Saturday, March 31, 2012


In the movie Colossus: The Forbin Project, a massive supercomputer is put in charge of all of America’s nuclear missiles.  I remember the dramatic moment when the computer, on its own, displays these words on its screen: 


Colossus had detected a Soviet system that was its counterpart. 

I’m facing a similar situation.  While Mark Murata is not as common a name as John Smith, there are a number of us out there.  One in particular uses his name for his URL on Blogger.  I haven’t read his blog, just some About Me stuff that lets me know he blogs about things like the CIA and conspiracies. 

THIS IS NOT ME.  As already mentioned, my name is not the most common around, so people surfing the net might assume he’s me.  What people, you ask?  Agents and editors I submit to, trying to figure out if I’m someone they’d like to work with for the forseeable future.  Of course I am.  See how friendly I look? 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Use All Five Senses

I’m doing a guest blog Use All Five Senses over at Brooke R. Busse’s site, Paper Mountain.  These are hints on making writing more vivid.  Please check it out, and also her flash fiction. 

Thank you, Brooke! 

Doesn’t she look Heidi-ish?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

I have never read The Hunger Games, so this review is based on the movie. 

Every year, each district must randomly select one teenage female and one teenage male to participate in the Hunger Games—a vicious spectator sport in which the teens are expected to fight to the death, with only one survivor.  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who lives in a district reminiscent of coal mine towns of the early twentieth century, is horrified when her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is chosen.  She volunteers herself instead, saving her sister. 

A shlubby guy named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is chosen as the male. 

They are whisked away to the dominant part of their society—a futuristic civilization whose information technology far surpasses our own society’s.  But the citizens are decadent, dressed in laughingly ridiculous excesses of frowsy makeup and psycho-kubuki, heightening our contempt for them as they cheer on the victims selected to entertain them through death by edged weapons. 

Katniss is skilled at killing game with a bow, while Peeta bitterly admits he has no chance in the games.  But not all the teens are innocent—some relish the idea of winning, and look forward to killing their competition.  When each one ascends on a pedestal to an enclosed wilderness for the games, the tension is unbearable.  Will Katniss survive? 

The railed walkway below lets you know
how big this outdoor poster is

A couple of mild spoilers follow. 

The Hunger Games is a thrilling, highly original movie.  The stark helplessness of the townsfolk in the districts as they submit to the barbarous demand to sacrifice two of their young people each year—the teens are actually called “tributes”—sets our emotional baseline for the movie.  This serves to deepen our disgust in the self-absorbed spectators who delight in watching the deadly games. 

Jennifer Lawrence is a revelation as Katniss.  A strong young woman, she convincingly displays a whole range of emotions:  Puzzlement as to how to please the audience in this reality game and possibly earn survival gifts, trembling fear at the start of the games, grief at the outrageousness of the death of an innocent, and ultimately great courage and resolve.  Josh Hutcherson as Peeta actually shows the greatest character growth:  He starts as the nervous guy who knows he has no fighting chance, then rises to the challenge of learning both survival skills and how to cater to the audience.  This is interesting, since Peeta is the one who doesn't want to change, saying I want to still be me.  While Katniss replies, I just can't afford to think like that.  

When for the sake of the show Peeta professes great feeling for Katniss, will this turn out to be real? 

The movie is filmed in North Carolina.  The real outdoors!  Real trees!  For the most part, the deaths of the teens are just barely off-screen, though a couple are shown in brutal reality.  It would have been so easy to make this an exploitation movie, but the young actors are filmed with respect.  Parents, of course, will have to choose whether it’s okay for their offspring to watch teens killing each other. 

The flaws in the movie are serious.  The first part of it has so much cinema verité—jerk the camera around, show rapid scene cuts, change the point of view suddenly—that I started to feel motion sickness.  I had to close my eyes several times, not because of any violence—the fighting hadn’t started yet!  A friend who saw it separately agreed it was “dizzying.”  I thought I would have to sum this movie up as “Unviewable.”  Fortunately, they stopped that when the fight training got serious, and it only returned a few times afterwards.  But this utterly terrible style of film editing for the first part of the movie almost ruined it for me. 

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss does not handle the bow realistically.  Yes, people may exclaim over how realistic it looks, but that’s no different from admiring the explosions in Star Wars—in the vacuum of space.  Trust me, it was jarringly unrealistic. 

For some reason, Katniss’ jacket turns from bright blue (which makes her quite a target) to black (which is much more practical) during the Hunger Games.  No explanation is given. 

Aside from these flaws, The Hunger Games was good, original entertainment—though I suspect Katniss is a female version of the Greek hero Theseus.  The music is great, and I’m ordering the soundtrack.  And as a final piece of advice, do not sit near teenage girls who have read the book and love to squeal about it.  

Friday, March 23, 2012

Getting the Crush On

In previous excerpts from my Day 10K science fiction manuscript, I showed how the young Ensign Kendrick viewed a senior officer, and vice versa.  Now Kendrick is on a colonized planet with about a 20th century level of technology, and we’ll see him from the perspective of a teenage girl who is getting a crush on him. 

            . . . Shushan would stumble into bookshelves if she had gotten only two hours of sleep.  For all she knew, Kendrick had had just as little, yet he was still speaking in his even, intelligent way of going on foot to warn the survivalists against attacking the next craft to come down.  “May I ask if you’ve had enough sleep?” 
            “I was up at 3:00 this morning, ship time, but I am doing well.  Thank you for asking.” 
            Shushan didn’t know how that corresponded to their own Vallannan time, but she felt suitably impressed.  Heavy footsteps made her look over her shoulder.  Her father was walking up. 
            Ensign Kendrick had been respectful to him, which made Shushan strangely calm inside.  When her father was close enough, Kendrick addressed him.  “Mr. Colby, I still need to find the two civilian volunteers to go with me, whom the survivalists will recognize.” 
            Her father gestured.  Seeing the ensign’s blank look, he answered.  “These two are the volunteers.” 
            Up till now, Shushan hadn’t seen Kendrick change expression much.  He just tended to look noble or attentive.  Now she had a clear look at the whites of his eyes. 
            He pointed at her and Poni.  “These two gir . . . these two young women?” 
            Her father nodded.  “Both of them would be recognized by the leader of the survivalists.  And all here agree they are responsible ‘young women.’  Though I must say, I get a little misty-eyed to think so.  It seems just yesterday that Shushan here had training wheels on her bicycle, and cute pink ribbons on the handlebars.” 
            Shushan wanted to vomit and die, but decided that wouldn’t be a good idea in front of Ensign Kendrick.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Translating into Victorian

The original from my War of the Worlds reimagining, with Ashley and her friend Violet having warned about a heat weapon used by the Martian cylinder: 

The most horrible searing sound tore through the air.  I jerked my head at the Common, knowing what I would see.  The officer inspecting the grounds went down in flames. 

“Cor!”  The corporal stood bolt upright, but crouched when Jake waved him down.  He told the others to plunge into a nearby ditch.  Jake grabbed us and led us to a somewhat presentable part of it. 

Then, translating into Victorian: 

A sound tore through the air, terrifying, relentless.  The horror of it jerked my head towards the Common, my unwilling eyes forced to watch.  The officer inspecting the grounds went down in flames. 

“Cor!”  The corporal stood bolt upright, then crouched when Jake waved him down, the corporal bellowing for his men to plunge into a nearby ditch before following himself, and Jake grabbing us and pressing us down into a somewhat less soggy dogleg of the same ditch. 

Notice the long sentence following “Cor!”  If you look at typical websites and books giving advice on writing techniques, they’ll tell you to avoid such long sentences and stay with short, pithy types.  That’s true for the first one or two sentences of a novel, and perhaps each new chapter or section after that.  But if you look at novels you admire (that are more or less mainstream), you’ll notice a good amount of long sentences.  Pick those apart and see what the author was doing. 

My long sample sentence above has a form that we’re accustomed to seeing in older books, but can still be used today.  Do not be afraid of using the –ing words to lengthen sentences in certain ways, so long as relevant detail is added that carries the sentence forward, strengthening it and adding rhythm, a rhythm attractive and almost hypnotic, pleasing the readers as it carries them along.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

Best Non-Fiction of 2011

Yes, I’m very late on this.  I don’t like being beaten by the Oscars for timeliness.  That said, here are my two best non-fiction reads of last year: 

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of President Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber.  I remember the day when the news came in that President Reagan had been shot.  On March 30, 1981, a gunman opened fire on Reagan with explosive bullets, one of which ricocheted off the presidential limousine and entered Reagan’s chest.  Fortunately, it didn’t explode. 

Reagan survived, but did you know: 

-The Secret Service did not have professional training until relatively recently.  That’s why during the Kennedy shooting the driver slowed down after the first shot, the way anyone would. 
-When Reagan was in the OR, he took the oxygen mask off his face and quipped, “I hope you’re all Republicans.”  This assured the nation that he was all right.  In reality he was in great pain at that moment, and he had almost died. 
-A doctor in the hospital responded to the call, looked the patient over, then was shocked when he saw the face.  The patient was President Reagan.  Then he realized there were all these men in suits standing around.   
-Another doctor was operating on the president.  He looked up and asked if anyone else had been shot.  What was going on outside?  Had World War III started?  The men in suits stared back at him, saying nothing. 
-Nurses stayed with Reagan around the clock, often after their shifts were done.  He passed funny notes to them, endless jokes and quips written in weak handwriting. 

This is a fantastic book on a crucial moment in history.  Wilber notes how professional the Secret Service was:  In all the transcripts of their radio calls that day, they never said that the president was shot, or that Reagan was down.  He had to be referred to by his code name of Rawhide. 

My other choice is Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen.  A number of the men who worked there have retired, and no longer feel bound by their secrecy oaths. 

Do you remember those stories of some unknown craft crashing at Roswell, and how the wreckage was whisked away by the Air Force?  It really happened.  And those sightings of UFOs by credible pilots—objects flying higher and faster than any known jet?  Those are pretty much true. 

The crash at Roswell was of a circular spy craft, designed by Germans in World War II and used by Soviets during the Cold War.  It really was like nothing else flying at the time, and yes, the wreckage was taken away to Area 51 for study. 

Concerning the UFOs, a number of experimental jets took off from Area 51.  Experienced pilots and even high-ranking generals knew nothing about them.  So of course some generals and reputable pilots called on the government to investigate these UFOs.  And of course the government kept them secret—even from most of the rest of the government. 

Jacobsen’s book focuses too much on the infighting that went on among the different leadership groups—important, but not the most gripping read.  She should have focused on the impossibly funny stories she briefly mentions, such as: 

Some pilots would violate Area 51 airspace, though it was off limits.  So one of the Area 51 pilots put on a gorilla mask, went up in his impossibly fast aircraft, and buzzed a plane that had come too close.  The pilot of that plane went to a bar after he landed and claimed he had seen a UFO piloted by an ape.  What a great moment in disinformation! 

One of the Area 51 test pilots would routinely fly over the area.  On a regular basis, he would see a new crater in the ground.  He knew that meant another secret underground nuclear test had gone off. 

So you can now read in great detail of spy flights over the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba, with ancillary material about nuclear tests in the Pacific thrown in.  I suppose one day we’ll have a sleeker volume that hits all the highlights, but for now Jacobsen’s Area 51 is the book that unlocks so many secrets of the twentieth century.  

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Too Much Xanadu

I’ll return to my idea of photographing pages shortly.  But we’ll interrupt that blog theme for some breaking news: 

A murderer was convicted today despite his defense—an angel resembling Olivia Newton-John told him to kill the man.  Maybe he was on too much Xanadu—watching this clip over and over could make one homicidal. 

I had a vivid memory of Olivia Newton-John singing and skating at the same time in the above climactic scene of Xanadu. The TV Guide blurb for it also described the movie the same way. So I was shocked some years later when I saw the DVD, and she never does both at the same time. It was a false memory. See what Xanadu does to the mind?  

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Kindle Picture vs. Photocopy

One reason I’ve been hesitant to mainly use my Kindle for buying new books is I’ve sometimes had to convey important information from a book to friends, and it was best to photocopy the pages.  If I need to photocopy pages from new books I buy, they’ll be stuck inside my Kindle. 

Or will they? 

I had this weird idea: 

Pre-copyright Bleak House
by Charles Dickens 

Yes, it works!  I can take a digital photo of a page from my Kindle (remember those commercials showing how it can be read in bright sunlight?), download it, and send it to friends. 

The above example is very crude, with no flash on and the lamp obviously on the north side of the book.  Think of what could be done if someone set up a simple stand for the camera with balanced light sources for an even effect. 

Come to think of it, this could be done with normal books, using a digital camera.  Libraries might set up stands for this, so patrons could take pictures of pages if they didn’t want to pay for the photocopier. 

And for those of you who have peered down into photocopiers, you’ll realize what I’ve just outlined is a way of reverse-engineering the photocopier.  The arrangement is upside-down, is all.  And the business part of it is something you hold in your hand.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tsunami Floating Car Video

I’ve avoided looking up videos of the Japanese tsunami until today.  An astounding video has come to light, shot by a man who floated around in his car for over three minutes.  This is not a bird's-eye view of the biggest wave, or the most massive panorama of destruction.  It’s a ground-level view of one man’s surreal odyssey. 

You can skip the first minute and a half, then watch the astounding scenes.  The video is edited, blurring the faces of people.  

What makes this bearable is the driver survived, though the car goes underwater at the end.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dorchester's Demise

Super-agent Kristin Nelson is delivering the bad news on the demise of Dorchester, the once mighty publishing company.  See her blog

I think it was Kristin who said that Dorchester’s romance line was undermined by e-books.  A lot of women love reading romances, but don’t want to be caught dead with the trashy covers.  They’re buying romance e-books from all sorts of publishers.

Why is this woman smiling?

So if you see a professionally-dressed woman in an airport or business lobby reading something on her data device, it might not be a spreadsheet.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Don’t Freak Out

. . . so I get home, looking forward to an evening of reading and writing, when I see a truck with hoses going up to the units above mine.  The truck’s side reads:  

Oh no no NO!  My mind flashes back to that Chinese fast food place in a mall that was forced to shut down not that many years ago because cockroaches were going through the wall into the furniture store next door.  What things have been driven down by the pesticide into my unit? 

And the hoses snaking upstairs are huge—I’m writing my mashup of The War of the Worlds, so the hoses are kind of like: 

You got a bug problem? 

You get the idea. 

Composing myself, I walk up to a worker who has his breathing mask lowered.  I ask in a casual tone, “What kind of pests did they have?” 

He replies, “We’re just installing insulation.” 

Oh.  They use their hoses for more than one purpose. 

Just glad I didn’t freak out.  


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