All posts by SelimPensFiction

My Favourite Fanfiction Stories

I’ve written a fair number of fanfics at this point. Enough for about two respectable novels if you go by word count. When I look back at them, some of them make me shudder, some make me smile. I thought I’d make a list of the ones I’m most fond of. If you’re just starting to read my stories, this list might help. The timing seems right. If I haven’t stopped writing fanfiction, I’ve certainly slowed down.

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Rook to Castle” was one of my early Castle stories and I think it’s held up pretty well. A very simple story simply told, we see Rick Castle meeting his own creation. I also quite like “Western Castle“, one of my longer stories. It was inspired by an episode of The Prisoner in which the story of the agent who retired was re-told as a western.

 

 

 

 

serenity

 

My favourite Firefly fic is “Bookends“, which tells the story of how Zoe and Wash went from mutual dislike to man and wife.

 

 

 

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Fate of the Earth” isn’t particularly well written Doctor Who, but the core idea is still one I’m proud of. “Walk the Plank“, is a small story about the young Doctor’s first attempt to steal a TARDIS. The story concept was provided by Thomas0399. I like the idea that the last Doctor that Sarah Jane Smith encountered before her passing was the Fourth Doctor, who bent the laws of time to pay her one last visit. That adventure is told in “End Game“. Finally, there’s “Mirror Mirror“, which was my (non-winning) entry for the 2016 Big Finish Paul Spragg memorial contest.

Crossovers

I only actually have one crossover, told in a series of stories, in which Rick Castle teams up with the crew of Firefly and then with the Doctor. The series begins with the Firefly story, “Goodbye” which was never intended to be part of a series. Then I wrote “A Firefly in the Castle“, “Castle Serenity“, and then “Miranda“. Look out for the Doctor’s cameo in “Castle Serenity”. That little hook let me write the final story in the series and bring it to a nice conclusion. It really is true that stories sometimes have a life of their own. Hopefully, as the series progresses, you’ll see an improvement in my writing. Certainly, Miranda was the most complicated story I’ve written in terms of plotting. I had to fit the story into the framework of Serenity (the movie) and my own “Castle Serenity”.

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Indefensible

THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR MARVEL’S THE DEFENDERS.

DON’T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE SHOW (HOWEVER, IF YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT THE SHOW, WHICH IS UNDERSTANDABLE, THEN GO RIGHT AHEAD).

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.


The-Defenders-920x584

Marvel’s The Defenders has made its much-anticipated debut on Netflix.

It wasn’t very good, was it?

That much is clear. The interesting question is, why wasn’t it very good? Let’s explore that and see what lessons we can learn to help us with our own writing.

The characters, as in, the too many characters. Granted, there were only four heroes, but then there were the “five fingers” of the hand. (Did we see all five? I can’t remember. Worse, I don’t really care.) On top of that, there’s a resurrected Elektra. That’s ten so far. Then on top of all that we have side characters from each of the previous Marvel Netflix shows.

The characters, as in Danny Rand. Let’s face it, Poor ol’ Danny, that snotty nosed, none too bright, brat of a character is rather hard to cheer for. If you’re like me, you cheered when Luke Cage tossed Danny around like he was nothing more that a clothing store mannequin.

The characters, as in Misty Knight. What was up with the unrelentingly bemused smile she wore no matter what was going on? Even when she was giving our heroes heck, her expression never seemed to change much. I suspect this wasn’t the actor’s choice, but the director’s.

The characters, as in the villain(s). Much has been written about this already. The Kingpin: a great villain for Daredevil. Why? We understand him and his motivation. He’s three-dimensional. Plus he can be genuinely scary when he wants to be. Same to some extent with Cottonmouth in the Luke Cage series. The Hand? Well, they want to live forever. Okay. They also want to go back to Shangri La, sorry, I meant K’Un-Lun. Wow. But we know little about what makes any of them tick, even Madam Gao, after all the series she’s appeared in. As a consequence, they have less impact on the audience, even though they seem to pose a danger to life as we know it.

The characters, as in Elektra. What was up with her? Elektra was destined to be “The Black Sky” (I’m already shaking in my boots), the Hand’s ultimate weapon. The prophecies might have oversold things just a tad. We see that she’s a better than average ninja, but we also see that  Daredevil can pretty much take her singled-handed. Or was she holding back because of her faint memories of their love affair? Who knows. What we can all agree on, I think, is that as an ultimate weapon, Elektra was a bit of a let down.

Fight scene exhaustion. We all love a good fight scene, and the Marvel series have excelled at that. But give people too much of a good thing and suddenly it isn’t such a good thing any more. Even amazing fights get boring after a while. You find yourself thinking, Here we go again, as you check your Twitter feed while the latest one plays out. The fight scenes were very effective in showing the differences between the heroes.

The silly premise. Everything leads to the climactic showdown between our heroes and the Hand. And it has to be them. It can’t possibly be the police. After all, it wouldn’t be safe for the police to even attempt to deal with the Hand. And yet, as I watched that climactic fight, it occurred to me that a well armored and armed SWAT team would likely do pretty well against the Hand’s ninjas. Then I remembered Indiana Jones just shooting the guy with the sword and started to chuckle. Probably not the reaction Marvel was looking for.

The ending. Did anyone actually think that they’d killed off Daredevil? I mean, for even a second? Of course not. So what was the point? I guess it gave the other heroes pause, caused them to reflect a bit, and we see that, in Matt’s honour, Danny Rand plans to stay in New York as a protector. Then we see him perched on a rooftop in a Daredevil-like pose, gazing out on the city. That, actually, was a very effective scene. But what happens when he realizes that Matt’s still alive? Does Danny say, “Oh well,” and then go off on holiday to Hawaii?

Well, that’s a lot of negative. Wasn’t there anything good about the show? Of course there was. There was some great humour, especially from Jessica Jones, whose job seemed to be to call bullshit. They also used poor Danny’s earnestness and eagerness to discuss his time in Shangri La, sorry, I meant K’Un-Lun, to humorous effect. In sum, the humour was character based, which is a very good thing.

There was some good acting. Our heroes were all good, even Finn Jones, who’s received a lot of flack for Danny Rand. But he isn’t responsible for the vision of the character that the show runners want to portray. He portrays their vision of Rand well. It’s just that, for most of us, that vision sucks. The side characters also did well, and Sigourney Weaver, as always, was more than convincing.

All this isn’t to say that I could have come up with a better story, but we can learn from failures and successes, ourselves’ and others’. Let’s do so.

 

Intolerance in Writing and Writers

While growing up, I devoured the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, and a visit to a bookstore seemed as magical as a trip to Ali Baba’s cave. Caught in the web of Burroughs writing, I could swear I was swinging through the trees with Tarzan, or fighting all sorts of nightmares to win the hand of Barsoom’s Dejah Thoris. And as for Lovecraft, well, he just scared the hell out of me. I loved it.

Sadly, Burroughs hasn’t aged very well. In his day, Burroughs got away with populating Africa with all manor of lost civilizations deep in the unexplored forests of the “dark continent”. A hard sell, however, in the era of Google Earth.

And as for traveling to Mars by… wishing yourself there? A bit much for even young children to swallow today. Mind you, do you remember the story that Carl Sagan related while hosting the original Cosmos? After reading John Carter of Mars, he ascended a hilltop and wished and wished and wished. But, sadly, he never found himself transported to the red planet.

Then there’s the quaint notion that, to make his mark, man is destined to tear apart nature and build things like railroads and smokestacks. Witness the Pellucidar books, where our heroes find themselves in an ancient, primeval forest in the centre of the Earth. Their hearts swell with pride after they’ve cut down trees, lain tracks, and constructed steam-engine trains that puff thick smoke into the pristine air.

Finally, even if we grant that Burrough’s audience is/was primarily boys, aged, say, 9-12, his books have structural problems with his over-reliance on the most amazing coincidences. So yes, it’s kind of hard to go back to these books, nostalgic as one might be.

1458759156549.jpegH.P. Lovecraft has fared better, and is still regarded as a major figure in horror literature.  While his writing style is definitely of the old school–Lovecraft loved old things and old places–he is still able to make your skin crawl, and, when he wants to, can dazzle you with beautiful prose. The novella, “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”, begins thusly:

Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvellous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles.

I never tire of that opening.

While we can agree that Lovecraft didn’t expend a lot of energy into fully fleshing out his characters, that was never the point. The point was to develop an atmosphere of dread that would have the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and your body temperature drop a couple of degrees; to make you begin to doubt the veracity of your own senses; to create a world where the old gods, separated from our plane of existence by the flimsiest of veils, hungered for our souls.

Yikes!

Lovecraft could also be oddly prophetic, as in this excerpt from “The Call of Cthulu”:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have thitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Could it be that the discoveries of modern science have caused some to go mad, seeking a new dark age where the climate isn’t changing, evolution never happened, and vaccines are to be avoided at all costs? Perhaps. But that’s a blog post for another time.

But now we get to the crux of the problem, which is the intolerance expressed in the stories of these and other writers. For example, in Burrough’s At the Earth’s Core:

“A white man!” he cried. “May the good Lord be praised! I have been watching you for hours, hoping against hope that THIS time there would be a white man.”

And as for Lovecraft, this quote from “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” will indeed make your skin crawl, but not in a good way:

Here his only visible servants, farmers, and caretakers were a sullen pair of aged Narragansett Indians; the husband dumb and curiously scarred, and the wife of a very repulsive cast of countenance, probably due to a mixture of negro blood.

One could point to many other authors, including Enid Blyton with her Golliwog characters, Ian Fleming’s James Bond referring to Italians as a bunch of “spaghetti eaters”, going right back to the controversial Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”.

What do you do with books like these? One answer, I suppose, is to put them away. But to not read some of the greatest, most beloved authors of all time? It seems unthinkable. To a large extent, I believe, these authors were a product of the age in which they lived, though some, like Lovecraft, through his love of times gone by, may have reflected even earlier beliefs and prejudices. We know that prejudice must have been part of the social norms of the time. How else could such stories have been published?

My inclination is to follow the advice of B. J. Harrison. In in his Classic Tales podcast, Harrison reads aloud books and stories that are, well, classics. Noting the presence of anachronistic prejudice in one story, he said something like this (I’m paraphrasing from memory): Perhaps we should view stories such as these as a lens through which we can see how far we have come.

Consider now the case of the World Fantasy award trophy. I was initially disappointed upon hearing that it would no longer be modelled after H. P. Lovecraft. But digging into the reasoning led me to understood completely. After all, suppose you were, say, a gay black author, that you won a World Fantasy award, and thereafter had to stare into the disapproving glare of Lovecraft from your fireplace mantle. No, I wouldn’t care for that either. In fact, it sounds like a suitable basis for a horror story…

There’s an even thornier question: What to do about intolerance expressed by current authors? Today, no one would get away with the kind of prejudice shown in the examples above (unless you were giving voice to a character with prejudice). That’s not the problem. The problem is when a published author promotes opinions or beliefs that you find offensive. For me, two authors come immediately to mind, one dead, one living. Both have written classic books in the SF&F genre. But while their books may be benign, I find their voiced beliefs and opinions to be offensive. Initially I tried to put that aside, concentrating on the book, not the author. In the end I found that the books suffered from guilt by association. I just can’t and won’t support them any longer.

This is an essay without any conclusion, I’m afraid, except to note that each of us, when faced with these kinds of moral dilemmas, has got to do what we’ve got to do. However, there’s one thing we can’t do under any circumstances, and that’s to ban books outright. That only deprives us of the opportunity to think and to follow our own path.

 

Public Transit Done Right.

A while ago, I wrote a posted entitled “Do Me a Solid“. It was a passing tribute to those products that just work. It seems there just aren’t enough of those around these days.

I’ve always been a fan of public transit. Here in Ottawa, it works fairly well if you live in the west end of the city and work downtown. There are bus lanes on the highway and bus-only transit ways to speed you on your way. During rush hour, buses run every few minutes. Parking downtown is very expensive. The bus, while not cheap, is cheaper and it gives you an opportunity to get some fresh air and see new faces. And, given rush hour traffic, you can often reach your destination faster than by driving.

So, public transit in Ottawa works fairly well, but those who live in the east end, or those that live in the city and work in the west end wouldn’t exactly describe it as “solid”.

1280px-Zuerich_Hauptbahnhof-2This summer I spent a few days in Zurich, Switzerland. Now there is a public transit system that is solid in every way. Their public transit is based on trams that connect to the central train station. At each tram station, there’s an automated ticket dispenser that supports English, German, French and Italian. A series of on-screen choices guides you to the ticket you want. Frequently requested tickets, such as to the Zurich airport, are right on the home screen. You can pay with credit card, or, since Switzerland widely supports tap-and-pay, you can use your smart phone. Overhead displays count down the minutes until the next tram’s arrival.

Trams run frequently and efficiently and on time. Just like a Swiss watch. So do trains. It’s surprisingly easy to find your way around the Zurich train station and it’s 30+ tracks. Yellow schedule boards, valid for twelve months, give you all the information you need, sorted by time. So, you can look up the next train for Lucerne that leaves on or after 10 AM, for example.

We had Swiss travel passes that gave us access to trams, trains and some museums and tours. We just had to show up and board. Once in a while, inspectors show up to verify your passes.

To sum up, the Swiss public transportation system is a joy to use. It just works.
It’s solid.

Oh yes. The scenery’s pretty nice too.

 

Going Off Script

Writing the script for an audio play is an interesting experience. I’d never done it before. The sum total of my fiction writing consists of short stories in the traditional form, original and fanfiction, and one novel currently in progress (it’s been in progress for quite some time, but that’s another story). 

The thing about an audio script is that there’s no narrator. Well, I guess there could be, but in my script there was none. And there’s no descriptive text. Nothing, really, but dialog and place holders for sound effects. Those are the tools at your disposal. 

Dialog becomes subtly different. Sometimes characters have to talk to themselves when they are alone in a scene, otherwise the listener would have no idea what was going on. When more than one character is present, you sometimes have to include descriptions of surroundings that, in TV or movies, would require only a camera shot to give you the information you need. 

“Look at that!”

“It’s a wall of metal. I’ve never seen one so tall.”

You get the idea. 

This may be why I’ve always found the book, TV and movie adaptations of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy unstatisfying. The script was originally written for an audio play. So when Arthur Dent screeches, “What the hell is that!?” And Ford Prefect calmly answers, “It’s a fleet of flying saucers”, that works on audio. In a visual medium, the camera would simply show you a fleet of flying saucers. For me, it’s the original audio version that’s the real McCoy.  

Last year I was invited to contribute a script to what would have been a series of Doctor Who fanfiction audio dramas. That series never materialized and was presumably lost in the Time Vortex. Still, writing it was tremendous fun and now I’m pleased to add that script to the collection of fanfiction on this site. Click on “FanFiction” at the top of this page, then on “Resurgence of the Cybermen”. 

A Cacophony of Caskett Heartbreak

There’s a TV show called Castle. It’s quite popular and is in its eighth season. I’ve written a few fanfiction stories set in the Castle universe.

If you are aware of the show, then you might be aware of the explosion of outrage on the Internet over the release of two of the actors who have been part of the show since the beginning: Stana Katic, who played Detective Kate Beckett, and Tamala Jones, who played Dr. Lanie Parish. If there is a season 9 (unknown at the time of writing), they won’t be in the cast.

Applicable Twitter hashtags include: #Castle, #IStandWithStana, #SaveCaskett, and #NoStanaNoCastle.

Tamala Jones will be missed as hers is a strong female character, still an oddity in 21st century media, and is a medical examiner to boot. Her character has had an on again, off again relationship with Javier Esposito, has lobbed more than a few zingers in Castle’s direction, and has served as a confidante for Beckett. If there is no Beckett, however, there is less need for Parish.

As for Stana Katic, in the beginning, her character viewed Castle as an irritant. Over the course of time, their mutual trust and respect grew, and they found themselves falling in love, even if one or the other wasn’t prepared to admit it. Finally, they were engaged and then married.

Stana-Nathan-nathan-fillion-and-stana-katic-26237395-542-594What’s been so engaging about the Beckett-Castle relationship is the apparent chemistry between the two actors, and the range of emotions they display so unerringly. They are, truly, a very cute couple. This relationship is a key anchor point for many viewers, who have immensely enjoyed the show over the years.

Here’s the thing, though. While the Beckett-Castle relationship has been a great story, there comes a time when a story has been told, and whatever follows is simply potboiling. That’s not to say there aren’t necessarily more Castle stories, but really, what else could you do with the Beckett-Castle relationship other than an endless cycle of bringing them together, separating them on some pretext or other, then bringing them together again.

If I was writing for Castle, I’d be chaffing at the bit to tell some different types of stories. In an effort to shake things up, they had Castle disappear for a few months (over the summer break, mind you) and reappear with his mind wiped. I found that to be a very weak storyline. Similarly, this season, Beckett left Castle so that he wouldn’t become a casualty in her investigation of the death of her former colleagues. And yet, they still saw each other every week. Inevitably, after the Christmas break, Castle and Beckett got back together again.

Let’s consider another show that I enjoy, Doctor Who. While the show was off the air for a number of years, it recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. What is it that keeps it going? A simple answer might be that it has all of space and time for its characters to explore, but its more than that. Characters come and characters go, no matter how beloved. The Doctor, the central character, has remained, but every three or four years a new actor takes the part. What keeps a series fresh is change. Fresh actors, fresh storylines, fresh villains.

If Castle is to continue with strong stories, and not just potboilers, it needs to change as well. One very pleasant surprise this season is the development of Castle’s daughter, Alexis, played by Molly Quinn, as an adult foil for her father. I can easily imagine some great stories centred around Richard Castle, P.I., working and trading witticisms with two strong women, Alexis and the intriguing Hayley Shipton, played by Toks Olagundoye. Why not?

So let’s put things in perspective. There was no “Caskett” in the early years, yet we watched the show. Personally, I preferred the battle of the sexes feel of those years. It put me in mind of the old Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn films.

Be that as it may, if you can’t imagine Castle without “Caskett”, there’s a simple solution. First, turn off the TV. Much simpler and less work than advocating cancelling the show. Second, read/write some AU fanfiction in which they’re kissing and making babies and solving mysteries and living happily ever after.

As for me, if season 9 happens, I’m certainly going to give it a try.

Too Many Fingers

If you’ve been part of a software development and/or engineering team, you’ll understand the concept of unity of purpose. The same principle, it turns out, applies to writing.

They say there are many roads that lead to Rome. If Rome represents the product you want to build, beit a smartphone app, some new whiz-bang hardware, or, let’s say, a story, there’s more than one path you can take to get there. That’s fine if you’re traveling solo. But if you’re part of a team, and different voices are calling out to take this path or that other one or that other other one, it can be a problem. You can end up with a product that looks like the equivalent of a Reaver ship, a cacophony of parts that kinda-sorta work together, but that were never meant to be components of the same whole.

This is why development teams have an architect. This isn’t someone who designs buildings. Well, it can be if what you’re building is, you know, a building. The product architect is someone whose vision of the product carries the day. There can only be one vision, and the team has to buy into this vision. Otherwise, what you end up with is a mess.

The word “mess” has been used more than once to describe a couple of recent superhero movies: Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. The problem with both of these? Among others, too many characters. Too many future movie plotlines to set up.
Dawn of Justice
also suffers from too reaction-to-second-batman-v-superman-dawn-of-justice-trailer-737594
many plots grafted together, too much left out, too many unanswered questions. Why did we need to borrow from both“The Dark Knight Returns” and “Death of Superman” storylines? Each was a major story arc in and of itself and could have carried a movie.

The interesting question is, why do these films suffer from these shortcomings?

ultronThe (likely) answer: Too many fingers in the pie. While these films do have an architect (Joss
Whedon, Zack Snyder) the studios at some level placed too many constraints on the films. Rather
than being allowed to tell a coherent story and tell it well, let’s throw in a few new characters that we want to develop in future movies. Let’s introduce elements that we’re going to explore in future movies. Let’s have more than the last move: bigger, faster, louder.

This was likely one of the reasons the Bond film Quantum of Solace fell short. Forget about telling a compelling story. We need more action that the last film. More chase scenes. And so you end up with a film that has car chases, foot chases, boat chases, and plane chases. Indeed, they seem to have covered all the bases, and the movie is all the poorer as a result. Contrast that with the subsequent Skyfall, perhaps the best Bond ever, where the set pieces and action were driven by the story rather than the other way around.

So what does all this have to do with writing? (Let’s leave screenwriters out for the moment.) After all, most stories are written by only one or maybe two authors. The relevance is that a story has to have a coherent thread driving it forward. Sure, there are supporting characters, several of which can have arcs of their own, but these have to fit together into a coherent whole. You can’t just wander off willy nilly and explore every neat idea. Probably better to keep a “neat idea” file, and to keep your story lean and to the point.

This topic slides into another: How much is too much? By that I mean, I’m not a big fan of filler, even if it’s filler that doesn’t distract from the overall plot. I love a good, thick book as much as the next guy, and I’ve read some series where each book was a door stopper, and yet, I’ve been pretty sure that these stories could have been told with far fewer, thinner books.

It’s a trade off. On the one hand, it can be a real pleasure immerse yourself in the minutia of a new world. On the other hand, you can find yourself wishing the author would just get to the point. Personally, I’m becoming nostalgic for the days when the average novel seemed to be on the order of 200 pages, or even less.

Less, after all, can be more, which applies to both novel length and the number of fingers in the pie.