Through Another’s Eyes: The Narrative Lens

written by David Steffen

The most compelling stories draw the reader in, leaving the body in a trance, as you immerse completely into a character’s mind. This is the biggest advantage that books hold over movies. A movie can show us a story, but even the best movies maintain a certain distance–you see the story through the eye of the camera, not the eyes of the character.

Movies have their own advantages, particularly for speculative fiction. A complex fantasy city can be shown in a matter of seconds, which might take chapters of drawn-out prose to describe in detail. Subtle facial expressions are presented without interpretation so that the watcher can interpret in any way they wish. The cinematic view can vary so that battlefields or other large-scale scene can be seen from far above without a character to carry us there.

Emulating film in writing is an easy trap to fall into, especially for beginning writers. Cinematic writing is characterized by overly long descriptions of complex settings and impartial narration as though attempting to show what a camera would see. But to write fiction in this manner is to sell yourself short. No one can portray a story in a film-like manner as well as film itself can. It’s like trying to write a story with French words using English grammar, it just doesn’t work. I’m not saying you can’t tell about the same story, the same characters, the same events as you could show in the movie. But you need to use different methods to reach its full potential.

I like to imagine prose as a narrative lens that allows you to see through the eyes of the character. And not just see, but to experience what they experience. Using this method, every description, every beat, every line of narration is an opportunity to characterize your point of view character.

To illustrate what I mean, I’ll describe a scene, and show how the narrative lens can be used to good effect. Imagine a Medieval time period, with an opening scene at a grand ball in a palace. All the royalty are decked out in garish attire, women with hairdos three feet tall, elaborate frilly dresses with padded rumps. The men’s clothes are nearly as elaborate as the women’s. The palace is richly decorated with marble pillars, satin curtains, and a great dome that rises high above their heads.

In a film, all of this would be given to the viewer in just a few images, and the scene would be shown in an identical way no matter who the point-of-view character is. After a few seconds it could get right on to the characters and the story. That’s the greatest strength of film, the ability to convey a complex setting in just a few moments.

How would it be described in writing, using the narrative lens? Well, that all depends who the character is. No character will notice every detail of the setting or the people around them. They will notice only a subset, but the choice of what subset serves as characterization. I’ll describe what each character sees and you can guess what role they might play.

Sarah barely describes the hall at all, mentioning a marble pillar only in passing as she’s watching someone move through the crowd and disappear behind it. She notes the scent of her wine as she scans the crowd. She notes women wearing the latest fashions, and those wearing clothes laughably out-of-date. The servers are invisible to her, though she may take a glass of wine from time to time, it will come to her hand with no mention of the server’s appearance. ÂWhen she speaks to people, she not only hears what they say, but the political undercurrents, a flip of the eyelashes that mark a veiled insult. She focuses most of her attention on minute behaviors of others and herself, and understands the significance behind each of them. A street urchin bumps into her, and she only looks at him for a moment, notes his smell, and then he disappears from her notice again. ÂShe ignores him after that, absorbing herself in examining her dress for stains the urchin might have left.

Louis can’t stop staring up at the ceiling, which is so tall he’s surprised there aren’t any clouds hanging under the roof. He smells hundreds of kinds of food, a few familiar, most of them entirely strange. The marble pillars fascinate him, the swirling patterns through the stone. He stares openly at a dress’s rump padding and can’t help but laugh. He looks servers in the eye. He sees a man with a grandly trimmed mustache and wonders if his dad has ever had a mustache like that. The shininess of polished shoes fascinates him.

Godric enters the hall. He notes the hall, but only to point out that the furnishings aren’t as nice as the palace he was at last week. He notes the quality and size of gemstones in the ladies’ jewelry. He notes the number of windows and their height from the floor. Unlike the duchess, he notices the pillars. Unlike the urchin, he doesn’t care about the swirling patterns in the stone, but considers the spacing and thickness, the way the shadows would pool when lit by just a few torches. He notes the hardness of a man’s eyes and the confidence of his stance. He notices servers’ entrances, the quality of the candlesticks, and the number of armed guards.

The woman is a duchess, the boy a street urchin, and the man an accomplished thief. Notice how the details of what each person described served to hint at their roles before any description of their clothing or their occupation was given. Note also, that if you exchanged some of the descriptions in each section, it would seem out of place. If the thief notes that the ruffles on a woman’s dress are an outdated style, then that would seem odd. Perhaps he’s a strange thief who is actually interested in ladies’ fashion, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but to keep the point of view tight, this has to be a conscious choice by the writer. It shouldn’t be included merely because the writer wants to show off his knowledge about fashions of that era, but because the character himself would notice it.

If that’s too extreme of an example, with too archetypal characters, consider a modern scene. A husband is doing the dishes when he’s confronted by his wife. She accuses him of cheating on her.

From her point of view:

Susan frowned. “Tell me the truth.”

Tom pulled a handful of silverware out of the sink. Drying them one by one, he stacked them in the drawer. “The truth is… complicated.”

Notice the lengthy description of his silverware drying and putting away. She’s noting his every move, because every moment he doesn’t respond only implicates him further. Every word in those sentences, which translate to some delay in the reader’s mind, is another line of evidence to her, so she’s watching every tiny detail.

From his point of view:

How could she know? He’d been so careful, only calling from pay phones, bringing an extra shirt to the office in case of lipstick stains, going to the gym after work to give him an excuse to shower. She couldn’t know. She couldn’t, and that was that.

Notice he doesn’t mention the silverware at all. He’s at the moment of the accusation, and his mind is racing, trying to mentally assemble what evidence she might have against him. His hands are moving of their own volition. He’s not aware of them, so he can’t mention them.

Also, the space of the description is of utmost importance. Long passages give the sense to the reader of a passage of time, regardless if that was the writer’s intent. If a scene is described in excruciating detail, then not only should the character himself be interested in that detail, he should also have the time to describe what he’s seeing.

Consider a scene where our hero clashes swords with enemy fighters. He takes down an enemy warrior and happens to catch a glimpse of Gorlack, the enemy commander. Gorlack is eight feet tall, with a ring through his nose, and six arms. The battlefield is a spray of blood from his ceaseless slaughter. His armor is decorated with human skulls, many of them marked where they’ve been gnawed by teeth. In the eyes of each skull, a gemstone. In each hand, a deadly weapon. Gorlack arches his back and gives a bellow of rage before returning to the carnage.

If they’re really on a crowded battlefield full of enemy soldiers, then this passage suggests that the hero has been standing there gawking for quite some time, probably half a minute or more, and he’s lucky he hasn’t been stabbed through the back by now. To keep the narrative lens firmly in place, this description would have to be shortened significantly, and perhaps split across several paragraphs as he steals glances at Gorlack while he fights enemy soldiers.

If you’re struggling with fitting characterization in a story, or you’re afraid the narration is too dry, give the narrative lens a try. A writer’s toolbox always has room for one more technique.

Support our ‘Zines Day

It may come as a surprise that such a day even exists (it did to me) but today, October 1st, is Support out ‘Zines Day.

The short fiction market has been in a state of decline for years, if not decades. I could go on and on as to what might be to blame for this but there is really only one solution. People like yourself, like me, need to bite the bullet and subscribe to that magazine or online magazine that we read every day. Maybe you love the fantastic fiction that you find over at Fantasy Magazine. Go make a donation! Perhaps you wait on baited breath for the latest Fantasy and Science Fiction but still haven’t made the commitment of a subscription. Maybe it’s time.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Realms of Fantasy, Clarkesworld… the list goes on and on. Each and every one of these magazines exists because someone like you loves robot prostitutes and dystopian governments and angry leprechauns and bug eyed aliens so much that they are willing to work for peanuts to bring imaginative fiction to you every day, week or month. But they have operating costs. They have to pay for art and stories and web hosting.

Next time you read a story that makes you forget about the problems in your life. Makes the sluggish economy and your boss and your screaming kids and your snippy spouse all disappear for just a few minutes. Think about giving back.

The point is that you are here on this site because you love fiction, specifically speculative fiction. If you don’t support these wonderful publications, who will?

Wanderings Magazine Reviews Shadows of the Emerald City

Book-COVERwebThe first review of Shadows of the Emerald City has been posted on Wanderings Magazine.ÂÂ Even better, my story, “The Utility of Love” is one of only four mentioned by name (in a good way).
–David 🙂

Karl Johanson Will Eat a Mars Bar if 1000 People Read This Interview

KJohansonKarl Johanson is the editor of Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine. He co-edited Under the Ozone Hole Magazine, a science fiction publication, for six years. He has also had several several non-fiction writing credits, including “Alternate Therapy for your Computer” in Stitches Magazine. Check out Neo-opsis’ website at and Karl’s website at

David Steffen: Karl, thanks for coming. I really appreciate you taking the time for this interview.

My first question: Which do you see more of, fantasy or science fiction?

Karl Johanson: The descriptions for fantasy and science fiction overlap and sometimes completely contradict each other. But to answer as best I can, we receive more fantasy than science fiction. Of the stories my assistant editor passes on to me for final decisions, there is more science fiction than fantasy.

David: Are there any sub-genres you’d like to see more of, such as urban fantasy, near-future science fiction, etc.?

Karl: It’s difficult to anticipate what we might need. We may get several good stories featuring, say life under the ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Even if they’re all good, I’m unlikely to accept a large number of stories with such a similar premise. So if I say we’d like to see more stories featuring something like exploring parallel universes, it may be counter productive.

David: Is there anything you see too much of in the slush pile?

Karl: We’ve received stories that were severely sexist or racist. A character who happens to be sexist and/or racist is a valid element of a story, but that is quite different from a story that blatantly claims that a given sex or race are inherently evil or incompetent. We haven’t received many like that, but even one seems too many.

David: Is there anything you’d like to see more of in the slush pile?

Karl: Excellent stories. To be more detailed, I think a story tends to be better if it doesn’t just present an idea, but rather shows possible implications of the idea.

David: What proportion of submissions do you read all the way through?

Karl: My assistant editor, Stephanie Ann Johanson reads all of the submitted stories and passes on less than five percent of them to me. Stephanie is better with helpful suggestions than I am, so perhaps it’s best that she’s the first reader. Of the ones that come to me, I read almost all of them all the way through before making final decisions.

David: Are there any upcoming stories that you are particularly looking forward to sharing with the world? Can you tell us a little bit about them?

Karl: We are including a poem by Canadian writer Dave Duncan in issue 17. Dave is the author of more than forty fantasy and science fiction novels. His novels “West of January” and “Children of Chaos” won Aurora Awards. Currently he has been short listed for the Endeavour Awards for his novel “Ill Met in the Arena” and short listed for the Sunburst Award Âfor his novel “The Alchemist’s Code”. Needless to say, we’re quite happy to include his work.

David: Do you make use of slush readers?

Karl: Just my assistant editor for now. Stephanie has excellent taste and she has a good idea of which stories I will be likely to say yes to on the final pass. Our tastes vary, but they compliment each other, which is what gives Neo-opsis its flavour.

David: I know of some writer critique groups which are focused on improving the opening of a story. How important do you think it is to establish a “hook” for a story?

Karl: The whole story is important, but the opening has to grab the reader or they may not continue reading it. This is notably true for editors. They read so many stories, they need to make a decision rapidly. If a story bores them at the start, they may not continue.

We do get some stories with great opening hooks that grab the reader, but lose them soon after. Grab the reader and hold onto them throughout your story.

David: If you could give only one piece of advice to aspiring writers trying to get published, what would it be?

Karl: My advice? Don’t listen to the people who tell you that fiction is “all about the characters”. Characterization is an extremely important element of fiction, but it is just an element. To me, even the best characterization falls flat in a story with no interesting ideas, events, conflicts, settings etc.

If I’m allowed two pieces of advice: It isn’t always the best idea to pre-categorize your work in a cover letter. For example, pre-labelling your work as humorous may set expectations that may not be met. The work may have sold even if the publisher didn’t laugh, but if you tell them it’s humorous and they don’t laugh, they’re not going to buy it.

David: Has the economic crisis impacted Neo-opsis at all?

Karl: We seem to have had a slight increase in subscriptions. The entertainment value per dollar for literary magazines is quite high and people seem to want to spend their recreational money wisely during troubled economic times.

David: How has your experience as editor of Neo-opsis differed from Co-editing at Under the Ozone Hole Magazine? Did you learn anything from that experience that has helped you in your current position?

Karl: Under the Ozone Hole was in theory a Canadian fandom news zine, but in practice it was much more, including a wide variety unique content and humour. UTOH won four Aurora awards, and that was against some healthy competition from such zines such as BCSFAzine, Opuntia and Solaris.

I learned a great deal co-editing “Under the Ozone Hole” with John W. Herbert. I learned the value of networking. I received excellent feedback on my writing. I learned that a humorous presentation can be an effective way of getting a serious point across. Much of our work was humorous, while even our title was serious.

There are a lot of similarities, but running Neo-opsis is a great deal more complex. We have far more submissions, a more complex layout process, as well as the complications of professional marketing and distribution.

David: Was Neo-Opsis something you’d been dreaming of for a long time. How long did it take before you made it into a reality?

Karl: Stephanie thought up the idea in the middle of the night sometime around May 2003. We took business courses, consulted with other publishers, set up procedures, did a survey / questionnaire, got appropriate software, got the first stories read and considered, got artwork together, and had issue 1 out at VCon in Vancouver in October of 2003. For anyone considering starting up a magazine, multiply the amount of work you think it will be by ten, multiply the expected costs by 5.73, then plan to average 3 hours of sleep per night.

David: One day when you reach issue 1000 who would you want to do the cover? ÂWhose story would you like to see in that issue?

Karl: For issue 1,000 I would like it if Stephanie and I could collaborate on a cover. At 3 issues per year, issue 1,000 would come out in the year 2337, and it would be cool if we’re both still alive then.

As for what story to print… Many which once existed only the realm of SF are more mainstream now. Stephanie read a story from her grandfather’s SF collection in which the only SFish elements were automated cloths and dish washers. The cordless / mobile phones on the desks in the TV series “UFO” and in Maxwell Smart’s shoe in “Get Smart” were intended in part, to establish an SFish, or at minimum “cutting edge technology,” feel to the shows. (Well, okay, shoe phones aren’t that common yet, but mobile phones
clearly aren’t an inherently SFish item.) By 2337, the ‘mainstream’ might include people riding sleds in and out of the event horizons of black holes, with 9,000 channels of direct mental stimulation letting the audience feel it as it happens while some annoying shmuck commentates directly into your brain about what you already can tell is going on. So working out what would be an appropriate SF story for then could be tricky.

At the same time, contemporary science and technology is still a valid choice for SF. Some of the most popular fiction today is shows about forensics, which is people using science and technology to solve complex puzzles, so clearly part of the SF genre.

As for who we’d want to write it? Someone who’s a big name in the genre, hopefully because of the quality of their writing, more than the quality of their marketing.

David: What’s your favourite outdoor activity?

Karl: I can’t pin down a single answer to that. Swimming and walking I do fairly commonly. I’ve taken to the Frisbee game Ultimate recently. I like to have a camp fire and cook stuff over it, but I tend to use my gas barbecue for cooking more often. A camp fire is good for marshmallows, where as the barbecue isn’t. I’ve been kayaking the last few years. It was canoeing before that, until some butt head stole our canoe. We live in canoeing / kayaking paradise here in Victoria, BC. Lots of lakes, rivers, beaches and lagoons. Quite an amazing planet we’re on here. Sitting in a hot tub with a mug of iced root beer, talking with cool people and watching satellites and meteors is pretty much a favourite as well.

David: So will you actually eat a Mars bar (like the Facebook group)? Do you really dislike Mars bars or what is that about?

Karl: I like them just fine actually. I created the FaceBook group “Karl Johanson Will Eat a Mars Bar if 1,000 People Join This Group,” to parody how thoroughly pointless many of the FaceBook groups seem to be. You see groups like “I’ll change my name to Abachromby Grumblybum if 100,000 people join this group.” The Mars bar group has turned into a useful dumping ground for some unconstrained bits of creativity, such as announcements for “Cheesecake for Breakfast Day,” or “Draw a Moose Day.” We think up far more ideas for the magazine than we can possibly do. Some ideas have to be filtered out for being a little too far outside that box everyone talks about, or for being funny and creative but likely to appeal to only a select audience. Posting some of this stuff on KJWEAMBIOTPJTG acts as a release valve, when there are too many ideas in my head at once.

There’s been a recent trend in the group towards photos of ducks from some of the members. If anyone reading this has any good duck photos or videos, or if you want to be a part of an undirected sociological experiment, I encourage you to join this group, as well as our Neo-opsis group and to subscribe to Neo-opsis. You can subscribe even if you don’t have any photos of ducks.

David: What was the last book you read?

Karl: I’m part way through a book of Sudoku puzzles. I haven’t read that much fiction recently, as I’m working to catch up on the submitted stories I have to get to. I don’t like to leave writers waiting, but at the same time, I don’t like to rush through their works and make an uninformed decision.

David: Your favorite book?

Karl: “Protector” by Larry Niven. The Titan trilogy by John Varley is up there as well.

David: Who is your favorite author?

Karl: For fiction I’d have to say Larry Niven. I was thrilled when I got my first chance to be on a panel with Larry Niven. It was an environmental panel, at the 2003 World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto. I was actually proud of myself for being willing to put forth a different opinion than my favourite writer. It may seem like a small thing, but I admired him and didn’t want to offend him. He showed no signs of annoyance at respectful disagreement.

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Karl: I recently saw “Up” by Pixar/Disney.

David: What is your favorite movie?

Karl: For SF, “Aliens”. Better than the first and subsequent movies in the series.

Movies which still make me laugh, even though I’ve seen them many times, include, “Roxanne,” “Without a Clue.” “The Three Amigos” and “Galaxy Quest.”

David: Do you have any upcoming publications, either fiction or non-fiction?

Karl: I’m working on some animation to include on Neo-opsis’ 5th CD-ROM of Amazingly Neat stuff (we will likely post versions on line as well). Many stories feature narrative or dialogue that is intended metaphorically or allegorically. I’m attempting to do some animated stories in which everything other than the narrative and dialogue are intended to be metaphor and allegory. This perhaps sounds a bit more clever than the finished product will come out, but I’m hoping to have a fun and interesting end result.

David: Are you currently working on any writing, either fiction or non-fiction, that you’d like to give a sneak peek at?

Karl: “I really need to learn some impulse control,” David thought as he jumped from the moving bus.

David: Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions, Karl. Also, thanks to Frank Dutkiewicz, Gary Cuba, and Joey Jordan for your contributions to this interview.

KillerCon Report by Lisa Morton

–Reprinted, with permission, from Lisa’s blog

The first KillerCon is now a fond memory…and perhaps a brief recovery period. But you know what I mean…

My KC Extravaganza started on Thursday – woohoo! Roadtrip in Palisano’s mini-van, accompanied by Mssrs. John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow (in addition to Driver Palisano and Skipp’s delightful housemate Janie). Skipp gave me my first look at his new anthology Zombies, and Cody salivated over the artwork my story (“Sparks Fly Upward”) received. For the next five hours, we cruised the desert as Skipp and Cody alternated deejaying – I’ve now gained a fondness for bands with names like Shpongle and Mr. Bungle.

We arrived in SinCity on Thursday evening, checked into our rooms (mine came equipped with a haunted shower curtain which insisted on trying to envelop my body no matter which way I turned in the odd, no-bathtub shower area). John P. and I hit the casino – and were completely flummoxed by the slot machines. What happened to, you put in a coin, pull a handle, and hope the little spinning reels will stop on bars? Oh no, now it’s all paper vouchers and an endless number of buttons to push before the thing even spins. We roared over our own incompetence as gamblers, and later on Skipp commented that he walked past us and noticed we were the only two people in the entire casino who actually seemed to be enjoying ourselves (I ended up fifty cents ahead from my gambling for the weekend – yeah, baby, I BEAT THE SYSTEM!!!).

Parties ensued. Hugs were exchanged. Alcohol was consumed. I still managed a decent bedtime.

Friday began the convention in earnest, and I was very glad I’d opted to merely observe rather than participate…although somehow my name was shouted out during two panels and two readings.

My first novella, The Lucid Dreaming, debuted at the con, and seemed to be very well received. Sales were brisk, and by Saturday I was getting lots of, “I read the first 40 pages last night and it’s gooooood”. Hal Bodner became my unofficial publicist, grabbing innocent passersby and forcing them to buy copies.


Late Friday saw the arrival of the last of the L.A. crew – the Calvillos, John Palisano’s wife Yasmine, and the west coast’s own Mike McCarty, who promptly confessed to us that he has a serious gambling addiction and plunked himself down at the Star Trek slot machine:


(BTW, I think Mr. McCarty was exaggerating the addiction thing. He had enough gas money left to get home, at least.)

Saturday saw more excellent panels and readings, and lunch with the utterly delightful Bob Fleck of Professional Media Services. We swiftly discovered we had far too much in common, and 90 minutes passed with lightning swiftness.

After lunch, I sat in on the Matt Schwartz Marketing Workshop, which was, without doubt, the single two most valuable writing hours I have ever spent. Really. No kidding. Matt was incredibly generous in sharing insider tips he uses to promote authors during his regular job in promotion and marketing at Random House. I have an amazing amount of work in front of me.

Saturday evening began with the mass signing, which I’d originally planned to simply attend for fun, but ended up deciding to sit down at after all, because so many people had things for me to sign. During the next two hours I signed copies of The Lucid Dreaming, Zombies, Mondo Zombie, Midnight Walk, and more things I’m not even remembering. Plus I got to sit with these guys:

(That’s Michael Louis Calvillo, John Palisano, and me)

BTW, for those of you who have never seen Mr. Calvillo read, you have no idea what you’re missing – one part mad scientist, one part caffeine junkie, and all talent. I also enjoyed readings by Gene O’Neill (well, okay – I pretty much enjoy anything involving Gene O’Neill), my doppelganger Lisa Mannetti, and John Palisano. Wish I could’ve heard even more signings.

(That’s Gene and Gord Rollo, who is signing my copy of his novel Crimson)

Saturday night I let Hal drag me into the Erotic Fiction Contest, which was far more entertaining than I’d expected. The judges were Sephera Giron, Wrath James White, Lori Perkins and L. A. Banks (and frankly, I can be happy with anything that involves Wrath visuals!). Bailey Hunter won with a torrid little tale of sex with Satan (is there any other kind?), but because she’d gone over she received a serious whipping, complete with remarkably loud and cringe-inducing smacks.

I managed to avoid the extracurricular outings to strip clubs (in fact, I didn’t leave the hotel once during the trip), but I got my share of David Lynchian weirdness in “Jack’s”, an Irish pub in the Palace Station that features cover bands in the evening. On our visit, watching the cover band was a large, beefy man in clown makeup and a wiry woman close to 60 who danced by herself on the tiny dance floor (when Yasmine asked the clown why he was there in makeup, he explained that he was “friends with the band”, then gave her a handful of candy). We were also encouraged to engage in food fights in the hotel’s buffet by a stone-faced waiter named Tony who brought as an endless profusion of bizarro foods (we left Tony a very fat tip indeed).

Sunday started with me receiving several lovely business propositions (including one that I initiated and that started with, “Sure, we’re open – have you published before?” At this point my name badge is spotted, and a gasp is followed by, “Oh my God, I am so sorry – yes, we’d LOVE to have something from you!”). As usual for me at these gatherings, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that my name actually does have some weight in the horror community.

We’d planned to skedaddle by noon on Sunday, but the hours dragged on as Skipp and Cody were suddenly revealed to be next year’s Guests of Honor, resulting in many photos snapped and handshakes exchanged. We didn’t leave until 3 p.m., but the return trip proved to be just as entertaining as the arrival had. Skipp even makes refueling stops fun, as you can see here, where he’s performing an impromptu dance:


We hit L.A. about 8 p.m. By 9 p.m. I was reeling from a sinus headache (which I’d somehow avoided in Vegas, despite the ever-present clouds of tobacco smoke everywhere). I guess I really am allergic to my hometown.

The weekend wasn’t just enlightening, rejuvenating and fabulous – it was also potentially a serious life-changer for me. News will follow when contracts have been signed.

Superhuge thanks to Wrath and Monica O’Rourke (who I cannot believe I met for the first time this weekend!) for chairing this killer shindig. Shout-outs to all the new and old friends, including those previously mentioned as well as Paul Gifford, Bill Gagliani, Dave Benton (I still can’t believe anyone in Vegas was shocked by his piercing!), Barbara Vey from PW, Amy Grech, Gabrielle Faust, Heather Graham, Roy and Liz from Bad Moon, Allen K., Jeannie and Mark Worthen, Rain Graves, Gardner Goldsmith, Brian Hatcher, William Ollie, and others I apologize for not mentioning. Heck, even Brian Keene was nice to me (I’m being silly here – Keene’s a generally sweet guy). What a terrific group.

Review: Writers of the Future XXIV by Frank Dutkiewicz

–Written by Frank Dutkiewicz–

wotf24Yes, I know I am a year behind but I bought this book before 25 became available AND this edition can be found in the stores today. So for readers that like to browse and choose the reading material from books on a shelf, this review is for you.

ONE of the best pieces of advice that I read is if you are going to write short stories, you need to read short stories. What better way to follow that advice than by checking up on the competition. My first love is the anthology. I love reading a collection of short stories with a theme. The theme to WotF is very loose but the writers all have one thing in common, amateurs hoping to become pros. Here are the 13 writers that beat out Dave, Anthony, myself, and probably most of the people that take the time to read this blog for one the biggest prizes in amateur literature today.

A Man in the Moon by Dr Philip Edward Kaldon

This is the baker’s dozen of the anthology. It didn’t place in the competition but the judges liked it enough to fill out the book.

Gene Fisher-Hall is a terminally ill astronaut who wants to hold onto his job and wishes to spend the rest of days on the moon. He uses loopholes in the regulations, the press, and his folksy down-home charm to get his way.

I found this to be not much more than a story of a workaholic that doesn’t want to hang it up, set in space. I did enjoy a scene where Gene needs to overcome his arthritic-like disease to avoid a disaster. A Man in the Moon is easy to fall into but it went on way too long. Halfway through I started to wonder if it had an ending.

Grade:Â B minus

Bitter Dreams by Ian McHugh

First place third quarter

Constable Robert Bowley defends a town in the outback of an Australia where magic is real and evil is part of the land. A nightmare has been released in the mines and turns a family in the bush into zombies. With the aid of a mysterious magician, Bowley and the rest of the town braces for an expected assault.

It is easy to see why McHugh’s piece won first. He has a rare talent of writing intricate details that flow with the prose instead of dumping information as a lot of amateurs are prone to do. He does spend a lot of time describing minute specifics, and often that can get readers to tune out (I almost did at one point), but the story moved and the action was exciting enough to keep me anchored.

What I found particularly neat was our shadows are skittish things and will flee us when frightened. The magic man’s shadows were trained hunters, searching like scouts for evil. My only complaint is the assault on the town seemed too much like an old B western, Cowboys vs Indians, climax. Bitter Dreams is a wonderful story. Based on this lone piece, I believe Ian McHugh is likely to have a very bright future as a writer.

Grade:Â A minus

Taking a Mile by J Kathleen Cheney

Third place fourth quarter

Viviana Fuentes is dead, much to her facsimile copy’s dismay. Now the avatar awaits her demise, copies like her lasted ten days, twenty at most. Then another avatar shows up to offer her an alternative she never believed was possible.

Taking a Mile seized me right from the start. The first few pages are one of the strongest openings that I ever read. Then the story went in a direction that I wasn’t satisfied with. What began as a tale of a person with a short life living out her last hours became an Asimov-ish story of an artificial wanting to be human. One problem I had was I wasn’t sure what Ms Fuentes exactly was. Clone? Hologram? Computer generated humanoid?

Despite my disappointment, Taking a Mile is still a strong entry, worthy of its third place finish.

Grade:Â B

Crown of Thorns by Sonia Helbig

Second place fourth quarter

Marie is a kindergarten teacher living a devastated Perth in a future where a hot earth has flooded the coasts of the world and a planet wide drought leaves entire continents barren. To survive, the residents of Perth must subject their children to a test. A test to find the next Messiah. Only once in thirty years has a child passed this test. Then to Marie’s worst fear, another of her students scores high.

Sonia hit a triple on her first swing with me. Gripping characters, compelling premise, and a future I needed to know more about. A story with more than one perspective is rare in the WotF anthology, it pleases me to see when one gets in. This tale started strong and shifted into high gear half way in. The ending (I am surprised to admit) I didn’t see coming, extra points for that, and I found it touching.

I have read a lot of short stories (hundreds) in my lifetime. Some have had a plot that I still think of days, weeks, later. A very few (less than ten) I will never forget. Crown of Thorns is one that will stick with me for a very long time.

Grade: A plus

Hangar Queen by Patrick Lundrigan

First place first quarter and grand prize winner

GN 722 is the bomb, or rather the AI brain that serves as the guidance system for them onboard a starship. She is awakened from cold storage not knowing where her human friend, Marty, has gone. Sgt Joey Hart has taken his place and they start to form a relationship. GN 722, or Gina (what Marty used to call her) can’t help wondering what happened to her old friend and overcomes her programming to find out.

This was Pat Lundrigan’s 21st submission to WotF and like all the rest, involved robots and spaceships. The story is a heart-warming mystery. Gina is convincing as an evolved sentient computer. My only nit is the climactic scene comes off like a Star Trek solution.

It is not surprising that Hangar Queen won, it is worthy of the prize. It is comforting to know that despite 20 times of failing, it didn’t stop Mr Lundrigan from submitting number 21. Congratulations, you bring hope to us all.

Grade:Â A minus

Snakes and Ladders by Paula R Stiles

Third place second quarter

Owen Anderson is a medic and the only one to survive a bomb blast in his alien/human infiltration team. In order to stave off death, he injects nano-organisms into his bloodstream. They aren’t supposed to be more than a machine equivalence of a bacterium, but the micro bio-machines evolve in their micro lives and seek to find their god. If they get to Owens brain before they burn out, they just may get their wish.

The premise is great but the MC’s hallucinations were hard for me to grasp. A very good opening line but it took me until page three to find my bearings. The ending fell a bit flat for me.

In past issues of the WotF anthologies, it would take me this long to find a story I liked. It is a testament to this year’s issue that it took me this long to find one I wasn’t thrilled about. The writing is solid but the story didn’t grab me.

Grade:Â C

Epiphany by Laura Bradley Ride

Second place first quarter

Barker works in a traveling freak show. On Christmas Eve, the freaks rebel and kill their owner. Now a few want Barker’s help to find a magic knife, one that will free him from an ankle bracelet that keeps him from performing magic on his own.

The opening starts out great and is rich with intriguing characters. Then the tale grows, much like how a fisherman’s hands will drift further apart when recounting the one that got away. An awful lot happens in this story, and all in one night (it seemed like a months worth of adventure). Epiphany is one full adventure, too full for my tastes. The plot kept drifting which made the story something different by the end.

Grade:Â C plus

Cruciger by Erin Cashier

First place fourth quarter

Duxa is a planet maker, mankind’s creation to rebuild its species that has fallen to a religious zealots plague. When her final human companion falls to the disease, she has only the recorded pleas on a dying race to keep her company. Duxa is set to build a world by destroying another. Yet the one she has chosen has a budding race of its own.

Cruciger is a story of a machine that plays god. Yet a god that is prone to making mistakes. There is a very human quality to her. I could feel the loneliness she felt in this piece. However, the story had a very familiar quality to it. Cruciger is a story that was written right but never really endeared me to it. Still worthy of a first place finish.

Grade:Â B plus

Circuit by J D Everyhope

First place second quarter

Compendium of Literature with Critical Commentary and Analysis is a book. A speaking one made for teaching in a time before the Red Plague. Lela’s father believes such a book has no place in their world. Young Lela decides to take it for herself and leaves the book on to observe. The book lives through three lives and influences two great thinkers.

Circuit is the third story to be written from the perspective of a machine. I found it to be intelligent and deep in a deceptive way. In the opening, Lela’s father wants to put the book away because it is filled with opinions and opinions can have an adverse effect on society. The book ends up proving his point in the end.

Ms. Everyhope managed to insert a cleverly disguised moral in this short tale, one that felt reminisced of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Bravo.

Grade:Â A

A War Bird in the Belly of the Mouse by David Parish-Whitaker

Nigel is a World War One British flying ace that has been ‘time plucked’. He now leads tourists over the hills of California to fight Germans in a replica of France in 1917. The Sopwith Camels and German Flockers are perfect recreations, with the exception of the harnesses that protect the flyers from harm. Nigel must contend with his German plucked counterpart, a Japanese man searching for his definition of honor, and an American marine who believes that Nigel is an antiquated relic.

I did not believe that I would like War Bird through the first few pages but the story grew, then captured me. A nice tale about pride, honor and duty. The surprisingly rich characters in this short piece all had different agendas, based on different ideas of honor from cultures separated by time. I did not like the title until I realized what the mouse was (duh). I found the ending very fitting.

Mr. Whitaker did a splendid job, especially since he had to win me over.

Grade:Â A minus

Simulacrum’s Children by Sarah L. Edwards

Dr. Chanhausen is a 19th century inventor that makes others like himself, androids. He hires a street boy named Joseph to help him. He is working on his third creation, a female android, when he gets assaulted and his lab ransacked. The Doctor is at loss to know who is behind these attacks but fears it may be the one that created him.

Simulacrum’s Children is a Frankenstein styled tale, except the monster is the one making the monsters. The scene changes are separated by dates. I was never sure if I was reading log entries or not. The story hinged on an emotional element centered on the Doctor’s third creation, in my opinion, it failed. I never quite bought into her ascendancy. Although he was prominent in the piece, I don’t believe Joseph was needed to tell this story.

Grade:Â C

The Bird Reader’s Granddaughter by Kim A. Gillett

Third quarter third place

Catia is an orphan. Her father has died at sea and her mother has thrown herself into the ocean to be with him. She climbs the hill to join her grandmother where she learns the craft of fortune telling. Running through the birds does not always tell the whole story and telling ones future has its own ways of setting the course of events.

The Bird Reader’s Granddaughter is a story of prejudice and superstition. Catia’s grandmother is shunned by the town because of her gift yet blamed for all disasters. Visitors traveled for miles to learn their fortune but I never saw an instance in which they benefited from its knowledge. I did like the ending but the crux of the story, Catia’s future, could have been avoided by a simple and obvious solution. Her grandmother, in my opinion, did the equivalent of leaving a book of matches in easy reach of a child that has issues with fire.

Grade:Â B minus

The Girl Who Whispered by Al Bogdan

Third quarter second place

Etelka is a whisper-girl. She and fellow whisper-girl are property of their High-One mistress. Etelka waits eagerly to be free of servitude, hoping that her father repays his debt. Whisper-girls are without the bones that others have. They roll along the floor like blobs. Their breath has the gift to rejuvenate others and accelerate growth.

It took me awhile to completely comprehend Mr. Bogdan’s world. I still have a difficult time trying to visualize Etelka and Ibi and the manner in which they are able to move. The climatic scene worked well but the confusing politics and setting sapped to much of the energy from this story.

Grade:Â C

I have read about a dozen of the twenty-five additions of The Writer’s of the Future Contest. In past anthologies I would find about three stories outstanding (A quality) but an equal number difficult to finish (D quality), with the rest in that B, C range. This addition I found the most satisfying one of the bunch.

The artwork on the cover of the anthology is a magnet for any reader. Of the art accompanying the stories within, I liked William Ruhlig’s depiction of A Man In The Moon the best.

Writer’s of the Future volume XXIV is a solid read. Entertaining from start to finish. If you haven’t had a chance to pick up a copy yet, I recommend that you do.


Frank was shocked to learn there is such a thing as a word police. Convicted with Battery on the English Language and Assault on Good Taste he graciously plea bargained a deal. He occasionally does reviews for Anthony and Dave as part of his community service.

Frank has managed to get a flash fiction piece published in the latest addition of Space Squid (issue #8). The prosecution used it as evidence against him.

Fashionably Late to the Party: Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress, best known for her novel Beggars in Spain, recently released her latest novel, Stealing Across the Sky from Tor Books. Those are just two of her 26 novels and you can find her short fiction in seemingly dozens of anthologies and print publications. From the looks of her bibliography, she must have her own parking space as Asimov’s.

You can learn more about Nancy at her official blog,

Nancy, thank you for taking the time to sit with us today. Let’s get started.

Anthony Sullivan: What is your opinion on revisions, re-writes, etc? Is there such a thing as re-writing too much?

Nancy Kress: Yes, one can rewrite too much, and when that happens it’s usually to a writer who is reluctant to send anything out and thus risk failure. I’ve seen students bring the same story to workshops for because “it’s not quite right yet.” But the more prevalent problem is not re-writing enough, either because one doesn’t know how to revise or because the writer can’t see the story flaws. That comes with practice.

Anthony: In your opinion, what are the five most common problems aspirants have?

Nancy: Not writing enough. This is by far the biggest problem. You learn by doing.

Not reading enough.

The ending that does not fulfill what the story promised to deliver.

The long expository opening not in story-time: background or flashback or whatever.

Lack of specific sharp images in the prose, which usually goes along with excess wordiness.

Anthony: What conventions or conferences would you recommend that aspirants attend, as part of their professional development?

Nancy: If it can be managed, an aspiring writer will learn a lot at the six-week conferences: Clarion, Clarion West, or Odyssey. If not, attending a few regional cons big enough to attract a variety of writers is good for hearing various points of view on craft. And some of them run advance-enrollment workshops.

Anthony: Is short story writing essential to breaking in, or can someone work exclusively on novels and still break in?

Nancy: There are natural short story writers, natural novelists, and people who can do both. If you can publish a few short stories, it certainly helps in getting your novel looked at by agents and editors. Also, you learn faster since a short story is much less investment of time while you make all the usual mistakes. But if not, you can still work exclusively on novels, yes.

Anthony: Do you believe in the million words theory; that all aspirants must write roughly a million words before they’re generally competent enough to sell?

Nancy: No. It varies. Robert Silverberg sold his first story. There are a lot of other variables to breaking in besides word count. I didn’t write a million words before my stories started to sell, no where near that.

Anthony: Why do you feel agents have increasingly been made ‘keepers of the slush pile’?

Nancy: Because editors are overworked and harassed by publishers, accountants, and market departments. It’s easier to let agents pre-screen books than to read everything that comes in over the transom. Agents only make money if a book sells, so it’s in their interest to back ones that they think have a higher chance of doing so.

Anthony: Can you offer some suggestions for making the first scene or first chapter in your story leap out at an editor?

Nancy: Get characters , preferably more than one , on stage immediately, doing something, preferably something in which the outcome is uncertain. This means not starting with one character waking up, going through his or her daily routine, or ruminating about the past or future. Use a lot of dialogue, if you possibly can. Make the prose sharp and specific. Hint at larger conflicts or issues to come.

Anthony: You’ve been doing this for so long; is there anything remarkable or significant you personally have learned about writing in the last year?

Nancy: It never gets routine. In the last year I’ve had a novel rejected, won a Hugo, sold a trilogy, written a story I disliked that sold, written a story I liked that did not (so far, anyway), had good reviews and mediocre reviews for the same book. This job never becomes stale.

Anthony: Do you think the industry is easier or harder to break into now, compared to when you broke in?

Nancy: Much harder. There are fewer short-story venues and publishers are more reluctant to take on novels that are not obviously commercial. I don’t think I could have sold my first two novels in today’s market. And I see student work which I think is wonderful but which somehow cannot find a market.

Anthony: Are there any new, significant barriers standing between aspirants and pro status, now, compared to when you broke in?

Nancy: I’m not sure what you mean by “new barriers.” A poor economy always means dropping workers , including writers , viewed as “less productive” of profit.

Anthony: Your novel Stealing Across the Sky is about an alien race that comes to Earth seeking to atone for some wrong they committed long ago. How did you come up with this idea?

Nancy: I never know how I come up with any of my ideas. They just sort of appear one day, and my great fear is that one day, they won’t. I’m not one of those writers who say, “Oh, ideas are cheap, I have a million of them.” I don’t.

Anthony: The novel is written as more of a discovery/milieu story. What sort of obstacles did you encounter while writing this sort of piece?

Nancy: Just the usual obstacles: the beginning, middle, and end. I don’t outline, and I don’t know the ending of anything when I start writing, so no matter the structure, I’m always groping my way blindly through it. This is not an efficient working method, but it seems to be the only way I can write.

Anthony: At what point, growing up, did you know that you wanted to become a writer?

Nancy: Not until I was nearly thirty. I was late coming to the party.

Anthony: What creative influences do you feel impacted your writing style most?

Nancy: Probably everything I ever read. Since my favorite writers are Ursula LeGuin, Jane Austen and Somerset Maugham, and since they seem to have nothing in common, I can’t really give a more precise answer to this question.

Anthony: As an aspiring writer, I go through lulls and manic periods in my writing. What motivates you when slogging through those less than exciting passages?

Nancy: Discipline, plus economic necessity. I’ve been a full-time writer for nearly twenty years, so I’m accustomed to getting up, having coffee, and getting right to the computer. Working at the same time on work days tends to produce more reliable cooperation from the subconscious, that vital collaborator. Also, if I don’t write, I can’t pay the bills. This tends to keep one slogging.

Anthony: The internet has changed the industry for writers, readers and publishers. What has been the biggest change for you?

Nancy: I think the transition to digital from print is only in its infancy. I’ve published on-line at venues like Jim Baen’s Universe, but they tend to fold because no one has really yet figured out how to make much money in Internet fiction. I have work available for the Kindle, including STEAL ACROSS THE SKY and BEGGARS IN SPAIN, but Kindle sales account for less than 1% of fiction sales in the U.S. So at this point, the impact on me has been minimal, but that may change. The real difference so far is that now much of the business side of writing is handled on-line instead of by phone or letter.

Anthony: What changes for the publishing industry do you see on the horizon?

Nancy: Haven’t a clue.

Anthony: I recently read Images of Anna, a story of yours published in Fantasy Magazine. I found Anna to be a very vivid character. How much time do you spend working on a character like her?

Nancy: I can usually do a short story in a week or two. The character, including Anna, almost always occurs to me bundled with the story’s original idea. The details of character come to me during the process of writing.

Anthony: Do you feel you spend more time on a novel character than a short story character?

Nancy: I don’t understand that question. Of course a novel takes longer to write, so I’m spending more time with/on the character. But there is no difference in any pre-writing character study (which I seldom do).

Anthony: What can you tell us about your upcoming projects? I think I heard you had some short fiction coming up in Fantasy Magazine?

Nancy: I usually publish short fiction in ASIMOV’S, and in the last two years I’ve published eight stories there, including “The Erdmann Nexus” that won a Hugo this year. I go in spurts of short-story writing, and that one is played out. Now I’m working on novels.

Anthony: Thanks again for your time, Nancy.

Also, a special thanks to Brad Torgersen and Jennifer Wendorf for your help with questions for Nancy.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

s_Wife_film_posterMy wife and I took my mom to The Time Traveler’s Wife, a convoluted SF romance starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. The movie is based on the book by the same name, written by Audrey Niffenegger. I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s on my must-read list. In the movie, Bana plays Henry, a man with an extremely rare genetic disorder which causes him to time travel both forward and backward. He has no control over when and where he goes. McAdams plays Clare, the title character who becomes his wife. Their relationship is… complicated. He meets her for the first time when he’s 20-something, and she’s in college. She meets him for the first time when he’s 40-something and she’s five years old. Like any relationship, they have good times and bad times, but unlike other relationships, the good times for one person often coincide with bad times for the other person.

When Henry travels, it just him, no clothing or anything. This makes for some amusing and awkward situations as he shows up in various places without clothes. In particular, he’s very lucky when he first meets Clare that she didn’t tell her parents about the naked man she met in the woods by their house, or Henry might have ended up in jail. Those scenes were rather creepy anyway, not because of anything Henry does or says, but because you know that he is married to her in the future, and it is just plain weird. The time traveling effect, the only special effect in the movie, is pretty neat, with his flesh evaporating like a mist, often starting from his hands and then leaving his clothes to fall limply to the floor. But I think it was overused in scenes where it made no real difference. For instance, in the wedding scene, a younger Henry has the pre-wedding jitters and disappears, only to be replaced by a Henry with gray in his hair. This provokes much murmuring during the ceremony but has no real effect on the plot. And then the younger Henry reappears during the reception. If there was any real point to the jumping in this scene, I really didn’t see it. Perhaps if we were more privy to Henry’s internal reactions this would have an interesting effect on his behavior after these jumps, but as the movie is it just seemed like a waste of a perfectly good plot element.

Of the three theories of time travel I’ve discussed before, this movie falls firmly under #3 “Time is written in stone”. Henry tells Clare that he has tried many times to prevent the death of his mother, but he never makes it to the right place by the right time and everything always happens like it happened before. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe this type of time travel could only exist in the presence of a higher power, because something all-powerful must be guiding actions to make sure that nothing could be affected by Henry’s foreknowledge. This is never more true than in this movie, with the supernatural hand manifesting itself most strongly in the timing of Henry’s seemingly random travels.

The movie was relatively good, but I don’t think it was as good as it could be, for two major reasons.

First, I have never been impressed by Eric Bana. He really needs to work on his facial expressions, he has the facial range of Joan Rivers. I just can’t bring myself to care about any character he plays because of it. At least his character is more sympathetic than his lead role in Lucky You, where he plays a compulsive gambler who steals money from his girlfriend and has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, although his acting range is much more suited for the role of a professional gambler since he has a permanent poker face. And the likeability of Henry is all in the writing, NOT in his acting.

Thank goodness Rachel McAdams can act, or this movie would’ve been completely unsalvageable. As it is she carried Bana’s incompetence throughout it and managed to make a movie that I could stand, and which I could actually react emotionally to. Through her reactions I could even feel sorry for Henry and his ailment, something which Henry himself did not manage to do.

Second, the chronology was needlessly confusing. When each scene started I had to take a step back and ask “When did this happen and what are the ages of Henry and Clare. This one could have easily been avoided simply with some planning of how the movie was laid out. The easiest way would have been to follow a chronology from just ONE of the two character’s lives, and let us figure out some of the strange reactions of the others as we went. And since Clare is the title character, and since her chronology is easier to follow anyway as it is easily cued by her hairstyle, and cues from the world around her. But instead, a scene jump would sometimes follow Clare, sometimes follow Henry, in haphazard arrangement, leaving me to guess at the beginning of each scene when this took place, and lifting me much too far out of my movie-watcher trance. As an alternative, instead of changing the scene ordering, they could simply have put a caption on the screen listing the year and the age of both of them.

But overall I thought it was decently good, and my mom even liked it. Finding a movie that we can both enjoy is a real challenge, so it’s a definite note of success whenever we can actually pull it off. I haven’t read the book that this movie is based on yet, but it is high on my “to read” list. I hope that the parts I didn’t like about the movie were the fualt of the movie-makers and not the writer of the book.

Now, for those of you who hate SPOILERS, like I do when I’m reading a review, stop now, because I’m going to tell what happens.


The complicated plotlines become even more complicated when Henry and Clare start trying to have children. Clare has miscarriage after miscarriage and they eventually drum up the unproven theory that each baby has inherited Henry’s time traveling gene and is time travelling right out of the womb. Although they never come across proof of this theory (which is probably a good thing, as that involve the moviemakers splattering a fetus across a stage), Henry becomes more and more apprehensive about having a baby at all. He doesn’t want the kid to have to suffer through the condition he’s had to suffer through. This opens the movie up for quite an emotional quagmire which I am not quite sure how sort the ethics of. Henry secretly gets a vasectomy, because Clare refuses to agree that not having kids is the right thing to do. He eventually confesses to her, and she is furious. The next time a younger Henry, one without a vasectomy, passes through her time, they have sex and voila she’s pregnant. Before she carries the baby to term Henry meets the girl, Alba, who has indeed inherited his time-traveling. She says she’s a “prodigy” because she’s able to control it. The plot now gets even more convoluted because there are Albas of two different ages all over the place. The older Alba knows what happens in the future and she tells the younger Alba and Henry, but Henry makes her promise not to tell her mother, driving another wedge between them.

Partway through the movie, Clare and Henry glimpse another Henry traveling momentarily through their time with a bleeding wound in his gut. He’s gone after a few seconds leaving them both with a feeling of dread. Clare has never seen him when he’s above forty or so. Alba confirms that Henry died when she was five. So the rest of the movie is mostly waiting to find out how Henry dies.

In the end, Henry’s death is just a freak accident. He travels into a forest where Clare’s father is hunting (his love for hunting was well established early on. At the time, Henry’s legs are unusable because he is still recovering from a bout of hypothermia. He pops into place sitting in the snow in the middle of the woods right by a buck. He looks around wildly, sees her father from quite a ways away. Her father shoots at the buck and hits Henry instead. By the time her father reaches the scene, Henry’s gone, leaving only a bloodstain on the snow. This only further reinforces my belief that a higher power wanted these events to play out this way, because the odds of him appearing in that exact place and exact time if the jumping is random is just far too low for me. And all he would’ve had to do is lie back and the bullet would’ve gone over him for sure.

Then, after his death, as Alba is growing up with Clare, Henry pops back in again, presumably from before he died. I get the impression this happens from time to time and it’s portrayed in the movie as if it was a good thing. But I can’t imagine what that would do to a person trying to grieve. These people need to move on with their lives, but how can they do that when Henry’s reapperances with many years in between keeps the wound raw instead of allowing it to heal? This left me with a sense of unease much different than the heartwarming reaction I got the impression I was supposed to feel.

Niche Games: Katamari Damacy

<Coming up soon in Fantasy Magazine is a series of articles written by me, about something I call “niche games”. None of them have been posted there yet, but here’s a sneak peek. This article will only appear here on Diabolical Plots, and will perhaps whet your appetite for more over at Fantasy.>

Niche games: Âwe’ve all played them. ÂThey’re the games that you remember for a long time because they’re so unique. ÂSometimes they’re the only ones ever made like them. ÂOther times they were trailblazers for their kind of gameplay. ÂBut what they have in common is the bravery to try something new, allowing them to rise above the imitators. ÂEven though there might be newer games with shinier graphics, these games are still worth playing because they’re something different, something special.

Katamari Damacy, released in 2004 by Namco, is easily one of the strangest games I’ve ever played. The title translates to something like “clump spirit”, which is as accurate as anything, I suppose. The game begins when the King of All Cosmos (a strange deity with a gigantic codpiece and a carpet-roll for a head) goes on a bit of a binge and eats all of the stars, constellations, and the moon. Now it is your responsibility, as his son, to correct his mistake. How you ask? By the use of magical objects called katamari.

If you don’t ever pick up the game, at least check out the theme song. It is so weird, but I find it hilarious, and it never ever gets old.

Katamari are balls of various sizes which are supernaturally sticky. They can pick up anything that is realatively small compared to them, and I do mean anything. When the game begins, the first katamari is very tiny, only about an inch across. Right away you can pick up tiny objects like push pins and buttons simply by running into them. They stick to the ball and increase the diameter by a little bit. But if you try to pick up slightly larger items, like mice or tape dispensers, then the katamari will just bounce harmlessly off of them.

As your diameter increases, so does your ability to pick up larger and larger items. From buttons to staplers to bananas to pumpkins to people to cars and so on. I must admit, I giggled like a schoolgirl when I picked up my first human. The poor child was stuck to the side of the Katamari, legs wiggling until he was buried in other stuff (mostly also wiggling people). When each level begins, you are given a time limit and an objective size. You must reach that minimum size. If you do reach that size in time, then another level is unlocked, and so on. As the levels go on, both the starting size and goal size of the katamari increase, as does the scope of the level.

The controls in the game are quite simple, all based on the use of the two joysticks on the PS2 controller. If you push both sticks up, then you push the Katamari forward. If you pull them both back, you pull the Katamari backward. If you pull one forward and one back, your little guy rotates around the ball, swiveling the perspective. The only difficult control is the speed boost. If you tap both joysticks from up to down repeatedly and simultaneously, you’ll get a sudden boost of speed that launches you forward. You will need this from time to time. The Katamari has mass and must obey the laws of gravity, so a steep slope may be impossible to conquer without the speed boost.

You can’t die in the game. If you do take a big knock from something larger than you, then chunks fly off your katamari, shrinking its size and flinging it far, far away. Most of the time you’re more or less spherical, but if you pick up an oblong object it will affect your ability to roll, making you lopsided and ungainly until you pick up some more swag to even yourself out.

The time limit on each level keeps things interesting and exciting. Even when I replay levels I’ve played it’s not a foregone conclusion that I will pass it again. It all depends on what area of the level you take, so you learn as you play to remember where the most pick-up items are. As the timer gets close to the bottom I’m always rushing from place to place trying to find a last few items. By that time I’ve cleared out all the obvious ones and it’s a matter of picking up the items on the periphery.

The last levels are especially cool just because of the sheer size. In those levels you START at a size of a couple meters, and become a monster of epic proportions, getting so large that you not only are picking up buildings, but freighters, islands, eventually even clouds from the sky once you’re big enough to touch them while touching the ground. The greatest strength of the game is it’s ability to scale the world smoothly so that in such a level you never notice the growth, it happens so gradually it just seems natural.

There are some features which enhance replayability. If you reach your size goal in a level before the time limit you can choose to keep going, growing larger and larger, and can try to get a record for the largest size in each level. Also, outside of the levels, there is a collectibles screen which has a short description of everything you’ve absorbed into a Katamari. This is actually fun sometimes, because many of the items are Japanese food items that I’d never heard of, so this lets you learn tidbits of Japanese culture. Also, in many or all of the levels, you have cousins hiding out, litting guys with funny shaped heads. If you collect them then you can use them as playable characters in multiplayer modes. Also, there are presents left for you by the King of the Cosmos that you can try to find. The presents are things the prince can wear, such as a guitar strapped over his back or a hat. They don’t affect gameplay, but they’re a cut little customizable thing. And all of these things still have time limits, so you’ve got to manage it in the time allotted.

Finding a copy of Katamari Damacy shouldn’t be hard. A quick eBay search finds a brand new sealed copy for a Buy It Now price of $10. That is well worth this weird gem of a game.

Fantasy Magazine is looking for slush readers

Fantasy Magazine is looking for slush readers. The job is unpaid, but would definitely carry some benefits. The main drawback is that Fantasy would be unable to publish your fiction if you ended up with the job. That’s a deal-breaker for me, because breaking a story into Fantasy Magazine is one of my major goals, but if you don’t write fiction or you are okay with cutting one magazine off your submissions list, you might want to give it a try!