1946 by Victor Sebestyen

Revelatory, especially when paired with Year Zero. Sebestyen shows how the Cold War began, so soon after the Allies won. Cracks between the Big Three (US, Britain, Soviet Union) that had been papered over for the sake of the war quickly grew into major rifts.

Three of the countless things I learned:

  • The Soviet Union didn’t steal the entire atomic bomb. Their stolen intelligence helped them move faster, by perhaps two years, but their scientists did the majority of the work themselves.
  • Mao financed his armies and kept his population fed during the Chinese Civil War by growing and selling opium (!)
  • Japan had been bombed far worse than Germany. Many millions lost their homes. 80% of its merchant shipping fleet was gone. Half of its agricultural land was waste. In the months after the war, Allied survey teams discovered Japan could not have carried on much longer than it did.

Rejected

Got multiple rejections this week.

One was from an agent I’d queried about representing my novel. That was the fastest rejection I think I’ve ever gotten. I emailed in the query, and 24 hours later I had a rejection in my inbox.

Second one was for a short story I’ve been shopping around. The editor included feedback on what they liked and what they feel the story needs to improve, though, so I’m taking that as a good sign.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to fight off a cold, edit my third short story from this summer, and start editing my second novel. Oh, and now I need to find a new market to send that newly-rejected short story to.

Sometimes I wish I could take a week off the day job just to catch up on everything. Sometimes I feel like I’d need a month.

How to Fix: Guardians of the Galaxy II

Damn, what a missed opportunity.

I enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and hoped the second would be more snarky fun.

Instead, it’s a stiff, nonsensical mess.

What Went Well

The fight scenes and set pieces are absolutely stunning. I mean just gorgeously filmed, with excellent special effects, and clever shots.

The soundtrack was similarly inspired. Any Cat Stevens fan is a friend of mine.

Zoe Saldana continues to do great work with slight scripts. And Kurt Russell was a great choice for Ego.

What Went Wrong

Ye gods, so much.

Almost everything feels stiff and forced. The weird sniping between Rocket and Peter is overwrought and comes out of nowhere. The opening credits sequence with Groot is cute but completely drains the background fight of any tension. The feud between Gamora and Nebula feels rushed and shot through with bad timing, from the “not ripe” yaro root joke that falls flat to Nebula’s kamikaze run entrance that has absolutely no effect on anything else that’s happening.

So many things seemed designed to drain the events of any meaning. Yondu loses his control-hawk, but it doesn’t matter because he gets it back within a day of getting captured. The Sovereign tracks them across the galaxy, but it doesn’t matter because their pilots are so bad they can be held off by one ship while Peter flies around asking for tape. It doesn’t even matter that they “kill” so many Sovereign pilots, since their ships are all remote-controlled drones. Nebula takes out Yondu for a bit, but it doesn’t matter (in the sense of her becoming the new captain) because the writers want to make jokes about Taserface.

Then there’s the big, gaping, passive hole at the center of the story.

Peter’s relationship with his dad is supposedly at the heart of the plot, but there’s no tension there, either. Peter is never forced to choose anything, he just gets carried along with events. He meets his dad, and just goes along home with him. He finds out his dad is evil, and then immediately is forced to go along with his plans (until rescued by his friends).

There’s no drama, no moment of choice anywhere. It’s just one set piece after another, all of which we know the Guardians will come out on top for, until credits roll.

How to Fix It

We start with the spine of the story: Peter and his encounter with Ego. We strip out the parts that add fake tension: he killed Peter’s mom, he smashed his walkman, etc. We take out the forced usage of Peter as a battery.

Instead, we push Peter into a terrible choice: his father or his friends.

Maybe Ego is dying, and only Peter can save him by staying on the planet and serving as a second battery. Or maybe Ego promises Peter he can bring his mother back, if only he helps him “recharge” by overtaking those planets he’s placed seeds on.

Either way, we need the climax of the story being Peter making a choice. He needs to be forced to choose either the father he never knew, or the ragtag family he’s assembled on his own. We need to see both choices as something Peter could do. Whatever he chooses, he’s going to lose something.

And then we can echo that conflict out to the other plotlines. Nebula can still take out Yondu, but then have her take over the control of the Ravager ship. She jettisons Yondu and Rocket out of an escape pod; they’ll have to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, she’s decided to take the ship and track down Gamora, for her revenge.

When she arrives, it’s in the middle of the battle between Ego, Peter, the other Guardians, and the Sovereign. And Nebula will have a choice: to protect her sister, or to stand by and watch her fall.

Meanwhile, Yondu and Rocket are facing a choice of their own. Having hobbled over to a nearby star system to lick their wounds, they have to decide what to do next. Yondu tries to induce Rocket to join him as a Ravager, saying something to the effect of “this is where you belong.” They can steal a ship, and then keep stealing, for as long as they want. No Peter to keep them from grabbing a few batteries when they want.

But then they see news of the Sovereign fleet heading to Ego’s planet, and they realize their choice could mean all of their friends will die.

Finally, we need to fix the character of Mantis. Currently, she’s Ego’s plaything. Her role in the story is to be a love interest for Drax. She doesn’t affect the story in any way, or have any choice she has to make.

So let’s give her one. Make her one of The Sovereign, a mutant named Bug that the gold people think of as a mistake. She stows away on the Guardian’s ship to get away from the home where everyone hates her. Drax discovers her during the initial fight with the Sovereign, and decides to take her under his wing.

The rest of her storyline can play out normally from there, with one twist: during the final battle, she gets contacted by the Sovereign command with an offer: betray the Guardians, and earn a hero’s welcome back home.

More than polishing up the dialog, or making the actors do more takes until it feels natural, or dropping the weird cameos from Howard the Duck and the Watchers, it’s these changes that will push the movie into a meaningful, purposeful shape.

Writer’s Coffeehouse Notes, Sep 2017

Went to the Writer’s Coffeehouse at Mysterious Galaxy again yesterday. This time it was hosted by author Henry Herz, so we got to dig into the details of writing and submitting children’s books. I might try to polish up and submit that picture book draft I have, after all 😉

Many thanks to Mysterious Galaxy for hosting, and to Henry for running the show!

My notes:

Possible to have agent and still indy publish; Indy Quillen does it, because her agent sent book to publishers first, she indy pubbed only after publishers all passed on it

Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators: has local chapter, can join and get critiques

San Diego Writer’s Ink: has critique groups

Can take classes at local colleges to meet other writers and get feedback

Indy: recommends using real name (or pen name) for twitter handle, makes it easier to find you

Posting comments on blogs of authors you like in your genre can help drive traffic to your own website

Picture books: birth to 6-7, then easy readers, then chapter books, then middle grade

400-500 words, perfect for 6-7 yr old protagonist

Don’t do art notes! Leave that for the illustrator, they’ll come up with better art than you can

Leave out all your normal descriptive text

Run your manuscript through an online tool to check the vocab level, needs to be appropriate for your age group

Usually don’t send artwork with the book, publisher picks them

Educational tie-in great for selling picture books to editors, something for teachers to hook into

La Jolla Writer’s Conference: small, but pulls big names; November

Southern California Writer’s Conference: September in Irvine, good for people that haven’t been to a conference before, low key, Indy got her agent there

Tuesday, Sep 12th: look for #mswl on twitter (manuscript wish list)

Recommended reading: Donald Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel; Invisible Ink

Brief Comics Reviews: Sep 2017

Wicked and Divine, Vol 4: Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit. It’s back. Swallowed this one whole in about an hour. Need more.

The Vision, Vol 1: Art is…fuzzy? Seems like the lines are never sharp. Which is maybe deliberate, since it’s a fuzzy-line world they’re creating. But it’s hard on the eyes.

Constantly narrated via voice-over, instead of using dialog or pictures to show what’s happening. It’s a fine technique, and a known one, but it’s a bit tedious when it’s all the comic is written in.

Deadly Class, Vol 3: When did everyone become pretentious and annoying?

Saga, Vol 5: Artwork still fantastic, writing keeps me reading, but…did anything really happen? Threads wound up rather easily, it seems, and Fiona was ripped away again kind of arbitrarily. Also: too much time spent with the bounty hunters I don’t care about.

Year Zero by Ian Buruma

Illuminating. Filled a gap in my understanding of the war, of the year between the Allied victory and the rebuilding that followed.

Thankfully, Buruma doesn’t just cover what happened in Europe. He looks everywhere, from the Netherlands to Indonesia to Japan and China. A true history of the fallout from the last world war.

Three things I learned:

  • The Soviets stripped their territories, both European and Asian, of industry. Whole factories were broken down and shipped into the Soviet Union, from Poland to Japanese-occupied Manchuria.
  • Jews in Poland were not safe after the war. Those who managed to find a home to come back to still faced discrimination and pogroms. Over a thousand Jews were murdered in Poland in the year after liberation.
  • British military was complicit in the deaths of thousands, as it sent captured anti-communists back to the Soviet Union to be slaughtered (men, women, and children).

Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry

Simply put, a fantastic ghost story. Like a horror film from the 80s updated and put in novel form.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • 3rd person omniscient works only if you stay out of characters’ individual perspectives. Say what happens, and report what they think, but as an outsider
  • Tragedy for a minor character has more impact if we spend some time with them first, however little, to see how they act normally
  • Remember that characters only know what they see, and that can mislead them sometimes. That’s okay. Let them be wrong when they should be wrong, so that when they’re right it’ll feel like triumph.

1493 by Charles C. Mann

Revelatory. Mann’s 1491 opened my eyes to the many civilizations that existed in the Americas before Columbus landed. 1493 has shown me just how much of our current world was created in the aftermath of his voyages.

Three of the many, many things I learned:

  • The lynchpin of the global trade of American silver for Chinese porcelain and silks was the Philippines. That’s where Spanish traders first ran into Chinese junks, in the early sixteenth century.
  • One theory for the causes of the Little Ice Age: the sudden reforestation of the Americas from the millions of native inhabitants that died out from European diseases.
  • China is the world’s largest producer of sweet potatoes, and the second-largest producer of maize. Both crops are native to the Americas.

Patience

Sent the novel out to my first pick agent this weekend. I know it’ll most likely be rejected — it’s my first real stab at a query letter — but I’ve got to start somewhere.

Also got back another rejection of one of the stories I’ve been circulating. I didn’t waste any time worrying about it, though. I picked another market, and sent it right back out.

While waiting for rejections, I’m rewriting one of the stories I wrote last month. The feedback I got on it was positive, but in fixing the problems the reviewers pointed out, I discovered a different story sitting under the one I was writing.

Same characters, same themes, but a different plot.

I have a feeling this version will turn out much better than the first two, but the only way to find out is to write it 🙂

On the Google Anti-Diversity Memo

It’s horseshit.

From its title (“Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”) to its claims that its author is the only human capable of rational thought without bias, to its assertion that modern feminist critique only exists because Communism failed, it’s filled with faulty logic and flawed arguments that wouldn’t have held water in any of the philosophy classes I took as a freshman.

It’s clearly a document meant to inflame, to incite, and most definitely not to encourage the kind of discussion the author claims over and over again to want to facilitate.

Let me be clear:

  • The gender pay gap is real. Its size varies across countries and industries, but it exists.
  • Studies of group decision-making show that those with a variation in viewpoints — particularly along gender lines — do better than those that lack such diversity.
  • Bias against women is long-standing in the technological fields, and should be combatted by any means necessary.
  • Feminism goes back a hell of a lot further than communism.
  • Claims of universal values for Left and Right ignore the historical context in which those labels arose, and how fluid the beliefs of the groups assigned those labels have been over time.
  • Affirmative-action programs are not “illegal discrimination”
  • Political correctness is the name commentators on the Right have given to an age-old phenomenon: politeness. Certain beliefs or expressions are always considered beyond the pale. Those expressions change over time. The recent trend in Western society has been to push insults of race or gender beyond the pale. This is not a new thing, it is not a new form of authoritarianism, it is not a symptom of a Fascist Left. It’s civilization. Rude people have always faced censure, and rightly so.
  • Finally, insisting that others are biased, while you are “biased” towards intellect and reason, is absurd. It’s a classic male power move. It denies your opponents any semblance of reason or thought. It’s dehumanizing. And it’s horseshit.