All posts by SelimPensFiction

Homeward Bound

Who says you can’t go home again? Of course you can.

As proof, I present a recent reunion for our School of Computing. Our gang met there in the ’80’s. You remember that decade. Synth-pop, hair dryers, shoulder pads, Ghostbusters, Flashdance, The Big Chill. I’m about the only one I know who still thinks women’s shoulder pads look pretty cool.

Kingston_University_TownWe were graduate students in what was then a small department. We had offices. Offices! We shared them, four to an office. It was heaven. A terminal room down the hall provided a few of us at a time with access to the considerable computing power of a VAX 780 running BSD UNIX. We were living on the cutting edge.

We worked hard. Well, pretty hard. Most of the time. Our courses were intense and we only survived by helping each other. Teamwork in the face of adversity. It brought us that much closer together. Fridays were hockey in the winter and softball in the summer, followed by a few beers and some crazy dancing at the Grad Club, that tiny, multi-floored, dimly lit home away from home. Bill and Georgette, we loved you as you took us under the boardwalk.

Close friendships were forged in those days. Some of us even found spouses within the group. In some cases, despite getting off on not quite the right foot. When I found my office that September, I couldn’t help but notice it was blessed with a terminal. We didn’t have to go down the hall like all those plebes in my class. My wife came to my attention when she unceremoniously stole that terminal. She mumbled some thin excuse about it belonging to her lab. I was quite put out. Things got better.

Many of our group made it back for the reunion. Some of us live an easy two-hour drive away. One guy had an eight-hour drive. Another flew hundreds of miles. So yes, to some extent we’ve gone our separate ways. But you know what? When we were all together, back where it all started, the atmosphere was electric, and we picked right up where we left off. The nearly thirty years since we graduated melted away like a Dairy Queen ice cream left in the sun on a hot summer’s day.

With one exception. We finished the reunion weekend with a baseball game. After about five innings, us old timers were near to begging for mercy and we called it. And boy, those legs were stiff on Monday morning. A sign of aging? Maybe. But in our defence I’d point out that we stayed up past midnight. Two nights in a row!

There’s been adversity, of course, in the intervening years. For instance, many of us have had children. Even worse, some have had some real health scares, and have shown tremendous courage forging through them. It makes the rest of us all the more appreciative that we’re all still here.

Want to know the definition of a good friend? Here you go: Even if you haven’t seen them for weeks, months, years, or even decades, when you do see them, you pick right up where you left off and it feels like no time whatsoever has gone by, except that somehow you have more stories to tell each other.

Good friends, good times.



As I’ve been offline for a while, a bunch of random thoughts have bubbled to the surface. So, onward.

Give Godzilla a miss, or at least wait for it to show up on Netflix. You’ll thank me.

The next 50 years of Doctor Who start in August. While it was probably wise to have a hiatus after the madness of last year, still, one does go through withdrawal after a while.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is well worth seeing. (Minor spoilers ahead.) It strives valiantly to tidy up a number of messy plot threads from the other X-Men movies and succeeds for the most part. It features an unbelievably strong cast, some of whom are limited to little more than cameos. Most importantly, it wipes the travesty that was X-Men 3 off the map.

I’m starting to wonder: Is it any less work to world build for a short story than a novel? I suspect not. Developing the backstory for my original fantasy story, an urban fantasy but with elements of classic mythology, has been a fascinating experience.

Next up on my fanfic list is a sequel to the Firefly/Castle crossover, “A Firefly in the Castle”. This one will be called “Castle Serenity”. And yes, this time Castle and Beckett travel to the future.

I recently spent a night in Philadelphia due to a missed connection. A few people expressed disbelief that I neglected to take full advantage of the layover by not sampling a Philly cheesesteak. Will correct that next time.

The same junket that stranded me in Philadelphia also netted an opportunity to meet Mary Robinette Kowal in San Diego at a book signing. It was quite a treat as I believe she’s the first professional author that I’ve met. And not only does she write very well, she has a rich, multifaceted voice that’s a joy to listen to. It’s a voice that serves her well in her other profession as puppeteer. She also reads audio books.

On the topic of books, I find myself going back to re-read old favourites, mixing them in between new publications. The current old book may take a while, Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. Not just because it’s long, but because I read Dickens very slowly, savouring each beautiful phrase. Ah, to write like that…


Firefly, for those who don’t know, was a short-lived TV series that was broadcast in 2002. Set in the future sometime after Earth had been abandoned, it takes place in another solar system where terraforming has made many planets and moons inhabitable. While the central planets maintain a high degree of technology, the outer planets are quite primitive, living in much the same way as the settlers of the old west. After a failed war of independence, Malcolm Reynolds assembles a team to crew his Firefly-class ship, Serenity, performing jobs for a variety of clients, some legal, some less so.

It’s generally agreed that the series, developed by Joss Whedon, was brilliantly conceived and executed, and its premature demise is a source of woe for its legions of admirers.

Here’s the thing about writing Firefly fanfics: The inhabitants of the outer planets have a particular style of dialect that’s hard to capture. Some call it Joss-speak. To sensibly write Firefly, you have to re-watch some episodes to get into the rhythm of Joss-speak. Some examples:

It’s gettin’ too ruttin’ hot in here.

It’s the gorram law!

I aim to misbehave.

We just need a small crew, them as feel the need to be free.

Once you get into the zone and feel like you’re able to create dialogue that fits into the Firefly ‘verse, it can be hard to find your way back, and Joss-speak starts to leak out into real life. For instance it’s tempting to tell your spouse,

My car don’t crash. She crashes, you crashed her.

Or, you might aim to give your employees a dose of Joss-speak when they misbehave.

What in the sphincter of hell are you playin’ at?

On finding your favourite show is on TV when you’re feelin’ a need for simple comfort, you might say,


And so it goes. In the acting world, they call it method acting when you live and breathe the role, even off set.

Is there such a thing as method writing?

I Wuz Framed

The more stories I write, the more time I spend thinking of how to tell them. That is, how do I tell a story in a way that makes the most impact?

Present tense?

Jacob picks up the photo.

Past tense?

Jacob picked up the photo.

First person?

It was on the evening of October 12th that my friend, Sherlock Holmes, first spoke to me about his addiction.

Third person?

It was on the evening of October 12th that Sherlock Holmes first spoke to his friend, John Watson, about his addiction.

Naturally, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these. Writers and readers may have personal preferences. Some techniques may be currently fashionable in the writing community, some less so.

As a reader, I don’t like stories written in the present tense. They grate on me. Don’t ask why, they just do. So, for no other reason than that, I don’t write stories in the present tense.

As for first person versus third person, that’s a tough one. I have a nostalgic fondness for Victorian and early 20th Century fiction written in the first person. Arthur Conan Doyle is a great example. By writing the Sherlock Holmes stories from Watson’s point of view, and in his voice, we are forced to imagine, rather than know, what it is that’s really going on in Holmes’ head.

Mind you, that doesn’t always work. I think the Hunger Games books suffered from limiting themselves to Katniss Everdeen’s point of view. That’s one of the reasons I find the movies superior.

Which brings us to another point: that in some way, the most effective storytelling technique depends on the story itself. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could plug the attributes of a story into a formula, and out popped the optimal narrative mode?

I started down this path recently, wondering about storytelling technique, because of the Firefly fanfic I’m currently writing. It concerns how characters Wash and Zoe, who initially disliked each other (we know from canon that Zoe initially disliked Wash; I assume the feeling was mutual), came to fall in love. Having finished the initial draft, it seemed that something was missing. I finally realized that the story needed something to frame it, to give it context. So, we start and finish with Zoe reminiscing about their relationship after the events in the movie, Serenity.

That made all the difference, I think. As to why that’s the case, I’m not sure. Wish I knew.

What’s your favourite storytelling technique?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Movie Review

Let’s get down to it. Is Captain America: The Winter Soldier as good as The Avengers? To me, it’s an apples and oranges comparison. The Winter Soldier is a different kind of movie. Though hardly lacking in action sequences, it’s a slower paced, more human movie. The quiet moments are my favourite. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) commiserating, soldier to soldier, with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) asking Steve whether that was his first kiss since 1945. And Steve’s heartbreaking reunion with an elderly Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

Still, the action sequences are quite something. The hand-to-hand fight scenes are breathtaking, Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) long chase sequence is highly entertaining, and the big action at the climax is satisfying, though a bit predictable.

winter soldierAnd there’s more. SHIELD may have been infiltrated, but by whom? And to what end? The answer will have reverberations throughout the Marvel Universe, and will have to have some impact on TV’s Agents of Shield. Cap, the Black Widow, and the Falcon are on the run, hunted down by their own. They can’t tell the good guys from the bad, except, as Cap points out, if they’re shooting at you. Yes, there’s humour in the movie as well.

The Winter Soldier allows the actors to more fully develop their characters, has an interesting story, great action, and changes everything. What more could you ask for in a “comic book” movie?


How Do You Write?

I first learned about discovery writing from the podcast, Writing Excuses. This is a technique whereby you create a setting, populate it with some characters, then make things difficult for them. Depending on the genre in which you’re writing, you might blow stuff up, let the monsters out, create a love triangle, or kill someone. Maybe all of the above. Then you sit back and see what happens. Even the writer doesn’t know what comes next.

That’s not what I do. Maybe its my career in computing science, where I didn’t start to build something until I had some concept of the end result, but discovery writing scares the hell out of me. It’s taken the writing of a dozen or so short stories, feeling my way in the dark, to understand how it is I do go about writing.

First, there’s THE IDEA, the flash of insight that becomes the basis of the story.

If prolonged exposure to the time vortex can cause human DNA to resemble Time Lord DNA, then… (“Fate of the Earth”).

Suppose we took the characters from Castle and set them in the old west (“Western Castle”).

You get the idea. So that’s the start. Next comes the end state. In other words, before I start writing, I always know how I want the story to end. After that it’s just a question of how to get there from here.

Some writers blast through a story, never looking back until the first draft is complete. Then they make a second draft, and so on, until they’re satisfied that everything works. Not everyone does that. I’ve found that I’m a revise-as-you-go writer. I tend to write in chunks. Usually, a chunk equals one scene. I revise constantly. When I start to write on a given day, I look over the previous scene, and revise as required. This, I find, serves two purposes: it puts me back into the story, and gets my juices flowing so the words start to flow for today’s scene.

In practice, I rarely spend more than two hours a day writing, and many days it’s less than that. It’s slow but steady work, but extremely satisfying. Without that creative outlet, I find myself increasingly restless as the day goes by. I need that writing fix.

I’ve used a beta reader at least a couple of times now (hi, Twisha). It’s helped in ways I didn’t expect, pushing me to become better at world building, fleshing out characters, and making situations believable. In fanfiction, where there’s no editor to review your work, a second set of eyes can be very helpful.

I’ve added a new step recently. When the story seems to be all there, I get my computer to speak it aloud. It’s both entertaining and instructive. Detecting awkward sentences is easier when you hear them spoken.

As for tools, I’ve settled into the habit of using Google Docs for my fanfiction and Apple’s Pages for original fiction, just because I just like to be familiar with more than one editing program. They’re both excellent. Google has a slight edge in that it keeps dozens of versions of your document in the cloud. Pages has the advantage of existing as both a cloud service and a stand-alone, local program. While Microsoft’s docx file format is a lingua-franca for exchanging documents, you don’t need to use Word to create those files. I have Microsoft Office installed on my MacBook, but honestly, I rarely use it.

And that’s about it. At least, for short stories. I have a concept for a novel, but just a few pages written, so it remains to be seen whether this approach will scale up. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

So, how do you go about writing?

The Wolf of Wall Street Movie Review

In the spirit of better late than never, here are some thoughts on Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Generally accepted as one of America’s greatest directors, it’s worth taking in any Scorsese movie just to see what he’s up to. After viewing this movie, though, I found myself asking, what was he thinking?

To start with, what was the point? Why make the movie in the first place? One is tempted to guess that Scorsese, too, succumbed to the sales charm of Jordan Belfort, the former Wall Street stockbroker whose rise and fall is the subject of the movie. It would only be fitting. Given the movie’s commercial success (at the time of writing, over $110M), it may prove to be yet another Belfort windfall.

After all, is anyone surprised at the portrayal of stockbrokers as greedy, decadent, overgrown adolescents? This is hardly new territory. Then add to it’s pointlessness the punishing length of this movie. At three hours long, they could easily have had cut an hour’s worth of material. How many scenes did they really need to demonstrate the greedy, decadent and adolescent behaviour of the brokers? By the time the credits roll up, the movie has succeeded only in making nudity, sex and drugs utterly boring. This is perhaps its greatest sin.

Are there any positives? Well, yes. There is some very fine acting, and Leonard DiCaprio displays some brilliant physical comedy. Is it worth suffering through the whole movie for this? Not really.

Every great artist is entitled to a miss or two. This one is definitely a miss. Let’s hope Scorsese hits it out of the park next time.