Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z is for Zento Fixes a Wormhole Generator

(Note: This story will make a lot more sense if you've read all of my Zento stories, marked with the "Zento" label, than if you haven't.)

            The bright white helix of the Goran Wormhole blinked.  Zento scrunched his eyebrows together.  “Did the Hole just…?” he muttered.
            The rigid spirals of the Wormhole loosened and spread.  They unwound themselves in the space of a handful of Verion minutes.
            Zento swore in every language he remembered.  “This is the second time this cycle the Hole has gone out,” he said to his copilot, a young man jacketed in ancient Kevlar.
            “Which planet’s cycle?” his copilot asked.
            “Goran 3, sorry.”  Zento turned to face the man.  “What was your name again?”
            “Breed Cornigan.”
            Zento snapped his fingers into a gun.  “Cornigan; I remember.  You were with me when I maimed that Senator on Incubar.”  He looked up and grunted, then jerked his control sticks to the side.  The ship rattled as it skimmed against an asteroid.
            Breed’s eyes widened.  “Is the ship—”
            “It’ll be fine.”  Zento waved a hand at Breed.  “It’s just a scratch.”
            “Maybe you should land in the generator station and check it out.”
            Zento laughed.  “We’re going to have to, Cornigan.  The Hole is out.  And I plan on fixing it.”
            “Just one more spin,” said Zento, hefting a large wrench up to the central pin of the wormhole generator.
            “You really think this is going to work?” Breed said behind him.
            Zento completed his motion and took a massive breath, wiping his forehead with the back of one cramping hand.  “Look outside.”
            One of the generator station staff—a young Goran woman wearing a dull blue uniform that paled against her green skin—took a step toward the room’s single window.  “Sir, you fixed, it curls anew,” she said in accented Verion.
            “Nothing a top-notch mercenary can’t handle,” said Zento.
            Breed led Zento back to the emergency hangar at the opposite end of the ship.  “Where did you learn to do that?”
            Zento shrugged.  “You learn a few things after eight years of odd jobs for the biggest mercenary company for fifty parsecs.”
            Smoke battered Zento’s eyes as he opened the door to the hangar.
            “Can you repair a ship as easily as a wormhole generator?” Breed asked, coughing.
            “Sure.  It’s just a really big, slightly fiery scratch.”
            A dull clatter reverberated through the hangar.  “Sir, the left wing just fell off.  Perhaps we should call a mechanic.”
            Zento activated his communicator.  “Carmel-Eyes, we’re going to be a bit late for that hit on Karont.  My ship is on fire.”

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Y is for Caroline M. Yoachim

I had to start at the ground for today's post.  So far as I know, I'm not familiar with any writers with a first or last name starting with "Y."  I searched around and decided to give Caroline M. Yoachim a spin by reading five of her stories (none of which is over 2,000 words and all of which are available online for free).

"Current and Still" is an amazing flash fic.  I can't pin down the genre exactly.  It's fairly unique in that sense.  I adored the first two paragraphs.  They made it seem as if this story was going to have a very steep learning curve, but as it turned out, the "idea" part of this idea story is simple to understand.  Despite this, it's an awesome idea.  It weaves into the plot, setting, and characters perfectly.  All three aspects of this story are top-notch.

Chalk up a second tally under "idea stories."  And a second under "amazing."  "Harmonies of Time," also published by Daily Science Fiction, is a bit longer than "Current and Still," coming in at 1,107 words.  You can tell with relative certainty that it's science fiction.  I think it could've actually survived at 999 if the change from flash to short story mattered, but even at its word count it contained all the best things short short fiction has to offer.  The tone in this passage is succulent.  Plot isn't as prevalent here as it is in "Current and Still," yet I didn't miss it.  The setting and characters make up for it no problem.

Switching over to a fantasy short story published by Electric Velocipede, "The Carnival Was Eaten, All Except the Clown" is not quite as good as the two stories above, but it definitely isn't "bad."  It is more narrative than the first two, containing instances of "was," "were," and "did" in an overabundance.  The plot is nice and traditional, supported by a cool setting and decent characters, so it does well on those fronts.  It's still worth a read, in my opinion.

"The Safe Road" is a stranger flash fic.  It's also fantasy by my definition, although calling it sci-fi wouldn't be far from the truth.  I didn't like the style of this story quite as much as I did the first two in this post, but the quality of the story is still decently high.

From Flash Fiction Online comes "One Last Night at the Carnival Before the Stars Go Out."  At first I was only moderately "into" this story, but by the end I was pretty well roped in.  The writing is calm and elegant, the plot, setting, and characters unique and whimsical.  I love how the resolution worked, after such a huge climax.

I'll certainly keep my eye out for Caroline M. Yoachim from now on.  She is a really solid writer if these five tales are a good reference.  Her fascination with "time" is really cool, although I'm not quite so big a fan of her "carnival" duo.  She is one of the better writers of "idea" stories I've encountered.  Anyone who likes SFF should check Yoachim out.  Right now.  Go.

Monday, April 28, 2014

X is for Xuan the Tiger

If you like elegant, 3rd-narrative fantasy flash fiction, you'll adore "Xuan the Tiger" by J Kyle Turner.  It is simple and gentle in a way that would make it a good bedtime story for older children.

The protagonist, Xuan, is a great character.  She has poise, intelligence, and determination to her.  Her competence may be semi-feigned, but her "sympathy" and "active" sliders are cranked up pretty high.  The other characters in the story aren't developed, yet their roles in the story are filled satisfactorily.

This story has a lot of plot for its 988 words.  It flows well and has rolling tension.  The protagonist wants something and (spoiler) eventually achieves it.  Daily Science Fiction isn't always great about findings stories that have traditional plot structures, for better or worse.  I really like how this story ran.  The last paragraph is brilliant, even though it raises a lot of plot questions.

The setting of "Xuan the Tiger" is quaint.  It helps set the tone of the story, along with the narrative POV.  The "strange" aspects of it are properly balanced by the "familiar."

As long as you don't mind fantasy or 3rd-narrative you'll almost certainly enjoy this story.  Check it out!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

W is for When the World Was Full of People

"When the World Was Full of People" by Patricia Russo is kind of insane.  My first reaction to this story as a whole was "what?".

The first-person narrator has an incredible voice.  It's enthralling in the oddest sort of way.  He/she carries the story on his/her shoulders virtually alone.  The small number of other characters are interesting simply because they are depicted through the narrator's voice.

You have to read this story to understand the plot.  There is a sequence of events, but they don't really resolve any sort of conflict.  In fact, the whole concept of "conflict" in relation to this story are making my head spin.  There are several teeny-tiny conflicts splattered across the text.  It's just weird.

I like the setting of this story.  The epistolary first-person POV allows readers to know that the narration is from the future, a future very different from the present.  The setting being referred to in the past-tense is simple, yet serene.

At around 2,000 words, "When the World Was Full of People" is a fast read.  I'd recommend reading it just because it's so utterly mind-boggling without seeming mind-boggling until after you've read through the whole thing.  I'm still very confused and I think I've confused myself even more.

Friday, April 25, 2014

V is for Violence Spares Neither Youth Nor Elder

After skipping a week of participation, I have entered the Flash! Friday contest again for my Fantasy Flash Friday A-to-Z Challenge post of today.  You can read my entry, a 160-word story centered on a Knower as he witnesses both a youth and an elder prepare for battle, here.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

U is for Underdogs

Why do people like underdogs so much?  I could throw out a half dozen simple, baseless reasons, but I'm not going to do that.  Going through basic writing theory, underdog characters are well-liked because their sympathy and active "sliders" are cranked up very far.  By contrast, their competency "slider" often starts relatively low.  The characters' arc often deals with competency, which helps as well.

When smaller people get beaten up by bigger people, people try to make the best of terrible living conditions, or people try their hardest to accomplish something and fail anyway, they incur sympathy.  This is why stories with underdog characters often open with a few scenes or chapters of those characters being put through the wringer in one way or another.  In a football movie, for example, the "viewpoint-centered" team typically falls short in the first several games, and may lose one or more key players.  Zooming in on the particularly bad situations of certain players can increase the sympathy for the whole team via the 10/90 rule of thumb, whether the other players would organically draw sympathy or not.

Underdogs are usually quite active.  They care about succeeding and they work hard in order to have a chance at doing so.  As they work toward their goals, they grow and learn, which helps them to become more engaging.  Most readers like characters who are so active that they challenge antagonists they have little chance of overwhelming.

At the beginning of stories featuring one or multiple underdogs, said underdogs tend to be low on the competency "slider."  If it's a group, some of the characters may be competent, or if it's an individual, they may have some skills that are well-honed, but overall they aren't very competent.  This allows them to grow as characters, often in a clear way.  If a team starts winning a lot of games when they used to be losing them all, they're obviously becoming more competent.  The fact that the main antagonists of underdog stories tend to be more competent than the underdogs they're facing only aids in the underdogs' sympathy "slider."  (Just make sure the antagonists aren't more engaging characters overall.)

So, yeah, there are three main reasons underdog characters are loved by many.  They are almost always high on two of the three character attribute "sliders" and usually have a decent arc that develops the third.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T is for The Truancy Officer

            Raymond’s father opened the door.  In the threshold, backlit by the weak November sun, stood a man in a royal blue uniform, his eyes shaded by too-dark sunglasses.  “Yes?” asked Raymond’s father.
            The man stuck out his hand for a moment, then threw it back down at his side as if the initial motion was all that mattered.  “It’s Truancy Officer Ryan B. Turley.  I’m here on behalf of Sol Block High School.”
            “I see,” said Raymond’s father.  “It’s about the absences?”
            Officer Turley nodded.  “Your son has eluded school for the past ten days straight.  After nine absences without an excuse the school sends me out to…retrieve them.”
            “Well, you see, my son is not in exactly the best position right now.”
            “And why is that?”  Officer Turley took a step into the house and closed the door behind him.
            “He’s in his shell-less phase right now.”
            Officer Turley raised an eyebrow.
            “Didn’t the school tell you?”
            “Tell me what?”
            “My son is half Yamerian space snail.  Two weeks out of every year his body absorbs his old shell and grows a new, stronger one.  Those two weeks started last St. Xenon’s Day.”
            Officer Turley scratched at his dark mustache.  “So you’re telling me your son will be back to school tomorrow, in his new shell?”
            “We certainly hope so, Officer.”
            “Well good.  And tell him to stop this nonsense.  It’s not good for a teenager to come out of his shell.”
            Raymond laughed behind his couch with such force that he stained the carpet with fresh slime.  “Too bad I just ate my old shell,” he muttered.  “I would’ve liked to eat him.  Racist Truancy Officer.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S is for Sanderson, Brandon Sanderson

I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that I've only read/listened to four of Brandon Sanderson's works.  I've listened to the audiobook of his novella Legion about four times, read Elantris in paperback, and read The Emperor's Soul and Steelheart in ebook.  Everything has been rock solid.

I reviewed Elantris a while back.  If you don't have time to click the link back to it, I stated at the end that it was probably tied for my favorite book.  It's definitely in the top five.

Prior to that I reviewed The Emperor's Soul.  It's a no-contest for my favorite novella.  I gave it a 97% rating, which is probably the highest I've ever given any piece of fiction.

Besides his fiction, Sanderson is also a master of writing theory.  I've posted in-depth analyses of his first three laws of magic (First, Second, Third) in the past.  They're incredible.  His college lectures (which I've listened to via are massively informative and supplement the tremendous education I've acquired through the Writing Excuses podcast, the brainchild of Mr. Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal.

There's no need to ramble.  If you haven't heard about Brandon Sanderson by now, you're most likely new to the SFF community.  In that case, the best introduction to the genre you could ever ask for is dangling right in front of you.  Elantris or The Emperor's Soul, take your pick.

Monday, April 21, 2014

R is for Remembrance In Stone

"Remembrance In Stone" by Amanda C. Davis is a very elegant fantasy flash fic.  It has a literary-bent, but it does its fantasy genre justice at the same time.  I would have liked the prose to have been a little lighter, less stiff, yet it does well enough as it is.

I'd consider the POV of this story to be 3rd-narrative, which puts a little distance between the protagonist and the reader.  Still, Badra, the protagonist, comes across with a decent level of competence and sympathy and is certainly engaging.  The other character in the story, Gera, serves as the other half of a mentor-student foil.  She is a solid character for the little we see of her.  Together, the story works well from a character perspective.

This is an example of the decent portion of flash fics in which events occur, but they don't occur as a typical plot arc.  I've learned to respect them, although I prefer an arc.  The elegance of this story is preserved by this specialized plot.  I suppose you could say that there is some usual plot, it's just tucked away in a flash-back.  Under M.I.C.E. Quotient this is a character story, so its main purpose is to show Badra's character arc rather than the plot arc.  My favorite stories do both at the same time; however, this story works well as a character story, despite its 3rd-narrative POV.  (Actually, its kind of on the line between narrative and limited.  It's tough to make a rightful judgement.)

I like the setting of this story.  The physical location is basic, as it probably should be for this story.  The magic system, while not very developed, is done well.  It has plenty of "cool factor."

If you like fantasy, especially fantasy with semi-flowery (yet definitely not purple) wording, I'd definitely recommend you read this story.  It'll take you less than five minutes to read.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q is for This Quiet Dust

"Q" is a very tough letter for short story titles, so I fudged it a smidge.  If you can ignore an "a" or "the" at the beginning of a title, why not "this" as well?  Anyway, "This Quiet Dust" is the story I read for today, so it's the story I'm reviewing.  It's really a wonderful short story.  It was written by Karl Bunker and published in the January/February 2014 issue of Analog.

The protagonist of "This Quiet Dust" is sympathetic, competent, and fairly active.  All of these qualities together make him engaging enough for me to care about the story.  Character-driven stories rock!  Every character in this story has a personality with clear distinctions, despite the fact that this story doesn't take long to develop them.

Even in the few scenes of this story written in omniscient (there are three POVs in this story; the main one is 3rd-limited from the protagonist; the second-most used one is omniscient; a single scene is written from the 3rd-limited POV of another character) the setting intrigued me.  As in any good space opera/hard sci-fi hybrid story (there's a better way of putting it, but I'm tired), the setting makes the story sing.

As far as plot goes, it's small and it crawls, but it's really cool and it ties in the characters and setting very well, which makes it good.  It gets an A-.

Overall, this story is very well done.  It's probably one of my top five favorite sci-fi short stories I've read in the last year, out of about sixteen or so (by rough estimate).  Check it out.

Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Parade Route Through Werewolf Territory

            I was the only survivor of King Percival’s Premier Parade Through Parseland.  Parseland is the overly-poetic name for werewolf territory.  I have the less-poetic scars to prove it.
            Thinking back, pulling the carriages with elk was probably not the best idea, seeing as how raw elk is the national dish of Parseland.  But I was young then—not a day over twenty—and a salary of three gold pieces for a two-hour jaunt through the woods defending a royal parade sounded like a good deal.
            King Percival spared no expense, hiring twenty of us mercenaries along with his fifteen war-hardened Royal Guards.  Unfortunately, King Grimm of Parseland brought close to fifty of his best soldiers to tear out of throats and eat our kidneys.
            The battle was short yet hard-fought.  We drew our silvered daggers and tried not to lose our throat and/or kidneys.  I left with one throat and—thank Deity humans have two—one kidney.  My fellow countrymen were not so lucky.
            King Grimm perished beneath my dagger in the waning moments of the fight.  I would have been knighted for my service, but King Percival was too busy dying from the lack of a throat.  What a pity.
            I guess it doesn’t really matter now anyway.  The King would probably not have been very keen to knighting a young mercenary transfiguring into a werewolf.  Especially not when said mercenary was on his way to claim the throne of Parseland.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for Over-description (and Some Under-description)

I am a firm believer in creating prose that is as lean as possible.  A paragraph that doesn't develop the plot, setting, or characters is a paragraph wasted.  Even sentence-by-sentence there needs to be a constant flow of focus.

My least favorite form of over-description is excessive adjectives.  There are very few places in fiction written for adults where listing more than two adjectives in a row is acceptable.  In children's there are more, but it's still something to be avoided in most character voices.  If you can't describe an object well enough for the story in two adjectives, you may actually be under-describing.  Try having one or more characters interact with that object and let your readers learn that way.

On a related note, too many adverbs can be either over-description or under-description.  If the way a character does something doesn't matter, don't include an adverb, please.  If it does, try to use concrete description, not adverbs, to display how the action is being performed.  Rather than "Ron moved swiftly to the car," you can use "Ron moved to the car," "Ron sprinted to the car," or "Ron threw open the door and tore through his front yard, vaulting a hedge in his haste."  Adverbs are to be used only as a last resort in prose.  Feel free to use as many as you'd like if you write non-fiction as well.

A character's appearance can say a lot about him/her, but so do their actions and others' dialogue.  Only describe a character's looks in-depth if it develops plot or setting in an interesting way, unless you cannot possibly explain a character trait by any other method (which is a rare scenario).  That is, unless your viewpoint character's personality makes it necessary (like if you're writing in 1st-person about a cosmetologist, for example).

These are three of the biggest ways that writers fall into over-description.  Writing more would be over-description (at least for A-to-Z Challenge purposes).

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for Nina's Revelation

            Nina glanced at her watch through the waterfall of her tears.  It was nine-thirty at last.  She laughed, rolling her eyes.
            A paper towel commercial faded away into the opening theme of Facing the Unknown.  Nina scrubbed at her tear ducts with the back of one hand and squeezed the armrest of her couch with the other.  The pain in her chest subsided along with the song.
            The opening scene left Nina racked with laughter.  She laid her head against the couch cushion during the following commercial, remembering how she had been racked with weeping minutes before.  “Stupid boy,” she muttered.
            The next scene unfolded like a love note.  Nina sat herself up straight and stared at the screen.  Her pulse quickened along with the main guy as he poured out his feelings to the main girl.  The girl in the show froze and drifted away, off to some other wing of the high school she attended.  Nina parroted her motion, starting toward the fridge to find a heap of comfort food.
            Then she saw it, just before the cut to commercial.  A little gold cross set against the main guy’s chest, dangling from a hidden chain.  “How did I never notice that before?” she asked herself aloud.
            She plucked a dust-coated Bible from the drawer of her side-table and peered at the words.  When Facing the Unknown returned, she focused on the cross necklace.  It was beautiful.  She hung on the main guy’s every word and realized that spoke not only like a sweet teen boy, but also like a genuine, admirable young man with morals.
            Nina turned back to her Bible, flipping to the book of 2 Samuel.  “Samuel,” she whispered.  “He’s a Christian.  And I think he said he liked Facing the Unknown yesterday.”
            She folded her hands, closed her eyes, and prayed a simple prayer, thanking God for her favorite show and this sudden change of heart.  All the pain from her evening of crying was gone, replaced with mirth.  How?  Why?  “Maybe I should talk to Samuel about it.  I bet he’d make a much better boyfriend than Todd,” she said to herself.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Hayao Miyazaki

I'm switching gears a little today and blogging about a screenplay writer (and director and producer, but I'm focusing on the writing aspect).  Hayao Miyazaki is my favorite screenplay writer of all time.  It's no contest.

Miyazaki's characters are amazing.  They have so much depth and heart that you can't help but fall in love with them.  NausicaƤ and Mei are two of my favorites that he wrote himself.  Howl, Kiki, and Shizuku are among my favorite that were already made by other writers/artists and included in his screenplay adaptions.

Setting is an attribute of Miyazaki's work that will last for all time.  Not only is the art absolutely stunning to behold (mostly by other people's hands, but I'm pretty sure Miyazaki contributed to some of it), the concepts are brilliant.  Castle in the Sky and NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind have some of the best settings ever created, and that of Spirited Away is nothing to sneeze at.

Heartwarming.  That's the best word to describe Miyazaki's plots.  Heartfelt and heartwarming from beginning to end.  There are arcs and try-fail cycles galore.  And there is emotion.  So much emotion.  Whisper of the Heart (an adaption of another person's manga) contains one of the best plots of any film I've ever witnessed.

If you haven't watched a Hayao Miyazaki film you haven't lived.  Go.  Watch.  Love.

Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for Light and Ash

I must say, "Light and Ash" by Alan Bao has got to be one of the strangest flash fics I have ever read.  That's not to say that it's one of the worst, it's just very different.  The best way I can classify this story's quality is "moderate."

They don't teach you about this story's POV in school.  In fact, I haven't heard about it anywhere.  I guess it's the true POV is first, but the pronoun "you" is attached to one of the other characters, so really it's a blend of 1st and 2nd-person.  Has anyone else ever read a story like this?

As far as characters go, these are decent.  The main pair make great foils for one another.  This story is, I suppose, a romance at its heart.  It never hit me hard like the writer intended, but there may be personal reasons for that.  It's semi-sweet only, to me.

I like the theory behind this story's plot structure.  The conflict and tension rise until near the end when the climax hits, after which the conflict drifts in a lowish state in order to let the characters shine.  I would have really liked more tie-in between the characters and the plot, but I'll take what I can get.

The dystopian setting in this story is a smidgen too dramatic, in my opinion.  I would have liked a better build-up and background for the condition of the world in this setting.  The application of the setting is good though.

I would recommend looking at this story just to study it.  It's really unique, for better or for worst.  Learn from it if you can.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

K is for Killing Morris Gimble

"Killing Morris Gimble" is a mainstream short story written by John C. Boland, published in the June 2014 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  It's of rather middling quality, in my opinion.

The alternating POV of this story made the characters feel kind of odd.  It switches from omniscient to 1st-person and backs several times.  The 1st-person parts have decent characterization.  The protagonist, a 24-year-old female bodyguard, is engaging and more or less competent at least.  None of the other characters sang out to me during the omniscient parts.  Still, none of the characters were written poorly, per se.  They just aren't magnificent.

I'm still trying to comprehend this story's plot structure.  It's unorthodox for sure.  It doesn't really follow a linear pattern at all.  Stuff happens.  Tension rises and falls.  But it almost unfolds like an expanding cloud if that makes any sense whatsoever.  I fear it does not.  Bottom line: the plot is strange, yet not "bad" exactly.

The setting of this story is just as average as the plot and characters.  It has its cool spots and its bland spots.  There isn't much more to say about it.

If you have a lot of time on your hands and enjoy stories starring young female bodyguards, I recommend this story to you.  If you don't, it may be in your best interest to pass.

Friday, April 11, 2014

J is for Josephine, I Shall Be There

Again my Fantasy Flash Friday post is in the form of an entry in this week's Flash! Friday contest.  It's a 156-word fantasy/romance story that I, at first, wrote as a pure literary romance.  Then I realized that for the purpose of my A-to-Z Challenge scheme I had to turn it into a fantasy story.  Well, I did it.  You can read it here.  Please do enjoy.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I is for I

No, this is not a joke.  Today I am talking about first-person narration, hence "I."

I have less experience writing fiction in first-person than I do third, but I do write a good bit of it.  In fact, I wrote five first-person flash fics (four of them drabbles) in the span of a few days in early March.  You start to build momentum when you write in the POV for a while.  Perhaps it's because rather than resetting with a different character name each time you start a new story, you always use "I" when writing in first-person.

The danger in writing in first-person is that you have to make sure your characters in different stories have different personalities.  If you get used to "I" being a humorous type it may prove difficult to write a sobering "I."  So far I've been lucky.  The only attribute in common with the narrators from that batch of five stories I mentioned above is a bare sense of youthfulness.  Differences in age, gender, profession, and genre helped a lot.  If you're writing similar stories about similar characters in the first-person, beware.  You probably don't want to turn into a one-trick pony with narrators.

The largest advantage to writing in first is that you can inject personality into your narrator more easily than in third.  See, it's a two-faced coin.  Personality can lead you either way.  But as long as you're careful, your first-person narrators can become some of the most entertaining and solid characters out there.

I try to stick with third-person most of the time, but if the story needs to be told by "I" I let "I" tell it.  Don't limit yourself to one or the other.  In fact, I recommend writing both in copious amounts.  If you'd like to specialize, even a 90/10 split can help your writing.

Because each POV has its advantages and its disadvantages, you can learn how to write certain things better by writing in a POV that handles those things better.  For example, if you feel like your third-limited protagonists are too impersonal, write a few first-person stories with quirky personalities and then go back to writing limited.  You may very well be happy with the difference you see.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

H is for Harps Willed To Me

            When my great-grandfather died, he left me three harps.  I stared at them for quite some time the day they came to me.  There laid harps of gold, bone, and ebony.  They were beautiful instruments, ornate and elegant to near superfluous degree.  I only wished I knew how to play them.
            Grandfather Joseph was no fool, in any case.  A hand-written note accompanied the stringed trio.  I shook—nearly to the point of convulsions—as I read it.
            Each harp had a name and with it a story.  The original contents of those tales have been lost hence, yet I shall never forget the gist of them.
            The harp of gold is named Venus, and by no coincidence.  She is a love-bringer, the founder of many affairs, several political marriages, and, by consequence, a number of deaths.  From the very moment a man or woman hears Venus’ song that person will never separate from the player, nor the player from the hearer.  Death reaps only pairs from Venus’ influence.
            The harp of bone is named Forgiver.  She was hewn from the ribs of the great Biblical whale whose belly held Jonah prisoner for three days and nights.  Forgiver bestows the power of perfect forgiveness upon anyone who hears her.  It takes a selfless soul to pluck her strings.  She sings of peace and understanding.
            The harp of ebony is named Darkness.  He is the true evil of the three.  His cry—for it cannot be called a “song”—only destroys.  Anyone who hears it, including the player, is cursed to a life of darkness.  There is no rest for them—the wicked.  They are made blind and inauspicious until the day they die, always via great struggle and pain.
            I fell in the Harp Room this morning, strumming all three harps in one terrible sweeping of the hands.  Luckily, it was my wife who heard Venus sing.  I forgave her, in that moment, for pushing me.
Whoever said “love is blind,” I’d almost like to punch you, but I really must forgive you.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

G is for Roger Lancelyn Green

Lancelyn was an appropriate middle name for a man who wrote about Lancelot.  Truth be told, the only prose from Mr. Green that I've read is compiled in King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table.  It's been quite a while since I read the volume, so I'm going to make this brief.

Green is a very good writer from what I can remember.  He was a peer of Tolkien, the Father of Epic Fantasy, which makes him pretty cool by default.  His characters came to life in a way that rivals many written today.  I recall a great amount of emotion in his work, albeit the memory is somewhat faint.  The epilogue nearly brought me to tears (this I distinctly remember) through it's magically ominous delivery and tone.

I must delve into the writing of Roger Lancelyn Green more in the future.  For now, I regard him as the best writer of King Arthur stories I've encountered, yet my exposure in that area is limited to the point where such a statement is somewhat wooden.  I'd definitely recommend those stories to anyone interested in Arthurian lore or low fantasy.  I expect Green's other works are solid as well, based upon his pedigree.

Monday, April 7, 2014

F is for Fermentation

Fermentation by Christopher Kastensmidt is definitely one of the best 500-word stories I've ever read.  Other than the too-abrupt ending it is brilliant, absolutely brilliant.  Check it out quick before you continue reading.

The voice in this story is crazy.  It went from 0 to 60 in one sentence.  Albert's narration is humorous, but it doesn't get in the way one lick.  It's translucent-glass writing that's tinted blue rather than left clear.  (If you have no clue what that's supposed to mean, read this.)  Both of the characters introduced in the first paragraph are engaging and fun, which grants them some sympathetic qualities.  Albert is most certainly active, despite the short length of the story, giving him every attribute of a great protagonist.  I love these characters.

There's really only one element to this story's setting that sets it apart from the usual near-future template.  Luckily, that element happens to be what the story revolves around.  Such control and resourcefulness in a setting is top-notch, especially in flash fiction.

Plot basically acts as a train for this story, chugging through the setting and stopping to pick up the characters.  It's there, but it doesn't draw much attention to itself.  Stuff happens, that's about it.  Albert has a goal that develops in the first half of the story and in the second half of the story he works toward that goal.  The genius thing here is that the only real conflict from Albert's POV is his own reluctance.  It's a man-vs.-self situation influenced heavily by the characters and setting.  Everything is wrapped up in a nice package and laid under the Daily Science Fiction tree.  The ribbon tied around the package isn't tied into a very neat bow, but who cares about that?  The bow is still there, it just isn't the most firm, absolute bow in the world.

If you have zero clue what I'm talking about, you probably didn't read this story.  That, or I'm just a bit loony at the moment.  I have a tendency to gain a few ounces of eccentricity after 10:30 p.m.  Anyway, if you've made it this far you must not be repulsed by semi-zany wording and most-likely loved this story.  Or you didn't read it yet.  Well, by George, go read it then!  You have?  Go read it again, it's good enough for two goes, trust me.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

E is for The Eagle Project

I'm ignoring "the" for the purpose of this post because for some strange reason a very small amount of short stories I have access to start with "E."  This one suffices, both as a post subject and as a story.  In fact, "The Eagle Project" (by Jack McDevitt, published in the November 2013 issue of Analog) is a tad over par.

Character is a strange subject for this story.  The 1st-person protagonist has very little personality, but I found myself not caring.  The other "main character" in the story was far more interesting.  While no character had a true arc, what we saw of him arced somewhat from the beginning to the end (that is, if the twist ending was really a twist ending...)  Characters are definitely not this story's strong suit, yet for some reason it felt fine anyway.

The setting of this story is really cool.  It's set on Earth around 150 or so years in the future, perhaps a little further.  The speculative element of it (we really are alone in the universe) is kinda unique for a sci-fi story and allows for the conflict to be bold for readers.

Plot acts as a stock car for this story.  It's a metal cage with little adornment, except an advertisement (wow, my metaphor is even funnier than I originally thought because there's an advertisement occupying space in the middle).  The last twenty-five percent of the story is where the money lies.  I already mentioned the twist ending that may or may not be a twist ending (you have to read the story to understand).

This is not my favorite story by any stretch, but it isn't bad, especially not for a story of its length (around 2,000 words I'd estimate).  If I notice any stories by Jack McDevitt in future issues of the magazines I subscribe to I'll certainly take the time to read them.

Friday, April 4, 2014

D is for Darkness Shrouds My Fiery Love No Longer

Today's post is in the form of an entry in this week's Flash! Friday contest.  It's a 160-word fantasy/romance story that I had a lot of fun writing and actually took the time to edit properly.  You can read it here.  Please enjoy!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

C is for Characters of the Protagonist Variety

Yeah, I know, evasive title, but trying to squeeze the concept of "characters" into one post would jeopardize the future of this blog.  I mean, eventually I'll run out of topics if I don't break the major elements of prose into small, self-sufficient chunks for my Thursday posts.

Anyway, characters of the protagonist variety should be strong in at least one of three ways: sympathetic, active, and engaging.  The best protagonists are solid in two or all three ways.

A protagonist is "sympathetic" when he/she/it makes readers care about them.  Having a strong voice and appealing tone help immensely in doing this.  Everymen have an edge, as do frailer characters (although not 100% of the time).  For the audience to really root for a protagonist the protagonist must be competent in at least one skill and succeed because of it.  This is sort of a subset of "sympathetic."  You might call it "rootablility."  When you really respect and admire a character, you'll likely connect with them and experience sympathy when things go poorly for them.  Protagonists with strong emotions and viewpoints tend to be the most sympathetic.

Howard Tayler and Dan Wells like to use the term "protag" as a verb to describe a protagonist being active.  When the protagonist takes charge of the progression of the plot (woah, too much alliteration...), they keep the reader interested.  Stories with active protagonists are usually tenser and have stronger conflicts than stories with reactive protagonists.  In most stories, protagonists should be active more than 50% of the time (as a rule-of-thumb).

"Engaging" borders "sympathetic," but they don't blur a whole lot.  Engaging characters draw in your interest, although they do not necessarily draw in your emotions.  Superheros are typically engaging characters rather than sympathetic characters (at least on the surface).  On the other side of the coin, seemingly incompetent characters can also be engaging because they often think in ways that differ from readers, which is often interesting.  Often villains with terrible plans are engaging, yet totally unsympathetic.  Characters that are sympathetic and active may evolve into engaging characters over the course of a story.  It's up to the reader to determine what makes a character engaging, of course.  I may be enthralled by a character you find drab.  That's why writers try to write their characters to be interesting to their target audience.

A good portion of fiction today is character-driven, so it's important that your stories have strong protagonists if you want to sell them.  While they don't need to be all three, your protagonists should more often than not possess at least two of the three characteristics of a great protagonist.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

B is for Bulletproof

            Bulletproof rubbed his cape against his cleft chin like an infant, jaw clenched.  Blood streamed down the right leg of his tights, dying the grey spandex a sickly crimson.  “You shot me,” he said, looking down at M4, his fourth sidekick since graduating from Hero University.
            The skin on M4’s face went from peach to Wite-Out faster than a gunshot.  “I did, Mr. Proof?”  He dropped his rifle on the sidewalk.  It bounced off the concrete and fired, blowing out a Harley’s back tire.
            “Yes, you did, twerp.”  Bulletproof shook.  He placed one hand around M4’s neck and hauled him several inches in the air.
            “But,” M4 gurgled, “you’re supposed to be bulletproof.”  His eyes began to roll.
            “I never passed my point-blank certification exam, okay?”  Bulletproof eased his grip on M4’s neck slightly.  “I’m only bulletproof from more than five meters away.”
            “That doesn’t even make sense.  You’re selectively bulletproof?”
            Bulletproof threw M4 into the street gutter and gave him a kick to the chest.  “The magic is expensive.  I couldn’t afford point-blank protection without the University grant.”
            “Need some cash?” M4 asked, spitting out a half dozen teeth.
            Bulletproof raised his fist, shook his head, and sighed.  “I’m not going to kill you this time, but if you ever shoot me again they will need to install a new gutter just to get all of your blood off the street.  Plus, having a sidekick named M5 would just be stupid.  Now get up and stop moaning.  It’s not like you were just shot or anything.”

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A is for A. A. Milne

I spent a good part of my young childhood (we'll call that birth to age 13) watching the Disney adaptions of Winnie-the-Pooh.  They enthralled me as few things have managed to do in my life.  And they still do.  Obviously they would never have been made were it not for A. A. Milne.

It wasn't until about a year ago that I actually read the Winnie-the-Pooh volume.  It's truly amazing.  The writing isn't complex, yet it has style, rhythm, cleverness, and sincerity that few stories can match.  In just a few paragraphs characters you hadn't met before became clear in your mind.  The plot in each story is pure and driven almost entirely by the characters, especially their imaginations.

A. A. Milne's other works for children, such as Now We Are Six and The House at Pooh Corner, are splendid.  (Note: I have not read the entirety of them, only parts.)

I am not familiar with the screenplays or novels of Milne, but I suspect they have a certain spark to them that anyone who has read Winnie-the-Pooh and the like will enjoy.

It's almost sad that Mr. Milne died forty-one and a half years before I was born.  It would have been cool to have shaken has hand and thanked him for his work.