Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Exercises in Concision

In the aftermath of my rants about David Weber's verbosity, I mentioned the growing art form of the uber-short story. Eric challenged me to try it.

Supposedly, Earnest Hemingway once took a bet that he couldn't write a six-word story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. His attempt: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." He won.

And if he could do it, I can...make an idiot of myself imitating him.


Suspense: Waiting for home pregnancy test.

"No bed!" screamed baby, then collapsed.

Which came first: neglect? Or tantrums?

Humpty Dumpty: His rise and fall.

Pooh's death scene: Morbid. And funny.

Adolescence: Drama, boys, school, boys, drama.

Grocery list: Cheap carbs, guilt, chocolate.

Twenty-five words (or less):

.......Once upon a time, Mom hired a dwarven contractor to build her castle. He peculated. The substandard roof collapsed. He died. No castle. Mom pouted.

......."I'm pregnant," she announced. "Happy birthday. Even though I have no idea how it happened, and it's totally all your fault!"

.......See Jane confess. Confess, Jane, confess!
......."I didn't do it!" said Jane. "I--Waaaah!--Yes, I did!" she cried.
......."Aha!" cackled Dick, at the rack.

Hardly an epic novel, but it was fun! And further proves that David Weber could trim. A lot.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Literary Sins of David Weber (Revised)

[Note: this blog entry has been revised significantly. Hopefully it is more amusing this time around.]--ed.
David Weber writes science fiction. Badly.

My brother Ronald likes his stuff. This is ironic, because, to a man -- (this includes his women since he has only two stock characters, good guys and bad'uns) -- they are all verbose, whereas in phone conversations, Ronald tends toward the monosyllabic.

Ask a David Weber hero a question, and you will get a formulaic answer: "Qualifier, qualifier, yes, although, qualifier cliche."

Ask a David Weber villain the same question and you will get a long pause while the character panics, considers the political implications of the question, and tries to cover his rear with an eventual "Qualifier, qualifier, no, but justification, justification, blame spreading" followed by a secret evil sneer.

If I were to ask you, gentle reader, a simple question, I would likely get simple answers.

Gail to random sampling of friends, relatives, and passers-by: Do you believe in adoption?
"Yeah, like I have a friend who got pregnant at sixteen, and she couldn't take care of her baby, so the kid really is better off in a stable, two-parent home. Plus my friend could finish her education."
"No. I think if you create a life, you should be the one responsible for caring for it."
"My husband and I were infertile and we adopted. It changed our lives. Wonderful!"
"In most cases, as long as there's reasonable oversight."
"Better than bouncing around the foster care system. Yikes. And way better than getting an abortion."
"Whatever is best for the child."
"Why do you ask?"

Now, let's ask three generic David Weber characters the same question.

Generic good-guy government official: [Reflectively] Well, sir, on the whole, I would have to say I do. Obviously we have a huge population problem right now, what with so many adults dying in the war against the bad guys. Our government could be doing more to protect our soldiers, and our civilians, from the rampages of the evil bad guys, but we are doing our best. Still, there are far too many orphans running around, and the best thing for them would probably be to get placed in foster homes. That's not always an option, though the king certainly wishes it were, and so we're building orphanages as fast as we can, though our resources are strained by also building as many ships as possible....blah, blah, blah.

You know what? I can't stand it. Let's change the question to "How do you feel about slaughtering zombies?" for a little variety.

Generic Angsty Hero: Well, obviously it depends upon the individual circumstances. Naturally, we all want to protect our citizens, but the unfortunate fact is, most zombies once were our citizens. I wouldn't say that every case of zombification is a direct result of biological warfare, but it's almost certain that at least ninety-six percent of them are. I've sat in councils with King Cayleb and I've seen the pain in his eyes when he gets reports of young children orphaned by zombies, or, even worse, turned into zombies themselves. As much as I hate wanton destruction, we have no choice at the moment but to slaughter the undead, although Lord Stodgy is working hard on a vaccine. I can't promise an end to this scourge, or even justice for its victims, but I can promise that one day we will confront the evil empire and make those hypocrites pay for what they've done!
You see? Even under these circumstances, the character manages to make it boring.
I asked the #3-ranked Villain in the Evil Leadership Cabal of the Corrupt Church Executive Committee the same question, but I can't print his answer. Take it on faith that it would turn you, gentle readers, into zombies. Then orphan your children, then turn them into zombies. And then create a plague of undead who destroy genre fiction by insisting upon novels devoid of literary merit like character, plot, metaphor, or readable dialogue.

You think I'm exaggerating. Alas, no.

Not only does Weber write this stuff, he doesn't have the discipline to trim it from his novels, despite it's obvious lack of relevance to the plot. Even worse, he uses cliches. And even more unnecessary qualifiers than I could bring myself to insert into the hypothetical examples above.
Does the man not have an editor?

Behold, a real example:

I quote from page 375 of A Mighty Fortress. A minor character is considering his problems manufacturing cannon.
' "And as White Ford's pointed out, it's probably not totally unreasonable for crews to be just a tad leery of guns that have demonstrated such a pronounced tendency to kill or maim their gunners," he thought disgustedly.'

Ew. I mean, EWWW. I think some putrefying brains got dribbled onto my sleeve, along with drool.

And yes, this is a representative sample. If you insist, I could produce more. Lots more. If you do insist, though, I shall discreetly question your sanity, or your undead status.

I will offer a bounty to the person who expresses that thought in the least number of words.

Here are my attempts:

First revision: "Given our unreliable cannon, no wonder we can't retain gun crews."

Second revision: Don't bother. Just yank the entire scene.

No words at all. I win! Pthpt!

I believe that any David Weber book could easily be reduced by a third. I further believe that any random non-battle page could reasonably be reduced by one-half.

If someone wishes to take this challenge, send me the book and page. We can have a competition to see who can better axe the foliage down to pre-spindle size.

Now, the obvious question is, why do I still read him? Short answer: I don't, much, anymore. Long answer: 1) He used to be better; 2) I want to see how the series ends; 3) I don't read anymore, just skim; 4) I have a morbid curiosity to see just how bad he can get and yet still be published; 5) It helps me fall asleep; and 6) I was doing research for this blog post, trying desperately to convince my brother that solid science cannot atone for the abomination of bad writing.

"I am constantly amazed," I tell Jon whenever I break down and read another book, "How he can have such good ideas, and yet execute them so poorly."

Granted, I have a similar problem. That won't stop me from critiquing him. Ah, hypocrisy.

There's beating a barely-breathing horse. Then there's beating a dead horse. Then there's abusing the re-animated zombie horse until its various body parts are scattered in an even worse mess than its previous excrement. And then there is beating a dead horse, burying it, digging it up again, torturing its desecrated bones, and cloning it into an entire army of ancient nags, merely to perpetuate a death spiral of dwindling marginal utility.

David Weber has definitely moved into the zombie phase. I fear that, without intervention, he will soon venture even beyond that, into the undiscovered country of cloned cliches.

I could go on, and on, and on, in detailing the man's crimes. Yet I shall show mercy. I fear lest my idealistic revolution morph slowly into the very corrupt system I once opposed.

Ah, Ronald, what lack I yet? I suppose that if I haven't converted you, I could always write yet another essay on the point. How's that for motivation?

The pen really is mightier than the sword! And there are fewer moral problems with baptism by literary torture than baptism by beheading. Or accidental beheading by baptism of a rotting corpse. Do I hear an Amen?

--[Note: I cannot compare to Mark Twain, alas. He wrote a fantastic essay mocking the mistakes of James Fenimore Cooper. His commentary about literary rules requiring the characters to be distinguishable from the corpses seems particularly apt. If you want real sarcastic literary criticism, go check it out.]--

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Share the Tortured Psyche

I have crazy dreams.

It is common for me to have detailed (but nonsensical) dreams about piloting a spy submarine through a sewer pipe in Shanghai. Or to stave off hoards of man-eating (and also cannibalistic) zombie hot dogs at a medieval wizard college.

I also have these recurring thematic nightmares. The most common of these involves me, back in high school or college, suddenly realizing "Wait! Wasn't I enrolled in calculus (or biology) this semester? But I haven't attended class in ten weeks and...aaack! The final is in three days!" As the nightmare unfolds, I realize that I shall not only fail the test, fail the class, and fail to graduate, I will also ruin my GPA, lose my scholarship, face ridicule from my class competitors when I don't make the honor roll, and (worst of all) totally embarrass myself in front of the math genius I have a huge crush on.

I suspect this is the geek version of dreaming about appearing in public naked.

I'm also being stalked by a three-story, 5,000-square foot house with a butler's pantry. Around once a month, it appears in a dream, and each time it has exactly the same floor plan. *shiver*

Now, on a whim, I have decided to share my insanity with y'all. Why should Jon be the only person forced to hear a detailed recounting of my nuttiness?

Back to School:

So, two nights ago, I had a dream wherein I was going back to college for a M.A. in comparative religion. Even though I was married with children, I was apparently going to commute home only on the weekends, and live in my old Camelot apartment near the UF campus. I felt vaguely guilty that we hadn't tried moving into married student housing so we could stay together, but then shrugged it off.

I stopped by the UF Institute to discover that it had been turned into a beautiful little mini temple (it looked a lot like Chateau d'Azay le Rideau) with an Institute instead of a visitor's center...but it still had a huge parking problem, naturally.

After negotiating with the registrar's office -- who resisted my agenda until, for some reason, I spoke to them briefly in German -- I rushed off to my first class.

Naturally, the religion department was crowded, so they were renting "portable" classrooms. In this case, my Church and State legal issues seminar was being held in a de-commissioned bright orange "Sunkist" semi.

Taught by President Obama.

I paused briefly at that one. "I'm sure he's an excellent academician," I thought, "But shouldn't he be, you know, governing?"

He stood in the cab to greet each student as we filed in. Next to him was a bag of donations to poor children. Apparently he used social pressure (and possibly extra credit) to encourage spoiled, bratty college kids to give their used toys to the needy.

I felt embarrassed that I hadn't known. Naturally, I tried to compensate and managed to embarrass myself even further. I shook his hand and blurted, "I just want you to know...as an under-graduate, I filed a brief of amicus curiae with the Supreme Court on the Bush v. Gore case, and I totally sided with you!"

(Yes, this was a completely idiotic remark. On several levels. And after I woke up, I started processing them, one by one.)

He looked at me oddly, but was very polite. "It's great that you're so involved," he said. I knew I'd said something wrong, but in the dream, I couldn't figure out what.

I'm sure this says all kinds of things about my crazy mind. I will, however, leave the analysis for my gentle readers.

French Revolution:

Last night, I had a great dream! I was at the best high school French competition EVER.

Each school's French team would study up on French history and practice improvising dialogue.

At the event, each student would be assigned a persona randomly. Possibly "You are Murat," or "you are a generic member of the Maquis in 1943."

Members of opposing teams would then be given a simple situation, like "You, corrupt Vichy administrator, are interrogating you, captured Maquis guerrilla. There was a recent raid on a train bridge over the Loire. Ready, set, go."

Then the judges would award points based on a rubric, measuring creativity, authenticity, historical detail, grammar, vocabulary, and accent.

Adding to the tension is that each member of the skit would be trying to one-up the other, since it was competitive, not co-operative.

At the end, all individual points were totaled and the high school team with the highest count won.

This is such a fantastic idea, I wish I could try it in real life! Still, the next-best thing happened, because I dreamt my own entry, which I will now loosely relate here.

I was a generic peasant, circa 1788, working in a bakery, grinding flour and baking bread. My opponent was the local lord (probably a baron, but the dream didn't specify).

Aristocrat: [miming carrying a heavy load] Aide-moi! (Help me.)
Gail: [miming grinding flour] Bien sur. (Of course.) [She continues to grind.]
Aristocrat: Idiote! Appelles-moi "maitre." (Idiot! And call me "master".)
Gail: [With sarcastic deference.] Bien sur...sieur. (Of course...sir.)
Aristocrat: [pretends to kick her, lose his balance, and drop his packages] Aide-moi tout de suite! Vite! (Help me right now! Hurry!)
Gail: Mais je vous aide maintenant. (But I am helping you right now.)
Aristocrat: Comment? (What? How?)
Gail: Je travaille constament. Le plus le travaille, le plus de la nourriture. Le plus de la nourriture, le mieux de l'argent. (I work constantly. The more work, the more food. The more food, the better the money. )

--[Editorial note: in the dream, I used the word 'mieux' which actually means 'best.' I should have used the word 'moins', meaning 'less'. My French is very rusty. I am sure it is not the only error in the text. Apologies. What I was trying to say was "The more I work, the more food I produce. The more food I produce, the less it costs you." It seemed witty at the time. I guess you could argue that if the baron owns the local bakery, the more I produce, the more money he earns, so I wouldn't have lost points for it...but I was secretly thinking that the less food costs, the easier things will be for other peasants.]--

Aristocrat: [suspiciously] Connais-tu Robespierre? (Do you know Robespierre?)
Gail: [innocently] Qui? (Who?)
Aristocrat: Robespierre. Il veut organiser une revolution grande. (Robespierre. He wants to organize a huge revolution.)
Gail: [pretending to knead bread vigorously] Pardon, mais je suis seulement une paysanne ignorante...monsiegneur. [She slams the dough aggressively, implying a vicarious torture for nobles] (Sorry, I'm just an ignorant peasant...my lord.)
Aristocrat: [Slightly panicked] Tu es revolutionaire! (You're a revolutionary!)


I was interrupted by my alarm going off. I'd love to know how it ended, too. I have a feeling I was about to say something incredibly witty, albeit with awful grammar. Sadly, I can't remember what it was.

Still, I was elated. It's been years since I've had even a partial dream in French.

It was so much fun! My French was bad, but there was such a natural explanation when I had to pause for a word, or rephrase things.

Wouldn't that totally be the best language competition ever?

Vive la Revolution!