Your Musical Community Is Where You Find It

Music as a communal event is difficult for someone like me, who doesn't play any instrument and doesn't (or shouldn't) sing. I've attended concerts where the sense of community was created by the shared music we all knew, or by the intense efforts of the performer to make sure that connection happened. But for the most part, I've always Read more

Help Plot My 2015 Reading Tour

Would you like to hear me read Long Black Curl to you this summer? Maybe ask me some questions in person? If so, here's what you need to do.  Go to your local bookstore, ask if they'd be interested, and if they are, send me the contact info, including the name of the person in charge of author events. Don't Read more

Why I Haven't Blogged Lately

I haven't blogged in a while, so I thought I'd blog on why that is. Enjoy the brisk taste of meta. Primary among my reasons for not blogging is the continuing work on Long Black Curl, the third Tufa novel that comes out in May. You'd think it would be done by now, wouldn't you?  Alas, 'tis not the case. Read more

Win an advance reader copy of Long Black Curl

The third Tufa novel, Long Black Curl, doesn't come out until May. But you might win an advance reader copy right now by leaving a comment below telling me about your favorite folk song (new, old, original, traditional, it doesn't matter). I'll be giving away eight copies, so pass the word and let everyone know. Deadline is midnight on Read more

Win a copy of Mythica!

Recently the good folks at Arrowstorm Entertainment were kind enough to give me a sneak peek at their latest production, Mythica: A Quest for Heroes.  You can read my review of it here, and an interview with two of the stars here. Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Read more

Rant: the high cost of low quality

Posted on by Alex in creativity, fiction, James T. Kirk, movies, originality, pop culture, self publish, Star Trek, writers, writing | 2 Comments

Last night, the wife and I saw Skyfall. I’ve seen every James Bond movie in a real movie theater since Live and Let Die, so my streak continues. I thought Skyfall was an adequate spy thriller and action film, but not much of a James Bond movie. Perhaps, given how this one ends, the next one will be more of a return to the Bonds that had an element of distinctiveness. You’d never mistake a Bond for a Bourne back in the day, the way you can now.

But we also saw previews for Jack Reacher, Django Unchained, and A Good Day to Die Hard, none of which did their job and convinced me I needed to see them. In fact, both Jack Reacher and Django Unchained reinforced my prior decision not to see them. And that, along with the trailer for the new Star Trek Into Darkness (which might as well be called Star Trek Jumping on the Nolan Bandwagon) hitting the internet, got me thinking seriously about something.

Why are we, as fans and consumers, satisfied with this?

JJ Abrams’ Star Trek was loud, noisy, and funny. It also had plot holes big enough for the Enterprise itself, and reduced one of SFs great heroes (James T. Kirk) to the status of a punk with a chip on his shoulder. I go into more detail here, but it’s the kind of movie that diminishes in retrospect, or with repeated viewings. Now there’s a new one, with a villain Abrams is playing coy about, only letting slip that it’s a “canon” figure. Khan? Gary Mitchell? Harry Mudd? Who knows? And more importantly, why should we care? Those stories have already been told, and told well. Yet here we are, as a demographic, getting excited about this movie when we should be ignoring it until someone comes along with some real, genuine new ideas.

The original “Django”

Similarly, Django Unchained, by virtue of being a Quentin Tarantino film, is practically guaranteed to be made up of parts of other movies, most obviously the spaghetti western Django series. More so than any other filmmaker working today, Tarantino has been praised for what is essentially sampling: taking bits and pieces of original creations and recombining them. He has yet to really create anything on his own, and it seems likely that this one will also have knowledgeable film buffs nudging each other and going, “You know where that’s from?”

The new “Django,” “unchained” from originality.

I understand completely the corporate mentality behind this: they’re known quantities, they’re existing properties, and most of the heavy lifting of creating them has already been done. What I really don’t get is why fans are excited about it. Another Star Trek movie that retreads vast swaths of the existing canon instead of “boldy going,” as its own damn catchphrase says? Bruce Willis, looking really old, in another Die Hard movie?

Then again, maybe I do get it, and just wish I didn’t. We’ve devalued our artists to the point that they can only make a living cranking new versions of old things. As a popular internet meme says, we’re willing to pay more for coffee at Starbuck’s than we are for music and literature. We justify piracy as entitlement. Girl of the moment Lena Dunham gets $3.7 million for this, while many formerly published authors are having to self-publish their own ebooks now.

And it seems we, as the consumers and fans, are satisfied with this.

I don’t have an answer. I wish I did.

The Man (or Alien) in the Mirror

Posted on by Alex in Star Trek, writers, writing, writing advice | 2 Comments

I was reading this blog by author Theodora Goss and came across this comment:

“My parents’ generation was raised under communism, and still retains the assumption that literature is important to the extent that it adheres to literary realism.”

Ms. Goss, like me, is a fantasy author. Her works include the novel, The Thorn and the Blossom, and the story collection, In the Forest of Forgetting. Like me, she’s had to struggle with the issue of making the fantastic seem real, and on occasion the real seem fantastic. In broad strokes, that’s what a fantasy author does.

But her comment that her parents believed “literature is important to the extent that it adheres to literary realism” (emphasis mine) struck a note with me, because I believe the same is true of fantasy. And for the writer, that’s even harder.

When I was a geeky teen living in west Tennessee, I discovered (thank you, Starlog magazine) the record album Inside Star Trek. This was a mostly spoken-word disc put out in 1976, during the fallow period between the end of the original series and the release of the first film. Gene Roddenberry spoke to Trek then-alums William Shatner and DeForest Kelly about their characters, and Mark Lenard appeared in character as Sarek to discuss the origins of Spock. Roddenberry also spoke to Isaac Asimov, one of the greats of SF. And something Asimov said, part of his advice to aspiring writers, has stuck with me ever since:

“The writer must use all things human and all things human-made and all things that impinge upon the human being as his raw material.”

There was no mention of technology, or science, or fantasy creatures, or aliens. Just a three-fold reminder that whatever you write has to have a human connection.

The “literary realism” Ms. Goss’s family seeks is inseparable from the Asimovian “all things human.” Which means that SF/F/H writers cannot ignore it, if they want to be relevant, and more than mere escapism.

And then comes the real challenge: we have to make the reader buy into the “literary realism” of a squid from Venus, an elf from Middle Earth, or a vampire from Transylvania (or Memphis). We have to find the “all things human” within a troll, a werewolf, or a faery.

The great writers of “literary realism” hold up a mirror to life, which of course means they are showing us a reflection of ourselves that we immediately recognize, because it looks like us. The great writers of fantasy, science fiction and horror are also holding up a mirror, but one that shows us a version of ourselves that looks nothing like us. Yet if they do it well, if their mirror is true, we’ll see ourselves in it anyway.

Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea. Tolkein wrote, in essence, The Old Man and the Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves and Trolls. Both are classics. And both show us ourselves.

By request: Fan Fiction

Posted on by Alex in Batman, fan fiction, fans, Star Trek, writers, writing | 3 Comments

Recently I was asked, “What are your thoughts on fan fiction? If someone wrote fan fiction [based] on your works, would you be pleased or horrified?”

Before I wade into this, let me define my terms. “Fan fiction” is fiction that makes unauthorized use of characters and concepts that belong to someone else. The actual quality of the writing, in this context, is immaterial. Fan fiction is stealing.

Some fan fiction is written strictly for the authors, or physically shown to their friends (i.e., hand a stack of paper to someone and say, “read this”). Some is published for no charge, like the many fan sites on the internet. And then there’s the stuff that’s actually published for profit, such as Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife.*

I have two problems with fan fiction. One is that it’s “unauthorized”: the person who did the initial creating has not approved this use of his creation. That’s a moral issue, independent of quality or monetary gain. When you take something that’s not yours, even insubstantial things like characters and settings, it’s stealing.

The other problem is craft-related. Creating a world, its characters, their history and relationships, even details such as clothing and customs, are the heavy lifting of writing. You do all that so that you can then tell your story. To take all these from someone else is cheating; it’s the same as using steroids to break a sports record.

But as with anything that’s black-and-white in principle, in reality there are many shades of gray. Have I written fan-fiction? Yes. The last time was in junior high, when I wrote a Star Trek story that shamelessly ripped off the original series episode, “The Omega Glory.” I also wrote Batman stories that I dreamed would one day be seen by Denny O’Neill; thankfully this never happened, because they were dire (I did eventually work with Mr. O’Neill when I wrote a parody [a whole different animal, legally and artistically] for the nonfiction collection Batman Unauthorized.).

My fan fiction endeavors had two things in common with the vast majority of fan-fic: 1) They were awful, and 2) they were shown only to friends. While I still consider this morally wrong, in practice it seems pretty harmless. It certainly did no damage to the respective franchises.

This was all pre-internet, of course. Now it’s possible that free online fan-fiction might have more readers than the original source. Worse, the fan fiction may travel into areas that the creator never intended and alter the public’s image of the creation for good (i.e., “slash” and blatant pornography).

So what can the creator do?

Ultimately not much; the nature of modern communications makes it impossible to really eliminate fan fiction. And maybe at some level that’s good. After all, the core drive to create fan-fiction comes from the simple fact that the original touched someone. Your characters and situations motivated a total stranger to want to play in your sandbox. That’s not only flattering, it’s profound. It’s what caused legends as different as Olympus and Billy the Kid to become what they are. All those tales were fan fiction.

So to answer the original question, would I be pleased if someone wrote fan fiction based on my characters? Ultimately, no. Yes, I’d be flattered.** But no matter how you dress it up or justify it, no matter how you smudge the black and white into gray, one fact remains undeniable: it’s stealing.

*Exceptions to this include legendary characters such as King Arthur, Robin Hood or Hercules. The difference? These characters have multiple origins and sources with no canonical “creator.” Wicked comes from a single source: L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books. The same with Ahab’s Wife, taken entirely from Melville’s novel. The fact that the original authors are dead and the material is in public domain does not change the moral issues involved, only the legal ones.

**I certainly wouldn’t share Annie Proulx’s vast contempt for the people she touched with Brokeback Mountain.

The core problem with JJ Abrams’ Star Trek

Posted on by Alex in Gene Roddenberry, James T. Kirk, JJ Abrams, Star Trek | 10 Comments

(Warning: this post really shows my geekiness. I make no apology for it.)

I finally figured it out. And now, I have to share it.

I went to JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot prepared to dislike it. I generally hate remakes, even good ones, because no matter how well done (i.e., Battlestar Galactica), their success is merely a reflection of those who did the original work. But I ultimately did enjoy the film. It was fast-paced, funny and the liberties it took with canon did not seem to be arbitrary (i.e., “Let’s make Starbuck a girl!”). But still, something bugged me about it.

It’s the “Chosen One” syndrome.

In the original Trek, Captain Kirk was notable for being Starfleet’s youngest captain, but beyond that, he was not singled out as special. He came up through the academy and served on different vessels in various capacities before finally being promoted to the captain’s chair. And there was the implication that, as wild as they were, Kirk’s adventures might not be unique; perhaps every other Starfleet captain was out there experiencing the same kind of excitement.

I don’t presume to know Roddenberry’s reason for this, but I sense it might be grounded in his own World War II military experience. In that war, everyone served; heroism was neither rare nor overly praised, and the idea of contributing to a greater good was crucial. You can see those aspects in the Star Trek he created and supervised (for example, in “Court Martial,” Kirk encounters other members of his academy graduating class).

But then along comes Star Wars, and a subsequent generation of filmmakers who have spent their lives only as filmmakers. They bring nothing new to the table, no life experience or unusual perspectives, just all the films and TV shows they grew up watching (and their king is, of course, Quentin Tarantino). And everyone of that generation grew up watching Star Wars, where first Luke Skywalker, then in the prequels Anakin, assume the status of divinely chosen avatars.

So now we have a Kirk who was born in miraculous circumstances, found in a backwater burg by wise older warrior Captain Pike who then awakens the Force (whoops! I mean, his sense of duty) and invites him on a quest. In short order this mentor is eliminated, and Kirk must rely on the help of Han Solo (dang! I mean, Mr. Spock) to defeat the supervillain of the moment. If Eric Bana’s Nero had said at the end, “No, Kirk, I am your father,” it wouldn’t have been that surprising.

And then there’s a moment that’s so contradictory to the previous incarnation of James T. Kirk that it soured the whole film for me. Kirk offers to rescue Nero’s crew, but Nero refuses; Kirk then lets them all die. This is supposed to be (at heart) the same character who told the Metrons he wouldn’t kill the Gorn captain? Who, when Maltz the Klingon protests “You said you would kill me,” replies, “I lied”? Who repeatedly, after enduring violence and humiliation, offers friendship instead of punishment when he regains the upper hand?

Roddenberry’s Kirk was a man who, at his best, was exactly who we’d want boldly going where no man has gone before. Abrams’ Kirk is a boy delighted with his new toys, and is not even remotely who I’d want representing the human race.