Monday, November 28, 2011

Why A Rapier Is Not Like A Broadsword

Seems like a simple enough concept, right? Well, it is and it isn't.

Okay, I should provide a little bit of background on this one. While I was at SFContario this year I attended a panel on HBO's A Game Of Thrones television series. I'm a big fan of the books and have seen the entire series so far, so of course the panel was interesting to me. In addition, media panels at relaxacons or more "literary" conventions tend to be sparsely attended, providing a great opportunity to interact with the panelists when you don't have to fight to be seen or heard with thirty other people.

One of the panelists made what was a cogent argument on its face. If you haven't seen the series or read the books then be forewarned, SPOILERS ahead.

Still here? Okay.

Anyways, this panelist (who shall remain nameless so that nobody thinks I'm picking on him/her) questioned why Syrio didn't pick up one of the fallen broadswords after his wooden training blade was broken.

Now, as I said, on its face this is a sensible question. It's only when you get into the mechanics of swordplay that it becomes obvious why he doesn't.

Swords all have a different weight and feel. This is true for metal blades as well as their wooden analogues. For instance, the bamboo shinai I use for kendo will perform differently based upon where and how they are balanced.

Even two shinais of the same type can feel different depending upon a number of factors such as weight or how well-oiled they are. Also, there are sub-types that affect things as well. Shinais, which stand-in for katana, have different sub-types such as practice and dobari which affect performance. Practice shinai tend to be straighter and more evenly weighted while dobari are heavier towards their base so as to better simulate a real blade.

Switching between shinai types is difficult enough for me, and while I've spent some time in training I have nowhere near developed the muscle memory a true master has, so when I switched to dobari I didn't have to completely retrain all of my ingrained responses.

Now, this isn't to say it's impossible to cross-train to be able to utilize more than one style of blade. However, it does require a person who can compartmentalize their muscle memory responses, and that I have a feeling can be a rather rare trait.

So with that being the case, let's take another look at Syrio's situation. Here he is, with a broadsword at this feet and a broken training blade in his hands. Why stay with the broken one? Simply put, he'd be ten times as effective with a broken blade as he would be with a whole broadsword.

Trying to use the broadsword without any training would be suicide in the life or death struggle Syrio was in. His arms wouldn't be used to the weight. He could go for a lunge and find his back giving out because of the stress put on it. He'd get tired quicker. His ingrained footwork, which is the basis for all swordplay, probably wouldn't work with the broadsword. All in all, a bad idea.

So what is the point I'm trying to make? Aside from providing a more involved answer than I was able to give at the con, I wanted to put it out there for other writers to know\consider. If you're going to write stories involving swordplay than know the basics. Have a general idea between the rapier and the broadsword. Know what periods of history they were in and how they developed from what came before. Know their strengths and weaknesses.

Most of all, know what type of men carried these weapons. Syrio's choice of sword tells us as much about him as all the words he says and every drop of description George R.R. Martin provides us with.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Aurora Awards: An Analysis

As mentioned in my SFContario2 post, I was fortunate enough to be at the Aurora awards this year. They were a somber, dignified affair, held in a stately hall with food service provided by genetically enhanced monkeys. No, not really, but there was good food before the ceremony and lots of laughs during.

Robert J. Sawyer was kind enough to post the results for best novel (called best long form in English officially) on his blog, and looking them over got me to thinking: How much does the size of a book's publisher determine it's award chances?

Let me demonstrate using the recent awards. The following list is taken from Mr. Sawyer's blog:

1st: Watch by Robert J. Sawyer (Penguin Canada)
2nd: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (Penguin Canada)
3rd: Stealing Home by Hayden Trenholm (Bundoran)
4th: Destiny’s Blood by Marie Bilodeau (Dragon Moon)
5th: Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell (Great Plains)

Notice a pattern? The top two entries were both published by Penguin Canada, one of the largest if not the largest publisher in Canada. Both books had strong advertising pushes. I've seen ads for Under Heaven all over the place, and Watch even had subway ads on the TTC.

Let's look at the others:

Bundoran Press lists only seven authors on its website, and the only one I've heard of is Hayden Trenholm. There are two reasons I've heard of him. One, Robert J. Sawyer has mentioned him on his blog and on Facebook. Two, I sat beside Hayden and across from his wife at the awards ceremony. Both seem like nice people, but I didn't have an extremely long chat with either.

Dragon Moon Press has in excess of thirty authors, and I actually know at least three, including the lovely Marie Bilodeau who's novel came in at number 4 on the ballot.

Great Plains is an interesting case. Unlike Bundoran or Dragon Moon they appear both less and more specialized. Unlike the other two, Great Plains doesn't appear to focus on one or two genres, hence the less, but they are focused on publishing Prairie writers, therefore being more specialized on whom they will accept submissions from. Interesting.

Of the three smaller publishers, I've since advertising for a few Bundoran Press items, such as Fall From Earth by Matthew Johnson, but not as much from Dragon Moon and absolutely nothing from Great Plains. Now, it's entirely possible I saw advertising for Dragon Moon and ignored it as I'm already familiar with a few of their authors and therefore the advertising has become invisible to me.

So what does this all tell me? Advertising budgets have a greater influence on the Aurora then some might think. The same with readership. Both Sawyer and Kay sell well from what I understand, in Canada and elsewhere. Heck, their names on a book are enough to get people to pick them up, and rightly so as both are good writers.

And this is a trend. In the ten years previous to this year's ceremony, all of the awards for best novel but one have been from major publishers, such as Tor, Daw, Penguin, etc.

Part of me wishes I could get my hands on the raw data involved and compare sales figures, advertising dollars, and awards votes to see the correlation. It would be interesting to see if a stable ratio would emerge, a sort of "award per dollar" calculation as it were.

That all being said, what conclusion can be drawn from this? The bigger your publisher the better your chances at an award. More voters are likely to have read your work and will vote for it. And how does one get to be published by a big house? Write a good book and have a whole hell of a lot of luck!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Con Report: SFContario2

So my brain has finally rebooted after SFContario2. I think it took this long since I was stuck in traffic in downtown Toronto for two hours, trying to get to the highway, due to what I assume was the Santa Claus parade.

Did I enjoy the con? Yes, definitely. It's always great to run into friends I only get to see at conventions and have a chance to catch up. Also, there were a lot of great panels and an overflow of great guests.

The highlight of the guests, for me at least, had to be John Scalzi, who was in full "performing monkey" mode. (His words, not mine). The Creation Museum slideshow on Saturday, where John took the audience through his photos of his trip to the Creation Museum while gently mocking it, was hilarious. I say "gently" mocking as at no point did he get into a fire and brimstone rant at how utterly moronic some of the notions expressed in the museum were. It was more like he took a pin, poked a hole, and deflated a great deal of mental hot air.

Another highlight was seeing J.M. Frey up and about. That woman is made of win. She recently went through abdominal surgery but still was able to show up and be pleasant and engaging, even if she was a bit tired. I'm glad to hear she's got another few books in the works, and I look forward to picking them up as they're released.

Another good thing was the Auroras. My friend Marie Bilodeau was up for best novel, and while she didn't win she was positive and upbeat, congratulating the winners and showing that, like J.M., she is also made of win. Marie didn't win this year but I'm sure there is a trophy with her name on it in the future. And hey, we were sitting at the table with the most winners that day. Maybe some of that good luck will rub off.

A personal highlight of the Auroras was being introduced to the other people at the table as a writer. While I do self-identify myself as a writer I am very careful not to claim myself as such. I'm self-deprecating on this, and call myself unpublished. One attendee was kind enough to call me "undiscovered". Be that as it may, to actually have someone else recognize me as a writer was a great mental boost.

The final highlight of the con for me was the final panel I attended. This was entitled "The Business of Writing", and the content pretty much matched the title. It started out with the moderator, Marie, throwing it open to questions to the audience. Mine was the first answered (helps when you know the moderator and slip her five bucks beforehand - no this didn't happen I'm joking). I asked what is the greatest business danger for new writers, and received some great answers and advice. Also, I learned a great trick to remember for myself when on panels in the future. Scalzi looked directly at me and made eye contact while answering my question, even though he was second or third to answer. This may seem like a small thing, but it took that moment from "hey thanks for giving us something to talk about" to "hey here's some information you could find useful". He acknowledge that I was the one asking the question and addressed the answer to me as opposed to being someone standing on high making grand pronouncements.

In no way should this take away from the contributions of the other panelists as they provided great advice/information as well, but it did strike me as something I should pay attention to if I'm on a panel and answering a question.

Going to conventions is a learning experience for me in addition to being enjoyable. I'm looking forward to next year's conventions as I think I'm done for 2011 at this point.

Would I go to another SFContario? Yes, but probably not next year as World Fantasy is in town then and I've already registered and booked a hotel room.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why Ghostbusters Is Still A Relevant Film

So Monday night was Halloween, and select theatres across the US and Canada had showings of Ghostbusters. Don't be surprised if you missed out. The showings were horribly advertised. The only reason I knew about them was because I listed Ghostbusers as one of my favorite things on Facebook. Really though, if they'd done even a little bit of print or TV advertising I'm sure they'd have filled those screenings.

Ah well, let's move on.

So my friend Jeff and I were watching the movie, and it hits me, everything that The Three Musketeers (which I reviewed here) did wrong, Ghostbusters did right.

Okay, so they are both very different films. Different genres, different settings, and so on, but at their core they are both ensemble stories. They are about groups of characters fighting towards a common goal. The Musketeers want to defeat Richelieu while the Ghostbusters want to defeat Gozer. So, while the candy coating may be different, the chocolaty inside is the same. (Yes, I'm writing this right after Halloween so candy metaphors are on my mind.)

So then, why does Ghostbusters remain a classic while the current version of The Three Musketeers have only a bargain bin fate in its future? As I said before, it does everything right!

First off, the characters a likeable. Peter Venkman is an asshole, unrepentant and over the top the entire movie. He's smarmy and hits on just about anything female with a pulse. But at the same time he's likable. You can see that under his exterior he actually does care about the guys he works with, and in the end he is a hero. He also has the best lines in the entire movie, such as "Back off man, I'm a scientist!"

Bill Murray does a great job of portraying Venkman. In fact, I doubt there is another actor living right now that could pull it off if they were ever to remake Ghostbusters.

The other thing Ghostbusters has going for it is that is succeeds despite its special effects, while the Three Musketeers failed because of its effects. The question today is not if it can be done, but rather if if should be done. Ghostbutsers used the limited effects of its time to great effect, giving some really funny and creepy moments. For instance, the eggs cooking on the countertop. It's creepy and understated, and works perfectly. If that scene had been done nowadays probably the eggs would have hatch and demon chickens would have gone flying around the room. Impressive, but much less creepy and it would have altered the overall feel of the film.

The only thing that could have been improved in Ghostbusters using today's effects would be the creature scenes where the two demon dogs run around. It's obvious when they are puppets and when they are stop motion creatures. If they decide to release a thirtieth anniversary print of the film this is the only thing I'd recommend changing.

In conclusion, my friend and I had a blast watching Ghostbusters, and I hope more classic movies find their way back to the big screen for special showings. They just need to be advertised better.