Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and PHP

Often when dealing with Cascading Style sheets, or CSS, I find myself wishing that the CSS mechanism included variables. This is especially true when dealing with colors, since you want the same color applied to lots of different things. It can be a real pain to go back through an old style sheet and find the code for the color you want. I was quietly surprised that no one making up how CSS worked had addressed something like this.

Then, a while back I was giving a buddy of mine a few exercises to introduce him to the exciting world of Web programming, touching on CSS, HTML, PHP and MySQL. I gave him pretty much no guidance; I just thought up plans that would introduce him to the concepts and gave him a list of my favorite references. (I’ll be posting those exercises here in the nearish future.)

Anyway, without me to tell him how to do things, he went and dug around and one of the first style sheets he sent me for evaluation had a .php extension rather than .css.

Bingo! Once you see it in action, it’s obvious. PHP can be used to generate CSS files just as easily as it can be used to generate HTML files. Now my style sheets can change based on external conditions or can simply define a set of colors that all the style definitions share. Why did it take me so long to figure this out? It seems like this technique should be a lot more common than it is.

Here’s a quick code snippet for those who want to try it for themselves:

<?php
	header('Content-Type: text/css');
 
	$header_back_color = '#dddddd';
?>
 
#corner_table th {
	background-color:<?php echo $header_back_color ?>;
	text-align: center;
}

A couple of notes: the <?php MUST be the very first thing in the file. No empty lines, no spaces. The reason is that the next line, with the header() function, has to be called before the server sends any page content. (Once the server starts sending content back to the browser, it’s too late to be fiddling with the headers. Any whitespace outside the <?php tag will be considered content.) The header line is necessary because you need to tell your browser that what you are sending really is a css file.

In the <head> of the html file, you call the style sheet just like normal, but of course the file you fetch will have a php extension:

<link rel="stylesheet"
      href="http://yourdomain.com/css-tables.php"
      type="text/css"
      media="screen" />

That’s all there is to it. Why have I not done this with every css file?

Self-Portrait Friday!

It’s been a while since I’ve turned the camera on myself, but today I joined Pinup Lifestyle and was looking for a good photo to put up for my profile. I call myself a photographer over there, so I wanted the picture to be a good one. I used one of my old favorites from long ago, but that got me to thinking about some other things to experiment with.

Tonight I closed myself in a dark room with my camera (on tripod, set to ‘bulb’), remote shutter release (operated with my toes), and a pair of flashlights. My goal was to open the shutter, shine a light on one side of my face with one expression, then shine a light on the other side of my face with a different expression.

I was not entirely successful.

a flashlight, a dark room, and a long exposure

a flashlight, a dark room, and a long exposure

This is an early attempt using one flashlight. I just couldn’t keep still enough while also dealing with the lighting. When I went to two flashlights things got better, but getting the two sides of my face exposed equally proved impossible.

 

direct hit with one of the flashlights, then my toe slipped off the shutter release

Sometimes when things go wrong, however, they can come out all right. My toe slipped off the shutter release on this one, before I got to the second flashlight. After this shot I realized that I was overexposing where the flashlights hit and I cranked the aperture way down. Things got better after that.

 

two flashlights in a dark room

a decent shot, but with the same expression on both sides

This was a test shot while I was adjusting the aperture. It came out pretty cool, if you ask me.

 

Jerry Seeger self-portrait

finally held still enough, but didn't get enough light on the frowny side

Given infinite time and infinite patience, I think I would have got the shot. I had neither, however, and when I began to like my test shots more than the actual attempts I decided I’d done enough. Sometimes an experiment doesn’t yield the results you expect, but that doesn’t mean the results aren’t interesting.

 

3

This Might Be Fun

I’ve written quite a bit about my participation in the Cyberspace Open, and Long ago fuego and I were winners at the Duke City Shootout. Here’s a contest that combines the two: The 48-Hour film Project. You are given prompt, a prop, and a couple of other constraints, and in the next 48 hours you write, produce, and edit your entry.

I think I have the right group of friends to do this. It’s a bit pricey to enter, but the biggest problem would be getting us all to the right place at the right time. San Jose’s in August. Anyone want to come play?

1

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove

One axiom I use when evaluating fiction is that the author is allowed one Big Coincidence in a story. It’s that one unlikely event that turns a mundane situation into something worth writing about. In The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove by Christopher Moore, the coincidence is that the Old Bluesman who comes into town just happens to have a history with the sea monster that can alter people’s brain chemistry (and make them randy as bunnies in the springtime) which comes ashore just as the town shrink switches everyone from their antidepressants to placebos in response to the death of a patient while…

You get the idea.

There is, happily, an exception to the one-big-coincidence rule, and that’s farce. Farce is not as easy as it looks; you can’t just throw some new bizarre thing at the reader every time you lose momentum. Ultimately things have to hang together, to make sense in the farcical context, and come to a satisfying resolution. Characters still have to grow and change organically. Lust Lizard pulls off the farce in style.

The sea monster’s bunny-in-springtime effect begins to take hold before he even reaches shore, and unlikely pairings ensue. Alas, Steve the sea monster is not so fortunate in love. After an less-than-successful romantic entanglement with a gasoline tanker, the sea monster disguises himself as a trailer in a trailer park, where he is named Steve by the unstable b-movie actress who lives next door (and still works out with her big sword while dressed in her barbarian outfit).

Steve’s not a bad guy, really. Just hungry and lonely. And it’s not as if anyone liked the paperboy anyway…

Naturally the onus for figuring out what’s going on and doing something about it falls on the local law enforcement. That would be Theo. Theo is stoned most of the time, grows his own weed, and follows orders from the department in the big city. Those orders don’t always make sense from a law-enforcement standpoint, but Theo knows a good gig when he sees one. Only problem is, he’s on his own this time.

Throw in a colorful cast of side characters and this coastal California town is primed and ready for wacky hijinks. And hijinks there are aplenty. This book has its serious moments but even they shimmer with a surreal glaze, then off we go romping through the bizarroverse again. It’s a fun read that never loses its momentum.

I wonder, with books like this, which came first, the story or the title?

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

2

Round Two: My Fake Entry

As I thought about this prompt, I thought of the scene in the the classic movie Get Crazy, when Reggie Wanker emerges from a dressing room filled with naked women only to discover that the girlfriend he’s been ignoring (and who saw him in the room filled with naked women) is now with another guy. Said Reggie: “Betrayed! Turn your back for half a second and they stick a knife in it right up t’hilt.” As he goes back on stage (this has all occurred during a drum solo) he says. “I’ve finally found the meaning of the bleedin’ blues. Ol’ Reggie can take the pain… but can they?

Classic stuff. Malcolm McDowell makes a great Mick Jagger.

Anyway, I pondered for a while about what to do for my scene, but because I didn’t want to work too hard at it, I borrowed characters from a story I’ve already been fiddling with, called The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy. Tatra is a new addition, and hey, what high fantasy story can’t be improved with a smart-mouth goth chick? Once again I’m heavy on dialog without much physical action.

EXT. FOREST - NIGHT
Tatra (17, Goth - black hair and nails, black dress with metallic accessories) is staring into the campfire flames. She has a blanket wrapped over her shoulders. Nearby she can hear Bixby snoring gently. The rest of the party are arrayed on the ground, all asleep.
Kitty jumps up into Tatra's lap, purring softly.
TATRA
Hello, Kitty.
Kitty settles into her lap, and Tatra strokes her fur gently. Kitty's purring intensifies.
TATRA (CONT'D)
So pretty...
Tatra's fingers stop at the base of Kitty's skull.
TATRA (CONT'D)
I could snap your neck in half a heartbeat.
The purring stops. Kitty looks up at Tatra in surprise.
TATRA (CONT'D)
Can you talk like that?
Kitty shakes her head but doesn't try to escape.
TATRA (CONT'D)
I should probably just kill you.
Kitty tenses, and Tatra tightens her grip. They freeze that way for a few heartbeats, then Tatra relaxes slightly.
TATRA (CONT'D)
If I let you go, will you kill me?
Kitty shakes her head no.
TATRA (CONT'D)
Can I trust you?
Kitty shakes her head no again. Tatra smiles. She releases Kitty's neck. Kitty jumps down from her lap. Space distorts and standing before Tatra is a woman, slender and lithe, with long black hair poorly protecting her modesty.
They both look around nervously to make sure the others are sleeping.
KITTY
Crap it's cold.
TATRA
Where the hell are your clothes?
KITTY
Which do you think looks better on a cat, an evening gown or a tutu? Of course I'm naked.
Tatra tosses her the blanket.
TATRA
Put this on. You're grossing me out.
Kitty takes the blanket but hesitates before putting it on, posing, smiling at Tatra's jealousy-fueled discomfort.
KITTY
There's still time for you. You might still develop a body like this one.
TATRA
Oh, goody. Then I can be a slut, too.
Kitty wraps the blanket around herself and stares down at Tatra.
KITTY
Be careful, Tatra.
TATRA
If I was careful I would have killed you already.
Kitty hesitates, then sits on the log next to Tatra.
KITTY
I guess I deserved that. So, what is it you want?
TATRA
What's your real name?
KITTY
Dacia.
TATRA
Who do you work for?
KITTY
What do you mean?
TATRA
What the hell do you think I mean? Who do you work for?
KITTY
I work... for The Master.
Tatra stifles a laugh.
TATRA
Who?
KITTY
The Master. Surely you've heard...
Tatra's face is blank.
KITTY (CONT'D)
How can you be here, now, with us, and never have heard of The Master?
TATRA
The Master? That's the best he could come up with? Oooo... The Maaaaaaster! Scary!
Kitty looks around in alarm.
KITTY
Quiet! You'll wake someone up.
TATRA
Or what? You'll tell the master on me? Oh, no!
She makes her eyes round with mock alarm and puts her hands to her cheeks, then starts to laugh - but quietly.
TATRA (CONT'D)
What are you doing here?
KITTY
The Master—
Tatra snorts.
KITTY (CONT'D)
My people have a great interest in the outcome of your quest. There are prophecies.
That gets Tatra's interest.
TATRA
No kidding? Like what?
KITTY
For instance, in the great tome "Insane Ravings of Hu'upman and other Vague Pronouncements", it says that if the elf marries John the Smith, then The — my master's designs will be thwarted.
Tatra looks stricken. She speaks past a lump in her throat.
TATRA
Lada and John...?
KITTY
IF, my dear. I would prefer that not to happen.
Tatra stares at the ground.
TATRA
I would prefer that not to happen, too.
Kitty sighs and pats Tatra's knee.
KITTY
You like him.
TATRA
He doesn't even know I exist.
Kitty begins to say one thing, stops, then says another.
KITTY
No, I don't think he's capable of seeing anyone not of royal birth.
TATRA
Like Princess big-boobie bitch-face? Ugh! I just want to strangle her sometimes.
Tatra looks around now, alarmed by her own outburst. Kitty smiles and moves closer to Tatra on the log. She puts her arm around the girl.
KITTY
I agree. What would you say if Princess Skoda ended up with your friend Bixby instead?
Tatra puts her hands around her throat and makes a gagging noise.
KITTY (CONT'D)
He might become prince...
TATRA
He'd be better off with Elf-Lady.
Kitty smiles. Her teeth are white and even, her eyes gleam in the firelight.
KITTY
Then we are in complete agreement. Lada must not mate with John the Smith.
TATRA
Ewww. Thanks for that image.
KITTY
Tell me, why did you not kill me?
TATRA
Because... because I think you want Bixby to live. And I thought maybe you could help me. You know, with magic.
KITTY
Help you what?
Tatra turns away, suddenly shy.
TATRA
You know.
KITTY
Will you help me in return? When we find the Important Thing?
TATRA
Sure.
KITTY
"Sure?" That's all? You're OK with allowing The Master to plunge the world into darkness and despair?
TATRA
Pf. Welcome to my world, cat-lady.

1

A Typo that Should be in Common Use

carcophagus

1

Round Two Begins!

I was eliminated in round one of the Cyberspace Open (not even a near miss, I’m afraid), but that’s not going to stop me from cranking out a scene for round two! It will just stop me from working very hard on it.

Your PROTAGONIST has been betrayed by his CONFIDANT — someone deep within his (or her) inner circle. This betrayal threatens to destroy everything the protagonist has been working towards. The protagonist’s only ace in the hole: the confidant is not yet aware he’s been found out. Write a crackling scene in which the protagonist confronts the confidant.

I had a thought this morning that might help the one hundred talented folks who are moving on. The top three entries will be produced on video to determine the grand champion. If you think you have a shot, you might consider the produceability of your scene – will it shine in a low-budget video enactment? Zero gravity explosions being an integral part of the action might cost you in the long run.

I wish all of the contestants good luck, but especially the ones who have stopped by here to share advice. You guys rock!

Tonight’s Sharks Game

The game is just under way. I tuned in to hear that San Jose had just scored. Woo hoo!

Moments later the goal was reversed. My sweetie tells me I’m not allowed to listen to any more of the game.

Cyberspace Open: My results

Well, I got my score at the Cyberspace Open and I won’t be going on to the next round. I have mixed emotions about my score; some things I think could have been better aren’t even mentioned; other things I got dinged for are somewhat annoying.

I’ll start with the original assignment, for review (emphasis added by me):

Your protagonist is crushed. His or her plans have been dashed; his objective now appears impossible. And yet if he throws in the towel, bad things will happen. Write a scene in which a mentor, friend, love interest or enemy rallies or provokes your protagonist in an unexpected way. Be sure to give us your best dialogue here as your protagonist comes around and rises – or falls — to the occasion.

It’s a good prompt – it has specific goals but is a crucial moment in almost any plot.

Here’s the feedback for my entry:

Good basic concept behind this scene, though it’s a little tough to find rooting interest in Deek, simply because he’s such a downer. Igon’s appearance is a good turn, but it would have been great to see a little action at that point, if this bargain were to happen in the middle of a battle between the two as the bar gets trashed, ending in them making a pact but leaving total destruction in their wake. In other words, great setup but bigger visuals and movement would have made this scene much stronger.

My score: 83. One difference between this year’s contest and the previous is that we can see all the other scores and attendant feedback. 83 is… not very good. Below average; not sure about the median. So, how did my baby miss? I think in the end I was trying to squeeze a seven-minute scene into five minutes. Every tweak I made that added a line to the screenplay pushed the result over the five-page limit. Something else had to go.

Annoying thing #1: When faced with a decision of what to cut, I kept dialogue. I spent my time honing the words, revealing character through word choice, and so forth, at the expense of action. They said they wanted dialogue.

In retrospect, I should have ignored that bit of the prompt. They always want good dialogue. They also always want action. In the larger context of the story, big action would not work here. It’s not that moment in the story, and Igon works through guile. If I could have added another page to the scene, there would have been more action anyway; not bar-trashing action but more personal. Just… more visual. It was the visual stuff that didn’t make the cut to five pages.

Also, dialogue takes more time to judge properly. I doubt the judges read the entries out loud, for instance.

Many of the actions I chose to remove were smaller things, mannerisms and body language that help reveal character and motivation. Novels are full of that stuff. With a screenplay, that’s what the actor brings to the table. Putting too much of that stuff in the screenplay is called ‘directing from the script’ and is at best a waste of everyone’s time. Yet, for this contest, where we don’t have the history that comes before the scene, perhaps some of those actions would help the judge to get the feel for the characters. Pretty much all that was left was blocking.

Then again, it might have been as simple as having Deek trying to smash his bottle to use as a weapon, spewing beer all over the place, and maybe cutting himself in the process. Then there’d be blood…

So, yeah, I have to admit that more action would help the scene, perhaps a lot. Some of that was in there but fell to the ‘dialogue priority’. Back to Annoying thing #1. Next time…

The comment about it being “a little tough to find rooting interest in Deek” is a valid one. In the context of the story, we’ve had a long time to bond with him, to watch him pay the consequences for decisions that have gone wrong. In the scene, we just see him at the bottom, and the fact he’s not a very likable guy at that moment is important. But someone reading just this one scene won’t get any of that.

I have been a bit slow, I think, to recognize that writing for this contest and writing an actual movie scene are fundamentally different. For all the organizers say not to put in extra stuff that would normally be established earlier, they can’t judge the scene well without it. Writing a successful entry in this contest is more like writing a short film than the judges would care to admit – it’s just one with no resolution. Also, you need snappy dialog and action in your submission, whether or not your overall story wants it at that point or not.

On another tangent, remember what I said about the prompt being a crucial point in almost any plot? As I was working on my entry this time I began to wonder, “How many people will submit scenes they’ve already written?” Most of the entrants in this contest are aspiring screenwriters; almost all of those will have finished screenplays with a scene much like this in them. I was feeling a little guilty for writing a scene for a story I was already working on, though I did this scene from scratch. I was worried that some of my competition would be starting with works that they’ve been honing for a long time. I’m still not sure how I feel about this aspect of the contest. Is the honor system working? No way to tell, until the winner says “and I have the whole movie ready for an agent!”

I plan to write a scene this weekend for the second prompt, just for fun. Heck, why not? At the very least I can use it the way I did this one, to spur me to fill a hole in one of my other works in progress. I’ll post the result here as well, just for giggles.

If I decide to participate in the contest next time, I might use the characters from The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy. Since those characters appear in every fantasy novel ever written, I can avoid the catch-22 of having to establish the characters without establishing the characters.

1

Hey, Cyberspace Open Guys! Um… never mind.

On the Web site for the Cyberspace Open, it says “Judging is expected to take 3-4 weeks.” Now, I understand that’s not the same as saying “Judging will take at most four weeks,” but round two is this weekend and still no word on our scores from round one. It has now been over four weeks.

Note: Ooops! Looks like I missed one of the bullet points on the contest Web site, and the results are due by tomorrow at the latest. The rest of this episode was a bit of a rant (tempered with my belief that this is a cool contest), and at least part of what I said was unjustified.

Sorry, Cyberspace Open Guys!

IIHF: Czech-Swiss

The game is still young, but I have to say – the Swiss are good. They are speedy and it’s almost magic how their passes find the waiting sticks of their teammates. They’re winning 1-0 right now when a drop gave the following attacker all kinds of space and he put one on goal hard. The rebound went right to the guy who did the original drop pass. The swiss seem to have perfect instincts about when to pass and when to throw it at the goal.

Jagr just elbowed someone in the face. I think the refs forgot their whistles tonight. Vokoun, the goalie for the czechs, has pulled off two miracle saves already, to keep the game interesting.

I’m not sure how the swiss can possibly keep up this intensity, especially on defense. They are glue! Sticky spiders! No Czech player has any space at all.

The swiss just scored again, and in this case it’s a pity that the scorekeepers can only award two assists. it started with a great check, knocking the Czech off the puck, then a pass, then another pass as Vokoun went sprawling, and then the goal. Wham, bing, bang, bam.

There’s a guy named Kevin on the Swiss team. Huh.

End of first period: Switzerland 2, Czech Republic 0.

Meanwhile, the US team is taking on Kazakhstan in the “your fans paid to come all this way so we’ll give them a couple more games even though you suck” bracket. I got a bit of a soft spot for the Kazakhs a few years ago when they pulled out a couple of improbable wins even though the goalie was wearing antiquated equipment. They are a slam-dunk for a corporation to pony up some funding in the hope of creating a feel-good story with their name on it.

Second period:

Czechs are controlling the puck now. Either the Swiss have slowed or the Czechs have finally figured out that they’re going to have to work for this one. And they score! You can’t fault the goaltender, number 15 had enough space to aim the shot off his own rebound. You can’t leave someone that alone in front of your net.

And five minutes into the second period, we have our first penalty, against the Czechs. The Swiss are not getting shots. It’s pretty clear now the Czechs have decided to get out in the faces of the Swiss. Good call. Before that penalty was up, another penalty came, also against the Czechs. Almost a short-handed goal! The ice is definitely starting to tip the Czech’s way. The Swiss suddenly look disorganized, with three players clustered and cutting off their own passing lanes on a power play.

Not sure what just happened, but the Swiss got another goal. Who taught these guys to be so fast? Now they’re all pumped up again and it’s like the first period – wherever the puck is, there’s a swiss stick nearby. These guys are fueled by emotion. You beat them by taking that away – knock them on their butts, score short-handed.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a game with so much gear on the ice – sticks, gloves, helmets.

Goal Czech Republic! Depending on your leaning, a lucky-ass bounce shot that found the top corner from almost the blue line, or a brilliantly accurate shot that exploited the goalie’s aggressive play. Either way, the Czechs have stolen the Swiss mojo once more, and the play is almost exclusively in the Swiss end.

If someone teaches the Swiss to conterpunch, to just turn it up another notch when the other guys score, watch out.

Czechs with a two-man advantage. Not doing much with it. Now the Swiss are pumped up again.

Just before the period expired the Czechs had a great chance. Down the ice fast with the last pass making it a clean shot, only the goalie to beat. The goalie stopped the shot, but left a tantalizing rebound. Last time, the Czechs put that one away. Not this time.

End of second period: Switzerland 3, Czech Republic 2

Meanwhile, Germany (Germany!) is giving Russia a game. Exceeding expectations is sweet. Doing it when your country is the host of the tournament is awesome. Some of those kids will never play international hockey again, but they will have so great memories of the home crowd going nuts.

Third period:

Sorry – was distracted. So it goes. No one scored, however. The Swiss carry the day. I’m looking forward to Switzerland/Canada or Switzerland/Russia. It seems like Switzerland is a problem that is solved by good coaching. Get in their faces, knock them back, never let them feel like they have momentum. It means making sure your guys are ready to skate hard and fast when the first puck drops. In the first period, those kids were insane. It was like there was eight of them on the ice. (I say kids, but there’s one guy, Seger, who’s been on the team since the ice age. I have no idea how old the others are.)

The game is over, life goes on. The Czech team is somewhat less disappointing than the US team, and there’s still hope for them. Somehow the Swiss manage to exceed expectations year after year. Perhaps it is the expectations that are the problem, but in the past it’s been defense that defines the Swiss team. This time, they have some moves at the other end of the ice as well, and in defiance of stereotypes, they are a team of emotion. Opponents take note.

2

The Demise of St. Nicholas

In this case St. Nicholas is a bar, not a jolly guy with a big bag of toys. Tonight St. Nicholas will open its doors for the last time. I will not be there, but if you’re in Prague tonight, go help drink the place dry!

The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam

I ran across The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam while reading the archives at Miss Snark’s no-longer-updated-but-certainly-not-dated blog. It’s a pretty funny list. The theory is that if you answer ‘yes’ to any of the questions, you should chuck in the novel and start again. Would that more people took this list seriously.

For giggles, I decided to see what the score would be for my epic fantasy work in progress, The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy. I’ve only included the questions here that I have meaningful answers to.

1. Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages?

Heck no! By the end of chapter one Bixby has been tormented by his distressigngly hot stepmother, met with an old kook who turns out to (also) be a wizard, and has been sent pajama-clad (with his axe) out into the rain to meet a mysterious bunch of people for some important job.

2. Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?

Yes. Yes, he is exactly that.

3. Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?

Hm… that’s probably something that I should add…

4. Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?

How could it not be?

5. Is your story about a quest for a magical artifact that will save the world?

All hail the Important Thing! Whatever it is…

6. How about one that will destroy it?

All hail the Important Thing! Whatever it is…

7. Does your story revolve around an ancient prophecy about “The One” who will save the world and everybody and all the forces of good?

I’m pretty sure that there is a prophecy about Bixby. There are certainly some pretty racy prophecies about some of his companions.

8. Does your novel contain a character whose sole purpose is to show up at random plot points and dispense information?

You know, now that I think about it, QITDEG is lacking this rather annoying feature. Good thing this exam is here!

10. Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?

Oh my god! HOW DID YOU GUESS?!

11. Is the king of your world a kindly king duped by an evil magician?

Hmm… not yet.

12. Does “a forgetful wizard” describe any of the characters in your novel?

Insane would be closer, but we’ll say yes to this one.

13. How about “a powerful but slow and kind-hearted warrior”?

Everyone assumes that’s what Bixby is, but sometimes you have to wonder.

14. How about “a wise, mystical sage who refuses to give away plot details for his own personal, mysterious reasons”?

See #8 above

15. Do the female characters in your novel spend a lot of time worrying about how they look, especially when the male main character is around?

I think it would be more accurate to say that I spend a lot of time worrying about how they look, but the result is the same.

16. Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?

One of them might use it as a ploy, but for the most part they are not interested in being rescued by anyone.

17. Do any of your female characters exist solely to embody feminist ideals?

Yep. They are smokin-hot feminists.

18. Would “a clumsy cooking wench more comfortable with a frying pan than a sword” aptly describe any of your female characters?

No.

19. Would “a fearless warrioress more comfortable with a sword than a frying pan” aptly describe any of your female characters?

Hell, yeah.

20. Is any character in your novel best described as “a dour dwarf”?

I wouldn’t call her dour. She has a lovely beard as well.

21. How about “a half-elf torn between his human and elven heritage”?

No, but there will be plenty of half-elves should there ever be a sequel.

23. Does everybody under four feet tall exist solely for comic relief?

You mean Chavdar the horny halfling who would just as soon cut your throat as head-butt you in the nuts? Yeah, he’s pretty funny.

25. Do you not know when the hay baler was invented?

I hadn’t considered the humorous application of anachronism yet. Might be some potential there.

26. Did you draw a map for your novel which includes places named things like “The Blasted Lands” or “The Forest of Fear” or “The Desert of Desolation” or absolutely anything “of Doom”?

I haven’t drawn the (absolutely required) map yet, but “of Doom” will appear more than once.

27. Does your novel contain a prologue that is impossible to understand until you’ve read the entire book, if even then?

Not yet.

28. Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?

As little planning went into the still-incomplete first book, it would be hard to say yes to this (for now).

29. How about a quintet or a decalogue?

As long as people keep buying the crap, I’ll keep writing it!

30 – 32. [my summary] Is your novel a long-winded and directionless “epic”?

This is an action story, baby!

33. Is your name Robert Jordan and you lied like a dog to get this far?

Hah! I’m happy to report I’m not.

36. Do any of your main characters have apostrophes or dashes in their names?

What the hell kind of fantasy novel would it be otherwise? (Um… though actually, no. They are named for Eastern Eurpean automobiles.)

37. Do any of your main characters have names longer than three syllables?

Only if you include their “the’s”, e.g., Trabant the Immutable.

39. Does your novel contain orcs, elves, dwarves, or halflings?

Well, DUH!

41. Do you have a race prefixed by “half-“?

I expect Chavdar’s half-halfling progeny will have to wait for a sequel.

42. At any point in your novel, do the main characters take a shortcut through ancient dwarven mines?

Yes, not long after they take a shortcut through the mist-shrouded ruins of a once-mighty kingdom. Other suggestions for things they can take a shortcut through are welcome.

46. Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawls?

If there’s another purpose of an ‘inn’, I’ve never heard it.

48. Do your characters spend an inordinate amount of time journeying from place to place?

Heck yeah! It’s a Quest!

49. Could one of your main characters tell the other characters something that would really help them in their quest but refuses to do so just so it won’t break the plot?

Oh, my characters keep secrets for iron-clad reasons!

55. Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?

No, but Bixby can come close.

56. Does anybody in your novel fight for two hours straight in full plate armor, then ride a horse for four hours, then delicately make love to a willing barmaid all in the same day?

Bixby is far too polite to make love to a barmaid, and wears a lot less.

57. Does your main character have a magic axe, hammer, spear, or other weapon that returns to him when he throws it?

You mean Orc-O-Matic? So far, Bixby has kept it firmly in hand.

61. Does your hero fall in love with an unattainable woman, whom he later attains?

Only one?

62. Does a large portion of the humor in your novel consist of puns?

Actually… no.

63. Is your hero able to withstand multiple blows from the fantasy equivalent of a ten pound sledge but is still threatened by a small woman with a dagger?

More ‘confused’ than ‘threatened’.

70. Does your main villain punish insignificant mistakes with death?

Helloooo! He’s Eeeeevil!

73. Is the countryside in your novel littered with tombs and gravesites filled with ancient magical loot that nobody thought to steal centuries before?

Not nearly enough.

74. Is your book basically a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings?

Closer to a rip-off of Bored of the Rings

75. Read that question again and answer truthfully.

Honest!

Let’s tally up the score then, shall we? By my count I hit on fifteen of the questions, and I’m in a gray area for a few others.

This list is awesome. Using it, I have been able to identify some glaring holes in the story. Should I ever get around to revising it, I’ll have a solid foundation to work from.

6

Turnskin

What is the difference between a series of related events and a plot? I have been mulling this question for a few days now, since completing Turnskin by Nicole Kimberling. The book has plenty of events, and some of them lead to other events to provide a narrative, and there are even a couple of problems the main character faces, but did this story have a plot?

In the end I’m forced to say, “not so much.” So what is missing?

The beginning was promising. We are introduced to a character who is different, living in a rural town where he is the only one of his kind. He is a half-breed human and shape-shifter, and in this world the human majority has placed severe limits on the rights of the shapeshifter minority. Not only is he a shapeshifter in a community of humans, but he’s also a Sensitive Artist in a hick agricultural town. On top of that, he’s gay.

That’s a lot of potential from a thematic perspective — bigotry, the struggle of the creative spirit, forbidden love — but those don’t qualify as plot. Not on their own, anyway.

Our hero falls in love with a Bad Boy. A killer, in fact. Bad Boy has to skip town when a body is discovered, and when it looks like suspicion might fall on our hero, he runs off to the city. “A bit of a reach, but perhaps the start of an actual plot,” I thought at the time.

Our fish-out-of-water story, meanwhile, has turned into na├»ve-country-bumpkin-in-the-big-city story, losing focus on some of the potential themes but gaining others. Before he even gets to town he’s warned three times about the bad people who live there. Fortunately he has family in the city who are in just the right position to give his Artist career the exact boost it needs.

I could go on, but let’s just leave it at this: almost every event in this story is something that happens to the main character. The guy never comes up with a plan or even articulates a goal, beyond “stay with my boyfriend and write plays.” He bumbles into trouble and is bailed out by others.

This book would have been way more interesting if it was told from the point of view of the Bad Boy. As it was, take away the homosexuality and this relationship would fit well in a crappy romance novel. Bad Boy is only ever bad offstage; he’s never frightening or threatening toward our hero, and in the end the Bad Boy’s Artistic Soul is liberated and they live happily ever after. Ho hum.

At least the Bad Boy undergoes some sort of change. I can’t say the same for any of the other characters. In the end our hero gets what he wants simply by being talented and being in the right place at the right time – more than once. Exactly once he puts his foot down and makes something happen on his own, although I only give him partial credit because he’s cornered first and has no other way out. How can you cheer for someone who doesn’t do anything?

I wonder if Kimberling set out specifically to write an urban fantasy with a homosexual romantic angle, and accomplishing that goal blinded her to the need to still put a real story in place behind it. Good romances have flawed people fighting themselves as much as any external battle, and those flaws threaten to ruin everything. The characters make plans and work for what they want (or think they want). In Turnskin, even the potentially powerful themes she begins to develop go neglected.

What’s the difference between a sequence of events and a plot? Volition has something to do with it. People who face a central problem and act to make things go their way. Characters who learn and adapt even as the stakes get higher. It’s the difference between Rocky and Rambo. It’s the difference between this book and a story.

It’s also the difference between many things I’ve written and a story. Something for me to pay attention to as I lay the keel for Immortal Flesh.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

1

A Big Day in Moravia

Let’s see how this map thingie works…


View Muddled Moravia in a larger map

You’ll have to zoom in to find the marker: Drinkin’ with a Priest!