The Finest Legacy, Redux

On March 3, 2012, I delivered a talk called “The Finest Legacy” for the Toastmasters 2012 International Speech Contest. It was a heart-felt talk about science fiction, the unwritten rules that SF writers follow, and my dad who died in 2010. I was fortunate that it was recorded on a home video camera by Anthony DiPalma, because it meant a lot to me.

I first posted the video on YouTube last October, but I consistently heard from folks that the video was too dark, and that the audio was poor. I’ve learned a lot about Final Cut Pro, my editing tool, since then. So I decided to re-post the video after spending hours “fixing it in post,” as they say.

The audio is still a bit low, but increase your volume, put on your ear phones and prepare to hear a pretty decent talk (or read the transcript).

Posted in Speeches, Toastmasters, Writing Tips | 2 Comments

Norton’s Footsteps

Andre NortonI’m a science fiction fan. I’ve been one for almost as long as I can remember. I think I became a fan in one of the classic ways — I was infected by my father.

You see, he had all of these great books by Andre Norton. Back in the 70’s, apparently, women weren’t supposed to be writers, so Alice Mary Norton wrote under the pseudonym of Andre Norton. She was YA before YA even existed. And so many of her books had awesome covers. You couldn’t help but pick them up…

Her stories were science fiction adventures, with young heroes encountering danger on exotic worlds. She wrote four of these squeaky clean adventure stories every year for years and years. And my Dad and I would snap them up as soon as we saw a new one on the bookstore’s shelves (with his money, of course).

At age 11, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

Then life got in the way. High school, college, my first real job. With a B.S. degree in Computer Science, I was soon making too much money to consider taking the pay-cut necessary to be a full-time writer. Plus, I had bills, mortgages and other things to worry about. Thirty passed, and then forty.

Start Born, by Andre NortonI still wanted to be a writer, but every time I looked at what it would take to start a writing career, I balked. It just didn’t seem feasible to be a writer. I can think of no other field in which an accomplished practitioner, like your average mid-list writer, can’t make a livable wage.

There was clearly money to be made. Big international corporations wouldn’t have gotten involved in publishing if there wasn’t money in it. It’s just that very little of that money seemed to flow towards the writers. On a typical paperback book, priced at $8.99, the author only made about sixty cents. And if a book didn’t make it big, it was out of bookstores in less than six weeks.

It seemed like a rigged game to me. There were too many middle-men, each taking a share of the money. And too many gatekeepers deciding what was publishable according to their own personal tastes (without once consulting their actual audience).

So I diverted my creative urges into other pursuits. I crafted elaborate and detailed worlds for role-playing games, and ran game sessions for my friends that were like intricate novels. Some game sessions were fantasies, fantasy mysteries, or fantasy horror thrillers. There were science fiction stories, too. For all of them, I kept detailed notes on characters, events, background details, technologies…figuring it all might be useful someday.

Time Traders, by Andre NortonEverything changed in 2007, although I didn’t realize it at the time.

Amazon released the Kindle in 2007. For the first time, ebooks were a viable proposition for authors. It was possible for authors to connect with readers in a fair marketplace, and for the readers to decide which books (and authors) would be successful.

By contrast, bookstores weren’t fair marketplaces, you see, because publishers were allowed to “cheat.” Publishers dictated the choices that would be available to readers by virtue of what they published, and even anointed what they thought should be bestsellers via their promotional activities. They could pay extra for special promotions like displaying books on tables near the front of the store, or displaying books on the shelf face-out instead of spine-out. Additionally, there was no “long tail”…newly published books were out of bookstores in a month to six weeks unless there was a dramatic demand for them.

With the Kindle, Amazon created a level playing field. The disruption of publishing was hardly noticeable at first, but it kept accelerating.

I really noticed the disruption in 2012. I was already aware of the increasing impact of ebooks on publishing. After all, I’d seen Borders go under. But I hadn’t really embraced ebooks myself. At WorldCon 70 in Chicago, though, I encountered the raging debate between traditionally published writers and self-published writers, and I started to really realize the potential of self-publishing. I also ended up having dinner with Hugh Howey and some of his fans. Hugh is one of the most successful self-published writers, known for his international best-seller, Wool. After talking to Hugh, it became clear that publishing really had changed dramatically.

Star Guard, by Andre NortonWith the middle-men and gatekeepers out of the way, writers are now making real money. For a book selling between $2.99 and $9.99, a writer takes 70% of the sale price on Amazon. Writers can find their own audience, because they don’t need publishers anymore. Oh, it’s still work, but writers have upside potential that they never used to have.

I decided that it was time for me to go for it, to really take a hard run at writing professionally. Previously, whenever I looked at writing professionally, the business model just didn’t make sense. There were too many variables that were out of my control. But now, it feels like modern self-publishing was made for someone like me.

And besides, if not now, then when? There’s never going to be a better time for me to become a professional writer.

I believe I have the writing skills. I’ve certainly written many successful things in my life, including technical articles, proposals, dynamic speeches, well-received presentations, and hundreds of blog entries. I have the speaking skills for interviews, panels, presentations, classes and speeches — all that work in Toastmasters has paid off. I have the social media skills from my technical background, and have maintained the web presence for numerous organizations over the years.

Daybreak 2250 A.D., by Andre NortonIt might be a little later in my life than I had originally hoped for, but the dream that Andre Norton inspired in me at age 11, the dream of being a professional writer, is realistically within my reach for the first time. Many of the variables that were once completely outside of my control are now well within the grasp of a hard-working writer with extensive social media experience and a “can-do” attitude.

This is my time. Why don’t you come along for the ride?

Posted in Creativity | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

What If the Star Wars Prequels Were Good…

One of the ideas I originally had for content for this web site was a series of “Fix-It” entries. In each entry, I’d dissect an SF movie or TV series that didn’t work, and make recommendations on how it could have been improved to make a stronger show. I still plan to do this, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

Sometimes somebody just beats you to the punch. Sigh.

At least with regard to the Star Wars prequels.

Michael Barryte has a YouTube channel called Belated Media, which features his unique movie reviews plus some of his musings on movies that could have been (but weren’t). Two of his most famous videos are his drastically revised narrative editions of Star Wars I and Star Wars II. He charmingly skewers the existing movies, while recommending exhaustive changes that focus character interactions, increase tension, promote conflict and foster deeper tie-ins with the emotional threads from the original trilogy. His recommendations are pretty astute.

Here’s his take on Star Wars I:

Here’s his edition of Star Wars II:

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for Star Wars III.

Posted in Fix-It | 1 Comment

Film Review: Forward Unto Dawn

Halo 4: Forward Unto DawnSomething surprising happened this weekend. I watched a good science fiction movie. This happens rarely, because Hollywood doesn’t really understand SF. I usually watch an SF movie with hopeful trepidation, expecting my hopes for a movie with a comprehensible plot, believable science, and strong characters to be dashed with callous disregard by overhyped directors or buried under overblown CGI. When the end of the movie arrives, and none of these things have happened, then the reaction slowly sinks in: “Hey, that was a pretty good movie.”

The film I watched was Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, and it has a very interesting history. Halo is a popular game series created by Microsoft (well, some other companies actually did the game development work) for the XBox platform. The games are military-oriented combat games set in a complex and well-defined background reminiscent of Larry Niven’s Known Space series.

The story of the making of the film is almost as interesting as the film itself.

The Making of the Film

With Halo 4 about to be released, Microsoft wanted to do something new and different to help promote the game. They’d had success previously with some online video teasers, directed by Neill Blomkamp, the director of District 9 and Elysium. They decided to up the ante by producing a web series to promote the release of the latest game, with five episodes of 15-minutes or more to be released online. The producers went one step further and decided to created a story that would allow the five segments to slot together seamlessly as a 90-minute movie.

Microsoft dedicated a budget of about 10 million dollars to the web series. Depending on how you look at it, this probably makes it the most expensive web series of all time, or a solid low-budget film. The film also has more than 400 CGI shots, which is far less than the average Hollywood tentpole movie, but far more than a typical low-budget indie film.

The Film

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn takes place in 2525 and tells the story of Thomas Lasky, a young cadet at the Corbulo Military Academy. Humanity has spread out across the stars and now has colonies on many planets, with order maintained by the United Nations Space Command (UNSC). However, all is not well. There is widespread unrest across the colonies, and a group known as the Insurrectionists are fighting what amounts to a civil war against the UNSC.

Against this backdrop, Lasky and his fellow cadets are learning the art of war. The film is very effective at making this futuristic military school seem believable. Meanwhile, Lasky is conflicted about the war with the Insurrectionists, and has decisions to make about whether his future lies in the military. All of the cadets are unaware that a new and even more dangerous war is about to start.

The film has a solid, coming-of-age plot that works very well. The characters seem believable, although one could quibble that they’re a little bit stereotypical. However, the spot-on dialog and crisp direction make them seem very real in a short period of time. I also liked the prologue that introduced the cadets — experimental though it might have been, I thought it worked exceedingly well.

The action, both the training exercises and later combat scenes, were stunning. I have read some reviews that described the movie as a little slow in the beginning. I disagree. I thought it was exceptionally well-paced. The concentration on character development made you actually care about the characters, which was essential to the conclusion of the film. I can only conclude that younger film-goers may be unfamiliar with character development, probably because it’s so seldom seen in Hollywood blockbusters like the (awful) Transformers movies.

My biggest quibble with the movie comes from the framing story, which may be somewhat opaque to an audience unfamiliar with the Halo universe. Accordingly, I will provide some explanation of the framing story. I don’t think that explaining the framing story in advance detracts from the film, but some may consider it a spoiler. Accordingly, skip to the conclusion if you don’t want to see the explanation until later.

After the prologue introducing the cadets, the film credits show the interior of a wrecked starship, the Forward Unto Dawn, which was ripped apart at the end of the game, Halo 3. The ship’s AI, Cortana, has a sent a Mayday signal, and has subsequently begun to go slowly insane (which will be a running plot thread in the Halo 4 game). The only survivor on board the ship is the legendary, genetically engineered soldier known as the Master Chief, who has gone into cryo storage until he’s needed. After more than four years, the distress signal is received by a much older Thomas Lasky, clearly a high-level commander in the military.

Most of the movie is a flashback, as Thomas Lasky remembers his time at the Corbulo Military Academy, and his first encounter with the Master Chief. At the end of the film, Lasky and the ships under his command move off into slipspace to answer the distress signal, which directly initiates the events of the Halo 4 game.

Conclusion

It’s a solid film, with a complex and consistent science fiction background, characters that you can care about, dangerous aliens, and stunningly realistic combat. It’s also got, as far as I know, the first instance of a space elevator (or space tether as the producers referred to it) to ever appear in a film. To me, that by itself is kind of a big deal.

I recommend the film to both Halo fans and to others outside the game community who just want to see a good movie. My one caveat for “outsiders” is that the framing story may be a little confusing to those not familiar with the game background.

The movie is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Since it was released to help advertise the game, it’s also free to watch in many venues, such as Hulu. The DVD/Blu-Ray editions have about an hour of extras, which I thought was well worth the price.

Posted in Film | 1 Comment

Two More Projects…

"Winter Roses" - a short story by David KeenerIn the past week, I’ve had the chance to unveil two of my latest creative projects to various audiences. The first is a short story called “Winter Roses.” The second is a new PowerPoint presentation called “Titanic: The Forgotten Passengers.” In both cases, I used the source material as the basis for a speech in front of a live audience, which is, quite frankly, an awesome way to test out your material.

With some judicious compression, “Winter Roses” became a dramatic, almost Shakespearean, 9-minute speech that I performed at the Ashburn Toastmasters Open House and Speech-a-thon on July 31st. Set in a fantasy world, it tells a twisted, but romantic, crime story. It also provides some background and depth to a fantasy world in which I plan to set future stories.

The PowerPoint presentation, “Titanic: The Forgotten Passengers,” was inspired by last year’s 100-year remembrances of the 1912 Titanic disaster. I was fascinated with some news stories I read online about the pets, mostly dogs, that were on board for the Titanic‘s fateful maiden voyage. I did a considerable amount of additional research, including hunting down rare photographs, and created an 11-slide presentation. I then organized a 12-minute speech to go with the presentation, which I introduced to Brambleton Toastmasters on August 6th.

"Titanic: The Forgotten Passengers" - A presentation by David KeenerI was very pleased with the reaction to both projects. “Winter Roses” is currently in the hands of my beta readers — once it gets past them, I’m going to try to get it professionally published. Accordingly, it won’t be going up on this site for a good, long time.

“Titanic: The Forgotten Passengers” is going to go up on Slideshare sometime in August. I want to punch up the graphics and layout a notch to see if I can get it selected as a Featured Presentation (this happened previously for my “Killer Business Models” presentation from the more technical, KeenerTech side of the house). I also have some ideas on how to monetize it, but more on that at a later date.

Posted in Creativity | 3 Comments

Film Review: Europa Report

A new indie film called Europa Report was released on August 2nd. Like Monsters (see my review) in 2010, this low-budget effort was released to a limited theatrical distribution and simultaneously made available on iTunes and other on-demand platforms. I discovered the buzz about the film online and decided to check it out yesterday, so I rented it from iTunes for $6.99.

Europa Report

The film describes a private space mission to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, and the place in our solar system besides Earth believed most likely to harbor life by scientists. Europa is covered by ice, but tidal flexing and the warmth of the moon’s core are believed to have created a vast ocean of liquid water underneath the ice — warmth and liquid water are considered to be the necessary conditions for life to develop.

The mission is stunningly realistic, from the underlying science to the technologies used during the mission. The crew members even sound like astronauts. The film makers consulted extensively with NASA and other companies involved in space to ensure as much accuracy as possible, a goal that they certainly achieved.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

But was the film any good?

Yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit. However, the way that the film was shot will appeal to some people, and not others. The film is told out of order, and ostensibly assembled using “found footage” — the footage being all of the stationary cameras available throughout the ship, as well as the camera inside the spacesuits that focuses on the face of crew members. It’s an interesting conceit, and it mostly works, although it makes the film seem a little disjointed at times.

The acting was reasonably good, although we don’t get deep into the characters of any of the crew members. Still, the performances are solid, if not inspired, and serve to carry the story forward well enough. I liked the fact that the crew never gives up, no matter what happens. To me, that seems true to the spirit of the type of explorer that would go on a mission like this.

The film was directed by Sebasti├ín Cordero. The only well known actors in the film are Sharlto Copley (from District 9) and Michael Nyqvist (from the original version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, i.e. — the one that I liked, as opposed to the cold, passionless American version).

It’s an excellent indie SF film. Recommended for SF fans, space fans and anybody that’s willing to watch a film that, despite some flaws, succeeds admirably at what it tries to accomplish. It’s a smart, scientifically accurate and riveting depiction of a futuristic space mission.

Europa Rocket Launch
Posted in Film | 1 Comment