Wilamette Writers

Just got my membership card for the Willamette Writers! I’ve been going to the meetings for a while now in Portland.

I’ve got to say, it’s good to be in fellowship with other writers and I’m learning a lot. They have seminars on the business of writing, how to do a public reading, what makes good characterization, ect. No matter how much you think you know, there is always a new wrinkle to be picked up. Besides, they’re good people and it’s fun.

By Clayton J. Callahan

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The Long Way Makes For a Good Story

So, I just finished reading Becky Chambers’ novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. This is apparently Chambers’ first novel and I am impressed. As my fans know, I’m not one for “the new stuff.” Most of my SciFi reading is decades old and delving into a 2011 book is a bit “novel” for me. My reason? Simple, most new science fiction is dystopian crap with poor characterization and pointless storylines. That’s one reason I became a writer, in fact, to tell stories with rich characters and hopeful endings. In Chambers, however, I’ve found a happy exception to the doom and gloom and it’s nice quite refreshing.

First off, I must be honest and say that this is not a riveting space adventure and the plot moves slowly. The story involves a tramp space ship that has been contracted for a job on a distant world and most of the novel concerns their travel to said planet. Sure, when they get there things happen, but the action is over before you know it and the resolution is hardly the heroic stuff of Flash Gordon–but to be honest, I didn’t care.

The characters really pop and the interactions between the crewmates of the ship are the chief source of the fun. It’s an interspecies crew, made of radically different beings with very different cultures. In truth, this book is about how those different characters get along far more than it’s about the mission of the spaceship. And that’s just fine by me because Chambers makes the journey worth it.

So, if you’re like me, a diehard fan of the old who’s looking for something new, I recommend The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

By Clayton J. Callahan

 

Ladyhawke-A Forgotten But Great Movie

Back in 1985, I was a recently licensed driver and still exulting in the new freedoms automotive travel could bring to a teenager in the suburbs. Finally free of my families shackles, I could go to see a movie nobody else in my household was interested in as long as I paid for it myself. One of my first such expeditions to the cinema took me to see a new picture called Ladyhawke starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, and the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer (that white ghost). It was marketed as a fantasy movie and, as I was at my Dungeons & Dragons peak, that qualified it as a must see.

Today, as I was then, I am hesitant to describe this as a “fantasy film” in the traditional sense. If fantasy conjures for you images of Tolkien’s noble elves or Howard’s sword swinging barbarians you won’t find that here. Instead, the story purports to take place sometime during the historical middle ages. The villain is a Chaothlic Bishop, not a dark lord, there are no hobbits, orcs, or dwarves, and the only source of magic is a demonic curse.

As such curses were widely believed to exist in the middle ages, to me it doesn’t break the historical framework to include one. However, I conceded that as such a thing is impossible in the real world, calling the film a fantasy is not altogether off base. As for D&D elements…well the chief characters are all either thieves, fighters or clerics so the party is well rounded out.

The film contains a lot of action and swordplay as our heroes attempt to undo the curse of the Bishop of Aquila. It also includes some first-rate dialog and character drama. Broderick’s character, Philipe the Mouse, even has some hilarious one-sided conversations with God throughout the film. Honestly, I found the movie then and now to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience and only the director’s choice to use rock music in the soundtrack throws me off a bit.

If you are a fan of things historical or fantastical and have not seen this movie, I recommend you reward yourself and do. Thirty plus years later and it is still one of my favorite films…and my kids like it too.

By Clayton J.Callahan

 

Write What You Know, Right?

We have all have heard it, “Write what you know.” But unless we’re crafting a work of non-fiction can we ever really say we do that? Biographies aside, authors who delve into the realms of fiction often have to write what they DON’T know just to make it interesting. Take me for example, I mostly write science fiction. But have I ever been to space? Do I have a degree in some kind of hard science? Have I ever been abducted by aliens? NO!…or at least, not yet.

So what’s a writer to do? Well, the two things that come to my mind are to extrapolate from your own real-world experiences as much as possible and when that fails, do some research. As for real world extrapolation…that’s the easy part. Characters can be based on people you’ve known, dialog can flow from conversations you’ve actually had, and plots can be drawn from conflicts you have experienced personally. But then there’s that research part, and that can be a little tricky.

The problem is, you often don’t know what you don’t know. Assumptions can be dangerous as they can open you up to a plethora of errors that you will only discover as you read your Amazon reviews after the fact. And like outer space, many subjects are so vasty and wide that a writer may not know where to begin their research in the first place. But as for me, well, I’m lucky.

You see, at age 51, I’ve already worked in many of the fields that authors find relevant to fiction. Things like police dramas, military adventure, and spy novels prove less of a challenge to me simply because I’ve actually been there and done that. And no, I’m not any kind of Rambo or Indiana Jones, I simply needed a job and found that with my skills only certain people would hire me. And besides, my wife says I’m really whiney when I’m unemployed.

I joined the US Navy just out of high school and served in the Persian Gulf during the Iran/Iraq War, but only ever intended military service as a way to pay for college. Later, after my post-college career fell through, I joined the National Guard to make ends meet and found myself in uniform just in time for 9/11 and the Iraq War. Through my National Guard connections, I met a deputy sheriff and was able to start a career in law enforcement (which I’m still in today). And due to my high test scores, the Army decided to train me in Counterintelligence and sent me back to Iraq as an agent. So for me, writing what I know comes easy and the parts I don’t know do not take me too long to research.

So what did I do with all this life experience? Well, after getting asked thousands of questions by writer friends about the military, police, and spy worlds, I decided to write a book on the subject. Armed Professions: A Writer’s Guide is meant as a starting point for writers who have a great idea for a story but have no real-world experience in the field. So far, I’ve gotten a lot of compliments from my fellow writers on the book and I’m happy to have been of help. Now, if someone out there would just write a similar book on space travel I’d appreciate it.

Clayton J. Callahan

Serenity: Possibly The Most Perfect Science Fiction Movie Ever

Okay, so maybe I’m a little bit biased…but then again perhaps not.

What makes a great science fiction movie after all? Well, in no particular order I’d say; fully developed characters who use clever and engaging dialog, a good balance between emotional elements such as tragedy and comedy, a well thought out plot based on a scientific possibility, a well constructed and believable universe, and lastly general movie stuff like great acting-directing-special effects-ect. (like I said, no particular order).

Shall I start this discussion with an example of a terrible science fiction movie? Sure why not kick up some controversy. I strongly dislike 2001: A Space Odyssey! In fact, it sucks.

To be frank, Stanley Kubrick’s “sci-fi classic” simply lacks too much of the above criteria. Engaging characters? Nope, astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole are as cardboard as they get and their dialog is as flat as the surface of an ice cube in October. In 2001, there is no balance in emotional elements because there are no emotions. Aside from Hal’s deactivation, the audience feels little to nothing as sterile event after sterile event unfolds upon the screen. Does the movie at least have a fascinating plot? Nope again, perhaps we are as curious as the astronauts about the nature of that big black board thing, but we never get a satisfying answer and neither do they. The universe is also shallow where it’s developed at all and by this point, in this yawn-fest of a film, it’s too late for outstanding visual effects to save it.

There you go, internet, you may now hate on me in the comments to your heart’s content.

So why is 2001: A Space Odyssey considered by many to be the greatest science fiction movie of all time? My theory is because it beat the pants off of much of what came before. In the late 1960s, Americans were crazy for our space program and 2001 took us up into orbit with the astronauts for the very first time in film. Achievement though that was, however, the movie itself hasn’t aged well. And for writers and directors looking to make a good science fiction story, it’s a poor example to follow.

So why do I think Joss Whedon’s Serenity is such hot stuff? After all, it’s not nearly as famous as 2001: A Space Odyssey and is often found in discount DVD bin these days.

I’m glad you asked. First off, If you are familiar with the TV show Firefly, I’d like you to forget about it. True, the show was extremely cool, however, part of what makes Serenity so great is that you don’t need to know anything about Firefly to enjoy the movie that was inspired by it.

The film starts out with a brief “history lesson” scene that introduces the universe, which evolves into¬† backstory scene as Simon Tam rescues his sister River from a government laboratory, which flows into an exposition scene where we meet the villain, which concludes with a scene on the space ship where the captain talks to (and introduces to the audience) each crewmember in turn which includes Simon and River Tam. Honestly, I think the beginning of the movie is pure genius as the audience is engaged from square one and by the time your butt has gotten really comfy in the theater’s seat, you know everything you need to understand the story unfolding and the universe it’s set in.

The actors are all well versed in their characters (having played the parts already on TV) and are given top notch dialog to banter with one another. The comedy is never silly or distracting but is always there to counterbalance the heavy elements of the story giving the audience a roller coaster ride of emotional ups and downs. This helps, as the plot is quite heavy by itself; dealing with concepts of freedom vs. science run amok in a misguided endeavor to make people “better.” I especially like how the bad guys are not entirely bad guys. The chief antagonist is not a mustache-twirling villain or a knight of the dark side but a human man who sincerely believes that what he does is for the best of mankind in the long run.

Finally, the special effects, photography and directing are all very well done. Of course, we now live in the 21st century and are used to special effects that would have blown an audience out of its seats back in the 1960s. Therefore, a one to one comparison of filmmaking between Serenity and 2001 in that sense is not reasonable and I concede that.

If you have not seen Serenity, I, of course, recommend it. I think you will see that as a film, it is exactly the kind of work that inspires good storytelling while entertaining scientific concepts of social engineering. It shows us what is possible in modern science fiction and serves as inspiration for any aspiring SF enthusiast.

By Clayton J. Callahan

 

 

Star Runners: a New Book by Clayton J. Callahan

I have always loved the short story, once the foundation of a SF author’s career, it is still a beautiful art form that could use a little more room to breathe in this modern age. And I especially like when short stories share a connection such as in H. Beam Piper’s Federation or Keith Laumer’s Bolos: The Honor of The Regiment, and last but not least David Drake’s Space Dreadnoughts.

So, what the heck, I decided to write one myself.

Having written three novels in the Star Run setting, I decided to use that for the connection. After all, in each novel, I presented the reader with a fully formed universe much of which I only had the chance to refer to obliquely. In Star Runners I gave myself the opportunity to expand on those references in a way that is adventurous, humorous, dramatic, and fun.

I hope you appreciate this exploration of the universe and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Clayton J. Callahan

My Niece in The Orvil!

I am totally geeking out because my niece got a bit part on The Orvil! I’ve been a fan of the show since it came out on DVD, and am looking forward to owning the next season when it’s available.

I think the show qualifies as a mediocre comedy but a rather decent space opera, and I enjoy its light sense of fun and adventure. Also, Seth MacFarlane seems intent on making the show do what science fiction used to do a lot more frequently; make comments on our modern society.

Gender issues, our relation to social media, religion, and sexuality are artfully covered in many of the better episodes and are more than worth a viewing for that reason alone. If you haven’t checked out The Orvil yet, I recommend you do–If for no other reason than to see Hollywood’s newest female star!

By Clayton J. Callahan