Friday, January 27, 2012

"Lisa with Child" is still doing well

Yesterday my Writers of the Future story picked up a nice mention in a review by Claire Deming over at Science Fiction and Other Odysseys. Which I was very glad to see, as even after spending the past twelve months working hard on several very intense projects that are going out the door this year, I still a have a very big soft spot for that sweet little short story.

"Lisa with Child" story illustration by Tyler Carter

I've certainly been wanting to do more writing in the world of "Lisa with Child" for some time now.  So much so that on a Saturday three weeks back I cranked out 4000 words of a followup story in three hours, when I was supposed to be taking time off from writing. Those 4k words are probably about half of the total story, which follows Lisa and her sixteen-year old, hyper-genius daughter Kim as they attempt to track down a rogue, weaponized artificial intelligence. At stake is the sanity of thousands of mind-hacked humans as well as the unique, symbiotic mother - daughter bond that Lisa and Kim share. That and Kim's somewhat turbulent relationship with her human mother Karin--the retired CIA officer from the first story.

Friday, January 20, 2012

More notes from the publishing singularity

Apparently Powell's Books here in Portland and the famous Tattered Cover in NYC will be among the first to have the print-on-demand Espresso Book Machines in their stores.

This is a technology I've been curious about ever since hearing that its parent company, Print on Demand, acquired liscencing access to publisher Harper Collin's backlist last year. It takes 5 - 8 minutes to print out a paperback, compete with full-color cover art using an Espresso Machines, so this device and its access to large network of titles could be a huge boon to independent bookstores with their limited shelf and warehouse space.

Another potential boost for the indies: Here in the US, Barnes and Noble continues to look an awful lot like a corporation that is preparing to file for Chapter 11 a year or so down the road by spinning off its revenue-earning Nook ereader into a separate business entity, closing its flagship Seattle store, laying off employees across the board, and reducing shelf space in remaining stores along with its overall long-term inventory. If that's what actually plays out, we would be left with a print-selling landscape that consists of independent bookstores and Amazon, as well as online ebook retailers like Google Books, Nook, the struggling iBookstore, and

Also of interest in recent publishing industry events: Confessions of a Publisher: We're in Amazon's sight and they're totally going to kill us. 

As an emergent print publishing powerhouse, Amazon is a mixed bag for authors. Great at present, but potentially troubling for authors in just a few years down the line. By currently offering million-dollar advances and aggressively recruiting talent with their new book-publishing imprint, they are reversing a thirty-year trend of authors making less and less money from declining advances and royalty checks. Then there is the self-publishing ebook model where authors take home 70% of the selling price, pre-tax, which is very exciting even as it offers it's own unique set of self-promotion and business-management challenges for writers and other creative content producers. 

The potential downside of course is a world in which Amazon is ascendant. Will a company that has allowed some of its distribution warehouses to be run with a ruthlessness towards employees typically found in Charles Dickens novels still be treating authors well if it becomes a near monopoly? Hopefully the low cost of entry into the field and ability of authors to found or move to competing online retail services will act as a check on reduced pay schemes.

Amazon's current setup is one that may very well allow hard-working writers to make a middle-class living off their work, so I'd like to see it continue into the future. Especially as traditional publishing industry has failed to pay its writers or even its staff memebers a living wage for several years now.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Narrative and the creation of coherency in human thought

This is something I've wondered about for many years: How do the pre-conscious pathways and signal-processing modules in our brains fuse the streams of disjointed sensory information and evoked memories into a coherent story for our consciousnesses to make decisions within? Especially since there are so many gaps within those flows of inner images from the past and the many perceived entities in the real-time external world around us.

via Big Think.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Call

Cover art for my contribution to Steven Savile's forthcoming Viral series. Mayhem, ugly choices, and an iron-willed CIA officer who finds himself on a slippery moral slope.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Melancholy but pretty

Somehow while looking for Portlandia clips yesterday I came across this sad but beautiful production of Gideon Freudmann's "Denmark" by the The Portland Cello Project.



I'm three episodes into watching Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen's parody series about life in Portland, now that it's out on Netflix.  So far, I've got mixed feelings.  One on hand, it's a good send up of several of the city's subcultures, whose members can often be pretty amusing to those of us on the outside.

Especially amusing when those ironically self-aware, self-criticizing individuals get un-ironically passionate or even wholly obsessed with the defining theme of their niche culture, be that vegan-ism, bicycle culture, the arts scene, etc. And while Portlandia largely ignores the vast bulk of middle- and working-class white Americans and East Asian and Latin American immigrants who make up the majority of metropolitan area's population, it occasionally does chronicle their interactions with the hipsters, egotistical artists, and bi-polar foodies who are Portlandia's focus. Generally middle America comes off better or at least slightly saner in these exchanges.

The other-hand downside of the show is that the whiny obnoxiousness of some of the characters is heavy handed at times. So far Portlandia has dished out a number of real gems as far as laugh-inducing sketches, but it's also had several  moments when the show's introspective ubanites have gotten so bitchy or shrill over problems with life in a first world urban utopia that it's required a a fair amount of self-discipline not to fast forward through to the next scene. Also, there a couple of sex sketches (fully clothed) that come off as more creepy than comedic.

While it's been hit or miss, I'm hoping the show finds its stride and improves during its second season. Every city needs some gentle poking at to avoid taking itself too seriously, and Portlandia has nailed its namesake with  several moments of parody and good-humored absurdity worthy of Armisen's alma mater, Saturday Night Live.

What I am un-ironically and passionately attached to after watching the show is Washed Out's "Feel it all Around" track, used in Portlandia's opening credits. It's getting a lot of time on my play lists at the moment.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Oh, yeah. That whole happy people thing.

I forgot to mention one of the most important personal reasons why I am such a fan of Azumanga Daioh and by extension Questionable Content. And that reason would be that both works are great depictions of happy people, which is a normally a nightmare for writers to pull off. After all, if you've got happy protagonists, where's the plot tension and drama going to come from? How in the hell do do you keep the readers hooked when nothing world shaking is at stake?

That's a tough one. Especially for someone like me who likes to write about the worlds of espionage, international conflict, exploration, and big picture philosophical questions that have real-world implications in the form of technology and social upheaval set at the turning points of history. Drama and scene tension come cheap in those environments.

Happiness though, how do you get the readers to buy into that crap? This an important question because scenes of happy characters can play several useful roles in good drama. If you can construct a story opening that causes the readers to share the characters' joy or contentment, then the readers have something at stake when events threaten to go off the rails and end the characters' happiness. If that happiness is lost, then there is something worth struggling for to restore it.

But that's a rather cheap and obvious use of happiness. Something marginally subtler is to use scenes that evoke happiness or contentment to leaven a dramatic plot with moderating emotional pauses. It's good to give both readers and characters a chance to catch their breath every so often. Too much drama and tension can be mindnumbing after awhile, which is a consistent problem with many would-be Hollywood blockbuster films. Many an otherwise promising action film falls apart for me when I find myself feeling numbed after forty minutes or more of spectacle and adrenalin.

George R.R. Martin is someone who is good at using pauses of contentment to moderate the bleak emotional landscape of his Song of Ice and Fire series. Sometimes he does this with moments of genuine deep happiness created by a character's relationship with the people around him or her, but more often he evokes a feeling of nice animal contentment through a good use of food. Trenchers of hollowed out bread filled with stew, crackling capons, garlic infused snails, and plum-sauced suckling pig all provide much needed moments of relief while remaining engaging for readers.

Something subtler still is to use moments of happiness to carry out character development. Which is about ass backwards from the way that character development is normally handled, using moments of doubt, crisis, decision, and the threat of terrible failure. The use of happiness as a transformative instance is harder to pull off, which is one reason why writers normally avoid going that route. However, the successful realization of happiness as a catalyst of change or the crystallization of past choices can be uniquely engaging and possess its own flavors of intensity.

But how to evoke happiness in readers though the characters?

A consistent solution to this in Questionable Content and Azumanga Daioh is through humor. This can take the form of jokes and funny storytelling done by the characters, as well as minor pratfalls or even a little absurdity in their thoughts and actions. Though the latter takes a light hand to pull off without killing any sense of sympathy for the characters.

All too often when writers (over-educated, over-read silly creatures that they are) think of absurdity, they think of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. Shortly thereafter they typically veer off into realms of plot where the characters are gruesomely simplified parodies of the complex beings that humans are. And when politics gets in the mix, stereotypes and gross cliches are often not far behind.

Fortunately, there's no need to go that kind of extreme to evoke absurd humor. Especially when looking for humor that makes a character feel more rather than less human.

After all, humans are filled with unrealistic inner hopes, day dreams, silly aspirations, and are prone to exaggeration when boasting. Hell, they even strive for hyperbole deliberately sometimes when telling funny stories and jokes or deliberately having mild fun at their friend's expense. All of which are bonding moments both in real life and for characters who exist only in ink or pixels and in the perception of writers and readers.

Sunday, January 01, 2012


For my first post of the year I was going to do a rare political rant and air my thoughts on issues from last year like Occupy Wall Street and some very negative structural changes that we've made to our economy and government here in the US over the past fourteen years. Then I came across the most bizarre mash ups of an 80s pop music piece combined with a character from one of my favorite absurdist and slice-of-life anime, Azumanga Daioh.

I like Azumanga for a couple of reasons.

One is that it has some wonderful absurdist humor in it, but remains very sympathetic to the female characters who are its focus. Another is that some of those same characters process the world mentally in ways that are very different from the norm, but which give them unusual insights into the nature of events and their relationships with their friends. Lastly, it's one of the primary sources of inspiration for my favorite slice-of-life webcomic Questionable Content.

So politics sometime later this week or next. In the meanwhile I've got more commissioned and on-spec projects than I can shake a stick at.