Oz and good stories

Princess_Truella_on_a_stork_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_16529"It's steampunk." "No, it isn't." "It's pretty steampunk." "No, it's not." "You have to admit, it has steampunk elements." "Well, it's not steampunk."

A discussion about my novel, Skater in a Strange Land, which can be categorized as "steampunk lite"?

No, an exchange with me and stepson, who is apparently a big genre purist, concerning the movie "Oz the Great and Powerful."

We hadn't seen the movie yet, but from the trailer it was clear that the time period (late nineteenth or early twentieth century) and period technology the movie did qualify as steampunk-y if nothing else.

But once I saw it, genre considerations took second place. Was it a good story?

I don't think so, and technology, I think, doesn't help.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" has a prominent 3D element. I am not a big fan of 3D. I saw "Up" in 3D, and it made my head hurt and added exactly nothing to the story. I would argue, in fact, that 3D takes away from the story by distracting you from the progress of the action.

Storytelling is about action, not effect.

Now I saw "Oz" in 2D by preference, so that I could concentrate on the story. It was still a spectacular feat of technology, but it felt like a feast that wasn't warranted, like having Easter dinner on Maundy Thursday

Again, did the appearance of the movie contribute to the storytelling?

Not so much.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" concerns the "man behind the curtain" from the 1939 classic movie, "The Wizard of Oz." It asks the question, how did the wizard get to be who he was?

The movie starts with a black-and-white sequence in Kansas, like in "The Wizard of Oz." It also has a tornado that whisks you away to the fantasy world. And, as in the other movie, the whole screen is filled with brilliant color and effects after the fantasy world is entered.

What is that made this cinematic strategy so fun and story-appropriate in the original? Dorothy, the girl from Kansas, knows nothing but a very bland, boring, and yet menacing world. When she enters Oz, we feel her awe. She has truly come somewhere else and other.

James Franco, who plays the main character, Oscar Diggs ("Oz"), is a womanizing con man and sleight-of-hand magician. He himself is master of many special effects in the grayish Kansas he inhabits. When he enters the kingdom of Oz, his reaction is bemusement, but not wonder. He is too cynical to be amazed by the new world. And he cynically manipulates the first person he meets in Oz, the naive witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who resembles very much the naive woman he manipulates while in Kansas.

3D does not help this type of story. You don't believe the world because the main character doesn't believe the world. One strike against.

As the story progresses, the audience is asked to believe that Oz, this charlatan, is going somehow to save the world that coincidentally has the same name as he. In fact, we are asked to believe that three powerful and intelligent witches (Kunis ends up being quite formidable) somehow need this man to unite the kingdom. The more power they show (and the more the technology shows them using it), the less we believe that Oz is the man for the job of CEO.

Talk about a glass ceiling.

One part of the movie does ring true for me. When Oz and his sidekick, talking monkey Finley (Zach Braff), enter "China Town," a village made up of porcelain houses and porcelain people, he uses common glue to heal the broken legs of the best character in the movie, the China Girl (Joey King). Her reaction of wonder to technology we take for granted is magical. And the special effect of her walking after being healed is affecting. That was worthy of an ooh and an ahh.

L. Frank Baum wrote a whole slew of beloved Oz books, with a bunch of strange technology (including visions of robots, television, and laptop computers), and in a world full of wonder.

This movie really made me want to go back and read those books, and use my imagination to create the special effects.

(Movie poster from here)

(Link below contains a review with a bunch more plot details, if you need them.)


Goodreads Giveaways, oh my!

If you are a member of goodreads.com and interested in a chance at a free (personally inscribed) copy of Skater in a Strange Land, get on over to the Giveaways page and search. The Giveaway ends on March 11, and there are two books available, so you double your chances.

In other news:

  • The sequel to Skater in a Strange Land is titled "The Skater and the Saint"; I'm going to be doing the main drafting and revising over the summer, but I am pleased to announce the book is about a third there, almost 24,000 words.
  • Coming soon: in Borschland there is something called the Borschland National Sweepstakes, or BONAS, which is keyed to a daily puzzle in Latin that you need to solve. I'll be starting that on this blog with fabulous (or sorta fabulous) prizes available.

  • One of the things I would love everyone to have is a map of Borschland and the Continent on which it lies. I'm working on that and will be making it available soon.
As always, if you have any questions about Borschland, the Borschland Hockey Chronicles, or for me as an author, don't hesitate to contact me at teenage underscore heroes at sign yahoo dot com. 

Vermeer's Woman in Blue and Borschland

On NPR this morning, much speculation about the subject of the letter that the "Woman in Blue" is reading in Vermeer's famous painting.

The beloved, who is a painter herself, harumphed and said, "I'm sure Vermeer was concerned more with the color of the dress than with the subject of the letter. It was probably his wife reading a receipt."

I went to the NPR site to have a look, and they have a lovely, large .jpg of it that you can click twice and make bigger.

What caught my eye was not the woman so much as the background-- a mysterious map painted on the wall. 

I am big on maps and created Borschland first as a place and without any of the people in mind. The ice hockey and the Dutch culture came after.

You can read about the origin of my love of maps here. But what was this particular map depicting? It's blue and beige and from a distance hard to tell.

I went to the handy-dandy Internet and found out the map was of the Netherlands, which makes sense since Vermeer was Dutch. But I still couldn't place the picture as the Netherlands. It didn't look like the maps of the Netherlands I know, even framed off and magnified, as it is here:

Vermeer Muchacha Riendo 01

(With humble thanks to the English students at the Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Spain, who write an impeccable report in impeccable English)

So off it was to another of the 21st century's best tools, a picture manipulation program. I blew up the photo of the map and saw the words NOVA ET ACCURATA HOLLANDIAE ET VESTPHALIAE TOPOGRAPHIA, which is Latin for "a new and accurate map of the Netherlands and Westphalia."

I also saw the words MARE GERMANICUM in part of the beige section of the map, and what looked like a bunch of ships. Then I realized, like a person who looks at a Rorschach test a second time, that the beige was water, and the blue was land. MARE GERMANICUM means "German Sea" and is an old name for the North Sea.

I rotated the picture with the manipulator program, and hey presto! the Netherlands was staring out at me.

Compare this with a contemporary map of the Netherlands:

Vermeer Muchacha Riendo 02 Netherlands_map

What does this have to do with Skater in a Strange Land? Not much, at first, but follow me into the wilds of my imagination if you dare.

Vermeer painted in the 17th century, which is also the century when Borschland was discovered. It was an age of great exploration, and the Dutch were some of the most adventurous sailors out there, including a guy named Abel Tasman, who discovered the Australian island of Tasmania.

I imagined Tasman also discovered the mystery continent where Borschland is located while on his way to Australia, since the Continent is fairly close to Australia. In fact, I wrote a short story about Tasman and the two captains, Willem van Noos and Henrick Lojren van Borsch, whom he left behind to map the Continent. You can read the opening of that story here and buy the whole thing if you wish. If you've read this far, you can even ask for it from me for a gift. First three askers who comment (and send their email address to teenage underscore heroes atsign yahoo dot com) get it.

That short story will be helpful background reading for my next novel, The Skater and the Saint, which hopefully will be published around Thanksgiving of this year (2013).

I love that Vermeer included a map of the Netherlands in his painting, with all the tiny ships on it that indicate the Dutch commitment to expanding their horizons. Borschic folks have a little bit of that adventurous spirit still, which makes for a fun place in which to set adventurous stories.


Indie publishing, still a gold rush?

Jack-London.1Recently I left a comment on Dean Wesley Smith's blog reiterating in a tongue-in-cheek way that indie (self-) publishing is a gold rush. In his next post, Smith wrote this:

So I have a few start-of-the-year suggestions for indie publishers: 

1... Stop thinking of this as a gold rush. We are now in the new normal.

Image: Jack London, chronicler of the gold rush and successful writer

For writers and publishers like Smith, this line of reasoning rings true. He is a publishing veteran with dozens of novels under his belt. His publishing company, WMG Publishing, has equipment, employees, and tons of momentum.

But to continue with the gold rush metaphor for just a bit longer: Smith is no longer a solitary panner working a claim. He is an established mining concern with a big heap of placer behind his sluice box.

In that respect, for him to call indie publishing the new normal is the result of looking in the mirror. For him, the gold rush is over. Now he is simply running a business.

For the individual writer, however, indie publishing still resembles a gold rush. More and more writers are staking their claims in the literary fields, digging for a finite number of readers. Even to get to the fields to prospect, you need to have done a lot of work, and to have spent some money. Like a forty-niner who had to travel to California or a sourdough to the Klondike, the writer has to have a commitment, an investment, and infrastructure. You start off with a rapidly-dwindling stake that you're hoping to win back someday.

Also, as with the real gold rush, those who offer the services to writers-- instruction and coaching, editing, cover and interior art, publicists and promotion-- these are the folk, like the grocers and outfitters of long ago, who make the reliable money. The writers mostly make nothing.

(Smith, by the way, offers seminars on self-publishing and sells books on the subject. So he's not only a miner, he's also a dealer, vertically integrating his business. Smart man.)

Gold rush or not, the individual writer looking to succeed in publishing still needs to figure out what to do. Smith offers methods, and tons of useful information on his blog. But he focuses on the individual.

Here's something in which I'm currently investing: a writer's co-op.

A writer's co-op is more than one individual trying to struggle on his own, and less than a traditional publishing company that takes most of an author's rights and royalties. In the co-op, members buy in with an investment to a joint name, website, and mission. They

  • provide mutual support to each other as they write
  • offer to read and edit each other's stuff
  • promote the heck out of each author's published work

and whatever else they all agree to do. Based on their mission, they can keep individual proceeds, websites, and even publishing companies separate, or go all in together. They also can decide whether or not to add members or take on the bigger job of publishing from submissions. It's not a publisher-- it's a publishing co-op.

I do not know of any successful writer's co-ops yet, and I suspect the idea is still a new one for 95% of writers. But the idea makes sense to me, and I'm going with it.

I am the type of writer who works best when I know someone's already out there waiting for me to push that content out. And I don't yet have a bunch of readers waiting for the sequel to Skater in a Strange Land. So working with colleagues makes sense for me.

And it makes the endeavor a lot less like a gold rush, and more like a civilized endeavor. Something we should all hope for, even if you don't read this hair-raising Wikipedia article about the negative effects of the California gold rush. (Seems to me we're overdue for a high quality TV series with a more realistic view of this incredible time in history.)

One more thing from Smith that helps to drain the gold rush metaphor of its relevance: he claims that, unlike gold, readers are in huge, huge supply, especially internationally:

Exclusive, no matter in what form or for what reason, is your enemy in this new world and this new year. The world has become a place to sell in hundreds of different markets and forms. Distributors (both paper and electronic) will try to rope you into exclusive agreements. Don’t go for any of them. And don’t let a traditional publisher rope you into a contract that will force you to write only what they want when they want it. The phrase for 2013 should be “Spread Out.”

In other words, our claim is not a 6x6 square next to the Feather River up in the Sierra Nevada. It's the entire blessed world.

So take heart, you literary forty-niners. That mansion in San Francisco isn't as out of reach as it seems. You just have to work your tail(ings) off.

Skater: the cover

Big thanks to the Haddixes and Streetlight Graphics for doing the work on Skater's cover. I asked for a cover that had some Steampunk elements but would go light on corsets, blimps, and gears. The metal frame around the blue background really did the trick.

Then the classic buildings with snow in front gave a feel of Borschland in winter. The color palette of blue, white, and grey felt very right for this winter's tale. In fact, I was inspired by one of the covers of Mark Helprin's 1983 novel, Winter's Tale.

That novel, a fantasy about New York City at the turn of the 20th century, feels similar to Skater; so does John Crawley's Little Big. But both of these are more ambitious and classically literary. I am impatient both as an author and as a reader. I like my stories less sprawling.

Sherm Reinhardt and good literature

Very proud to announce my appearance on the Phil Naessens Writers Showcase Podcast. Besides reading from Skater in a Strange Land, I had a blast telling Phil, among other things, what three books I'd take to a desert island.

Phil also asked what authors influence me today, and I regret not remembering to say Jack London. I'll have a post on that soon.

It was a great pleasure to talk to Phil and discuss the book with someone who liked it, and I got some substantial insight from him as a reader to an author.

Besides being an avid reader with a writer's podcast, Phil hosts a sports show and is a sports guy. He has a popular Internet radio talk show where his substantial sports knowledge is on display. Phil is also the owner of and resident professional at an American Tennis Academy in Corfu, Greece.

So it probably shouldn't have come as a surprise to me that Phil's favorite part of Skater was the characterization of Skater's hero, Sherm Reinhardt, and the description of the Borschland Hockey League games in which Sherm plays:

Skater in a Strange Land, apart from the talking bears, foxes, phase shifts and the like could actually be written about any average athlete with dreams of playing in the big time... Sherm leaving home to travel to Borschland in order to further his career is a journey many of us have taken and I felt a certain kinship with him... Frauenfelder was spot on with the vernacular of a pro hockey player and his description of the hockey games in Borschland made me feel like I was actually watching the game in real life.

Nevertheless, I was surprised, and I think I was surprised because all of the readers of the book to this point have focused on other things besides the hockey and the sports angle. My writing colleague Bob Mustin, for example, wrote in his review of Skater that "I think of hockey like I think of pro wrestling." In other words, not too highly.

I've had fantasy readers enjoy the book, and romance fans have something to cheer about as well. But Phil was the first reader who comes from a sports perspective. 

So, I am reminded again that every reader comes to a story uniquely. And that good literature works as a mirror, helping readers to see themselves in another person's story. I hope that Skater is good enough that every reader will come away from the book with a sense that it spoke to them personally. Beyond that, like Sherm Reinhardt, I'm just happy to be in the game.

Skater in a strange land, Amazon synopsis

I invite readers to submit even shorter synopses. Short is good.

24-year old Sherman Reinhardt dreams of playing ice hockey professionally, but his career at a backwater Minnesota college disappoints-- until his doctored resume convinces a team owner that he's good enough to play in the mythical Borschland Hockey League.

Borschland is a place time never discovered, on a continent that shifts between our universe and another. Here the locals drive horse-drawn carriages and fly in helium-buoyed airships, but everyone is mad about hockey. Sherm is welcomed as visiting royalty and beyond all expectations leads his team towards a championship. Even better, he wins the admiration of the hypnotic, headstrong poetess Rachael Martujns.

But then a shadowy friend, the Upright Bear, Linus Black, Jr., claims Sherm's success is a sham: higher-ups are ordering opponents to let him succeed.

What's going on? Is Rachael faking it, too? Is it time to wake from the dream? Finding the truth becomes Sherm's ultimate goal.

Intermission post: on success and "sticking" with it

This is a nice commentary on a hockey player who succeeded through very hard work for a lot of years. Maybe Sherm Reinhardt will at some time go to the NHL and have the same said about him. But in any case, the commentary is great inspiration for all of us who work hard for our respective dreams and success but haven't hit it big-- yet.