Archive for November, 2011

They’re Not Real

I’m going to tread into what might be dangerous territory here, but I’ve been emboldened by Maureen Johnson.  She’s been blogging throughout Nanowrimo, taking questions, and dispensing wisdom about various writing related topics.

I’ve seen this before.  The writer who talks about their characters as real people.  Who personifies them outside of the novel.  Who says that the characters insist on doing certain things, going certain directions, not following instructions.  When I’m at a convention, I make note of panelists who are doing this.  I have not, to this point, avoided a panel because of this type of talk, but I have used it as a tiebreaker between two equally intriguing panels (often necessary, as the best panels of the day are inevitable opposite each other).

I know that, when cornered, any writer who talks this way will, as the questioner in the Auntie MJ post, readily admit that their characters are fictional.  Well, there might be a small minority out there who are having legitimate problems with the lines between reality and fiction, but that’s not a subject for now…or ever in this blog.

I fully recognize the moment in the writing process these writers are talking about.  I appreciate that moment.  I love that moment.  It’s the moment where the story starts to flow so organically that each sentence, each paragraph, each word becomes something you aren’t thinking about.  They’re just something you know.  Something that is flowing forth and becoming effortless prose.  I’ve been there very few times, but the times that I am have been some of the better writing experiences of my life.

During that moment it’s easy to think of the book as an organic thing, a life force using the writer as a conduit for existing.  But those moments pass.  And in the end, it’s just the writer, and I think it’s selling him or herself short to deflect the inspiration, deflect the achievements off onto some other force.  That was all you writing.  Take a bow, pat yourself on the back, and then get back to the process.

Because, ya know, even among some fellow writers you’re going to encounter eye rolls when you talk about your characters like they’re real people.  When talking to non-writers, it’s the kind of behavior that is right up there with conspicuously writing in a Starbucks (future post: why I sometimes write in Starbucks, even having just said that).

That’s it, really.  That’s all I wanted to say.  Rant over.  Feel free to now tell me how I’m wrong, or how I’ve disrespected your writing style.

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A Writer Reviews: Black Death

You have, by all likelihood, never heard of this movie.  And that’s alright, neither had I.  It’s one of those direct-to-DVD releases that showed up in our Netflix recommendations and intrigued us for several reasons.  First was Netflix’s predictive score of 3.9 stars.  Second was appearance that it would be a rather brutal portrayal of plague-era England.  Third was Sean Bean.  And it delivered on everything we hoped for.  Crucifixions, fake witchcraft, nasty teeth, and Sean Bean dying.

This is not a spoiler.  Sean Bean always dies.  Hell, one of those clips is from this movie.  I’ll leave it unspoiled which one.  Hint: none of the ones with guns.

I’ll say this much for the Netflix predictive score, it was dead on.  3.9 is about right for this movie.  I was entertained throughout, but it’s not really going to stick with me.  However, I wanted to pull out one element of the movie and use it as a Writer Reviews subject: the denouement.

I’m sure we all had the denouement drilled into our heads in middle school; it’s all the parts of the story that happen after the climax.  It serves to wrap up the story, wrap up the characters, potentially provide a quick clean-up of a sub plot, and ideally serves to bookend the whole work with the opening.  They’re tough, and I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on them, as they’re one of the areas that I’m still unquestionably growing as a writer.  However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t know a flawed denouement when I see one.

And the denouement is where Black Death falls apart.

The movie ends with the protagonist returning home after all the horrors he has seen in the world, all the evil he’s unintentionally done, all the good he’s tried to do.  This is the standard ending for the heroic journey story.  He is accompanied by the only surviving member of the party (not Sean Bean) who proceeds to provide narration for an extended sequence where the protagonist seeks out revenge for what he has seen.  It’s a really dark sequence, and I typically approve when a movie feels it can Go There, but it fails on two very important fronts.

First: it’s too long.  This is a fault of many movies.  To pull some more mainstream examples of overly long denouements, let’s look at AI: Artificial Intelligence and Return of the King.  In AI, the climax of that movie is the robot boy David finally completing his quest to see the Blue Fairy and begging to be a real boy.  It’s a hell of an ending, too, if you choose to stop the movie at that moment.  The denouement is all that stuff that comes after, set 2000 years in the future and taking 20 minutes to unfold.  It shifts the story to a new location, introduces new concepts, and plays out almost as a short film tacked onto the end of the movie.  Return of the King is absolutely infamous for the length of the denouement, which features several false endings before finally drawing to a close with Samwise home again in the Shire.  Here I give a little more leeway, as the denouement is scaled to the trilogy rather than just the movie, but it still received plenty of criticism.

An overlong denouement has several effects.  For one, it makes the audience all squirmy when they really need to go pee, but that’s more a movie issue than a written issue.  More importantly it can dampen the emotional high of the climax by separating the audience from it, or worse invalidate the emotions of the climax completely.  It also serves as an imposition on the audience’s time and patience.  How much of either the author have to play with depends entirely on the investment they’ve secured from the audience.  It’s hard to keep going back and say “just one more thing,” and ultimately makes the story look poorly structured, like there was so much more to tell but the author got to the end of the main plot too quickly.

Second: it’s told from rumor and conjecture.  I am all for the unreliable narrator in fiction, so long as it’s done well.  In film, it’s so much harder than in written fiction.  Fight Club?  Brilliant use of the unreliable narrator in film.  Black Death?  Not so much.  The trick with the good use of an unreliable narrator is that he or she can’t know they’re unreliable.  It pulls the audience in and leaves them guessing.  The end narration in Black Death begins with the narrator admitting to no direct knowledge of the events as they unfurled.  At that point I’m done with the story, because the narrator has been removed from it without even an opportunity to wonder.

It also relies on narration in a movie largely devoid of it.  However, at least in this case the narration bookends the entire movie.  The denouement is not the place to start narration, though this is really more of a movie problem than a written work problem, as books rely on at least some form of narrator from the start.  However, the sudden narrator in a movie is akin to a book switching suddenly from third to first person in the last chapter.  Consider how jarring that would be as a reader.  Again, this was a flaw of AI.  It’s also the flaw of the original cut of Blade Runner.

Alright.  One of the flaws.

So what are the hallmarks of a good denouement?  Largely they’re successful when they don’t feel like a denouement.  I’m always disappointed when I can step out of a movie or a story and say “aha, I’m in the denouement now” on first consumption.  It’s the same sensation that started the Writer Reviews series when I talked about finding the act breaks in my first viewing of Thor.  This probably doesn’t apply to everyone, but I cannot really dissect a piece of media I’m enjoying it on my first trip through.  If I can, it means I’m not engaged with the story in some way.  And disengagement of the reader/viewer is a problem in any work of fiction.

Be aware of your denouements.  Keep them sort, keep them on task, keep them to the point, and don’t go changing the style of story in them.

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Writing Like Lisa

I waited until today to talk about last week’s Simpsons because Hulu waited until today to put it online.  Here you go (also at the bottom of this post).  It’s required viewing.  It’s the first episode in perhaps a decade I can call “classic” and features a guest spot by Neil Gaiman that goes down as one of the best uses of a guest star the show has had.  It’s also one of the better presentations I’ve seen of the trials and tribulations of becoming a writer.

I just hope we put in enough Steampunk.  Whatever that is.

Not the story line about Homer putting together a dark cabal to write a young adult fantasy novel.  Instead, it’s the plot line of Lisa deciding she’s going to start writing, but not quite knowing how to start writing.  She sorts her music collection to find the right writing songs, she plays “just two more” games of online Boggle, she heads out to a coffee shop (gotta set up the Wifi, just in case you need to research!), she stacks pencils, she watches cat videos, and she even gets into window washing.  All of this is flirting with Procrastination, which can be especially enticing to the new writer, someone like Lisa who just can’t get down to putting that first word on the page.  Those first few words are the hardest.

Can you believe that publishers would lie to their readers just to make an easy million bucks?

I’m part of a group of writers call the Cat Vacuuming Society.  The name comes from the very art of procrastination itself, the moment where you realize that you wouldn’t have to pick up so much cat hair off the furniture if you just cut out the middle man and started vacuuming the cats.  They’re those little tasks that we invent when we want to write, but we don’t want to write.  And they can be fantastically productive tasks.  Doing the dishes.  Cleaning the house.  Everything becomes a fun activity if the alternative is to sit down and actually work on the story.

Cheeseburgers.  French fries.  I’m all over that, pal!

If you don’t want to do something badly enough, there will always be an excuse to not do it.  Honestly, my first piece of advice to a budding writer who is experiencing crippling fits of procrastination is to ask: are you sure you actually want to be a writer?  Because this initial hurdle may go away, but it doesn’t really get easier.  Once you get over the blank page problem, new challenges start.  Researching.  Outlining.  Finishing.  Editing.  Cat vacuuming rears its ugly head with all of them, but they’re all necessary steps along the line.  Then there’s submission.  Rejection.  Heartbreak.  What makes it all worth it?  Acceptance.  It does exist, it is out there, and it’s the end goal of most writers.

Augh!  Writing is the hardest thing ever!

So you still want to be a writer, but you’re still looking at the blank page.  You’ve got fresh coffee out of the pot you just washed and the beans that you finally tracked down after going to three stores, two bodegas, and Colombia because everything had to be just right.  So how to actually start?  I’d heard rumors when I was first starting of people who had wonderfully fleshed out ideas before they ever sat down to write.  Beginnings, middles, and endings all flowed through their heads, sorted themselves nicely, and the book nearly wrote itself.  There may be a few of these novelist savants out there, but most people aren’t.  Oh, you might have a rough idea for a start, a rough idea for a stop and no idea how to get from point A to point B, but when you’re staring down your first piece of written fiction, the best advice I can give is to just start writing.

You can’t write if you don’t know what the competition’s up to.

What?  What kind of crappy-ass advice is that?  The way to stop procrastinating and start writing is to…start writing?  It is, it really is.  There’s no magic trick, none that I’ve discovered on my own, none that I’ve found online, for getting that story started other than starting it.  What you really need in the end is to grant yourself the permission to not be perfect.  I don’t even tend to consider my first pass through a novel or a story as the first draft.  It’s the rough draft.  And I call it that for a very clear reason: it’s rough.  It’s going to change.  A lot!  Chapters might drop out, the story might start in a completely different place.  My own blank page fear came out of a notion that the opening line had to be perfect, but it doesn’t.  Not at first.  That will come later.  You have permission to mess up, to not start in the right place, to be a hack, to suck.  Why?  Because those are things that can be fixed.  Not having written, however, that can’t be fixed without writing.  I know at least one fellow writer who doesn’t even get to the starting place of her novel until she’s written for 10,000 words.  That’s extreme, but that’s her process.  It works for her.  It focuses her thought, lets her fiddle around with world building, and when she finally does hit that starting point she’s off to the races.

Your name could be on a book in 10 minutes.
Do I have to do any writing?

So there it is.  My big stupid secret for getting away from procrastination and starting the damn story.  It sounds simple, but it took me a hell of a long time to figure it out.  It’s also one of the reasons that I stand behind Nanowrimo as a powerful tool for a new writer, as it provides a support group and deadline, both of which can be damn powerful tools when it comes to getting over not just the initial hurdle of that first blank page, but any other hurdles that come along.  Yes yes, I just suggested Nanowrimo as a tool on the 28th of November, far too late to get into the game.  But you don’t have to wait until next year.  There’s always little competitions going on, flash fiction contests, alternate Nano months.  There’s no right or wrong time to start writing.

No.  There is a wrong time.  “Never.”  Never is the wrong time.

British Fonzie is right.

One or two actually observations on the episode itself.  I love when television talks about writing, because it falls into the “write what you know” category.  I talked about this when I posted Castle’s advice for overcoming failure a few months back.  Writers on shows have been there, they’ve dealt with starting, struggling, and breaking in.  So whenever a show talks about writing, gives advice about writing, it feels very much like a few tips being given from the writing staff to anyone out there still working at it.

Kansas City?  Kansas City.

At the beginning, Lisa is shocked to find out one of her favorite genre writers is actually a puppeteer, and expresses doubt that anyone could be both.  Oh, Lisa, Lisa, Lisa.

Oh, and Team Schmuul forever.

And the most brilliant part is…I don’t even know how to read!

Oh hey, Hulu allows for embedding.  Sorry if you’re reading this a month later:

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Thankful Writer is Thankful

Unless I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “save draft,” today is the day before Thanksgiving.  Though it may seem trite, I’d like to use the occasion to talk about what I feel thankful for as a writer.  Certainly this is not a comprehensive list of everything I’m thankful for, just a curated list of what has made my life as a writer better.

Scrivener.  I’ve talked about it a lot lately, I realize, but that’s because it’s turned out to be the first actual writing tool I’ve used.  Oh, I’ve tried other products that called themselves writing tools, but in the end they were little more than toys to be played with then put away as I went back to Word.  This is the first product that has actually changed my process as a writer for what I feel is the better, and for that I am thankful.  Of course, there’s that little toy called the “name generator” bundled in, but that’s just for when I’m seriously writer’s blocking.

Vacuumed Cats.  I’ve heard so many horror stories about bad writers group, especially from my fellow members of the Cat Vacuuming Society of Northern Virginia.  I joined the group years ago while doing Nanowrimo and have constantly welcomed their presences as cheerleaders, beta readers, ass kickers, and their attempts to push me into a more extroverted state at conventions.  The last hasn’t succeeded yet, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the effort.

Flash Fiction Contests.  I’ve stepped away from them the last two weeks while trying to get my brain into Nickajack mode, but they’ve kept me creatively energized lately, given me story concepts, and even inspired my own Flashathon insanity.  I worry a critical mass has been reached with regards to new ones, but there’s at least one contest now every week day, so they’re always there and waiting for when I want a quick bit of writing inspiration.

Collaboration.  Doesn’t hurt that my wife is my cohort in crime on this new novel, but collaboration is bringing more out of this story than I could have put into it alone.  I’m not going to say that every novel should be a collaboration, but at some level most novels are, just so long as the writer is doing any bouncing of ideas.  This is just a more detailed idea-and-draft bouncing that is working well as we can both focus on our strengths, which are complimentary.

Readers.  Not just my readers, but all readers everywhere.  People who would want to read my stories.  People who wouldn’t.  The mere existence of readers in the world requires writers, creates markets, drives demand, and gives me hope going forward in all my projects.

This is just a subset of those things that make me love my life.  Just those things that pertain to writing.  The full list is so much longer.  So let’s take a few days off, let’s enjoy some friends, some family, some turkey, and meet back here on Monday.

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Biblical Names

I finally sat down and worked out a first draft of the Biblical Names list for the Scrivener Name Generator.  If you just want the list, you can find it in the Scrivener tab above (handy link).  When playing around with the list in the generator, I found it played very well with both the Virginia First Families last name list, and the Civil War Generals list.  Probably because those periods in time featured a lot more emphasis on children being given Biblical Names.

So why did I want this list?

Civil War era names.  Biblical names were much more popular in the early 1800s, when those individuals who got involved in the Civil War were born.  That makes the list good for the 1870s novel I’m working on, and probably a good go to name generator for American-based Steampunk.  I’ve also made good use of Biblical names when creating an isolated or otherwise anachronistic society.  The list does contain several standard names (David, Jonathan, Mark, James) but it also includes several names that immediately stand out more in modern society (Abaddon, Dathan, Joezer, Zedekiah).

Now is where I get comments from angry Zedekiahs, I’m sure.

There are modern groups that lean more towards Biblical names, especially Amish society.  That might be why they strike me as feeling appropriate for isolated groups.

I’ve not done this before in the first name lists, but I’ve also included name meanings, since that was a driving force behind the use of these names.  Especially given the sheer number that paraphrase down to “hey, isn’t God awesome?”  I’ve had mixed success actually searching for name meanings that I know are in the list after importing it, I hope it’s working correctly, but I’m not entirely sure it is.

My goal is to expand the list as I go, and I’ll tweet updates when they happen.  There are names (such as Maher-shalal-hash-baz) that I know aren’t in there yet, but the challenge is finding lists that are easily digestible with both gender and meanings included.

Next big project will be along similar lines: Saints, with patronage in place of name meaning.

On a side note, I’d like to say this is turning into an interesting and ultimately fun project.  I’ve always enjoyed randomizers, more so when I have the opportunity to seed them.  I used to play a game called Age of Empires II that included several built-in random map generators, meant to give every starting player equal access to the necessary resources to win, without having the map be entirely predictable.  When an expansion came out, the company opened up the random map generation code to the public and let people go to town.  That was the last time I can remember having this much fun generating randomization files.  Just something about putting a file together, compiling it, hitting the randomize button, and seeing the fruit of my labor.  Having it work.  It appeals to the bits of me that learned programming in college and thought that would be my career.  Hell, at one point I even wrote a Visual Basic program that would automatically generate random map files for AoE2.  Yes, that’s the kind of geek I was.

So, as with all the files, share.  Use.  Enjoy!  And let me know if they’re helpful, or if there’s any glaring problems with them.

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Some announcements

I was working on today’s post in my head starting about 8:15pm last night, halfway through a fantastic Simpsons episode (a phrase I never again expected to apply to a new episode).  However, the episode doesn’t go live on Hulu until a week from today and I wanted to link to it, so that will have to wait.  Needless to say, if you’re a writer and Tivoed it out of curiosity to see Gaiman…it will not disappoint.

So instead I thought I’d make a couple of announcements that I’ve been holding off on, but feel this is the right time for them.

DL Cruise 2012.  It’s become the thing to do the last few years, offering a cruise special for friends and fans.  I was considering offering one in 2012, with nightly flash fiction marathons and plenty of absinthe at the bars.  Then I realized two important things.  First is that I dislike cruises and what I saw of the cruise industry in general from the one I was on.  Second is that I likely lack the cache to even sell out a stateroom.  Therefore there will not be a DL Cruise is 2012.  Really, I probably shouldn’t have even brought it up.

Anthology.  I’d also like to announce that I will not be doing an anthology.  Oh sure, the thought has crossed my mind, as I’m sure it crosses the minds of most writers.  I know this first hand because I have three writers I follow on Twitter who announced anthologies within days of each other.  However I can’t read stories nearly fast enough to keep up with a slush pile, I can’t edit well enough to send stories back, and I’m not confrontational enough to reject writers who have put their babies into my hands.  It would have been an anthology of science fiction set on Venus, but it won’t, because there isn’t going to be one.

Huh.  This announcement thing isn’t quite going like I’d intended.

Nickajack.  Started, and it feels so good to be back into long form fiction again.  It’s a different process than I’ve done in the past, as this work will be a collaboration between myself and my wife.  We’ve worked together on a few simple spec scripts before, but never on anything quite so long and detailed as a novel.  The first chapter is drafted and in her hands, which reminds me of one thing: I hate the part of collaboration where I’m done with what I can do and have passed it off.  There’s this weird switch in my head that starts coming up with all sorts of new ideas just as soon as I’ve promised not to put anything new into a project.  But that’s good.  I’m taking notes on all of them, and Chapter Two should be a hell of a lot of fun to write.

One other bit of unrelated.  The favorite bit of tech that I created in my very first crack at noveling was a special purpose analytical engine called The Barkeep.  It was programmed by punch cards using codes to state a type of liquor and a quantity.  It wouldn’t always get the drink right, especially as the bottles had to be reloaded by hand, but was only meant to be a flight of fancy from the bar owner.  So I was delighted when I saw this today:

The video is a little dark, but it’s a simple bartending system run by an Android phone and using a scale it can zeroize to mix pre-programmed drinks.  It lacks a lot of the panache of the Barkeep, but it still made me happy to see.  And makes me wonder if there might be room for the Barkeep in either Nickajack or one of its hopeful followups.

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Villains, Antagonists…and Nemeses

A song came out recently.  A fantastic song by one of my favorite troubadours, Jonathan Coulton.  If you don’t know the name, if you’re a gamer you know his work.  He wrote the fantastic songs that close out the Portal games.  His latest album is Artificial Heart and includes a song called Nemeses which…look, I could describe it, but the embedding function in Youtube means I can just show it to you:

My wife is lucky this song wasn’t out two years ago, or I might have lobbied to have it be the first dance at our wedding (as is I fought for a different Coulton song, I’m Your Moon, which ended up as our second dance).

In part I’ve been listening to this song so much recently because it is a fantastic song.  It really is.  Something about the delivery of the line “well played,” just sells the whole thing.  However, it also invaded my brain because, for the first time, I’m writing a story that includes an actual nemesis.

Let me stop here and give my own definitions of a few terms.  First we have a character who is striving towards a particular goal.  In my book this is called “a character.”  If that character is the primary focus of the story, that’s a protagonist.  If a character’s goals are in opposition to the protagonist, that’s an antagonist.  If a character’s goals are in opposition to the laws and cultures of the society, that’s a villain.  I’ve been meaning to look at the differences between antagonists and villains, and that will come in a future Writer Reviews post, just as soon as I pick between Dr. Horrible and The Prestige.

A nemesis, in my dictionary of terms, is that antagonist who is not just working towards goals that put him into opposition with the protagonist, but intentionally chooses goals because they are in opposition to the protagonist.

Basically an antagonist does not need the goal “I will defeat the protagonist.”  A nemesis does.  A nemesis is also often evenly matched to the protagonist, potentially very slightly over matched.  The antagonist in any Sherlock Holmes story is the murderer.  Or the thief.  Whomever Holmes is tracking down.  The nemesis in a Holmes story?  That’s Moriarty.  He doesn’t appear that often, but he was specifically created to confound and be an equal to Holmes.  They don’t have to be an equal.  Superman has plenty of villains, but the only real nemesis is Lex Luthor, the squishy human with no superpowers except knowing where to find glowing green rocks.

Plenty of stories, therefore, have antagonists.  Few have nemeses.  And that’s what makes it an interesting new character to put together.  What puts the thought in the head of a character that he not only wants to achieve his own goals, but specifically wants to destroy the good guy, to bring him down and drag him through the dirt.  Is it to prove a point?  To redress an actual or perceived slight?  Is it bitterness over going bald?

And in the end, the concept of a nemesis comes down to the old cliché: the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.  And that’s what the song sums up nicely, the odd codependent relationship that is either on or just beneath the surface with a nemesis.  “Could it be that you need me to keep out, to run you faster…” This has resulted in two tropes that play on the concept of the nemesis.  The first is the concept of an unrequited nemesis, much like unrequited love (poor Johnny Snow).  The other is the idea of a character suffering an existential crisis after the final (often accidental) defeat of a nemesis, most recently the movie Mastermind.  Either connects with us, because we recognize somewhere that this is nearly a romantic relationship, so it ends up playing on our own memories of heartbreak, just poked at from a different direction.  It turns into an existential crisis.

Comic pitch: Existential Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The one caution.  Just as a character who is nothing but a sighing unrequited lover isn’t interesting beyond…really the few words that I already said, so too does the Nemesis need to have his own character and personality, and goals beyond just the defeat/destruction of the hero.  That may be a goal that is complimentary to the defeat of the protagonist, or directly caused by the defeat, but it needs to be there.  World domination is always nice.

People love a nemesis in fiction.  It’s always the character that shows back up in a TV series that people love to hate.  Like Q.  It brings out the full potential of the protagonist, or even forces the protagonist down a darker path.  To come full circle with Jonathan Coulton, it’s part of what made Portal such a popular game.  Few video games have managed to create a nemesis for the player, rather than just a final boss or a few scattered big bad guys.  GladOS manages to be something that Bowser or Dr. Eggman never managed to be.  It’s not a character that every story needs, but it can be a damn powerful character.  But with great power comes great responsibility.  Alright, back to character sketching.

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I Create Intellectual Property

I’ve said recently I never get political in this blog.  Well…I’m about to get political.  Because today is a day of action against a bill that is being put forward as a way of protecting intellectual property, or IP, but includes provisions that have implications far beyond those intentions.  The bill is SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and it attempts to give the United States and its corporations censorship authority over the internet in an attempt to police any perceived violation of IP.  This is dangerous legislation that gives entirely too much power over an international channel of free speech to individuals and organizations who don’t necessarily care about said speech.

Don’t know about SOPA?  Some more information:

PROTECT IP Act Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

Some reading from Gizmodo.

This is the internet.  It belongs to everyone.

I create Intellectual Property, anyone who writes does.  And I want that IP protected.  But…it is.  There’s already plenty of provisions in place that legitimately protect IP without passing legislation that will do nothing to stop those who are looking to pirate, the bill’s very stated claim, while only serving to harass websites and social media.

So this IP creator says thanks, but no thanks, to this protection.

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Hey. Hey Apple. Apple. Hey.

A little secret: I stopped watching Once Upon a Time.  So I don’t know whether they’ve continued the Honey Crisp/Red Delicious screw up.  What I do know is I’m still getting Google hits every Monday morning for some variation of “once upon a time honeycrisp apple.”  What I also know is that apples have shown up on another genre television show, a show that’s been frustrating the hell out of me, even as I give it more chances than I think it really deserves.

Yup.  The apples have gone 85 million years back in time to appear on Terra Nova.

This time it had nothing to do with the variety of apples used, but rather an apple blight and a CGI beetle that loves eating apple blight.  It was tangential to the primary plot of the show, but worked something like this.  Step one: blighted trees, ruined crop.  Step two: release beetles.  Step three: beautiful trees, bounteous crop.  All in the course of less than a week.

Blight really doesn’t work that way.  It destroy entire yields of crops, it kills trees.  No amount of magic CGI beetle is going to surgically remove just the infected bits of an apple and leave beautiful fruit behind for everyone to enjoy and bake into pies to feed to young children who never got to have an apple pie back home because the future was just that miserable!  Deep breath.  This seems like such a little nit to pick, but it leads up to my new rule for genre television:

Judge shows by their use of apples.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Once Upon a Time: Couldn’t be bothered to properly source the right kinds of apples for scenes.  Terra Nova: misunderstands just how devastating a blight is to a crop and paints it as a reversible thing.  American Horror Story: when Zachery Quinto is raging out about gala apples, by god, they’re gala effing apples.

And which of those three shows is the strongest?  Easily American Horror Story.

So now I’m going to be on the lookout for apples in other genre shows, just to see if the pattern holds up.  And it does make sense as a pattern, because this really has nothing to do with apples and everything to do with just paying attention to the little details.  Because those are often just as important as the big ones.

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A Writer Reviews: Hell on Wheels

If you could live in any period in history, what would it be?  Whenever I see that question asked, I’m shocked that more people don’t answer “right now,” for the simple reason that most of history, to put it bluntly, sucked.  Yes, people have idealized versions of historic periods.  The SCA adores the middle ages.  Steampunks adore the Victorian Era.  American politicians adore the 1950s.  But in each of those instances, the world that’s been remembered, the world that’s been idealized, the world that people are waxing so philosophical about was a dirty, ugly place filled with disease and death.

Not to mention dirty, ugly people.

As a society we’re certainly not perfect.  There’s still a lot of inequity between races, genders, religions (and lack thereof), sexuality, and any number of other elements that we can use to define who is different within the United States.  That said, we’re at a point in our history where the country is as inclusive as it’s ever been.  There are periods in our own history where the modern view of “racist” was the contemporary view of “normal.”  Such as, to pick an example at random, the post Civil War era.

Enter Hell on Wheels, AMC’s new drama surrounding the building of the Union Pacific half of the Transcontinental Railroad.

I’ve never been a big fan of Westerns, so I’m a bad one to discuss their history, but Hell on Wheel strikes me as a more modern breed of Western that I don’t remember existing before Unforgiven, a realm also inhabited by the remake of True Grit.  It’s a West full of grit, smoke, racism, bodily functions, and general suck.  And it’s a West that, in its presentation, feels more real than the more idealized frontier presented in what earlier Westerns I’m familiar with.

The writing lesson I’m getting at?  There are times it pays to be true to the source era.

Oh certainly there are times that it doesn’t.  Presenting an idealized past has long been a part of the Hollywood cannon, and has a certain place in lighter fair or children’s movies.  But the willingness of the fiction consuming audience to go swimming in a grittier and all together more realistic version of these previously spit-polished ages is as high as ever.

Hell on Wheels lands firmly in the shadow of the Civil War and the earliest phases of Asian immigration into California.  These were tough times for the country.  There were still tensions between those who fought on either side of the war.  There were the demographics of suddenly freed slaves and suddenly slaveless holders at odds with each other, and at the same time a suddenly expanded working class looking to earn a living.  There was a casual and almost expected racism to the age amongst landed whites of not just the south, but the north as well.  There was a renewed push into Native territory as the nation sought to better unite East and West while working through the challenges of reintegrating North and South.

Hell on Wheels is shying away from very little of this, and is better for it.  It paints a world of hard men who live, use, and move along.  One of the closing shots of the first episode is the filth left by the traveling city following the railroad builders, an indictment of an era of consumption, the repercussions are often ignored in the crafting of the Western.  It’s images like that, bits of the world left uncommented on by the “locals,” as it is where they live after all, but glaring to the modern eye.  It’s one of those places where the visual medium will always have its advantages over those of us working in print, brief and powerful images that can be a second of airtime.  We get them back in other ways, though.

For all the grit and horrible, my wife has even argued that it could go just a little farther.  That it pulled a punch by having its main character be a former slave owner and Confederate officer, but one who freed his slaves a few months before the war began.  One who fought for pride, rather than prejudice.  It would be a harder line to walk, it would be a harder character to like, and it would make the budding…well, friendship is the wrong word for the protagonist’s relationship with the primary freedman character.  Perhaps alliance?  It would make the budding alliance more complex.  But on the positive side, it would make it more complex, and complexity is the source of drama and plot.

I think the cliché of a setting becoming a character is overused, and often misused.  I’ve said it before, settings are not characters, and the setting is not a character in Hell on Wheels.  It is a rich environment that helps make all the other characters seem all that more real.  As all settings in dramas should be.  They should inform the character, define them, and make them who they are.  So while the setting is never really a character, neither are the characters without a setting.  By injecting more reality into the setting, the writer is injecting more reality into the characters.  It’s knowing just how much grit the characters need in a story that should dictate just how much grit must be afforded to the world around them.

For those who have missed the show so far, the pilot is available on AMC’s website until November 30th.  Give it a watch.  Stick around for Colm Meaney’s fantastic speech at the end of the episode.  If nothing else in the pilot had hooked me, that would have.  It starts at 44:35, and is a fantastic monograph on the villain in fiction, and reminds us that every character needs to be the start of his or her own story.  More of that in a future Writer Reviews, I’m sure.

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