Monthly Archives: June 2007

Which Sci-Fi Crew would you best fit in?

A fun quiz, and I’m gratified to fit in with the crew of what used to be my favorite show. URL to get your own quiz results at the bottom of the post. Thanks to ebenstone for pointing me to it.

You scored as Babylon 5 (Babylon 5), The universe is erupting into war and your government picks the wrong side. How much worse could things get? It doesn’t matter, because no matter what you have your friends and you’ll do the right thing. In the end that will be all that matters. Now if only the Psi Cops would leave you alone.

Babylon 5 (Babylon 5)
SG-1 (Stargate)
Serenity (Firefly)
Nebuchadnezzar (The Matrix)
Moya (Farscape)
Millennium Falcon (Star Wars)
Bebop (Cowboy Bebop)
Heart of Gold (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
Deep Space Nine (Star Trek)
Galactica (Battlestar: Galactica)
Enterprise D (Star Trek)
FBI’s X-Files Division (The X-Files)
Andromeda Ascendant (Andromeda)

Which sci-fi crew would you best fit in with? (pics)
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The multitude of description, part two

Putting description into motion

Writing a technical description of something is not easy, but things are rarely static and are rarely stand-alone.

In Tolstoy’s and Dickens’s times, there were no telephones, no TVs, no Internet, no movie theaters. Traveling fifty miles was a long trip, even by train, and expensive. People knew their village or their neighborhoods, and very little else. Authors had to resort to lengthy technical or pictorial descriptions so their readers could “see” what the writer wanted them to see or so they could understand the mechanism of a contraption.

Today, however, most people will know what I’m talking about if I write about the green expanses of Ireland, the Sahara, or the smog of Los Angeles. They know what a toaster, a TV, or even a science lab looks like, so I don’t have to describe every little thing about them. What I need to do is to put those things into motion to give them life. Below are four places where adding motion can make them more “real” to the reader. As last time, first write motion into the place, then use the place as a setting for putting your character into motion. Remember to keep it short.

A bagel bakery containing bagels, bagging machines and aluminum pans

1. Contrary to other large bakeries, this bagel shop, as huge as it was, still used employees to make, fashion and bake. Its only concession to modern times was the bagging machines. Once the bagels were cool enough, the bakers would upturn the aluminum pans onto a conveyor belt that led to the machines that sorted, counted and filled the bagels into plastic bags which, when filled, were dumped into cardboard boxes.

2. Ellen couldn’t believe the noise, and the heat. The roar of the ovens, the swish of the conveyor belt, the hop and skip of the bagels marching towards the bagging machines, the clang of the aluminum pans as the bakers stacked them, produced a mad symphony that made her dizzy.

A view of Switzerland containing trees, mountains and railroad tracks.

1. A few spindly trees clung to the side of the mountains that stretched to the heavens, while the railroad tracks seemed to hug themselves so they could squeeze into narrow passages or through long, dark tunnels.

2. Ellen remembered the endless length of railroad tracks, squeezed between barren mountains on one side and clusters of spindly trees on the other.

A house on the night before Christmas, containing silence, stockings, and dreams.

1. The silence hung heavy while the empty Christmas stockings waited. Dreams tiptoed through the children’s slumber, adding a smile to their expectations.

2. Ellen tiptoed through the silence of late Christmas eve. For the past week she’d  dreamt that Santa filled her stocking with rocks. I don’t think so, she thought. She’d wait for him and tell him she’d been a good girl. Well, mostly good.

A health club containing a swimming pool, a basketball court, and Nautilus machines.
1. The water in the swimming pool sparkled under the neon lights. The basketball court waited quietly for the sounds of the game. The Nautilus machines held their breaths until they clinked and clanked with the strain of use.

2. Ellen plunged into the cool water of the swimming pool and winced at her still-sore muscles. She’d take a turn at the Nautilus machines after her swim so she’d be warmed up before the pick-up basketball game on the outside court. A week at the health club and she’d be good as new.

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American Film Institute: Top 100 Movies

The American Film Institute has put together an Interactive Tour with 100 of the best movies –read American movies, of course. Very few “modern” movies or silents, lots of movies from the 40s and 50s, and none from any of the international film makers (e.g., the UK, Italy, France, Germany). I’m not complaining, much, since a lot of my faves are on the list, although some are missing, in my opinion, like The Princess Bride (some of the best lines ever are in that movie) and some shouldn’t be there, like Tootsie.

Here are the first 30, according to AFI (an asterisk for my favorites):

  1. Citizen Kane
  2. The Godfather
  3. Casablanca*
  4. Raging Bull
  5. Singin’ in the Rain
  6. Gone With the Wind
  7. Lawrence of Arabia
  8. Schindler’s List
  9. Vertigo*
  10. Wizard of Oz
  11. City Lights
  12. The Searchers
  13. Star Wars*
  14. Psycho
  15. 2001: Space Odyssey*
  16. Sunset Boulevard
  17. The Graduate*
  18. The General
  19. On the Waterfront
  20. It’s a Wonderful Life*
  21. Chinatown
  22. Some Like it Hot
  23. The Grapes of Wrath*
  24. E. T.*
  25. To Kill a Mockingbird*
  26. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington*
  27. High Noon
  28. All About Eve
  29. Double Indemnity*
  30. Apocalypse Now

Others of my favorites that made the list:

  • The Maltese Falcon (31)
  • Snow White (34)
  • Treasure of the Sierra Madre (38)
  • The Philadelphia Story (44)
  • Rear Window (48)
  • North by Northwest (55)
  • The African Queen (65)
  • Indiana Jones — Raiders of the Lost Ark (66)
  • Twelve Angry Men (87)
  • The Sixth Sense (89)
  • Pulp Fiction (94)
  • Blade Runner (97)

I was surprised at how many SF/supernatural movies made it on the list and how few animated did (only Snow White and Toy Story). The list was selected by what they call “expert jury” although they didn’t name them.

I’m going to be a girl and say that my favorite of all times is Casablanca. I suspect my friend Robyn’s will be The Godfather (right, Robyn?)

What’s yours? Is it on the list? If it’s not, why do you think it was left out (apart from the judges being totally inept and biased)?

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The multitude of description, part one

Another difficult part of writing is using description. I’m not a fan of long descriptions, à la Tolkien or Tolstoy, taking pages and pages to painstakingly build the setting into which the protagonists with play, work, fight, love and die. I’m not a fan either of the minute description style used in romance novels, for example, to give a near photographic image of the protagonists in the story. I’ve always preferred using my imagination to see a character and identify with him or her.

So today we’re starting on description exercises. Again, I invite you to do the exercises yourself and post the result in the comments section. The first in the series of exercises on description is about what I just talked about: keeping it short.

The exercise: For each of a hot air balloon, a fashion show, a modern kitchen, and a gun, use a paragraph to describe the function of it. The descriptions can be totally biased, or of a journalistic or encyclopedic tone, but the purpose is to use as few words as possible to create a picture.

Then write a one- or two-sentence description that could fit into a story. Here are my feeble attempts. (Note: description is, for me, one of the hardest thing to do, so you’re also welcome to constructively critique my writing –no flaming, please).

A Hot Air Balloon

1. A hot air balloon is usually made of flexible pieces of material sewn together to make a bag two stories high. The top has the shape of a ball, while the bottom tapers into a funnel-like aperture. Over this pouch is cast a net, its ends attached to a wicker gondola large enough to hold people and a gas heater. The balloon soars upward by filling the pouch with a lighter-than-air gas such as helium. Since it has no propulsion system, it goes where the wind goes. To rise, the balloon is filled with more heated air; to go down, the hot air is released through a series of openings.

2. Ellen lifted her head when she heard a whooshing sound in time to see the hot air balloon, so low she could almost feel the flame of the gas heater on her face.

A Fashion Show

1. As long as women and men want to make a statement with clothes, others will use art and cloth to design them. In order to exhibit their creations, designers have invented the fashion show. People interested in viewing the new designs sit around three sides of a long elevated platform, called a runway. Models –and through the years increasingly tall, slender, almost androgynous men and women– walk toward the audience, showing off hats, skirts, dresses, shoes and often more bare skin than material to the blasting sound of music. They flit and flutter, in a type of walk that is almost like a dance. They stop at the edge of the platform, wait to be admired and photographed, turn around then walk back and disappear to be replaced by another creation, worn by another model.

2. Ellen took her assigned seat at the back of the room. Covering a fashion show was not her idea of influential journalism and she’d be damned if she’d enjoy watching a gaggle of anorexic cranes unhinge their hips while walking, pouting and looking like they couldn’t be bothered.

A Modern Kitchen

1. The modern kitchen is not complete without major appliances such as a refrigerator to keep food cool and fresh, a stove and oven to cook it, and a dishwasher to clean the dishes and pans the cook used to prepare it. Some, however, would say those are the basics, but not the only essential instruments for anyone who has to work in a kitchen. A microwave oven speeds up heating and cooking food. An electric can opener saves the wrist. Then there is the electric juicer for homemade juices, the waffle iron for those Sunday brunches, the deep-fryer for that serving of French fries with the burger, the coffee-maker –and espresso machine, for those morning lattes– a toaster oven to reheat that slice of pizza, a blender for those frozen daiquiries. In fact, if you can think of a mechanical way of doing something in the kitchen, it has probably already been invented.

2. Ellen looked around and sneered when she saw that Darrell had surrounded himself with all possible modern appliances, from electric juicer to waffle iron to walk-in freezer. They gleamed silver against the granite counters and the dark cupboard doors, so pristine she knew he’d never used any of them.

A gun

1. A gun is a metal weapon that shoots bullets or shells through a tube. The bullet is projected at great speed when a hammer hits it, thus igniting a charge of gunpowder. The hammer is moved by a trigger, a piece of metal pulled with the index finger. The explosion propels the bullet out of the tube.

2. Ellen froze when she saw Darrell pointing a gun at her, his eyes hard, his jaw set. She heard him cock the hammer and knew she was dead before he pulled the trigger.

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The reality and fiction of dialogue

I haven’t been writing “real” stuff for a while, being submerged into book tour and book launch and marketing and general chest-thumping. When I have a writing lull, I usually start again by doing exercises to retrain my brain. I’ve decided to share these exercises with you, and to challenge you to do the same –and share the results in the comments section. This time, I’m dealing with dialogue (or dialog, for those US writers).

Gloria Oliver has a great post on It’s a mad, mad world about gestures and body language as part of writing dialogue and what makes it effective. It got me to thinking what exactly is good dialogue, what works, and what doesn’t.

Dialogue must convey a message, must have punch to be interesting. If you transcribe word for word a dialogue you’ve had with, say, a friend, there are a lot of bits and pieces that become redundant and boring. Like this.



“How are you?”

“I’m good. Not bad. How about you? How are you?”

“I’m tired today. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the weather. I haven’t done much to be tired these days.”

“Yeah. It’s been really cold. Listen, are you going to the concert?”

“I don’t know, maybe. Not sure.”

This kind of dialogue could go on for a long time –pages– without giving you much information about the two people, and it reads somewhat disjunct and aimless. It’s flat.

Written dialogue is like perfume: it’s been concentrated from the original and you need a lot less to get the effect you want. Once you have that concentrate, then you can add tags (he said, he yelled, etc.) and body language.

Here’s a short dialogue that conveys a lot of story, emotions, and a glimpse of characterization, even though it has no tags or body language.

“Embroidered t-shirts.”
“From the army to t-shirts.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Where’s your pride?”
“The war changes you.”
“I waited for you.”
“I know. I know.”
“Two years, Rob.”
“I know.”
“Sheila works at Bell, now.”
“I modified the van.”
“You know Steve is married?”
“I need six months, Jenny.”
“Selling t-shirts in your van.”
“I have a lot riding on this.”
“If it only made sense.”
“Remember Tucson, Jenny?”
“You wanted to marry me.”
“I did. I still do.”
“I bet.”
“What’s six months more?”
“Lots can happen.”
“That’s what I say.”
“I may meet someone else.”
“You believed in me in Tucson.”
“We’re in Tempe now.”

By simply reading the words, you know these two people are estranged –have been– not only by him being a soldier but by how it changed him, and that they may have a rocky road ahead. Now here’s the dialogue again, with tags and body language to make it richer:

Rob grinned. “Embroidered t-shirts.”
“From the army to t-shirts.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Where’s your pride?”
Rob leaned against the fender of the van. His eyes, suddenly unfocused, looked at a place above her shoulder. “The war changes you,” he finally said.
“I waited for you.”
“I know. I know.”
“Two years, Rob.”
“I know.”
Jenny wanted to cry. She wouldn’t though. She knew how tears made him shut down, become completely unreasonable. “Sheila works at Bell, now.”
“I modified the van.”
“You know Steve is married?”
Rob shook his head. “I need six months, Jenny.”
“Selling t-shirts in your van.”
“I have a lot riding on this.”
“If it only made sense.”
He shrugged, didn’t say more. Jenny walked to the edge of the parking lot, looked out at the leisurely traffic of Main Street. She heard Rob’s steps behind her, then felt his hands on her shoulders. “Remember Tucson, Jenny?”
“You wanted to marry me.”
“I did. I still do.”
The laugh that came out of her mouth sounded bitter, even to her ears.“I bet.”
“What’s six months more?” he said, impatient, now.
“Lots can happen.”
“That’s what I say,” he said as he turned her to face him.
“I may meet someone else.”
“You believed in me in Tucson.”
She sighed, shook her head. “We’re in Tempe now.”

Exercise: Write a dialogue that contains no tags or body language. Each line must consist of only one sentence.

Game to try?

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