Yesterday I threw together a quick post about how things have been filled with what we around here, semi-ironically, call virtue: writing, teaching, flossing, hard work, tax accounting, healthy food, yoga, and sincere attempts to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night. I wanted to let you all know I hadn’t died or forgotten how to blog, more than anything.
Now I want to just as quickly throw together a note about a few attempts, made recently, to tarnish up that hardworkin’ halo. Because what that kind of behavior gets you, eventually, is burned the fuck out. I know it, you know it. (The cats, they don’t know it. This is because they get halo points from activities like stealing lettuce, one leaf at a time, out of the salad bowl and licking it to death in various corners of the apartment.)
Fun things! I bought us tickets to see Second City’s How to Kill a Comedian. We went on the Thursday before the long weekend; it was like a sketch comedy version of all the political things that sift up in my Facebook feed. Laughs were had. Also bellinis.
Kelly and I also went to a very convivial gathering of writers and book lovers on Good Friday,in a part of town we hadn’t seen.
Marine disasters! I am reading Eric Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania aloud to Kelly in some of our downtime. The kittens join us on the bed and roll around looking adorable while we learn about people getting torpedoed, sunk, and drowned.
Lakefront birding! Part of my necessary mental process for writing requires a certain amount of walking around outside, staring blankly at things like the lake. To that end, I finally made it to Humber Bay Park East a couple weekends ago, and shot many icicles as well as this red-necked grebe and some other birds.
It turns out this is the park I’ve been looking for since I got here: big, easy to get to, bird-infested, open seven days a week, and with deliciously varied terrain. Barb and I used to go to Jericho Beach every couple of months to chase bunnies, raptors, warblers and hummingbirds. This has a very different look, of course, but there’s a similar feeling and I am excited about exploring it more.
Marital Disasters! A Masterpiece adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is on. It has Damian Lewis as Henry VIII. If this is news to you, I totally understand if you need to go hyperventilate into a brown paper bag now. OMG, OMG, OMG.
illustration by Richard Andersen
I am underslept this morning, and thus in no fit state to write intelligently about writing technique or craft, so instead, some bits and pieces of news:
As some of you may have seen on Facebook, I have sold a third Gale story to Stacy Hill at Tor.com. It’s called “The Glass Galago,” and it is next in the sequence that begins with “Among the Silvering Herd” and moves on to ““The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti”.”
I saw all three instalments of the Hobbit this weekend, and I find I don’t have much to say about it. It went down better, in some ways, because I had just rewatched the extended Lord of the Rings. Of course, it also suffered in comparison, especially since both the storytelling and characterization were so much weaker. Bilbo’s play with the Arkenstone was brilliant, and nicely executed. But the Bilbo/Thurin relationship never gelled for me. The actors and direction were a bit too wooden, and as a result the emotional beats were as often miss as hit.
On the small screen and only two episodes in, I am very much enjoying Marvel’s Agent Carter.
It’s gray outside as I write this, and dense-grained snowflakes are falling swiftly from above, their descent lines barely aslant, as if there’s no breeze at all. It was chilly and windy all weekend, but I still found it more invigorating than miserable. As long as the snow itself isn’t wet, the rest seems quite bearable.
I wrote a post here, called X-Men: Days of Boresville.
This part of the sample critique I was writing was going to be all about how you don’t do it… how you say unkind things and mock the story. So! The snark demo seems to be covered in the pre-existing post.
Wow, I hated this film. It made me so angry. The central problem I had with the story, the part that offended all of my sensibilities, was that the past-tense storyline played out in 1973, during the U.S. military action in Vietnam. There were scenes set in a number of interesting Vietnam-related situations, including the Paris peace talks.
How cool, right? You could do a million things with that!
Part of the point was to show how the military industrial complex is always looking for their next big villain, the next reason why billions of dollars have to be spent on bigger and shinier weapons instead of, you know, food or bandaids. It’s Germans! No, it’s Communists! Brown Commies! Wait, it’s mutants! OMG!
So far, so good. The possibilities for exploiting this historical period, of creating a mutant-flavored alternate history of the Vietnam War are incredible. It wouldn’t have been off-topic, or separate from the point–we’re talking about a movie that already made the time and space to use this material. But instead, 1973 and its events were set dressing. Meaningful use of the historical subject matter verged on zero.
As a single example, let’s talk about the way Charles is taking drugs that mess with his telepathy so he can walk. The so-called serum is pitched as medication, but there’s also this ongoing cinematic dance, within the direction, that has Charles looking more than a little like an addict. They don’t have the guts to actually make him one, though.
Do I want junkie Charles? Not necessarily. Addicts and their stories are not my favorite thing. But if I’m going to have to watch him inject himself and act all withdrawaly anyway, why not take the opportunity to do some bravura characterization on this so-beloved character?
Consider: you have a teacher whose whole life is about saving mutants from their own powers and from societal discrimination. Now his school is in ruins because his students are being drafted and sent to Asia. But Charles is gleefully shooting chemicals into his arm not because he cannot bear that terrible reality. And not even because he’s a telepath, and if he keeps his powers he might feel those kids he’s linked to as they kill and die and experience unimaginable horrors. Good heavens, no!
He’s taking the serum because he doesn’t like being in a wheelchair.
Now being shot and paralyzed is a traumatic thing, I’ll grant you. And I understand that Charles isn’t meant to be all grown up and stable yet. But what’s stronger? Taking the opportunity to imagine how a compassionate and caring guy like Xavier would be affected by a war that would inevitably use his people more and harder than ordinary folks? Or being asked to care because he has to choose between superpowers and walking?
One of the exercises I assign to many of my writing classes goes like this:
Imagine a popular film was actually a story or novel submitted to this workshop. Write a critique, using the guidelines I’ve set out for workshopping. This is your chance to say: “Dear Joss, I’ve had a chance to review your story ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and…”
It’s a fun exercise, and spawns lots of conversations about films and about critiquing.
Now I’m trying to generate a few examples to go with the exercise. I asked my social media followship to help me choose a film that would work well. I got great answers, but ended up deciding there wasn’t a single one-movie-fits-all answer that met all my teaching needs. Now I’m breaking the task into sections.
Critique in a lot of workshops, mine include, starts with the portion of the process where you say what is working with a particular piece. Here’s my handy sample for that:
…for example, if I wanted to write a critique of a novel called Die Hard, by a couple of guys named Steve and Jed, I might say:
-There’s no doubt that this is John McClane’s story–he’s the guy with both an internal conflict and a goal. The former is his struggle to accept his wife’s independence, and the fact that she has struck out on her own. The external struggle, of course, is the one which occupies most of the story–his fight with the thieves in Nakatomi Plaza.
-The tone you set in this piece is nicely balanced. The action moves along and we’re never bored. The bad guys seem genuinely dangerous, especially Hans Gruber, and yet the humorous moments play well.
-John’s very much a guy of the Eighties and his uneasy and incomplete concessions to feminism reflect that attitude. Held to the standards of the present day, he doesn’t seem that enlightened; it may be that this story doesn’t score perfectly on that front either. But we are looking at something that’s set about thirty years ago. And I think it’s praiseworthy that Holly Gennaro isn’t there merely to motivate John in his fight against Gruber and company. She stands up to Gruber, and works hard to keep a lid on a terrifying situation, thereby protecting the other hostages while hiding her true identity from the thieves.
-Your use of Holly’s last name as a plot device is especially brilliant. It’s a bone of contention between John and Holly. Because they’re fighting about it, it’s already on our radar as Gruber tries to figure out who is causing him such problems and whether he might have any leverage on John. This is a classic example of a story element that works on more than one level.
What you should all notice about this is that I’m not just saying what I like–I’m going into as much detail as I can about why it works.
I’ll be doing this for other elements of critique, including things that don’t work in some other movie.
Over a quarter century ago, I had the fortune to be in a relationship with someone who would, every Friday, remove the TV Guide from the newspaper, go through it with a blue highlighter, and mark very neatly all the things he might wish to see in the coming seven days.
photo by Kelly Robson
This represented an excellent division of resources from my point of view, as he had the paper, the guide, the highlighter, the TV, a cable package and time set aside for a meticulous clerical task on Friday nights, whereas what I was bringing to the table was a desire to watch Dr. Who and Star Trek: TNG.
After I married Kelly, it turned out the VCR could perform much the same function, though only for 8 shows at a time, and only reliably if you left it a five minute margin of error on either side of the hour. The technology improved as we wore out and replaced gadgets. Then for awhile there was a DVR and it recorded everything, happily, only to fill up with unwatched hours of content when we hit that sad couple of years when the best things on were, like, Bones and The Mentalist. And why were we bothering with cable again? So then we weren’t.
Nowadays what I want seems to be the thing that tells me when the things I like are airing new episodes… And happy day, there is an app for that! It’s name is TV Forecast, and all it does is provide the info I want:
It doesn’t ask me if I watched the stuff, or if I liked it. It just gives dates, or says TBA, or admits the thing is cancelled.
I am sharing all of this with you in case you also just need an app that tells you when your favorite shows are returning. And also in case you know if there’s one of these for bands. If I could have a list like this saying exactly when my fave bands’ next albums were being released, no muss, no fuss, but here’s the day… let’s just say that certain media empires might make dozens more Canadian dollars per year.
Are there any apps in your life, small or large, famous or unknown, that make your life better?