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What’s Going On Around Here?

Greetings to anyone who may be reading this! Things have been a bit quiet around here lately. This is not due to any inactivity on my part, rather the opposite. To summarize, here is what you can expect in this space in the coming months:

  • A book about classical music. A lot of my time lately has been consumed by this project. The book is an introduction to the field of classical music, along with lots of listening suggestions and weird anecdotes from the history of the field. This edition is written for adults, but a version for kids will follow.
  • More Non-Seen. It\’s been missing lately, I know, and I apologize. It will return soon.
  • Revised edition of Myst book. I\’ve been promising this forever but I do intend to see it through to completion. If you want it, please post a note of encouragement.
  • More reviews. As you may have noticed, I posted a review of the film White God today. I intend to post more, including the annual Media Summation.

Also of note: How to Write Fiction That Doesn\’t Suck has been retitled to Fixing Fiction. Check it out here. You can get it on Amazon for $2.99, or free if you have Kindle Unlimited. I may post more excerpts from it here if anyone is interested.

And, finally, if you sign up for the newsletter, you\’ll get any new content delivered straight to your inbox. How convenient! If enough people join, I might even be persuaded to start providing some exclusive stuff on there.

Movie Time: White God

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A few years ago I was attacked by a large dog while walking home one night. Its owner assured me that it wouldn’t bother me, but when I tried to walk past it I suddenly found myself pushed to the ground while the thing bore down on my hand with its teeth. This was the dead of winter, and I was able to slip my hand out of my glove and escape. The incident was a vindication of a lifelong distrust of dogs, particularly large dogs.

White God is a film about large dogs, and it might just be the best film I’ve seen this year.

Our setting is Budapest; our protagonists are a young girl named Lili and a mixed-breed dog named Hagen. As the story begins, Lili moves in with her father, who takes an instant dislike to Hagen, and eventually abandons him by the side of the road. It’s a quiet and understated opening, giving few hints about the horror that will eventually unfold.

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Comics Time: Friends With Boys

You know who can write a coming-of-age story better than John Green? Faith Erin Hicks, that’s who. And she can draw, too. Friends With Boys may not have any cancer patients or shallow philosophizing, but it does have plenty of character drama, attractive manga-style artwork, clever plotting, and impeccable comic layouts. If that’s not enough, there’s also a ghost.

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The story centers around Maggie McKay, a girl who is starting high school after a childhood of homeschooling. According to the author biography, Hicks herself was homeschooled until high school as well, and (also like Maggie) has three brothers. As such, Hicks is clearly using her own life experiences as material, but rather than taking the easy route and writing a memoir (as far too many other cartoonists have done), she has instead synthesized a fictional scenario using her own childhood as a basis. Well played.

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I Am Not John Green’s Target Demographic

Thanks, characters, for the summation

The premise of John Green’s megahit young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars is a simple one: a love story about two teenage cancer patients. This is a good and relatively original premise. I approve. To make it work will be difficult, though. To write about the life of a teenager, and the tumultuous nature of teenage love, is difficult enough without adding cancer to the mix. To make this premise work, Green must confront the unavoidable fact that sick people feel very, very bad most of the time. It’s not conducive to romance.

The easiest solution to this problem is to sweep the experience of sickness under the rug, and unfortunately that’s exactly what Green does. Sickness is window dressing in this story. The primary function of cancer in this story is to grant travel via the Make-a-Wish Foundation and to incapacitate characters when required by the plot. When the plot needs the characters to not be sick, they are conveniently not sick until the plot needs them to be sick again. It’s a depressingly shallow understanding of the experience of illness, and Green sells his characters short by not making better use of the storytelling opportunities afforded here.

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Stereotyping: The Young and Old (Fiction Skills Series)

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn\’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

Do you know how teenagers are talking nowadays? Well, me neither, so that’s why if I write a teenage character I’m not going to try to indicate their age by giving them silly dialect I remember from my own teenage years. That means no “wicked,” no “far out,” and definitely no “grody.” Even if you do spend time around teenagers and have a good grasp of their dialect, it’s still a perilous idea to give it to your characters, as it’s bound to date your work, possibly before it even sees publication. This stuff changes fast, and there’s no need to burden your story with it if you don’t have to.

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Webcomics Time: Der-Shing Helmer!

Have you read any comics by Der-Shing Helmer? No? Shame on you! As artist-writers go, Ms. Helmer is up there with the best of them, and frankly, she’s more than the webcomics scene deserves. She took a hiatus that lasted a couple years, but now she’s back and better than ever–and producing two comics simultaneously, no less!

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I suppose I’m biased, given that Helmer works in one of my personal favorite genres–long-form speculative-fiction adventures–but her writing stands up beautifully regardless of one’s preferred subject matter. Her worlds are original and very completely realized, a tough thing to pull off. Her characters are complex and unique. Her writing can be a talky at times, but not so badly that it distracts from the experience. These are stories one will remember and think about.

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Stereotyping: Gender (Fiction Skills Series)

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn\’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

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Many writers falter when trying to write characters of whose genders are different from their own. Even Margaret Atwood, a writer who I deeply admire, has this problem at times. In her book The Robber Bride, the primary characters, three women, are all rich, complex characters. Their male partners, by contrast, are a bunch of shallow, selfish morons who easily fall for the charms of the book’s female villain. Male writers frequently struggle with the same problem, writing women who blather about shoes and makeup, making clichéd remarks like “men are idiots.” These are not characters. These are bland collections of traits which we associate with one gender or another. Granted, these characters don’t offend many people, as stereotypical depictions are so familiar as to be invisible, but neither will anyone see these as memorable characters. We know the stereotypical traits of gender; we’ve been learning them since before we we knew how to talk. If you want to make a nuanced character, we need to know more than what gender they are.

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Animals Were Harmed

  
So this happened: Asger Juhl, AKA “the Danish radio host,” killed Allan the rabbit on air. He was looking for hypocrisy, and boy howdy, he found it. How dare he, legions have demanded. How dare he kill a poor defenseless little bunny? Many of these people then ate ham sandwiches.

So, hypothetical ham-sandwich eaters, the question remains: why is Allan’s death so meaningful to you? In 2010, 110 million pigs were slaughtered in the US alone. That works out to more than three pigs slaughtered per second.1 Allan only died once. If you are outraged about Allan and not about the pigs, you are a hypocrite millions of times over.

Now on to my fellow vegetarians, many of whom feel that they have the right to condemn Juhl’s actions. Maybe you do, but first, consider the following: 1. Allan’s death was swift and probably painless. 2. Since Juhl ate Allan after the slaughter, Allan’s body was not wasted. 3. Since Allan’s death has engendered a debate on this issue (one which we rarely see covered in the media at all), his life was not wasted either. Allan’s death occurred under far better circumstances, and meant much more, than that of nearly any other animal on earth.

We humans are inveterate animal killers. I am not innocent and neither are you. If you are a meat eater, you will consume the flesh of hundreds of animals over the course of your life. If you are a vegetarian, untold numbers of rodents and insects were exterminated to prevent them from stealing your food. Millions of people depend on drugs which are extracted from the bodies of animals. Vast numbers of animals die as roadkill: we’ve come to accept this as the cost of speedy transportation. Animals were harmed in the making of your favorite movie, even if only by the catering department.

Do not mourn for Allan. Instead, take a moment to remember that all of us are guilty. If that bothers you, do something about it. Allan lives!

Stereotyping: Race (Fiction Skills Series)

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn\’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

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Given the nature of race relations throughout human history, this is probably the touchiest subject we’ll be touching on, so bear with me, and understand that I’m not assuming you’re racist. If the issues discussed in this section don’t apply to you, so much the better. If they do, that’s a problem, but it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, just that you’re not a fully mature writer. In short, take this post to heart, but don’t take it personally.

When creating characters of different races, don’t treat “race” as some sort of variety pack of character tropes. Far too many stories have a “token” character who is Black/Hispanic/Asian/etc., and is primarily defined by various stereotypical traits associated with her race. Much ink has been spilled over the sociological implications of token characters, but our primary concern here is that they’re just plain stupid, and in many senses not characters at all. They are just superficial conglomerations of whatever vague ideas the author may have about people of a certain race. It should be noted that these aren’t necessarily negative stereotypes. I’ve seen numerous examples of the Asian character who is really good at math and is also a computer hacker. This character is every bit as trite as the Black character who says “yo dawg” and spends every night spraying graffiti. Positive stereotypes are still stereotypes.

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Archaic Language (Fiction Skills Series)

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn\’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

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“Lo,” quoth the shepherd, extending his staff toward the citadel.

The ancient fortress was perched atop a hillock some fathoms away, and the company strained to look at it. Cloven it was, struck in two by some bygone enchantment, and its once-stalwart ashlars were strewn across the slope.

“Truly a vision,” spake Quagmire at last, relieving the quietus which had fallen upon the party.

The problem of archaic language is usually particular to fantasy fiction, which treads a thin line as it tries to cultivate a medieval atmosphere while simultaneously maintaining a natural flow to modern ears. Many writers, as in the example above, make free use of as many old-fashioned terms as they can think of, and arrive at this ugly combination of cutesy phrasing and thesaurus attacks.

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