Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Choosing The Age of Your Protagonist To Win An Oscar

Last week, the Oscar rules were changed by the Academy that awards them. Now 10 nominees for BEST PICTURE compete for the Oscar, the most since 1943. Maybe this is not a good thing?

Here's the link.


Quoting from that article:

In fact, one studio executive compared the Academy bombshell to getting doused with a bucket of cold water. He confided that he has enough trouble every awards season figuring out whom they have to satisfy with an Oscar campaign and which talent they can safely neglect or do less for.

Read that article for the attitude and values of the decision-makers who decide what will (and will not) be allowed to attract your attention. People who go to few movies, generally favor the award-winners because they've heard of them and know people who've seen them.

TV advertising budgets go to award contenders and winners, not to the others.

If you don't follow an industry (any industry) you may only choose from what "they" decide you may.

With the proliferation of E-books and small publishers to the point where Publisher's Weekly routinely covers the field, the roll of "gatekeeper" has disintegrated. But it is quickly being re-invented.


The Academy is expanding its finalists list from 5 to 10, and that may be because of the disintegration of the "gatekeeper" role.

The Academy has been, with the Oscars, a major gatekeeper. Now there are many other gatekeepers in the film industry with Festivals awarding winners and other Awards like the BET awards. There are many more films you've heard of so you get to choose whether to see them or not. So the Academy has responded to changes in the world by trying to compete for its top gatekeeper spot.

I did not find anything in this article on the Oscar rules the least bit surprising and I doubt most of you will either. The book business now works exactly the same way (though it didn't in the early 20th Century or before.)

In this new media-dominated world, we need to understand how (and why) our choices are deliberately limited by people who don't know us and couldn't care less about us.

This gatekeeper thinking is the thinking that rejects Romance, especially SF Romance, while at the same time panders to teens. That's a relatively new development.

Don't ever forget the 1951 film DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL Talk about hot Alien Romance!


Quoting on increasing the number of nominees to 10 from that article on the Oscar rules:
The only problem with widening the net is that this is no longer the 1930s or '40s, when the Academy last fielded 10 or so best picture noms each year. Back then, it had an overabundance of what were grown-up yet popular titles -- ranging from "It Happened One Night" and "Mutiny on the Bounty" early on to "You Can't Take It with You" and "Casablanca," the last movie, in 1943, to wrest the Oscar from nine other contenders. Nowadays, most Hollywood movies aren't really made for grown-ups.

My boldface on that very telling comment, tossed in off-handedly. "Nowadays, most Hollywood movies aren't really made for grown-ups."

On 6/16/09 I posted here a commentary on the award winning film Mr. And Mrs. Smith

Would you say that film was for grownups? No children characters and it's ostensibly about marriage counseling and professional assassination.

On 6/23/09 I posted here a commentary on the Disney film Snow Dogs:

Children were not the featured characters in Snow Dogs, but the adults were working through issues having to do with their parents just as if they were still children, and the comedy venue made it accessible to children, so it's billed as a "family movie" -- which basically means it's not really for grownups but grownups wouldn't mind watching it. (I enjoyed it!)

Both Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Snow Dogs are stories focused on Relationships, with the Romance part in the B-story, hidden but thematic.

With the loss of so many middle-aged celebrities these last couple of weeks, ( David Caradine, Ed McMahon (who was 70's but too young to die), Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Gale Storm ( http://www.popeater.com/television/article/gale-storm-dies/547078?icid=main%7Chtmlws-main%7Cdl2%7Clink4%7Chttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.popeater.com%2Ftelevision%2Farticle%2Fgale-storm-dies%2F547078 ) and Billy Mays.

Here's a website that tries to keep an up to date listing of deceased celebrities:

We are clearly in a turning-of-the-generations cycle.

McMahon had risen to the level of decision maker, as has Leonard Nimoy (who's still with us, and did a splendid job in the new Star Trek movie). David Caradine did much more than acting, as did Farrah Fawcett. Michael Jackson was mostly known for being wild and irresponsible (ending up in half a billion in debt), but likewise he was an influence whose success made others want to copy or pick up one or another of his attributes.

Our deceased icons of American culture knew very well how the movers and shakers behind the Academy and the Oscars think. That's how they got to be icons.

Do we have to go back to the 1940's to find a ROMANCE ICON? If so, do you think maybe it's been long enough and it's time for a new Romance Icon to arise?

If so, who? And with what sort of public image profile? How are they going to impress the gatekeepers? The decision makers?

What sells? And why?


Hollywood studios (and even book publishers) have spent big bucks commissioning statistical studies and analyses of the demographics of movie ticket buyers. They know that what held true in novels holds true in the movies -- the age-group that will want to read or see a story will be close or related to the age of the protagonist.

The film Cocoon was a hit with older people, not so much with the youngest demographic.

If you're writing a children's book for 7 year olds, the protagonist has to be 7 or maybe 9 years old, not 15 or 25.

For pre-teens, your protagonist has to be a teen (because that's what pre-teens identify with and aspire to).

Middle Aged people don't really yearn to become OLD, so stories about older people who "can still shoot straight" abound.

But film producers discovered that today's audiences are composed mostly of teens and college age people, often dating. And on a date like that, even TODAY, the male's taste in entertainment prevails.

The 16 and 17 year old crowd wants stories about early 20's. The 20 somethings will go for stories about 30-somethings who "have it made" but still get into the same pickles 20 somethings get into. Only they handle it better.

We want to identify with a Hero we can feel proud to become.

So when choosing the age of the protagonist of your story, consider how big an audience you want it to attract. Look at the demographics, note which age group has the most disposable income.

The Golden Rule of protagonist age choice is simply, the protagonist has to be the age of your typical reader/viewer.

If the golden rule holds, the key to creating a blockbuster Alien Romance will be primarily the age of the protagonists.

In all genre fiction, it is the audience's identification with the main characters that determines the sales volume, thus the prominence, and whether they are chosen as contenders for major awards. Or as the article I was quoting above pointed out, which actors the production company can safely ignore.

As the article points out, it doesn't matter how good a film is. When it comes to the Oscars, it only matters "who" the stars are and what it will take to mollify them.

Go back to my analysis of why and how a writer can use Astrology to plot a story (5 post series in 2008)
and see that "life" has a particular shape, an ebb and flow, a sequence in which we learn lessons.

Writers often learn or are born knowing that at certain ages, we reach certain plights, challenges, consequences, and choices all of which shape the plot of our real life, and our taste in fictional life.

Many of these most prominent and widely understood (without the aid of knowing astrology) life lessons are connected to Saturn's 29 year period.

Relationships are ruled by Venus which has a period of about a year, and "Romance" is induced by Neptune which has a period of about 164 years; more than a lifetime. Neptune is also famous for creating "strange" (i.e. alien) environments, coincidences, and miracles. Neptune is all about the exceptional moments in time when the rules blur.

You really do, literally, get a once-in-a-lifetime shot at real Romance.

But it comes at different ages in different lives. Sometimes it's in the teens, sometimes the 40's or even the 70's. So you can write a really hot Romance with some deeply significant lessons about the relationship between self-esteem and unconditional love, and use characters of almost any age.

Yes, sometimes the Romance transit of a lifetime comes before you're 10, but when that happens, you usually experience it through your parents (or parental figures), so it shapes your attitude toward life. And perhaps, those are the "marry the boy next door" stories.

So as far as creating that blockbuster Alien Romance that will change the way the entire field is regarded, as Star Trek changed the way Science Fiction was regarded, you can focus on any age demographic and still craft a plausible Alien Romance.

But certain ages will be preferred by certain producers or publishers.

A Silver Rule perhaps would be that the more expensive the fiction is to deliver to the consumer, the broader the target demographic must be.

A book costs less to produce than a movie, (though a book has a smaller potential profit margin) and so a book can appeal to a narrower audience and still make a profit. Authors know their book made a profit when the publisher sends them royalties beyond the advance.

A film on the other hand must appeal to a very diverse and broad and deep audience. The higher the budget for the film, the broader the apparent appeal must be. It's all about the numbers, and the Academy knows that -- and perhaps the Academy does not know much else!

This article on changes in the Academy of Motion Picture rules of the Oscars clearly informs us that the blockbuster film that becomes a TV show, with endless spinoffs, books, action figures etc, has to be "NOT FOR GROWNUPS."

The article also makes the point clearly that SEQUELS don't win awards because they are "warmed over popcorn." But it also indicates literary pedigree is acceptable. So we can pry open this field via novels.

The general rule though, in what producers are looking for is something "the same" but "different."

It occurs to me to wonder if the "different" part could be not the involvement of a human with an alien on a deep, intimate level (romance, but do we really need to tell them that up front?) but rather the revival of the 1940's "romance."

Just think, Casablanca - set on Epsilon Eridani in the midst of an interstellar war with invaders from another galaxy.

Or think The Boy Next Door and transform it to The Alien Next Door (it's been done, but not really well as a Romance.)

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What does an alien hero smell of?

An alien romance might be a thinly (or heavily) disguised Western, or Historical, or "billionaire sheikh with harem" story.

I don't see anything wrong with that.

Moreover, every Romance has to answer at least four important questions:

1. (a) Who is the hero?
(b) Who is the heroine?

2. (a) What does he want?
(b) What does she want?

3. (a) Why can't he have what he wants?
(b) Why can't she have what she wants?

4. (a) Why does he want... whatever he wants?
(b) Why does she want whatever she wants?

One of the things that interests me about alien romance (and Romances where either the hero or heroine is not human) is the cultural conflict and the differences between one of "them" and one of "us".

The hero has to be convincing for his sex, time, place, situation, social status. An he has to be different from human heroes. Yet, he has to be reasonably attractive, interesting and compelling, because the reader must understand viscerally why the heroine doesn't mind having sex with him.

As Jennifer Dunne said "Write a hero you can fall in love with, and your reader will, too."

The alien hero may look like us. This could be because of parallelism or because of convergence. His species could have evolved to look like us because they prey on us and are more successful if they blend in until they strike.

Vampires are a great example. (Especially Margaret L. Carter's).

When an aspiring author does the contest circuit, she is almost invariably advised to use every sense in her writing. Not just the looks of him, or the sound of him, or the feel of him, or the taste of him (oh, my!), but also his smell.

What would a vampire smell of? Breath-mints? Blood? Soil? Sex? As part of blending in, he'd probably use human perfumes... I wonder whether the over-used aftershave would react differently with his chemistry.

Moving on....

Gargoyle body odor would be fun, wouldn't it? Have you sniffed any rocks lately?

Were-wolves! If he has a dog-like sense of smell, he's likely to be highly interested in his personal odors, as well as those of the heroine. We cannot leave it up to the heroine's nose to take care of all the smelling. The same applies to my god-Princes of Tigron who have seven senses, all of which are much more acute than human senses.

As long as a human heroine is sniffing the hero and reporting her observations to the reader, I suppose it is reasonable for her to translate his scents into fragrances with which her reader is familiar.

Personally, I find this description (of an alien hunk on an alien planet) a bit of a cop-out. "He smelled of horses, leather, and himself."

Does all leather smell the same? How many leather things do you own? Crocodile handbag, perhaps? (I don't!) Snakeskin boots? Cowhide on your car seat? Should an alien planet's horses smell like ours? I think I'd want to make it clear that their horses smelled a bit like the way ours smell but with bottom notes of some other animal.

Musk is an eternal favorite. Countless heroes smell of musk and get away with it. Isn't musk a secretion of... well, never mind... as long as the heroine and your editor finds the fragrance pleasant and exciting.

Best wishes,
Rowena Cherry

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Continuing series, when a story doesn't work.

When researching victorian England for my Steampunk proposal I came up with an interesting fact. The Buffalo Bill Wild West Show appeared in England in 1887. I try to remain as historically actuate as possible, even though this book has fantasy elements and thowing a cowboy who is very good with his guns into the mix set my heart all aflutter. I write cowboys well and it seemed much more interesting than writing your typical British Lord of that time. I needed someone who could be in the same social circle as my heroine but also be forbidden. So Dax became a cowboy with a past.

I wanted him to have a rough edge of danger but also be able to pass in the society of the day. So I created a history for him. Dax was raised my his grandmother, a grand society dame in Boston. His mother died in childbirth and his father, who was a Doctor was stricken with grief and took off for the west. When Dax reached his late teens he took off to find his father who was living with the Sioux. Dax fell in love with Rebekah who'd was raised in the tribe. She died from a plague along with his father and once more Dax took off to become a scout for the army. He was part of the hunt for Geronimo and at one time was captured and tortured by the Apache. AFter his rescue he decided he'd had enough of the west and wanted to travel. He hooked up with the Wild West show and became Kid Cochran, the fastest gun alive.

The following is the first chapter which contains the meet between the Hero and Heroine and hopefully draws the reader into the story.


April 14, 1887

“What ever is the hold up?” Thomas Chadwyke, Earl of Pemberton rapped the silver handle of his walking stick on the roof of the carriage to get the attention of his driver. They had come to a complete stop on Gloucester Street and the Earl’s impatience was as usual, quite evident.
“It seems to be some sort of parade Sir,” Harry, the driver called down from his perch. “Coming from the train station.”
“A parade?” The Earl stuck his head through the carriage window.
“Really, Thomas,” Evelyn, Countess Pemberton said. “Don’t be crass.”
The Earl ignored her as he hung out the window and exclaimed quite loudly. “It’s the Americans! And I believe those fellows wrapped up in blankets are Indians.” The Countess leaned forward and peered through the window on her side of the carriage as the Earl continued with his exclamations. “Good Lord, those must be buffalo.”
“Oh!” The Countess said as she sat back onto her seat. “The smell is quite dreadful.” She pulled an embroidered square of linen from her reticule and placed it over the lower half of her face. “Merritt,” she said to her daughter. “Quickly, cover your face before some horrid disease creeps in.”
Before Merritt could respond, or even protest, her nurse and constant companion, Rose, slapped a ready handkerchief over the lower half of Merritt’s face and held it there. Merritt knew from experience that it would do no good to protest, or even move as Rose, in direct contradiction to her name, was extremely strong for a woman.
It was one of the requirements Rose met when she was interviewed for the position after discreet inquires were made by her parents. They lived with the fear that Merritt would hurt herself when she was in the throes of one of her spells, therefore her nurse must have the physical strength to keep that from happening. Merritt always wondered what it was they expected to happen to her since her spells usually entailed her speaking of strange things while seeming to lose all touch with what was happening around her. She was glad to know that with Rose’s constant care she would not throw herself from a window or cut herself with a butter knife which were just a few of the ways her mother’s vivid imagination had conjured up for Merritt to injure herself.
Merritt placed her hand over Rose’s and smiled agreeably with her eyes, since that was all of her face that was showing. She practically sighed in relief when Rose released the linen into her care and went about the business of protecting her own mouth and nose from whatever dreaded disease her mother was going on about.
“I do wish they would hurry,” the Countess said. “We’re going to miss our appointment.” The countess peered out her window once more as if just looking at the delay would convince it to stop inconveniencing her. Merritt sat with her back to the front of her carriage so could not see what was creating the stir. She was tempted to look but knew it would result in more fussing from her mother and Rose so instead she stared complacently ahead and tried not to think about what the day held in store for her.
If only we would miss the appointment…That would not trouble Merritt in the least. It would be cause for much rejoicing on her part. She might even be tempted to join the parade of Americans herself if only to prolong it so that she could miss her appointment. Of course that would be enough to send her mother into one of her own spells. She did her best not to laugh aloud at the vision of her mother swooning into her father’s arms while their rebellious daughter chased down the street after buffalo and wild Indians. Luckily the handkerchief covered the quivering of her lips as she suppressed the urge.
“I do believe they are coming this way,” the Earl said. He resumed his seat. “There are policemen about directing the carriages to move over to the side.”
“Oh, if only we had known,” the Countess exclaimed. “We could have traveled another route.”
“It was my understanding that they were supposed to ride the train all the way to the exhibition grounds,” the Earl said. “I say, it will not do to have the streets of London run amok with these wild creatures.”
“Are you referring to the buffalo or the Indians?” The Countess asked.
“Both.” The carriage lurched as Harry urged the four in hand over. Merritt barely heard Harry’s faint apology over the drumming sound of hooves against the cobblestones that suddenly filled the streets. Shouts and whistles joined the cacophony of noise. Her curiosity finally got the best of her and she turned so that she could see out the window.
“Do be careful dear,” the Countess instructed.
“I just want to see,” Merritt said. A rider went by and she caught the bright stripes of a blanket trailing over the brown and white splotched coat of a horse. “Is that what they call a paint?” she asked her father.
“I believe so.” He leaned out the window once more and Merritt rose up to join him, conveniently leaving her handkerchief on her seat. Rose tried to grasp her arm to stop her. Merritt managed to gracefully avoid her nurse and looped her arm through her father’s so that she was pressed against his side. She knew they resembled a pair of children with their faces pressed against the glass of the sweet shop but she did not care. It was not often that her father’s natural exuberance took over and she wanted to relish the moment. Who knew how long it would last?
“Oh his hair is nearly as long as mine!” she exclaimed as another Indian rode by. This one had long black hair cascading down his back and a feather sticking up in the back. “I wonder if Buffalo Bill is among the riders.”
“From what I’ve read he should be easy to recognize. Perhaps he stayed with the train.”
“Could that be Annie Oakley?” Merritt saw a woman dressed in fringed buckskin and a gun belt around her waist go by on a beautiful palomino. The papers had been full of stories of the Wild West show and the people who were slated to appear with it. For the past few weeks Merritt read about Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Red Shirt the Indian, and Kid Cochran who the papers claimed was the fastest gun alive, whatever that meant. She supposed it could have something to do with quick draw or rapid firing. Whatever it was, it all seemed very exciting and adventurous, especially when one’s life seemed to center around doctor visits and the constant hovering of her mother, her maid, and Rose the nurse.
“We are going, aren’t we Papa?” she asked as a dozen or so buffalo went by with their shaggy humped backs reeking from too much confinement.
“We shall see.” His usual reply to her requests for some sort of normalcy in her life.
“I do not see how it could possibly be safe,” the Countess interjected.
“Evelyn,” the Earl said dryly. “Or course it will be safe. The Prince is planning to attend and the Queen has requested a private showing.”
Merritt allowed herself a small smile. Her father’s retort was quick assurance that they would attend the Wild West Show and most likely at the nearest opportunity. The first scheduled public performance was for May the ninth but it was well known among the members of parliament, of which her father was included, that there would be private showings before then. It was a small victory she relished to make up for the dreaded appointment that was to occur later on.
“Watch out!” her father suddenly exclaimed. The carriage lurched as Merritt crashed into her father who steadied her with his arm. “Are you hurt my dear?”
“No,” she said. “I am quite all right.”
“Thomas,” the Countess said. “Would you please do something about removing us before we are trampled by these creatures?”
“I’ll see what I can do.” The Earl quickly exited the carriage on the side that was closest to the buildings without waiting for his man Jerry, to open the door. Merritt knew it was only because he wanted a closer look at the commotion without listening to her mother’s constant concerns. She turned back to the window and was amazed to see a buffalo staring at her. The head with its protruding horns was immense and the humped back seemed to her to be as high as the carriage windows. If she wanted to, she could stretch out a gloved hand and touch the shaggy coat.
A piercing whistle sounded followed by a shout.” Get outa there!” There was a popping sound and the buffalo jumped away and joined its fellows as they trotted on down the street.
“Sorry about that.” A horse and rider stopped by the carriage. The horse was extraordinary, nothing like Merritt had ever seen before. Its nose was a deep blue black then the color faded to bluish gray before becoming white on its hindquarters. There was a spattering of blue-gray spots across its back that ended in a silky tail that seemed to be a blend of all three colors.
“Oh my,” Merritt exclaimed. “What type of horse is that?”
The rider rubbed the arched neck of the animal with pride. “This here is Katie,” he said. “And she’s what we call an Appaloosa.”
“She’s extraordinary.” Merritt said as her eyes moved from the horse to the muscular thigh that held the animal in check. Her breath quickened at the sight of the raw wildness that was within her reach.
“Yes she is.” The voice had a lazy drawl and it captured her, drawing her gaze to his face. She saw a strong jaw and straight nose beneath the brim of a wide hat the types of which she’d seen pictures of in the newspapers. The jaw was covered with a stubble of beard and strong white teeth flashed a grin at her from full lips. He wore a short brown coat with the collar turned up against the crisp cold air. There was a blue paisley scarf tied about his neck and buckskin pants tucked into brown boots. Much to her surprise a gun belt rode low on his left hip and was tied off around his thigh to keep it from moving. He coiled a short whip around a knob that protruded from his saddle.
Her mother craned her neck to see who she was talking to and gasped at the blatant display of weaponry.
“They’re all a bit frisky after being cooped up for so long,” he said with a wave at the small contingent of buffalo that trotted on down the cobblestones with the riders doing their best to keep them contained. “We all are,” he added.
“I would imagine so,” Merritt said. She felt a flutter of excitement inside as she studied the cowboy. He seemed mysterious and forbidden, like one of the scandalous romance novels she kept hidden beneath her mattress or the champagne her mother would not let her drink at parties lest it bring on another spell. She heard her mother’s hiss and felt the sharp tug on her skirt. She ignored it as the cowboy pushed back his hat so she could see the rest of his face.
Deep blue eyes gazed at her from beneath a flop of golden brown hair that touched his incredibly long lashes. He pushed the recalcitrant locks aside and gave her a wide grin. “I hope you’re coming to the show.” He looked at her, boldly, brazenly and a lazy smile turned up the corners of his full lips.
Merritt felt the heat of his eyes and her cheeks burned with his look. He sees me… For the first time someone was looking at her, as a person, whole into herself. She was so used to the whispers about her spells and the sympathetic looks of the servants or the constant worry that lined her parent’s faces. No one ever truly saw Merritt. They only saw the circumstances that surrounded her.
“It is my intent.” She returned his smile with a shy one of her own.
“Merritt!” Her mother’s voice was loud enough for the cowboy to hear. She was not surprised. It was unusual for her to engage in conversation with the prim and proper gentlemen of the peerage. Of course it would shock her mother to see her hanging from a carriage window, talking to a complete stranger who seemed so rough around the edges. It might even be considered dangerous, enough so that a thrill went down her spine.
“That’s a pretty name,” he drawled. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard that one before.”
“Thank you,” Merritt replied. “My father gave it to me.”
As if on cue her father stepped round from behind the carriage with Jerry close behind him. “Taking in the scenery?” he said to the cowboy.
“Yes sir,” the cowboy said as he looked between Merritt and her father. The relationship had to be obvious to even a stranger on the street. She had the same blonde hair and the same piercing blue eyes although she was grateful to be blessed with her mother’s nose and chin. Her mother was still considered to be a great beauty. Merritt’s beauty was always an addendum to her condition.
“That’s an interesting piece you’re wearing there,” the Earl said, motioning towards the gun strapped to the cowboy’s hip.”
“It gets the job done,” the cowboy said. His eyes changed, along with his posture. He was no longer open and easy. Suddenly he was more reserved, as if there were secrets that he was trying to protect.
“The way seems to be clear, sir,” Harry said from his post.
“Oh,” the Earl said. His disappoint was evident. “Well then, I supposed we must be off. The cowboy backed his horse away as Jerry opened the carriage door and her father stepped in. He leaned out the window once more. “Will we see you in the show?” he asked as Harry set the team in motion.
“Yes, sir,” the cowboy replied. “Just keep a lookout for Kid Cochran!” he called out after them. He tugged on the reins and Katie, the beautiful appaloosa, rose up on her hind legs and pawed the air as her rider lifted his arm in the air and let out a farewell whoop.
Merritt and her father clapped their approval of the show as Katie took off in a clatter of hooves after the retreating buffalo. The crowd gathered in the melting snow let out a collective gasp and then a cheer at the cowboy’s bravado.
Kid Cochran…The fastest gun alive. And to think she had met him boldly on the street. Her friend Caro would never believe it.
It would make for much better conversation than the coming appointment.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Post-Apocalyptic Novel: JULIAN COMSTOCK

I love S. M. Stirling's "Dies the Fire" series, about a world in which all advanced technology (anything dependent on electronics, explosions, internal combustion, etc.) instantaneously and inexplicably stopped working at one catastrophic moment in the 1990s. So I was intrigued when I picked up JULIAN COMSTOCK, by Robert Charles Wilson. It's set in the twenty-second century of an America where technology has recovered to a late Victorian level after the devastating End of Oil, False Tribulation, and Plague of Infertility in the twenty-first century. The United States, though nominally a republic, is governed by despotic presidents who rule for life. Julian's uncle, the current president, was responsible for Julian's father's death. The theocratic Dominion also wields vast power, including censorship of books and culture in general. Julian (whom the author modeled on the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate) has an avid interest in the forbidden works of the Secular Ancients (us) and heretical doctrines such as Evolution. The story is told by a naive young man, Adam, Julian's best friend. In this future, elections are only a ritual. The outward forms and verbal formulas of American culture and politics as we know them are mostly preserved, but with altered meanings. There's a biting scene in which a military officer solemnly tells Adam the Dutch are trying to drive the Americans out of Labrador because "they hate our freedoms"—while the guileless Adam accepts this claim at face value, the reader by this point is well aware that most of those "freedoms" survive in name only.

As the current crisis in Iran reminds us, the mere existence of an election process doesn't guarantee rights and freedoms, much less the peaceful transitions we're fortunate to enjoy here. In the America of JULIAN COMSTOCK, presidents often lose their lives, like many of the Roman emperors, to coups and assassinations. This novel offers cautionary and mildly satirical retrospective glimpses of our own world through the eyes of a future century with only distorted memories of the pre-collapse world.

How well would most of us cope if our technological civilization suddenly collapsed? I don't know about you, but I am not and never will be an omnicompetent Heinlein-style survivalist. I don't even like camping! I'm very attached to my conveniences and would hate to go back even to the 1970s. My favorite historical era is the 1890s, but I don't want to *live* there. Five days without electricity after Hurricane Isabel made that point clear (worse than the nineteenth century, actually, because without power our well pump doesn't work). And relatively few of us have the useful experience of belonging to the SCA or other historical re-creation groups, as the resourceful protagonists in Stirling's DIES THE FIRE do. I'm afraid I would be a victim of the collapse, not a survivor.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Snow Dogs And Happily Ever After

Before we discuss a possible format for an Alien Romance complete with HEA, here's my speaking schedule for Westercon ( http://www.westercon.org/ fiestacon this year in Tempe, AZ.)

LIT/MED-What Universe Are You In? Fri 10a-11a, Palm E room

w/ Jacqueline Lichtenberg (moderator), Dani Kollin, Etyan Kollin, Janice Tuerff

LIT-How Are Small Presses Fri 11a-noon, Palm E room

w/ Jacqueline Lichtenberg (moderator), Adam Niswander, Michael D’Ambrosio

MED-Star Trek Movie Review Fri 2p-3p, Palm F room

w/David A. Williams (moderator), Alan Dean Foster

LIT-It Was A Dark & Stormy Night Fri 4p-5p, Abbey South

w/ Jacqueline Lichtenberg (moderator), Kevin Andrew Murphy, Moira Greyland,
Shirley Runyon

AUTOGRAPHING Fri 5p-6p, Dealers Room

LIT-Writer’s Support Groups Sun 11a-noon, Boardroom

w/ Jacqueline Lichtenberg (moderator), Rick Novy, Dennis McKiernan

FAN-Effect of Web on Fanzines Sun noon-1p, Jokake room

w/John Hertz (moderator)

FAN-SF/F Websites Sun 2p-3p, Augustine

w/ Jacqueline Lichtenberg (moderator), Lee Gilliland, Lee Whiteside

And on another note which is actually in the same key:

I picked up on Twitter and "Re-tweeted" (relayed to my followers)
LIKE SO: RT @victoriastrauss Should bookstores be publishers? http://tinyurl.com/mrdatl

Twitter makes these tiny-urls for you when you post a long url and there are several companies now that make condensed URLs.

So Victoria Strauss found an article by Literary Agent Richard Curtis on whether bookstores SHOULD be publishers. Here's a quote from the article she found.

As if all that were not enough, Amazon has now become a publisher, too. First, there's its Encore program "whereby Amazon will use information such as customer reviews on Amazon.com to identify exceptional, overlooked books and authors with more potential than their sales may indicate. Amazon will then partner with the authors to re-introduce their books to readers through marketing support and distribution into multiple channels and formats, such as the Amazon.com Books Store, Amazon Kindle Store, Audible.com, and national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers."

http://www.ereads.com/2009/06/should-bookstores-be-publishers-too.html is the blog.

Victoria Strauss also found announcements of other closings in publishing, and coincidentally I'm on a panel at Westercon about small "presses" (which is today a misnomer; it's small publishers, and I suspect one day every blogger will be considered a small publisher.)

To keep up on interesting developments I come across this way, just "follow" me on twitter. http://twitter.com/JLichtenberg look at my profile to find all my tweets.


OK, so back to researching the future of Romance on page and screen by scrutinizing and analyzing old movies.

I saw a 2002 Disney movie titled SNOW DOGS and just couldn't resist transposing it into an Alien Romance as I watched it. It is soooo SF-Romance!

Snow Dogs with Comedy, Drama, a clean family style, Nichelle Nichols for a treat, and starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., James Coburn Director: Brian Levant. You can still get the DVD on Amazon.

If you've been following how I've been developing the Alien Romance potential for TV and film, and you happen to have seen this "family" movie, you'll know what's coming here. It's really irresistible.

Here's the IMDB link to all about this movie.

Here's the Product Description from Amazon:

-----------quoted from Amazon---------------
Make no bones about it -- Disney's SNOW DOGS is a hilarious action-packed comedy your whole family will love. Eight adorable but mischievous dogs get the best of dog hater Ted Brooks (Cuba Gooding Jr.) when he leaves his successful Miami Beach dental practice for the wilds of Alaska to claim his inheritance -- seven Siberian huskies and a border collie -- and discover his roots. As Ted's life goes to the dogs, he rises to the occasion and vows to learn to mush with his inheritance. Totally out of his element, he faces challenges he's never dreamed of. There's a blizzard, thin ice, an intimidating crusty old mountain man named Thunder Jack (James Coburn), the Arctic Challenge Sled Dog Race that's only two weeks away, and a life-and-death rescue. This fish-out-of water, tail-wagging comedy is nothing but doggone good fun and a celebration of family -- both human and canine!
-------------end Amazon Quote---------------

Compare that description to SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES and find the category it belongs to. (more on that later -- think it out for yourself first.)

Now substitute "Earth" for Miami Beach and "Alien Planet" for Alaska.

Notice the description has left out the ROMANCE which is the B-story in this film as written.

That's a lesson for all writers -- THIS is how you generate and pitch a Concept. THIS is how you "outline" a story you're going to write. Watch the movie, then read that description again. It hits the exact plot-points you need to put in your outline before you write and be sure that you build up to each plot point. All the B-story is support for the A-story and does not belong in the initial outline or Concept, but is generated by that concept.

Novel writers don't learn to do the sequence in this direction, or haven't until recently. Read that blog post by Agent Richard Curtis, think about how marketing has changed.

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2009/05/marketing-fiction-in-changing-world.html is a blog where I discussed modern marketing.

The novels that get the promotion, the novels that you as an author would find easiest TO PROMOTE, the novels that sell, the novels that attract busy reader's attention -- those novels today resemble games, films, and TV shows more and more.

Market structures have always been morphing, and every generation puts its own stamp on what's popular. But I suspect never in all human history have "markets" (for everything) changed and changed again, 100% replaced in shorter and shorter intervals. This was predicted by Alvin Toffler in Future Shock which I discussed in that blog entry on marketing fiction in a changing world.

This means that never before in human history has there been such an opportunity to overthrow the existing order because the walls between genres are melting and morphing.

Instability like that is a threat in the areas where we have actually got it right -- but in the area of Relationships, I doubt any expert would say that humanity has optimized our ability to establish and hold relationships.

Love is all about relationship -- and it's very hard to get to love without going through Romance (one day we should discuss the astrology behind that).

So let's see what we can do with the example of Snow Dogs to create a template for Alien Romance with broad appeal. A "template" would be a pattern that, if all of us on this blog used to create a screenplay or novel, would generate 7 or more totally original, completely different stories. They wouldn't compete, they would expand a genre.

It would be easy to make the Romance the A-story and transform this movie into an Alien Romance.

So here's a description of Snow Dogs based on the assumption that you know or remember this movie.

In Snow Dogs, the very successful and popular Miami Dentist Ted Brooks (whose mother is played by Nichelle Nichols, the woman who raised him, not his deceased biological mother) is served with a legal notice that he's inherited something in Alaska from his MOTHER and Nichelle Nichols confesses that he was adopted (oh, she's GOOD in this film!).

For more on Nichelle Nichols see my blog post on High Concept:

Thus stressed, Ted Brooks flies to Alaska to be present at the reading of the Will in a tiny out-back town, complete with Bush Pilot who turns out to be his real father.

That's the A-story. Ted, his Miami Beach mother Nichelle Nichols, his Alaskan father who is a white man, his dead biological mother's photo (she was black as Ted is) and her heritage of dogsled racing.

The B-story goes like this: as soon as Ted gets to Alaska, flown into the little town by the Bush Pilot he doesn't know is his father, he meets a WOMAN HIS AGE who takes him out to the house he inherited. He insists he go in alone, so she leaves him. He goes in and meets the friendly Border Collie, then gets attacked by the Alaskan Huskies his deceased mother owned.

Between the Bush Pilot (James Coburn was FANTASTIC in this role!) and the young woman, Ted learns to "mush" and learns the words to command the dogs from his father. She teaches him how to harness the dogs so they'll cooperate.

Then Ted discovers he loves dogsledding, and just as he's really enjoying it, he drives off a cliff and has a (very comic book) slide down a mountainside, gets rescued by the Bush Pilot who takes him to a refuge cave where he confesses Ted was conceived during a dog sled race, but that there was nothing at all between his real mother and the Bush Pilot, and tries to convince Ted that he doesn't care that Ted is his son. (Oh, Coburn is good, but what would you expect?)

Ted goes home to Miami. On TV in Miami, he sees the local annual dogsled race. Nichelle Nichols drops the photo he kept from his biological mother's things which is of Ted's biological mother with her dogsled trophy. The frame breaks revealing a photo tucked behind the trophy photo. This older photo shows his mother with the Bush pilot and newborn Ted. Ted realizes his real father, the Bush Pilot, lied, and he was indeed present at his birth and he did care for his mother, and he cares for Ted too. His real father lied.

So Ted goes back to Alaska and arrives during the race, as a storm is blowing in, just as it did during the dogsled race when he was conceived.

The young woman tells him that his father is lost out on the race course in the storm -- that just as he did that first time, his father has passed by the camp where the racers would wait out the storm, and driven on into the blizzard. After the storm, Ted's father has failed to show up at the finish line with the others.

That kicks off the Act 3 action where Ted takes his sled, his mother's dog team (sans the lead dog which his father took for his team), and finds and rescues his father who has taken refuge in that same cave where Ted was conceived. Bt this time his father has a broken leg. Ted's a Dentist, but he splints the leg nicely. Then it turns out that his mother's lead-dog Demon was in a bad temper because he had a rotten tooth, so Ted pulls the tooth, justifying the whole "Miami Dentist" part of his characterization.

Meanwhile, Ted's Miami mother, Nichelle Nichols, flies to Alaska and the young woman takes gentle care of her as they wait to see if Ted will make it back to town alive.

Of course (this being a Disney movie) Ted and his father make it back to town, Ted almost kisses the young woman in public (being Disney, only almost) and then there's a very quick but moving wrap-up sequence where Ted marries her, establishes his Dental practice in Alaska with his wife as receptionist (now very pregnant), and two of the dogs arrive with puppies following them, and Ted's Dental Assistant from Miami is helping him with patients. And there's a great scene with Coburn and Nichols -- the end-note is TOTAL HEA!!! But the bulk of the plot is comedy-action.

Frankly, the tag-ending providing the HEA (a real tear-jerker) would make a fine novel, all by itself. One part of this story is seen through a magnifying glass (Notice of his biological mother's death all the way through to rescuing his biological father), and the much larger and more complicated part is seen through the wrong end of a telescope. But it works.

Now, if instead of dogsledding there was some non-human skill-set that a human talent would be adaptable to and that talent was substituted for Dentistry, it would work perfectly as an Alien Romance.

Let's say the human is female, and the reason she is pulled off Earth is that tests show she has a gene for being SOMETHING (immune to alien diseases? learning languages? Telepathy?) that makes her valuable on Earth's first-contact team. But she's no astronaut and never dreamed of ever going "out there" just as Ted was happy and successful as a Miami dentist and had no intention of going dog sledding in Alaska.

So Our Heroine goes out there, and has to learn to (SOMETHING ALIEN), and does, and in the process establishes a Relationship with an alien male, just as Ted established a relationship with the Alaskan young woman.

Our Heroine and the Alien Male are the A-story here, and the B-story is her winning some sort of respect from the Earth-Team that has been ordered to take her out-there in spite of her ineptitude because of her talent.

The team returns her to Earth safe and sound but changed by the experience. Something happens on the alien planet, and she muscles her way back to the alien planet (possible only because the B-story characters help) to deal with unfinished business with the Alien Male.

She wins a permanent place on the Alien Planet (as Ted opened his Dentistry office in Alaska) doing what makes her happy with her talent, not necessarily what Earth-gov would prefer her to do.

I'm thinking that a really good setup would be that the Aliens are the "flying saucer" aliens who have been kidnapping kids, and now she has to go there to be the psychological counsellor to those kids and ease them back into Earth society, but proves that's impossible for the kids (they'd be miserable and a disruptive influence). Then she goes back and settles down to take care of the kids who can't be repatriated.

The Alien guy would be someone in charge of settling the matter of the kidnapped Earth kids, maybe someone from a new alien government that ousted the aliens that believed in "studying" humans by kidnapping kids. The new gov't thinks this deed was an attrocity.

That would make a feature film -- and the foundation for a TV series like maybe THE WALTONS IN SPACE? THE KING AND I IN SPACE?

If you get a chance, grab the DVD of Snow Dogs (it's also being rerun on TV) (maybe netflicks has it, or it can be viewed online?) and watch the whole film with the Alien Romance possibilities in mind.

In Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES, check out the category that SNOW DOGS belongs to on the free pdf file:

Snow Dogs is not listed, but I would place it under FOOL TRIUMPHANT in the sub-category FOOL OUT OF WATER (a variant of Fish Out Of Water), which is the category headed by LEGALLY BLONDE. What do you think of that placement? And would that category and its formula lend itself to a platform for an Alien Romance that would have an appeal outside Romance fandom as Star Trek had an appeal outside of SF fandom (mainly to women who wouldn't crack an SF novel if their life depended on it -- those very women who INVENTED Alien Romance in ST 'zines!) ?

Blake Snyder's category depends on the MAIN CHARACTER being a CHARACTER (as in USA CHARACTERS WELCOME) who responds to a challenge with zest, joi de vivre, and the flexibility to learn, making "a fool of herself" in public in the process, and yet triumphing over the learning process in the end.

Note that Crocadile Dundee also belongs to this category. Scrumptious alien male, a fish out of water in Manhattan.

It seems to me that the category lends itself to Alien Romance so smoothly that I think we could see our breakthrough using this type of vehicle.

And as I pointed out, all of us could write the screenplay or novel structured like a screenplay from this template, and not compete with each other for shelf-space.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, June 21, 2009

This is not the blog I want to write...

Tank trotted around the cabin after MommySass left, sniffing corners, putting his wet nose to the viewports, and then staring nowhere and everywhere. Be alert, Friend Reilly had warned him. Bad Thing watches us with its ugly smelly light.

Tank knew. He scented another drip of ugliness just now, a fetid ripple in the neverwhen. A small one, yes. But there.

Gone now. He looked again through the neverwhen. Perhaps he’d scared it away. He might be only a fidget, but he was growing stronger. He blinked his eyes, searching for something more pleasant.

Friend? Friend?

He felt Reilly’s answering purr.

Play now? Play time?

Play now, came the answer from down the corridor. Come here. Go Blink.

Fun! He swished his tail, remembering to do what Reilly taught him. Stretch. Reach. Sense. Go Blink.

He felt the neverwhen ruffle his fur. And then he was in Friend Reilly’s cabin sharing a wet-nosed greeting. Fun! he said again, and pounced on his friend’s back, wrestling the larger furzel to the floor....

The two furzels touched noses one more time before Reilly followed Tank into Sass’s small kitchen. Tank sat and looked up at the countertop. Reilly leaped gracefully, landing next to a shallow bowl of cream.

Tank scrunched his pudgy body against the floor and pushed with all his might, managing only to scramble against the cabinet doors before falling.

Shtift-a! he swore.

Reilly looked down at the pudgy fidget, then indicated with a lift of his nose the other side of the counter and two tall stools. Obediently, Tank trotted around and, paw over paw, grunting audibly, managed to pull himself up to counter level. Reilly graciously left a bit of cream for his friend.



Sweet. Cool.

Cool. Sweet.

A noise at the cabin door drew their attention.

Sass. Friend. Love, said Tank. Mommymommy!

Friend. Sass, agreed Reilly.

She pulled her hand away to examine the object, knowing by touch what it was before she even held it up in the dim light. Five diamond-studded stars riding a slash of gold lightning.

“Keep it this time. Please.” He secured it to her shirt, just over her captain’s bars.

She knew she would never let it go again. A part of him, a part of Branden Kel-Paten. And a promise of forever.

She threaded her hand back through his and let him lead her through his ship’s dark and dying corridors to the airlock’s hatchway. A fat long-furred black and white furzel sat patiently waiting for them in the bright glow of the only working overhead light. Guardian of their safety. A beacon to guide them home.

(all selections from GAMES OF COMMAND )

Daquiri aka Daq Cat aka Tank the Furzel

Nov 1996 - June 21, 2009

You will be in my heart forever.

~Linnea aka MommySass

The future of Health Care

The most ridiculous health care system I've seen in my reading of alien romances and futuristic romances is to put an injured or sick person into a smart box for a short time.

Like magic, they recover completely with no explanation. All the hero has to do is carry the heroine to the nearest box. Or vice versa!

Superheroes and new agers require crystals. What else have you seen in speculative fiction?

Could an MRI or the combination of radioactivity with a psychically attractive meditation object really stimulate the body to regenerate itself?

Or will doctors and nurses always be with us? And if they are, will they dress differently... because those white coats or scrubs that are worn all day long might be the modern equivalent of the unwashed hands that went from dissecting cadavers in the morgue to the childbed in the maternity ward.

It would be nice if Go To Meeting Dot Com technology could be adapted for sick patient consultations, wouldn't it?

Go-To-Doc dot com.

We could sit at our computers with the camera on, and the doctor would be at his computer. We could show him our tongues, throats, nostrils, spots and rashes, hemorroids (I never could spell that!), or anything else that bothered us.

I dare say it wouldn't be too hard to have a DIY stethoscope, ECG, and blood tester. Also a DIY urinalysis, and occult blood test. Pharmacies could sell kits.

My vision is that this would be like Triage. If the patient wasn't satisfied, or if the doctor was suspicious of his or her own diagnosis, a referral could be made. In many cases, we go to a walk in clinic, the doctor pays close attention, prescribes an antibiotic or an over-the-counter remedy, admonishes us to rest and drink lots of non-alcoholic liquids, and tells us to come back in ten days if the condition does not improve.

There's already Ask-A-Nurse by telephone and probably in chat forums. Why not have Doctor-Zoom (with apologies to Legal Zoom) ?

It seems to me that medicine is Socialized on the USS Enterprise, on Babylon 5, and on Rebel alliance starships. Did Luke have to pay for his bionic hand? Would Mr. Spock be required to pay privately if he elected to have a medically irrational ear job?

Being sick is bad enough, without it being financially ruinous. On the other hand, perhaps we don't all have the right to be as beautiful and sexy as modern medicine could make us... at least, not at taxpayers' cost.

What would happen to society in the future if the person who communicated a disease was financially responsible for the treatment of those he or she infected? Unworkable? Unenforcible?

Look at H1N1. Some cities closed the schools.

It's a fact of life. Some parents will send their children to school when they know that child has a fever and is infectious... even with H1N1. There is no economic disincentive to endangering the community, but there is a financial incentive. If the child is kept at home, the parent cannot go to work and may lose wages.

Some people have a cock-eyed view of social responsibility. We had a school camp. One parent allegedly (so others said) left the bedside of a husband who had a 104 degree fever and alleged swineflu to come to camp and take her turn serving food at the snack table.

If the health care system is in financial trouble, will the elders of the future seek to encourage and even reward "self-quarantine"? Or, in the future, would the spread of a deadly disease be seen by government as a cost-effective way to eradicate the most expensive and non-productive members of society?

(Playing Devils Advocate, here. That is not what I endorse.)

My Fictional Future Health Care Plan

1. Private Pay. Walk-In clinics. Doctor-Zoom.com

If anyone wants to see a doctor in the walk-in system for cuts, scrapes, colds, flu, bronchitis, drug testing, rashes, broken toes/fingers, flu shots, prescription refills, (the sort of things that the uninsured take to the Emergency Room, and everyone else "walks in" and claims on their insurance, which cannot possibly be efficient in terms of paperwork time in relation to face-time with the doctor)

Flat rate of $10 for up to 10 minutes face-to-face online, or $30 in a facility.
(Or whatever AMA deems reasonable... Perhaps tax CREDITS could be an answer to the discrepancy in what people can afford to pay, and what is fair compensation for long, expensive training.)

Cash payment before being seen (on the spot or online).
Medical PayPal model?
Sign medical waiver, so there is no insurance/malpractice issue.
No insurance forms to be filled out, or claims to file. No exceptions. Just like walk in flu shots.

This will save doctors a lot of paperwork.
This will put the onus on patients to turn up at the clinics or online with all their own records and a list of their symptoms.

Health Care Spending Account. PayPal for Medical costs.

Everyone (even children) may set up a tax-free, personal, individual Health Care Spending account, on the same principal as a college account. Possibly, the state could match savings for the lowest income individuals. The dollars would "roll over" and never be lost (unless spent.)

Employers could "buy out" existing health care, by transferring cash into their employees' Health Care Spending Accounts.

This would be a private pay system. Those who keep themselves in good health would not be subsidizing those who have unhealthy lifestyles.

Private Insurance. (Like the British BUPA)

Individuals could opt to buy private, annual, term insurance for operations and other expensive procedures, also for elective and cosmetic procedures. This would be for patients who did not wish to wait for hip replacements, and other elective procedures, or who wished to have annual physicals at "resort" hospitals such as the Mayo Clinic instead of in their local physicans' offices with "participating providers".

It could work like car insurance, with cash back for people who do not make claims, and reduced premiums for those with clean health records. Premiums (at the Health Care Account owner's sole discretion) could be paid out of the Health Care Savings Account.

State System.

Everyone is covered for everything requiring a referral from the $30 walk-in or $10 online clinic and upwards. Everyone waits their turn. No penis or breast enlargement (or reversal of medically successful cosmetic surgery) etc.

Only prescriptions that are necessary for pain, life preservation, treatment of infections, functioning of tests, etc would be provided. (No self-esteem drugs, no birth control, no viagra, no fertility drugs.)

Catastrophic care would be covered.

What's on your future wish list?

Rowena Cherry

The future of books

My opinion is that bookstores will become more of a cross between an internet cafe and a library. If patrons could do all their browsing on free computers, books would not have to be displayed attractively, and books could be stored much more efficiently.

The idea of allowing any single-product merchant access to everything on my personal computer is ludicrous.


Happy Fathers' Day

Saturday, June 20, 2009

When a story doesn't work, part five

For the past few weeks I've posted the synopsis and first three chapters of my post apocotlypic romance that I shopped around to some different houses the end of 2008. One editor called it a MadMax/Matrix mix. I liked that reference. Still no one bit. No one even came close. They just could not identify with the characters.

So what was I to do? I had a concept that I thought was a good one. The greatest power is the mind. My overall story arc was pretty much typical. Guy meets girl, guy falls for girl, bad guy wants girl, bad guy takes girl, guy rescues girl and they live happily ever after. My world, as I envisioned it was complex and would need at least three books to tell, maybe four. Most important, I had two characters and names that I loved. Dax and Merritt.

I think one thing that went against me was the time of year. I sent out a dark, desperate and depressing world at Christmas time. That really should not influence it but deep down I think it did. Christmas is a happy time as it should be. But mostly I think the market was to blame. sci/fi romance is a very narrow niche and its hard to take a risk on something that does not have the potential for making a lot of $$$.

Publishers had taken a hit along with everyone else in 2008. A major book distributor went under. Returns were up, book stores were not buying as many titles as before but buying more of sure things. It was a hard time to sell period.

I took a long hard look at the market. I needed to come up with something new and fresh. Something that did not have vampires since I feel the fur and fangs market is way over done. I also felt as if urban fantasy might be overdone as well. Something well written in a new market sells, it becomes popular and suddenly every publisher in the world wants the same thing. They buy it up in hopes that they can cash in on the sudden craze and the reader gets tired of it. I am a firm believer that the reader wants a well written book in any genre instead of mediocre books in their favorite genre.

So thinking, new and different. Something that I could do well. Something in my writers wheelhouse. Somthing with strong characters, and great world buildling. I'm known for writing historicals and scifi. What blends those two genre's together?


It wasn't as if I had a lightbulb moment. I'd read a few articles, thought about it, watched some movies with some elements of it, then a friend called me up and said. "I think you should try writing Steampunk. Its' perfect for you."

But I still had this proposal with elements that I liked and characters that I adored. Could I turn it into a steampunk story?

Here's the synopsis. You tell me.

Prism by Cindy Holby
A Steampunk Romance

Cindy Holby, award-winning author of historical and scifi romance, blends both genres together with Prism, a steampunk romance featuring a cowboy, a psychic heroine and a diabolical plot to take over the world using imaginative technology in Victorian England. What’s a proper British lady to do when a mad scientist is after her brain and an American cowboy is after her heart?

London, England 1887

David Alexander Conrad, AKA Dax, is a cowboy. But he's not just any ordinary cowboy—he's one of the famed performers with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show who, in the summer of 1887, travels to England in order to give those stuffy Victorians a jolt of good old American showmanship. He is a renowned sharp shooter and trick rider with skills honed when he worked as a scout for the US Cavalry in the American Southwest during the Apache Wars with Geronimo. At twenty-seven, he’s the youngest star of the show and something of a celebrity in a London unaccustomed to his type. It is while Dax is on the party circuit that he meets a woman unlike any he has ever known.

Merritt Elizabeth Chadwyke is the daughter of Member of Parliament, Lord Pemberton She lives in a society bubble because she is subject to spells and needs the constant monitoring of a nurse. During her “spells” Merritt has been known to make outlandish comments about things of which she should have no knowledge. There is also evidence that during these spells, objects appear to move on their own. Merritt’s parents are very protective of her since they have already lost a son to a tragic accident. What her parents do not know is that at ten years of age, Merritt had a vision of her brother’s death but was afraid to say anything because of her parents reactions to her visions. She did try to warn her brother, who was fourteen when he died, but he ignored her. He realized he should have paid attention to her and said so as he died in his father’s arms. At their wits’ end over her strange illness, her parents send her to the Paranormal Research Institute run by Baron Edmond Von Swaim, who has become a society darling himself by using his powers of hypnotism to charm the upper crust. As Von Swaim performs test upon test on Merritt, he comes to the conclusion that she is something so unique and rare, he wasn't even certain it existed. Merritt is a Prism. And more importantly, she is exactly what he needs to complete his plot to overthrow the British Monarchy and take what he feels is his claim to the throne.

Von Swaim does everything to encourage Merritt’s family to turn her over to his care to cure her “spells.” His research into the study of the human mind has led him to believe that it is the greatest power upon earth. Through the use of his brilliant inventions and the enhancement of crystal prisms he plans to harness Merritt’s mind. Merritt, true to the nature of her spells, has a bad feeling about Von Swaim and refuses to go with him, despite her parents’ belief that it is the perfect solution to her strange illness. It is also during this time that Dax and Merritt have met each other and find that they are unable to stop thinking about each other. He finds it’s a bit more difficult to track a young woman through Victorian London than it is to fight Indians in the American west. Still he manages to find her, at parties, at the park, even in an exclusive tea shop. The feelings they share grow stronger with each passing moment and they go to great lengths to spend time together when they realize there is something special between them. As they pursue their romance Dax finds Merritt’s strange sense of things more of a gift than an illness and Merritt knows that Dax truly loves her for who she is, not what society or her parents expect her to be.

Frustrated with the constraints her family and society have put upon her, and unable to escape from Von Swaim’s constant presence, Merritt sneaks out to see a final performance of the Wild West show. Dax is happy to see her in the crowd and pulls her out to do some trick shooting. Meanwhile, Von Swaim, who has had Merritt watched ever since he’s treated her, is told of her escape from her home. Von Swaim sees this as the perfect opportunity to take her and sends his men, who wear armor and carry weapons that shoot lasers and electrical currents after her. Dax and Merritt manage to escape and spend a romantic night together in hiding. The following morning Von Swaim’s army finds their hiding place and chase Dax and Merritt through the streets of London. Dax is well armed but his trick shooting has no effect upon the special armor Von Swaim’s soldiers wear. Dax and Merritt are finally captured when Von Swaim uses a zeppelin to run them down in Hyde Park. He takes both of them prisoner, Merritt to be his weapon, and Dax, who is wounded in the leg to be brain washed and become a soldier in his army. They are taken by zeppelin to Von Swaim’s hidden castle in the Swiss Alps.

Dax finds there is no torture or brainwashing powerful enough to erase Merritt and his feelings for her from his memory. He manages to befriend a doctor in Von Swaim’s employ who has repaired Dax’s wound using Von Swaim’s invention of brass fittings and joints. After some time in which his injury heals and with the doctor’s help Dax manages to escape, only to find himself alone in a country where he knows no one and does not speak the language. To makes matters worse, Merritt is now under Von Swaim’s control and he has taken her to away for “treatment” with her parents’ permission. Fortunately for Dax, the Wild West Show is now touring Europe and he is able to find his friends who welcome him back with open arms. Dax is desperate to find Merritt but has no idea where to look.

Merritt, who is under Von Swaim’s control, cannot forget Dax either. Even though her memories of him are supposedly erased by Von Swaim’s hypnotism, her Prism abilities guide her back to Dax at one of the performances of the Wild West Show. Dax knows that he may never have this chance with Merritt again. With the help of his friends from the Wild West Show he is ready to use Von Swaim’s weapons against him. Dax and Von Swaim enter into a battle for her mind, but Von Swaim does not realize that Dax is also fighting for Merritt’s heart and soul. Dax will stop at nothing to free her from Von Swaim so that Merritt may make her own choices for her own life. Dax can only hope that once he frees her from Von Swaim that Merritt will choose him because he loves her just the way she is. Neither technology nor mind control, no matter how powerful, are any match for the strength of their love.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

More on Animal Intelligence

An article titled “Native Intelligence,” in a special Winter 2009 issue of DISCOVER magazine about the brain, showcases the smartest animals in all the major groups (mammals, birds, insects, etc.). One general principle mentioned is, "Group living promotes a quick mind," because social interaction with other members of one's species requires flexibility and responsiveness. Being a social species isn't an absolute requirement, of course; some solitary animals are also conspicuous for their intelligence. Dolphins, border collies, pigs, and chimpanzees won't surprise anybody. Crows, among birds, are well known for their cleverness. I've also seen parrots celebrated for their smartness, although not in this article; apparently they can actually learn context-appropriate application of words rather than just "parroting." Horses, though? It turns out they're smarter than their reputation suggests. They can "be trained to pick the bigger or smaller of two objects," and wild mustangs can remember the location of water and food sources in their desert environment. Maybe Jonathan Swift's civilized horses in GULLIVER'S TRAVELS aren't so far-fetched—or the centaur-like aliens in one of John Varley's novels.

Bees? The article cites their "sophisticated spatial memory" and dance communication as signs of intelligence. I was thinking more of the "hive mind" concept, with an anthill or beehive analogous to a brain and the individual insects filling the role of neurons. A sinister hive mind takes possession of Tiffany, the young witch in Terry Pratchett's HAT FULL OF SKY, and manages to exchange thoughts with her in a rudimentary way. An extraterrestrial hive mind would be fascinating to deal with, as far as communication is concerned, but SO alien it might be difficult to integrate into a romance plot. If you fell in love with a "cell" in a group mind, wouldn't the entire hive share your intimate experiences?

The cleaner wrasse, a fish that nibbles parasites off larger fish, has enough brain to be sneaky about eating small chunks of a host's body and yet not bite the wrong fish, one that might eat him. Lobsters are "master navigators." My favorite aquatic smart creature from this article, however, is the octopus. Octopuses learn from experience and have been observed apparently playing with objects, a sign of intelligence; only intelligent animals continue to play into adulthood. Because they can manipulate things with their tentacles, super-octopuses on an alien planet could develop some sort of material technology, making them the kind of ET we could comprehend and maybe communicate with.

The last example in the article doesn't even have a brain—the amoeba. In foraging for food, it follows a zigzag pattern displaying "search optimization." This example brings up the question of how far the definition of intelligence should be stretched. The first page defines it as "the capacity to learn from one's surroundings and use reason to apply that knowledge toward a goal." Okay, just about any animal, including the amoeba and the lowly paramecium, can learn from its surroundings in the sense of modifying its behavior accordingly. But in what sense can a creature without a brain be said to "use reason"? Which relates to the SF problem of whether we could recognize an alien as intelligent if it had a type of intelligence extremely different from ours. Or suppose we met a being whose difference of scale went in the opposite direction from the bee's or amoeba's—a creature the size of a planet or star. Maybe its thoughts would move with such ponderous deliberation that it would have trouble recognizing US as intelligent.

P. S.: What kinds of topics would you be interested in seeing us blog about? I think this has been asked before, but more input is always welcome.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt: http://www.margaretlcarter.com

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Writer's Eye Finds Symmetry

We had an interesting discussion on Spoilers recently in which I held that any story worth reading or viewing couldn't be "spoiled" by knowing the ending, or any particular scene, plot development or bit of dialogue.

In other words, I held that there is no such thing as a "spoiler."

If knowing what happens "spoils" it for you, then it wasn't well written enough to be worth your time and money anyway.

But in fact, there is such a thing as a spoiler!!!

What "spoils" fiction for readers and viewers is not knowing what happens, but knowing the trick behind the fictional facade.

The trick that's jerking your emotions around, that takes an event or line of dialogue and carries it straight through your conscious defenses into your subconscious and hits your deepest, most buried buttons, works just as well whether you've heard the plot in advance or not.

But once you know the trick being used against you, you don't react to it any more.

As stage magicians loathe letting anyone know their "secrets" (even other magicians), so also writers (who are prestidigitators of the emotions) should guard their proprietary secrets. Some writers go so far as to not-teach new writers because newbies are 'the competition.'

There is a process which trainee writers undergo as they pass from audience to stage-magician that is extremely wrenching. As you learn the secrets that writers have been using to jerk your emotions around, to make you laugh or cry over a scene, to deliver a GASP!, or a whoop of triumph, you find that your favorite fiction is "spoiled" -- you just don't enjoy it anymore, the way you used to as a mere reader.

You've found the keywords that trigger your emotional responses, even when used 200 pages before the impact hits you. You've found how you fall for the hero's kryptonite weakness, or root for heroes who have no such weakness. You've read a lot of these articles on how to write, and you've attended panels at conventions where writers reveal their secrets. Perhaps you've even done some writing yourself, and realize that these stories that always seemed so real, so important, so filled with higher truth, spiritual insights, or personal affirmation of your view of the world -- all this stuff you always adored suddenly seems as flimsy and false as the Western town main street consisting of plywood fronts for stores with catwalks on the back for cameras.

And it's all bland and pointless, except there's money to be made writing! So you set out to write, and that just makes the apathy for reading or viewing any fiction worse.

This state of apathy for fiction can persist for years once fiction has been "spoiled" for you by glimpsing behind the scenes. Or it might persist only for a few months, depending on how fast the stage of mastering the craft lasts. And the length of that interval depends on how hard you work at mastering the tricks yourself, and how much of yourself you put into it, and on how good you are at learning abstract things then applying them in the practical world.

Some people actually reach a version of this stage of apathy just while watching television, never thinking to become writers. They grasp the underlying formula for a TV series, find it predictable, and then find it boring because it's predictable.

Some will then segue into an "I can write better than that!" attitude and proceed to do so (with varied results), but still not find their enjoyment of commercial fiction returning.

So let's talk a little about how writing students bootstrap themselves up to the level of professional writers, and begin enjoying fiction for totally different reasons than they had ever been able to imagine before. This sheds light on why the same novel rarely wins both the Hugo (voted by fans) and the Nebula (voted only by professional writers.)

What does the writer's eye see that the reader's eye misses?

What do writers see in each others' work to send them into paroxysms of joy, of admiration, or even (*gasp*) into becoming a FAN of another writer's work?

It's all in the writer's TRAINED EYE. The writer's inner eye "sees" patterns that escape the casual reader. Having attempted to capture such a pattern and display it in a fictional universe, a world they have built themselves, the writer is aware of how difficult it is to put such an abstract vision into a piece of fiction and have the fiction still work as a story comprehensible to other people.

Only the writer who has studied the craft, then attempted (and perhaps even sold) stories has full appreciation of what an achievement capturing a real-world pattern in a bit of fiction can be.

If the pattern is put into the foreground of the fiction, the fiction fails to reach the reader/viewer's subconscious. If it's in the background or too buried in symbology or assumptions, the fiction doesn't communicate the pattern to a commercial size audience. If it's too hidden in the THEME, the fiction fails. Too blatant or too hidden -- either one is easy to write. But getting the pattern to be visible, clear and well stated, but still open to personal interpretation, and thus able to engage the audience's subconscious, now that's hard.

A writer can have a blazing epiphany, become filled to the brim with the urgency of showing the world an important bit of wisdom, and write their heart into a story -- only to have it sneered at or rejected.

After such a failure, a writer is set up to break through the apathy barrier, to become a FAN of other writers, to appreciate writing as craft and art welded into a thing of beauty.

What does a writer learn in that moment of breaking through the apathy barrier? What breaks that barrier and restores enjoyment to fiction? Finding a pattern you recognize properly used in a bit of fiction, understanding the craft elements that construct and convey the pattern, and knowing "This is what I was trying to do!" Recognizing another writer's success at something difficult restores a writer's zest for reading/viewing other writer's fiction.

All that is very abstract. Here's a concrete example.

Let's take the film MR. AND MRS. SMITH, the 2005 movie version where a husband and wife are in marriage counselling, and discover that each one has been keeping a secret from the other.

They are both assassins working for secret agencies. And they've been assigned to kill each other, and in fact the situation which pits them against each other was rigged by their superiors simply because they were living together. (um, yeah, it's a romance, and has all the elements of an alien romance, since each is "the unknown" to the other)


I've seen this film several times, and once again just recently.

But this last time was the ONLY time I saw what it was that speaks to me in this film.

Previously, it had been years since I'd written a screenplay. Recently I've done three (none yet to my own satisfaction!). Now I'm seeing movies differently, and really enjoying things I did not enjoy before. Apparently I stopped writing screenplays before I broke this barrier.

So in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, I found the PATTERN that (when I couldn't see it) was jerking me around. Now it is very likely you saw this pattern the first time you saw the movie, and you won't understand why I didn't see it.

And I like this movie even better now that I've seen clearly what was only hazy before.

I hope you've re-read my post
because in that post I did mention that if you have a prologue, you also need an epilogue. That's a technique of structure often called "bookends." Mr. & Mrs. Smith has "bookends" in the structure, and I never missed that point.

The film starts with the husband and wife sitting in office visitor chairs before a desk you don't see. It's a marriage counselling session. They haven't had sex in a while (with each other, that is) and can't agree on how long that's been, nor on how long it's been since they met. We see how they met, pretending to be a couple even though they didn't know each other, evading a police search for an assassin who was an American traveling alone. Total strangers, they provided cover for each other.

We see each of them in their ordinary workday persona, in wild "James Bond" action, battling, killing, almost being killed, arriving home in very "James Bond" unruffled fashion, being the perfect suburban couple. They argue or go stone-silent over trivial household matters. Clearly something abnormal there.

Then they're pitted against each other (we don't know why at first) and each wrestles with whether to kill the other (almost does it), and finally they begin actually TALKING about the issues between them ("What did you think the first time you saw me?" asking frank and embarrassing questions and answering honestly.) As they clear the air, they decide they won't kill each other, and they team up as allies against the conspiracy of their superiors to make them kill each other because they're living together (and therefore the "other" is a spy.)

The battle scenes get wilder and wilder until they shoot up a store, blow things up, (even their own house gets turned into a pile of kindling) then there's a stunt-doubled car chase to make Indiana Jones pale.

And after one wild-WILD action fight sequence, they blow off the rest of their aggressions in sex, wild passionate sex like they haven't had in years.

They settle the problem with their superiors, and they're back at the marriage counsellor. Mr. Smith prompts the marriage counsellor to ask the sex question again. They admit they redecorated the house (one of the issues they were spatting over was the color of the curtains).

Of course, the way I've outlined the story here, the pattern is obvious because I see it now.

The VIOLENT ACTS we see as they do their day-job, the violence in joining in combat at a job (that was a setup) where one tries to steal the "package" from the other, all the way through forming an alliance and shooting up and destroying a SUBURBAN HOUSEWARES STORE (with all kinds of nasty hunting weapons) (and they turn out to be wearing kevlar vests! I tell you the SYMBOLISM is perfect for penetrating subconsciouses), even the explosion that destroys their house -- all that violence and destruction is the SHOW DON'T TELL illustration, an exact replica or reflection, of the usual ho-hum marital-spat screaming fights most couples have. When a marriage is in real trouble, those spats become symbolic of the real problems in exactly the way the violence and truth-in-marriage issues do in this film.

The violence in this film acts as a SYMBOL for the marital issues that are screamed over and around but never actually stated in ordinary marriages (such as viewers of the movie might be living through). As the violence escalates, their COMMUNICATION over the real issues escalates (as rarely happens in real life -- I said this is a romance.)

The marriage counsel session dialogue is easily recognizable as marital issues. Just read some self-help books and you can't miss it. Textbook stuff. The marriage counsellor doesn't know they're both assassins by trade. Would that trade make a difference?

The VIOLENCE appears to be just rollicking good fun needed to sell a movie. Neither is rattled by explosions, wounds, etc. The violence isn't about the violence. It's about conversation, about communicating.


The film doesn't go into great detail about the sex scenes, but the violence is detailed move for move and prolonged for fun, right down to gradually stripping off clothing as it gets ruined by the violence.

We've all discussed the psychological equivalence of sex and violence.

From the writer's point of view, the trick is to define a HIGH CONCEPT, and write that story, delivering on the fun in the concept.

The CONCEPT that husband and wife are (secretly from each other) professional assassins casts the marital "battle of the sexes" into HIGH CONCEPT, and provides the "violence" that producers require to pull in audiences.

But the violence in Mr. And Mrs. Smith (2005 version) is not gratuitous. It's not there to draw audiences. It's not there to display the grandiose physiques of the stars or the director's genius. It's there to FULFILL A PATTERN, to reticulate a pattern, and to discuss the nature of marriage.

Whee! This writer SQUEALS FOR JOY at seeing every bit of this script so clearly etched that every line traces right back to where the concept came from.

Now seeing into the wheels-and-gears behind the illusion does not spoil it for me. It is in fact the reason I imbibe fiction in all media. I take vast joy in well oiled wheels-and-gears.

Seeing into the mechanism is one part of the exercise of creating such a mechanism of your own. Seeing this particular mechanism fitting a typical alien-romance plot into commercial box office parameters makes me ever more hopeful that we can indeed create that blockbuster, runs-for-twenty-years PNR TV series.

Does anybody reading this remember TOPPER? It's not even currently available on DVD, and what's available used is only "highlights" -- it's time to rethink all this PNR stuff.

AMAZON SAYS: "A madcap comedy escapade, The Adventures of Topper is a collection of the funniest episodes from the ""Topper"" television series. The show, based on a novel by Thorne Smith and the book's subsequent spin-off motion pictures, features genteel banker Cosmo Topper who moves into a new house that comes complete with ghosts and all!"

Remember "The Ghost And Mrs. Muir" ???

Each of those two "Concepts" spoke to a particular generation in terms of what was bugging that generation most. Mr. & Mrs. Smith speaks to the issue of truth in marriage. Note how on SMALLVILLE, and even in BUFFY, the truth issue is make-or-break in the Relationships. (Clue: truth in marriage wasn't always iconic in USA society, [rememer I LOVE LUCY?] nor in Victorian or Renaissance English Romances. It's really a very new yardstick for measuring relationships.)

Book, film, TV Show -- there's a link, a trail to follow that connects these forms of entertainment with each other and with the social matrix they address. And today we have to add web-originals, and other graphic novel, TV, and other new distribution channels.

Now think CONCEPT and think SYMMETRY as only the writer's eye can see it.

Think about Mr. And Mrs. Smith and how the violence level of the script mirrored the exact textbook progress of a marriage encounter-group session. See the pattern whole and completely reticulated, in the subconscious and in the conscious. The pattern is not in the foreground, not in the background and not even in the THEME. It's in the ties between the violence and the psychology that exist ONLY IN THE VIEWER'S MIND, and never on screen.

Don't just admire the modern Mr. And Mrs. Smith -- follow the pattern lines back to the originating concept, reverse engineer the script, deconstruct that concept into its components, and delve into how that concept was created.

It's not just a flash of inspiration that creates concepts. It's long, hard days of perspiration -- sometimes watching or reading things you wouldn't ordinarily want to. When that flash of inspiration occurs, it's your subconscious reporting on its month's work.

Writers do most all their work while sleeping, but the IRS doesn't let you deduct the bedroom of your house. Talk about unfair tax practices.

So replicate what they did to create and recognize the High Concept, "A married couple where each is secretly an assassin."

You can't use their concept, but you can use their method of finding that concept.

What other conflicts besides the "battle of the sexes in marriage" do you know of that go on in millions of people's lives every day? That's the question to answer in order to get the effect Hollywood wants: THE SAME.

What kind of well known, familiar conflict is so pervasive people don't even notice it's there, nor consider it worth commenting on? And what are the best self-help books that address subsets of that vast conflict area?

Nail that SAME part, then search for the BUT DIFFERENT part of the formula.

With Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the "different" part is that they're BOTH professional assassins.

Then the grind-the-crank part of the plot leads directly to "assigned to kill each other" - you just have to figure out a reason. The elegant solution is "because they're living together which means each is a spy assigned to waggle our secrets out of our hired assassin."
The twist with Mr. and Mrs. Smith is that the box-office requirement of VIOLENCE is supplied by their day jobs, not by the domestic dispute over keeping secrets.

I'd bet all of you already know all this.

So what are you thinking. Two alien from outer space spies meet on Earth and marry to maintain their cover? But they've each been sent here to search for the other and a) kill him, or b) protect Earth from his faction Out There?

Here are some widespread "conflicts" to explore other than Battle of the Sexes:

1) People Vs. Medical System
2) People Vs. Insidious Advertising Practices (think 0% nothing down mortgages)
3) People Vs. The Boss From Hell
4) People Vs. College grading system
5) People Vs. Traffic congestion
6) People Vs. Post Office Screw Ups
7) Tech Support Slave Vs. Enraged Customers
8) Mom Vs. School System over allowing Bullying

What other pervasive, everybody knows what it is about, conflicts can you think of?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg