Monday, October 28, 2013

More Thoughts On A Better Mandarin ("Iron Man III" Spoilers)

I purchased Iron Man 3 for my friend David for his birthday and that got me thinking more about how the Mandarin could have been handled better than in the actual film. I've blogged about this already, but I've recently thought of another "how I would have done it" that would work in Killian Aldrich, since Guy Pearce did a good job playing him.

So begin the movie the same way, with Tony Stark blowing off the admiring, sickly Killian at a New Year's Eve party, then having his fun with (and presumably ditching immediately afterward) Maya Hansen. Both having been ill-treated by Tony, the two join forces presumably as they did before the main plot begins. However, given how they both were trying to get Tony's support, I'm assuming they're going to need an outside investor. Who do they seek out?

(Drumroll...)

The Mandarin. Early in the movie it seems like Killian is a subordinate or even disciple of the Mandarin and we can play this straight. The Mandarin provides the capital for Killian and Maya to develop the Extremis project, ostensibly for good ends, but the Mandarin has his own agenda. Given his comic book origins, perhaps he seeks to restore the historic dominance of the East over the West, and what better way to do it than use the never-ending War on Terror to bankrupt and demoralize the United States? It's like Palpatine's gambit in the Clone Wars, only the mastermind is the terrorist and not the Chancellor. This way, we can still use the Extremis exploding-soldier plot and Killian's original conspiracy, including the traitorous Vice President.

We can combine Maya's treachery and Killian's longstanding crush on Pepper Potts to cause drama between Tony and Pepper. Pepper remarks that Killian used to ask her out all the time in the kind of annoyed and slightly amused way a pretty popular girl might view a persistent (but non-threatening) nerdy suitor, only to be taken aback to see the stud-muffin post-Extremis Killian. This, and Tony's resulting jealousy, was one of the more amusing parts of the film. If Maya allies herself with Tony, the fact she was one of Tony's many one-night stands during his Jerkass phase could cause issues with Pepper. Killian tries to play on this to woo Pepper himself, resorting to kidnapping and forcible Extremis-izing only when this doesn't work. Due to his health issues, Killian owes so much more to the Mandarin than Maya and could remain loyal out of gratitude for the help in overcoming his disability--and if getting his hands on Pepper at long last is part of the bargain, so much the better.

(In this interview, Guy Pearce's description of Killian's lifelong efforts to overcome the disabilities he was born with make him sound rather sympathetic. This desire would make him vulnerable to manipulation by someone who can cure his disabilities and grateful enough to this benefactor he might be willing to ignore his conscience. Pearce's interview also suggests that while Pepper would never give the sickly, annoying pre-Extremis Killian a second glance, the handsome and confident post-Extremis Killian is an entirely different beast. But if Killian is still weak at his core the way the TVTropes page on him suggests, he could freak out and kidnap Pepper and subject her to the painful and dangerous Extremis process rather than confidently assuming he could "win" her as a triumph over Tony in a non-coercive manner.)

The final act occurs per canon, only instead of Killian killing Maya and Extremis minions capturing Colonel Rhodes and stealing the Iron Patriot armor, it's the Mandarin himself. Not only is he a plotting mastermind behind a worldwide conspiracy reaching all the way to the White House, not only is he a Corrupter playing a sickly and unconfident man for his own purposes, but he wields the until-now-unrevealed power of the Ten Rings (which could be explained in some throwaway line hinting to their alien origins). I could imagine Rhodes being assigned to protect Maya now that she's defected, but the Vice President reveals this to the Mandarin, who comes to punish her personally and defeats Rhodes to do it. Then he assigns one of his Extremis minions to use the Iron Patriot armor to kidnap the president, leading to the final battle.

This battle would be similar to the actual film, only bigger--Extremis-ized Pepper escapes and fights Killian while Tony battles the Mandarin directly. And given how powerful Killian is, it might take them both to bring him down (as it did in the film), allowing the Mandarin to escape to fight Tony again in a future film. Had Shane Black and the other Powers That Be went with this approach, Guy Pearce's performance as Killian could have been largely retained (and, like Maya, he's a sympathetic tragic figure and not just a vindictive creep), the classic Mandarin could still be used, and the theme of "Tony's previous bad behavior comes back to bite him" can be continued.

Of course, that might require someone other than Shane Black running the show and no investment money from China...

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Two More Interesting Alternate-History Scenarios

Still got a lot going on, so this post will be rather brief. It's a couple interesting 20th Century alternate-history scenarios courtesy of my message-board.

The first is A Blunted Sickle, in which the French implement a different war plan and keep a mobile reserve during the lead-up to the German attack. When the breakout in the Ardennes occurs, the French are able to come down on it rather than having their soldiers cut off in Belgium as in our history. The Battle of France just got really interesting. I'd give away some particularly interesting highlights, but the only ones I can think of are spoilers. Sufficient to say, I really recommend this one.

And here's Decimation: A Europe After The French Break at Verdun. World War I is ended a lot earlier than in our history, but Continental Europe descends into revolutionary chaos soon afterward. Notable for a Trotskyist secessionist regime in France, Lenin active in Bohemia, and a whole lot of Balkan bloodletting. Really interesting in terms of concept--it's told like one of Robert Kaplan's travel-books, interspersing description of the present day of an alternate timeline with accounts of the history behind it.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My "Battle for the Wastelands" Plan (and more...)

Hey everybody. I know it's been awhile, but I've been rather busy with graduate school and my various freelance writing clients, including this lucrative gig covering a recent trade show. I haven't had a lot of time to blog or even work on my personal writing (my fiction word count this month is a whopping 232). But I've got something up my sleeve you all might like.

It's been a little over a year since I finished Battle for the Wastelands. Since then I've submitted it to three publishers and a whole bunch of agents. Although I've gotten requests from one agent and one publisher, neither of them went anywhere. Their responses, however, proved quite helpful for further revisions, especially when paired with a helpful discussion on worldbuilding with my friend Matt from one of my writing groups. I also managed to cut it down to 100,000 words from 104,000, hopefully making it easier to sell.

Here's my plan for the book for the remainder of the year. I've submitted it to five agents this month. I intend to keep submitting it to agents only until mid-January, when the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest opens up. I intended to submit it last year, but dawdled while waiting to hear back from a publisher (whom I later found out had lost the manuscript) and by the time I decided to stop waiting, it had filled up. There's a lesson in that.

Should ABNA not provide the results I'm looking for (even if I don't win, one of my friends got a book deal from being a semi- or quarter-finalist, I can't remember which), I will seriously consider submitting it to a small press. One of my other writing friends suggested I submit to a publisher that's put out a pair of anthologies he edited and based on the anthologies' cover art, that might be a really good idea. One reason I'm leery of small presses is that their cover art is often shoddy and obviously CGI, but this one is much higher on the food chain.

In the meantime, I'll try to finish The Thing In The Woods. Most of the actual story is written, which is a bit of a problem--at present it's 36,000 words. One of the people at the pulp panel at DragonCon said 60,000 is an ideal pulp length, while one of the agents I found won't represent anything below 65,000 words. Given I've already planned a series centered around the protagonist I could make the third story the first book in the series and make this a prequel novella, but I'd rather not. My writing groups can surely come up with some suggestions to fill it out.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Writing Contest Results: September

I use Grammarly for proofreading because every time you publish a typo, the errorists win.

Although my bet with my friend Nick has ended, my friend Lauren extended it until the end of the year and so I kept track of what I wrote this month.

*I started writing a short story starring a half-Welsh half-Japanese (well, the pulp fantasy equivalent) samurai and a novel that serves as an expansion of that short story, but didn't write a whole lot in either. However, Mary Robinette Kowal advised on the podcast Writing Excuses short stories should be 4,000 words or shorter, so the story doesn't necessarily have to be all that long. I've plotted out the novel (and outlined some sequels), but that'll be a bigger undertaking.

*Wrote 1,007 new words for The Thing In The Woods in one evening. Between that and a few extra words I added while editing another part of it, it's around 36,000 words now. I found a horror small press that might be a good market for it, but minimum word count is 60,000. At DragonCon one of the pulp writers said 60,000 is a good length for a pulp novel. If I finish without making it to 60,000 words, I might go back and add some content from another character's POV in order to better show his character arc. I might also give the female lead some POVs of her own, but the problem is, she knows a lot that gets revealed to the reader later on. It'd be like having a Littlefinger POV in A Song of Ice and Fire.

*Wrote around 1,300 words for a pulpy short story set in the alternate timeline I wrote called (at present) "Muslim Europe, Christian Middle East." It's not nearly as ridiculous as it sounds, I promise. Basically it's a pirate tale in which a Coptic Egyptian sea captain signs on with the Roman successor states in Italy and North Africa to fight the huge Muslim fleet emerging from Islamic Constantinople (or "Konstantiniyye" as it'd be in Arabic). The headquarters of the Caliphate was moved there instead of Damascus and Persia was able to hold out in this timeline, so imagine the Byzantine Empire after the Islamic explosion with Arabia and the Holy Land down to the Sinai attached. Egypt is independent with its own Roman-style emperor who has adopted the trappings of an Egyptian pharaoh (I think the phrase "the cobra crown of the Caesars" is going to show up). Not sure where I'm going to send it when it's done.

*My single biggest project this month in terms of word count has been a political project entitled A Republican Party That Can Win California. I basically copied all the chapter titles and what I'd written so far into a Word document, which came out to be 2,250 words long or so. This one doesn't require a lot of creativity (or a storyline), just research and citing books. It probably wouldn't be all that long either, so I could bang it out relatively quickly.

(Of course, that's what I thought with The Thing In The Woods. It'll take me a lot less time to finish that than Battle did, but still.)

8,442 words total for the month of September, even though I only worked on fiction nine days out of 30. Graduate school must come first, after all. Onto October!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Kindle Fiction Update: Oct. 2013

I've decided to examine the sales figures for my Kindle short stories now that it's been a little over a year since I self-published the first two, I am the Wendigo and Melon Heads. I went through all the sales spreadsheets Amazon has provided and have totaled them up.

For starters, "Wendigo" has been an unqualified success. I sold fourteen copies in 2012 and nineteen so far in 2013. Thirty-three copies at 35% royalty copies out to $11.55. Considering how I sold it for the first time (in late 2006, to the now-dead webzine Chimaera Serials) for $20, this is a profitable second run indeed. And it's pure profit, considering how Udo Wooten did the cover for free. A lot of paying markets pay $10 or less, so I've made a good business decision self-publishing this one rather than scrounging for a market that would accept a reprint (rare) and pay a decent rate (rarer).

"Melon Heads" came out of the gate strong, selling twenty copies in 2012, sixteen in the release month of September. However, it faltered in 2013, selling only five so far. That's $8.75, which is better than giving it away for free or selling it to one of those $5 magazines. Not as good as I could have gotten if I'd sent it to a $10 magazine, assuming they'd buy it. Unfortunately I tried to promote it using Google Adwords that proved to be an epic fail (no sales whatsoever during the period the ad ran), so this one is still a net money loser despite its stronger sales.

My Lovecraftian tale The Beast of the Bosporus was released later, in November 2012. I sold fourteen copies in 2012 and eleven through September (I've sold one so far this October). Not including the October sale, that's $8.75. Still better than the freebies. This was the first story I've tried to promote with a post on this blog that I managed to get hosted some other places--a faux excerpt from a historical journal implying the story was gleaned from newly discovered Ottoman manuscripts. Fortunately I'd gotten the cover done free as well, so this one has been profitable.

Despite commissioning a beautiful cover, Illegal Alien has proven a disappointment. Only five sales in 2012 and eight sales thus far in 2013 for $4.55. Considering I paid $45 for the cover, this one won't be making a profit for awhile. A pity Kindle publishing didn't exist when I wrote this at the height of the 2006 immigration reform protests or else I could have pulled in some major money due to the timeliness. Life lesson--if you're writing a story to cash in on a current event, Kindle-publish it because by the time a traditional market runs it, it'll be too late. Roger Corman made one of his movies in a month or so to cash in on the Moon landing, but that's not really possible with written fiction.

In August, as sales begin to fall for my original four (only ONE sale in July), I put out three new stories. That spurred sales back to the level they'd been earlier this year, although they never reached the euphoric heights of September 2012. So far the alternate history spy adventure Picking Up Plans In Palma has sold only five copies, all of them in August. Combined my two stories starring superveillain protagonist Andrew Patel, √úbermensch and Needs Must, have sold nine copies, with "Ubermensch" selling seven of those. However, it's too early to write them off as failures, since although "Wendigo" started weak (only six sales the first month), it proved to have good staying power.

This year-long experiment in Kindle publishing has led me to reach some conclusions:

*More "mundane" creature horror sells better than more niche Lovecraftian stuff. However, there's a complicating variable--"Wendigo" is explicitly advertised as a reprint of a traditionally-published story, which no doubt makes it more attractive.

*Horror sells better than science fiction.

*Alternate history and superhero/supervillain tales do worse than standard science fiction.

*If you can get good covers for cheap enough rates, self-publishing can be financially more profitable than sending them to markets that pay only a small amount ($5 or $10) and definitely more profitable than giving them away for free.

You may be tempted to write off Kindle publishing short fiction as a waste of time or a poor investment. However, there is such a thing as a tipping point and it'd be a shame to give up just before you get successful (there's a rather sad cartoon showing a miner giving up when, if he'd dug a few more inches, he'd have found a trove of diamonds). My friend Jeff Baker, in the addendum he added to my guest blog post, said that at LibertyCon, the consensus one needed 20-25 items available on Amazon before they started feeding off each other. And I've just bought a Kindle e-book on guerrilla marketing one's self-published fiction, so hopefully I'll get some good advice and my sales figures will go up.

Still, at DragonCon one year some panelists said short fiction isn't worth the amount of time invested in it. Although I'm going to try to sell my unsold stories and Kindle-publish the ones I can't (I have two fantasy stories submitted to traditional markets at the moment), I'm going to focus on my novels Battle for the Wastelands and The Thing in the Woods. If I can sell one of those, hopefully it'll spur sales for the short stories.