Friday, June 28, 2013

Adept Series TImeline

I have spent a great deal of time this week doing a timeline from my Adept Series novels (three published, one finished but not published, yet).  I just had the idea Monday morning and started working on it.  It was interesting to see how dates coincided, like Michael Vaughan (Agent of Artifice) became an adept the same year that Peter Branton (Book of Death) became an adept apprentice (1949).  In most cases I knew exact dates things happened, in other cases I just knew the year or the approximate year.  Sometimes I made up a date.  The timeline has 247 dates in it covering 5,980 years.

The timeline has major spoilers in it so I don't want to post it anywhere and I'm not totally sure why I did it. Perhaps an OCD moment. But they usually don't last a whole week.  Maybe when the Adept Series comes out from a major publisher someday they can put the timeline in the back of the books with the warning that there are spoilers.  For now, like many things, it will rest on my hard drive until and if I find a use for it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review: Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy

This isn't a book blog and this is, in fact, the first book review I've put on it.  But I am so . . . upset by how bad the book I am about to finish is that I need to rant about it.

I am about 30 pages from the end of Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy and Grant Blackwood.  I don't think this is his latest book, thinking there's at least one more since then (there appears to be two, each one with a different second writer).  This will be the last time I read a Tom Clancy novel (although I see the last one has gotten better reviews on Amazon).

If this were an indie novel (self-published) I would have excoriated the author for bad writing, bad editing, and bad attention to details.  But it's not an indie novel, it's published by a major house, Putnam, and probably sold bunches.

Bad writing: fire fights and car chases are boring.  Everything is described almost clinically as if it's an after-action report for the military.  The writing is dry and devoid of emotion.

Bad editing: The number of editing errors is alarming and occasionally confusing. A car is described as a "Fort Taurus" and a thing was supposed to be described as "now-burned" was actually "non-burned."  There are too many to list here but those were the two that jumped out at me.  And considering what a lousy proofreader I am, there were probably more.

Bad attention to detail: A character picks up a shotgun and (somehow) determines there's 6 round in it.  He fires it twice, and again, has six rounds in it.  On one page it says a bad guy is arrested.  About 10 pages later, it says he committed suicide before he was arrested.  Maybe I missed something, but I swear the characters knew something they couldn't have known.  Oh, and someone says Moose Jaw (a small city in Canada) is above where "North Dakota and South Dakota meet."  No, it's above (sort of) where Montana and North Dakota meet.  The North Dakota and South Dakota border runs east-west (parallel to the US border with Canada) and is 360 miles long.

I see the next two books by Tom Clancy were co-written (and you gotta wonder how much the guy in the little print on the cover does the writing, I suspect a lot of it) by other guys. Maybe the problems with Dead or Alive were Blackwood's.  I don't know.  I just know I won't be wasting money on Tom Clancy books anymore.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Bait

There was a time, about 20 years ago, when I could not fathom eating sushi.  "Raw fish, yuck," I thought.  I didn't (and generally still don't) like cooked fish, I couldn't imagine eating it raw.  Now I love sushi (well, most sushi) and have eaten sashimi.  When sushi is good, it's very good.  When it's acceptable, it's still pretty good.  The only time I've had "bad" sushi was when I didn't like the flavor of the fish (avoid sea urchin and octopus), not because there was something wrong with it.

So how did this progression happen?  Well, when I was in the Army, learning Korean, I was introduced to kimbop, also called "Korean sushi" (by people who don't know better).  But kimbop, which looks like maki sushi, has no raw fish.  It also has a unique flavor that sushi doesn't have.  I still enjoy kimbop when I can get it.

Still, no sushi.  Then I was at a convention in Anaheim and we took some people out to dinner at a Benihana Japanese restaurant.  And one person I was with ordered some sushi (maki or roll style).  And maybe it was the Sapporo beers, maybe it was the desire to go along, I tried it.  And I liked it.

I don't remember when I first tried nigri sushi.  But I found I out I liked it too, even though the raw fish content is much higher than in maki sushi.  Plus I like spicy food so I like wasabi, too.

(In the U.S. I've only seen maki, nigri, gunkanmaki (which I've also eaten) and temaki. Perhaps in larger cities you can get other varieties.  I have a feeling that nare sushi probably isn't available in the U.S.)

And I've even had sashimi which is basically slices of raw fish without any rice, seaweed, or other ingredients.  You have to be careful with sashimi since if it's not perfectly fresh it is not very good.

So, what caused this transition?  I guess the willingness to overcome prejudices and try new things.  That's sort of how I ended up writing my Adept Series books.  Never thought I'd ever write fantasy.  I've now written four (and three are published).  If it's not immoral and doesn't hurt other people or ourselves, we should be open to new things.  Never know where they might lead.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Supermarket of the Future!

So I was moving my keyboard on my desk and needed to type something to see if I liked the new position (I didn't).  Here's what I typed:

Sometimes you have to go to the market to buy things.  This involves a trip either by foot, car, or bus.  But in the future you may be able to have the store come to you!  How is this possible?  By quantum miniaturization.  The store would be delivered to you in a small box or package by the U.S. Mail.  You would then use your household miniaturizer to shrink yourself to the size of the store. You'd make your selections, pay for them, then get yourself and your items but to regular size. Then you'd mail the store back using the pre-paid box label.  Of course, there are issues to work out such as the power needs to shrink and expand something as big as a store.  And you could only have the store a short time since others would need to shop or the number of stores needed to be stocked and manned would be prohibitive.  But we are confident these problems can be resolved satisfactorily.  This should be an opportunity for venture capitalists and other investors to see a significant return on their investment.

Not bad for something I just hammered out.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Wither Cash?

A thought occurred to me today.

I have found this new app for my iPhone called Tabbedout.  With it, at bars and restaurants that use it (and there's two in my small town), you open the app, touch the name of the business you are at (it uses GPS to find near ones), touch "Open tab," show the code to the server/bartender, and order your food/drink.  Everything you order goes on your tab which you can see on your phone.  When you're ready to leave, you pick a tip rate (with a difficult to use slider; only thing I don't like), it calculates the tip, you hit "pay tab" and walk out.  This is very convenient for both the patron and the business.  The patron doesn't have to sit around waiting for a check or a tab tabulation.  The business doesn't need to have an employee spending a lot of time figuring out a tab or delivering a check, then going through the whole credit card or cash pay thing.  I hope more restaurants and bars start using this service.  Also (and I haven't done this yet so I'm not sure how it works) if you want separate checks (and everyone has Tabbedout), you set up one tab then somehow on the phone say who bought what and each person pays their own tab.

You put your credit card information into the app once so that the bill is charged to your card. But here's the thing: we pay our credit card online right out of our bank account.  And money enters our bank account mostly through direct deposit (except for my freelancing and royalty payments come as a check). Neither cash nor check are ever handled in this transaction.  And it's the same for my Starbuck card app that is "re-filled" from my credit card.

So how long until cash and/or check are obsolete and every transaction is handled electronically? And your wealth is just numbers in a computer (it pretty much just is now if you have money in a bank or a brokerage account)?

The downside I see is the government could easily track every bit of money you have coming in, so doing something "under the table" will be impossible.  It might make crime harder but it will make taxing way easier.  Whatever happens, it'll be interesting.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Research (Again)

I found myself thinking today about research for my writing.  Don't ask me why, my pshrink says I'm mildly ADD (or as I call it "ADOS": Attention Deficit--Ooooh, Shiny).  So here's what I've been thinking:

For Hammer of Thor I read all or parts of five books (2 fiction, 3 non-fiction), lots of internet research (planes, weapons, uniforms), plus because my father is a war movie nut I've probably seen every movie made about WWII.  And I watched a documentary about the Korean War.  (I also knew a lot about Korea from my time in the Army even though I was never stationed there.) 

For Agent of Artifice I read all or part of four books (all non-fiction), plus I spent a day in the Chicago library reading newspapers from that era (specifically, when my character was in Chicago).  I watched three movies (fiction) on the Cuban revolution (none of them very good).  I travelled to Seattle to visit the Space Needle and I even traveled to Key West to see what it looked like (I was in Miami on business).  Plus lots of internet research (the CIA, the Bay of Pigs invasion, weapons, Cuba before the revolution, mobsters in Chicago). And on a trip to San Francisco I walked by the Huntington Hotel (which forced me to re-write a few things in Hammer of Thor and re-write a whole scene in Agent of Artifice but it ended up being a great scene).

For Book of Death I read all or parts of two non-fiction books, communicated through email with a Romanian who immigrated to America (she wrote one of the books I read), and lots of internet research (Romania, Vlad the Impaler, and more).  I also watched two documentaries on San Francisco in the late '60s.

However, for Rock Killer I did very little research.  But it was science fiction so I had to do no historical research like on the Adept Series books (the three listed above). I did a little internet research on space life-support systems but most everything else in the book either I knew from college courses or it was science fiction (I tried to make Rock Killer as scientifically accurate as I could).  I found someone who spoke Arabic and they gave me some background on culture and politics of the Middle East.

Then comes my latest almost-finished book, the last book in the Adept Series (unless I write another) called Gods of Strife.  I read zero books and everything was done on the internet.  I watched no movies or documentaries (unless Argo counts but I didn't learn anything from it).  I did travel to Seattle to walk through the Concorde at the Museum of Flight.

And here's the thing: Rock Killer, my least researched novel, is my best-reviewed book (sometimes I think the Adept Series is too unique for a lot of people).  So the amount of research I put into a book does not necessarily correlate at all to how good people think the book is.

Gods of Strife I think is a really good book (but I think all my books are really good) and it has almost no research.  I think I spent more time researching a Lamborghini Countach than anything else.  So how much research I put into a book doesn't seem to make it better or worse.

My thoughts on research are that you can't do too much unless you lived through what you're writing about. But what you can (and shouldn't do) is show off how much research you did by putting in some cool thing you learned that isn't germane to your narrative.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Not Just Different or Weird

Having a brain somewhat afflicted of ADD can be both a blessing and a curse.  Sometimes I'll find myself thinking about something off the wall and wonder how the heck that happened. Or I'll be humming a song I haven't heard or thought about in decades.  So I was wondering earlier today what made me think of the move, The Fifth Element.  Then I realized it was a text conversation I had a few days ago with my friend Sare (who has shut down her blog).  Since we live on different coasts (and she in Canada) we almost exclusively communicate by texting (iMessaging, to be exact, other wise each text would cost me $0.50) with the occasional email thrown in.  But there I go being ADD again.

So here's the conversation we had:

 
That clip is here.
 
So that got me thinking about The Fifth Element.  This movie is sorta so bad it's good.  The best part is Gary Oldman (who I'd watch reading out of the telephone book) and Leeloo Dallas Multipass.  It's a guilty pleasure for me but I really wish the whole Chris Tucker part had been cut.  Not that it gives me nightmares, I just hate it.  It's incredibly annoying and just brings the movie to a screaming, thudding halt.
 
Okay, so now I'm going to get to my point.  The Fifth Element was co-written and totally directed by Luc Besson who's this French guy who has directed some pretty good moves including La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional (with a very young Natalie Portman).  According to the Internet Movie Database he's produced 118 movies.  But among all his credits there's only one science fiction move: The Fifth Element.
 
A lot of people in the entertainment industry seem to think that to make something "science fiction" you just set it in the future, throw in some technology, come up with a nice special effects budget, and bam, you've got science fiction.
 
I'm going to get really obscure here.  In 1995 there was a "science fiction" TV movie called "White Dwarf."  Now all us astronomy geeks know that a white dwarf is a kind of very old star.  But that T.V. movie was the epitome of science fiction written by people who don't understand science fiction.  First of all, the science was just wrong on so many levels.  It was really more of a space fantasy.  And then they just threw in some weird things and called it "science fiction."  Near the beginning one character refers to something being the size of a "volleyball."  Okay, we're how far in the future and on an alien planet and we're talking about volleyballs?  Oh, and the movie had nothing to do with a white dwarf, star or otherwise.
 
Man, this is getting long so I'll cut to the chase: science fiction is about exploring the human condition in conditions no human has seen.  You can't just have a neat setting and some high tech or weird things, you have to have a reason to have the story (which is generally true of all fiction from high literature to pulp science fiction).  So while I kind of enjoy The Fifth Element for its visuals, humor, Gary Oldman's quirky performance, and Milla Jovovich running around scantily clad, it's not good science fiction nor really a good movie.
 
And I think that's sort of what George Lucas forgot in the Star Wars prequels (at least the first two). It's not the visuals, it's not the strange stuff, it's the humans, the people.


Friday, June 14, 2013

Movie Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

The other night I watched Oz the Great and Powerful on Blu-ray.  And I liked it.  I gave it three stars on Netflix and would have given 3.5 if that were an option.

I didn't realize until the opening credits that it was directed by Sam Raimi (although I was wondering that when I saw Bruce Campbell's name in the credits). I wonder if this is the first move Raimi has directed not to have the 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 in it.  I have liked the movies I've seen directed by Raimi, mostly the first Spider-Man movies (I have seen Army of Darkness, too).  And in Oz he gave us a film both visually beautiful and full of wonder, with plenty of humor thrown in.  The filmmakers used their CGI to great effect.  I often found myself thinking, "That's gotta be CGI but I believe what I'm seeing is real."  And for a lot of the movie I just stopped worrying what was CGI and what was real.  The hot air balloon in the tornado was an exception.  I thought "That's CGI and it looks fake, like the balloons in Spider-Man 2."

The opening scenes are in 1903 (if I remember right) Kansas and are done in black and white (almost sepia tone) and 4:3 aspect ratio.  When Oz (a nick name for Oscar Diggs) arrived in Oz (the place) the screen went wide (2.4:1? There were letterboxes on the top of bottom of my 16:9 television screen) and the scene melted into color.  It was artistically done and I backed up to watch it again to take it all in.  But while the film was visually stunning, somehow I was left feeling empty.  Oz's transformation from a con artist/magician to a man who could take on the two wicked witches didn't seem genuine.  You never saw the moment that changed him.  Just suddenly, he was a good guy.  All the actors did fairly good jobs in their roles and there were some unexpected twists. But some "twists" were predictable, too.

But, it's still a very good and very pretty movie and fun to watch.  Like I said: 3.5 stars.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Special Effects

I was reading an article in my print edition of Car and Driver about the making of a chase scene for the movie Fast and Furious 6.  What struck me was the amount of computer generated images (CGI) that were being used in something as mundane as a car chase.  But the filmmakers were able to use CGI to enhance reality.  For example, the scene was set in London but was filmed in Liverpool.  To get the right look they used CGI to put in appropriate-looking buildings along the street.

Pretty much anything can be shown on a movie screen with CGI.  Probably the best CGI is when the audience says "That was CGI?"  Like the 6,000 Riders of Rohan in the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (a 10-year-old film, by the way).  Of course, if there's something on the screen that doesn't happen in real life, everyone will know it's CGI (like the trolls in the LOTR movies).

So here's the challenge for filmmakers: use CGI to enhance their story telling, not dominate it.  Remember Star Trek: The Motion Picture?  Awful movie.  What happened was the director thought he was making a The Sound of Music in space and his beautiful special effects (which in the pre-CGI world probably cost a bunch of money) would hold the movie together like the lovely images and sounds of singing children in Salzburg.  At least that's my opinion.  And yes, they were both directed by the same director (who, I just found out, also directed the original The Day the Earth Stood Still).

So the lesson to take away is, yes, you have amazing special effects these days.  But you still need to tell a story that entertains.  And for writers, maybe you can write beautifully, but you still need to entertain your audience.  Either that or write poetry.  It's not the mechanics of writing (or filmmaking) that will hold an audience, it's the story, characters they can believe in and love, and a quest they want to see taken to the end.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Accidental Research

Last night I was reading Tom Clancy's latest over-thick book, Dead or Alive.  My mother gave it to me for Christmas either this year or last year.  I'm about 1/3 the way through.  Like most of Tom's tomes it deals with the CIA.  In the book they mention the CIA Memorial Wall in the headquarters at Langley and say that the stars are gold.

When I was writing Gods of Strife, my almost, just about completed, fourth book in the Adept Series, my hero, Peter Branton, visits CIA headquarters on his trail of an assassin.  He notices the memorial wall and its black stars and wonders what it is.  But as I was reading Dead or Alive the book says the stars are gold.  So I picked up my phone and Googled it.  I found this picture:
In that picture the stars look black to me (although they could be gold and inset in the marble so in shadow they look black).

And then last night I noticed the inscription above the stars which somehow I missed before.  That's a problem because here's the passage from Gods of Strife:

To the right was a display with multiple black stars and two flags: an American flag and what I presumed was the CIA flag.  I wondered what the whole display represented.

Well, with the inscription above the letters it's obvious what it is.

Guess it's time for more rewriting again.

This is why I emphasis that you can't do too much research.  Even if you lived it you might get some small detail wrong.  But what you can do (and shouldn't do) is show off how much research you did by putting in details that are germane to the story.  (Yes, Branton noticing the Memorial Wall has purpose in the story.)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Beta Number Two

Over the weekend I got back my second "beta" where someone read my work in progress (WIP) and made suggestions.  This person (another published author) had a very good comment about my violating a character's character.  And she was right.  So this involved some re-writing and revising and now the novel is an amazing 88,000 words long.  That makes it the third longest novel I've written after Hammer of Thor (about 129,000 words) and an as-of-yet unpublished novel (100,000 words).  And to be honest, Thor was two novels I mashed together.

She pointed out that something that made me realize I had an inconsistency in this novel with something that happened in Hammer of Thor.  So I had to fix that, too.

She also pointed out I tend to use passive voice more than is recommended for fiction writing but that it seems to be part of my distinct voice" (as she called it) and she usually didn't notice unless it was glaring.

So I'm finding this beta process useful.  She also found a couple of errors, said some encouraging things, and said overall she really liked it.  One more beta to go.  He told me Friday I need to nag him every few days.  I already did once so I'll wait until tomorrow to do it again.