11 More Tropes of Science Fiction

Because 7 aren’t enough.

  1. Things are never that far away. In Falling Skies, the hero takes a sailboat escaping out of Boston and the next morning he’s pulling into Charleston Harbor. You can barely fly that quickly between the two cities (your flight is likely to be canceled). In Revolution, they walk all over the country like it’s no big deal. One of the hard things when I write a thriller is I actually get a map out, calculate distances, and have to accept it takes time to get from one place to another. In Eternity Base, one of the hardest things was getting all the people down to Antarctica because it’s a long way to get down there!
  2. It’s not just science fiction, but prevalent everywhere. The punch that knocks the other person out. Essentially, when you knock someone out, you’re giving them a concussion. I used to box at West Point and in da’ Bronx and also got a black belt in martial arts, and I can tell you it’s very, very hard to KO someone. It isn’t that hard to put someone out if you can get behind them and they allow you access to there neck and you get a chokehold. Lights out pretty quickly.
  3. Key and Peele had a skit about a secret agent who snapped everyone’s neck, just like that (even by throwing a Frisbee and hitting the bad guy in the head and then his head hits the guy next to him and so on). It was pretty funny. Because, seriously, it isn’t easy to do. And it’s pretty much completely a TV/movie thing, not realistic.
  4. Okay, one of my biggest peeves is the explosion that doesn’t kill someone in the blast radius, but moves In this era of IEDs and traumatic brain injuries, we really need to understand if the explosion moves you, then it most likely kills you; at the very least, it scrambles your brain.  Stop it, Tom Cruise! Watch the opening of Hurt Locker for a more realistic portrayal.1245957311_the-hurt-locker_1
  5. Okay, so the aliens can cross interstellar space, get here, but they can’t open a doorknob? Seriously, dude?
  6. So the aliens can cross interstellar space, get here, but we can write code for their computer and totally crash it, but my Mac can’t talk to a PC without special voodoo?
  7. So the aliens can cross interstellar space, get here, and they want gold? Really?
  8. So the aliens can cross interstellar space, get here, and they simply don’t make our populated areas into parking lots with their advanced weaponry?
  9. So the zombies are on the loose and the best you can do from a convoy of cars out of Atlanta is find a set of nice knives? Seriously? I guarantee you could arm an Infantry battalion with all the guns you’d find in that convoy.
  10. So the zombies are on the loose, and the best you can do is a crappy old camper when there’s lots of new fancy ones abandoned everywhere? Yeah, I know it had his wife’s name on it, but we’re talking survival dude.
  11. I know we have to make people look a little different in scif shows, but is buttoning the top button on the shirt really that radical a look? And isn’t it uncomfortable?

#Nanowrimo Yes, Writers, You Need A Mind

Yeah, you do sort of need one to be a writer contrary to what many who know me think of me.  I’d like to say a little bit more about the mind for two reasons: one is that it is the primary tool you use when writing.  Second, to write good characters, you need to understand the mind because it is the driving force behind your characters’ actions.

As a “machine” the brain is very inefficient.  Physiological psychologists estimate that we use less than ten percent of our brain’s capabilities.  (Rent the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life and see how he uses this in his story.)  In many ways, that is what makes writing fiction so hard and draining: you are trying to expand the portion of your mind that you normally use and tap into your subconscious.  A little bit of understanding of that other 90 or so percent is useful.  It is commonly called the subconscious or the unconscious and plays a very large role in determining our character (key buzz word).  Whether you agree with people such as Freud and Jung, it is useful to know a little bit about their theories.  A fully rounded character has a complete brain and while they may only consciously be using ten percent, that other ninety percent affects their actions.

As a writer you will start having dreams about your story and your characters.  That is your mind working even when you consciously aren’t.  You will also run into “writer’s block” which I believe, when real, is your subconscious telling you to hold until you realize in your conscious mind something important with regard to the story.  This is where the “write what you feel” school of creative writing comes in.  I believe what they are focusing on is this very thing:  the power of the subconscious (90% vs. 10%).  It is more than feeling though; it is a large part of your brain and the better you can get in touch with it and use it, the better your writing will be.

There are many experiences a writer should have in order to understand both their own mind and the minds of other people.  You have to remember that you are not the template for the rest of humanity.  Hard as it may be for some to believe, there are differences between people.

I’ve sometimes said the best thing about a writers’ group is not necessarily the critiquing or networking, but rather watching the different ‘characters’ in the group and trying to figure out what is motivating them to act the way they do.

If you don’t understand yourself both mentally and emotionally, you might have a hard time understanding others.  Therapy can be a very useful tool for a writer to dig into their own mind to figure out where they are coming from.  Yes, if you’re a writer, you need help as I recommend in Write It Forward.

After listening to many authors speak of their creative processes I realize they are talking on two levels.  There’s what they are saying and there is what they are meaning.  The saying part often varies, but they almost always mean the same thing.  For example, there is the issue of outlining.  I know writers who swear by outlining and others who say they don’t outline at all, they just write.  However, I’ve also found those who don’t outline tend to do a lot of rewriting, thus the first draft of their manuscript might be considered a very detailed outline.  Those writers who do a lot of outlining tend to not want to do much rewriting.  But in the final analysis, although the two methods seem very different, they are actually the same in creative essence.

Also remember that there are two sides to the brain.  The right side is your creative part while the left is more analytical and logical– this is where the editor part of you resides.  Sometimes you have to silence that editor while creating or else nothing will get done.

Are you left brain dominant or right brain dominant, or just plain nuts?

10 Reasons Why Writers Should Watch TV; Part II

Same Bat channel.  I covered the first five last week. Now the last five.6


6.  You’ll have a hard time writing your way to a surprise if you know what it is. A group of TV writers will separate things so that one can add the twist to someone else’s thread–but one writer will always leave a trail of crumbs to that point. So, one person can write a twist but then they have to go back and unwrite how they got there. In Chasing the Lost, I thought I had a great ending. Then I talked it out after the first draft was done with my wife because something didn’t feel right and she said: What if? And the ending blew me away. Two movies come to mind: Best Offer, which is flying under the radar but Geoffrey Rush deserves at least an Oscar nomination. M. Night Shamalyn admits the draft of 6th Sense had Bruce Willis alive. Then someone read it and asked . . .

7.  There’s no difference in hooking a reader as hooking a watcher. Watch the opening credits—they’ll point you to what’s key. Focus on the first couple of scenes. How is everything set up? Always reread or rewatch the opening of a story immediately after finishing and you’ll be stunned what you missed the first time around

8.  Putting normal characters in abnormal situations such as Weeds or Orange is the New Black only works because the characters were only pretending to be normal in the first place, ditto for Walter White. Pretending is OK–inconsistent character development is not.  Manhattan works because fictional people in a factual setting are interesting when allowed to grow naturally within the story and you take the time to present them in many different situations but again keep them consistent. The scientist who ditches the guy’s letter from Oak Ridge also ditches the man who could have loved her in the way she wanted to be loved. She doesn’t treat herself any better than she treats others. Writing consistent characters who do things an observer (often the writer) knows is stupid is difficult but it makes the characters real.

9.  You can learn about our own process—what we shy away from: What made us stop watching something? Why? What can we learn from that? It’s as important to focus on what doesn’t work as what does.

10.  We need to study the television business because it reflects what will and is happening in the publishing business. Two big changes in TV: people are binge watching. Netflix and On Demand lead the way in that. Look what Netflix did with House of Cards. Do readers want to wait a year between books in a series? And direct streaming is the future; bypassing even the cable provider. That does not portend well for publishers.

The wealth of storytelling on TV has taught watchers a level of sophistication about story that they’ve never had before. Watching stories has changed the way readers are capable of reading stories. Watching TV has never been as important as it is today.

We will always need content providers—the rest? Eh?

It’s the best time ever to be a writer because the distance between you and the reader is the internet.

Nothing but good times ahead.


Still FREE today:  Duty, Honor, Country: West Point to Mexico

The 10 ‘Manliest’ War Movies, picked by a veteran

Ah, when men were men and the sheep ran scared!

Esquire recently ran a “10 Manliest War Movies” which I thought was a bit lacking; but it was by a movie critic not a veteran, so forgiveness. I wouldn’t even put The Green Berets in the top 25, and I’m a former Green Beret. Also, maybe I’m more of a realist as you’ll see by perusing my own rather dark list. It’s only my opinion and I’m open to your suggestions as there is not right or wrong in this. I also have some honorable mentions. And my memory isn’t what it used to be as Cool Gus and I go into our gray years. The movies are listed in no particular order

Blackhawk Down: The most recent. Having served with people who were there, this one hits close to home. While some Hollywood elements were thrown in, I really liked Mark Bowden’s book on which it is based. He told both sides of the battle, while the movie really only showed one. Still, it shows the confusion and ferocity of modern warfare. And the bravery of the American soldier. Seriously. Rangers are the finest light infantry in the world.

Saving Private Ryan: The brutal opening shocked people and that’s what should be done. Too many movies glorify combat, when the reality is a messy, bloody, melee of confusion and chaos. Dying soldiers do curse, cry out for their mother, and, most especially, don’t want to die.

Cross-of-Iron-Movie-PosterCross of Iron: Classic. The Eastern Front was unbelievably brutal. Read The Forgotten Soldier just to get a glimpse.

The Odd Angry Shot: Most people have never heard of this movie, a 1979 Australian movie about the SAS in Vietnam (Who Dares Wins!). I found it showed the numbing mundaneness along with the terrifying moments of war. Some of our favorite sayings were: “Hurry up and wait” and “Prepare to prepare”. I throw it in just to have something obscure on the list.

Breaker Morant: Another Australian movie. Must like Paths of Glory (below), it focuses on the waste, the betrayal and the darkness of war. And the politics that kill people. The Boer War was where the concentration camp was invented, by the way. By the British. Just saying.

Zulu: I just had to put this in here. I’m covering the massacre at Isandlwanda in my next It Doesn’t Just Happen: The Gift of Failure book (unbelievable blundering) and ending with the courageous stand at Rorke’s Drift. The sound of the Zulu’s in the distance, like a freight train approaching, sends chills down your spine. And the ending, with both sides saluting the other is epic. I write a lot about Shaka Zulu and the way he built his incredible army in my Atlantis series.

Das Boot: Classic. I don’t know how those guys stayed sane on those U-Boats; they mostly didn’t stay alive. They had an unbelievably high casualty rate: 82%. The greatness of humans is we can endure almost anything; that is also our Achilles Heel when that anything is war.

Band of Brothers: Technically not a movie but the mini-series showed the great arc from training, through the end of World War II, from the point of view of the men of Easy Company in the 101st Airborne. The Pacific was confusing, but perhaps showed the trauma of war more deeply. Most Americans don’t realize that those Marines on Guadalcanal were abandoned for a while and could have been annihilated. And the Navy (my father fought in the Navy in WWII) suffered terrible losses.

Letters from Iwo Jima: Yes, the enemy are people too. We want to dehumanize our enemies, but maybe if we all treated each other as people, we wouldn’t be so quick to go to war. Old men and women declare wars and young men and women die in them.

Go Tell the Spartans: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.” Burt Lancaster’s character has a costly affair with a superior’s wife and ends up in Vietnam in 1964. It’s downhill from there.

220px-PathsOfGloryPosterPaths Of Glory: “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

Stanley Kubrick made this movie and it is devastating about the futility and waste of war. As shattering as Gallipoli.

Honorable Mentions-

Ken Burns: The Civil War: Technically not a war movie, but a spectacular mini-series about our bloodiest conflict. It was a West Point war (55 of the 60 major battles had West Pointers commanding both sides) and raises the issue I explore in my Duty, Honor, Country trilogy (by the way, 1st book is free right now): which is more important: Honor or loyalty? I know my answer.

Courage Under Fire—about a brave woman. So not manly? The book was better, because in the book, Denzel Washington’s character was more of a coward in combat, so his investigation was a way for him to try to find out what had been lacking in him that the heroine had.

All Quiet on the Western Front. Classic.

Kelly’s Heroes—the boys loved this movie


Full Metal Jacket

Apocalypse Now—we all want to go a little Kurtz now and then. Seriously—if you’re going to fight a war, you’ve got to go all the way.

Bridge on the River Kwai—just for the whistling. But also how the concept of duty can get perverted. I’d throw King Rat in too.

Dirty Dozen

Catch-22 You think it’s over the top. It’s not really.

The Guns of Navarone Just cause.

Big Red One Lee Marvin made some classic war movies.

A Bridge Too Far—every soldier needs to know this story. I followed the assault path while on Reforger with the 1st Cavalry Division and people still remembered the sacrifice of the Allies. And the Dutch War College did war game the exact operation before the war and concluded it would fail. And the Allies did it anyway.

The Longest Day—a bloated star studded movie (look for Sean Connery in a minor role) but it was the Longest Day. Just read an In Memoriam posting from the West Point Association of Graduates about a West Pointer who was a battalion commander in the 101st and jumped in; and they’ve never found his body. That’s real.

Hurt Locker: Loved the ending. Exactly the way I feel every time I go in the supermarket. Seriously. Ask my wife.

Live, Die, Repeat: The Edge of Tomorrow and Aliens. Just cause. “We’re all gonna die!” “What was he thinking?”


Braveheart—spare me. Walked out on it when the guy behind us giggled every time someone’s head got splattered. And I like how Mel Gibson aged faster that she did. And didn’t Scotland just vote against what these guys in skirts fought for?

The Green Berets—John Wayne doesn’t hook up before he jumps. Enough said.

This is definitely not a complete list. And I’m lacking some movies about earlier wars. Drums Along The Mohawk just jumped into my brain. And Last of the Mohicans!

Let’s hear your suggestions and what’s special about them!



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