Friday, August 27, 2010

Someone You Can Root For

Is it just me—or has this summer’s movie line up been pretty dismal?

I haven’t seen many movies this year—but the ones I have gone to all seem to have one thing in common, and it’s not good: Characters I don’t give a damn about.

Kurt Vonnegut’s second rule of creative writing is this:
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

I think this should apply to screen plays, short stories and novels alike. And I guess that’s where I find the following movies lacking good character(s) (just to name a few)….

THE EXPENDABLES: I won’t say I had high hopes for this film and I did think selected moments were fun (the ensemble cast, Mickey Rourke as the tattoo artist, the Jet Li/Dolph Lundgren fight scene were all good) BUT I can’t say that I cared about what might happen to any of the primary characters. And why should I? Essentially the main characters were all paid assassins out to kill a bad dictator. Who should I care about here? The paid killers or the “bad” guy about to get killed? The title said it all in this case. The characters didn’t really matter a lot in this movie, all expendable. There were explosions-a-plenty, lots of gunfire, stabbings, severed body parts, gratuitous wrestling scenes, but no noble motivations for the audience to grasp onto, no underdogs to cheer for, no characters that were unique or captivating. (Contrast this movie with the original Rocky, one of the great underdog stories of all time--also written by Sly Stallone.)

PREDATORS: I thought the opening to this movie was great and the alien setting cool, but the further this movie progressed, the less I cared if any of the characters made it out alive or not. Should I root for the sex offender (maybe the character with the most complete story arc), the South American drug lord (he buys it way too early so that would have been a bad choice), the wimpy “doctor,” or, or—well I really found no one to root for, except maybe the Predators. But that’s not supposed to be who I’m rooting for is it? Is it? The only good news to come out of this movie? Adrien Brody if he chooses to follow Arnold’s and Jesse’s lead is now assured a governorship somewhere.

THE LAST AIRBENDER: My wife, son and I have been viewing the Nickelodeon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” this summer. We’ve found it very entertaining—mostly because of the charming characters and their interplay. Somehow M. Night Shyamalan (whose movies I otherwise really enjoy) missed the endearing parts of the characters in his movie and instead focused on checking off plot points. In the cartoon Uncle Iroh is one of my favorite characters with his quiet wisdom and love of tea. Aang (the Avatar) also laughs frequently and takes time out to play and enjoy life amidst the seriousness of his journeys. Somehow all these character moments were missing on the big screen version.
One of my fav Airbender episodes, for when you have 22 minutes:

I could go on but I won’t. All I’m really asking of Hollywood—and you if you’re a writer for the screen or otherwise—is for you to give me someone, anyone I can care about and want to spend time with in your writing. Give me someone funny, or charming, or in danger, or struggling for survival, or trying to save the human race or someone just quirky enough to be interesting. You get the idea. And I’ll try to do the same.

By the way, a few other 2010 movies that failed my character test: Legion (horrible movie on many levels--it made me long for the apocalypse), Ninja Assassin (rented this one—a blood fest), The Wolf Man (I liked it for other reasons, but not for the characters), Clash of the Titans (all the characters in this movie were sacrificed to the God’s of CGI. Terrible).

My favorite pictures so far in 2010 for great characters: Youth in Revolt (go Nick Twisp/Francois Dillinger!) and Iron Man 2 (What’s not to love about a one-man arsenal with a drinking problem? But don’t get me started on the annoyance level of Pepper Potts). Do you have a favorite character from a movie this year? I’d like to hear about it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hump Day Surprise: Star Wars!

As I write this Star Wars Celebration V is in full swing. I see the tweets from the fellow Legion of Geek and while Star Wars has been a huge part of my life I can't say that I'm at all jealous of those who are there. While I may still pick up the occasional Star Wars comic or novel, I think that Star Wars is mostly done for me. I don't mean dead, I just mean done, a past chapter of my life, like college. It's something I'll look on fondly, maybe even revisit once in a while, but I don't think it will ever again be as all-encompassing as it used to be.

That said, there are times, like this, when I find myself thinking back to all the fond memories. Everything from sitting in the theater, trying not to pee in my Tough Skins while Luke, Han, Leia, & Chewbacca are getting smashed by the trash compactor , to the total madhouse midnight Toys "R" Us opening for Phantom Menace merchandise.

I think one of my favorite memories would have to be in the Special Editions first came out. I remember sitting in the theater with my lovely wife. The place was amped. People were practically bursting with excitement. Some guy in the front kept yelling “Chewie!” Then, chills went down my spine as the 20th Century Fox anthem played, the trumpet fanfare blared, and STAR WARS flashed onto the screen. The scroll rolled, we saw Tatooine, Leia’s Rebel Blockade Runner, laser flash, and Darth Vader’s Imperial Star Destroyer filling the screen.


What's your favorite Star Wars memory?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Shawn's Awesome List of Favorite Writers

I'm the late comer to this list of favorite writers thing that's been going on here. You would think that going last would make it easier, but the truth is I'm a little intimidated by what everyone else has read. Not ashamed, not by any means, but a little intimidated. Truth is, I've never really been interested in reading the classics or the greats. Look at my bookshelves and you'll see that fantasy has dominated my repertoire. Look closer, and you'll see much of it is from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It's not that I don't like the newer stuff, but rather I've been reading fewer novels as I do more writing (and read more comics).

Let's get to it, shall we?

Here, in alphabetical order, are my top10.

Brian Michael Bendis. If you've paid attention you've seen me wax poetic about this guy before. In my opinion, Brian Michael Bendis ranks among the best of those currently writing comics. I've never tried writing a comic, but I think it would be every bit as challenging as writing a novel. It's incredibly sparse writing and it's a terribly difficult medium in which to convey emotion and character development. Brian Michael Bendis is one of the masters. If you have any doubts about that, read Powers Vol 7: Forever.

Orson Scott Card. There are only two books I’ve ever read in their entirety in one day in one day and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is one. This book blew me away when I read it in high school and it’s still one of my all time favorites.

Stephen King. I need to read more Stephen King. Outside of The Dark Tower books, I’ve only ready a few of his books but The Dark Tower series is a modern classic. Sure, the last book in the series kinda left me wanting, but really, how do you end something like that? And the rest were stunning, so he gets a bye.

Ronald D. Moore. An odd choice maybe, but this guy is a master story teller. He played a major role in production and script development for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and he was the architect of the new Battlestar Galactica, all of which are in my top TV shows list.

J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter. Need I say anything else? By the way, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the other book I read in a day.

Dan Simmons. I met Dan Simmons at a book signing at Dreamhaven - many moons ago. He was a super nice guy and someday I hope to meet him again. His books Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion are not only among the best books I have ever read, but they are direct influences to my current WIP. Interesting side note: he has also written Carrion Comfort, which is a novel about vampires and was written WAY before the current vampire craze. All you vampire junkies should check it out. ;-)

J. Michael Straczynski. JMS wrote the vast majority of Bablyon 5, which is still one of my top TV shows of all time. He also writes comics, movies and novels. I read one of his novels, which was decent, but his comics are top notch. Midnight Nation is still one of my all time favorite graphic novels.

Judith Tarr. Judith Tarr is a beautiful writer. She writes a lot of historical fantasy and she has an enviable talent for bringing the past life. Almost all of her books have strong female characters, which is commonplace today, but was a bit unusual back in the early 90’s at (what I would consider) the height of her career. Her work is another direct influence to my WIP.

J. R. R. Tolkien. Here's another author who I don't need to introduce. And it should be no surprise to anyone who has read my WIP that The Lord of the Rings is another direct influence. Epic fantasy, baby. LOVE IT!

Joss Whedon. This is probably the most frivolous choice on my list, but I couldn't pass up sticking him in. And really, why not? Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Serenity, the graphic novel Fray, And Doctor Horrible’s Sing-along Blog are all full of awesome.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Lisa's Second List of Stupendous Literary Stuff

If you missed it, see here for LFLFLF (the first list). Now on to LSLSLS:

I love them on film. I love them in writing. Can't think of any I've loved in song.... I love how in a good dystopia, you can see how we could get from, say, a rising trend in fundamentalism right here, right now to The Handmaid's Tale. It's not surprising that I love dystopias, given that I love retellings from a different perspective (see LFLFLF). That's what I think a dystopia really is: it retells our present from the perspective of our future.

Favorite examples:
Oryx & Crake - Margaret Atwood. Full of amazing detail and research, and of course, amazing writing. Full of tough, tough stuff that usually I wouldn't be able to immerse myself in, but I was completely pulled in by her complicated characters. There's no simple good vs. bad here. Only lots of hard questions and fallible humans. This is the first in a series. The second, The Year of the Flood, is on my soon-to-be-read list.

Parable of the Sower - Octavia Butler. Devastating. Amazing. A very, very dark vision of our future as experienced by Lauren Olamina, a young, black girl who creates a new faith which holds Change as its core principle. As a friend of mine once said after seeing me reading a Butler novel: "Nothing like a writer of color to show us a devastatingly bleak future." I liked the second in the series, Parable of the Talents, less well. I think because it is slightly less bleak, and I could never figure out how we moved from the chaos of the first into the (relative, but still brutal) order of the second.

Things go Badly with the Best of Intentions
I like seeing how badly we can muck things up, especially when we're trying our very best to make things better. Again this connects to my love of dystopias, and my love of retellings from new perspectives. If we were omniscient maybe we wouldn't make the mistakes we do, but because we're often trapped in our own limited perspective we get ourselves into lots of trouble.

Favorite examples:
The Sparrow and Children of God - Mary Doria Russell. You need to read both of these to get the full effect of the stunning miscommunications and misunderstandings between a Jesuit interplanetary expedition and the two species they encounter on Rakhat. A splendid, cautionary, anthropological tale.

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card. Another cautionary, anthropological tale. When the pequeninos try to honor the xenologers later on in the series? Now there's a misunderstanding. A while back, Scribblerati were talking books, and Ender's Game came up. And I asked, all naive-like, about it. And Shawn said, "Oh, you really should read it; it's one of the classics of Sci-Fi." And although he said it in the nicest, non-shaming way, I thought "I am not worthy. I have not read the classics...I do not yet deserve a geek-grrl badge of honor...." But lo and behold, as I started to create my list of books that have inspired my writing, Ender's Game was right at the top. I read it long, long ago, and my mind wanders back to it often. But did I remember the title? or the author? No, I did not. After a bit of web searching, it all fell into place: I AM worthy, I DO deserve a geek-grrl badge...the badge of forgetfulness.

Unreliable Narrators
Narrators who don't know the whole truth. Or who won't tell you the whole truth. I guess I like being messed with a bit, but only when I know full well that I'm being messed with. There's something special, I think, about a narrator who has a bit of character, some flaw or feistiness to them.

Favorite example:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson. You probably had to read "The Lottery" in High School. Castle is Jackson's brilliant novel. Narrated by Merricat, now an 18-year-old, who lives alone with her reclusive older sister, Constance, and ailing uncle, Julian. Merricat just might be magical, just might be insane, and just might have poisoned the rest of her family as a child when she was sent to bed without dinner. I love the slippery feeling I get reading this;I'm wrapped up in Merricat's perspective, but because her narrative is unreliable, I'm never on secure footing. But that's a good thing. A very good thing.

So how did the above influence my WIP? Once We Were Bears isn't a true dystopia, but it does have three Armageddons. And because I've loved how Butler and Atwood take from the now to give me the future, I've pulled most of the dystopic elements straight from disturbing environmental news stories I've heard on NPR. Next, although Beryl keeps destroying the world, she has the best intentions: to save her beloved wilds for the Animal Nations. But, oh my dirt clod, does she make some mistakes along the way. (Did I mention the Armageddons?) Finally, while Beryl's not the novel's narrator, she is an unreliable diarist. She just doesn't understand the limits of her own understanding of the human world, or the likely consequences of her actions well enough not to be. (The actual narrator of the novel is a potato--I hope a potato with a lot of character.)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Distracted and Discombobulated

That's me, man.

I was supposed to post this blog last Friday, but I was way too distracted by this other thing I’m working on. So Friday didn't work out and my plan became that I was going to post something this last weekend, but nope, still nothing, I was still too busy struggling with this piece I’m working on...

...Well, I was busy with that and I also attended Claudia’s Louis Armstrong Birthday Extravaganza, which pretty much takes up your Saturday night AND your Sunday morning—she mixes a mean ass martini, folks. If you ever have the means, I highly recommend having one… it’s so choice.

…But I digress…

So anyway, today inevitably rolls around and it’s somehow still my turn to put up a blog and I somehow still have nothing. Why? Because I’m still caught up. I’m still too distracted, turning this stupid short story over and over in head, poking at it, obsessing over it. Stephen King once wrote somewhere that he visualizes his story creation process as something akin to a knight storming a castle, riding around and around the outer wall, desperately hunting for a way in so he can get at the goods.

Sometimes he finds it. Sometimes he doesn’t.

So my question is: At what point does the knight take his lance and go home, regardless of the vicious taunting he must endure from the French Defenders on the wall while retreating?

At what point is your story a bust?

Basically, what if that lightning strike of inspiration accidentally catches in some dry timber, and instead of suddenly lighting a clear path, it ends up burning your little story structure down?

When do you trunk it and move on?

Ok, here’s the deal: So, I’m working on this aforementioned thing, right? It’s a ten page, 12 point font, single space short story for a possible Anthology I’d heard about second hand through Claudia (one that I might be too late to submit to at this point—oops), and its only requirement is that the story somehow concern life in a “future” twin cities. Now, I’ve written five pages, five “not bad” to “maybe pretty good” pages and I know how it ends, at least in this version, and yet… every time I come back to it, I have to dig at it. I have to rework it, rewrite it, and reshape it, poke, poke, poke, poke, poke… It’s never done. It's never quite right. And I don't mean in a "stuck in an editing loop" kind of way either, no, this is different, this is... there’s just something that’s not quite gelling about the thing. I’ve been mulling over different ways to start it, different points to start it at, different story focuses even-should it be dragons, or should it be a civil war-but it doesn’t matter, because it’s just not quite jiving. My knight can’t find his way into the castle and somewhere inside, the smell of smoke is getting stronger.

I’m not quite ready to concede defeat; I may yet be able to break on through to completion, but… I don’t know… I can see that hard and fast end point, that wall, coming up fast. I’ve still got a couple of days to hammer away at it and maybe get it into some kind of shape, but it’s feeling doubtful. At this point, no matter what, I’m betting I won’t be ready for the next meeting.

Hurmmm… Alright, well, back to it… but in the interim: At what point do you all consider your stories a bust? And what do you do about it?

Totally frustrated,