Monday, July 30, 2012

Enough is Enough

I’ve probably mentioned it before – THE DARK KNIGHT is one of my all time favorite movies.  Beyond the incredible coolness factor, as a storyteller, I’m in awe of the deft pacing and character development.  As the middle movie in a trilogy, it’s perfectly situated.  So much groundwork was laid by a solid first movie.  The second movie introduces a brilliant villain without really introducing him at all.  There’s really no back-story or effort to show the villain before he was a villain.  The Joker tells a few different stories to explain his mania, and you have no idea which, if any, of them are true.  Brilliant in my opinion.  It doesn’t matter which one is true, he’s here, he’s a big problem, and he’s ready to tangle with our protagonist (a grown man wearing a bat costume with issues of his own).  So the story is protagonist vs. villain, with a sub-story about a hero who becomes a villain.  But that’s basically it.  The rest of it is window dressing and pretty much everything that happens in the movie is in service to these two story lines, which wonderfully wind together by the end.  Again, brilliant.

So now, we have a third movie.  I’m not here to bash it, because it’s a well-done movie and has a lot going for it.  In fact, breaking it down into its various components, I liked all the parts very much.  It’s just when you put them all together.  ALL of them.  So many of them.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES slipped into that dangerous territory of trying to do too much.  There was a real sense of “this is our last one, we have to get it all done.”  Now, again, please don’t start typing up your hate mail.  If you loved the movie, I’m thrilled for you and a bit envious.  And I have every intention of watching it again at home in the near future and seeing if a second viewing clears up some of issues I had with the movie.  We must also remember, expectations were off the chart for this one, so it really started out at a disadvantage to begin with.

                                ***************Spoiler Warning Begins***************

Firstly, there wasn’t much Batman.  Just because it’s the third one and the groundwork has been laid twice now for this character doesn’t mean the audience doesn’t need to spend time reconnecting with the main character.  I loved the idea that he’d been retired for years and had become a hermit.  I think the movie should have focused on Batman’s reemergence and it did for a while, but then he was waylaid again and taken out of the story for a second reemergence.  That diluted the first one for me.  Then it turns out the main villain wasn’t the main villain at all.  We spent a lot of time learning about Bane to find out in the end he wasn’t very important at all.  Not only was he not the driving force behind what was happening, his apparent motivation for acting the way he did was little more than a cover story – the whole class warfare, Robin Hood thing.  Villains need either deeply rooted motivation (like Ra’s al Ghul) or none at all (like the Joker).  Bain’s motivation was too weak to keep him interesting.  We were also secretly given Robin, which was very clever, but it was almost like he was staring in his own movie inside the movie.  And he didn’t have any of the gadgets or mystique that makes Batman so cool.  Catwoman, again, on her own was great, but there just wasn’t enough room in the jumble for her to mark her territory (just imagine how she would do that).  When she made big decisions in the film, I didn’t feel like I understood her motivation well enough to judge if she was taking a big risk or just serving as a plot device.

So, what’s my point?  Motivation.  Motivation is so important to drawing a viewer (or reader) into the story.  It gives resonance to the actions these fictional characters take.  It gives weight to the consequences of those actions.  It requires some space to develop.  Ultimately, it results in the emotional response that every director and author is striving to invoke in his or her audience.  For me, the expanded cast of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES didn’t have the space they needed to demonstrate that all-important motivation to a degree that would set the emotional dominoes falling.  Maybe a second viewing will get me there.  Looking forward to finding out.          

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Practice Call

There is so much wisdom to be gleaned from the show The Office.  I remember one episode where we found out that Pam screens not Michael’s incoming calls, but his outgoing calls.  For the uninitiated, Michael is the manager of a paper supply company (no longer on the series) and Pam is the office’s receptionist (not in that position anymore on the series).  When Pam announces to Michael that she has someone on the line for him, she makes him think she’s put the caller through, but actually she just stays on the line.  Michael inevitably says something wrong, unfunny, inappropriate, or generally unflattering in an attempt to be clever.  Pam then feigns a mistake and tells Michael she is now putting the call through.   Typically, having used up whatever comic bit he had planned, he just says hello on the second try in a reasonable, professional way.

This is a service I want in my life.  I need someone to screen my outgoing (fill in the blank with just about anything I produce - calls, emails, reports, chapters), but the first thing that comes to mind is query letters.  Boy, have I sent out a few of those puppies.  And my first batch for a novel is always cringe-worthy.  Of course, at the time I send them, I think they’re brilliant.  A quick movie reference here.  Remember A Christmas Story?  It plays 24 hours on Christmas Day, or Eve, or both.  It’s our generation’s It’s Wonderful Life, which is a sad commentary all its own.  Anyway, remember when Ralphie imagines his teacher reading his poorly written theme about his wish for a Red Ryder B.B. gun?  She’s patting her side and writing A + + + + all across the chalkboard and then beyond onto the walls.

You'll shoot your eye out!  And not get published!

Well, that’s how I imagine an agent's response to that first query.  Until I get a little distance and an actual response.  Then I should be so lucky to get a C + from a witch and a jester taunting me from the corner of my Warren G. Harding Elementary School classroom (please watch the movie if I’ve lost you here).  That first attempt at a query somehow manages to capture every insecurity, every self-doubt, and every misconception I have about my own story and condense it down into ten or so beautiful sentences of self-destructive prose.

Where’s Pam to intercept my emails and tell me to try again?  I've concluded that when you write a query, the best thing to do is put it away, wait a while, and then write a better one.  It will always be better.  I’ve been helped enormously by reading other people’s successful queries and having impartial fellow authors read my query and give me constructive feedback.  Queries are always better the second time around.  And the third.  And the fourth.  And the …        

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sated Faery: Giveaway & Review of The Intern's Tale by Shawn Ke...

Busy, busy, busy.  The Sated Faery has gotten her little pixie-sized hands on a free copy of THE INTERN'S TALE.  Click on the link below to check out the review then sign up for the giveaway.  Plus, check out the site for lots of great reviews and news about all the best books out there!

Sated Faery: Giveaway & Review of The Intern's Tale by Shawn Ke...: Here's another great opportunity to win a very unique & entertaining book from the talented Shawn Keenan!  (Author of one of my favorites -...

Writing Belle: Indie Monday: NA Author Shawn Keenan

Here's the same interview as NA Alley on Summer's great site, Writing Belle.  Be sure to check out this site.  Summer has some great giveaways and plenty of insight on popular reads as well as breakout Indie authors.  Show some love!

Writing Belle: Indie Monday: NA Author Shawn Keenan: Hello, Monday! Today I'm featuring Shawn Keenan here on my blog and  on NA Alley. He is an NA/YA author, and his 2 books, Th...

NA Alley: The Intern's Tale: NA Author Shawn Keenan

Thanks to the great crew over at NA Alley for posting my interview.  Head on over to their site and check it out.  NA is for "New Adult", a genre in fiction between Young Adult and full-on, Adult (you know, with wrinkles and sagging and stuff).  It's an emerging genre and something to keep an eye on. 

Click below for a link to the article.

NA Alley: The Intern's Tale: NA Author Shawn Keenan

Friday, July 13, 2012

Goodreads Review - Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine #1)Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I went into this book expecting gimmicky pictures and some weird characters that might be difficult to relate to. What I got was a very fun read with characters you connected to very easily and lots of fun pictures that enhanced the story and didn’t distract from it. This book felt like a hybrid of X-men meets Little Orphan Annie, in a good way. The flow from ordinary to peculiar was very well handled and felt natural and believable to me. The pacing moved along in such a way that I was ready for several more chapters at the end, but the story did end in a satisfying way. The author has a wonderful way with words and describes the story’s environment in a way that gives those delicious details without boring you with minutia. I expect a sequel based on the ending, and I think there’s plenty of story left to be told about those peculiar children and the Bird.

View all my reviews

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Ensconced in YA: International Giveaway of The Intern's Tale by Sha...

Listen up, imaginary followers!  Christina at Ensconced in YA is holding a mega-giveaway.  She's got a copy of Veronica Roth's sequel to Divergent, the much anticipated Insurgent.  This is the must-read book of the summer.  My YA novel, The Intern's Tale is also included in the drawing, so with either one, you're going to be up all night reading.  That's two chances to win with just one entry.  Where else can you get these kinds of results just by clicking a mouse button a few times?  So get on over to Ensconced in YA, check out the amazing site, and get in on all the book giveaway goodness.  Then come back here and say "Hey, thanks, Shawn.  That was awesome sauce.  You're the man."

                                                   Click Below 

Goodreads Review - Anna Dressed In Blood

Anna Dressed in Blood (Anna, #1)Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This story started out strong and finished only a little less than strong. This happens sometimes when I read a book that has me so hooked at the beginning. My complaints about the last third of the book are minor in most respects. They have mostly to do with me trying to impose my own ideas about how things should have gone. That's only because I got very invested in the story. I'd give this 4 1/2 stars if that was an option.

Spoilers may follow. I don't usually talk about details, but some are still fresh in my mind.

This is a ghost hunter story first and foremost. The romantic element put on top of that wasn't as strong. I think it could have been stronger if it had maintained an element of mystery and greater tragedy. Cas is a cool character and he carries the book. Anna had more potential, but to develop that would have taken the book in another direction. I really wanted there to be a great twist about why she was killing people for fifty years. I wanted something really clever that could have absolved her of all her crimes. I thought maybe the mother had killed and cursed the fiance later and somehow melded he and Anna together, that way he was the murderer and Anna wasn't responsible. Cas could have somehow separated them and then Anna would truly be free from her murderous past. I think dragging the dad's murderous ghost into the story could have been put off until a second book. I also wanted there to be a bigger twist there. Something about Cas' dad revealed toward the end that turned everything on its head.

Finally, there were a few small details that really pulled me out of the story. It started when Cas let Will take his asthme. Really? Cas lost a lot of cool points with me there. Then Anna got into a car and sat in the backseat. Again, Anna lost mystique for me there. I wanted her to pop in and out of existence wherever she wanted to be or something more ghost like. I didn't like that Cas passed out during the first fight with his father's killer. It took me, as the reader, out of the action. These are all minor things, but they are the little details that pulled at my connection with the story and characters.

It's so hard to keep the story fresh and building speed in the last third. I still recommend the book. It's one of the better ones I've read lately and has a lot going for it.

View all my reviews

Friday, July 6, 2012

Feature and Follow

I'm going to stumble my way through my first Blog hop.  I will be stepping on toes, I guarantee.  I think I'm supposed to answer the question below and then go make friends on blogs on the Hop list.  If you find this and see some major wrongness with it, please give me some tips. 

Q: Jumping Genres: Ever pick up a book from a genre you usually don’t like and LOVE it? Tell us about it and why you picked it up in the first place.

I read Water For Elephants after my wife recommended it, having read it for a book club.  I was knee-deep in YA titles at the time, as that's what I write, and I really fell for this story set in the Great Depression about circus folk and a big, gray, pachyderm.  The back and forth between present day and the past was handled well, and the ending of the story was actually revealed in the first few pages, though done in a clever way that left me going back and reading that opening scene again with new eyes. 

I think it's great to get out of our genre of choice.  It's like putting on a different pair of shoes.  You can't play soccer in high heels, and you can't dance the tango in cleats.

Water for Elephants is a great example of me putting on cleats.  Wait, that would mean I'm usually in heels.  Whatever.  A great read that opened me up to other books in the process. 

The Spider-man Rewrite ... Er, Reboot

Perpetual wedgie leads to bad decisions.

The new Spider-man movie is out, and they’re calling it a reboot.  I think that is a cinema term for rewrite, and as I writer, I seem to be more willing to embrace that than some of the movie critics who have reviewed the movie. 

Writers understand rewrites.  You take a story, one you know inside and out, and you focus like a laser beam on the weak points.  You pluck details out and drop a whole lot more in.  You delete a line and replace it with a line that looks so similar, but because of a word change and one less prepositional phrase, the new line sings.  And most importantly, you find any excuse, any reason, and any way to add motivation to your characters. 

One of the things I admired most about the movie The Amazing Spider-man (and I loved the whole thing) was the careful consideration the screenwriters and director gave to freshening up the main character’s motivation for becoming a superhero.  That’s really what’s at the heart of the story, and while considered sacred by fanboys, the original origin was designed for a twenty page comic book written fifty years ago.  It’s timeless, but still requires work to keep it that way, especially when being translated to a new medium.

Here’s a brief Spidey 101 for the newbies.  Peter Parker, high school science nerd, gets bitten by a spider and develops the proportional strength and agility of the arachnid.  The new power goes straight to his head and his first and fatal mistake is letting a robber slip past him because he doesn’t want to be bothered to stop him.  The robber ends up shooting his uncle at his home and Peter is super guilty.  Of course, the coincidence factor of the robber racing to Peter’s home after getting past him a few hours earlier is rather farfetched.  In the first trilogy of Spider-man movies (the Tobey Maguire saga we’ll call it) the coincidence part was addressed in the first installment and the connection made more sense.  Of course, in the third installment they altered the story even further in a cheap ploy to mine more emotional drama from that movie’s villain, the Sandman.  That third movie was really a big, hot mess.  We’ll talk about that one when we want some examples of how to overdo a story.  But I digress.

In the new movie, they focused on the motivation, and they really layered it, pouring the guilt of Uncle Ben’s murder on Peter’s shoulder with a nice, oversized ladle.  Here’s how they did it. 

Peter uses his newfound power to humiliate a bully at school.  He gives into his instinct for revenge and humiliates the guy, breaking some school property in the process and landing himself in the hot seat.  Uncle Ben has to change shifts at work to come up and see the principal about the incident.  Ding!  First bad choice for Peter.  He succumbs to revenge.  Ben tells Peter he’ll have to pick up his Aunt since he’ll be working the night shift now.

Peter forgets about Aunt May.  She has to walk the mean streets of New York and when Peter finally drags his butt home, he gets it handed back to him by Uncle Ben.  Peter’s irresponsibility put a loved one at risk.  Ding!  Mistake numero dos.

Peter has a teenage hissy fit.  Understandable, but he takes off in a huff.  Ben takes off after him, back out onto the mean streets.  Peter’s immature behavior leads Ben into danger.  Strike three, Mr. Parker.

And finally, a rework of the “burglar” moment for the current century.  Peter’s in a store trying to buy chocolate milk (hey, don’t laugh.  It’s high in protein and low in fat!  That spandex don’t lie.)  The clerk gives him the runaround about being two cents short.  Peter steps aside and the next customer distracts the clerk and cleans out the register.  He tosses Peter his milk as a thanks for looking the other way then takes off into the … yes, mean streets of New York.  You know who’s out there don’t you?

Why don't you need me for all three movies?

BAM!  Ben’s shot (trying to do the right thing, of course) after Peter has stepped aside, allowing a crime to occur that he could have stopped, all because he didn’t sympathize with who he perceived the victim of the crime to be.  That’s strike four, and more than you even need to be out in a baseball game.

That’s what I call a successful rewrite.  Now I really get Peter’s need to put on tights and swing around the city, busting criminals and trying to right the wrongs of the world.  I’m taking a lesson from this rewrite … reboot.  Layer on the guilt.  Layer on the mistakes.  Layer on the chances to have done the right thing.  All of the mistakes Peter made individually were relatable, understandable, and in isolation, maybe even forgivable. 

Your life is defined by the sum of all your actions and all your decisions, though, not just any one action.  It’s true in the real world, and we have to remember to make it true for the characters in our stories.  That’s how we see a little of ourselves in them, and when we do that, we care about them.              

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Your Brain On...

Anybody remember this PSA?
Your Brain On the Business of Writing:

You need to always be writing.  Write, write, write.  But also read everything that’s out there, especially in your genre, but also everything else.  Write something that you can compare to marketable works in your field, but break new ground, but also have an established audience.  Where’s your platform, your website?  Why haven’t you twittered in the past hour, how’s your blog doing?  What the hell is your page hit count! 

And don’t forget to know everything about the agents you’re querying.  Appeal to their personal tastes, but don’t be stalker-ish, like you know them too well.   Use your own voice in your query letter, but keep it professional and short and memorable, but not gimmicky.  Also, don’t quit your day job.  So slave away all day then do all this other stuff at night.  Don’t neglect your family! 

Geez, why can’t you just invent more time?

Your Brain On Drugs:


Your Brain While Actually Writing:

Wow, I didn’t know that about myself.    This part really reflects me.  A me I don’t let the world always see. 

I’d love to go there, maybe I’ll plan a trip.  Until I can, I’ll just populate it with all of my creativity and imagination.  I haven’t used those things since I was a kid. 

I really feel for this character.  This person is real to me now, like a literary velveteen rabbit.  What I do in this next chapter really matters.  Maybe someone will be moved by it, or inspired.

This is what I’m supposed to be doing.