We Need Diverse Books and You Can Help It Happen!

By now, many of you other writers out there have probably heard about the National Book Award incident involving Daniel Handler’s racist joke at author Jacqueline Woodson’s expense. You may also have heard that he stepped up to the plate in a major way with his apology, helping to raise funds for the indiegogo project We Need Diverse Books.

What you may or may not know is that the campaign for this project is ongoing.

It is already over-funded, but I think the cause is one that is very much worthwhile. Diversity is sorely lacking in literature, which is a pretty big problem. Stories, whether they come in novels or some other medium, are a powerful tool for passing on a society’s cultural narratives. When people don’t see themselves represented as heroes in stories, they feel like they are being told by society that they can’t be heroes, that they are only good enough to be the stoic sidekick, or the comic relief. Or worse, that they don’t even matter enough to show up at all.

We Need Diverse Books aims to bring more literature featuring protagonists of various backgrounds into the world. Its focus is particularly on children’s literature, where this kind of movement is arguably most important, as it can make young people excited about reading and help them learn to see themselves as important parts of society at an early age. Putting more funding into the project will aid its sustainability, and I think that’s very much worth while.

Following the disheartening events in Ferguson yesterday, I’d say this cause is even more worthy. It’s clear that we need to change many aspects of our cultural narrative. As Matt de la Pena asserts in the campaign video, “reading is the ultimate form of empathy” and diverse books and stories are a way to help convey experiences and points of view that other people have either ignored or simply don’t understand. Over time, it’s something that could change people’s perspectives and (hopefully) give them windows into the difficulties and experiences that other people face. It’s something that we, as storytellers, can build towards, even if we can’t have an immediate impact on the goings-on in the world around us.

50K in a Month? I’ll Raise You 60K in a Weekend!

Well another November has come and is now halfway finished. I’m sure many of you NaNoers out there are looking at your futile word counts laid low from having to recover from Ebola, hunt down turkeys for the upcoming Thanksgiving feast, or just plain old procrastination. You might be thinking about packing it up and trying for next year already. But fear not, I come with tidings of hope!

For those of you who want to try and cram-write your way to an amazing finish, why not try the Michael Moorcock method? For those of you who don’t know, Moorcock is a prolific pulp fantasy writer, most notable for writing the adventures of Elric of Melnibone. Apparently part of his prolificness comes from churning out drafts over the course of a single weekend. Naturally this takes a lot of planning and isn’t simply about throwing down words on a page, but the writing portion of the endeavor is condensed to the three day period.

So if you’re far behind on your NaNoWriMo story, or whatever it is you happen to be working on, why not give it a whirl? Take this weekend, or even the upcoming week, to pull together some plots, imagery, and characters, and then see if you can pull it all together over the final weekend and throw down the amazing finish that no one is expecting.

Now go forth and write!

Kickstarting More of that Speculative Fiction Comedy

Do you enjoy humor and space stuff or magic? If so, you should probably check out the new Kickstarter project being put together by editor J. Alan Erwine. Entitled A Robot, a Cyborg, and a Martian Walk into a Space Bar the anthology brings together comedic short stories from several emerging writers in the SFF genre for your reading pleasure.

Erwine is kickstarting the project sort of as a pre-order and as a way to raise funds to pay the writers (something I fully approve of). You can get e-book copies of the book, signed print copies, and prints of the cover art, which has been done by Laura Givens, all of potential backer rewards. Those willing to pitch in at the higher end can win a chance to have a short story professionally critiqued by an editor or author, or a chance to pitch an idea to the editor of MileHiCon in Denver.

Anyway, if you enjoyed the Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies, or the works of humorous SFF authors like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, then you should probably check out this project and support the underrated sub-genre of comedic SFF.

The Shows I’m Watching and You Should Too: Constantine

First things first. It’s been a few years since I’ve read any of the Hellblazer comics, and even then I only read the first couple of trades. I’m in no way an expert on the original material, so I can’t really speak to how true the show is to the source. What I can say is that it is far closer to the comics than the poorly executed Constantine movie. It is also very fun to watch.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, John Constantine is an occultist who gets drawn into the war between Heaven and Hell. He uses his familiarity with the supernatural to (mostly) do good, as he struggles to make up for sins he’s committed in the past. He’s aided by Zed Martin (Angelica Celaya), an artist with certain psychic or prophetic abilities, and Chas Chandler (Charles Halford), who also has some strange supernatural characteristics…like being able to live through things that would kill a normal man.

Matt Ryan, a Welsh actor who has not had any major roles that I can find (and is also not to be confused with the quarterback of the Falcons), plays Constantine, and I think he does quite a good job with the role. He has the right kind of cynical, sarcastic, punk rock attitude that I associate with the character, and he certainly looks more the part than Keanu Reeves did.

In terms of tone I’d say the show is sort of a darker version of Sleepy Hollow, which derives a lot of humor from Crane’s being transplanted from the Revolutionary War into modern times. There is certainly humor in Constantine, much of it provided by our hero’s sardonic responses to basically every situation, but the deaths are more grisly (or graphic) and it seems that, at least so far, more bodies tend to drop during the course of case than happens in Sleep Hollow.

However, if you enjoy paranormal fantasy, especial of the demonic variety, then I definitely recommend checking this show out. The show is fun and the actors, especially Ryan and Celaya, deliver engaging performances. The last episode also saw the first appearance of Papa Midnite (Michael James Shaw), a voodoo priest who looks like he will have a recurring role as an antagonist, which will add a welcome dimension to the show and potentially add to its greater story arc so it can move somewhat away from being purely procedural.

Back-Tracking Through Time: A Review of Cowl

I picked up Cowl on a whim while I was on vacation in London this summer. The SFF section of every bookstore I went into seemed to prominently feature the works of Neal Asher, an author whose work I hadn’t really scene in America. Asher seems to have written some extensive series, and when I picked up Cowl I thought it was the first installment of a space opera epic (as the covers of his books seem to suggest that they are all part of the same universe), but as it turns out it is something of a standalone time travel story.

Part space opera, the plot involves two far future human factions who have discovered time travel and are battling each other across all of Earth’s history. Cowl, a genetically designed superior human, has traveled far back with his allies the Umbrathane. The Umbrathane’s enemies, the Heliothane Dominion, fear that Cowl is trying to create a timeline where humanity doesn’t exist, and they are trying to find a way to stop him.

Cowl’s plan also involves creating a giant time-spanning monster that leaves scales through time that people pick up. These scales, or “tors”, drag their users irrevocably back through time toward Cowl’s hideout built in the early days of Earth’s planetary formation. One of the tors ends up in the hands of our primary protagonists Polly, a hapless prostitute who is dragged into a situation beyond her understanding, and Tack, a government agent who has been dispatched to deal with her. The book primarily follows the adventures of these two characters, with characters who are able to illustrate the larger scope of the conflict being added as the story goes on.

For a long book, Cowl flows very nicely and reads rather quickly. The plot is fast paced, and Asher does a great job of keeping up a high level of action. I think a big part of that has to do with how Asher breaks up each chapter into multiple points of view. Instead of having each character have their own chapter, the action is broken up into smaller, more digestible parts. I think this helps provide a stronger sense of narrative motion, but it also avoids the issues of having characters with “boring chapters” that readers have to slog through. At any point where the action slows down, the reader only has to push through a few pages before getting right back into the heart of the excitement.

In terms of story, I thought Cowl was a fun time travel tale with engaging characters. I can’t say that it was incredibly ground breaking, or that I think it’s a “must read” novel with a ton of depth, but it is certainly enjoyable. I can also say that it was good enough that I think I very well may pick up some of Asher’s other novels in the future.

Parsec Ink’s Triangulation Anthology Will Be Accepting Submissions Soon

For those of you who enjoy writing speculative fiction short stories, Parsec Ink will be opening submissions for its annual Triangulation Anthology at the start of December. Writers are expected to submit work that adheres to a given theme. Said work must also be in the speculative fiction genre (which includes sci-fi, fantasy, and horror). This year, the theme for the contest is “Lost Voices”.

Those of you not participating in National Novel Writing Month might want to take the time to get a head start on pulling together some ideas for short stories. But even you other NaNo participants will certainly have time to work on something to submit to the anthology. Entries will be accepted from December 1st, 2014 until February 28th, 2015, providing plenty of time to write something, even if you’re initially burnt out following the month of November. It might even be a good idea to do some short story work to take a break from the novel before considering revisions.

Short stories are expected to be no more than 6,000 words (though there is no lower limit on story length), and, as they should, this anthology does pay for accepted submissions. If you’re interested, you can check out the guidelines for the anthology for more information.

In An Alternate Galaxy Far, Far Away: A Review of The Star Wars

The Star Wars, the graphic novel from Dark Horse Comics, is not part of the new expanded Disney universe. It is in fact a take on the original rough draft script of Star Wars Episode IV by George Lucas. It’s a really interesting look into Lucas’ initial vision for the first film of what became one of the greatest franchises ever created. Luckily for him (and for all of us who enjoy the original trilogy) this version of the script is not how the film ended up.

There are a lot of small differences in how the characters play out that I won’t go into, but they are pretty amusing to see as a Star Wars fan. There are also a lot of changes to the plot, and the story is actually quite different from the first film. There are some familiar bits from Episode IV like the Deathstar trench run or the infiltration of the Deathstar to rescue Princess Leia. There are also parts that show up in other films, like the Battle of Endor from Episode VI (though in this rendition the Ewoks are actually Wookies, which was way more badass and believable).

But outside of the plot and character changes, the biggest noticeable difference, for me, was the lack of any mythological elements and how small a role The Force played in the story. The hero’s journey that so defined the original trilogy is also not present in the story at all. It is a much more political tale about an empire encroaching on free territories of space. It is actually far more similar to Episode I than it is to Episode IV, which is why I say it’s lucky that Lucas went on to change the script.

I think that the hero’s journey and all the elements of the mono-myth that were part of the original Star Wars trilogy is what made it so compelling and longstanding. And I think the inability to use these same elements effectively is a major reason that the prequel trilogy was such a failure. However, it’s interesting to see that Lucas’ original concept was to tell more of a purely adventurous and political tale. I know that Joseph Campbell eventually became Lucas’ mentor, but I’m now curious when that was, and when Lucas decided to add all of the mythological elements that made his film series great.

Now, I think that The Star Wars is very much worth reading, especially for Star Wars fans because it provides some insight into how the whole series began. However, it is not objectively the best thing I’ve read. There is a lot of action jammed into the story, and there are parts of it that feel very rushed or clunky. For instance, the romance between Princess Leia and Annikin (who plays the apprentice role Luke ends up playing in the final film version) seemed to come out of nowhere and didn’t feel very organic.

There are also some instances that felt like they potentially didn’t translate well between mediums. For example, there is a point where a character sacrifices his life to save others, but reading it happen without much build up didn’t make it feel very impactful on an emotional level where perhaps that scene with dramatic music, good acting, and good delivery of the dialogue exchange might’ve worked better. Similarly, there were a lot of bits of dialogue that felt clunky to me but may have felt more epic or dramatic on screen.

I don’t know how much these instances occur due to the writers lifting pieces from the rough draft script that don’t quite work or simply the awkwardness of these scenes not playing out well across different mediums, or how many of these instances are due to incompetence or poor execution on the part of the comic book writers. Personally, I’m willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt, and, despite some of the low quality in bits of dialogue or scene construction, I think The Star Wars is a good read, if for no other reason than its value as a piece of insight into Lucas’ creative process.