The Write Stuff: Doing the Sort

As I explained here, I’m working the exercises from The Write Stuff by Barry B. Longyear. The next exercise follows immediately upon the prior exercise, Collecting Your Vibes. Now that you’ve gathered your collection of Most Important Works, you need to sort them. If you have a physical collection, sort them into piles. If you have a virtual collection like I do (most of mine are in Kindle format these days), break your list into categories. (One advantage of a virtual collection is that a work can go in more than one category if you think that makes sense.) Use whatever categories make sense to you. If no categorization scheme comes to mind, you can always fall back on the Dewey Decimal system.

As noted above, I had a virtual list, so I sorted it into categories in a spreadsheet. Here are the categories I chose (with some overlap):

  • Superhero
  • Heroic Fantasy
  • Comic Book
  • Space Opera
  • Soft SF
  • Hard SF
  • Social SF
  • Cosmic Fantasy
  • Writing
  • Space
  • Software Engineering
  • Business
  • Literature
  • Post Apocalypse
  • Absurdist
  • Modern Drama
  • Romance
  • Thriller
  • Horror
  • Comedy
  • Mystery

Note that these are fuzzy, arbitrary categories; and I marked each item the way it made sense to me. The results made sense to me even if they might seem contradictory to you.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Here are the results:

  • Superman: Last Son of Krypton / Superman: Miracle Monday (Novel Series): Superhero,Soft SF,Cosmic Fantasy
  • The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings (Novel Series): Heroic Fantasy
  • The Face in the Frost (Novel Series): Heroic Fantasy,Horror, Comedy
  • City of Nomads (Comic Book): Comic Book,Soft SF,Post Apocalypse
  • Enemy Mine (Novella): Space Opera
  • Gift of a Useless Man (Short Story): Space Opera
  • Flowers for Algernon (Novella): Soft SF,Social SF
  • Circus World (Fix Up Novel): Space Opera,Soft SF, Comedy
  • The House of If (Short Story): Soft SF
  • The Portrait of Baron Negay (Short Story): Space Opera
  • Lucifer’s Hammer (Novel): Post Apocalypse,Modern Drama,Thriller
  • Oath of Fealty (Novel): Hard SF,Social SF,Modern Drama
  • Legacy of Heorot (Novel): Hard SF
  • The Killing Joke (Graphic Novel): Superhero,Comic Book
  • The Sandman (Graphic Novel Series): Comic Book,Cosmic Fantasy,Horror
  • Kryptonite: Nevermore (Graphic Novel): Superhero,Comic Book,Cosmic Fantasy
  • On Writing (Nonfiction): Writing
  • Professional Software Development (Nonfiction): Software Engineering
  • The Mythical Man Month (Nonfiction): Software Engineering
  • The Dilbert Principle (Nonfiction): Business, Comedy
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Novel): Hard SF
  • Starship Troopers (Novel): Space Opera,Hard SF
  • The Puppet Masters (Novel): Soft SF
  • Double Star (Novel): Soft SF
  • Moonrise (Novel): Hard SF
  • A Talent for War (Novel): Space Opera,Hard SF
  • Catch-22 (Novel): Literature, Comedy
  • Dusk and Shiver (Fix Up Novel): Horror
  • A Martian Odyssey (Short Story): Soft SF
  • By the Waters of Babylon (Short Story): Post Apocalypse
  • The Last Man (Short Story): Social SF
  • Microcosmic God (Short Story): Soft SF
  • -And He Built a Crooked House (Short Story): Soft SF,Cosmic Fantasy
  • Requiem (Short Story): Hard SF
  • Higher Education (Novel): Hard SF
  • Brain Wave (Novel): Soft SF
  • Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (Graphic Novel): Superhero,Comic Book
  • Who Took the Super Out of Superman? (Graphic Novel): Superhero,Comic Book
  • Apollo: The Race to the Moon (History): Space
  • Thrice Upon a Time (Novel): Hard SF
  • Fallen Angels (Novel): Hard SF
  • Fighting Madness (Novella): Hard SF
  • The Magic Goes Away (Novel): Heroic Fantasy
  • The Chronicles of Amber (Novel Series): Heroic Fantasy
  • Roadmarks (Novel): Cosmic Fantasy
  • The Holmes/Dracula File / An Old Friend of the Family (Novel Series): Horror,Mystery
  • Harry Potter (Novel Series): Heroic Fantasy
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Novel Series): Space Opera,Soft SF,Absurdist,Comedy
  • The Hacker Files (Comic Book Series): Comic Book,Hard SF
  • The Andromeda Strain (Novel): Hard SF
  • Groundhog Day (Movie): Cosmic Fantasy,Absurdist,Comedy
  • Hudson Hawk (Movie): Absurdist,Comedy
  • Moon (Movie): Hard SF
  • Twelve Angry Men (Movie): Modern Drama
  • A Walk in the Clouds (Movie): Romance
  • Contact (Movie): Hard SF,Modern Drama
  • Die Hard / Die Hard 2 (Movie Series): Thriller
  • Doc Hollywood (Movie): Romance,Comedy
  • Excalibur (Movie): Heroic Fantasy
  • Monk (TV Series): Mystery
  • House / House 2 (Movie Series): Thriller,Horror,Comedy
  • Howard the Duck (Movie): Superhero,Absurdist,Comedy
  • The Incredible Hulk (Movie): Superhero,Soft SF
  • From the Earth to the Moon (TV Miniseries): Space
  • Hero (Movie): Romance,Comedy
  • The Lathe of Heaven (Movie): Soft SF,Social SF
  • The Librarian (Movie): Heroic Fantasy
  • October Sky (Movie): Space
  • Silent Running (Movie): Hard SF
  • Something the Lord Made (Movie): Modern Drama
  • Kolchak: The Night Stalker (TV Series): Horror
  • Short Circuit (Movie): Romance,Comedy
  • The Andromeda Strain (Movie): Hard SF
  • Max Headroom (TV Series): Soft SF,Social SF
  • The Princess Bride (Movie): Heroic Fantasy,Comedy
  • The Man of La Mancha (Stage Play): Heroic Fantasy,Comedy
  • The Black Room (Radio Play): Social SF,Modern Drama,Horror

And here is a table of totals for each category:

Category Count
Superhero 7
Heroic Fantasy 9
Comic Book 7
Space Opera 7
Soft SF 15
Hard SF 17
Social SF 6
Cosmic Fantasy 6
Writing 1
Space 3
Software Engineering 2
Business 1
Literature 1
Post Apocalypse 3
Absurdist 4
Modern Drama 6
Romance 4
Thriller 3
Horror 7
Comedy 14
Mystery 2

The purpose of sorting is to determine what really draws you, because that is where you’ll write closest to your real self. In my case, the top two categories by a large degree are science fiction, both hard and soft; but somewhat to my surprise, the next largest category is Comedy with 14 entries. When I look a little more closely, 9 of those are in films and plays, and only 5 in books; but even 5 is a lot compared to the other categories.

This is a little surprising to me. Why? First because I think of myself as a Serious Science Fiction Guy; and second because I have a bit of a defective humor gene. Some stuff that almost everyone I know finds funny – Saturday Night Live, Monty Python, The Office – leaves me absolutely, utterly cold. Even though there’s stuff I find funny, I just don’t think of myself as a funny person. I certainly don’t think of myself as a funny writer.

And yet… My most successful publication in recent years has been Ulterior Motive Lounge, the world’s first (and only) UML comic strip. It uses badly drawn stick figure art and lots of bad movie jokes to teach software design. And I’ve had a lot of readers praise it for the humor, and then tell me how the jokes helped them to learn. So I wrote something that at least a few people found funny.

And yet… My first pro-rate sale (though not to a pro qualified market) was “The Night We Flushed the Old Town” in Therefore I Am: Digital Science Fiction Anthology 2. It’s an unabashed tall tale about sewage disposal in a Lunar colony; and you better darn bet I hope you’ll laugh at many parts in it.

And yet… Evil Martin seems pretty popular on the Writers of the Future forum; and really all he does there is encourage evil habits, make obscure references, and tell bad jokes.

And yet… If there had been just a little more room in the lists for these assignments, I would’ve added Robert Asprin’s MythAdventures books, as well as Phil Foglio’s adaptations. And speaking of Foglio, I would’ve added Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire, Buck Godot: Psmith, and Buck Godot: The Gallimaufry. I would’ve added Ambush Bug. I would’ve added The IT Crowd. I would’ve added Start the Revolution Without Me and Casino Royale (the real one with David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, and Orson Welles). I would’ve added The Trouble with Tribbles and M*A*S*H and WKRP and Night Court. I would’ve added Dilbert and early Garfield. These aren’t favorites in the same way as Superman: Last Son of Krypton, The Lord of the Rings, The Face in the Frost, or “Enemy Mine”; but they are favorites that I’ve read or watched over and over, laughing away hours and hours. (And yes, some of them are pretty obscure. I’m twisted that way.)

Maybe there’s something there that I need to consider. Maybe humorous science fiction will turn out to be my niche (at least according to The Write Stuff).

Which would kinda suck. Dying is easy, comedy is hard.

The Write Stuff: Collecting Your Vibes

As I explained here, I’m working the exercises from The Write Stuff by Barry B. Longyear. Today’s exercise: Collecting Your Vibes. Go through your library and gather up the novels, short stories, non-fiction works, and other writing that are most important to you. Not just any writing, the writing you just can’t live without. If you want to include your whole library, you’re doing it wrong. Teacher says 50 titles at most, just to force you to choose what matters over what’s nice. These are the books you reread, the ones you miss when they’re not around. And since this is the video era and video is a means of storytelling, he’ll let you add movies and TV shows as well. And as with the first exercise, he wants honesty: not the books you think you ought to like, but rather the ones you go back to again and again even if other people might disapprove.

Now what teacher didn’t specify was whether it was 50 titles including video, or 50 PLUS video. So I’m going to interpret it as follows: 50 written, 25 video. I’m also going to cheat (I am Evil, after all! ) I’m going to count series as a single title in some cases.

I’m also going to include some comic books and graphic novels under the category of writing. Why? Because a list of my influences that doesn’t include comic books is incomplete.

And I’m going to add a miscellaneous category because there are a couple of works that just have to be there.

So here’s the list, in a completely chaotic order. Teacher didn’t ask for it, but I’m including commentary where I have a mind.

Writing

  • Superman: Last Son of Krypton / Superman: Miracle Monday by Elliot S! Maggin. Why are these two at the start of the list? Two obscure 70s superhero novels – not even movie adaptations, just books issued at the same time as Superman and Superman II. Written by an obscure comics writer/English teacher that no one outside of comics has ever heard of (and few younger comics fans will recognize him, either). For various reasons, all but disavowed by Warner Brothers and unlikely to ever see reprinting, so you’ll only ever find them in used book stores. (Rumor has it they pulped pallets and pallets of copies when someone at Warner’s decided they no longer wanted these books around.)

    And yet… And yet… And yet, if I stumble upon these in a used book store, I buy them immediately, just in case my existing copies wear out. There are a few other books where I have owned multiple copies, but none where I went out of my wat to get them. Elliot S! Maggin wrote many of my favorite comic scripts in the 70s; and with these books, he wrote the definitive superhero stories. He captured the unique feel of Superman comics in the 70s. He made me believe in a man who could move worlds but simply could not imagine that anyone would do less than his best to make the world better. “There is a right and a wrong in the universe, and the distinction is not very hard to make.” The science fiction elements… The fantasy elements… Lex Luthor as sympathetic, warm, funny, fallen hero… The Guardians of the Universe… The demon… Kristen Wells… Jor-El… Superman, of course… And Albert Freakin’ Einstein!

    Are these my favorite books of all? Not really; but they’re first on the list because they’re so rare, and they’ll never be available legally on the Kindle. (I don’t do pirate books.) When you ask me to name a book I would save if the house were on fire, these two would be the answer. (They’re shelved next to each other, so if I can save one, I can save the other.)

  • The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve already described my experience in discovering this series. What I didn’t mention is that since then, I’ve read it 17 times. Every couple of years, I have to go back to Middle Earth.
  • The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs. It was 7th grade. I was feeling down because my favorite story had gotten an honorable mention in a local contest. Why did that make me feel down? Because my earlier stories had placed second, and I thought this one was better. So on the way home from the contest, my mom did something she rarely did: she bought a book for me without me asking specifically for it first. She knew she didn’t know my tastes, so it was a gamble; but the book jacket compared it to The Lord of the Rings, so she took a chance.

    After more than 20 years, the dust jacket finally fell off, despite my repeated efforts to tape and repair it. The little hardcover is still in a special place so I always know where to find it. I’ve since bought the Kindle version so I can keep the hardcover safe.

    Is my devotion to this book an emotional response to the circumstances under which I acquired it? Maybe. Probably, even. But it’s also just plain a phenomenal light-dark-funny-creepy-scary-inventive-tongue-in-cheek fantasy, and has influenced more of my characters than I can remember. Few people have heard of it, I’m sure; but I recommend it to everyone who is looking for fantasy. It’s the story of two rather unorthodox wizards walking across the land to save the world from a dark and creepy menace. And scenes from it both funny and scary have haunted me ever since.

  • “City of Nomads” from Planet of the Apes No. 12. My first comic book entry, and another incredibly obscure one. Planet of the Apes magazine was one of a small line of black-and-white magazines that Marvel comics published in the 70s. The issues usually had one chapter adapted from the films and one original story, all written by Doug Moench. The original stories were wildly inventive tales that fleshed out the world of the films; but this story rose above them all in my imagination. It’s set aboard a cityship, a massive sailing ship divided by an uneasy truce between rival factions of apes. Rereading the plot today, it’s a little simplistic and obvious. After all, it’s a short illustrated story as a backup feature in a short magazine. But the setting and the scenario have stuck with me even when I no longer had access to the story. (Fortunately used book shops have let me get new copies.) Cityships have appeared in my games ever since, and someday will appear in a story as well.
  • Enemy Mine by Barry B. Longyear. No, this isn’t a case of kissing up to teacher. This story isn’t on the list because I’m reading The Write Stuff; I’m reading The Write Stuff because of this story and some others below. Don’t take my word for it, listen to the Hugo and Nebula voters who awarded top prizes in 1979 and 1980.
  • “Gift of a Useless Man” by Alan Dean Foster, collected in Who Needs Enemies? I can’t really describe this without ruining it, but I’ll try. A ne’er-do-well at the end of his life makes an astonishing discovery that changes history. The final scene stands out in my mind still 30 years later.
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. The link is to the novel, because I can’t find a link to the novella; but it’s the novella I like best. It’s tighter and more effective.
  • Circus World by Barry B. Longyear. I can’t wait for him to release this on Kindle! It’s the story of a world populated by the survivors of a crashed circus; and it’s the most distinctive science fiction culture I have ever read.
  • “The House of If” by Barry B. Longyear, collected in It Came From Schenectady. The story of a man who can’t stand prisons and the builder of the ultimate prison.
  • “The Portrait of Baron Negay” by Barry B. Longyear, also collected in It Came From Schenectady. The story of an art forger and a master artist and the tyrant who hates them both.
  • Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The ultimate end-of-civilization novel. “You can fly. You can fly… but we control the lightning.” It still gives me chills.
  • Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The story of a city struggling to build a new civilization. “There are lots of ways to be human..” Chills, I tell you. Chills!
  • Legacy of Heorot by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The only written work that has ever scared me. When I realized – about half a page before the characters did – just how screwed they were, I almost dropped the book.
  • The Killing Joke by Alan Moore. The second comic book on the list. Imagine having your very worst day ever. Then imagine adding the Joker. How could you stay sane? (For Kindle Fire owners: the Kindle version ships Tuesday!)
  • The Sandman by Neil Gaiman. “Comic book” doesn’t do this justice. Try “most ambitious and wide sweeping fantasy epic in any medium”. Yeah, you Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones fans might disagree; but this is my list, so I decide. Go make your own list! This is the story of the guy who makes and rules dreams, and the troubles they cause for him and the world.
  • Kryptonite: Nevermore by Dennis O’Neil. This is a classic Superman series from my youth. Through great luck, my brother had the first two issues in the series and the last. I loved these when I was a kid: epic, action-packed, mysterious, and philosophical all at the same time. I always regretted that he didn’t have the missing issues. When DC Comics eventually published a collected edition, I learned that the ones he had were the good ones. The middle ones were weaker, and most weren’t even really part of the main story. Still, I was happy to have them all gathered in one place.
  • On Writing by Stephen King. This is the first nonfiction work on my list, and the one writing book I recommend to every writer. (Since I haven’t finished The Write Stuff yet, I can only give a tentative recommendation at this point.) The first half is a biography of King and sort of “what goes into being a writer”, or at least what went into King as a writer. The second half is the story of King’s recovery from a life-threatening accident and how it helped him gain new perspective on writing and life. And the middle half (yes, this book has three halves, in my view) is a lot of practical writing advice from somebody who has sold a book or two.
  • Professional Software Development by Steve McConnell. Like Maggin’s Superman books, I buy spare copies of this book; but in this case, I buy the spares so I can give them to fellow developers who I think will appreciate them. It’s about how software will kill people and what we can do to stop it. It’s important.
  • The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks. This is a software engineering classic and a direct ancestor to Professional Software Development. The title comes from the observation that no matter how much managers may try to believe otherwise, men and months are not equivalent. Sometimes you can’t get the job done faster by adding people. Sometimes that makes the job even slower. In one of the central metaphors of the book, he points out: no matter how many women you assign to the task (or how many men, for that matter), it still takes nine months to make a baby.
  • The Dilbert Principle, one of Scott Adams’s semi-nonfiction books. I say semi- because these are full of jokes; but between the jokes are some shrewd insights on how business can run better and more humanely. As many times as I quote this one, I figure it belongs on this list.
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. This is Heinlein at his best, and his best fit for my tastes: near space, near future, fighting to survive and defeat tyranny. And the old S.O.B. actually made me sad for the death of a fictional character in the end. I can’t wait for a Kindle edition.
  • Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. My second-favorite Heinlein book. Someday they’ll make a film of it, but it hasn’t happened yet. If you think they have, you didn’t understand the book.
  • The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein. My third-favorite Heinlein book. Someday they’ll make a film of it, but it hasn’t happened yet. If you think they have, you didn’t understand the book. (But at least this one wasn’t vile…)
  • Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein. I doubt they’ll ever even try to make a film of this one. Too bad, as it’s a nice story and a good length for filming. And the ending is incredibly moving.
  • Moonrise by Ben Bova. The most direct influence on my Tycho Under stories (along with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress). Bova made me want to explore the Moon again.
  • A Talent for War by Jack McDevitt. This book brought me back to hard science fiction after years away, and it made McDevitt one of my favorite authors. The ending utterly surprised me, which is always a delight.
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. A classic life-affirming surreal atemporal irreverent World War II tragic comedy. I don’t read a lot of non-speculative work, but I’ll read this one again and again.
  • Dusk and Shiver by Annie Bellet. Annie is a relative newcomer I know from the Writers of the Future forum; but with this collection, she earned her place as the newest author on my list of 50. Remy Pigeon is the most effecting character I have read all year – a year in which I reread many of my old favorites on this list, and yet Remy held his place.
  • A Martian Odyssey by Stanley Weinbaum. One of the first Mars stories I ever read, and still one of the most exotic.
  • By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benet. A classic early post-apocalypse story, moving and poetic. I once had this in three different short story collections.
  • “The Last Man” by Wallace West, collected in The Pocket Book of Science Fiction (the first science fiction anthology, though I didn’t appreciate the historical significance when I was growing up). This little dystopia about a world where men are obsolete and women are all the same deserves some new readers.
  • Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon. The story of a man who creates new life to watch how it evolves.
  • “-And He Built a Crooked House”, collected in The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein. An architect and his clients get caught in a most unusual house.
  • “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein, collected in The Past Through Tomorrow. This is a sequel to “The Man Who Sold the Moon”. That’s also a good story, but this one chokes me up every time.
  • Higher Education by Jerry Pournelle and Charles Sheffield. You’ll only think you’re reading an adventure story set in the near future, near space setting I love so much. Then you’ll get to the end and realize you’re reading something that’s a whole lot more.
  • Brain Wave by Poul Anderson. A literally mind-expanding tale: the intelligence of every living thing on Earth triples overnight – and society may not survive.
  • Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore. The “last” Superman story, and the climax to Superman stories of the 70s. Ab-so-lutely. Perfect.
  • “Who Took the Super Out of Superman?” A four-part Superman series by Elliot S! Maggin and Cary Bates, collected in The Great Superman Comic Book Collection – Time-Honored Classics (which also contains the Lex Luthor story that inspired Maggin’s approach to the character and inspired the Lex/Clark relationship in Smallville). I had the last issue of this series when I was a kid. Eventually I found the collection so I could enjoy it all. Unlike “Kryptonite: Nevermore”, the parts I was missing were just as good as the parts I had. On the surface, it’s an intricate action-adventure-puzzle story; but underneath, it’s a complex story of identity as Superman/Clark has to decide which of his lives is the real him.
  • Apollo by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. I first found this book under its original title, Apollo: The Race to the Moon. It’s the story of the Apollo program told from the perspective of the engineers who made it happen. I could never really imagine myself as an astronaut. I’m not the dashing superhero type. But I could see myself in the shoes of these engineers and mission controllers. Their problems and solutions felt very real to me.
  • Thrice Upon a Time by James P. Hogan. This is a clever little time-communication story which also vividly captures the world of programming circa 1979. It’s a science fiction novel complete with charts and graphs and code! I love it! And it’s the standard against which I measure all other time travel stories for believability. None has matched it yet.
  • Fallen Angels by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn. It’s the story of how society turns its back on science and succumbs to an ice age. An orbital society struggles to survive despite Earth abandoning and hating them. Then two astronauts crash in the wilderness, and they have only one place to turn for help: science fiction fans!
  • “Fighting Madness” by P.J. Plauger, collected in Analog Annual (edited by Ben Bova). Plauger is better known for his software engineering books, but this is his first work that I ever read. It was 30 years later before I even realized who wrote it and how many of his other books I owned. It’s also the perfect hard science fiction work, in my opinion. I can’t explain why without ruining the best parts.
  • The Magic Goes Away by Larry Niven. Niven is better known for his hard science fiction than for his fantasy; but in this book he approaches fantasy as if it were hard science fiction. The result is a masterpiece that has led to a number of sequels, but none have matched up to the original.
  • The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny. This is a clever, classic fantasy series about the wars between members of a powerful family that rules the multiverse. What I find most impressive is how in each book, Zelazny logically explains how everything Corwin (the protagonist) knew in the last book was wrong, every person who helped Corwin was actually trying to kill him, and everyone who tried to kill him was doing it for his own good; and yet the end result is completely logically consistent.
  • Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny. This is one of Zelazny’s lesser known works, but it’s my favorite. On a mysterious highway that passes through all time and multiple dimensions, a man and a woman try to find their way amid assassins, dragons, and Adolf Hitler searching for the timeline where he won World War II.
  • The Holmes/Dracula File / An Old Friend of the Family by Fred Saberhagen. There are a lot of volumes in Saberhagen’s Dracula series, but these two are my favorites. Saberhagen turns Vlad Tepes, vampire, into a noble, heroic, sympathetic protagonist – by the standards of a 15th century woiwode of Wallachia. He’s not evil, but he’s ruthless in defending his friends, family, and followers.
  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. No apologies here. If you don’t like it, go make your own list. The early stories were engaging; but what really impressed me in the later stories was how Rowling built on tiny things found in earlier books. Either she really did have the whole thing plotted out in advance, or she’s a genius at turning idea seeds into fully grown forests. Either way, I enjoyed them, and I can learn from them.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. The early books are the best, but I love them all. No author has ever made me laugh as much and as consistently as Adams did.
  • The Hacker Files by Lewis Shiner. This is a practically forgotten comic book series that lasted only 12 issues; but it is the only literary work that I ever felt really captured what it feels like to write software. Plus I know a lot of these characters, or people just like them.
  • The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. Crichton’s early break-out novel was a great film, but an even better book. It was the first one that made me understand what computers were and how they worked and how they worked in a story. Plus all that tech, all those gadgets, all that science!

Video

  • Groundhog Day. Phil (Bill Murray) gets trapped repeating the same day over and over for thousands of years until he can figure out how to get it right. Best. Fantasy. Film. Ever.
  • Hudson Hawk. One of only two movies I keep on my Kindle Fire so I can watch it whenever I need to. I know, I know, you’ve heard for years how bad this film is; and I. Just. Don’t. Care. If you don’t like it, go make your own list. Cat burglar artiste Eddie (Bruce Willis) struggles to go straight. All he wants is a cappucino; but the Mafia, the C.I.A., the Pope, and a pair of robber barons force him to steal Da Vinci’s greatest secrets in order to rule the world.
  • Moon. The feature film debut by Duncan Jones, and my favorite hard science fiction film of the 21st century (not that there are that many to choose from). Sam Bell mans a Lunar mining base on a three-year contract; but near the end of his contract when he’s getting ready to go home, he learns that nothing he knows is true. After this film, I will watch anything Duncan Jones directs. If he did this once, he’ll do it again.
  • 12 Angry Men. A classic jury-room drama with classic stars. I can’t leave the room when this is on.
  • A Walk in the Clouds. It’s a little-known chick flick. It stars Keanu Reeves, whom I normally find to be pretty wooden as an actor. It’s not even science fiction, it’s a period romance. And I. Just. Don’t. Care. I find the whole thing compelling. It just works. I’ll never forget the father’s line. “Don’t think that because I speak with an accent I think with an accent.” And Anthony Quinn as the grandfather was incredible.
  • Contact. Better than the book (and I liked the book). No rayguns, no spaceships, no fights… Just scientists doing science on the most momentous discovery in history. The endings (it has about five in a row) all work for me.
  • Die Hard / Die Hard 2. The whole series is fun, but these first two are masterpieces. Every single detail is in the story for a reason. Officer John McClain (Bruce Willis) can’t seem to go through Christmas without a terrorist attack. Foolish terrorists!
  • Doc Hollywood. Another dopey romantic comedy, but this one has a lot of my favorite stars; Michael J. Fox, David Ogden Stiers, Julie Warner, Barnard Hughes. Frances Sternhagen, Bridget Fonda, George Hamilton, and Woody Harrelson. On the surface, it’s a typical fish-out-of-water comedy; but every single character is more complex than their stereotype, and every one of them surprises me at some point.
  • Excalibur. No, it’s not historically accurate (like any King Arthur story is). No, it’s not that faithful to Malory or Pyle. But in my opinion, it’s better: it takes a bunch of disjoint legends and weaves them into a compelling, mystical fantasy epic.
  • Monk. Tony Shalhoub is a freakin’ genius. His Adrian Monk character is one of the most memorable I have ever encountered. Always troubled with OCD, he becomes incapacitated when his wife is killed; and only slowly and with a lot of help does he become the brilliant detective he once was. The episode where he practices laughing has the best ending of them all.
  • House / House II. I’m not a big fan of modern horror films. Too much gore, too little brains. Going into “House”, I thought I knew what I was getting. I was completely wrong. I would never have guessed that I would leave the theater singing. So I looked forward to “House II”, because I knew what I was getting. Nope! They surprised me again. The first was a deep psychological thriller set in a haunted house; the second was a comedy action adventure set in a haunted house. Few movies really surprise me. I remember the ones that do.
  • Howard the Duck. Another one everyone has told you is awful. And I. Just. Don’t. Care. The nonstop string of bad duck jokes has me laughing uncontrollably; and the monster at the end is one of the ugliest, scariest I’ve seen on the big screen. (The effects suffer on the small screen, unfortunately.)
  • The Incredible Hulk. The film with Ed Norton, not the Ang Lee mess. This film was at the bargain theater the summer after it launched. I saw it six times that summer. To me, it’s the perfect superhero film. Ed Norton is Bruce Banner.
  • From the Earth to the Moon. An HBO miniseries dramatizing the Apollo program. I can watch Episode V, “Spider”, over and over. It makes me realize: my job is not that tough.
  • Hero. An obscure little Dustin Hoffman / Geena Davis / Andy Garcia comedy about a lowlife who does the right thing and gets punished for it. Every actor in this one has a great moment that surprises me. I’m not a big Hoffman fan; but in this one, he earned his reputation.
  • The Lathe of Heaven. A rare PBS original movie based on the Ursula K. Leguin novel (and a pretty faithful translation). Bruce Davison, Kevin Conway, and Margaret Avery are all great as the leads. Each has gone on to much bigger roles; but when I see them, this is always what I think of.
  • The Librarian. I like this whole series, but the original is a classic. Noah Wylie as a bookworm who saves the world… Gee, why would a story like that appeal to me? And I never thought I would say this, but Bob Newhart kicks ass!
  • October Sky. A mostly-true story of how a group of boys build rockets to escape their small coal town. The storyline between Homer and his dad just chokes me up.
  • Silent Running. The story is completely implausible. The moralizing is over the top. The characters (other than Bruce Dern’s – and the robots) are cardboard clichés. But the special effects make me feel like I’m really in space. The next time I felt anything close to that was “Moon”.
  • Something the Lord Made. Mos Def and Alan Rickman in a true story of the black lab technician who pioneered open heart surgery and the white doctor who got most of the credit. Def and Rickman and the rest of the cast make this compelling.
  • Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Yes, some of the stories are weak. They fell into monster-of-the-week mode way too early. But the atmosphere, the music, the 70s Chicago, and Darren McGavin’s narration make this one I can watch again and again.
  • Short Circuit. It’s a silly romantic comedy with an implausible script and a goofy robot. But when Steve Guttenburg (whom I normally can’t stand) and Fisher Stephens (who is one of my favorite character actors) start talking like a couple of programmers, I feel like the scriptwriters have been eavesdropping on me. When Newton cross-examines Johnny Five, he delves into complex questions of what intelligence means. If you cut out all the rest of the film, I would still watch it for those scenes. And I. Just. Don’t. Care.
  • The Andromeda Strain. Before I read the movie, I saw the film. It was like the Apollo program, but underground. Just awesome! And the race against time at the end still keeps me on the edge of my seat.
  • Max Headroom. Some of the best, most literate science fiction to ever appear on TV, mixed with some very cogent (and prescient!) social commentary. So of course it didn’t last a season.
  • The Princess Bride. The ultimate fencer’s movie. Somewhere I’m sure there’s a fencer who can’t quote this film, but I’ve never met that person. It’s a comedy, an adventure, a romance, and satirical commentary by one of the best casts ever assembled.

Miscellaneous

  • “The Man of La Mancha”. The movie is a sad failure; but I’ll watch the stage play any chance I get. I’ve memorized the Broadway cast album. It’s inspirational and uplifting during difficult times and challenging projects.
  • “The Black Room”. The premier episode of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater set a high mark for the rest of the series. It’s a deep allegory of what it takes to survive in a difficult world.

Postscript

Peeking ahead (I am Evil, after all! ), I see that teacher thinks it’s a horrible idea to do this exercise with somebody else. He really worries that shame will stop you from being honest: that you won’t list the stuff that embarrasses you, and especially that you won’t list the darker, more lascivious stuff. And by holding back, you won’t be honest. You won’t get your real influences because you’re trying to live up to the standards of others. So he says it’s a horrible mistake to work this exercise with someone else.

And I. Just. Don’t. Care.

You may have noticed I use that phrase a lot. I’ve reached an age where worrying about what others will think of my opinion is just too tiring. I’ve reached an age where I think anyone who judges the tastes of others is being a snob or a hypocrite (or most likely both). So my list is my list, no matter what anyone else thinks about it. And I. Just. Don’t. Care.

But to add to the honesty, let me review a few points about some of these…

I started with two novels based on a comic book character. I included other comics in the list. There’s a superhero movie in the list. I know that some people will dismiss me as a thinker simply because I enjoy comic books.And I. Just. Don’t. Care.

My list is heavily dominated by fantasy and science fiction. Planet of the Freakin’ Apes, even! I know that some of those same people look down their noses at this, disdaining it in favor of “serious” literature (gag me!). And I. Just. Don’t. Care.

There’s a lot of nuts-n-bolts hard science stuff on my list that I know bores even most SF fans.And I. Just. Don’t. Care.

I praised Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. Students of “literature” are supposed to dismiss those two as trash. And I. Just. Don’t. Care.

I lavished praise on Heinlein and Murray, two authors whom the PC police have declared persona non grata. And I. Just. Don’t. Care.

I swore undying devotion to “Hudson Hawk” and “Howard the Duck”, two of the most legendary flops in cinema history. And I. Just. Don’t. Care.

I recommended two unabashed chick flicks, “A Walk in the Clouds” and “Doc Hollywood”, even knowing that a lot of guys will sneer. Had there been room, I would’ve added Blast from the Past and When Harry Met Sally and High Fidelity and Sleepless in Seattle and yes, You’ve Got Mail, completely ruining my reputation (though I contend the way Tom Hanks treats Meg Ryan makes the story into a bit of a revenge fantasy). And I. Just. Don’t. Care.

And yes, you might notice certain actresses that appear over and over in my film choices. Andie MacDowell. Geena Davis. Meg Ryan. Julie Warner. Lea Thompson. Liv Tyler. Amanda Pays. You might almost suspect that the appeal of these films for me goes beyond the stories and the acting. You might even be right (although Eyes Wide Shut proved to me that some films are so bad, there’s not an actress alive who can make them watchable). And I. Just. Don’t. Care.

I am who I am. I’m too tired to be anybody else.

The Write Stuff: Why Write?

As part of Martin’s efforts to sivilize me, I’m going to take a writing course. Or rather, read and work a writing book: The Write Stuff by Barry B. Longyear, one of my earliest writing inspirations. His novella Enemy Mine (collected with two sequels as The Enemy Papers) was an immediate and enduring classic. His Circus World books (City of Baraboo, Elephant Song, and Circus World) describe what is still my favorite science fiction culture. “The House of If”, “The Initiation”, “The Portrait of Baron Negay”, “SHAWNA, Ltd.”, “A Time For Terror”, “The Homecoming”, “Catch The Sun”, “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”, “The Jaren”, “Savage Planet”, “USE Force”… These are the stories I read back in the earliest days of Asimov’s and said, “Hey, I want to do that, too!”

Along with Somtow Sucharitkul, Barry B. Longyear defined SF short stories for me in that era. He is the only writer to win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell awards in the same year, so I think he has something to teach us. Or at least to teach me.

The Write Stuff is more than just reading, though. It’s lessons. Exercises. Homework! And I’ve decided to do that homework here on the blog. I’ll summarize each assignment and then show my work. I have to write it down somewhere, after all, so it might as well be here. I hope that maybe it intrigues you enough to get you to pick up the book and try it yourself.

And the first assignment is…

Why write? Describe why you write and what you want to accomplish through writing.

Boy, that’s a tough one. And confession time: I peeked ahead. (I am Evil, after all! ) I know teacher is going to hate at least part of my answer. After all, he even says in the assignment, “If you find yourself putting down, ‘I need to write,’ throw out your list and start over.” But that’s sort of my first answer: not “I need to write”, but more like “I can’t recall ever not wanting to write.” I don’t have a very good memory for my childhood years, for whatever reason; but one of my earliest memories is of a story that I wrote. I was probably six at the time. (I was reading at four. Reading was what everyone else in the family did, so I wanted to do it, too. And my parents and my two older brothers were happy to teach me.) It was a story of a young Indian brave who impressed his father with his feats of strength and speed that he learned by emulating the animals. I still remember his name: Cintuwataki. (And I fear that in 40+ years since, I may never have made up a better name.) I remember almost nothing about the plot or even where the idea came from (Indian stories? Me?), but I still remember being very proud of my work.

So there’s one of the reasons, I guess: pride. When I finish a story, I’m proud of the result. (If I’m not proud, I’ll probably never finish it.) I advise creative people: “Never be your own worst critic or your own biggest fan.” Well, I do pretty good on the first part, but I fail big time on the second. I really enjoy reading my own stories. Often they transport me back to what I was thinking and feeling and experiencing during the writing process. Other times are even better: I don’t remember writing the story, and I find myself thinking, “How did I ever come up with this?” Dean Wesley Smith (a more recent writing mentor – I highly recommend his Think Like a Publisher) will tell you what a bad habit reading your own work is: a complete waste of time, an exercise in self-indulgence. And he’s right. But when I like my stories, I really like my stories.

And that’s another reason I write: not to be full of myself, but sometimes I write stories because no one else is writing the sort of stuff I like, so I will. Now that more than likely reflects my limited knowledge: the SF field alone is huge (never mind the superset, fiction), so I can’t possibly know everything that’s out there. But a major reason I wrote “Scramble” (second place in the 2012 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest) was because everything I saw on the shelves was urban fantasy, medieval fantasy, star-spanning space opera, psychic stuff… everything but the nuts-n-bolts hard science fiction I had a hankering for. Oh, there was still some of that out there – Ben Bova and Allen Steele both were writing in that niche – but I wasn’t finding a lot that was current. I wanted something near space, near future, hard science fiction, no magic, no aliens, no psionics… It’s a niche I’ve dubbed Blue Collar Space: ordinary people living and working and dying and triumphing as they settle nearby space. And since I wasn’t finding a lot of it (Bova wasn’t writing it fast enough, and Steele had gotten pulled away to his Coyote series – good, but farther out in space than I was looking for), I started designing my own: first by mapping a city, and then by writing adventures there.

And that comes to another reason why I write: maps. I love maps. I’ve been drawing them for longer than I’ve been writing. I still vividly remember the day I discovered The Hobbit. I remember the cover (it was a library book my brother had borrowed), I remember the cold (I was waiting in the back seat of his car while he was visiting a friend), I remember the delightful language, and I shall never forget the opening line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” But most of all, I remember what it was that got me to start reading: the maps. The glorious fold-out maps: one of Wilderland, and one of The Mountain and surrounds. It was a map where magic happened. Because that is what’s cool about maps: they describe places where stories happen, and I want to know those stories. I want to tell those stories. I still love drawing maps of places that never were and then finding the stories that happen there.

Full disclosure: I did slow down my writing for a lot of years. I blame two days I recall almost as clearly as the day I discovered The Hobbit:

  • My algebra teacher was having trouble keeping me occupied, since I was pretty good at math and I enjoyed it. So he took me aside and said, “This is a computer. This is a program. This is how it works. Now write your own.” My life was permanently altered that day.
  • I went to a game convention at a local mall. I had played some Avalon Hill board games, so I thought I might find something like that. Instead, I ended up at a table where some guys tried to explain this strange thing called “Dungeons & Dragons”. I wasn’t sure I understood it all, but I liked it enough to immediately go out and buy the big boxed set. And then since I was the one who owned the books, I started as gamemaster for our group. I’ve been gamemastering ever since. Maps and storytelling! It’s like gaming was made for me!

Those two outlets sufficed for most of my creative energies for a couple of decades; but I still wrote, just not as often. And they also tie back to another thing I love about writing: the joy of creating something intricate, interconnected, and in some way functional. In The Mythical Man Month, Fred Brooks wrote of how programming is creating with pure thought stuff, and how intoxicating it is to see your ideas go from concept to reality. It’s the joy of all artisans, no matter what their medium: the joy of bringing an idea to reality. And programming, gamemastering, and writing all bring me this pleasure. A big part of where the pride and ego come in is seeing somebody else recognize the vision that I had and show it back to me.

OK, I’ve gotten way off track, and teacher is eyeing me funny and slapping his palm with a ruler. I’m reminiscing instead of answering the question. (But really, it’s true: stories and maps and programming and gamemastering all are very much intertwined for me.) So what other reasons do I have for writing?

I mentioned pride. Yeah, there’s definitely some of that. It’s that, but it’s more complex than pride: when someone tells me that they liked my story, I feel good. I feel like: I reached somebody. I connected! A reader of my UML book once asked a question that made me realize he had read the book and actually gotten to know me as a result. A reader of my UML comic strip once wrote that he came for the jokes but found himself actually learning something; and I wanted to shout: I won! And when Joni from Writers of the Future told me that Jerry Pournelle loved my story, I really almost (almost!) didn’t care that my story hadn’t won. Jerry Pournelle is one of my favorite authors; when he teams with Larry Niven, collectively they are my favorite author. To hear secondhand praise from him was more motivating than I can describe. It was pride, pleasure, validation, and connection.

And the close cousin of pride is ego. I’m Evil Martin, Martin’s ego, and I’m large enough to have my own gravitational pull! Martin does his best to sivilize me, but I’m still out here. When people write stuff like this (Hi, Tina!), I break the chains entirely. It takes days to get me back to normal-sized.

Let’s see… I almost feel like I should do a Seven Deadly Sins motif here, but it wouldn’t work out very well. Lust and Gluttony? Who has time when you’re writing? Sloth? Sloth stops me from writing. And I’ve never been much into Wrath or Envy…

But Greed? Sure, it would be nice to make some money writing, but I don’t really have that as a goal. I’m a programmer, and I make a living that way, and I like doing it. If suddenly my stories started generating serious income (as opposed to trickles), it wouldn’t offend me; but as Dean advises, any monetary plans I have for my writing are very long term, not short term.

Awards? Well, that goes back to pride and ego; but honestly, I don’t care about awards. I would be thrilled to win, of course, but that’s outside of my control. There are too many good writers and stories and too few awards. If you let awards be your measure of success, you’re doomed to failure. (Writers of the Future is a special case, an award that would really matter to me; but that’s because of the fantastic workshop that comes as part of the prize, and the great people you get to hang out with.)

Fame? While that’s a close cousin of pride and ego, it’s different. I don’t know that I want fame per se. Fame is a little disconcerting, even discomforting. It means that when you’re out among people who know your reputation, you’re not entirely your own. All those other people claim a little bit of you. Harlan Ellison wrote a short story (I forget the name right now) about the “vampires” who all wanted “just a little bit” of a famous person’s time; and before the story was over, there was nothing left of him. Their “little bits” were all that he had. So fame has a serious dark side.

But attention… Ah, now that’s not so bad. Unlike a lot of authors I know (who are shy folks and a bit intimidated by speaking in public), I love an audience. The most dangerous place to be is between Evil Martin and an audience! I’m a little awkward around people I don’t know, but never in front of an audience. When I do software development talks, I warn people: “Getting me to talk is easy, it’s getting me to shut up that’s hard.” So a little bit of fame and a few small awards wouldn’t be bad if they got me a chance to get out and meet a few audiences.

So to summarize, I write because:

  • I always have.
  • Pride.
  • Enjoyment of my work.
  • To read stories I know I’ll like.
  • To tell the stories of my maps.
  • To create stuff and see it function.
  • Connection.
  • Pleasure.
  • Validation.
  • Ego.
  • Attention.

Maybe not a flattering list in all respects, but it’s an honest list. And that was the assignment!