Monday, November 30, 2009

Progress Report: 11/30/09

December is just around the corner, and seems to be holding to pretty much the same pattern as it does every year. That is to say, things get very frantic in the weeks leading up to vacation, and then we go away for a while and get the chance to sleep.

In terms of writing productivity, it's the most difficult time of the year. I always built up a pretty good buffer for Thunderstruck around this time of year, because it was very easy to fall behind. I tend to have great ambitions to write on vacation, which do not always pan out.

In terms of this week, I'm carrying on with writing. I'm also testing out another critique group. This one is a lot closer by than the last, which is good. The possible drawback is they meet every week, and I was kind of hoping for twice a month. But hey, if I get into the habit, it could be a good thing. We'll see.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Progress Report: 11/23/09

The novel version of Thunderstruck is underway.

It's funny how one shift can suddenly change your whole perspective and open many doors. What I wanted to do to make this story work as a novel is get the larger, overarching plot with Vigil, Bella, etc. into the mix earlier. These elements may not be visible to Sharon and Gail at first, but I did want the reader to get an idea that there's something going on.

My solution is to start with Psyche. So the book will open with her introductory scene as a kind of prologue. Psyche then watches the sisters from a distance for most of the first novel as events unfold and they start to discover the magic around them. Through Psyche's perspective, we start to get the hint about all the other forces swirling around the lives of Sharon & Gail.

Anyway, we're off to the races. Trying out another critique group as well this week. I'll get around to finishing "Voyage of the Piquant" eventually--it was always just a fun side project, so I'm not worried about deadlines or anything like that. Is anybody reading it?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Book Review: And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer

I am assuredly the kind of reader that Eoin Colfer was most anxious about when he took on the monumental task of picking up where Douglas Adams left off to write the sixth book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. That is, I am a huge Adams fan, and I’ve never read any of Colfer’s other books. It is with good reason that Colfer expressed his anxiety about stepping into Adams’ shoes. Did he pull it off with And Another Thing…?

Unfortunately, no.

I applaud the effort and the risk he took. I would say that if Adams had ended the “Hitchhiker’s” series after So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, there would have been no need for another installment. But the fact that Mostly Harmless ended the series on such a bleak note—and the fact that Adams said that he wanted to write a sixth book to remedy the sour taste left by Mostly Harmless—is enough reason to justify Colfer’s heartfelt attempt. While And Another Thing… has its inspired moments, ultimately it does not measure up, even to the lowered expectations I had for another author attempting to live up to Adams’ legacy.

So where does Colfer go right, and where does he go wrong?

Adams’ unique style is a hallmark of his work. Both the Hitchhiker’s and Dirk Gently books are filled with his ingenious use of language, his abrupt insights, and his intelligent humor. Colfer does a creditable job of trying to create a compatible style without directly attempting to imitate Adams, and pulls off some very good turns of phrase.

However, most of the time it seems like he’s trying too hard. He frequently throws in “Guide Notes” in honor of Adams’ signature tangential asides, but they typically feel forced and overused. Adams’ Guide entries often reflected what was going on in the story or made some salient point in relation to the characters, but Colfer’s Guide Notes mostly distract, and provide very few humorous moments.

Colfer also repeats too many of Adams’ old jokes. We endure entirely too many references to Eccentrica Gallumbits, for instance, to the point that any humor value was long gone the fourth or fifth time she’s mentioned. The worst example of this Colfer’s use of the word “froody,” which he seems to think is an inexhaustible mine of comedy gold. There is one particular instance of this that just about made me stop reading: Colfer sets up a joke, telegraphing from a light year away that he’s going to haul out the poor battered corpse of the word “froody” and attempt to use it as the punch line one more damned time, and then forces us to endure the humiliating march through an entire paragraph towards this inevitable, predictable, and painfully unfunny payoff.

Again, he has his moments. I thought his handling of the Vogons was pretty good. But as a whole, Colfer’s attempts miss the mark.

I’ll review how Colfer handled the primary returning characters from the series. It should be noted that Marvin doesn’t appear in the book, nor is he referenced by name. Take that for what you will.

Colfer’s strongest character is Arthur Dent. Colfer does a very solid job of capturing the essence of Arthur in both dialogue and internal monologue. He manages to iron out the most blatant lapse in Arthur’s characterization that Adams himself committed in Mostly Harmless, which was the fact that Arthur quickly forgot about Fenchurch once she disappeared. High marks for Colfer in this area.

Ford Prefect, on the other hand, is by far his worst characterization. Throughout the book, Ford exhibits himself to be stupid, unobservant, lazy, and interested in nothing but getting wasted in one way or another. While it’s established that Ford does love to party and have a good time, Colfer turns that facet into the totality of who Ford is, and it’s extremely frustrating. Ford should be a resourceful survivor, well-traveled and capable of ingenious solutions. In the original series, Ford is usually the one who has a clue what’s going on, in contrast to Arthur’s general floundering. None of this makes it into Colfer’s Ford, who is an unlikeable moron with not a single virtue to his name. There were several Ford moments that came a hair’s breadth from making me give up on the book entirely (in fact, the only thing that kept me going at these points was that I was determined to write this review).

Trillian is somewhere in between, and on this I’m willing to cut Colfer some slack. Adams expressed his own insecurity about how he wrote women—he felt he made them too idealized and not human enough. Trillian doesn’t have as strong a personality in the original stories as the other main characters, and is mostly stuck with being sensible and practical while everyone else is being over-the-top. That being said, I never warmed up to Colfer’s Trillian, who manages not to be very sensible or practical, but also not very distinctive.

Lastly we have Zaphod. I felt that Adams’ Zaphod was a more nuanced character than it might seem at first blush, who hides a mixture of brilliance and deep insecurity under a deliberately flamboyant, narcissistic persona. Colfer takes a certain liberty with Zaphod that allows him to plausibly write the character in a very different way—that is, the persona becomes the reality. This Zaphod lacks any depth at all, and is often so stupid that he’s not remotely believable, but he has his charming moments. It’s not great, but not offensively bad.

As for the remaining characters, I would say the core problem is that Colfer gives us very few characters to like. Adams had a gift for making even his bit players sympathetic, but Colfer’s characters are for the most part appalling. Much of the action takes place on a planet called Nano, and there is not a single inhabitant of that world for whom I developed even the slightest affection. It is one thing to make characters who are flawed, but Colfer’s original characters so lacking in redeeming qualities that there’s really no warming up to them.

Oddly enough, the one exception to this is a Vogon named Constant Moan, whom I quite grew to like. You would think that if you could make a Vogon sympathetic, other characters would be a piece of cake, but it turns out not to be the case here.

A meandering plot is hardly a sin in a Hitchhiker’s book, so that can be forgiven. Blatantly recycling Adams’ plot elements is not so forgivable. This is especially problematic in the first half of the book, and it doesn’t help that Colfer tries to squeeze humor out of the characters saying, “Hey, we’ve done all this before.”

In the second half of the book, the plot enters more original territory, but this doesn’t really improve matters. The bulk of the story revolves around the fate of the planet Nano, and the key problem is that I hated this planet and everyone on it. There were some set-ups that might’ve been funny, like when the administrator of the planet is conducting job interviews with various gods, but it always seemed to me like Colfer was trying too hard. The humor felt strident and forced.

The thing about gods factors into one last problem I’d like to bring up, which is that Colfer doesn’t have a feel for when it’s best not to explain things. Douglas Adams used the gods—the Asgardians pop up at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe or Thor appear with Trillian at a party. But he did not go into any great detail about how mythical deities fit into a science fiction universe. In an infinite universe, anything is possible, right? So a few Aesir show up, and you go with it.

Colfer makes the mistake of trying to explain how the gods fit into the big picture, and doesn’t realize that this is a writer’s tar baby. The more he attempts to make sense of it, the less sense it actually makes. He repeats this mistake throughout the book in various ways. To quote Adams, “The impossible has an integrity that the merely improbable lacks.” Adams allows his universe to be nonsensical and impossible, whereas Colfer can’t seem to resist trying to explain in some semi-rational and therefore merely improbable fashion.

And Another Thing… is a laudable effort, and it has its good moments. However, these good moments are floating in a vast sea of not-so-good moments, which rank from simply weak to “Where’s my lighter fluid and matches?” bad. I don’t consider this some kind of referendum on Colfer as a writer. Given the pockets of inspiration present here—and the sheer guts it took to take on this project at all—I am perfectly willing to believe his other books could be excellent. This time, he just bit off more than he could chew.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Progress Report: 11/16/09

This week, I began sampling critique groups, and attended one Wednesday evening. I liked the people, but the attendant costs and driving time are not ideal. I'm going to see what I can find closer to home, and then make my decision from there.

I am also working on the outline for a novelization of Thunderstruck. The biggest challenge is trying to create cohesive novel-length installments. The structure is very different from the ongoing serialized form that works in a webcomic. For instance, assuming the first novel starts at the same place as the comic does, where then does it end? I would like the novel to be a self-contained story, setting up to be part of a series. I think it ends after the "Heritage" chapter, when Sharon & Gail set off for New Orleans, but it feels like that would be a fairly short book. Maybe it ends when they reach New Orleans, or maybe I lengthen the story in some way before they set out... there are options. Just have to figure out which ones are best.

I'm also writing a book review, which is something I plan to do from time to time. I finished listening to And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer, who has picked up the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series where Douglas Adams left off. I'll post that this week sometime, and let you know how well I think he managed that admittedly daunting task.

No "Voyage of the Piquant" this week. Still working on that last installment.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Voyage of the Piquant [Part Three]

Aholl drove the ship by sheer force of will, studying the charts endlessly as he tried to anticipate the moves of his enemy, training his crew in the secret arts of maritime combat, sniffing the briny air for a hint of where his prey might be hiding. Never once did he take advantage of our seemingly endless array of entertainment features to unwind and get away from it all. Whether it was wisdom, instinct, or madness that drew him on, I know not. He was a man with a purpose on a ship full of cruisers, and we found ourselves infected by his unforgiving quest for revenge.

No matter who is captain on a cruise ship, routine is always the king. So adapting to this sudden shift in our well-lubed pattern took its toll on the officers and staff. Louis and his massage team pulled many a late shift, I can report, as we all scrambled to shape Aholl’s militant orders to a palatable form for our passengers. Trying to make the effort of preparing for battle with a monstrous squid into a luxurious and exciting holiday experience put our skills as vacation experts to the test.

Yet for some of us, this venture into uncharted territory felt invigorating. We who serve aboard cruise ships bear little resemblance to our pioneering forbearers, the explorers of past centuries who dared to chart the unknown seas in their primitive wooden galleys without the benefit of charts, modern electronics, and fully-appointed spas. Being swept up in Aholl’s lunatic pursuit of Mocha Rich was, for most of us, the first time we had ever stepped into the unknown as the sailors of yore had done, pitting our mettle against a true elemental force of nature.

In theory, anyway. We hadn’t seen the squid, after all. And some of us wondered if it even existed.

“He’s completely barking mad,” Captain Wellington observed one night as we gathered in the kitchen after the evening meal. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he concocted this whole yarn about a giant squid out of his twisted imagination.”

“What about his pinkie?” asked Louis.

“Hardly compelling evidence,” the captain said. “There are any number of ways a man could lose a pinkie. Look around this kitchen, for instance. Knives, cleavers, electric can openers… all sorts of things that could take a finger off. Right, Quisiene?”

The burly cook looked up only briefly from the immense mixing bowl over which he was laboring. He grunted in a way that could have meant anything.

The captain frowned at him, then spoke again. “So it needn’t have been any kind of attack. He was probably preparing some calamari dish with a light cream sauce, had an unfortunate slip of the knife, and then over the years he’s embellished the tale up to this business about a giant white squid.”

The staff murmured. It sounded like a plausible story. Quisiene simply shook his head and heaved an oar-sized spoon through the dough. “Think that if it gives you comfort,” said the cook, “but you are the one spinning stories here, not Aholl.”

“What makes you so sure?” I asked.

“The kind of madness that grips Aholl does not come from delusions and lies,” Quisiene said. “His are the eyes of a man that have stared into the naked truth, the truths that we who live cocooned in luxury and privilege do not dare to see. Aholl tells no lies, captain. ‘Twas a monster squid what took his finger. Before this voyage is over, I fear the beast will take far more than that.”

“Well that’s just ludicrous!” the captain spluttered. “Even if there is a big white squid out there somewhere, it’s not a threat to us unless we’re stupid enough to jump off the ship or something. It can’t hurt the Piquant. This ship is six hundred feet long. We’re too big to fail!”

Quisiene simply shrugged and went back to his mixing.

“What the hell are you making, anyway?” the captain asked.

I intervened. “Aholl has him baking day and night. Something to do with the hunt for Mocha Rich.”

“He does,” Quisiene said, “but this dish isn’t for Aholl. It is a tradition harkening back to the early days of the epicurean explorers. When one of us died at sea, we were committed to the waves in a funeral cake. ‘Let Davy Jones know that the dinner bell has rung,’ it was said. ‘To the locker we commit a true gruelmaster.’”

“A funeral cake?” the captain squeaked. “You’re making a funeral cake for yourself?”

“Aye,” said Quisiene.

“Well I order you to stop it!” Wellington demanded.

But Quisiene paid him no heed. The squishy slurp of his great wooden spoon plying the dough seemed to whisper of an oncoming doom.

The next morning, Aholl called me to the Fiesta Deck at the aft of the ship. “Mr. Irving,” he said, fixing me with that tax auditor glare of his. “Ye asked about long lines and fishing. Well, we shall be dropping some lines into the water today, and then we shall see if Mocha Rich takes our bait.”

“Bait?” I asked. “Is this what Quisiene has been making for you?”

“Nay, lad. Take a look for yourself.”

He gestured to a length of thick cable on the deck, coiled next to a monolithic form draped in canvas. At his command, I unveiled what was concealed beneath, the bait that Aholl intended to use. I must’ve looked quite perplexed, for Aholl let out a chainsaw laugh.

“Speakers?” I said.

“The very thing,” he said.

The great speakers had been pulled from the dining hall, cocooned in watertight clear plastic, and affixed to reinforced cable. I puzzled over this oddity for a while, then a chilling insight made an unwelcome entrance into my head, and I felt some inkling of what Aholl might be planning. Trembling, I traced the path of the cable back to its source.

Sure enough, Aholl had moved every scrap of karaoke equipment on the ship out to the Fiesta Deck.

“Oh my God,” I whispered. “You intend…”

“That’s right, lad.” With a mighty kick, he shoved the plastic-wrapped speakers off the side of the Piquant. The cable slithered after the heavy payload, unspooling in the wake of the heavy amplifiers.

“Send an announcement to the passengers, Mr. Irving,” Aholl trumpeted. “Thar shall be karaoke! Nonstop, day and night, twenty-four bleedin’ seven!”

I felt my stomach quake at the thought of it, but Aholl had even more insanity yet to reveal. He brandished a sheaf of papers in front of my nose, and grinned like a barracuda. “This is the playlist,” he growled. “They shall sing these songs, cast them into the sea, and let Mocha Rich hear how we mock him.”

With sweaty hands, I riffled through the list. It was worse than I could’ve imagined. “Sir, you can’t mean to… sir, a karaoke performance can turn even a masterpiece into unlistenable drivel. But this list… I mean, ‘Muskrat Love,’ for God’s sake! Nobody should be singing these atrocities!”

‘They’ll sing them,” Aholl vowed. “They’ll sing them flat and toneless and off-key, and they shan’t break for a minute. And we shall drop every botched note and pitch-poor warble into the darkest depths, where dwells Mocha Rich.”

“But really, will a giant squid even care?”

“Ye never have understood him,” Aholl glowered. “Mocha Rich is not some oversized mollusk, plying the lightless waters and waiting for a sperm whale to gobble him down. He is as intelligent as he is cruel. A din such as we will inflict upon him will run fingernails over the blackboard of his evil heart. Let him hear the bitter discord of my hate. Let him hear a green grocer from Queens serenade him with ‘Macarthur Park.’ He will come for us soon, laddie. He’ll come.”

That night I lay in my bunk, tossing and turning in a puddle of my sweat-drenched blankets, drifting in and out of fevered dreams. I dreamed of the whole sea rising up in indignant fury, towering over the tiny form of the Piquant as we blasted the heaving waves with a karaoke-mutilated version of “(You’re) Having My Baby.”

Nature itself would rebel against us for what we were doing. Truly, the Piquant was now cruising the waters of the abyss.

Progress Report: 11/9/09

I realize these Progress Reports are not the most thrilling reads. It's not their job to be exciting. It's their job to give me a weekly benchmark for how my writing is progressing. Oft times, those steps aren't too interesting to read about, but that's the way it goes. When there's electrifying news to report, nobody will be happier than me. Meanwhile...

I rewrote the first chapter of Rose & Jade, and started another editing pass. This pass isn't so much about rewrites as it is about trimming excess language.

The third segment of "Voyage of the Piquant" is ready to roll. After this: the shocking conclusion.

Inspired by poetry I've been reading, I've started a metaphor journal as a place to record colorful language and turns of phrase. Naturally, the moment I sat down to record some of the ones that I had been thinking of, they all drained out of my head like... like... oh, see? There they go again. Something more interesting than "water down a plughole." This is why I need the journal. I have gotten a few, my favorite of which is: "a scimitar smile."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Voyage of the Piquant [Part Two]

Captain Wellington’s only attempt to take back the ship ended almost as soon as it began. Reasoning that every man, even a mad one, had to sleep, the captain assigned us to watch Aholl all through the night as the gristly squid-hunter stood vigil on the bridge. It wasn’t long before Aholl seemed to drop off in the sumptuous captain’s chair, but when Wellington gingerly reached for the harpoon gun, one of Aholl’s bloodshot eyes bulged open. The harpoon tip bobbed and pointed at Wellington’s generous belly, and our captain let out a squeak and stumbled away.

“I think he is actually still asleep,” I whispered to the shaky captain. “His eye never focused on you.”

“Well you try and take that thing away from him, then!” Wellington hissed.

I declined.

We retreated together to the officer’s lounge to confer with the rest of the staff, leaving Aholl in sole possession of the bridge. Wellington delivered the news to our colleagues that our attempted mutiny had come up short. Everyone expressed their disappointment, but all of us are well-trained in customer relations, so everyone had encouraging words to say about how brave Wellington had been to make the attempt, what a clever plan it had been, and how they were sure things would go better next time.

Only one voice spoke in dissent. Quisiene, the head chef, cut through the babble with a voice like a double-bladed electric turkey carver. “You stand no chance against that man, captain,” he said.

We all turned to regard him. Quisiene occupied a position of legend in the crew. A massive man, standing 6’4” and muscled like a lumberjack, Quisiene was covered head to toe in tattoos of entrees from around the world. He had served with the U.S. Navy and later as a freelance cook with the merchant marines, and had cooked on destroyers, gunboats, and aircraft carriers. Quisiene had seen his share grueling combat, and had plucked recipes from the heart of enemy territory in some of the deadliest seas of the world before finally coming to the Piquant. His 30’ submarine sandwich was legendary crowd pleaser in the cruising world.

Captain Wellington sucked in his gut and glared at Quisiene. “We’ll simply wait until he’s more deeply asleep.”

“A man like that never truly relaxes,” Quisiene said.

The head masseuse piped up next. “Perhaps I can offer him a complementary full-body rubdown and spa treatment. He’ll be sleeping like a baby…”

“He’s not the type to accept a spa treatment,” the cook said.

“Well then, smart guy,” the masseuse said, “how about when he’s in the potty?”

I leaned in and whispered to him. “We call it the ‘head’ on a ship, Louis.”

Quisiene ignored the lapse. “None of you have ever met a man like Aholl. He does not relax his guard, not for an instant. All of human sanity and joy has been boiled out of him, leaving only a hard egg of revenge. Nothing good shall hatch from such an egg.”

“Hard-boiled eggs don’t hatch at all,” protested the captain.

“None of us are a match for him,” Quisiene said. “Not even me. I fear he will lead us only to ruin.”

It was a fortunate thing that we were in the latter stages of our voyage. By now, we’d conditioned the passengers out of the last vestiges of independent thought, and they responded like a well-oiled machine to the new agenda. They rotated by group through the new “craft time” activities, making the modifications on the Piquant that Aholl required for his hunt.

Aholl himself, billed in our impromptu literature as a “special celebrity guest,” paced the decks with relentless determination. He drummed his peg finger on the rails and bulkheads as he scowled out at the waves, scanning the peaceful waters for his ancient nemesis. The passengers at first were wary of him, for his sheer intensity shattered the atmosphere of relaxation that we try to enforce. Yet beneath the guttural swearing and the blood-chilling stare, I saw that he possessed the deep charisma of a true leader. He quickly divined how to best motivate the passengers as they took their duty on “wildlife watch,” looking for any sign of Aholl’s great white squid.

“I shall reward the first man, woman, or child to spot the beast,” he told the assembled passengers. He reached into the dark folds of his coat. “I affix these up where all can see them, and they shall be a prize for the one who first sights Mocha Rich!”

With that, he withdrew a sheaf of vouchers for free car rentals, hotel rooms, and dinners at four-star restaurants and nailed them to the Promenade Deck. The passengers babbled in appreciation and rushed to their posts, eyes searching the choppy waves.

On the third day, twelve minutes after the end of lunch, I plucked up the courage to approach him with a question that had been bothering me.

“Mr. Aholl. Sir. Um… it’s about this squid.”

He whirled to face me, eyes round as golf balls. “Have ye seen it?”

“No, no,” I said, flapping my hands in front of me. “It’s just… well, isn’t it true that the giant squid is a deep sea creature?”

“Aye, ‘tis so.”

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, sir, how is it you plan to hunt one from the surface?” I looked around the deck. “I mean, shouldn’t you be trawling with lines or nets or something? Not that we have any on the Piquant…”

“Lines and nets cannot snare the likes of that devil-spawn,” he rumbled. “Mocha Rich is no ordinary squid, lad, not even for a giant squid. He’ll come to the surface if he’s drawn.”

“Drawn?” I repeated. “By what?”

“By me,” Aholl declared. “We are bound together by the suction cups of fate, he and I. And I think he shall be drawn to this ship as well.”


He gave me a knowing look. “I’ve read how these cruisers foul the seas, pumping out your waste and wash-water into the oceans as you heave these soft-bellied vacationers ‘round the world. Such things invite the wrath of Mocha Rich.”

I felt cold sweat trickle down my back, but tried to laugh it off. “Sir, I’ve served on cruisers for over twenty years now, and I’ve never heard of one being attacked by a giant squid.”

“Mayhap they don’t want you to hear of it, lad,” Aholl said. “Still, ye do have a point. Mocha Rich shall need more incentive than I’ve yet given him yet to seek us out. Once our preparations are done, I know how to lure him out of his Stygian depths. I know how to drive him into a killing frenzy. He shall come for us, all the fury of Hell at his back, and seek us out for battle. Fear not on that score, laddie.”

“Fear not,” I said weakly, feeling my heart tremble. “Of course.”

Progress Report: 11/2/09

Real life concerns took precedence over writing for the most part this week. One thing that happened is that we had to say goodbye to our oldest cat, Quantum. He'd been with us for 16 years, almost as long as we've been married, and was the first pet that Candi and I got together. Quantum was a very weird and delightful Siamese, as fine a companion as you could ask for. He embodied the feline traits of dignity and absurdity, which is a paradoxical trick only cats can pull off. Towards the end, he was in a lot of pain, though, and his body was breaking down. It's very hard to make the decision to put a beloved pet to sleep, but this is part of the contract. We help them along when it's time to go, as much as it hurts to say goodbye.

So my focus wasn't totally on writing. For that reason, and others.

In terms of writing, I did manage to hammer out a few more pages of my "Voyage of the Piquant" story, which I'll post after I finish this entry.

Also, I'm revising the opening chapter to Rose & Jade. It's clear that in the process of shopping a book, a lot of weight is put on the first pages, so they'd better be good. I think this fixation on the introductory pages is more important to agents/editors than it is to readers, but that's the nature of the beast. I also think that my first chapter could be better, and I've got an angle on how. Hopefully, that will increase my chances of catching the interest of the right agent.