Monday, July 28, 2014

6 Lies Fantasy Writers Tell

6: Harry Potter? Yeah, it's all right.

5: I don't need to explain it. It's magic!

4: I didn't plan any of this. It just happened.

3: Maps? Who uses maps? I've got it all right up here.

2: My dragons/vampires/elves are different. I called them drakes/bloods/angelicks.

1: No, it's not Tolkienesque.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

7 Under-Appreciated Sci-Fi Reads

Last week, we took a look at some fantasy books that just deserve a little more attention than they've been getting. Today, we turn to the science fiction side of the spectrum, throw out a few more books to make your to-be-read pile all the larger.

7: Can of Worms by Kathy Mackel


Remember when sci-fi was fun? Aliens and technology and adventure? That's Can of Worms. It rose to popularity during the era of Disney Channel Original Movies, and that's how I discovered it. A TV movie. I proceeded to read it ten or fifteen time. In a row. It's the story of Mike Pillsbury and his attempts to move through the sea of the public school system, all the while dealing with a cavalcade of aliens drawn by the signal he sent out into the universe, all ready to 'rescue' him from his family. And of course, things take a turn for the worse. But as far as sci-fi goes nowadays, it's a nice, light read.

6: Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott



Flatland does have a certain level of popularity, but will that last? As we, unfortunately, lose our oldest generation of sci-fi readers, more and more classics fall by the wayside. Already, enough people haven't read Flatland. But I think it deserves attention, if only because of how completely groundbreaking it was at the time. In 1884, Edwin Abbott published Flatland under the pen name A. Square as the memoirs of a resident of Flatland, a two-dimensional world. But our noble square is not your average square. He receives a message from another world. A sphere who descends into flatland from our world to show him the truth. An allegory to it's core, the very fact that a work in such a time period, one that not subtly suggests that God may, in fact, be quite fallible, astounds me to this day. And you can't beat the price—under two dollars for an ink and paper copy.

5: Hopscotch by Kevin J. Anderson



Now, Kevin J. Anderson is hardly a name to be forgotten in the world of modern speculative fiction. But try to talk to someone about Hopscotch. How many people have read it? I've been to numerous sci-fi and fantasy cons, both as a fan and as a panelist, and I have yet to run across a single other soul who has read the book, or even heard of it.
It tells the story of a group of young people in a world where body-swapping is not only prevalent, but quite normal. An artist who switches out with another to avoid exhaustion. A young woman seeking some sort of spiritual truth. A government officer without the ability to swap, but unfooled by the mutable outward appearance of the world's population. I read it first in middle school, and it's stuck with me since then.

4: Manta's Gift by Timothy Zahn



Jupiter: the great, inscrutable gas giant. What lies beneath the surface? What could possibly withstand the gravitational force of such a massive stellar body? Timothy Zahn, well known to fans of the Star Wars Extended Universe as the creator of Mara Jade and Admiral Thrawn, answers that question—the Qanskas. They travel from gas giant to gas giant throughout the universe, floating about and just surviving. Our main character, injured, is given the chance to join his consciousness with the body of one of the Qanska (I know, Avatar… but this came first. Remember that.). They accept him… kind of. As he moves deeper into the Qanska society, he learns the truth. Whether he wants to or not.

3: Ultra Fuckers by Carlton Mellick III



Dystopian fiction has always been one of my favorites. Now, technically, Ultra Fuckers is considered bizarro fiction, which is a relatively new genre that sprung out of splatterpunk and magical realism, but it reads exactly life sci-fi. Weird sci-fi, but sci-fi. It begins innocently enough: a dinner party with a woman's new boss. It's in this brand new housing development, but the GPS isn't working. Before too long, she abandons her husband, the story's main character, and he has to try and find his way out. But that won't happen. This housing development keeps growing. Constantly. It's computer programmed for perfection, but the computer has a bug. Of course it does. Soon enough, the whole world is one big housing development, complete with the ubiquitous goldfish mohawked robot cyclops.
I told you it was weird.
As with most dystopian fiction, it's not particularly hopeful, but it's a hell of a read. And you can finish it, cover to cover, in a few hours. Great for a gray and rainy day off.

2: This Perfect Day by Ira Levin



God, this list is starting to look familiar. Any regular reader probably recognizes half of these books, including This Perfect Day. It's one of my favorites. Now, I love The Giver, I do, but this is better. So much better. It's very clear about the whole thing rather than leaving it to imagination like The Giver. You meet the people in charge. You see the escapees. You understand the full and complete level of the treachery committed in the name of keeping society peaceful. Chip doesn't quite fit in. Chip's genetics are flawed, leaving him with heterochromia, one brown eye and one blue. Chip questions the way things are done, and he isn't the only one. There are others around him, people who appreciate art and smoking and sex that isn't shortened by chemical injection. He gets in with them, but he's not happy with their small victories. He wants more. He wants true, actual freedom, and he's willing to fight for it.

1: The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem



You had to see this one coming, didn't you? It's my favorite book. No one's ever read it. I want them to read it. It's sci-fi. This list is about sci-fi. It may not be the least popular sci-fi book ever written, but it's not exactly popular, either. At least not in the states. It got quite a bit of notice when it was released in Poland. It's not a single narrative, rather a collection of vignettes about the illustrious constructors, Trurl and Klapaucius. From a run-in with a pirate desperate to collect information to a trip hunting dragons through the phases of probability, the stories are just fun, which is what this list seems to come down to. The science is… well, there really isn't any science. It's very heavy on the fiction. But it's brilliant. Completely and utterly brilliant, and a lot of the credit goes to the translator, Michael Kandel. Not only the text but the poetry was translated, rhyming intact.

So there it is. We did seven fantasy books, and now seven sci-fi books. So again, I turn to you: which books did I miss. What can I add to my bookshelf? Let me know, and subscribe up at the top, if you want to keep the dialogue open. I always like to hear from other readers.

Voss

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Writer Roundup: MyNoise



Here we are once again, and today, I have an interesting little website for you. It's called MyNoise.net, and it's a personal ambient noise generator, which is wonderful. There are a number of studies showing that ambient noise, in spite of what anyone might think, actually allows the human mind to focus better on the task at hand (I'll link some down below for you to look through at your leisure.). And if anyone needs help focusing, writers need help focusing. There's only so much your mind can handle, and writing tends to be a push toward the outer limits of that, depending on the day. Anything to help us get through those next two, three, or ten thousand words is good by me.



When you first go to MyNoise.net, you'll want to do the personal calibration. Go to the Online Noises tab and it should be in the top left box. That will take you to the calibration screen. All you do there is turn your volume up (I had to have mine all the way up, but I also don't use headphones, just my laptop speakers; please don't do anything that might damage your hearing.) to where you can hear the static it's producing, and then you'll adjust each slider to where that particular frequency is just barely audible. The hit done, and MyNoise will actually save all that calibration info for you, so it's there every time you come back (While I'm not fully sure of the mechanism involved in that data storage, I'm pretty sure they use cookies. So if you have cookies disabled, it most likely won't remember you. Fair warning.). Since over ninety percent of the sounds on there can be calibrated, it's worth the two or three minutes, I think.

MyNoise has more than a few generators. As a rough estimate, I would say 25-30, but don't quote me on that one. And, at the top of the Online Noises page, they give you a little legend that gives suggestions on the quality or effect of each noise generator. Eerie, meditation, noise blocker. My personal favorites, as of right now, are the Cat Purr, the Rain Noise, and the Himalayan Bowls.

Now, if you'd like to donate to them (they provide this whole service for free), please do. Not only does it help out, but it allows you to get the new sounds before non-contributors have access to them. Which makes me jealous, since they have a coffee shop generator in the works. I may have to donate and get that one.

And on the subject of coffee shop noise generators, I have a couple alternatives, as well, if you don't like MyNoise. The first one, Coffitivity, is a web app, but can also be downloaded onto Droid and iPhone/iPad (at one point, it could run on the basic Mac OS as well, but when I looked into it, the link was broken. If anyone knows otherwise, let me know and I'll edit the post accordingly). Coffitivity is a collection of recordings from various coffee shops all over the world. On the web app, you get three: the morning coffee run, the lunch rush, and a collegiate café.

The other one is Rainy Café. It only has two sliders to control—rain and café—but it's surprisingly useful. To boost my personal creativity, I prefer to crank the rain up really high and keep the coffee shop murmuring about halfway, maybe a little less. I guess white noise just works better for me.

If you have any other noise generators you love like this, particularly good ones that can run on Windows, let me know. They're some of my favorite productivity tools. If you want to hear what else I have to say, hit subscribe up on top of the page.

Articles:
http://99u.com/articles/16711/turn-it-up-how-the-right-about-of-ambient-noise-increases-creativity

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/how-the-hum-of-a-coffee-shop-can-boost-creativity/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Voss

Monday, July 21, 2014

4 Easy Steps to Take Charge of Your To-Be-Read Pile

Step 1: Throw out all the books I didn't write.

Problem solved.

In seriousness, though, readers have to-be-read piles. In what sense would we be readers if we didn't? And, if you're anything like me, your to-be-read pile is so large that you hide from it and read Harry Potter for the twentieth time rather than tackle the ever-mounting stack of literature threatening to topple down upon you.

Breathe. As much as I like Harry Potter... 


(and I do like it)...

we can't just go back to Hogwarts constantly. Or Westeros. Or Narnia, Panem, Cloral, and Wonderland. It just doesn't work that way. We need to grow and expand our minds, and the best way we as readers know to do that is to read. Read different things.

But fear not. It's not as hard as you think. It just takes a small amount of work on your part, and soon that to-be-read pile will slowly shrink down to something manageable.

Step 1 (The Actual Step 1): Don't stress about time. You probably have books that are a couple years old, and you just know that you need to read them, and you know that you should really read them before the half-dozen you just bought today, even though you really want to read your new books.

Breathe. Remember that. Just breathe. If you own a book, that means you own it. Plain and simple. You can read your personal books whenever and however you want. Reverse alphabetical order by the author's middle name? Absolutely fine. The order you buy books in doesn't have anything to do with the order you read them in. We do this for entertainment above anything else. So read what you think is going to entertain you today, not what's been on the shelf the longest.

Step 2: Library/borrowed books have a time limit. It really is something to remember. While I think Step 1 is more important, it's pretty vital to remember Step 2 as well. Books you borrow are like dear old friends who live across the country. You can only enjoy their company for a little while before they have to go back home. Still always read the book that claws for your attention the most, but if you have a library book or a book on loan from someone else versus a book that is wholly yours, at least consider whizzing through the borrowed book first.

Step 3: Remember whose to-be-read pile this is. It's not your neighbor's, or the Internet's, or mine or The New York Times' or Levar Burton's or anyone else's but your own. You don’t have to read anything you don't want to, no matter what anyone or anything might tell you. Tried Shakespeare? Good. Didn't like it? Good. Don't proceed to add 'The Complete Unabridged Works of William Shakespeare' to your pile. You won't get to it, and it's just going to add to your guilt. Focus on things you want to read.

Already have books that have been recommended, but just don't hold your interest? Purge them. Get them out of that pile. Sell them, donate them, keep them, use them to perform interpretive dance. Hell, send them my way, if you want to. I can always use more books. Just get them out of there. Don't worry about what anyone else thinks and read what you want and only what you want.

Step 4: Find time to read. This is the final step, and I'd say it's far and away the most important step. You have to find time to go through your pile. After all, you can't very well expect it to go down if you never touch it. So make time to get some reading done, realize how much time you actually have, and work with that. Don't get hard on yourself if it takes you a month or more to finish Les Miserables when you only have 10-15 minutes a day.

If you don't think you can make time to read, you're wrong. Audio books on the commute to work or in the shower. A book for bathroom breaks and lunch breaks and ankle breaks… wait. Back that one up. Don't break your ankle just to find more time to read. You have time. Heck, you just spent time reading this blog post, didn't you? And tomorrow, you'll have those five minutes extra to read your book.

Just do me a favor and read. It's good for us authors, and it's good for the world as a whole. After all: more art is a never a bad thing. But mostly, it's good for you. And that's what really counts.


Voss

Saturday, July 19, 2014

7 Under-appreciated Fantasy Reads

The history of sci-fi and fantasy is interesting. Most people know a little about it. Lord of the Rings setting the standard for adult high fantasy, the beginnings of sci-fi as early as Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe. The pulp books and dime novels. And then bigger and more popular books. But a lot of today's readers don’t know about the obscurity that has always plagued these genres. During the huge increase in growth during the sixties, houses and magazines were taking just about anything they could grab in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Ever since then, most products of those genres have been woefully unknown. Even today, people see, I would estimate, maybe 10% of the fantasy and sci-fi books produced.

This week will be all about fantasy: what should you go and find, and why should you bother? I've got seven for you, and seven sci-fi books next Saturday.

7: The Neverending Story by Michael Ende




Wait, what? Who doesn't know about The Neverending Story?

I hear you, I get it. But there's a reason it's on this list: movie vs. book. Most people know The Neverending Story through the movies, not through actually reading the book. That's how it made my list.

As with the movies, the Neverending Story tells the story of a young boy named Bastian. One day, he finds himself in a book shop and, against the advice of the shopkeeper, he grabs The Neverending Story. In the attic of his school, he begins to read all about Fantastica and adventures of Atreyu.

The first movie fairly faithfully follows the first half of the book. But that's where the similarities stop. Once you reach the second movie, which is theoretically based on the second half of the book, things take a turn for the… different. I won't say the worse, since the second movie isn’t necessarily bad, but it's certainly not as good as the book was. The movies were somewhat sanitized for an American audience (the book was originally German: Die Unendliche Geschichte.). What happens in the last half of the book is considerably darker than movie fans may expect but, in the interest of letting you enjoy it as I did, I'll keep my lips shut on the subject.

6: In The Name of the Father



In The Name of the Father was published in 1980, and, unfortunately, I don't believe it ever received a lot of attention. My explanation: I think it was before its time. Had this book been written in modern times, I think it would have hit a lot bigger than it did. You begin with a boy and a demon and a kindly priest who rescues the boy from a cave. But that begins everyone's problems. Before long, the boy is a man, a priest like his father. And he can perform miracles. He makes water spring forth from the desert. He can control the wind. And he's being stalked by three she-demons. As the plot thickens, the influence of these hellish creatures seeps into the papacy itself. A blurring of the lines between fantasy and paranormal, this book is well worth tracking down. It's been a permanent inhabitant of my bookshelf since I found it in a secondhand shop almost a decade ago.

5: The Changeling Race by Frances Pauli



It's no secret that I'm a Frances Pauli fan. At least, not if you've read this blog with a fair amount of regularity. And The Changeling Race books (A Moth in Darkness, A Fly in Paradise, Spiders from Memory) were my initial introduction to her work, and still hold a very prominent place on my bookshelf, down with my other beloved series like Harry Potter and The Looking Glass Wars. It also, to this day, contains one of, if not my favorite, opening line: 'The dancing would kill her eventually.'

The Changeling Race trilogy details the story of Earth dealing with the recently opened connection between our realm and the realm of the fair folk: gnomes, fairies, elves, trolls, sidhe. But Liz's love, an elf, has been lost, and she turns to the fairy revels and their candy and wine to bring back her memories of Lockland, even if only for the night. But in the background, something more sinister brews. And it's something that could bring down both worlds…

… and also spoil the entire plot if I told you. Suffice it to say that I consider these books among my regular rereaders.

4: The Watershed Trilogy by Douglas Niles



Fans of Dragonlance will recognize Niles' name. But this is him alone, and he's made a beautiful world: the Watershed. Divided by mountains into the realm of magic, the realm of man, and the realm of darkness, it's not the world's most innovative fantasy series. What sells these books for me is the details. The bits of old documents topping each chapter, the system of magic based on three waters (basic water, tarlike darkblood, and rainbow-colored aqua), the depth of the religions, the history. While these are normally given just enough time on the page to whet your appetite, by the end of the third book, you feel quite fluent in the characters and history of the Watershed.

The main plot is simple enough: Rudy, a human blessed with the powers of both darkblood and aqua, fights against the minions of Dassadec, the sleepstealer. But there's something about these books I just can't seem to place. But I like it. I like it quite a bit.

3: Island of the Aunts by Eva Ibbotson



Not as obscure as some of the other entries, I still find that many people aren't familiar with this book, or Ibbotson's work as a whole. While I think anything she's written is worth reading, Island of the Aunts is my favorite by far. Three sisters living on an island take care of creatures both real and mythical. Seals, birds, mermaids, selkies. But they realize that, at some point, they will die. And so they go to the city pretending to be nannies and grab three children to take over for them after they die. At first, of course, the children resist. But they come around… except one. He gets word to his father, bringing hell down upon the sanctuary at just the wrong time: the kraken, guardian of the seas, has just left its baby under the care of the aunts so it can go bring peace back to the world. If you like mythology, I would highly recommend this book.

2: You are so Undead to Me by Stacey Jay



This is another book I found secondhand, and the first time I ever felt bad about not paying full price for a book. It was that good. Again, this one somewhat blurs the lines between paranormal and fantasy. And that's okay by me. The main character, Megan Berry, settles the undead. They come to her with problems and it's her place to do whatever it takes to get them back in the grave. Sure, all she wants is to live the life of a normal teenage girl, but she knows better. It's not too bad. At least, not until someone starts using black magic to raise the undead, that is. She, of course, has to figure out just who it is, just what they want, and how to stop them. Otherwise homecoming might be ruined. Not to mention, you know, life.

1: Krampus: The Yule Lord by Brom



This. This is a book. This is the book. I can sit there and read this, and then read it again, and then read it again. That's how brilliant it is. Not to mention the art, which is all done by the author. At the very least, I read this every holiday season.

Krampus: The Yule Lord poses, at it's core, a very simple question: if Krampus and Santa Claus got into a fight, who would win. If you don't know, Krampus is a European entity and the counterpart to Saint Nicholas. He takes bad children, stuffs them in bags, and beats them with birch switches. And in some places, people actually do this. You know, minus the actually hurting people part. Well, severely hurting people.

Krampus: The Yule Lord takes place in West Virginia. This year, Krampus has finally regained enough power to send out his servants, the belsnickels, to try and take down the dastardly devil Santa Claus. Because Krampus knows the truth about it all. He knows that Santa Claus wasn't always so jolly, and that he wasn't even always Santa Claus. He's suffered at the hands of Santa Claus for too long, and he intends to exact his revenge.

And this book, as a side note, has one of my favorite lines in any book, play, movie, TV show, or other form of medium: "Then let us go and be terrible."

So, what do you think? Have anything more for your bookshelves? Think I missed something vital in there? If so, tell me. And while you're at it, subscribe up at the top. Otherwise, I might just have to give Krampus your address.


Voss

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Writer Roundup: Twine


And welcome once again to the Friday Writer Roundup. Today I bring you a piece of software very close to my heart, and possibly very close to the hearts of some of my readers. Did you ever read the Choose Your Own Adventure (or similar) books growing up? They were some of my favorites in elementary school.



That's what Twine is all about. It's a simple program for organizing interactive fiction books, and it then spits them out as HTML, which means that they can be put up just about anywhere on the Internet, from self-publishing sites to blogs to web pages. Or you can use it simply to help you track your interactive fiction and then put the full product together in the word processor of your choice. It's a little more work, doing it that way, but it gives you a lot more freedom when it comes time to hit publish. More on that a little later.

For those unfamiliar with interactive fiction, it's sort of a hybrid. Part game, part story. The writer creates many possible plot arcs for the reader to follow. Traditionally, this is where we actually see second person point-of-view in its natural habitat. You walk into the creepy old house. A puff of dust hits you in the face. If you turn around, go to page 3. If you hold your breath and continue forward, go to page 17.

And it continues from there.

Twine starts you off with three boxes: a title, an author, and a Start. You can mess with whatever you want except for the word Start. It has to remain that way. Otherwise, when you go to try and preview everything (which I recommend whether you intend to compile it in HTML or just use Twine to storyboard), it's going to be all screwy. And, if you go the HTML route, messing with the word Start will change around the HTML file it spits out, too. So don't touch it.

From there, you add your events and, via internal links, begin to open up your lines of interaction. Believe me, having a program to help you keep track of everything is much easier than trying to do it all on paper or, even worse, in your head. You want to leave your reader with as much freedom as you can manage, which means a lot of possible ways of interacting within the fiction.

Now, Twine is not the only one you can use for this, but it is one of the few, and it's the easiest to learn and deal with, even if it doesn't have a nice, flashy appearance. The other one I would recommend possibly looking at is Inform7, but only if you think interactive fiction is going to be a major part of your writing lifestyle. It's a little easier on the eyes, and it, like Twine, is free and cross-platform. Inform7 takes a little bit more dedication to learn than Twine, however, so it's a matter of personal choice. For me, Twine is the best option.

For those who intend to use it just as a storyboarding tool, you don't have too much more work to do. But, when and if you format it for print, you will have to edit it after the fact to put in appropriate page numbers. For eBook, depending on how you go about it, you may be able to just use your exported HTML and keep the links, or you may have to go through and manually add the links after the fact. But I trust you can figure it out.

If you believe me, turn to page 62. If not, turn to page 38. If you want more like this article, go to the top of the page and subscribe.

Voss

Monday, July 14, 2014

What's New, What's Not, Where's Neverland

I answer everything but the last question. Everyone knows you just go to the second star on the right and then straight on 'til morning.

I hope you had a glorious weekend, everyone. I had company and so couldn’t get on too often. Sorry about that. But what matters is that I'm here now, and I've got an update on what I've been doing lately. I want to let you, my loyal fans and followers, get the first taste of what's been happening in the Vossverse… or UniVoss… I haven't decided on a name yet.

A lot of my time has been taken up prepping to launch The Jester Prince next month. It's the first time I've never released a direct sequel before, so it's proving interesting. Watch out for that touring the blogosphere in mid-August.

As for active, butt in chair, fingers on keys writing, it's been going between a few things, including blogging. I've been slacking off on my blog for a while, but I'm rising back up to the challenge. So you'll get to see a lot more of my smiling… words?

I've also thrown together a few shorts for various anthologies: Mortimer, the story of a girl and her pet monster, The Bruja's Gate, a tale of Dia de los Muertos gone off kilter, and Saur, a quick bit of flash set after an interplanetary war. So, keep an eye out for those.

Most of my time, as of late, has been spent dealing with The Park, a record of a controversial reality show from. Journals kept by the contestants, eMails from within the production company, reviews; all combined together to create a single cohesive record.
So, you can keep your eye out for that in the near future as well.

That's what's been happening lately. If you want to keep caught up on all my other goings on, just follow me up top. It only costs a couple seconds and a bit of your soul. But souls are highly overrated, anyway.

Voss