All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by… and maybe some deflector shields

Rockets and starships and especially naval ships getting spacefaring analogues occupy my thoughts from time to time. Okay, a lot of the time. I know I’m not alone in this gentle obsession, so it was nice to come across this lengthy article by Jeff “Hageshii01” Venancio all about military ship types in actual naval history and how they’ve been applied in science fiction settings.

This is probably a good time to mention that, if you want to scratch your sci-fi itch and you’ll be in the DC area around Memorial Day, you should check out Escape Velocity. I will be there as part of the Jabberwocky Audio Theater performance of War of the Worlds, but there’s a lot of other fun stuff that weekend, including a panel about Aircraft Carriers in Space and also one about Honor Harrington.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the original poem alluded to in the title above, that’s “Sea Fever” by John Masfield. You may remember a certain captain referencing it:

Move over Monorail, It’s Electric Bus Time

I still remember researching electric cars being developed during the beginnings of the auto industry and being surprised when my dad mentioned that there were still electric vehicles on the road when he grew up in the 40s and 50s. Old models of delivery vehicles were still being used by thrifty businesses — and, in fact, the Walker Vehicle Company made such vehicles up until 1942 in Chicago.

The reason the vehicles were still on the roads was because electric motors cope with lots of starts and stops… such as delivery vehicles make. Delivery vehicles usually also don’t need to worry about extended range. They’re headed across town, not cross-country.

Being the practical engineer type, my dad was always befuddled by the fact that no one had decided to continue making electric vehicles for the urban environment.

It might not come as any surprise that many practical engineer types have had similar thoughts of late, only this time with buses versus delivery vehicles. In fact, they’re on track to be a significant percentage of all buses inside the next 10 years. Not only that, their use is already making a noticeable dent in oil use. My dad would especially like the passage in the latter article where the electric bus company was laughed at for making a toy not too many years ago. There’s no hubris quite like status quo hubris. (Especially since many people have mused about this happening, as you’ll see in a similar article from last year).

Of course, the only surefire way to have local governments adopt electric buses is to come up with a catchy song. You, know, something like…

Say! That Sounds Like…

Devices and contraptions that make sound effects are among my favorite things, ranking well above cream-colored ponies, bright copper kettles, and possibly even whiskers on kittens.

So I was delighted to see this little video about how sound effects have been made over the years (though I think they skip over the valuable contributions voice-over artists have been able to do with their own voices: think Mel Blanc’s sad Maxwell sputtering on the Jack Benny Show for just one example).



Praise for the Non-Human Character Actor

I’ve always loved character actors and spotting them in myriad movies and TV shows is a habit I’ve inherited from my dad. I also like “creature features.”

So really, when someone put together a video honoring the very talented Doug Jones, I had to share it:

10 More Motivation Levers for Your Writing

Hey, it’s been awhile since I’ve done a “Motivation Monday,” so it seemed like Big Bill’s birthday was as good a day as any to get back to it.

I’d caught Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2009 TED talk on writing and motivation (the video is 20 minutes, and this link also has a transcript), so when I saw an Amazon article ad for her “10 Tips for Writers,” (as compiled by Cynthia Shannon), I figured it was worth checking out.

You may correctly conclude I found it useful, what with me linking to it here. And, as with many bits of writing, the value isn’t so much that I’d never, ever heard of the tip before, but that that the tips are presented in a nice, distilled manner for easy digestion and contemplation.

Full disclosure: I’ve recently released a whole host of my writing out into the world (in audio form) — and I find it’s always easier to contemplate motivation when you’ve actually finished writing.

At the same time, I find myself reading through these tips and thinking of how I did and didn’t use them in writing Rogue Tyger. So if you just want the tips, go ahead and go to that link. If you want my subjective reflections on them, read on.

Tip #1: Start Writing.
Boy howdy do I agree with this one. I’ve linked to Cory Doctorow’s “Writing in the Age of Distraction” about 147 times on this blog, but time again I come back to it and the central idea that writers write… and one ought to write daily.

Tip #2: Be Creative Every Day
Writing Rogue Tyger was my antidote to one of the worst day jobs I can recall. I happily poured hopes and fears and frustrations born of day-to-day ridiculousness into the characters and the plot. But even if I’m doing writing or, let’s be honest, I fall off the writing-every-day wagon for a couple days, still doing stuff that is creative is critical to being a happy camper. It can be as simple as doodling, noodling on the piano (when I’m near a piano), or helping one of my kids construct a paper airplane.

The point is that, not only do I benefit from doing something creative every day, I can distinctly tell when I haven’t for too many days: by then, I’m a less-than-happy camper.

Tip #3: Go Looking for Inspiration
One theater director I had revealed he investigated the museums of any city he visited. Another theater professor I had urged us to visit galleries and see how paintings staged scenes down through the ages. I’ve talked with other writers who simply make sure to go on a hike and take cues from nature. Others take classes in drawing and acting and all sorts of things they’ve wanted to learn. There’s plenty of inspiration to be found — and just like Tip #2, I’ve found a little work on this front can dislodge any notions of writer’s block.

Tip #4: Surround Yourself with Optimists
By ‘optimists,’ I very much think of people who see possibilities. Possibilities in themselves, you, and your work. People who may be very smart, quite experienced, and still look over this list and –even if every tip is familiar– use it to spark memories and remind themselves of some tactic to double-down on. In other words, I put into the ‘optimist’ camp those people who put asking questions and curiosity over and above being clever and knowing “all the answers.”

I really ought to do a poll amongst my fellow filmmakers and writers, but invariably, I find that those people who are obsessed about ideas being “entirely original” and find every creative work in creation “not being without problems” are not people to be around.

Yes, creative types need to maintain the cognitive dissonance that their current work is utter crap and amazing as they continue working, but the point is to risk, fail, and risk again. I want to be around people who can enjoy jokes about Sisyphus, but still get their shoulder against the boulder when the time comes.

I have been aided by many smart and optimistic people in bringing Rogue Tyger to life. The boulder moved.

Tip #5: Dare Yourself to Keep Working
Bribery, incentives, whatever it is, do what works to keep on writing.

My biggest motivation in this corner has been seeing friends and colleagues complete things. I should note that I find a lot of their work phenomenal, but even where it’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread or Betty White, an imperfect completed work is loads better than a “perfect” incomplete work-in-progress.

To reference Chariots of Fire, I’ve found it’s better to stop worrying about whether you’ll win when you run. Simply put: you can’t win if you don’t run. So get to running.

Tip #6: Trust Your Curiosity
Great things come from research and one that comes to me again and again is excitement. My recent work on a modern adaptation of War of the Worlds reminded me of how much I enjoy using bits of knowledge to build a story. The same thing happened with Rogue Tyger, which remains very much a space opera, but has some hard science elements amid the blasters and jump drives.

I’ve had friends and colleagues find curiosity and subsequent inspiration through pursuing interests in epidemiology, the armed forces, first contact protocols, recovery programs, and all sorts of oddities. Going down the rabbit hole of minutiae, so long as one eventually comes up to write, seems to be a blessing.

Tip #7: Create a Ritual
I recall Stephen King cautioning against being too precious with one’s writing space or required rituals, so this seems much more in line with tips 3 and 6: what warms you up and gets you ready to write?

Tip #8: Don’t Believe in Writer’s Block
I still remember an interview with Ray Bradbury from the 80s where he mentioned he simply didn’t accept writer’s block from himself. This didn’t mean he wouldn’t get stumped by a particular story. Instead, when that did happen, he would take a break, trust curiosity and follow inspiration into another piece of writing. The novel is at a standstill? Write a poem. Write that short story that’s been in his head for months. Then come back and the novel is moving forward again.

The key here seems to be completing things and using momentum to go back into the work that stalled. That’s easier said than done (or written). It was (and is) a valuable insight none-the-less.

Tip #9: Write for Yourself
For me, this is part and parcel with both curiosity and inspiration. What writing inspired you and why? And what if we went down such and such a path?

For Rogue Tyger, I looked a lot at the science fiction I liked, and a (perhaps disturbingly) large amount of it involved small groups of people on ships going off on adventures. Trying to tackle that myself was (and is) mighty fulfilling.

Tip #10: Imagine Your Reader
The key corollary to the previous point: what is your reader expecting and how can you pay off their expectations in a satisfying mixture of expected and unexpected ways? I obsess about payoff, but I guess we’ll see what happens.

So there it is. Now, I’m off to work on a bit more writing because, well, I’m rather motivated at the moment.

Stepping Away from Comics, Directly

This past week, a friend posted a video of a friendly local comic shop/bookstore. Used books are stuffed into every conceivable bit of shelf space, surrounding long boxes of comic book back issues, with memorabilia and figurines placed in strategic –and sometimes haphazard– locations. It’s almost archetypical for what you’d imagine a used bookstore/comic shop to be.

A week earlier, I stepped into that same comic shop for, if not the very last time, my last time regularly.

The reason I went there regularly — and in fact had been a “regular” for a good chunk of the past 30 years — was because I had a pullbox. For those who don’t know that term, I essentially had subscriptions to a variety of comics and I’d go into this shop every month or so and pick them up where they’d been kindly setting them aside.

That’s over.

It’s sad, but in a sense, it’s been a long time coming. For years I’ve stared at the $3.99 price tag on most single issues of comics these days and told myself that this was untenable. If a story was good, it would appear in much more affordable trade paperback form. Indeed, most comic runs these days seem to be in six-issue arcs so as to make trade paperbacks a more effortless part of the ecosystem. I’ve enjoyed Saga in this form for years now. Nevertheless, it’s the end of an era on the personal level, though not the first step in that direction.

My first step away from comics was around college, an ancient time technically not before Internet, but for the most part pre-Internet browser. In going to college, I abandoned my subscriptions to the omnipresent superhero offerings and have since come to understand how that has left gaping holes in my general comics-related pop culture knowledge. I’m certain there are no end of characters and storylines familiar to many that are completely new from my experience.

How far-reaching is this? Let me put it to you this way: Harley Quinn is a new character for me.

Lest you feel bad for me in any way, let me assure you I’ve found this to be a benefit as I watch the myriad superhero films and TV series. I have more than a little knowledge of who most of the central characters are (e.g. Green Arrow, The Flash), but pretty much no knowledge of the past 25+ years of established Marvel or DC canon (which they seem to blow up with regularity anyway). In this fashion, I’m able to enjoy countless adaptations of characters and storylines without any worry about their fidelity to the comic version.

But I’m not unaware of how the comics industry, which has given rise to the current juggernaut trend in entertainment, is failing — and may fail to even continue to be the “content farm system” it essentially is for the more lucrative divisions of its parent companies. And what does that mean for the future of superhero films and TV shows? What does this mean for comics publishing in general.

Augie De Blieck Jr. over at Pipeline Comics has a sober look at how the comics industry, which on the whole uses a business model called “the direct market” is, for lack of a better term, imploding. While it’s not necessarily a death knell for comics overall, not seeing a meaningful move en masse to a new business model is dispiriting. I suppose everything could go digital and maybe that’s the big move, but while I’ve gotten digital comics, especially when that’s the place to support indie efforts, I find a surge of luddite sensibilities at the thought of abandoning print comics altogether.

Part of the overall morose feeling is that I know I won’t pursue comic writing any time soon. There was a time when I was sure I’d be diving into comic writing and creating. I’d still love to see a version of The Broken Continent in comic form, that could continue the story more economically than our web series could. But that doesn’t seem likely given indie comics’ own challenges at being profitable.

But for now, I’m a reader of comics only… and only an occasional one at that.

The Show is Dead. Long Live the Show.

Okay, so what with streaming services, shorter TV seasons, and season premieres popping up whenever there’s a quiet moment, this list from the Hollywood Reporter doesn’t carry the same import, but I still find it interesting look over what’s been renewed, what’s ending, and what’s precariously on the bubble in terms of TV shows.

Depressing Plot Twist: Comic Book Edition

The other week, I saw an article from a local news station in Michigan about an established comic book artist who was now homeless.

The article mentioned that the comic artist was one-armed — and I knew it must be William Messner-Loebs.

This was depressing.

Although the article talked about him as a comic book artist (and the link above has a video where you see how skilled he is), I first came to know him as a comic book writer. Indeed, I first learned his name when he was the writer on the Jonny Quest comic in the late 80s. I’m overdue for re-reading it, but I am comfortable in saying it’s easily within my top ten favorite comic series of all time. Yes, I have read [insert your favorite mainstream comic here]. That may or may not make the list. Barring some awful discovery of how times have changed in the past 30 years that doesn’t jive with the comic panels created so long ago, Jonny Quest will always be on that list. Most of the Carl Barks stories are, too.

So, you can imagine I was thrilled to learn that he won the Bill Finger Award last year, which focuses on a lifetime of work as a comic book writer. And that occasion served to remind me all of the tremendous work he’s done since Jonny Quest.

So that’s why reading the article and seeing the video was depressing.

However, I do urge you to check out the video, because you’ll see Mr. Messner-Loebs retains not only a wry sense of humor, but a tremendous sense of grace about his current situation. And I agree with Mark Evanier, chair of the BIll Finger Award, what would be most awesome is that some people can give this very talented man some work: he’s ready and he’s good.

Were I pursuing comics publishing, I would totally be concocting some insidiously nice plot to do just that.

My Favorite ‘Scape

Thinking of last week’s post and the general notion of sharing creative work that excites, I stumbled across an interview with Rockne S. O’Bannon about Farscape, the sprawling space opera that ran on TV from 1999 to 2003.

How much do I like Farscape? Let me put it this way: I’ve introduced many, many people to Firefly: lent them the DVDs, pestered them via social media when it’s been streaming on Netflix. If I learned a new installment of Firefly existed, I would schedule some time to watch within the next few weeks.

If I learned Farscape was back, I would body-check man and muppet on my way to tune in. I wouldn’t even care that’d it’d probably be “on demand.”

(And yes, I know comics “continue the story” for both. I’ve checked ’em out and I still want the screen versions).

So why would I recommend Farscape?

It’s continually visually inventive. Beyond what you’ll probably hear that Farscape revels in getting weird –which is both true and delightful– both the visual effects and the creatures cooked up by the Jim Henson company are astounding again and again. It blows the Next Generation’s minimalist “forehead variation” makeup out of the water. I’ve heard from some people who can’t abide by anything slightly Muppet-like, so if Dark Crystal isn’t your bag, there may be moments of dislike. I’m biased, of course, but I think any of those moments are far outweighed by true “wow” moments.

It is equally at home with comedy and drama. Much like Deep Space Nine, Cowboy Bebop, and, yes, Firefly, it contains narrative multitudes. And importantly, it is driven by the story. The episode where they switch bodies is just as ridiculous as you’d expect and the episode “Season of Death” fully lives up to its title.

The heroes are heroic in spite of constant screw-ups and curve balls. Much in the tradition of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the heroes aren’t compelling because they win all the time, but how they deal with losing. And they get very inventive at trying not to lose. The fact that the very first episode shows the main hero thinking his way out of the episode’s dilemma is refreshing (though he proves to be quite adept with a pulse pistol).

The stories keep moving. They pack what might have made for an older TV show’s two-parter into a lean 45 minutes — and their three parters were usually wondrous. Just as you’re thinking “what if they…?” they go ahead and do it. It’s like the writers wanted to cut to the chase and get all the ideas on screen while they still could. Viewers of Castle in its prime as well as the best of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will recognize this breakneck pace. It’s exhilarating.

So there you have it. It’s sadly no longer on streaming Netflix nor Amazon Prime, but it is available on DVD via Netflix (I’m not the only one who uses that, right?)

Update: a filmmaker friend passed along this video extolling the virtues of Farscape:

Doing Without Bile

Blogger, and fount of seemingly endless pop culture knowledge, Mark Evanier had a post earlier this month, right before his birthday. It was about getting older and just not caring about… I guess we could call it “irrational umbrage” about certain pop culture things like specific comics or movies or music or whatnot. You can read the post here.

One of my brothers has a habit that I’ve tried to cultivate in myself: when someone expresses adoration for a work you don’t like (e.g. a film, a book, a TV show, etc.) ask them what they like about it. Granted, in order to be a less-than-obnoxious conversationalist, you usually do need to own up to the fact that the work didn’t work for you and then segue into your query. This approach also lends itself to being less snarky, which also tends to help in being a better conversationalist.

People who revel in being brusque — and generally dislike using the words ‘brusque’ and ‘conversationalist’ — will find this crazy talk.

And, of course, maybe you don’t want to have a conversation, you want agreement — or possibly snarky argument. I suppose that’s valid, but as I get older, I’d rather have discussion — especially if it’s a choice between discussion or vapid agreement. And if we’re not going to actually have a discussion about some work, why don’t we get back to our own work? Alluding to the post above, I’d rather work on my own crap as opposed to spending a lot of time talking about how some other work is crap. I guarantee there is someone out there who will deem my work crap when it goes out into the world.

There’s enough crazy and negative stuff in the world besides all the creative work we and others try and produce. In other words, there’s plenty of stuff to drag us down. When it comes to creative works, I’m way more interested in what pulls you up.