Posted by: kshayes513 | December 9, 2014

Ursula K Le Guin at the National Book Awards

Last month at the National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin was honored with the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters, presented to her by Neil Gaiman. You probably know this already, unless you’ve been entirely ignoring any news lately, because video of Le Guin’s acceptance speech not only went viral, but made it into all the mainstream headlines as well.

Neil Gaiman presents Ursula K Le Guin with her medal. Image: National Book Foundation (screencap from video)

Neil Gaiman presents Ursula K Le Guin with her medal.     Image: National Book Foundation (screencap from video)

In his introduction, Gaiman talks about imitating authors as a young writer, and trying to imitate Le Guin and not being able to. This is immediately followed by Le Guin demonstrating exactly why he and everyone else has trouble imitating her. She gives an acceptance speech that says more in 4 minutes than most people can say in an hour, on topics that almost anyone else wouldn’t risk at an awards ceremony. Read More…

Giant cat or tiny person? Only the worldbuilder knows - for now.

Giant cat or tiny person? Only the worldbuilder knows – for now.

This week, io9’s Charlie Jane Anders has an excellent essay on the worldbuilding elements she considers raise worldbuilding from good and serviceable, to great and memorable.

Here’s a little taste from the beginning of the essay:

“…I’ve been obsessing about worldbuilding a lot lately, and trying to figure out what the difference is between good, decent, craftspersonlike worldbuilding — and great worldbuilding. And here’s what I decided:

Good worldbuilding shows you the stuff your characters see every day, and the things that they notice about their environment.

Great worldbuilding shows you the stuff your characters don’t see, either because they take it for granted, or because they’ve trained themselves not to notice something unpleasant.”

She goes on to explore this with a discussion of the “unreliable narrator” and some of the character and cultural qualities that can make characters oblivious to important aspects of their world. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | September 23, 2014

Remembering Madeleine L’Engle and Banned Books

Still one of the most challenged books. My original edition hardcover is now about 50 and autographed.

Still one of the most challenged books. My original edition hardcover is now about 50 and autographed.

Many years ago, I was lucky enough to take a couple of weekend writing workshops with Madeleine L’Engle. From her I gained insights, techniques and mental disciplines that are now so integral to my writing processes, that I can’t even separate them out as things I learned then.

Also, during one of those workshops, she told us a story about encountering a would-be book banner. (I’m sure she told this story many times during her life. This is how I remember it after nearly 30 years, so my apologies if others have heard it with different details.)

The woman approached Madeleine to complain about the language in A Wrinkle in Time, and told her exactly how many times certain objectionable words appear. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | July 13, 2014

Using TV and Movies as Research (with Dire Examples)

Should you ever use what you see on TV and in movies as reference material for a topic you know little about?

Here’s a hint: “Don’t try this at home” applies to a lot more than the stuff they do on Mythbusters.

Today’s dire example is this online exchange between a friend of mine who is designing a sculpture of a cybernetic horse, and a friend of hers (unknown to me) who offers advice on the cybernetic horse’s capabilities and behaviors. The sculptor is a professional horsewoman. The advice giver, apparently, is not. [Names omitted and some details changed for anonymity].

Sculptor/horsewoman (thinking aloud): Would a cybernetic horse rear?

Advisor: I think the horse rearing up, as a means to go into a full run would still be there. Rearing up in fear or being startled probably would not.

Sculptor/horsewoman: Horses rearing up to go in full run? I don’t follow….

This is where I almost fell off my chair laughing. If you’re a horse person, you know why. If not, let me explain: Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | December 22, 2013

Here’s Your 2013 Holiday Stocking!

I don’t know about you, but I’m too full of holiday goodies to get my head to do any serious work. So rather than attempt (and fail!) at a discussion of any substantial worldbuilding topic, let me offer a stocking full of little goodies for you to open at leisure.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Before I could get around to deciding whether to review The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a friend brought to my attention this blog post on Legendarium, which offers an excellent discussion of Tolkien’s position on film adaptations, as it relates to this particular movie. The comment thread here is also worth reading in full, for many thoughtful comments about the article and the movie. Taken as a whole they represent a pretty good review for serious fans!  Here’s a bit of the discussion of Tolkien’s letter on the issue: Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | December 8, 2013

Watching Catching Fire and Tripping over Romance.

In many ways, Catching Fire is a better movie than The Hunger Games. It does an even better job of portraying the hideous disparities between life in the Districts and the oblivious, self-indulgent luxury of life in the Capitol. And it cranks up the stakes between them by personifying it in a direct conflict between Katniss and the despicable President Snow.

It brings back some favorite characters (Haymitch, Effie, Caesar, President Snow) and introduces some promising new ones (notably Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch and Sam Claflin’s Finnick). Most important, it avoids making the “games” half of the story seem like a repeat of the first movie, by abandoning the first movie’s emphasis on violence porn, and by changing the structure of the conflict.

I found it absorbing to watch from start to finish, yet it still left me feeling a bit dissatisfied. I wasn’t sure why, until I came across Linda Holmes’ article on NPR, discussing the non-typical romantic roles played by the 3 young leads.

“You could argue that Katniss’ conflict between Peeta and Gale is effectively a choice between a traditional Movie Girlfriend and a traditional Movie Boyfriend,” says Holmes. “…Her larger mission — her war against the Capitol — often drifts out of focus behind her smaller, more immediate mission: saving Peeta.”

The moment I read this, I understood where Catching Fire falls short. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | November 17, 2013

Watching Sleepy Hollow and Making the Preposterous Work

The best new TV series this year is the one that everyone, including me, believed was the most preposterous, out there, guaranteed-to-fail TV premise we’d ever heard. Until we watched the pilot and realized that the only preposterous thing about Sleepy Hollow is how incredibly entertaining it is. You don’t have to take my word for this; reviewers from everywhere, even The New Yorker, are saying some version of, “This should never work, and I love it!”

Washington Irving Sleepy Hollow owes nothing to Irving's original story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" except the legendary horseman, the locale, and the names of three main characters.

Sleepy Hollow owes nothing to  Washington Irving’s original story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” except the legendary horseman, the locale, and the names of three main characters.

Here’s how it goes: patriot Ichabod Crane is mortally wounded in a Revolutionary war battle, but preserved by a spell cast by his good witch wife, Katrina. He wakes up in 2013 to find that the Hessian soldier who killed him, and whom he beheaded at the same time, now rides Sleepy Hollow as the Headless Horseman, aka Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Crane is found by a young police sheriff, Abbie Mills, whose partner and mentor was murdered by the Horseman, and they team up to stop the Horseman from bringing on the Apocalypse. Throw into this mix some demons, portals into hell, rival covens of good and evil witches, undead cops, and Freemasons descended from the Founding Fathers, and you have a bubbling brew that has no right to form a coherent world.  Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | October 6, 2013

Hard science fiction vs space opera: what would Clancy do?

To commemorate Tom Clancy in the week of his untimely death, Writer’s Digest reposted a 2001 interview with Clancy. In it, he gives the advice he thinks most important for any writer:

“I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damn story.”

I’ve only read The Hunt for Red October, and I don’t remember it being weighed down in the slightest by technoporn (lengthy descriptions of military hardware). Yet Clancy’s novels are admired for, among other things, their accuracy in weaving military and intelligence technology into the story.

Should New Colorado look more like Mars or the Mojave Desert? Yes.

Should New Colorado look more like Mars or the Mojave Desert? Yes.

Writing hard science fiction also requires a high degree of accuracy in pretty much any known science that your story uses. Hard SF readers will let you get away with a few waves of the magic wand of fake science, as long as they’re either minor in the story, or widely accepted in the genre (FTL travel, for example). But in general, they demand that the science and technology be both detailed and accurate.

Writing space opera, not so much.   Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | September 7, 2013

Watching The Hobbit and Debating Realism

The gates of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. Image: Warner/New Line

The gates of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. Images: Warner/New Line

When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey premiered last year, fans and critics had a more than usually mixed reaction to a Peter Jackson Tolkien film. While I agree with some of the criticism about length – the chase through Goblin Town could certainly have been half as long, as far as I’m concerned – overall, I found that, once again, Peter Jackson’s version of Middle Earth is filled with wonderful characters and extraordinary images. It’s a place I’ve always loved to visit, and one that I’m eager to return to, especially with the remarkable Martin Freeman leading the cast.

Now that fans and the media are ramping up for the premiere of The Desolation of Smaug, I want to revisit a specific criticism of the first movie, resulting from PJ’s decision to film at a new, high frame rate of 48 frames per second, instead of the usual 24 (a speed dictated by technology from the earliest days of the film industry). A number of critics complained that the sharp new clarity of 48 fps made the world and the characters look too real, and in doing so, it destroyed the very magic the movie tries to create. As one critic put it, The Hobbit‘s magic works better when it’s not so real and closeup, when it remains slightly obscured by a mist of imagination. (I’m paraphrasing, as I can’t find the exact quote).

As a writer and worldbuilder, I find this an extremely peculiar criticism. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | September 1, 2013

Superhero sidekicks and other magical friends

Batman and Robin, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Kirk and Spock, Han Solo and Chewbacca. What would a hero be without a sidekick?

Holmes and Watson; Illustration by Sidney Paget for The Strand

Holmes and Watson; Illustration by Sidney Paget for The Strand

You may think the sidekick is a modern literary invention, as the word itself certainly is. However, the archetype of the hero’s best friend has probably been around since humans first started telling hero stories. One of the oldest known works of literature, the 4000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, centers on the friendship of the semi-divine king Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu.

Arthur and Lancelot, Roland and Oliver, and Robin Hood and Little John have all been famous in western literature for well over a millennium. And fairy and folk tales from all over the world feature sidekicks in the form of magical helpers who befriend the questing youngest son and the daughter escaping her wicked stepmother.

What’s the role of the sidekick? As a literary device, the sidekick gives the hero a staunch and always reliable ally for plot purposes.  Having a friend to care about also gives the hero motivation when his friend is in danger: Superman has to rescue Jimmy Olsen as often as he has to rescue Lois Lane. But this friendship doesn’t just motivate heroic actions; it can also motivate emotional development. Read More…

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