Three Tales of Herbert (on Storytelling Style)

Of all the troubles a beginning writer often has, style and tone tend to be at the top of the list. Whether we call it Voice or Theme or what-have-you, fiction writing is all about that mysterious thing.

People often make the mistake of assuming that storytelling is about events. Events are easy. Events can follow a logical path from A to B to C to Conclusion. It’s not that plotting is simple. It’s just that it is the most mechanical aspect of storytelling, the most quantifiable, and thus, the easiest part to focus on. It’s easy to teach technical rules, and much of plotting is technical. It’s often the foundation where the story begins, but without Voice or Tone, a story is nothing more than that. Believe it or not, we don’t usually care about those stories.

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Modern Style with Death Goddess (short fiction)

Divine Misfortune
The towering goddess with the head of a crocodile, the upper body of a lion, and the lower body of a hippo, sat in the backyard. Ray the realtor had the gall to act as if he couldn’t see either the goddess or the sizable hole in the ground she sat beside.
“It’s a great view of the city from here.” Ray pointed around the goddess. “Check out that glorious skyline.”
“Uh huh,” said Ben. “Beautiful.”
He wondered if he should bring up the goddess. Or the hole. They seemed important, but he’d never been confrontational.
Sarah was less tactful. “What the hell is that?”
“Yes, yes,” said Ray. “You can hear the freeway from here, but the house has excellent soundproofing.”
“Not that.” Sarah gestured toward the goddess. “That.”
“Oh that’s just Ammit, guardian of the underworld. She comes with the property, but she’s nothing to concern yourself about. She minds her own business.” He turned toward the house.
Sarah stepped in front of him. “Why is she sitting on our possible backyard?”
“She does that. Now, if you’ll follow me, I’d love for you to take another look at the kitchen–”
“One second.” Sarah pulled Ben aside. “Are you going to say something?”
He hated conflict, but she did have a point. He was soon to be a family man, which Sarah gently reminded him of by placing her hands on her round belly.
“Is she dangerous?” asked Ben.
Ammit smiled, flashing rows of sharp teeth.
“Oh, no. No no no,” said Ray. “Not at all. Her domain is the souls of the dead. She doesn’t require tribute. She just sits there and guards the underworld. Couldn’t care less about the living.”
Ben was willing to accept the explanation, but there was a natural follow up question. “That hole leads to the underworld?”
“Yes, and I’m afraid you’re not allowed to fill it up. I know, I know. Inconvenient, but I think once you see the kitchen–”
“We can’t have children playing around the underworld,” said Sarah.
“Oh, I hear you, but all you have to do is put a little fence around it, and everything will be fine.”
Ammit cleared her throat. “That’s not allowed.”
Ray kept his smile. “Children are smart enough to avoid the hole guarded by a death goddess. It’ll be fine.”
Sarah pushed her way past Ray and approached Ammit directly. The goddess lowered her gaze to meet Sarah, who didn’t blink in the face of the embodiment of a cold, indifferent universe.
“You don’t eat children, do you?” asked Sarah.
“When the dead come to be judged, I consume all souls unworthy to pass onto eternity.” Ammit idly chewed on her paw. “If those unworthy souls once belonged to children, I don’t discriminate. And technically, all souls belong to children in the beginning.”
Sarah scowled. “That’s awful.”
“If you have a problem with it, take it up with the cosmos. I’m just doing my job.”
Ray tried to usher Sarah away, but she refused to budge.
“The portal to the underworld isn’t harmful, is it?” she asked. “There aren’t any side effects?” She put her arms over her belly like a shield.
“It’s not radioactive or anything like that,” said Ammit.
“And we don’t have to worry about monsters or ghosts or things of that nature coming out of it?”
“That’s why I’m here. Count yourself lucky. You could’ve been stuck with Cerberus. Shits everywhere. Three heads howling at every siren. I just sit here.”
A freshly deceased soul climbed over the fence. Neither Ben nor Sarah had ever seen a disembodied soul before, and it didn’t look like what they expected. The soul wasn’t transparent. It had some muted color. Aside from the fact that the man’s feet never quite seemed to touch the ground, he might have been mistaken for a living person. He scaled the fence with some difficulty, landing in the yard ungracefully, but making no sound upon impact.
“Shit. My briefcase,” he grumbled.
“Leave it,” said Ammit. “Where you’re going, you won’t need it.”
The soul approached the giant goddess. Unceremoniously, she snapped him up in her jaws and swallowed him. His wretched screams were cut short with a final snap and gulp.
Sarah gaped. “That was horrible.”
“They usually don’t scream that much,” said Ammit.
“And the house has excellent soundproofing,” reminded Ray enthusiastically.
“You destroyed that poor man,” said Sarah.
“You can’t destroy a soul,” replied Ammit.
“Then what happened to him?”
The goddess glanced away. “You’d probably rather not know.”
“And how often does that happen?”
“I don’t keep track. Fifty, sixty times a day. Today’s been quiet.”
Ray put his arms around Ben and Sarah’s shoulders and walked away from the death goddess. “I’ll admit it’s not ideal, but all petitions to get the gateway moved haven’t gone anywhere. Maybe that’ll change when the new zoning board comes along. In the meanwhile, it really is a terrific house, and the current owner isn’t in a position to negotiate. The place is a steal. You’re not going to find a better one in your price range in this neighborhood. Just let me show you the rest of the place. Give it a chance.”
Sarah and Ben glanced at Ammit, who half-smiled at them.
The house was amazing. So much square footage. A wonderful kitchen with brand new appliances included. A huge master bed and bath. Close to both their jobs. Good neighborhood. Great schools. Too good to be true aside from the crocodile goddess in their backyard.
Sarah studied Ammit from the master bedroom window. From the second floor, she looked the goddess at eye level. A soul belonging to an old man dragged himself over the fence. He approached Ammit, who studied him for a moment or two before giving him the nod. The soul walked into the pit and out of the land of the living.
“I suppose we’ll have to build a gate,” said Sarah. “Just to make things easier for the dead.”
“I’m sure the owner would be willing to pay for it,” said Ray.
Ben put his arms around her, put his hands on her belly. “It is a pretty awesome house. So we won’t use the backyard. It’s inconvenient, but at least the foundation is solid and the water heater is new.”
“And the gateway to the underworld qualifies you for a terrific tax credit,” added Ray.
Sarah put her hand on Ben’s cheek. “I guess it can’t hurt to put in an offer.”
Ray was on the phone almost before she finished the sentence.
Another soul scaled the fence and stumbled toward Ammit. Sarah closed the blinds and started mentally decorating the bedroom.
Posted in Short Fiction | 3 Comments

It’s weird to write “adventure fiction” that really isn’t about adventure itself. The entire premise of the Constance Verity series is the struggles Connie has with balancing her adventuring obligations and her desires for an ordinary life.
So it’s strange, though not surprising, to hear people complain that they never thought Connie was in any “real” danger. As if the entire purpose of the novel is to convince anyone that Connie is going to die.
SPOILER ALERT: She doesn’t die in the first book of her trilogy.
EXTRA SPOILER ALERT: She doesn’t die in the second book of her trilogy.
As a writer, I don’t think it’s really necessary to pretend as if I’m going to kill Connie when I’ve outright stated she’s going to be the central character in three books. Like any ongoing character, Connie exists with a contractual immortality. She is mortal, but she isn’t going to die. Just as Batman is technically more vulnerable than Superman, but neither Batman nor Superman are going to die as long as they’re part of an ongoing series.
My biggest influences have always been comic book superheroes, and I never read an ongoing comic with the expectation that the primary character (the person with their name as the title in nearly all cases) was going to die. I read to share in their adventures, their clever escapes, their triumphs. The characters could fail. Often did. But it wasn’t by dying because dead characters are hard to keep telling stories about. (There are some exceptions.)
Some of my heroes are certainly more competent than others. But at the heart of Connie is the acceptance of her ability to do the impossible because she does it so regularly. With a character like Connie, much like Emperor Mollusk before her, triumph over incredible odds is meant to be seen as a foregone conclusion.
I get that can be confusing to some people. Every week at my writers group I start my read with, “In this chapter, Connie fights squid people to save the world, but that’s really not what this chapter is about…” which is kind of weird.
But it is striking to me that so many people assume that without the threat of imminent death, a character’s story becomes less meaningful. As if we’ve somehow fooled ourselves into thinking Indiana Jones is going to get shot in the back by a Nazi.
Keelah Se’lai
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,
Posted in Blog, Comic Books, Writing | Leave a comment

Star Trek Hits 50

So Star Trek hits 50, and while I will never deny its influence on our culture, I have to wonder if maybe it’s time to give the entire Star Trek universe a break? I’ve said it before, and usually, it’s met with a great wave of disagreement from the fans. I’m not dismissing their love of Trek, but I am pondering if it has anything truly new to offer us.
Sci fi heresy? Perhaps. Don’t mistake my question for an attack on Star Trek in particular. I wonder, often, just as much about Doctor Who, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and dozens of other long running characters and ideas. I even enjoyed the new Ghostbusters, but still thought the actors and creators involved would’ve been better served by a new universe to play in rather than revisiting an old one.
We all have our favorite things. I have friends who still manage to adore Star Wars, even with its occasional faults. And I love Tarzan. Still, while I enjoyed the latest Tarzan film, I found too that there was nothing about it to really make it distinct or interesting beyond an affection for the character.
Putting aside our love for these universes and characters, I think it’s okay to ask every so often what they’re bringing to the cultural table. More often than not, it seems to me that it’s the equivalent of comfort food, a not entirely bad thing but often missing that thing that made them so great.
Most great sci fi and fantasy is about discovery on some level. Star Trek was explicitly about exploring strange new worlds. The original Star Wars trilogy was all about a traditional legend told with new characters and new tools. Jedis and spaceships and exploding planets, etc. When I first read Tarzan, it was an experience precisely because I didn’t know what to expect. (Tarzan, the literary character, is so different from Tarzan, the movie / TV character.)
So when I ask do we “need” Star Trek, I’m not asking if Star Trek is something we enjoy? I’m asking if enjoying it is enough? That special feeling about Trek is more than an affection for the material. In its prime, Trek was about exploration and discovery. Now, it’s little more than a nice meal I’ve had before.
I’m not saying Trek is done. I’m saying perhaps we might do ourselves and our world better by giving it a rest. Same with Star Wars, the TMNT, Spider-Man, and a thousand other franchises (god, I hate that we use that word, so cold and clinical) that refuse to go away. As much as I enjoyed the new Spidey making an appearance in Civil War, I didn’t find myself pining for yet another movie with the character when their are so many other characters who could visit us. In fact, the more familiar the MCU becomes, the less interesting it is to me, which I get is the opposite of most people who couldn’t wait for Spidey to show up. Yet the moment the X-Men and Fantastic Four become the dominant force of the MCU is the moment it becomes infinitely less interesting.
It’s all a thought experiment without purpose. None of these things are going anywhere. They’re simply too grounded in our shared culture, and in a world of uncertainty, it’s too easy to go with what works. Star Trek Beyond was even decent, though I’ll argue that it was mostly forgettable simply by virtue of being a Star Trek story hitting all the Star Trek expectations. The Force Awakens is little more than the re-skinning of Star Wars for a new generation, which isn’t terrible.
But as for me, Action Force, I just don’t know how I feel about any of this. And as the world spins onward, I see us beholden to the sci fi of our past with far too much affection. And this, again, is coming from the guy who loves Tarzan stories.
Keelah Se’lai
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,
Posted in Blog, Commentary | Leave a comment
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