Sunday, April 14, 2019

WHAT IT IS, week ending 4.14.2019



School vacation week is upon us, for my little guy, and in a couple days we'll be winging our way to NYC, from Maine, with a trio of friends.  Sox @ Yanks one night, Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" the next, with some walking exploration of the city, including stops at the Public Library and MoMA (to see Van Gogh's "Starry Night," as requested by our son), among other hotspots, this should be a fun, if quick, time away.  I can't wait!

But, for now, it's time to look back at the week that was.  Let's have at it!


WRITTEN MATERIAL --



Space Crusaders #1: Rex Dexter of Mars, by Christopher Mills & Peter Grau:

Christopher Mills (Leonard Nimoy's Primortals; Femme Noir) has been working in comics for a couple of decades now, and he's finally taken his sensibilities and overlaying them onto older, public-domain characters, in order to create and "Atomic Pulp" universe filled with exciting adventures stories in a hybridization of 1970s comics and classic pulp magazines.  His initial foray is a 40-page space extravaganza, with art from Peter Grau (Valiant's original run of "Magnus Robot Fighter" and "Solar, Man of the Atom," among others), starring Rex Dexter of Mars, and it's wonderful!


This is what an adventure comic should be!  The first thing you notice is the art from Grau.  His linework is sharp and uncluttered, reminiscent of classic comic illustrators like George Pérez or Jim Aparo, and his storytelling is clear while also being dramatic.  The guy can draw, and you never feel lost.  There's definitely something to be said for classic panel layouts with clear delineation.  And the writing--it's top-notch.  Mills gives us all the information we need without it feeling forced or stilted, and the narrative zips along at a crisp pace, providing plenty of action interspersed with just enough downtime to allow readers a quick breather before being propelled along to the next bit of adventure.  Comics can be fun and exciting and engaging without being angsty or overly serious, and Mills understands this fully.  (Not that we need to get rid of these modern approaches, it would just be nice to have more variety.)



If you enjoy fun comics and have a soft spot for adventure, you should definitely check this out.  And keep an eye out for Mills's future offerings from Atomic Pulp, I expect they will be just as enjoyable, too.


INSPIRATION(s) --




Alex de Campi is a music video director and writer, whose comic work includes SMOKE and NO MERCY, both of which are great books.  Check them out. 
Also, you should check out de Campi on twitter where she dispenses writing advice all the time, and it's always good.  This week was another case in point, regarding this.  I shared some screenshots of what she had to say.  You can check it out here . . . or probably just scroll down to the next post, where you should find it. 

MUSIC TO WRITE BY --

Vivaldi's Four Seasons:

Specifically, his Concerto No. 4 in F Minor, "Winter."  I actually came to this work through Netflix's original series, Chef's Table, which is a wonderful docuseries that isn't only about food and food preparation by some of the world's greatest chefs, but it's also a travel show, as the focus is on the chef and their surroundings and life as much as it is about the food.  One of mine and my wife's favorite shows, this piece is the theme music opening every episode.  Its vibrant tempo really enlivens me, helping me to write, but its association with Chef's Table also makes me happy, invigorating my fingers as they skip across the keyboard.  Just brilliant!





ON WRITING --

Made my way through chapter 9, in the revision of the novel, which dropped me below 400 pages on the first draft that are left to rework, which means I have revised 130 pages, translating them into 113.  From a word-count standpoint, I've taken 38,000 words and boiled them down to just under 30,000.  At this rate, I should have a 2nd draft that comes in around 110,000 words.  Not bad, but not exactly where I want to land.  It would be nice to dip below 100K.  With roughly that many words to work with, as I push toward the end, it shouldn't be too difficult to get to where I need to be.  We'll see, maybe those final 10,000 will have to be sheared off with the 3rd draft.

Friday, April 12, 2019

ON WRITING, Alex de Campi with some writing advice

Alex de Campi is a music video director and comic writer whose work includes the mini-series SMOKE, with art by Igor Kordey, and the Image series NO MERCY, with art by Carla Speed McNeil, both of which are great reads.  She regularly offers fantastic writing advice on twitter.  You can follow her @alexdecampi.


Last week, she responded to a tweet from screenwriter/novelist C. Robert Cargill, seen below:




Spurred by this, she offered this great bit of advice:







I am always on the lookout for great advice to help me with my writing.  De Campi has a wealth of knowledge that she freely offers, like that above.  If you're in the same boat as me, I would highly recommend jumping on twitter and following her.  And hopefully, the above was also helpful.  Or, at least interesting.

-chris

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

BLOODLINE -- How Bingeing Leaches a Narrative of Tension



Bloodline Season 2:

The slow fuse lit in the first season of the Netflix series Bloodline, which finally exploded in that final episode, has branched off to another fuse and continues to burn, threatening to destroy the Rayburn family.  With the second season, it inches closer to entrapping John in the skein of lies that surrounds him, as the ghost of their brother, Danny, hangs over all their heads.  I have thoroughly enjoyed this season.  The writing has been top-notch, the acting, especially from Chandler and Mendelsohn and Spacek, stellar, and the setting is still spectacular, while also moody at just the right moments.  But that doesn't mean there aren't things that leave something to be desired.  In one aspect, the series has come to feel formulaic--though not lazily formulaic.



With John's decision to run for sheriff, it has thrust him and his family even more into the spotlight, and his opponent, incumbent sheriff Aguirre, wants to dig more deeply into the events surrounding Danny's death.  This means going back to re-question John and his family.  So now, their initial lies are compounded, because of some experiences in the interim, and Meg and Kevin, especially, find it necessary to add to the list of their lies.  Lies that begin to unravel as Marco, one of John's closest friends in the sheriff's department and his sister's former fiancé, becomes suspicious, thanks to his close relationship with the family.



All of this, from a writing standpoint, is great.  All the tension and drama, subterfuge and deception stems from character and is smartly done.  The formulaic aspect comes when the Rayburns, and others, are confronted with their lies.  Or, more specifically, when they are confronted with questions--from the police, from Sally Rayburn (their mother, played by Sissy Spacek), from Diana, John's wife--who suspect something is wrong and call them on it.  At each point, it seems as if there's nothing for the confronted party to do but admit to the deceit, and many times John or his siblings, Kevin and Meg, will preface a response with something to the effect of:  "I've been holding this in for a long time," or "I can't live like this anymore."  It feels very much like they will confess.  But in the end, they confess to something different.  As examples:  John tells his mother that he knew of Danny's son well before they brought it to her attention; Kevin tells Marco, the sheriff's deputy, that he didn't come clean about the burnt-out boat because he recognized it as one his cocaine dealer had docked at his marina.  Every time, they squeak out from beneath the specter of the big lie.



It's smart, and it speaks to how fully realized these characters have become, and how earlier scenes that had one intent are able to be repurposed for these later scenes.  But, you quickly come to realize that when confronted with suspicion by someone in a position of authority--even Kevin, the drug-addled alcoholic who has been frantic about Danny's death and always seemed the one who would crack under the pressure--the Rayburns will play as if they are going to confess and then swerve to offer something just as juicy and legitimately plausible, in order to deflect that suspicion.  It happens multiple times in the show, and it's meant to heighten the tension within the drama.



Which, again, isn't to say that it isn't done well.  All the swerves are quite plausible, coming from character and from their backstories, and they never feel forced (though the ease with which these characters sometimes offer up "second options" can sometimes feel inauthentic, but not enough to pull you out of the show).  It's just, once you know the pattern it does sap a bit of the dramatic tension from events.  Maybe that's due to the way we watch these shows now, one episode after another after another, with no time in between to mull over what happened and contemplate the consequences.  It is possible that the old pattern, from network days, of watching an episode a week, with regular breaks during production resulting in weeks without a new episode, might have hidden this pattern, at least a little while longer than an episode or two.



Ultimately, though, there's plenty to learn, here, as far as writing engaging narratives.  The big takeaway for me, from watching season 2 of Bloodline, is to try and have multiple narrative threads for characters, whether those threads are just family backstory or a drug problem that remains in the background or something else, because these are the things the writers of the show utilized for these swerves.  I suppose it's the same as stating one should create complex characters with full lives for your fiction, because, when all is said and done, that is what this is.  The writers seeded the show with these glimpses into the personal lives of the characters, including the messed up family dynamic of the Rayburns, and the drug issues for Kevin, and once those were established, they were able to pull on these threads to not only push the narrative forward but ratchet up the tension in the process.  It's certainly made for an entertaining series, thus far.  And maybe, if I weren't so addicted that I need to watch the next episode now, I wouldn't have gleaned the pattern so quickly.

-chris

Sunday, April 7, 2019

WHAT IT IS week ending 4.7.2019

April is here, which means it's really, honest to god, officially springtime.  Which also means, up here in Maine, that we are still getting snow.  Luckily, I'm in the central part of the state where a snowstorm now means big, fluffy flakes all day long that only amounts to a couple of inches of accumulation.  Down east, where I grew up, they got substantially more.  But, with the warming temps, it won't stay for long.
Ah, well, onward and forward, up up and away, let's get to the heart of the matter . . . the week that was.




VISUAL MEDIA --

Bloodline:
The slow fuse lit in the first season, threatening to destroy the Rayburn family, continues to burn, inching closer to entrapping John in the tapestry of lies that continue to spread, as the ghost of their brother, Danny, hangs over all their heads.  I have thoroughly enjoyed this season, even if, at times, it feels formulaic--which isn't to say that it is lazily formulaic. 



With John's decision to run for sheriff, it put him and his family into the spotlight, and his opponent, incumbent sheriff Aguirre, wants to dig a little more deeply into Danny's death.  This means going back to re-question John and his family, resulting in more lies shared with authorities, lies that begin to unravel as Marco, one of John's closest friends in the sheriff's department and his sister's former fiance, becomes suspicious, thanks to his long, close relationship with the family.



The formulaic aspect comes in when the Rayburns, and others, are confronted with their lies, or, more specifically, with questions from either the police or their mother or John's wife, who know something doesn't add up or suspect something and call them on it.  At that point, it seems as if there's nothing for them to do but to admit to the deceit, and many times John or his brother Kevin or their sister Meg will preface a response with something to the effect of:  "I've been holding this in for a long time," or "I can't live like this anymore."  It feels like they will confess, but then they confess to something different--as examples, John tells his mother that he knew of Danny's son well before they brought it to her and Kevin tells Marco, the sheriff's deputy, that he didn't come clean about the burnt-out boat because he recognized it as one his cocaine dealer had docked at his marina.



You quickly come to realize that when confronted with suspicion by someone in a position of authority--even Kevin, the drug-addled alcoholic who has been frantic about Danny's death and always seemed the one who would crack under the pressure--the Rayburns will play as if they are going to confess and then swerve to offer something just as juicy and, legitimately, plausible, in order to deflect that suspicion.



Which, again, isn't to say that it isn't done well.  All the swerves are quite plausible, coming from character and from their backstories, and they never feel forced (though the ease with which they sometimes offer up "second options" can sometimes feel inauthentic, but not enough to pull you out of the show).  It's just, once you know the pattern, it does sap a bit of the dramatic tension from events.  But, maybe that's due to the way we watch these shows now, one episode after another after another, with no time in between to mull over what happened and contemplate the consequences.  It is possible that the old pattern, from network days, of watching an episode a week, with regular breaks during production resulting in weeks without a new episode, might have hidden this pattern, at least a little while longer than an episode or two.



Ultimately, though, the big takeaway, for me, from watching season 2 of Bloodline is to try and have multiple narrative threads for characters, whether those threads are just family backstory or a drug problem that remains in the background or something, because these are the things the writers of the show utilized for these swerves.  I suppose it's the same as stating one should create complex characters with full lives for your fiction, because, ultimately, that is what this is.  The writers seeded the show with these glimpses into the personal lives of the characters, including the messed up family dynamic and the drug issues for Kevin, and once those were established, they were able to pull on these skeins to not only push the narrative forward but ratchet up the tension in the process.  It's certainly made for an entertaining series, thus far.


WRITTEN MATERIAL --



Hemingway & Women:
I finished up this fascinating book this week, and I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially for fans of Hemingway.  It shines a new light onto his body of work and also tackles the issue of how his work has been perceived--and, by extension, all other literature to this point--in light of the reality that criticism, like every other endeavor on this planet, has overwhelmingly fallen under the purview of men.  When the perspective for analysis only comes from one portion of the multi-faceted gender die (to utilize a D&D metaphor that hopefully does not mangle my point), the resultant discussion is too narrow.  But allowing for other perspectives affords us an opportunity to reassess his, and others', work and find something new and exciting within that oeuvre.



I also burned through a number of comic collections this week--catching up with Southern Bastards and closing in on being up to date with Black Science.  These are both engaging narratives, deftly told, though I have to give the edge to "Bastards" by Aaron & Latour.  Though over the top, it continues to entertain and has me wondering how things will end up.  Just when you think you know where the two Jasons are heading, you find out you don't. 



Black Science is also pretty great, though I must admit that, after Remender & Scalera introduced the other-dimensional McKays, I mentally tapped out, a bit.  And because of the introduction of these doppelgangers, I did not realize that the original Grant McKay, who appeared to die early on, had actually returned.  Because they all look similar and they all have the same name, and because he was "definitely dead," I figured it was one of the other-dimensional Grants going after the children, because when we were introduced to the second Grant, he was on a mission to save the first-dimension children and take them to care for, because his children had died during his experiments with dimensional travel.  Maybe it was me not reading carefully enough, but this isn't the first time in the series that Remender's writing mildly obscured the reality of the situation (and, in re-reading that earlier section with a better understanding, I can state that Remender wasn't attempting to obfuscate in that writer's way of offering mystery, but he was just unable to read his dialogue from the point of view of someone unaware of the fuller narrative, which is a problem).  So, I'm still enjoying it, but I won't be adding it to my permanent collection.  I can recommend it, if you enjoy some fun, thoughtful science fiction with lovely illustrations, but you might want to decide for yourself if it's something you need to own.


INSPIRATION(s) --



Warren Ellis (again):
Ellis is a busy man with multiple irons in the fire in the mediums of television, prose, and comics, and probably others beside.  But he has, for a couple of decades now, tried to keep an online presence, in order to remind people that he's still there, on the Thames Delta, working, even if months may go by with nothing on the shelves.  His most recent iteration of this is Warren Ellis LTD, and last week he shared his commencement speech from 2017 for the University of Essex at Southend.  You can read the whole thing here; it's not very long.  But, for me, a couple of quotes jumped out, which I wanted to share with you here:

...this big guy comes up to me, with wet eyes, and told me about the story I'd written that saved his life one night when he'd been down so long that he didn't see a better day ahead.  Whatever was in that story, it gave him something to think about, a goal to stay alive for ... I tell [that story] because life is unpredictable and you never know what's going to happen to let in the light. 

Making mistakes happens when you're trying something new.  It's how you know you're bending the envelope.  Making mistakes is how you learn, and sometimes a mistake gives you something valuable ... Don't worry about making mistakes.  You'll learn something, and that will be added to the commonwealth of our knowledge, and we all take one step forward.


MUSIC TO WRITE BY --

Michael Giacchino's music for the new Star Trek:
I love this new iterations of Trek, or, at least, I loved that first new film from J.J. Abrams.  So, as often happens, I needed the soundtrack by Giacchino.  It's wonderful.  All the songs seem based on the same theme, but it's a great theme that opening piece.  It evokes wonder and excitement and anticipation, and it's great to write to.  What more could I ask for?




ON WRITING --

Made it through chapter 9 this week, and I did a little clean up with the opening bits of the novel.

One thing that I feel is a deficit in my writing is my descriptive passages.  I find it challenging to flesh out the scenes and to get down what I see in a manner that does not feel overly simplified.  I suppose, being a devotee of Hemingway's work, I should just worry about keeping it simple, which is where I often fall during revisions, so that's a plus.  But, this also carries over to my descriptions of characters.  Though I feel like I've reached a point where I'm able to competently describe a character in a sleek, concise manner, I often find it difficult to figure out where to insert these descriptions.  This was one of the issues I "cleaned up" this past week.  While reading one night (because even if it's in your subconscious, if you're writing regularly then your brain is always mulling over the issues you have with your manuscript), I suddenly realize where to slip in one of my protagonist's descriptions.  I sent myself an email with my realization and, at the end of the week, inserted this, as well as the second description I'd been toiling over, which extended naturally from this initial description.

Next week, I should finally dip below 100,000 words left in the first draft, which will be a big milestone.  That will afford me the chance to take a short respite, when the family and I head to NYC with friends, during April's school break.  Can't wait for that.  But, until then, it's back to the writing and revising.

-chris


Sunday, March 31, 2019

WHAT IT IS week ending 3.31.2019

It's really starting to feel like spring, up here in Maine.  The snow is thawing slowly.  Clusters of birds can be seen in the upper branches of many of the trees, filling the air with their chirping.  And everything is turning to mud.  Yup, it's spring all right. 
Anyway.  Another week down.  Another week in review.  Let's get to it.



VISUAL MEDIA --

Sherlock:
My wife and I returned to a favorite of ours, the BBC's Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  We started season 4, and it was like slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes [metaphors, the sustenance of pretentious and unpretentious writers alike].  The plotting in these episodes is always fairly tight, but in my opinion the series really thrives on the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Watson and, more specifically, the characterizations infused therein by Cumberbatch and Freeman.  This series really is less about the mystery, for me, and more about the interactions of these two, and the inherent chemistry between the actors.  The humor comes directly from character, as well as the drama, and when, in this particular episode, we finally see Sherlock have a true emotional reaction to a tragedy, it lands with a weight that is earned, made possible by his aloofness in the previous few seasons. 



Ripcord, a play by David Lindsay-Abaire:
Friday night we celebrated my birthday by going out to dinner and then seeing a local production of Ripcord, at the Penobscot Theater in Bangor.  Described as "The Golden Girls meets The Odd Couple," this was a really wonderful show. 
Roommates in a retirement home, Abby and Marilyn do not get along -- or, more to the point, Abby does not get along with Marilyn.  Abby has always wanted a private room and managed to go through a succession of roommates thanks to her cantankerous and off-putting manner.  But Marilyn seems unfazed by Abby's harshness, with a sunny demeanor that feels almost too good to be true.  Through the course of the play, their back and forth provides plenty of laughs, but we also discover the hidden pains both of them harbor, as, through both women's stubbornness, they become far closer than either could imagine. 
The way information about each character was parsed out in this play was rather spectacular.  Lindsay-Abaire's writing allowed the audience to get to know the two women, before it's revealed, through actions that felt natural on both their parts, that each has a hidden tragedy in their past, tragedies that have formed their characters in the present -- both Abby's anger and Marilyn's brightness -- and with this new understanding, the whole play is put into a new and interesting light.


WRITTEN MATERIAL --



Hemingway and Women:
This book continues to fascinate me.  As I read more from female critics about their perspectives on Hemingway's writing, I find myself anxious to get back and read or re-read many of his stories.  I can't wait to finally bring a more incisive and thoughtful approach to one of my all-time favorite authors.  Highest recommendation.


INSPIRATION(s) --



Chris Staros at Top Shelf Comix:
This past week marked 25 years that Chris Staros has been in comic publishing, from his "Staros Report" to co-creating Top Shelf Publishing, with Brett Warnock, not too long after.  Top Shelf is definitely one of my favorite comic publishers, thanks in no small part to Staros's coup of getting publishing rights for much of Alan Moore's post-superhero, more adult books, such as From Hell and Lost Girls.  The Top Shelf table was always a destination when I attended a convention, and Staros was always very open to talking with me and others of his fans.  And when I started tabling at conventions, he was more than kind to stop and chat, if he was passing by, or to ask how my writing was going, when I stopped at his table.  A truly good human being publishing some of the best comics work of the past quarter-century, this is definitely an anniversary to mark.


MUSIC TO WRITE BY --



Graeme Revell's score for The Crow:
This is an all-time favorite.  Revell's compositions are energetic and moody, and they always energize my writing.  I don't know what more to say.  Watch the film.  Read the comic.  Then listen to the music.  I don't think you'd be disappointed.


ON WRITING --

Seven chapters in, with 114,000 words to go. 
One thing I struggle with, even though I do manage to cut a lot out when revising, is whether or not I am doing enough when working on later drafts.  Shouldn't I be rearranging full scenes?  Bringing something to the fore to heighten tension?  Shifting a bit to later in the novel because of pacing?  These are things I hear authors speak about when they discuss revising.  But I always seem to keep to the skeleton I've already created.  I tend to be a strong planner, it's just how I am, but is my planning always sound and does it work when I write a first draft of a novel? 
I don't know. 
But, I guess I should just move forward.  An argument could be made that the fact I am conscious of this means I'm thinking about it, and if a structure issue in the novel arose, I would be already prepared to see it and fix it.  So, I continue with the revising, in the hope that I know (enough) of what I'm doing.

-chris


Tuesday, March 26, 2019

ON WRITING, making characters complex, one example

A couple weeks back, in my week in review, I wrote about the final episodes of the final season of THE AMERICANS, and how the writing staff on that show has consistently put forth some amazing television, with compelling characters.  One of the most impressive aspects of the show has been that characterization.  Each character is distinct, and their personalities run up against one another in ways -- especially when discussing the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth -- that heighten the drama.  Episode 8 of this final season did this magnificently, in the case of Elizabeth's character. 



SPOILERS AHEAD:  


In this final season, a few years have passed, Philip has retired from the spy game but Elizabeth is still deeply involved and their daughter, Paige, is also working for the Center, in a limited capacity, under her mother's watch.  It is 1987, Gorbachev is the leader of the Soviet Union, and negotiations are nearing a close on agreements to curb the nuclear weapons race, with an eye to ending the Cold War.  There is a large group, back in Russia, led by a cadre of military generals and working in conjunction with the Center, who believe Gorbachev is just throwing away their security, damning the Soviet Union to second-class citizenship, and they want to stop their leader, at all costs.  Meanwhile, a faction from the Center, including our old buddy Oleg, want these talks to go through, want peace with America, want to begin working to lift up their country, once more, out of the poverty that has spread throughout the country, due to the corruption of many of those in power. 



In America, Elizabeth is charged by her handler to go to Mexico and speak with someone who has some very important intelligence.  It is one of these former generals (or at least someone high up in this resistance movement against Gorbachev).  He tells Elizabeth a story, about how Gorbachev is betraying his country and how the negotiators that have come to America are selling out the Soviet people.  They need to do something to stop these talks.  And so, she begins working to find out all she can regarding the negotiations. 



Meanwhile, Oleg has returned to America, without any diplomatic immunity.  He cannot be connected with the Center, in any way.  Oleg contacts Philip, explains to him the danger Gorbachev faces, as well as the danger their homeland faces if these talks are derailed.  Oleg needs Philip to spy on Elizabeth, to find out what she knows, what she is being asked to do, and to try and come up with a way to stop these generals and their fear of peace.  And so, Philip is drawn back in, not only lying to his best friend across the street -- FBI Agent Beeman -- but lying to his wife, while he tries to get out of her any information he can. 



Eventually, Philip has to tell his wife.  Though their marriage was arranged, to provide a cover story, it has become something very real, for both of them.  Strained by their work, and the ugly things necessary for success in that vein, they still love one another and look to each other for support and comfort. 



In episode 8, Philip finally confesses to Elizabeth what he's been doing, that he's been watching her and trying to elicit information from her, and why he's been doing it.  He wants peace with America.  Those who contacted him want peace with America.  What the generals are doing and what the Center is doing goes against the best interests of their people.  Philip asks Elizabeth to, for once, think independently, not to take her orders at face value or without question.  Those in the Center may decide what needs to be done, but he and she and all the other spies are the ones who actually do the work, do the ugly things that need doing.  Ultimately, he says, they (she and he) are responsible for their actions.  Elizabeth is furious.  But she now has something else to consider with regard to her orders from the Center. 



Over the course of the rest of the episode, Elizabeth comes to realize that what she is being asked, specifically to kill one of the Soviet negotiators who has been deemed a traitor, is wrong.  She listens to the recording of the most recent secret meeting, which she got, and realizes this negotiator is merely a family man trying to do what is right for his country.  He is not giving away military secrets, as the Center told Elizabeth, he is doing his job, negotiating with the Americans to try and limit each country's nuclear arsenal, to hopefully provide a better future for his children and everyone's children.  Elizabeth realizes that Philip was right. 



In the end of the episode, Elizabeth comes home to Philip and tells him that she needs to get a message to the person he's in contact with.  A message needs to get home about the lengths those aligned against Gorbachev are willing to go to stop these nuclear arms talks.  He, Philip, was right about them. 



BUT, he was wrong in keeping it secret and spying on her.  Philip betrayed Elizabeth, betrayed his wife, and even if it was for the right reasons, it is still unconscionable and unforgivable, in Elizabeth's eyes.  She will not forgive him any time soon, and she will not allow him to forget about this betrayal for even longer.  This part of the episode was the most amazing bit of writing in the whole thing:  it felt natural and it felt right, but it also swerved from what might typically occur in most television writing and most writing in general. 
The expectation, when someone is revealed as having been "right," is that the other person who originally argued with them immediately comes around to their way of thinking, upon this realization.  Certainly, Elizabeth did come around to understand the point Philip made, but in being true to her character, she retained the right to criticize him for the betrayal.  There is no chance for reconciliation at this point, even though he's right.  It's brilliant. 



Probably the reason this resonated so strongly with me is that I feel it is something I truly need to work hard at in my own writing.  I grew up on a steady diet of fables and fairy tales, science fiction and fantasy, and, for the most part, those stories I read and absorbed during my formative years had happy endings.  I became (I am) a person who wants, terribly, for things to just work out.  I worry that I may too easily fall into the trap, with my writing, of tying things up too neatly, too quickly.  I need to keep in mind that my characters should be breathing, thinking, living humans, who have flaws and emotions and do not always act rationally.  Just because one person's perspective is proven correct, throwing another's into the shadow of being wrong, does not mean that second person will just throw their hands up and accept it all.  People don't like to be wrong.  And people really don't like to be betrayed.  Asking them to just get over it isn't realistic.  And I have to keep that in mind when writing. 

-chris

Sunday, March 24, 2019

WHAT IT IS week ending 3.24.2019

Back again.  This week I'm expecting to be spare in my descriptions of what I've read, watched, listened to, etc. because I'm hip-deep in the revisions of novel #2.  Things have been going along quite well with that, but it takes up a lot of time and it has to be my priority right now.  So, let's see if I can temper my "wordy-bitch" personality and knock this one out quickly.
(to be honest, I'm dubious, but we'll see)


VISUAL MEDIA --



The Dark Knight:
When Christopher Nolan's Joker movie hit, I saw and I wasn't as enamored as the scores of online fans.  But in rewatching it with my son, this past week, I have to say, it's better than I remember.  Not as unassailable as its rabid fans would have you believe . . . but, then again, I see pull quotes on comic collections I read that are so flamboyantly hyperbolic that I kind of chalk it up to fanboys being fanboys.
Don't get me wrong, Heath Ledger was amazing and rightly deserved the Oscar for his turn as the Joker, and the Dark Knight is a pretty great action movie and a top of the line comic book movie, but it's not exceeding its reach by too much.  I had forgotten how much it took from Alan Moore's "Killing Joke," which was something that pleased me, in this rewatch.  And, though I may not hold this film as highly as many, there's still much to learn from this movie.  (it was directed by Christopher Nolan)  Primarily, the ability of Nolan and the writers and actors to make something as off the wall as a caped, gravelly-voiced vigilante going against a psychopath in clown makeup who ends up birthing a second fractured psyche with only half a face and somehow ground it enough to make you believe that all of this mayhem and destruction could actually be happening somewhere is laudable and well worth analyzing.



To Kill a Mockingbird:
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.  Robert Duvall as Boo Radley.  Brock Peters as Tom Robinson.  Harper Lee's singular novel brought to life on the screen.  This was the first time I'd watched this film, after finally reading the novel a few years back.  We watched it with our son, and though he wasn't excited about the prospects, he settled in and was engaged the whole time.  So, that's a win, especially as we prepare to go to New York and see Aaron Sorkin's adaptation in April.
As with most adaptations, there are scenes truncated or excised wholly, and other bits shifted around.  Having only read the book once, I wasn't as aware of these things as I might have been, though there was one scene shifted around that I felt was weakened by the change (the scene where Jem catches his overalls on the fencing behind the Radley house as the three kids run away), but this is a minor nitpick.
The most important thing to take away from watching "Mockingbird" is what Sorkin has stated he wished to achieved with his adaptation, allow those characters who are not white to have a say and have some agency in the story, especially considering how focal the character of Tom Robinson is to "Mockingbird."  For me -- and this is something I do strive for -- I want to include characters from all different backgrounds in my stories and make them significant and well-rounded, to try and make my fiction a reflection of our world and all its myriad wonders.



Bloodline:
When the first season of this Netflix series dropped, I was all in.  Kyle Chandler.  Ben Mendelsohn.  Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek.  Family secrets.  All set in the Florida Keys.  Yes, please.  I binged season 1 and was ready for season 2.  But, when season 2 hit, I watched the first half of the first episode and then tapped out.  I'm not sure what it was, but it felt different and I wasn't buying anymore.
Well, I decided to drop back in and see if I still felt that way.  Not so far.  I've rifled through the first four episodes of season 2, and the tension is ramped up to a point where I just want to sit and finish this season over the weekend.  (But I've got adult things to do, so that's not happening).
SPOILER:

Even though Ben Mendelsohn's character died at the end of season 1, Mendelsohn is back for the second season, in flashbacks and as a haunting specter talking to his brother, John (played by Chandler), which, as much as anything, has me excited for this season.  Mendelsohn is electric in his scenes, and when he and Chandler get to interact, it's top of the line stuff.
Each episode is at least an hour long, thanks to the Netflix model, and yet it never feels overstuffed and it never feels long and, conversely, it never feels long.  The creators have managed to pace out these episodes almost perfectly and that is certainly one thing to take away from this series.  But, secondly, and most importantly, I think the best thing about this show is the way the writers manage to paint the main characters into a corner, with few options of getting out, none of them good, and then have something happen that is unexpected, on the part of the characters and the audience, to save them, at least for a short time.  It's not just the cleverness with which the writers manage to lift the characters out of their dire circumstances, but it's the deftness with which this happens.  It never feels forced.  It never feels like a trick.  It always feels natural.  They lay the groundwork for these twists, but they don't tip their hand.  It's really smartly written, and I'm glad I got back on the Bloodline train.



WRITTEN MATERIAL --


Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice
Ever since reading "The Old Man and the Sea" in high school, I have been a fan of Hemingway.  He is my favorite classical author.  But I've only ever read him for pleasure, never thinking too deeply about his fiction, which is obviously -- for someone like me, who aspires to publication -- a personal shortfall.  With this book, I am working toward remedying that.
This has been a fascinating read, so far.  Female critics reevaluating Hemingway's fiction through a feminist lens.  The main thesis running through all of these essays is that, for too long, the male perspective has overwhelmed the analysis of Hemingway's work, often utilizing Hemingway's larger than life and overly masculine legend to overlay onto his fiction, putting forth the idea that his women characters are shallow, one-dimensional pieces on the chessboard, when, if one looks at things from a female/feminist perspective, multiple dimensions are opened up, as to these characters, and a new understanding of Hemingway's work is revealed.
It really has been a joy to read these essays.  And the idea that, maybe, it isn't so much the misogyny of the author at work as the misogyny of the critics, which has colored our understanding of Hemingway's writing, for so long, is revelatory.  Not that these female critics are letting him off the hook for that misogynistic view, that is a valid reading of much of his work.  But some of the ideas -- of twinning, or of Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises not being a "bitch" character but a strong, independent woman -- are ones I want to take with me when I read, and re-read, Hemingway.  And many of the ideas and thoughts put forth in these essays are also ones I would like to put forward in my own work, with regard to female characterizations.



INSPIRATION(s) --


Eric Shanower and his Oz graphic novels:

Shanower's delicate and precise linework is always beautiful.  And his ability to craft characters that are more than one-dimensional within the framework of Baum's world of Oz is laudable.  These books are, at their heart, fun adventures.  They don't need darkness or relevance to be enjoyable.  And this is something to applaud.


MUSIC TO WRITE BY --



This week I was all over the map.  No one composer or artist grabbed the bulk of the time in my ears.  So, a shoutout to John Williams (music for Star Wars), Graeme Revell (music from The Crow), Don Davis (music for The Matrix), Trevor Jones & Randy Edelman (music from The Last of the Mohicans), and Clint Mansell again, among others.


ON WRITING --

So, last week I bragged about my 40-day streak of writing.  And then, on Sunday, family stuff came up, and I didn't do any personal writing, breaking the streak.
But, that meant I could start another.  We're at 6 days and counting.  Work continues on the second draft of Novel #2.  I've started in on chapter 5 and have been working through roughly 2000 words a day on the first draft.  I've been cutting, reworking, and shifting around major pieces of what I wrote, initially, and I am finding a clarity and conciseness that I am happy with.  Of course, this second draft will go through another stringent revision, but at least I'll have something lean to work from.


Sunday, March 17, 2019

WHAT IT IS week ending 3.16.2019

A recap of things I've read, watched, listened to, ingested in some fashion, with a focus (hopefully) on how I can apply (read:  steal) any lessons gleaned (or tricks of the trade) to my own writing.  So, let's do this!


VISUAL MEDIA --



Columbo, "Blueprint for Murder":
This was another great episode, the final episode of season 1, written again by Steven Bochco.  In this case, an egotistical architect, Elliot Markham, murders a client of his, a rich Texas businessman, Bo Williamson, when he pulls the funding for what the architect believes could be his greatest achievement, Williamson City.  Of course, Lt. Columbo is called in to investigate.

The trick with this one is that there's no body.  Williamson's wife (second wife), a fan of Markham's architecture and who authorized going ahead with Williamson City, believes he just left on another European trip, as he does.  Markham knew this and made it seem this way.  But Williamson's first wife doesn't believe it, because Bo always notifies her when he's going out of the country.  She's the one who harangues Columbo to look deeper into this.  Which he does, because Columbo has a hunch, and his hunches are usually correct.

Columbo keeps turning up where Markham is -- at his construction site, at the college where he teaches, at his home -- and Markham knows what the lieutenant's angling at.  He pokes and prods Columbo, almost daring him to dig up the concrete pile that was filled the day after Williamson went missing.  Columbo knows Markham wants him to dig it up, but he's not sure why.  The belief is that the body's buried under those tons of concrete.  But when it's brought up and chiseled away, there's nothing.  It seems Columbo has lost.

Except Columbo doesn't lose.  That night, after having dug up the best hiding place for Williamson's body, knowing that he could never get another permit to dig up that same area (Markham's plan all along), Columbo waits at the construction site with a cadre of police officers.  And Markham, too smug in his own intelligence, obliges Lt. Columbo and shows up with Bo Williamson's body.  And the officers take him away, after the lieutenant and the murderer exchange pleasantries.

Another stellar twist, and another wonderful performance by Peter Falk, who also directed this episode.  Once again, I watched it with my 11-year-old son, and he seemed to enjoy it as much as the first one we watched.  He's already caught onto how Columbo works, and I think he enjoys the game of feint-and-parry Columbo and the murderer of the week go through.  I know I do.


SPOILER WARNING AHEAD




Better Call Saul, season 3:
With his Breaking Bad universe of characters, Vince Gilligan found a rich field of storytelling possibilities that one might not realize, when first hearing the summary of his award-winning TV series.  When I called The Americans final season a masterclass in TV writing, I wasn't being overly hyperbolic.

But if that's the masterclass, then what the hell is Better Call Saul?  Because this is the tip top of the television heap, currently, and Gilligan and his writing staff don't seem to be approaching an end point anytime soon.

There are many brilliant aspects to this show -- as with its predecessor, Breaking Bad, the characterizations and their interactions with one another are the core of what makes this series so good.  But if there's a secret ingredient, it would have to be the ability of the writers to have a character do something that feels like a "checkmate" move, only to have a counter move that blocks the first character's move and throws the status quo to the wind.



SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!!!
(for example:  in the penultimate episode, Charles McGill [Michael McKean] sues his law firm for a buyout amount that would bankrupt it, after Howard suggested Charles should consider retiring, and it feels like game over.  But, next episode, Howard calls Charles's bluff, offers him a first payment on the buyout from his own personal savings and then leads Charles out to a gathering of all staff, where Howard announces Charles's retirement, forcing Charles's hand.  It's brilliant.)

And once we reach the end of the season, there's some real question as to what the status quo will be, come the beginning of the next season, despite the fact that we have seen many of these characters in the future of Breaking Bad.  It's a superb, tightrope-walking act, and something to which I aspire, with my own writing.
Don't just settle for the first big twist, let your characters fight back, amp up the drama, and keep the readers guessing.


WRITTEN MATERIAL --



Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys:
Last year I read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  At some point, I discovered this book, Wide Sargasso Sea, which was a response to Bronte's Jane, and I knew I had to read it soon.

Written as a feminist, anti-colonial response to Bronte's novel, the book is separated into three sections:  a moment in the early childhood of Antoinette Cosway, Mr. Rochester's first wife, that includes a traumatic episode that colored her life from that point on; the time in Antoinette's life when Rochester (told from his point of view) came to know and marry her and the troubling relationship that quickly ensues between them; and a short coda, told again from Antoinette's point of view, during her time in the attic of Rochester's mansion.

Maybe a quarter of the length of Bronte's Jane Eyre, the novel that inspired it, Sargasso Sea isn't as immersive or all-encompassing as Eyre, offering snapshots, really, from important moments in time in the life of Antoinette Cosway.  But even with that, the novel is moving and rich, utilizing the knowledge of Eyre to inform its own narrative, while fleshing out a relatively minor character from that earlier story to make her far more realized, as well as sympathetic.

The novel moved along briskly, and Rhys's confidence in her subject matter and her writing showed through in her ability to paint a full picture of Antoinette Cosway with an economy of words and settings.

I worry, at times, that my own writing can become bogged down in the minute actions and reactions of characters, that maybe I become too enamored of their conversations and possibly do not give enough over to setting the stage.  Rhys's ability to set the table without lingering too long is something to strive for, and something to give me hope that maybe I'm not going as far off course as I might believe.


INSPIRATION(s) --

Once more, I look to Warren Ellis and his Orbital Operations newsletter, for a bit of inspiration, from the sign-off of his latest:

A lot of you are people who make things.  A lot of you are just trying to get through the day while still remaining yourselves.  Feels like wading through mud sometimes, right?  Exhausting, dispiriting.  All starts with one step.  And then one more step.  At your own pace.  One step a week is victory.  One step is victory.  Lean into the wind.  The handrails are there for a reason, and, trust me, they're there, even if some fucker turned off the lights.  Hold on tight.  See you next week.  

I do love how Ellis always signs off with a positive message for all those reading, urging them to keep pushing ahead, even as the world threatens to crush us all.


MUSIC TO WRITE BY --



I.  Love.  Clint.  Mansell.  

Certainly, the fact he's worked so closely with my favorite contemporary film director, Darren Aronofsky, has a lot to do with my affection for Mansell's music.  Without that symbiotic relationship (if I may call it that), I probably would not have been introduced to Mansell's genius, or maybe not introduced to it as early.

Mansell's scores for The Fountain and Moon, Requiem for a Dream and Pi, are all amazing, and the additional music I've discovered on spotify, are all brilliant collections to listen to while writing.  The range of emotions evoked by Mansell are broad, and even when there's a melancholy tone it is still beautiful to the ear.

If you're looking for some great music, check out Clint Mansell's film scores, you will not be disappointed.


 ON WRITING --



A great writing blog, focusing on crime fiction with a rotating collection of authors, is Do Some Damage.  This past Monday, Dharma Kelleher, had a great post on "Essential Principles of Storytelling."  I would heartily recommend you hit the link and read the whole thing, but if you're short for time and want the Cliffs Notes version, here you go:

  1. Don't bore the reader --- one particularly great example she shares is to "describe characters in ways that reveal who they are, not just what they look like."  It's a two birds-one stone thing, and it's brilliant. 
  2. Don't insult the reader or their intelligence --- Basically, do your research so that you don't misrepresent something that could have easily been fixed before publication. 
  3. Don't confuse your readers --- This is a tough one, to offer enough information that readers are engaged but not too much that they feel overwhelmed.  Use beta-readers to help find out if you reached that balance.
These are lessons I certainly plan on applying to my writing, especially the revisions for the latest novel, which I have started.  This is great stuff.

Revision of the novel continues apace, and my streak of writing days has reached 40 and seems unlikely to abate any time soon.  I am loving, so far, what I've got, as far as a skeleton for this novel goes, while also taking comfort in my ability to shift and cut and adjust what is in this first draft to create a clearer and cleaner narrative.  My latest time at the keyboard, I managed to cut 1500 words to a bit over 1000.  This is good.  And I look forward to what comes next, because having let this sit for a while (over a year, at least), a lot of what I'm reading feels brand new, and that's pretty exciting.

-chris