Sunday, April 08, 2007

Half Read Review 2: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White

Someday, I'd like to make a couple dollars off of a story or two I've written. To do that I have to work at being a better writer. There's not much good advice out there that can actually make a bad story into a good one, but there is plenty of fodder for sale that will tell you how to make it look like a good story. Books that tell you to add a facial tick to you lead character, or to throw them in unfamiliar places to see how they would react - Hey, how about a scene in a bathhouse? It worked in "Martian Time-Slip" why not your book? Though the title would suggest it might be all about adding nifty stylized (page 50) elements to your story to shine it up real nice, it is not. It's falls somewhere on the other side of the coin and it would appear the goal was the opposite. To help writers write simple sentences that mean what the author intends. William Strunk Jr.'s goal was to eliminate ambiguity in writing and allow a person to get the meaning of a word, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, and, with any luck the entire story the first time through.

This isn't the typical book that lends itself to a "Half Read Review" but at just about the half way point (on page 47) I found an example that sums up the entire book:

Flamable. An oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common work meaning "combustible" is inflammable. But some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means "not combustible." For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.
The rest of the book has the same wit to it but is written in a more conversational tone so it doesn't feel like you're getting a lesson. It's a tiny book and intentionally so, it covers only the meat of the English language and suggests that if you cook it right you won't need the gravy. This is a a good supplement for a struggling student having a hard time grasping the basics. Best way to use it is as a gift for that loved one or friend that just dropped a 1000 page manuscript in your lap and said "Be totally honest - Do you like it?"

The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Half Read Review 1: Alien Planet by Fletcher Pratt

I have a thing for Sci-Fi from the innocent years - the time before spaceships, TVs, computers and even better phones. The stuff from around that time has a real sense of adventure and awakens in me a belief that anything is possible. I still like a modern sci-fi book but when I'm reading them I find myself thinking how close-fetched they are and am prone to judging their knowledge of science a bit too harshly. With some of these old gems it was all off the cuff and you get a sense of how little we really knew about things. From taking a hot air balloon to the moon to eating sausages made out of charcoal to building spaceships in the woods out of mercury, a ray gun and some good old space man ingenuity the limits really were their own imaginations. Which brings us to Alien Planet by Fletcher Pratt, which very nearly has two out of those three crazy things.

A naked green hot chick on the cover is what got me to pick it up. A brief apology in the forward about some of the scientific analysis quoted in the footnotes being from the original 1932 publication and not really being up to snuff, sold it. This isn't a readily available book but there are still plenty in circulation as Ace seems to have bound this copy to last. I had to scan my own copy in since most of the copies on Amazon didn't have covers attached. If you click on it you'll get a bigger version that shows my copy made it through at least the Goodwill and before I bought it, furthermore markings on the inside suggest it's been through at least three more used book stores throughout the years.

First off before we go any further I have to say that there have not been any green people in the book nor any females come to think of it, and damn sure no naked green hot chicks. What's worse at the half way point we've just flown past Jupiter so I probably wont get any either. Secondly, after reading the Prologue by the author (in 1932) that is after the Forward by the publisher (in 1963 or 1973, it's unclear) I can see that this was a bit of an inside joke as the book is supposed be skeptically transcribed by the author from some increasingly illegible metal disks that were found in the jungle and may or may not be based on true events and in his own opinion deal with scientific things that are highly unlikely.

The story itself is very simple; a thing falls out of space, two slightly stuffy dudes, on vacation together, duck as it narrowly misses them on it's way down. (I should add that no question of sexual orientation is ever implied, but as stated, no female characters have reared their faces let alone their firm green buttocks so I chose to think of them as a couple.) Eventually a dude crawls out of it and the stuffy dudes nurse him back to health as he learns to speak Shakespearean English and tries to explain interplanetary exploration with only the words that can be found in "The Merchant of Venice". Once that's accomplished he begins trying to get enough mercury to build another space ship to fly back to his planet and save it. These fine chaps help and eventually one gets stuck on board and has to come with him.

Fletcher Pratt's alien "Ashembe" is a success, he looks enough like us that the main characters aren't freaked out but he thinks in an honestly alien way. I'd go so far as to say that if it were written 20 years later he would have had to change it because the alien says things that would have suggested he was a favorable image of a Commie. This is something that is found quite often in early sci-fi aliens and I think reveals a lot about the state of mind the average American had in a time when so much was owned by so few. So far, Ashembe has yet to lose his wonder at our weird ways and I have yet to lose my interest in his weird ways as they continue to slip into view.

The writing is clear and easy to follow, there are no long alien words you have to remember or strange rambling passages with political undertones. I'm just starting to wonder if the stuffy human will make it back to Earth and I've almost given up on the hot naked green chick but I don't mind because this is a fun read and I've got a way to go before I have to say bye to these fools in space.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Half Read Reviews

Once you finish a book you have made an investment and like most valuable things you'd like to protect that investment. When the end doesn't live up to your expectations it angers you and makes you think you've wasted your time reading it, but somewhere along the line there was a point before you cared how it would end and were happy just being along for the ride.

An excellent example of this would be Stephens King's "Dark Tower" series. As long as I was just along for the ride I enjoyed it, but when he had found his end for it and started writing to that end it ceased being as fun. Probably because as he's been very vocal about through the years, he didn't know how it was going to end and was just as much along for the ride as we were. There was a change in feel as the characters strove towards that final thankya and for the last three books there was a cloud over their heads as each scene ended with an unspoken good-bye. That's not to say they weren't still good stories but they were the end and with the end comes the judgments, the second guesses and the, "Uh, where's he going with this?" that take you out of the story.

"Half Read Reviews" are an attempt to catch that moment when I go from "along for the ride" to "Uh..." Hopefully they will reveal a perspective that's often overlooked by a need to make judgement on the whole.

It's a bit harsh to do one on the Dark Tower since it's been years since I was at the half way point but I do remember waiting in anticipation for a long time with a fear that he wouldn't finish the story at all and I had already read the ending. I think if I had to it would simply be "Worth the ride!"

Sunday, April 01, 2007

A Haunting: 60 Minutes of Creepy

On a lazy day at home I'm prone to leaving the TV on while doing house work or polishing up that novel (AKA sipping tea on the couch in my PJ's), and whatever happens to be on stays on. Saturday was a lazy day. The show was "A Haunting," not necessarily my normal fare but there was some real crap everywhere else I looked on the ol' dial.

It's a straightforward - benefit of doubt - dramatization with sexy actors, and the real people usually getting the silhouette treatment to protect their identity. I don't know about you but if I ever have to face off against monsters from the underworld in my own damn house I could give a shit what the neighbors think. That's like stubbing your toe, on the way to the hospital with a gunshot wound, and doing the Jack Tripper jumping around for 10 minutes on one leg going, "Oo, ah, oh, ouwiie, MU-THER LUVER!" Worried about the kids getting teased? Teach them this little comeback and they should be fine, "Yeah that's my mom on TV kicking some angry spirit ass. You want to make sumptin' of it? After what I've seen I got no problem cuttin' your heart out, burying it in my backyard and waitin' for your ass to try and haunt me - just so I can watch you get your ass exorcised!" I've glanced at this show in the past but never really found it very interesting and after the first 2 or 3 episodes I loafed through I still felt the same way but then like a slap in the face came "The Presence."

...if every episode were this good the show could give "Heroes" a run for its money.
As most people (with 1/18th Indian blood to boot) will tell you, I have had my share of creepy unexplained experiences and though I would have preferred them to have been of the flying saucer kind they have been of the creepy ghost kind instead. I don't want to go into "Kelly Park Night of 1000 Cats" right now but it was enough for me to carry a grain of salt in my breast pocket for just such incidences. I'm not jumpy either but when the creepy stuff started happening it worked. I don't know how much can be attributed to the special effects team and how much to the directing and acting but it was actually scary. The blood flowing down the walls was great and when they got to the floating head breathing in the teenage daughters ear I put down the tea and picked up the brandy. A few minutes later the phone rang and whoops, there went the brandy.

The last thing I saw was a dude (the new husband I believe) doing one of those popping up straight from the ground things made famous in that crappy Dracula movie a few years ago (made me say - Whoa!) and the effect looked better here. I hit record and will wait until there's someone else in the house to finish it!

A big congratulations to the team that put this episode together - the actors, the directors, the special effects team, the writers (or victims, gray line and all) you showed what was possible on a show like this and if every episode were this good the show could give "Heroes" a run for its money. If you're ever flipping through the channels and you see this episode on; stop, turn on all the lights, grab someone prone to jumping into your lap, pour a couple glasses of brandy into those large lead goblets in the cupboard that have the etchings on the side that might just pass for crosses in a pinch and call it a night.

Today will be another one of those lazy days but I think I'll steer clear of anything spooky, hmm, it looks like "Taxi" is on and - oh look so is "Jersey Girl." Those should be safe!