Dec 21, 2015

Non-Fiction Book Review: "King Leopold's Ghost"

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial AfricaKing Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book kept me fascinated from beginning to end. A sensitive and starkly honest portrayal of the era, and of the socioeconomic situation driving the forced labor and huge loss of life in the Belgian Congo. I'm always interested in trying to figure out how cruelty on a massive scale can happen, and this book provided me with fresh insights.

One takeaway I got was this: Isolation and de-humanization and is necessary for cruelty on a massive scale. Slavery had been abolished in the Western world during the era of the Belgian Congo, and sure, the Western world acknowledged Africans as human beings, at least in public documents ... but the popular books and essays of the era clearly show the attitude that most Westerners denigrated Africans as less human than themselves. When someone isn't quite human, then their lives don't matter as much. If they're far away, then their lives matter even less. If the massive cruelty happens behind a dense jungle wall, or a barbed wire fence, then the rest of the world might not even believe it's happening.

Before this book showed up on my radar, I knew almost nothing about the colonial era of Africa. Why don't U.S. schools teach this history, instead of focusing solely on the U.S.? Why doesn't the History Channel cover things like this?

View all my reviews

Apr 20, 2015

Encouragement Gone Wrong

New writers are often told that they can write a novel; it's easy. Does this leave the wrong impression? If storytelling is an art form--like music or dance or fine art--that should imply years of training and practice. Do you believe that writing a great novel is easier than painting a masterpiece, or composing a concerto?

Mar 30, 2015

The Art of Storytelling

Is there a major difference between writing and storytelling? What do all memorable stories have in common? Does great storytelling require talent? What, exactly, is it?

Mar 9, 2015

Soft, Pulpy, Action-Adventure Sci-Fi

Some science fiction is more akin to epic fantasy, but the most popular of these swashbuckling space novels are a generation old. Are we overdue for a Renaissance in soft, pulpy, epic adventure space fantasy stories?

Hi! My last two episodes were about hard versus soft magic systems. Now I'd like to take this time to talk about my favorite subject, or my favorite genre, which would be Soft Science Fiction. I'll cover Hard Science Fiction in a future episode.

Soft Sci-Fi is pretty much what I write. People might call it Space Fantasy or Space Opera. When most people think of what this is, they think of "Star Wars."

There seems to be a lot of it missing in books, as far as recognizable titles go. I'm aware that the "Vorkosigan Saga" is very popular, and I have read that. There are a lot of popular Space Opera books, but none of them have really hit, like, the mega mega masses of the world, like, in a way that Stephen King's books and J.K. Rowling's books have become household brand names.

So, there does seem to be a lot more of it in TV and film--and in comic books, of course. There are Techno Thrillers that sort of blur the line, and I would say there's some Hard Science Fiction that kind of goes to the fun and pulpy side of things.

One might say that books like "Wool" and "Ready Player One" fall into that category. Or "Snow Crash," even where it's a crazy virtual reality world, and there's fast-paced action. The same thing with a lot of Michael Crichton's work, such as "Jurassic Park."

It's still based on hard scientific concepts, though.

So, the way I see it, the main difference, really, is that in Hard Sci-Fi, in all those Techno Thrillers and so forth, they're built around an idea; a scientific premise, such as: What if there was crazy nanotechnology or bioengineering? What if we could bioengineer dinosaurs? The story is built around that 'what if' premise.

Whereas with Soft Science Fiction, it's a little bit more like Epic Fantasy and that sort of thing, where the story is built around a sociological issue. What if you had magic powers and you could take over the world? So it's a little bit more of a personal or sociological issue. The science falls around it, and it's part of it, the advanced technology is in there, but science or tech is not the main premise of the story.

So that's what I'm writing. It's more like an Epic Fantasy premise. The scientific research involved is ... well, there's different ways you can approach scientific research. Like, I think, "Okay, my characters need high-tech weapons to shoot each other." If I was writing Hard Sci-Fi, I would think, "Well, let's see. What's the best kind of futuristic weapon?" I'd build the weapon from there. But because I'm writing a different type of story, I think, "What kind of weapon would be really wearable and easy to use for the bad guys and the good guys?"

So I come up with a good weapon design, and the armor that might counteract that, and then, once I have that in my head; I've imagined how it's going to look, how it's going to feel, how it's going to be used in the story what the victims look like when they're shot, and so forth ... at that point that's when I started debating, "Okay, well, how can I accomplish this? Would it be laser guns or ray guns or rail guns?"

And then I start researching the science or technology. But all that research? I would say that 5% of my science research goes into my stories. It's not the main thing.

The characters don't sit around listening to lectures about how the faster-than-light technology works, or anything like that. They don't usually know how it works. It's part of their universe, in the same way that moving staircases are part of the "Harry Potter" universe. It's just there. The rules never change, and there is science behind it but it's not necessarily talked about in the story.

Now, I would say that pulp sci-fi is alive and well in books, but it's usually categorized elsewhere. For instance, Stephen King's books? "It" and "The Tommyknockers" both involve aliens coming to Earth and wreaking havoc, with one alien or aliens or alien ghosts. So it's a pulpy premise, but those are categorized under Horror. They're never really talked about as being Soft Sci-Fi. And I see that a lot.

So Military Sci-Fi and Hard Sci-Fi are definitely alive and well in books, but I believe that Soft Science Fiction is overdue for a Renaissance. I think that it needs to be its own sort of thing, in the same way that Stephen King revitalized Horror, and in the same way that J.K. Rowling sort of revitalized the Young Adult genre.

I think that there's a lot of room for Space Fantasy with sweeping battles, epic scope, high-stakes, romance, and so forth. We just haven't seen a lot of yet that's hit big-time, that's really hit the public consciousness. But I think that that's going to happen. I hear that a lot of writers are writing stories along those lines, and I can't wait to read more of it!

If you or anyone you know is writing Soft Science Fiction or Space Fantasy that you think has best-seller potential, and it's just really something you rave about, and tell all your friends.... Please let me know about it!

And don't forget to hit "Subscribe!" See you next week.

Feb 11, 2015

Commonalities with Magic in Fiction

Since it's hard to write a story where everyone in the world has awesome magic powers—isn't that like having ubiquitous technology?—authors write about individuals who become wizards or superheroes. They're special people who inherited their specialness. But if it's inherited, doesn't that imply superiority over everyone else? Even if the hero is nice and only uses magic for good deeds, well, their descendants might choose a different path. A world where less than 1% have inherited superpowers has dark implications. I'd like to see more stories that address this, and thoroughly explore the implications.

Manna, the One Source, allomancy ... a lot of fictional heroes require a specific fuel to power their magic. This defines the limit of their power. But aren't there are other ways to define limits to magical powers? Focus, for instance. One can only keep track of so many bolts of lightning or knives flying through the air.

Do you define limits of magical power for your character that's not tied to a fuel source? 

Magic ... at puberty. Or because of trauma. It's a common theme in fiction with supernatural, superhero, psionic, or magical powers. But why should this be the case? We all want to avoid magical babies, since those are dangerous, but I'd like to see magical manifesting that's more thought-through, and more creative, than "I got magic along with with my period."

Jan 25, 2015

Why is Breaking Bad so Good?

After marathon-watching all five seasons of "Breaking Bad," Abby Goldsmith analyzes why the show is so addictive, and why so many viewers respect the characters. It's all about good storytelling. That, and clever problem-solving, and ironic contrast.

How can meth cooks be so fascinating? Abby delves into the world of Walter White (aka Heisenberg) and Skyler, Jesse Pinkman, Saul Goodman. Note that their names all have socially benign connotations--white, sky, pink, good. And they're not so different from the right side of the law, aka Hank Shrader.

Jan 16, 2015

January 2015 Writing Update, #1: Big Decision

January 2015 Writing Update, #1: I talk about a major change in my career goal as an author.

Jan 11, 2015

The Self-Pub Slushpile

It's the biggest criticism against self-publishing. With an ever-increasing plethora of ebooks available to readers, debut authors have increasing trouble being discovered. Literary agents and editors complain about 'the slushpile' of manuscripts they receive. Has that burden shifted to readers? Is indie publishing doomed due to a lack of curation?

Jan 5, 2015

On Juggling and Finishing Creative Projects

Ep06 transcript

Hi! Today I am going to talk about juggling multiple creative projects.

In the last year, I've started designing some mobile games, I've started an animated web show, I started a new novel, I worked on a few short stories, a few articles, I started this vlog. I don't even know what else I did.

That was all in one year. I am also teaching myself UX design and website design. I never run out of things to do. I am never bored. This is just my life. I am always doing something creative.

When I was in high school and college, I wanted to be a top animator for Disney or Pixar. Now I am aiming towards becoming a best-selling author. I guess a lot of creative people have these kinds of problems. There are not enough hours in a day, not enough years in a lifetime. You have got so many projects that you just keep starting, and you do not know how you are going to finish it all.

I have finished six novels as an adult, and a few as a kid. I've drawn comics, and done a few things like that. So, I have finished a few projects.

Where I get hung up with those is the marketing, and the editing. I tend to stop when the work gets less fun and more tedious. The things I am really passionate about, I don't seem to have a problem doing. I could probably lock myself in a room and write for 16 hours a day, if it is a first draft of a novel that I'm passionate about. When I work on those, I sometimes forget to eat, forget to sleep. I just want to work on it, that is all I want to do.

When it comes to the editing, the querying, the marketing ... that is when I start to say, "Oh, I see another project I would like to work on."

So there is some difficulty there. I think what makes me stick with the things that I am really passionate about—for instance, the ultimate goal of becoming a best-selling author—I will stick to that, because after I have poured I don't know how many years and hours into writing novels, I feel like I owe it to myself, and to the projects themselves, to put in that extra mile of effort.

Maybe it is because the fun part was up front, for me, whereas maybe for you, the fun part comes later in the project. But I do think that when people say it is important to work on what you are passionate about, that is very, very true. I heard some indie author say something about "if it does not feel like playing a video game; like, if the level of fun is not at a video game level, then maybe it is not the right work for you." Maybe some people disagree with that, but that is how I feel about it. I really, really enjoy writing.

I also really enjoy drawing and animating, a lot. But with drawing and animation, there is some tedious work involved. For instance, with the web show I want to do: audio editing is not my strong point, and it is not something that I find fun, so I get hung up at places like that, whereas with a novel, even the editing I can sort of enjoy. Even the marketing. I can get myself to enjoy that, by putting a lot of effort into it. So, I guess it is all about doing what you are really passionate about.

I would love to hear from you in the comments on YouTube, or G+, or Facebook, or whatever. See you all next week!