comprehensively on the road to completion.

The comic's been a bit more difficult, in part because I haven't really looked at how to write comics in almost 15 years. It also doesn't help that I got through a version of the first issue and then re-imagined the entire story, so I'm effectively a month behind with this one. On the plus side, because it's the same story as one of last year's movie treatments, it means I'm moving ahead with revisions on that one, too. #winwin

And then there's the 90,000 word novel I planned to write. I blogged about my progress on it a couple of times, but never did part 3 of my progress reports - but suffice to say, after a blinding start in April, where I was routinely knocking out over 1,000 words in a night, progress came a lot slower for the next couple of months, and although the story ended, I didn't come anywhere near 90,000.

This isn't necessarily an arbitrary goal, by the way, as DAW requires books to be at least 80,000 words, and Angry Robot's guidelines specify 90k. This means I'm left with two choices - either expand it by at least 35,000 words, or pare it down and turn it into a novella. I'm leaning toward the former, as I don't know if a market for fantasy novellas even exists, but probably my main focus for right now should be just to get on with revising. And the first step of that would be putting the 136 pages I printed out the other week in order - always remember to put page numbers on stuff!

The final goal I listed was submitting stories 20 times, for which I've reached the halfway point as of last night. As I mentioned at the start of the year, this required some revisions and rewrites, as I had two stories ready for submission; I've sent a couple of others, but the revising and rewriting remains beyond me, to some extent. This is probably an action point for me, of course - learn to revise properly so that I can actually get a few more stories out the door...

I mention all of this to illustrate a point made by Tim Ferriss in the Four-Hour Work Week (which he was citing from elsewhere), that tasks expand to fit the time allotted. For me the best example was the novel. In previous years, with previous novels, I wouldn't exactly set myself a deadline, I'd just write -sometimes I'd get to the end, and sometimes I wouldn't.

This time, following suggestions by Stephen King in his book On Writing, I set myself the goal of finishing the first draft in 3 months, and I'd say it helped. I let myself off the hook from all other writing during those three months (except for the blog, of course!), and just got on with it. Sticking to 1,000 words a day may have been a bit too ambitious for someone working 9-5, but on the other hand, my problem ended being too concise, rather than not having enough time...

The other thing that benefits from all these goals I set is consistency: because I had a million things I wanted to do this year, it meant I pretty much have to do something every day. Sometimes it takes hours, and sometimes it's just 15 minutes, but I'm finding that in the last couple of months I've had fewer days where I didn't do anything at all. I broke everything down into quarters, months and then weeks, and from there I just got on with it.

So my recommendation is to be ambitious with your goals... within reason. Or to put it another way, set a bunch of small goals, rather than only a couple of big ones. Break them down into smaller goals with clear milestones, and set deadlines. And then don't get discouraged (as I often have to remind myself) when you don't meet one or two goals - after all, writing is subjective, and you're relying on a lot of factors you can't control to make you successful.

And after you've set all those goals, get to work!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Importance of TV Theme Songs

I was listening to my TV themes playlist on Spotify the other day, just to make a change from the usual routine of my 80s playlist and the ones I've set up with notable songs from 2014 and 2015 (current total: 15). Somehow this inspired me to go looking on YouTube for the video depicting all of the themes from Star Trek shows, from TOS to Enterprise, and it struck me again how important a tool the opening theme can be in setting the mood for a show.

In this case, the main idea was around the two themes that Deep Space Nine had during its run. For the first two or three seasons, the theme was very stripped down and stately - you hear the opening fanfare as we pan across the field of stars to where the station itself sits, alone in the night. The music rises only when we see the station in its entirety, and when the dissolve arrives we launch into the tune, with a single horn underlining the theme of being alone and far from home.

It's probably the most understated Star Trek theme, and my favorite. And then in Season 4 they ruined it all.

The second version, which also appears on this video, is sped up considerably from the previous one, and doesn't sync up as well with the visuals. The reveal of the station occurs a bit earlier in this new version, and then once we go into the main theme the single horn has either been joined by others or has been mixed considerably higher. And the rest of the orchestra, which in the previous version maintained a noticeable but very subdued presence, is almost intolerably loud here.

I mention this, not just to bitch for the umpteenth time about how my favorite theme got ruined between one season and the next (seriously, it was about eight years ago and I'm still traumatized), but also to underline my point about the opening music's importance in conveying the themes of the show.

Deep Space Nine was different from the others, by virtue of not being set aboard a ship with a crew that was exploring space. This meant that the writers could explore more political themes, such as war with dangerous new enemies (the Cardassians and then the Dominion), as well as the fact that your allies back home aren't necessarily on your side any more than the enemies in front of you are.

It's a pretty complicated set of ideas for Star Trek, and I can understand why they felt the need to add a new ship, the Defiant, and add a fan-favorite cast member in the shape of Michael Dorn, to keep it going. But in changing the opening music they basically threw all of those ideas out the window, which I think is unwise if you're trying to get your views in the mood for your show.

Another example would be the themes from the first two seasons of True Detective (I haven't embedded these videos, because it seems HBO has asked people to disable that function when they post them on YouTube). When I wrote about Season 1, I highlighted the opening song as an important intro to the themes the show was exploring. By laying religious and sexual imagery over the silhouettes of the characters, the show's producers were making a comment on how unreliable memory can be, and how easy it is for people to obscure the truth from one another.

The second season of True Detective was generally less successful than the first, and its opening music is no exception. We still have the silhouettes of the actors overlaid with scenes from the show's settings (California's forests and highways this time, replacing the bayous and refineries of Louisiana), but here they don't make the same kind of sense as in the first season. At the same time, the song, Nevermind by Leonard Cohen, doesn't have an obvious relationship to the show's visuals or themes the way Season 1's song did.

Which isn't to say that it's a bad song. But as I watched the second season, I realized that the producers were using industrial landscapes of Southern California in the same way they'd used rural Louisiana - where in Season 1 the landscape shots were meant to show how nature creeps up on us and gradually covers over the past, Season 2's shots of freeways and refineries were in keeping with the themes of how power and money flow, and also represented how the characters built their identities over traumas and other aspects of themselves they wanted to hide.

Or, put another way, it showed how we try and control nature (or our own natures), but that in doing so we replace it with something ugly, artificial and stifling. The problem is, almost none of this is evident in the theme (to me at least; your mileage may vary).

The point, again, is that a well-done theme sequence is meant to do a good job of explaining what you're about to see, and get you in the right frame of mind to take in the messages the show wants to convey. Good theme songs, like for True Blood, the Wire or Season 1 of True Detective, are evidence that the producers have a good handle on what they're trying to say. Even if, as in the case of True Blood, they eventually let it all get out of control and go a little silly.

On the other hand, silly isn't always bad:

Sunday, 30 August 2015

30 Years of Weird Al

Last night I caught Weird Al Yankovic's show at the Masonic Theater in San Francisco. I won't pretend it satisfied a long-standing goal of mine to see him play live, but on the other hand I'm glad I finally did - I've been listening to him off and on since I was about seven years old, with a big spike in high school, when he released Alapalooza.

To some extent I thought he'd always remain a relic of the 80s - between the silliness of that music and the rise of music videos, it seemed like the perfect time for him. I always thought he flew under the radar for much of the 90s and early 00s, but then last year he emerged with his first #1 album, Mandatory Fun, so what do I know?

My theory about him is that the kids who were listening to him in the 80s are all grown up now and in a position to buy his music for themselves and for their own kids, whereas before they had to beg their parents for the money (or, like me, had to record it onto cassette tapes). As if to prove my point, the crowd last night was all-ages - there were middle-aged people and small-ish children, and a hard-core of people in their 20s sitting down in the front row who were rocking out to the whole show.

One of the middle-aged folks was my dad, who's appreciated Weird Al about as long as I have. Oddly, we determined that this was probably his first rock concert since he took me and a friend to see REM at Shoreline Amphitheater in 1995 (my first show ever). Even though he didn't recognize a lot of the songs or the source material, I think my dad enjoyed the show - he'd have just appreciated a full rendition of Like a Surgeon, Al's parody of Like a Virgin by Madonna. What we got was a section of the song, done in a medley of other songs, in the style of a barbershop quartet.

That's Al's genius, of course - beyond the way he can change a single word or even letter to turn one song into something strange and hilarious, he also has this gift for setting one type of music to another. Admittedly this is usually polka, but he proved that he can do it more widely by singing a section of Eat It (from Michael Jackson's Beat It) to the tune of Eric Clapton's acoustic rendition of Layla from the Unplugged album. I guess Weird Al's quite rewarding to listen to if you're a music nerd, like me.

Of course, he also treated us to one of his polka medleys, of which my favorite part had to be his section of Sledgehammer by Miley Cyrus, during which he played the video on a giant screen above the stage - just imagine the video with her singing the lyrics, but his voice coming out. And you can see how he's influenced other artists - my favorite example is Chris Hardwick and Mike Phirman's band, Hard'n'Phirm, doing a bluegrass-style medley of Radiohead songs:

Anyway, last night's show was the only one he was doing in SF, so I'll just have to wait for the next tour to see him again. But someday I hope to have kids to take to see him - it'll be nice to introduce the now-bygone world of the 80s and 90s to them through him...

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Proud to be an SJW

I saw this piece in Wired this morning while looking through Twitter, and against my better judgement, have decided to share a couple of cents on the whole Sad/Rabid Puppies controversy, now that it's over (at least as far as the 2015 Hugos are concerned).

Amy Wallace's article does a good job of showing both sides of the argument, and she did well to get comments from Brad Torgerson and Larry Correia, among others. In particular, while noting that the two slates had right-leaning (or hard-right) ideological underpinnings, she was also right to point out the feelings of some fans, overheard on the con floor at Sasquan or cited as sources, that some of the other nominated fiction can be self-indulgent or redolent of academia, rather than of what people want to read.

On the other hand, Sad Puppies kind of lose their credibility when they go after stuff like Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice.

Apparently Ancillary Justice winning the Hugo last year was a bleak moment for some folks, because Leckie was writing about a society that doesn't care about gender, and uses the personal pronoun "she" to refer to everybody, whether they're biologically male or female.

I suppose this could be a bit disconcerting to some, but I remember it fondly, because it's something different (at least in my reading experience, which admittedly skews white and male), and because I appreciated it as something that would be very difficult to translate to another medium. Regardless of your politics, surely you can appreciate that a book's been written to be a book, rather than with an eye toward being adapted into a movie or TV show.

(Which is also not a dig at books that are being adapted, as I'm quite excited for SyFy's version of the Expanse books by James SA Corey)

That Ancillary Justice is troubling to some fans also seems odd because it really is a well-written novel, and an excellent example of classic-style science fiction. It strikes me as a great book to show people who think SF is dumb, or who don't know much about it, or who simply want to read something different. Frankly, the fact that I read it is odd enough - I stopped reading primarily science fiction soon after college, and switched to fantasy, in part because a lot of it was getting boring, repetitive and derivative (I hated Altered Carbon and the Reality Dysfunction, for example). When a book comes with a lot of critical buzz I'll check it out, and Ancillary Justice didn't disappoint.

(As another aside, I will admit that the sequel, Ancillary Sword, didn't grab me quite as much as Justice - it was still good, but the best analogy I can think of is Justice was like that really satisfying roar you get when you start a sports car engine, and Sword is the engine settling into more of a continuous growl. #litcritFTW).

The other point that's worth making is that if science fiction is a literature of ideas, as some fans like to insist, then you need to be open to ideas. And ideas don't always come from white dudes writing about super smart engineers in space, to use phrasing from the Wired article. In fact, when you get too many white dudes writing about engineers in space, then people outside the genre think that's the only thing that it's about, and you don't get new readers, because not everyone wants to read that.

And finally - can we stop using the term "social justice warrior" as a pejorative? How can you be against social justice, and against people getting a fair shake? One of the Sad Puppies guys, Torgerson or Correia, mentioned the stamping out of blue-collar voices from SF, which I actually agree is a bad thing. But let's not use that as an excuse to raise the barriers against other historically under-represented groups - more freedom for one group should translate to more freedom for all groups, and infighting only serves people who want to control a thing (whether it's SF voices, or politics, or economics) for their own selfish purposes.

And we don't want that, do we? We want to be able to read stuff that we like. Let's go back to that, shall we?

Monday, 17 August 2015

Save Bookbuyers in Mountain View: the Unique Pleasures of Used Bookstores

Although the once-vibrant bookstore scene around Palo Alto has been pretty comprehensively obliterated by Amazon and the collapse of Borders, I'm lucky enough to have not one but two bookshops on the street where I work, both right next to one another. The first is the Mountain View branch of Books Inc, which bills itself as the West's oldest independent bookshop, and the other is Bookbuyers, a used bookstore that's currently locked in a fight for its life.

I won't go into the litany of problems it's had, but the main issue is that it doesn't have enough cash coming in. This is a shame because it happens to be extraordinarily well-stocked, and full of books that would be pretty much impossible to find elsewhere.

Case in point: last week they were holding their monthly comic book sale, where single issues were going for 25 cents (or $1 if you bought them with trade-in credit). I had an idle look while in there on my lunch break, and found all four issues of the Elongated Man mini-series from 1992.

Maybe I'm the only person in the world who'd say this, but that was a hell of a find. It was written by Gerard Jones, who wrote the Justice League Europe book during the "Bwah-ha-ha" years when Keith Giffen was masterminding the Justice League books, and was drawn by Mike Parobeck, whose best known work was possibly on the Batman Adventures tie-in comic to the Animated Series, and who died way too early, at the age of 30, of complications from diabetes.

Those Justice League America and Justice League Europe books were what hooked me on DC Comics, and finding the Elongated Man series was like unearthing a long-lost B-side. It's mostly quite silly, juvenile, and the Italian dialogue, where it appears, is abysmal (though still better than I expected), but three issues in and I'm charmed. Ralph and Sue Dibny are characters I first encountered in JLE, and it's nice seeing them take center-stage, especially in light of what happened to them in Identity Crisis.

Also, I remember even now how bad I felt when I heard Parobeck had died, so that it's almost miraculous to find another example of his body of work (I first encountered his cartoony but fluid style in the ten-issue Justice Society of America series, and in El Diablo, which was his first big assignment).

As I noted to a friend the day after I found them, those books are probably worth nothing at all now, but to me they're priceless. DC's gotten quite good about reprinting stories in trade paperback form, but I can't imagine there's much demand for Elongated Man 1-4, so I'm happy I had a look in Bookbuyers's comic boxes when I did.

And that's why it'd be a shame if Bookbuyers went under: like any good used bookstore, it's messy and labyrinthine and impossible to find anything without dedicating time to searching. But if you put in the time, you're likely to find something that's fallen between the cracks of the publishing industry - something worthwhile, but that failed to gain enough of an audience to stay in print. And in addition, Bookbuyers is putting on events to make it even more of a place for communities to form - book clubs and author talks and more. One author talk I went to was by a local writer who set part of her debut novel in Bookbuyers itself, so it's even becoming responsible for literature.

You might argue that its business model shows that it can't hack it in a world of Amazon and e-books more generally. But, much as I love that I can buy a book on my phone while sitting in the Rose Garden in Portland, and start reading it straight away, there's also something to be said for the pleasure of finding something unexpected and physical.

Pretty much all of the new books and comics are coming out on Kindle, and classics from Mark Twain or Jane Austen are available for free, but like everything nowadays, there's a huge middle-section that's being lost, as it's too difficult to digitize and too new to be public domain. I'd hate to see a gap that size in our cultural patrimony, just because we're too addled by technology to appreciate the tactile pleasures of a book or comic.

So go to Bookbuyers! Or to your local used bookstore, wherever you might find it. Pick something up, riffle through it (gently), and try and imagine how hard it would be to find in Barnes and Noble. And then buy it and take it home.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

In Praise of Fantasy Football

Once again we're at the start of a new English Premier League season, bringing with it all the things you'd expect: transfer rumors, managerial sackings and the odd instance of fan misbehavior (typically in the form of racism or violence). But enough nostalgia for my days in London, which in any case I covered at around this time last year - no, today I want to talk about the humble fantasy league.

While I went around 9 years between the one I participated in at my first job (the venerable Blundersliga) and the one I'm on now, run through the Premier League's own site, it's actually hard to remember what life was like without it. OK, that might be overstating things, since I also just went without for the past couple of months... but there was definitely something missing from my life.

But it's back now, and so is my (admittedly limited) interest in the doings of mid- or low-tier Premiership sides like Everton or Norwich. During those 9 long years where I didn't join a league, the start of the season was always a trial, because I had no real interest in any of the teams. I generally don't commit to supporting any Premiership sides, because of the inevitable conflict when they meet an Italian team I support, so trying to muster some interest in the likelihood of Spurs winning the league was always a bit beyond me.

But add in the prospect of earning points and competing with friends, family members and colleagues who work 5,000 miles away and whom you've never met, and suddenly I am quite interested, thank you, in how many goals Harry Kane is likely to score this season. Chris Hardwick once summed up the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons as a hybrid of fantasy and math ("squeeeee"), and this is just as valid in fantasy sports, which is pretty much just Dungeons & Dragons for jocks.

In fact, from what I can tell soccer is actually a pretty dumbed-down version - listening to my friends who play fantasy football (NFL) or baseball tells me that they immerse themselves in a lot more stats than I do. I'm mainly interested in how many goals, assists and clean sheets my team will get, along with the not insignificant question of whether they're playing at all - American sports have gone through the looking glass and introduced something where you can have athletes from all sports on one team.

Crazy, huh? I wanted to add some impact to that statement by listing athletes from each major sports league in America, but after Lebron James I couldn't think of anybody. Sorry. But I'm sure if you can be bothered to think about three enormously stat-driven sports at once, it must be super-fun.

As I said, though, I prefer the simpler pleasures of obsessively watching Sky Sports News for news of who's registered a clean sheet or not, only to return to the office on Monday to discover that my entire starting lineup was out through injury, international duty or simply being too shit to start. That and, of course, coming up with witty comments on what my team did during the week.

This was why the Blundersliga was my favorite experience. It was set up by my friend and coworker Mike, who laboriously went through the scores in the Times on Monday and exhorted the rest of us managers to say something clever about our performance. I filled in for him once when he was on holiday, and I can report that it was a pretty serious job, checking each player's score and then doling out the points.

Of course, the reason I'm so nostalgic for the post-match reports is that I found early on that you could do all kinds of wonderful things with them. I introduced, for instance, a brash American club chairman named Baz Vegas, who was guilty of all kinds of misdemeanors week to week; I also lifted wholesale from the Mike Myers opus, "Austin Powers in: Goldmember" to make a lot of silly Dutch jokes involving then-Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy.

But I think I can say that my crowning achievement was when I stole the Blundersliga trophy (yes, Mike had a trophy made) off my flatmate Ian's desk, and hid it for several months in various spots around the office, using the post-match reports to give him clues, which, sadly, he never really bothered to follow up. In the event, the trophy spent quite a long time at the back of a filing cabinet, in the Germany section.

So yes, I miss that. There's not really an element of trash-talking in my current leagues (I'm participating in three, all via my one team, the storied Westcliff Athletic, on the Premier League site). Or if there is, I'm not privy - but I do get to talk tactics with my sister, who's revealed herself to be even more obsessed with it than I.

However, if you think it's nothing more than a way to be silly and squabble with others, I can say that my experience last year gave me quite the crash course in economics. The main thing was value - how many points does a player costing X score, and is X worth the extra points when he's compared to a player who scores fewer points, but costs X-3? And how much money should I tie up in a player I'm signing exclusively to sit on my bench?

I'm not sure how applicable this is in anything other than fantasy sports, but I need some way to justify all the time I've spent on it, so please indulge me.

The other question is how to set up your team so that it's not 100% copied from someone else - after all, if all of your starting XI are in your nearest rival's team, you can neither catch up to them nor widen the gap between you.

In any case, I have to go see how many points I received from today's matches, and prepare for tomorrow's game. If you need me, I'll be poring over the form sheets of players from the lowest depths of the Premier League - think titans like Watford and Bournemouth.