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Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Guest Blog appearance

Friday, February 24, 2012

More on When your Characters write themselves

Tip O'Day #300 - When Characters Go Crazy

Guest blogger Edward McKeown revisits The Land Where Characters Take Over Your Story. On February 21st, he had a guest post about a minor character who grew in importance until she starred in her own spin-off book.
This tendency expanded in my present series. Maauro is a 50,000-year-old android created for a genocidal war by a vanished species. She is found on an asteroid base by Wrik Trigardt, a disgraced military pilot. This was originally a gritty monster story without Maauro, featuring an Alien-style monster instead. My writing group hated that story. I dug into my fascination with anime and came up with a character of the deadly but oddly gentle, Maauro. Originally she had a corpse-like appearance then re-patterned herself to an anime appearance after capturing Wrik.

Maauro spoke to me in first person present tense, while Wrik spoke in first person past tense. I wondered why this was. Eventually l I realized that Maauro - who had perfect recall - did not look forward. Being essentially immune to time, she existed entirely in the now. Note however that I did not determine her voice. She did. I simply had faith there was a reason. I had no intention of doing a Pinocchio story wherein a robot character wants to become “real.” But Maauro had other ideas. She did not want to become a “real girl” but, as a machine made for a war that ended ages ago, she wanted to become more herself. Even her gender was an assumption and a choice. Maauro preferred the more complicated existence of a female consciousness. She decided that she wanted to explore emotionality and relationships; hers are cooler than ours as they are not rooted in sex and death.

So I ended up with a robot who acts more like a girl the longer she functions. Frankly the trip has been richer for my listening to her.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Brinker’s Fiction Critique Group Charter

Your writing group moderator preparing for his task.

I have again been asked, as I have so often credited my writing group with my successes to date, how we do it.  Many people dread or have had bad experiences in a such groups.  We in Brinkers (named for one of our deceased members) treat each other with great courtesy but equal frankness.  One role does require some starch, that of the moderator who may occasionally have to act as referee or judge occasionally.  That means if you have a member who will not play by the rules it does fall to the moderator to actually tell someone, sorry you are no longer welcome here.  It's not fun but you can't allow somone to disrupt the group.  I have usually been the moderator and the fact that I am a black belt is I believe pure coincidence.

We used to meet in public places but our group, a little smaller now, is close enough that we meet in each others homes.  Bringing in a new member is always done on a trial basis.  Attrition happens but usually its when people see the workload and the fact that we are looking for them to produce work on a regular basis.  You need not be prolific and some add value chiefly by critiquing but this is a writing group, not a support group and there is a commitment of time and energy.  Hope this is useful to you.  God knows it was essential to me.

Brinker’s Fiction Critique Group Charter


We have worked out a format so everyone's manuscript can be addressed at each meeting.  I will act as the moderator/admin person to handle contacts with LOCATION.  I will also act as a moderator in the sense that I will try to help the group function smoothly in accord with the Charter guidelines and I ask everyone’s help and support with that.  Despite the existence of the guidelines, we want the group to remain as informal as possible.  Humor and camaraderie will be prized and encouraged.


Purpose: The purpose of the critique group will be to help intermediate or advanced authors prepare novels and short stories for publication.  Only short stories and books are being critiqued; other groups do poetry and other venues are more appropriate for beginners or authors not aiming at publication.

Methods: The group will meet 7-9PM on the second and fourth Thursdays at LOCATION.  We will endeavor to keep the group to about ten members or less.

1. The role of the author is to listen without defending or arguing.  Assume a good intent on the part of the critic.  Don’t explain something unless asked.  This will be good practice for dealing with real editors.  All members of the group will make every effort to be sensitive to the author’s feelings.

2. The role of the critic: This is a critique group, not a support group.  Please endeavor to offer meaningful criticism in an adult, professional and very civil manner.  Each person can critique for 3-5 minutes.  Please don’t feel compelled to use your full time unless you are adding something.  In the event that the moderator feels the criticism is, for whatever reason, straying from the useful, you may be asked to move on or drop a point for the sake of amity.

3. We will take turns choosing which manuscript to begin with by first alphabet letter of the last names of the people present that night. We will sometimes switch from the beginning of the alphabet to the end to keep the order mixed.

4. Critique comments should be written out on a separate sheet or the back of the last page of the manuscript.  Sign your comments so the writer can contact you later if he/she has questions.

5. Length - preferred, if you go much over then your piece may be spread over the next two sessions.  This is not a hard or fast rule and will depend on the volume of work.  Work must be typed.  Please make an effort to have your work in the best condition you can before submitting.

6. We exchange manuscripts at the meeting for the next critique session or we can e-mail to each other in time for reading and studying at home. Check with individuals on this. 

Critique etiquette

1) Please do not attempt to critique a piece that has just been handed to you.  Take it home for mature consideration.  Be present when you are in the group.

            2) Try to avoid interrupting others when they hold the floor for their critique.

            3) It is not your job to persuade the author your critique is correct.  You offer information.   They use it or they don’t.  Don’t argue a critique.

            4) Liking a story or not is immaterial to a critique, though clearly it helps to like the piece.  I detest the Great Gatsby, which doesn’t remove it from the list of great books.  You are trying to help the author tell their story effectively-not to make them write something you like.  The issue is, did they do what they intended to do effectively?  Is there merit to what they tried to do?  Are you not liking it because it’s cliched, hackneyed, poorly thought out, unpersuasive or just because you don’t like war (substitute: romance, SF, mystery, etc) stories.

            5) If you find a piece offensive you may pass on it by doing no more than advising me that you did not feel you can do an effective critique.

Commitment: This group is for those committed to improving their writing and further, to helping others improve theirs.  While no one has to finish a critiquing assignment in a specified time (it’s not like there’s a fine) we are looking for people willing to make a good faith effort to be ready and current every 2 weeks. We all understand about work and family but members should know that there is a workload and that by joining you indicate that you will live up to your end as you hope others will live up to theirs.  Nothing new here, it’s just the “golden rule.”  

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

My Characters have got me!!!!

Edward McKeown on what happens when your characters grab the steering wheel.
Authors take very different approaches to writing characters. I have friends who are excellent authors, but who control their characters like puppet masters. The characters perform the plot as they are directed to do. On the other hand, my writing is full of surprises. I love it that way. Writing is an intensely visual experience for me. My stories play in my head with a nearly cinematic quality. I see the people, places and events. They do not always come to me in sequence but I have faith that there is a complete story. If I continue to pay attention, I’ll eventually see the entire story and write it down. I know it will make sense.

The big surprise for me was how much collaboration takes place between my characters and me. In writing Was Once a Hero, I created Shasti Rainhell as a story device, a way to protect my everyman, Robert Fenaday, as he descended into the world of privateers in search of his missing wife. Shasti, genetically engineered and more powerful than any normal human, was not content with her role. She started telling me about her abusive past, and how fascinated she was with Robert’s love for Lisa and his unreasonable search. I learned that while Robert was searching for Lisa, Shasti was also searching for her humanity. What had started out as an adventure story developed a complex romantic underpinning.

This new character arc became almost as strong as the original main arc. Robert and Shasti followed their separate paths and eventually intertwined in their own affair. I preplanned none of this but it lead to the Fenaday trilogy and a standalone Shasti Rainhell book.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

My Amazon Page for those who have not found it on their own.

Another SF classic reviewed Forbidden Planet

Member Movie Review: Forbidden PlanetForbidden Planet
Directed by Fred M. Wilcox
Produced by Nicholas Nayfack
Starring, Walter Pidgeon, Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis
Release date(s) April 1, 1956
Running time 98 minutes

Forbidden Planet, directed by Fred M. Wilcox, stars Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, and Anne Francis. The characters and its setting have been compared to those in Shakespeare's The Tempest,and its plot contains certain similarities though I think that the analogy gets a bit over played.

In the 23rd century as small-saucer shaped cruiser with a crew of twenty packed in its 171 foot circular hull is sent to find out what happened to a 20 year earlier expedition to Altair IV. This is not the age of Star Trek where the voyage of sixteen light years takes about a year and half. Hyperwave transmission is possible but requires huge installations or the cannibalization of most of the ship's equipment. So you are on your own out here.

On arrival on Altair, Commander Adams learns that there are two survivors from the previous expedition, Dr. Morbius and his brilliant if unconventional daughter Altaira . All the others were killed by some unknown "planetary force" that destroyed them and the ship, leaving Morbius and his wife, who later died, presumably giving birth to their daughter. The pair lives in luxury guarded and waited on by Robbie, a robot who surpasses all Earth technology.

Morbius is an intriguing mix of paternal and arrogant, egotists and actor, genial host and guardian of a terrible secret the true ramifications of which, he either does not know, or will not face. Walter Pidgeon's portrayal of this nuanced megalomaniac is the film's highlight.

Ann Francis lends a cheerful and innocent sexuality to the piece that prevents the 1950's sexuality (with the boys getting all hot and bothered over her in what seems like juvenile displays) from being too tedious. They are young men and she is the only girl within 16 light years after all.

But is if the character of the Forbidden Planet itself that dominates the little humans scurrying about its face. Deep, vast and ancient are the ruins of the Krell a mighty race of beings long extinct. Above ground their ruins have disappeared but under the ground in self-maintained splendor are the halls and machines of the Krell. One hundred airshafts that are 20 mile cubes lined with machinery so huge as to beggar the imagination, cool the Great Krell Machine as it murmurs to itself of its unknown purpose.

Morbius reveals that his intelligence was tripled by a near lethal encounter with a Krell teaching machine in one of their labs, over which he build his house. Morbius has power enough to rule but he plans a benevolent dictatorship, sitting guard over his hoard like a dragon and dispensing the ‘safe' parts to earth when he deems it practical. Nor is he minded to be dictated to by the young captain of the C-57D. Morbius is further disturbed by his daughters awakening sexuality which fastens on Adams.

The situation is heading for explosion. One night the ship is broken into by an unseen creature and equipment sabotaged. The next night first blood is drawn, the planetary force has awoken and somehow passes the guards to murder the chief engineer, played by Richard Anderson of later Six Million Dollar man fame.

The C57D is a warship and deploys crew and weapons for a surface slugfest, erecting an energy barrier. The attack is not long in common. Despite heavy long range fire from the ship's batteries something closes in on them. When finally it hits the barrier the invisible enemy is seen, a bestial outline in the disintegrator beams like a child's nightmare.

Despite the fantastic power poured into warding it off it kills several before disappearing.


Now there is no choice left but to flee. Adams and Ostrow go to pick up Morbius and Altaira. Initially they are forestalled by Robby.
There the film climaxes when Ostrow takes the same brain boost that Morbius did. Before dying he reveals that Morbius failed to understand that the great machine was to give each Krell total control over matter by mere thought. But the Krell, who had long outgrown their aggressive past gave no thought to their own long-buried and disregarded subconscious, the Id. The Krell perished in a night of horror as every being's secret fears and rages were armed and let loose.

There is only one being whose unconscious mind is powerful enough to use the great machine, Dr Morbius. The doctor has no control over the monster he has given birth to. "Kill me," he screams, "kill me. My evil self is at that door and I have no power to stop it." But driven by a father's love he faces his evil self and denies it power. The shock of confronting the monster tears his mind asunder and Morbius falls dying. Before he passes he tells Adams to throw a lever that he himself must have created and placed there in a moment of sanity. The Krell furnaces are in an overload that cannot be stopped. They must flee as the world will explode in 24 hours taking this uncontainable danger from humanities path. Altaira, Robby and the surviving crew watch as Altair IV explodes in unimaginable violence.

Forbidden Planet is for me the archetypical and definitive "Planet Story" in which a group of adventurers face peril on an alien planet from mysterious and ancient sources. It was one of my major inspirations in my own work, Was Once A Hero. This movie sets the standard for visual imagery of the future that was not in my opinion exceeded until the first Star Wars movie raised the bar with a less imaginative plot. I am especially fond of the landing sequence of the space cruiser C-57D ( a rather unimaginative name in a movie otherwise bursting with creativity.)

The movie is drenched in color (other than of the crew which is all white and male) and gives a sense of alieness superior to any other SF movie prior to Avatar. This is good as the performances of this movie are adequate but not stellar. Some of it is the times, in the 1950's the range of emotionality allowed a male action hero was pretty sparse. The acting style of Leslie Nielson as Commander J.J. Adams is Spartan at best. Dr Ostrow his surgeon has a more mature outlook on the world, something actually developed far better in the 1956 book (issued in 1967) by W. J Stuart. The number 2 is a randy "space wolf" Jerry Farman who makes you wish for the restraint of a Mr. Spock

This is a movie of many firsts. Forbidden Planet was set entirely on another planet in deep space, away from the Earth. Forbidden Planet features the groundbreaking use of an all-electronic musical score, the eerie sound of which is the films signature. Robbie the Robot was really the first portrayal of an artificial intelligence personality making him more than just a walking tin can. Though not explicitly stated, Robbie appears governed by the same programming laws of Asimov's robots.

There are disappointments. Earl Holliman hated his part as the comic relief in the form of the boozing cookie, a hangover WWII stereotype. Some things were better thought out in the book, such as the earth-type animals seen on Altair. Morbius claimed the Krell brought them back. In the book they were mere simulacrums activated by Morbius' mind. The courtship between Adams and Altaira starts in a rather juvenile fashion which is more easy to accept with her, as he is the first man she has seen but really has to do with 1950's sensibilities, quickly though it moves into deeper and more interesting channels.

Yet these are quibbles. Forbidden planets scales the heights of imagination and the depths of the human psyche. I think it holds its own with any contemporary movie, if one can deal with the one gender, one race crew. The movies remain a microcosm of our times and sometimes hold our faults up to the future. One should remember that even eleven years later, when another saucer-shaped spacecraft took off to face her perils, that though she bore men and women of every race and even an alien as an officer, this was regarded as radical and ground-breaking. But in many ways when Enterprise moved out, she followed a trail already blazed by her smaller slower sister, the C57D.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Andre Norton Star Born reviewed

Member Book Review: Star Born, by Andre NortonEdit

Member Book Review: Star Born, by Andre NortonStar Born, by Andre Norton
Year first published: 1957
Review by Ed McKeown

Star Born is the exciting sequel to The Star Are Ours. After a nuclear was, a small band of Free Scientists breaks free of the Dark Age being imposed on the shattered Earth by Pax. In a sleeper starship some fity humans escape across space to a world they name Astra to disappear from the pages of human history. They find freedom, but not paradise, on a world that also has fallen from war. The remnants of two native species, the peaceful mer-folk, and the survivors of “Those Others” a xenophobic race with high technology sporadically battle on Astra. The human colonists seek only to live in peace but of necessity align with the mer-folk.

Star Born begins with Dalgard, a descendant of Dard Norris, the protagonist of the first book. He travels with Sssuri, his “knife brother” of the mer-folk. Dalgard is on his first journey of exploration, a rite of passage he must endure in order to become a full adult member of his tribe. The Free Scientists retain their desire to explore Astra though their technology has disappeared in the four generations that the Terrans have lived on Astra. Dalgard bears a knife and bow and more resemblance to a Native American than to the original spacers. Yet he carries the scientific method with him and while technology has been impossible to preserve knowledge has remained. The Terrans are not regressing but developing in different ways. The Mer-people who appear to have been genetically engineered and developed by those others from an animal species are limited telepaths. Each generation of humans has been better able to communicate with the mind touch, extending it to the animals of Astra as well.

Centuries pass and back on Earth Pax falls, and is replaced by a democratic government. Hyperdrive is discovered and Earth launches its first starships. One of these, the RS10 ( a rather unimaginative name I felt) carries with it Raf Kurbi, young loner, the pilot of the flitter a small atmospheric craft for exploring whatever new world they find.

Dalgard having his ancestors wanderlust and curiosity is heading toward one of the deserted bases of “Those Others” while the humanoid Others are similar in appearance to humans, their minds are so alien that contemplations of their color-coded communications have driven humans near mad. The science of Those Others has been put aside by the colonists and ignored by the mer-folk whose hatred of their former masters knows no limit.

Dalgard and Sussurri head for the base only to find that it is deserted no longer. Those Others have returned in a globe airship to loot their old labs for weapons and devices. Over their heads comes the RS10 landing at this critical moment in Astra’s history. Against the odds, RS10 comes down on Astra but its landing is very different from the landing of the original Free Scientist Colony ship. They land on the continent of Those Others, meeting them almost immediately. The natives and the humans are wary of each other, none more so then Raf, whose distrust of the aliens is immediate and visceral. Unfortunately it is perceived as mere prejudice by his captain, a sin in the new society that fought free of Pax, and he is initially disregarded.

Those Others however cannot conceal, even it occurred to them to do so, their true nature, imperious, xenophobic and contemptuous of all life not their own. While the humans travel with Those Others learning some of their astonishing technology and visiting their ruins, they are horrified to watch an attack by the globe ship on a group of furred mer-folk. The humans are unsure if the mer-folk are animals or people but the chilling brutality begins to tell on them.

Meanwhile Dalgard is stalking the expedition of “Those Others”and Sussurri has returned to warn the colony and the tribe. Dalgard is captured by Those Others, who are alarmed and astonished to find a human in alliance with the mer-folk. While they are confused by his appearance, they are viscerally disgusted by his friendship with their slave race/ Dalgard is taken to the arena in the depleted city of “Those Others” to be thrown to dinosaur-like beasts with a merman prisoner.

Dalgard has been using his limited telepathic powers to call for help. He is shocked when he contacts not a mer-person or a colonist but Raf. The young pilot, the embers of his distrust of Those Others now fanned to bright flame, intervenes to free the pair bringing an open break with the Starship and Those Others.

Raf and Dalgard find a mer-folk tribe nearby preparing for a hopeless attack. But with Raf’s weapons and explosives perhaps it is no longer so hopeless. It all turns on Raf. If the Globeship and its warehouse of weapons and recovered treasures are destroyed then it may be that the rise of Those Others, degenerate and few in number can be checked.

Raf and Dalgard face to choices, to support each other in a way that the visiting starship had no wish to participate in. And beyond that lies a greater choice, RS10 has not come to stay. Dalgard fears that reestablishing a tie with Earth will end the evolution of the Terrans into Astrans. Must they follow the same path of science and technology as the Earthmen or should they continue on the path that they are on. Two young men, two choices and a world in the balance.

Read it and find out.

Pros, Andre Norton’s clear writing and engaging characters, usually young people seeking to find their way in life, becoming the adults who will lead in their worlds. Colorful descriptions even in the smaller details make the ruined cities and countryside of this new world very vivid.

Cons- The YA and Boy’s Own quality gives the book a slightly dated feel as does Forbidden Planet’s all while make crew of the C57D. An update of this would make one of the leads female for a more interesting story. The RS10 is probably the least developed part of the book and the starship crew sometimes seems both a bit cluless and underdeveloped.

For all its shortcomings there is really nothing wrong with the charming tale of otherworld and its unexpected friendship between these too little more than boys.

SFReader - Member Book Review: Star Born, by Andre Norton

SFReader - Member Book Review: Star Born, by Andre Norton

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Was of the Worlds

Member Movie Review: War of the WorldsThe War of the Worlds
Directed by Byron Haskin
Starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson
Review by Ed McKeown

This version of War of the Worlds is not a perfect movie but it is one of the best adaptations of the book, particularly in a visual sense. The movie opens with an ominous voice over a tour of the Solar System using the art work of the great Chesley Bonestell.

The movie is told from the POV of Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) and Sylvia Van Buren, small town girl and niece of the local pastor (Ann Robinson) when Martian War machines land in the Pacific Northwest. The humans act in a logical fashion, unlike in so many first contact movies where we shoot the alien as he offers us a present (The Day the Earth Stood Still) or try to dissect the people who have the technology to move across interstellar depths (Starman)

Almost literally following a plan I laid out in an article published in SFWA Bulletin, Humanity establishes an exclusion zone, moving in military assets and moving out most of the civilian population so that the contact can be controlled and hopefully peaceful. But it is not to be. Peaceful overtures are scorned. Combat is immediate and no quarter is given by the Martians. They want the planet and they do not want us in any significant numbers around.

The Martian war machines, which remind me of the later Klingon cruisers are protected by deflector screens and armor that defeats our best weapons. The scene of slaughter is repeated around the world as the combined military of the world’s powers hurl themselves on the invaders to save the population of Earth.

The professor and young lady are the first to see the face of the enemy and draw first blood for us. Wounding a particularly adventurous Martian who dismounts to explore a human habitation. Armed now with some damaged Martian equipment and a sample of Martian blood they retreat to the labs trying to come up with countermeasures,

Since we are traveling with the science team we get to see the development of the strategy against the Martians. “We know we can’t defeat their machines, we must defeat them.” But before a chembiological counter can be developed, the aliens press the attack. In the chaos of a failing society, humans cease to cooperate, turn on each other destroying our last chance for an effective defense.

Forrester wanders the devastated LA, looking in the growing chaos for Sylvia. All is lost and he only wants to find her, maybe just to die with her. Realizing the pastor’s niece would seek God’s presence for her final hours, he finds her in a church as the Martians move in to sterilize LA.

But something is wrong, Martian machines are falling from the sky, grounding all around them. The chembiological counterattack has begun but it is not of man’s making, rather it has been brewing for billions of years. Earth, far more fecund and varied then dying and barren Mars, has overwhelmed whatever immunities and filters the Martian’s had. The enemy expedition force is literally sick to death. Disease annihilates them, leaving their machines for us to explore and to learn from in our second chance and the inevitably rematch, hopefully on Mars.

There is a strong religious sentiment to the movie, that God has moved in answer to prayers. One may wonder why God allowed millions or billions to fall first but that issue, the question of evil has vexed philosophers and religious thinkers since the days of the cave and this movie can no more answer that question that any other party can, but it does pose it in an interesting fashion.

War of the Worlds is sumptuously visual, decently and occasionally excellently acted. Because of the POV and the higher level we do not get that much into the nitty gritty of a dying society as is done in the later Tom Cruise movie. I also thought that later film was interesting as the combat was not utterly one-sided as here. Even in the book, the Martians occasionally suffered reverses, such as when the hidden battery took one machine down and the Thunder Child warship accounted for another.

Recommended for the capture of the sense of helpless and horror that one faces in a situation where technology has hopelessly outmatched one side. The Iraqi Army must have felt this in the battle of 73 Easting where they were were slaughtered by fourth-generation US armor in their second and third-generation Russian equipment, losing 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 personnel carriers. and 30 trucks in 23 minutes with no American losses.

Fans of the Flying Wing and other antique military equipment may enjoy the film for that reason. This War of the Worlds is very much a capture of the time in which it was done. Science and Reason are our weapons but they do not totally trump Faith in this movie.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Them! A classic movie reviewed

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Member Movie Review: Them!Them!
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Written by Ted Sherdeman, Russell Hughes, George Worthing Yates (story)
Starring James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness
Released June 19, 1954
Running time 94 min.

"When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict."
The above lines are intoned by a Professor Medford at the culmination of the movie “Them” first and best of the “Big Bug” black and white movies of the 1950. For me this film is the pinnacle of the black and white SF movie, with its serious and professional acting and taut writing. There are no spare scenes in this movie, no nonsense dialogue for all that a great deal of time is devoted to developing even the most transient of characters, from a surly railroad detective, to a hopeless but colorful drunk, to a police officer alone at a crime scene, turning out the light to move out to face an unknown horror.

The plot of this movie slowly unfurls as a combination of noir mystery and police procedural. In the high deserts of NM not far from the atomic proving grounds a small girl wanders in her pajamas in the desert. A police plane guides a patrol car to pick her up. The police officer, Peterson, played with a hard-boiled toughness over a tender heart by James Whitmore, finds the girl catatonic, obviously a tragedy has occurred nearby. A trail of missing persons and destroyed property leads the FBI in the person of Jim Arness to join the hunt. Then one of the officers disappears. Something unseen is in the desert, something not easily killed, something deadly.

Help appears in the unlikely form of Professors Medford, Edmund Gwyn in one of his most nuanced roles and his daughter Pat Medford played by with an almost modern sensibility by Joan Weldon. Both are professors in the science of myrmecology, the study of ants, responding to a 24 centimeter footprint that they recognize as being an ants. The professors face disbelief until a foray in the desert brings the team face-to-face with a giant ant. A hail of .45 slugs from a Thompson brings it down. The military is called in and the giant ant mound in discovered along with the picked bones of the disappeared. The nest is attacked with gas the deadly ants are held in by gunfire until the gas gets the mutants.

Note that I did not say monsters. Unlike the dinosaurs of Jurrassic Park (who seemed to have nothing better to do then chase humans) or the monsters of Alien and so many other movies, the ants are not monsters. They are larger carniverous ants. They do not hate us they don’t even hunt us if there is something else easier to hunt. In short they behave like animals and not like monsters.

In a scene way ahead of its time in showing respect for women, it is Pat Medford who must lead the team into the mound to tell if the attack has destroyed all the mutants.

In a scene as harrowing as any in Alien, Dr Medford, Peterson, and Graham must penetrate the gassed and partly collapsed Ant nest to determine if the Queens have been destroyed. This leads to one of the best exchanges in all of Science fiction, when Peterson is assured the gas must have saturated the next. “Boy if I can still lift an arm a few hours from now I’ll show you what saturated really means.”

They learn that several Queen ants have escaped the nest before it was attacked. The battle against the giant ants goes on in secret, with the ants taking over a freighter that is sunk by a cruiser until a nest is established in LA. The threat becomes public when the ants attack a father named Lodge and his two sons. The father fights to save his children who flee into the underground sewers of LA. The army must go in save the children and destroy the menace before any other queens hatch and seal the doom of humanity.

One can be dismissive of the science behind mutation and a giant ant (after all we have had only minor mutations from Bikini, a veritable atomic hell on Earth. It would however miss the point of these movies. It is less about the monster than about the reaction of humans to the monster. In that Them is a triumph. The greatest warrior in the fight is an elderly professor who can only get off his knees with assistance. While when battle is joined it is with flame-thrower and rifle grenade, SMG and M-1s wielded by young men, the campaign is run with the brains of the two Medfords.

There is a quality to the men in this movie that is refreshing and bracing even in these often anti-heroic times. They are not the alienated Dirty Harry or Neo. Nor are they the overblown and posturing Schwarzenegger of Commando, or the often cardboard heroes of the films of the 1930s. These are the men of WWII, quiet, determined, able to face the charging ants with the same controlled fear and resolution that they awaited a banzai charge or the grinding treads of Hitler’s panzers. In that, the real world service of Arness (purple heart and bronze star) and to a lesser extent Whitmore (Marine) may have leaked through.

These men seem different somehow, respectful of women, tough when they need to be tough, yet tender with Mrs. Lodge as she grieves for her dead husband and missing children and always treating other human beings as human beings. One gets the impression of the perseverance of film noir grittiness but without the soul-dead qualities that sometimes accompanied those characters. These men are resolute, staring cold-eyed at the threat. Whoever and whatever the enemy is, they will close with him, fix him in place and eliminate him. You would be proud to buy them a beer and humble to drink it in their company.

There really did not seem to be even a bit player or character actor who was not on his game in this film. Whitmore and Gwyn were already well-known. Jim Arness was just starting his promising career. The film features a performance by Fess parker (Davy Crockett) that helped launch him and Leonard Nimoy has a brief speaking part as well. Everyone seemed to relish their roles.

Okay the special effects are dated and simple but all good stories are about people and the people are the strength of Them, where the special effects exist only to support the plot not to replace it. I give this film my highest recommendation and it remains one of my favorites.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Art of the Critique Group

I have been getting a lot of questions about my critique group possibly becasue of all of the credit I keep referring to them for whatever success I have had.  This led me to offer this reprint of an article carried in the Pastel Journal.  Schelly and I worked on this together as we both belong to critique groups and have profited by that.  A good group can get you on your way a bad one is only destructive.  This article works for writing critique groups as well as just substitute Writer for Artist.

The Art of the Critique Group
Schelly Keefer
Edward McKeown
All of us want our work to be the best we can produce.  To reach our fullest potential we sometimes need a little help from our artist friends.  As artists we spend probably too much time alone in our studios, not quite happy with the results, having lost perspective.  Or we might be feeling brave and trying a new approach or media and need to have knowledgeable people we can run it by for their reaction. 
A critique group, if properly managed can be a valuable resource.  I have always felt that more artists or art groups would use this tool if they just had a blueprint for how to start one and how to avoid the usual and obvious pitfalls that come from doing it badly.  This article discusses some basic guidelines for how to set up such a group and the different types of groups that can be formed. 
The two types of groups I have worked with are open groups formed from the members of a larger art organization, and private groups.  The open groups are generally open to any member and the size of the group may vary a great deal.  Private groups are formed by invitation, allowing you to work with a smaller group of artists, who are more closely related in skill and career objectives.
With a large open group, it is best to hold the session at a regularly scheduled time and location or it will quickly fall apart.  I usually had it announced at the monthly organization meeting and in its newsletter.  Having a regular session scheduled was often incentive for people to get their pieces finished in time for us to take a look at it.  In an open group full of active artists, you my have many people show up with lots of artwork to cover.  This work will often cover quite the gamut of media and styles.  Some may bring multiple pieces.  At the beginning of the session, I would take stock of how many artists have shown up and how much they were carrying.  As our critique group was limited to two hours, which is about as long as practical, I’d have each artist put up one piece, in turn, for critique.  After going through the group once, we would restart in the same order and go through the additional pieces.  I tried to vary who went first, working the room right to left sometimes and then reversing it others.  I would make allowances for people who had to go to work or had other scheduling issues if they approached me beforehand.
A private group is more easily run as the person starting it knows the other artists and has some idea of their work, skill level and temperament.  Unlike the large public group it can easily be assembled when there is sufficient work to make a session worthwhile.  Such groups will go into greater detail and depth in critiquing the work as they know each other and feel more comfortable digging in a bit deeper.  I find that four to six is a good size for this sort of group, which can easily meet in a house or private studio and be convened at less regular time. 
The mix in a private group is very important. One possible downside to such a group is the danger of conformity.  People with similar styles may not challenge each other that much.  My current group has artists who work in pastels, oil, watercolor & mixed media.  They paint landscapes, portraits, still lives, abstracts, & florals.  All are artists who are consistently juried into shows and often win.  I feel very fortunate to have such talented people to help me.  It is a balm for my artistic soul to run paintings by my group before dropping them off at the gallery that reps me (The Red Sky Gallery in Charlotte NC  My critique group is my first line of defense against bad work. 
It is a good idea to aim your group at one end or the other of the artist spectrum, beginner or advanced.  With an art organization open group you will likely have to accept artists of widely varying skill levels.  That’s just the nature of that sort of that group.  Whoever walks in is made welcome.  De facto then, larger open groups will be more oriented toward beginner to intermediate artists, who have joined Guilds and Leagues looking for feedback.  These artists require more time and attention and will advance more slowly.  They have less training and will have to be introduced to concepts that an experienced artist will pick up immediately.  I can tell an advanced artist to define the landscape using the shapes of your shadows.  With a beginner I might have to tell or show them what that actually meant.  Fortunately, with other artwork on hand you can often pick up another piece and say, “See how the shadow here tells us that the road is flat and then defines the curve of the bank beside it.”
Mixing in a beginner with an advanced group may seem like you are doing the person a favor, but in reality, you will probably leave them frustrated.  You don’t throw people in the deep end of the pool to teach them to swim.  Yes, we know that there are stories of people thrown into the deep end who prospered, but bear in mind those that didn’t aren’t around to testify to what a lousy idea that was!
It’s important that the group have some minimal structure.  Artists hate rules and other emotional or intellectual straightjackets, but without a few rules you risk hurt feelings, and worst of all, art that gets stifled or abandoned.  There are roles in a critique group. While the roles do not have to be very formal, they do exist:
The Moderator.  I like this word because of the implication of moderation.  A moderator doesn’t have to have a black robe or gavel, nor do they need a loud voice.  Their role is to help the group function smoothly and to stay on task.  Someone once said that getting artists to do anything is like herding cats, and there’s some truth to that.  Okay, there’s a lot of truth to it.

Moderators do not need to be the best artists in the group.  They do need sufficient mastery of the subject to allow them to serve as a leader.  It is an important distinction that the moderator is not a teacher.  The group itself functions as the teacher, even if all it can do sometimes is raise questions in the mind of the artist.  Moderators may even turn over the discussion to a better artist in the group to make a point.

A moderator’s essential role is keep the discussion positive and on point.  The moderator needs to always have control of the agenda and the time.  If someone is carrying on a bit much, a moderator may need to lean and say, “Thank you.  Now as to this next piece…” or “We’ve covered that adequately.  Let’s move on.”
Moderators know that critique time is limited and should be used for critiquing.  While we want the group to remain as informal as possible, there are pieces to cover and advice to give. Discussions of grandchildren, politics, or the weekend need to be minimal or shelved.  While humor and camaraderie will be prized and encouraged, we need to stay on task.

The Presenting Artist: The role of the presenting artist is to listen to critiques without defending or arguing.  Remember that when your work hangs in a show, you won’t be able to stand by it and explain the concepts to the passersby.  The piece will have to speak for itself. Assume a good intent on the part of the critic.  This will be good practice for dealing with real jurors. 
The presenting artist may be asked at some point to say what he or she was doing or trying to express.  Note that this is different from defending or arguing the critique.  You have now been invited to explain.  This is great practice for selling to buyers, galleries or for teaching or public speaking engagements related to your art.  Use it to develop those skills.  Despite our desire that it do so, art doesn’t sell itself.  Learn how to speak succinctly about your art in the few minutes that a gallery owner or patron will give you.

The Critic: This is a critique group, not a support group.  We are trying to reach new heights and looking for hands to pull us up.  We need perspective and challenge.  People don’t like the words, “critique” or “criticism” but even using another word would not change the essential nature of what goes on in such a group.  It is the first place that your work comes out of the studio and stands before the world, and that is scary.
It’s not criticism that should be feared.  The well-known Hungarian watercolorist, Zoltan Szabo, told me to “Expose your work to as much criticism as you can find. Artists need thick skins as well as brushes. The only way you can lose is if you do not try.”

However, criticism can be delivered with tact, or it can be done in a manner that is destructive.  This brings us to the most important point.  The critiquer is standing in for the world when they view a piece.  That is an awesome responsibility.  The critiquer must offer meaningful criticism in an adult, professional and very civil manner.  Your parents hopefully taught you that there is right and wrong way to say anything.  Use the language of diplomacy and understand that I am not urging “political correctness” but the “Golden Rule.”  All members of the group must make every effort to be sensitive to the artist’s feelings.

How would you want to hear it expressed? “You blew the perspective,” or “Perspective could be stronger and here’s how.”  It’s the difference between, “You chose the wrong colors,” and “I’m afraid those don’t work for me because…”  Emphasize the positive without trying to pretend the negative does not exist.  I often think of this as, what did the artist do right and where is there room for improvement?  Often the smallest improvements will lift the level of a painting significantly.
I like to have each person critique for three to five minutes but I don’t want them to feel compelled to use the full time unless they are adding something.  In the event that I, as moderator, feel the criticism is, for whatever reason, straying from the useful, I may ask the critiquer to move on or drop a point for the sake of amity.

Here are a couple of points that I found useful in creating a critique etiquette:

1) be present when you are in the group.  That means cell phones off, Blackberrys and PDAs in your bag and text messagers will be shot on sight.  If you do not have time to devote to your fellow artists, then come another time when you do.  Electronics have led to a collapse of civility in our culture and to the rise of a group of people who do nothing with full attention.  Art is more important than that.

2) Try to avoid interrupting others when they hold the floor for their critique.

3) It is not your job to persuade the artist that your critique is correct. You offer information. They use it or they don’t.  Don’t argue a critique.  I feel that is the reader comes away with no other piece of information from this article than this, you’ll have the most important point. This is not a workshop or classroom experience and sometimes a lot of damage is done to art and artist by failing to follow this rule.
4) Liking a piece or not is immaterial to a critique, though clearly it helps to enjoy the work you are looking at.  Though I am not fond of Thomas Kinkaid’s work, that doesn’t remove him from the pantheon of immensely successful artists. You are trying to help the artist to express themselves effectively-not to make them paint something you like.  The issue is, it a successful painting?  Does it contain the basic elements of design: good use of values, line and shape?  Is the color palette effective? 
5) If you find a piece offensive you may pass on it by doing no more than advising the moderator that you do not feel you can do an effective critique.
Armed with these thoughts and concepts, I hope that you will find it easier to start such a group or less intimidating to attend one.  In the final analysis, a critique group is way of helping others and helping yourself at the same time.

Sidebar #1 “ It’s about becoming, not being”
I hear this one all the time; “My work isn’t good enough for a critique group.” Or “My work’s not ready to be seen yet.”  That is about fear and hiding out.  Sometimes we are required to be a bit brave, to take the plunge, to pull the painting out and put it on the easel in front of everyone.

One of the nice things that used to happen for me when I ran a critique group was to have people who had not yet shown work come and sit in a meeting. After seeing how the critique group conducted itself in a positive manner, they would go out to their car and bring in their work. I realized that I as moderator, and the others as critiquers, had acted in a way that made it possible for these beginning artists to find their courage and bring their pieces into the light.  They’d come to check it out, prepared to slip away if the experience was cold or destructive.  We had gained their trust. Not as much by what we said, as by how we said it.

The point of a critique group is to make the work better, to Become. If you were already at the end of your journey as an artist you wouldn’t have much need for a critique group. You would already Be the artist that you are trying to become.

I doubt I will ever get so accomplished that I won’t need the advice and reactions of my fellow artists to guide me to that place beyond myself, out of my comfort zone, where my true art lurks, tantalizing, like a mystical unicorn, ready to leap out of sight if I let my focus slip.

Sidebar #3 Roberts Rules of Order or “We’ve got to get organized!”

Sometimes in critique groups, particularly a large group, it may be useful to add a bit of procedure such things as adding a new member, moving to a new location or time.  You may wish to put up a motion and have a vote.  Having a set of rules that already exists and has a track record, beats making them up: or any bookstore.

Sidebar #4 “It’s about the positive.”

One of my favorite experiences concerned a piece by a woman who was a beginner.  The piece was an acceptable effort commensurate with her ability, but admittedly not a very highly skilled piece of work on the subject of a French countryside.  I asked her to put it up but not to say anything about it.  Then I asked the group what was the one thing that they all could recognize.

Everyone came up with the same thing, the French countryside.  The artist wanted to share France with us, and whether she did it as well as Monet, was less relevant than that she  succeeded.  The piece will never hang in the Louvre, but there on that hot North Carolina afternoon in the old biscuit factory we were meeting in, we suddenly found ourselves in the France of our dreams or memories. It could have had better line and color, and there were a hundred and one ways to improve it. The group moved onto that next.  But the most important point was that the artist was as successful as her talent that day could make her.  We should all do so well.

Too often when we think of self-expression, we think of the written or spoken word, but if that were all there was to it, we wouldn’t dance, we wouldn’t sing and we wouldn’t paint.  The piece was not produced for sale.  For some artists the painting is an end in itself.  This one went home with her to stay on her wall and tell everyone about both the artist and her France.

Sidebar#5  What you will need

First you have to have a place to meet.  Many art groups are fortunate enough to have access to their own space.  If yours is not or you are starting from scratch, for a large open group, there are a lot of options: civic centers, schools & churches.  Many apartment complexes or condo subdivisions have a community room or clubhouse.  You might approach an art supply shop such as Michaels or Binders.  They might be happy to host a critique group on the theory that this is the sort of consumer that they are trying to lure into the store.  Barnes and Nobles and Borders do the same for writing groups for that reason.  

Most serious artists will already have the necessary equipment.  The essential is a good solid easel that can hold large work.  It’s also useful to have tabletop easels for the smaller pieces.  I use artboard with clips to display unframed or unfinished work.  Excellent lighting, whether it’s in the room or provided by good clip-on lights added to the easel is critical.   I find the halogen task lighting on my kitchen peninsula to be perfect.  The more comfortable the location, the easier it will be for the artists to sit and relax, so they can focus on the work at hand. 
Schelly Keefer is an award winning impressionist, specializing in pastel and watercolor.  She’s conducted both open and private critique groups as well as offering demonstrations.  Her work has been featured in the international magazine Pastel Journal, UNCC’s Sanskrit Magazine, and the cover of the Chronicle of the Horse.  She has been on NPR and local TV, with numerous mentions in local newspapers.  Schelly is known for her landscapes and cityscapes but paints a wide variety of subjects.  She is represented by the Red Sky Gallery in Charlotte.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Blogging with Robin Renee Ray

We will be blogging with the beautiful  Robin Renee Ray tomorrow and answering questions about Was Once A Hero and other writinng.  You should tune into to see her if nothing else ;-)