Sunday, July 20, 2014

What's in a Gonad?

Title might need some explain since it's (okay, maybe a lot) odd. For the past week or so, after reading Lois Tilton's early July review of short magazines, I was thinking on what Miss Tilton had said about characters, specifically:

I notice in reading so many of these works that female characters sometimes seem only nominally women; change the gender of pronouns from "she" to "he" and there would be little real difference.

Which is interesting since some women complain that they don't see enough representation of their sex in speculative fiction. I remember reading one forum thread where a woman disliked how in the original Star Wars trilogy, the only female characters were Princess Leia and some sexy alien dancers. Why weren't there any female tie fighter pilots?  

Personally, I never really understood the issue. I don't get offended if I don't see a woman in the story. I don't even mind the oversexed females, assuming that they actually do something, rather than just being eye candy.

To me, the most important aspects of a character are a) they act on something (none of this sitting around and boo-whooing) b) they use their brain (YA has given rise to the "dumb as fuck" characters), and c) they have a personality and a history.

Nothing that I listed has anything to do with what the character has between their legs. The character should feel right at home in the story, rather than be shoe-horned in because the writer felt like he/she had a quota to keep up.

For me, I write whatever character walks onto the set, whether they be male or female, straight or gay. I do give more careful attention to nationality, because if I set a story in medieval Japan, the main character probably shouldn't be white. 

However, I thought about whether or not personalities are completely sexless. Because I like to think that a story about a woman character is more than her having a vagina, that her womaness shows through in her personality.

A nominal woman sounds uninteresting to me (as would a nominal male), like they're stock characters or something. I mean if you're going to write a character, then write a character. Not some walking generality. Because a bland character usually means a bland story, and I don't finish bland stories.

And thinking back to some of my favorite stories, I've noticed the characters feel distinctly male or female. (Unfortunately, I haven't encountered much in the way of transgendered characters.) The stories weren't even about gender issues; it was just the way the character talked or behaved--and not in a stereotypical fashion, but like real people.

So yes, I believe a character's sex is an important influence on personality. You might argue that the personality of a man and the personality of a woman are not that different, and whatever differences that exist are because of gender traits that society has placed on men and women. That's a tough one to say, especially when we're still trying to figure what is "man" and what is "woman" outside of gender roles. But I feel the difference has to be deeper than our genitalia. We do after all manufacture different amounts of hormones which must play a role.

Anyway... Thoughts?

(And if you haven't guessed the title, it's a rift on "What's in a name?")

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Editorial Requests: Vagueness vs. Specifics

Anyone who's been in the writing business for a time will be familiar the the old rewrite request; their story is close, but not quite there. Sometimes editors are really cool, and will tell you what part(s) of your story need fixing up. While others sort of don't. And I think that makes a huge difference between turning a rewrite request into either an acceptance or rejection.

In my experience, a vague or unclear request has never resulted in an acceptance. I understand editors want to give the writer some leeway and not dictate how the writer should write their story, but at the same time, writers aren't mind readers (Sorry, that's not a super ability you get when writing.) And it's often the case that I didn't interpret the editor's request the way they wanted it to be interpreted. Again, I'm not a mind reader! Also, interpretation is a frustrating process, more time-consuming than writing the damn thing, and when you receive the rejection, it honestly feels like a punishment for misinterpreting. Like this was your chance to save the story and in the editor's eyes, you failed. 

When an editor can pinpoint where the story needs improving, that helps to open the writer's eyes and go: "Oh, is that what needs redoing?" Because let's face it, writers are often blind to their stories own flaws. For example, Sam Bellotto Jr. of Perihelion SF made this request for Mapping in the Darkness:

I truly enjoyed this story, but it needs a much more satisfying ending (not necessarily a happy ending) than the throwaway "Creepy" comic book trope of "EEAagghh!"

Please consider coming up with a more inventive conclusion and resubmitting the story.

 Ah! Now I know what needs fixing. (And if you're curious about submitting to Perihelion, here's W1S1's interview with the editor.)

Another example, Brian Lewis of Spark: A Creative Anthology made this very detailed request for Spirit Flare:

More important to clarity of the story is much earlier mention of Spider Woman if you're going to mention the her at all, and perhaps at least a little snippet of the Hopi creation story and the Spider Grandmother's role in it. This is necessary to create a connection for those readers who don't know it—and most of Spark's readers won't know it.
         For example, the conversation about the spider-shaped scar on Kasa's grandmother's should be a perfect point to say something. Grandmother could even launch into a retelling of the story, Kasa could respond dismissively by rolling her eyes (because she's heard it a thousand times and because she believes primarily in the modern world), and that would add to the justification for Grandmother getting upset.
         Since the presence of Hopi ancestry and culture is, in fact, one of the things that set this story apart, I think bringing a couple more hints—but not overdoing it—of how that culture has continued into the future, even into space exploration, will really bring home the piece. (I even wonder if you missed an opportunity by not having Grandma refer to the pirates who left her with a scar as coyotes.)
         The take-away from this is that if you're going to mention Spider Woman at the end as part of Kasa's change of heart, there needs to be more to help the reader make a connection to Hopi culture and religion, and these are just a few suggestions on how you might accomplish that.

Holy crap, actual suggestions! That's great! Not to mention it shows that the editor has a genuine interest in your story succeeding.

So I guess this is one writer's request for editors to be conscientious when asking for rewrites. The more clear and specific you can be, the more likely the writer will meet or exceed the editor's needs for the story.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Updates from a Slacker

Not entirely slacking, but I do feel like I haven't written as much lately. Partly because I've been editing/writing for an indie game Hellenica--a steampunk JRPG set in ancient Greece, hopefully coming out at the end of the year.You can check out the developers' blog here if you're interested to find out more.

But there's been some news in the past few weeks.

First off, publications!

"Astreya's Fish" over at Chrome Baby, which is free to read. If you've read By the Stars You Will Know Her or Oh Deity, My Deity, then you've encountered Astreya before. At some point, I'll get around to writing the fourth installment that'll wrap all these stories together. I just haven't gotten on it since none of those stories have been big sellers. *sigh* But it'll of these days...

Other publications:  "Detergent" in Bete Noire issue #15  --a black comedy sci-fi flash piece. Need to buy the issue, but here's a snippet: 
“We need detergent so--”

“How could you?” She frowned. “You should at least wait until she dies.”

He sighed. “But that’s taking too long. We need soap now.”

“Absolutely not!”

“I think we’ve kept her long enough, past her usefulness anyway. What does she do now? Except cost us credits. I mean, how many hips do we have to replace on her?”

“She’s not a refrigerator.”

“I agree, our fridge has never given us trouble.”

In space, you gotta get your soap from somewhere, right?

And yet another flash piece, "The Last Old House," in Horror D'oeuvres.

Some acceptances, one from an awesome anthology called Unfettered--stories which revolve around illustrations by Terry Whidborne (I chose the one with gnomes on stilts crossing tentacles). The same publisher is open for another neat anthology idea: The Lane of Unusual Traders. The pay is really good, so it's something worth checking out. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Story Analysis: The Mothers of Voorhisville

I'm going to try something new here, and may or may not earn me the wrath of some author. But I figure if these stories are up for reviews and critiques, then playing the analytical game isn't so bad and it's something I already do when reading, so...yeah.

So going to take a look at "The Mothers of Voorhisville" by Mary Rickert, published by Story is available for free online so you can read you won't be left out.

I'm going with this story because it's actually a pretty decent psychological horror, and it's becoming increasingly hard to find those that don't sound like a dreamlike sequences the author had while hopped on cold medicine. I also disagree with Lois Tilton in her review, but we'll get to that. The story is certainly (in my opinion) flawed, but not in the way that she thinks.

Voorhisville is a small town that gets turned on its head when "The Stranger" comes and seducers several of the woman--woman who range from married to widowed, underage teens to some reaching into their forties. The result of the seduction leads to pregnancies and the birth of blue-eyed boys...with wings. So yes, there is a Village of the Damned vibe to this, however, instead of creepy kids, we get crazy, overprotective mothers.

The story is told from multiple perspectives, individual mothers and "The Mothers" who is a collective voice. The Mothers try to chronicle the events while individuals share their personal experiences, which are the most powerful scenes. To read how each woman came into contact with the stranger, how they instantly "did it" with him, pregnancy, the terrible labor, the discovery that their child could fly--and the paranoia if anyone else finds out.  

No, what had sealed her fate was that moment when she decided to lie to her husband about the baby’s wings. It was no longer the three of them against the world, but mother and child against everyone else.

And from there, we see these mothers' sanity slip. But consequences reverberate, and we see the husbands having to bear the brunt of this, while not understanding why their wives shut them out. Hell, in Pete's case, husband of Theresa Ratcher and father of Elli, he gets accused of molesting his own daughter!

Now the text isn't clear if this is a case of mass hysteria, bewitchment, or maybe something in the water. Lois Tilton took issue with this because the ambiguity was more frustrating than interesting. If it's bewitchment, why did the Stranger do it? I don't know, but the fact that he drives a hearse should give you a sense of foreshadowing.

To me, it didn't matter. The Mothers are insane, so nothing they do is going to make much sense,  even when they act in self-preservation for the sake of their babies--and granted, they have some reason for this because people like Pete see the babies as sick animals that need to be put down--they go waaaay over-the-top.

There in lies some of the problem. The ending goes completely off the rails, almost to the point of a farce. It's just ludicrous. I can sort of understand why, not in terms of the story itself, but rather, the limits of the horror genre. There can only be so many conclusions to a horror story: the protagonist defeats the evil, the protagonist succumbs to evil, or the protagonist is the evil. As a result, I think horror writers have been struggling to come up with new ways to wow editors, and not fall into predictability. In this case, perhaps the author was trying to go out with as much of a bang as possible, despite the soft plea of the Mothers at the end.

For me personally, I would've preferred seeing the consequences extend, first the mothers, then the family unit, then to society overall. I pictured the Mothers becoming a secret society--probably because I find secret societies creepy as hell--lording over the town, sending their babies to terrorize any who dare speak out. After all, something like this must have had an impact on small town life, and if the foreshadowing is true, then the Stranger may have intended to end such a way of life.

And no, I don't think the babies were perfectly innocent. They may not be monsters yet, but they seemed to have the potential, seeing as they did chew two human beings to death, one of them being a mother. Still, the Mothers protect their young.

So I think that wraps things up. If you read "The Mothers of Voorhisville" and have any of your own insights, feel free to share them in the comment section. I wouldn't let the ending deter you form reading this (in case you haven't), because of course that's my opinion. All I know is that I didn't feel it worked for this particular piece. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Movie Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

An X-Men movie that is sequel, prequel and even reboot. Obviously this revival was in part inspired by the success of Marvel, because anyone who has seen X3 knows that movie essentially ended the X-Men series...but then the franchise came back.

Brief synopsis: The future is doomed for the mutants. Giant robots known as "Sentinels" have overrun the world and hunted the mutants to near-extinction. Now it's up to Kitty Pryde (aka Shadowcat), using some odd new power of projection, to project Wolverine's mind back into the past where he might alter the outcome.

In short, I enjoyed it. Haven't seen X-Men: First Class, because for a while I was done with X-Men films. I was supremely dissatisfied with X3, and after watching the leaked version of Wolverine: Origins--a complete waste of film--the franchise had truly ran its course. But that doesn't say much because I've never really been impressed with the X-Men movies. Compared to the animated series of the 90's, with adventures of both cosmic and catastrophic in nature and size, the movies are weak sauce. Especially what they did with Rogue (booooo!) Maybe one day they'll be a real reboot. But till then...

I wasn't bored with the action like I was with Star WarsTrek: Into Darkness; in fact, some really awesome action scenes involving a new mutant, Blink, and her ability to throw portals wherever. Quite fun to see allies hop into one portal and fall out of another and onto the enemy's back, or for a portal to cut a sentinel in half. Unfortunately, the best action is reserved for the future scenes, and there's only two good ones, which makes the great cast of mutant characters feel wasted.

The bulk of the movie is set in 1973, where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) must stop Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinate a prominent figure which would set the future as they know it in motion--but first, he must seek out young Professor X (James McAvoy) and young Magneto (Michael Fassbender). All the performances are great and I enjoy how these characters all play off one another, which makes the lack of action forgivable. Also, plenty of gags with a non-adamantizied Wolverine.

Really enjoyed Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and like his name's sake, his time on the screen is short. Again, it's sort of wasted, and you wonder why the character couldn't tag along (aside from the fact that he'd make things waaaay too easy). At the very least, they did give a nod (if you're familiar with the X-Men genealogy) to who his father might be. Interesting factoid: Evan Peters co-starred with Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the first Kick-Ass movie, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is to play Quicksilver in the Marvel movies.

Here, there be spoilers.

The plot is odd. I'm not talking about the time travel elements, because that's all comic book logic, but the fact that the movie would've been over half-way in if young Magneto hadn't been such an ass. And it makes you wonder: why the hell did they bust him out? He just made things worse!

They also try to shoehorn some historical stuff, like Magneto was originally imprisoned because he "supposedly" assassinated JFK, and then there's young Professor X's addiction to a serum that allows him to walk while inhabiting his powers, which resembles awfully close to heroine use.

Then there's this pathetic attempt to explain the mutant gene and genetics, which is an area that Hollywood has no business going into, especially when there was a preview for a movie that still sticks to the "humans only use 10% of their brain" myth.     

On the plus-side (and this is a big plus), because of all the timey-wimey stuff, this movie effectively erases all the mistakes in X3. That alone elevates this movie to higher standards. 

So despite the flaws, Days of Future Past has rekindled my interest in the X-Men franchise--there's going to be another movie coming out in 2016, so might as well get used to it. Just hoping they don't burn it to the ground again.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Wildstar beta: First Impressions (part 2)

So picking up where part 1 left off...

The aesthetics of the world are cartoony, colorful and fun. It is kind of close to WoW's style, but seeing as everyone else tries to go for dark, gritty realism, I really don't mind seeing some WoW influence. Sometimes you forget that video games can actually have *gasp* a color palette!

Click on the pic to see it in full size and awesomeness!
Just exploring can be amazing as you encounter new places and weird aliens. Each region has a story to tell and you can help sway the events through quests. For one place on Dominion side, I helped clear up a plague by finding out where it came from and who was responsible. The town went from a burning hell hole with its citizens dripping plague, to a much cleaner version. Oh, and I helped build a hospital--which required hassling the local farmers for money. But that's life in the empire, right?

And that's the another thing: many of the quests have a lot of personality. Granted, you do have the mundane "collect X many bear asses", but there are enough fun ones that bring something new and memorable to the table. Such as (once again, on Dominion side) one quest that took me to a mining station off-world. My toon had to wear one of those bubble helmets that you see in retro sci-fi comics, and due to the difference in gravity, she would gently glide down after a jump. Then I had to go through creepy corridors, discovering parasite-infested bodies and the miner's last recorded words, which reminded me a lot of System Shock 2. Very cool stuff. Not to mention, fucking awesome view!

Wish I had figured out how to hide the distracting interface.

In addition to quests, you've got challenges. They'll be certain items or enemies that will trigger them and you'll have a timer to kill/collect as many X as possible. Sometimes I found them fun, other times annoying. The rewards for successfully completing a challenge will scale with how well you did, although sometimes it's impossible to achieve higher than a bronze.

Something new in this game are paths. You can choose one from four, and they basically are tailored to how you like to play the game. Like killing a lot of stuff? Then you would go Soldier. Exploring? Explorer. And so on. I mainly did Settler path, which was building stuff and came quite handy, because I could build banks, mailboxes and boosts (i.e. increased speed, stat boots, extra merchants). Boyfriend went the Science path which unlocked extra lore about the world, and as he says, you got to "science" stuff. I did try a bit of Explorer, but did not find it as enjoyable or useful. Sure, you get a speed buff to go running around, but twice I fell off a hill and died. I guess the trailer was right!

There's also trade skills, which is an element I did not miss from The Secret World. I kind of hate having to farm materials to make stuff, but I will say they do something different. You've got a trade skill tree, and as you create more stuff, you unlock the ability to craft higher end goodies. And with better quality, you  get to choose the stats for that gear. As I mentioned before, I mainly focused on moxie and finesse for my esper class, so I would make weapons with those stats. You also have power cores for these craftable items, and the better the power core, the more stats you can put on your gear.

I also went with mining, which wasn't made easy because I couldn't see ore nodes on my mini-map (I had to go to my main map, which interrupts gameplay). However, neat things would occasionally happen when I'd mine a node. Sometimes the node would sprout legs and become this bug-thing and I had to kill to quick before it scurried away. Other times I'd get a giant ore worm and when I defeated it, a wormhole (har har) would open up and I got a 2 minute spree to farm as much ore as I wanted in another dimension.

Housing--yes, there is housing in this game. At first I was leery of this, because I thought it was some Second Life crap leaking into MMORPG's, buuuuuut it was actually a plus for this game. Everyone can get a plot of land in the sky and you can build/decorate it with whatever stuff you find. The more decorations, the better experience bonus buff you get if you log out on your land. You also get useful stuff like having your own personal farm, ore mine, exploration cave, even a dungeon! and such to help level up your skills. You can even visit other player's houses and have roomates. And if you're busy and haven't logged in for awhile, then other players can farm/mine/whatever your resources and split the profits with you.

So is this game worth getting? Well I had a lot of fun, but I would still wait six months before committing. Like every MMORPG that thinks it'll break WoW's streak, they're going to start with a monthly subscription. So far, no one but WoW has been able to maintain the monthly subscription model. Wildstar might pull it off because it's pretty damn polished, even in its beta form, and provides quite a few unique things that I think players will enjoy. Personally, I prefer buy-to-play since I don't feel obligated to get my money's worth of gameplay each month, but we'll see how this goes.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Wildstar beta: First Impressions (part1)

So if you haven't heard, there's a new MMORPG on the block calling itself Wildstar. They recently had an open beta, inviting players to come and break stuff before the final release on June 3, 2014. And because breaking stuff is fun, I thought I'd give it a try. Also, because this was going to be a really long post, I chopped it into two.

Like any MMORPG, there are factions, usually two, sometimes three. Wildstar's two factions are Exiles and Dominion. I played both sides, but most of my time was spent playing Dominion, because damn, they're fun. I love the black humor of Dominion; they're an evil empire and not afraid to flaunt it.A lot of times you'll be answering orders from higher ups with a prima donna complex, but it's all so over the top (as is most of the game), one wonders if this empire is run on swagger alone.

The Exiles are, well, the exiled people of Dominion. They're basically tree-huggers. No, really. They seem to want to do general good, and their missions tend to revolve around saving this or that, and preventing the destructive forces of the Dominion. Whereas Dominion quests will deal with more political intrigue, betrayals, empire infrastructure. Which is good that each faction feels distinctly different in both goals and philosophies--it's just I prefer evil overloads to goody two-shoes.

Yes, there is even a quest to save sentient root vegetables!

Basic story is that this new planet, Nexus, has been discovered, and is considered very valuable to both factions, thus becomes the apex of galactic conflict. And that's as much story as you need for an MMORPG.

As for combat, there is no auto-attacking (yay!). You also don't have a bazillion abilities on hand like in WoW. There's no skill tree, you just buy abilities and slot them, but you have a maximum of eight slots, which are only unlocked as you level. Why yes, that means you need to think about what you slot. Combat is much more active, requiring you to dodge out of enemies attacks, which are made visible with red areas on the ground.

Not sure how I feel about the quick time events that occur whenever you get stunned. You need to hold down a key--and fast--because they will be a lot of hurt coming your way. Personally, I don't care for quick time events, but some people might find this an interesting mechanic.

The two classes I played were esper (aka psyblades) and medic, and both had a pretty good rhythm to their combat. I'm quite use to The Secret World's combat where, depending on your weapons, you build resources before firing off a consumer ability, or start with full consumers and build resources back up. Esper has resource building while medic starts with full consumers. Both are different and both work well. I probably lean toward esper just because seeing my character throw phantasmal swords at foes was pretty awesome, although do like how the medic's weapon is a defibrillator. Both of these classes can heal, and all classes have duel roles. Once again, it just depends on what you slot.

Stats are, err, interesting, but not entirely clear to me. Especially how they translate between classes. Like for my esper character, I mainly focused on moxie and finesse, because moxie would give me more assault power to hit stuff harder, and finesse would give me crits. However, when playing my medic, tech gave me assault power and moxie gave me crits. Which I guess makes sense because medic does tech damage while esper does magical, but on the other hand...that's going to be a challenge to keep track of, especially if you have multiple characters. Perhaps this is a way to make gear a bit more unique to each class, because in other games, similar stats could be used across multiple classes which would inevitably lead to fighting over gear.

So last but not least: character creation. There are seven races (humans are in both factions), and the differences are all cosmetic. No special race abilities of the sort. I went with cassian human on Dominion side, making her in the image of Mirage from The Incredibles. Funny enough, the cartoony look of the game could easily go along with any Pixar movie.

Also, cassian were the only other race that can be esper; the other is a race of psychotic rats with tourette's syndrome. Dominion also has giant robots and a dragon-like species. For Exiles: furries. Well, not exactly, but expect most players to be running around as humaniods with fuzzy ears and tails. They also have rock people and cyberpunk zombies. I of course chose the zombie.

Part 2 coming soon!