Category Archives: Culture

Too Many Fingers

If you’ve been part of a software development and/or engineering team, you’ll understand the concept of unity of purpose. The same principle, it turns out, applies to writing.

They say there are many roads that lead to Rome. If Rome represents the product you want to build, beit a smartphone app, some new whiz-bang hardware, or, let’s say, a story, there’s more than one path you can take to get there. That’s fine if you’re traveling solo. But if you’re part of a team, and different voices are calling out to take this path or that other one or that other other one, it can be a problem. You can end up with a product that looks like the equivalent of a Reaver ship, a cacophony of parts that kinda-sorta work together, but that were never meant to be components of the same whole.

This is why development teams have an architect. This isn’t someone who designs buildings. Well, it can be if what you’re building is, you know, a building. The product architect is someone whose vision of the product carries the day. There can only be one vision, and the team has to buy into this vision. Otherwise, what you end up with is a mess.

The word “mess” has been used more than once to describe a couple of recent superhero movies: Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. The problem with both of these? Among others, too many characters. Too many future movie plotlines to set up.
Dawn of Justice
also suffers from too reaction-to-second-batman-v-superman-dawn-of-justice-trailer-737594
many plots grafted together, too much left out, too many unanswered questions. Why did we need to borrow from both“The Dark Knight Returns” and “Death of Superman” storylines? Each was a major story arc in and of itself and could have carried a movie.

The interesting question is, why do these films suffer from these shortcomings?

ultronThe (likely) answer: Too many fingers in the pie. While these films do have an architect (Joss
Whedon, Zack Snyder) the studios at some level placed too many constraints on the films. Rather
than being allowed to tell a coherent story and tell it well, let’s throw in a few new characters that we want to develop in future movies. Let’s introduce elements that we’re going to explore in future movies. Let’s have more than the last move: bigger, faster, louder.

This was likely one of the reasons the Bond film Quantum of Solace fell short. Forget about telling a compelling story. We need more action that the last film. More chase scenes. And so you end up with a film that has car chases, foot chases, boat chases, and plane chases. Indeed, they seem to have covered all the bases, and the movie is all the poorer as a result. Contrast that with the subsequent Skyfall, perhaps the best Bond ever, where the set pieces and action were driven by the story rather than the other way around.

So what does all this have to do with writing? (Let’s leave screenwriters out for the moment.) After all, most stories are written by only one or maybe two authors. The relevance is that a story has to have a coherent thread driving it forward. Sure, there are supporting characters, several of which can have arcs of their own, but these have to fit together into a coherent whole. You can’t just wander off willy nilly and explore every neat idea. Probably better to keep a “neat idea” file, and to keep your story lean and to the point.

This topic slides into another: How much is too much? By that I mean, I’m not a big fan of filler, even if it’s filler that doesn’t distract from the overall plot. I love a good, thick book as much as the next guy, and I’ve read some series where each book was a door stopper, and yet, I’ve been pretty sure that these stories could have been told with far fewer, thinner books.

It’s a trade off. On the one hand, it can be a real pleasure immerse yourself in the minutia of a new world. On the other hand, you can find yourself wishing the author would just get to the point. Personally, I’m becoming nostalgic for the days when the average novel seemed to be on the order of 200 pages, or even less.

Less, after all, can be more, which applies to both novel length and the number of fingers in the pie.

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Writing Miss Fisher

This is one post where I’m not going to pretend to have the answers. Not that I would pretend. Not usually. Rather, I’m going to be asking a lot of questions.

Let’s start with this one: Do you watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries? It’s a remarkable show set in Melbourne, Australia in the roaring ’20’s.

miss-fisher-s-murder-mysteriesPhryne Fisher is something of an oddity in her 1920’s setting, being a beautiful, wealthy, independent woman who’s intelligent and driven. Not to mention fearless. Fisher is not one to hide behind the coattails of a man, as she’s rather adept at hand-to-hand combat and carries a pistol in her handbag. She is, in addition, forthright and flirtatious, and enjoys brief flings with attractive, muscular men.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Miss Fisher is the actor who plays the titular character. Essie Davis conveys volumes with her posture, gait, eyes, voice, and phrasing.

And now comes the big question: How would you capture that in writing? Is it even possible to capture in writing some of what is conveyed in moments in visual media, or must we simply concede that visual and written media are different, each with their own strengths and weaknesses?

Of course, the logical thing to do would be to read one or more of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher books to see how she did it. Succumbing to the inevitable, I downloaded an e-version of Cocaine Blues to my tablet. Say what you will about e-books, when it comes to instant gratification, you can’t beat them.

At any rate, Greenwood makes no mention of what Fisher does with her eyes. Nor voice. Nor posture. Her personality is well captured in other ways, though. In one notable scene, a constable expresses to Chief Inspector Jack Robinson that they could arrest Fisher and take her down to the station. Wearing only a lounging robe, Fisher steps out of the robe and, completely naked, tells the inspector that if she is to be taken to the station, it will be like this. Classic.

But suppose you wish to capture the  subtleties of Davis’ performance in writing? Consider the scene in the pilot episode where Fisher first meets Inspector Jack Robinson. The scene takes place in a bathroom where a man was found dead. A chalk outline is all that remains of the victim. Fisher has wheedled her way past Constable Hugh Collins to have a look for herself. A knock on the bathroom door shortly after, and Fisher admits Collins and his superior, Inspector Jack Robinson.

After surveying the scene quickly, Fisher summarized her findings. “Given the lack of blood stains, I assume it wasn’t a violent death, unless it was strangulation. But the fetal position of the victim outline, although not terribly well executed, indicates a degree of pain rather than the flailing limbs one might associate with a struggle. Then of course there’s the fact that death occurred after breakfast according to Mrs. Andrews which suggests something ingested. All wild surmise of course.”

“Of course,” Robinson said. “Now…”

Miss Fisher interrupted. “Do you have a card? In case I need to call the police? Because I’m a woman alone, newly arrived in a dangerous town.”

Handing her his card, Inspector Robinson said, “I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher.”

“Good,” said Miss Fisher. “I do like a man with a plan, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.”

This is what the characters said, but by itself, this doesn’t at all reflect what actually passes between the characters. Let’s add some annotations.

After surveying the scene quickly, Fisher summarized her findings. “Given the lack of blood stains, I assume it wasn’t a violent death, unless it was strangulation. But the fetal position of the victim outline, although not terribly well executed, indicates a degree of pain rather than the flailing limbs one might associate with a struggle. Then of course there’s the fact that death occurred after breakfast according to Mrs. Andrews which suggests something ingested. [Robinson and Collins share a glance. Robinson nods his head slightly, tacitly conceding that Fisher has a good point.] All wild surmise of course.”

“Of course,” Robinson said. “Now…”

Up until now, Fisher has been lecturing on her findings with the tone of an expert speaking to her pupils. Then, in the blink of an eye, she completely changes gears.

Miss Fisher interrupted. “Do you have a card? In case I need to call the police? Because [Fisher pauses, adjusts her hair, then purrs the rest of the sentence, large, liquid eyes wide, making eye contact with Robinson.] I’m a woman alone, newly arrived in a dangerous town.”

Handing her his card, Inspector Robinson said, “I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher.”

“Good,” said Miss Fisher. “I do like a man with a plan, [Fisher glances at card.] Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.” [Fisher eyes Robinson up and down, smiles, then saunters out of the room, hips swaying slightly. Robinson and Collins follow her with their eyes, then Robinson takes a breath and surveys the crime scene with fresh eyes.]

Well, that captures the feel of the scene a bit better, but you can’t leave it like that. Since most of the unspoken communication comes from Fisher, perhaps it would would be best to describe the scene from Inspector Robinson’s point of view.

After surveying the scene quickly, Fisher summarized her findings. “Given the lack of blood stains, I assume it wasn’t a violent death, unless it was strangulation. But the fetal position of the victim outline, although not terribly well executed, indicates a degree of pain rather than the flailing limbs one might associate with a struggle.”

Robinson kept his face even. He’d learned that it was best to let witnesses and suspects talk when they were inclined to talk, and to pay close attention. There was always time for questions and clarifications after they’d said their piece. Still, this woman was something different. Clearly intelligent and surprisingly, perhaps refreshingly, direct. He found that he was becoming genuinely interested in what she had to say. With some bemusement, he realized that she had taken on the tone and body language of an instructor lecturing to her student.

Continuing, Fisher said, “Then of course there’s the fact that death occurred after breakfast according to Mrs. Andrews which suggests something ingested.”

Robinson glanced at Collins, who’d been taking notes. As their eyes met, Robinson found himself nodding slightly to Collins; they had both come to the same realization, that Fisher was making some valid points

“All wild surmise of course,” Fisher concluded.

Robinson wasn’t about to concede that an amateur, and a woman at that, had made some astute observations. “Of course,” Robinson said. “Now…”

Miss Fisher interrupted. “Do you have a card? In case I need to call the police?”

At this, Robinson noted, Fisher’s voice and posture changed completely. Moving closer and adjusting her hair, she proceeded to purr her words, her eyes large and liquid, keeping full eye contact with Robinson. It was with some effort that he kept his face impassive.

“Because,” Fisher continued, “I’m a woman alone, newly arrived in a dangerous town.”

Handing her his card, Inspector Robinson said, “I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher.”

“Good. I do like a man with a plan,” said Fisher, pausing to read the card, “Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.”

Surprised by her boldness, Robinson noted how Fisher eyed him up and down, smiled alluringly, then sauntered out of the room, her hips swaying slightly. Without realizing it, Robinson followed her with his eyes, as did Collins. When she was gone, he once again surveyed the crime scene, this time from a fresh perspective.

I could live with that as a decent stab at capturing the scene, but still, you have to be careful how much time you spend on things like eye contact and introspection, for you run the risk of boring your readers. In TV and movies, a glance or a change in expression can occur in a second and it can speak volumes. To express the same thing in writing may take, well, volumes. You need to balance pacing and characterization, and this is where beta-readers can help.

In a similar vein, consider Phryne Fisher’s wardrobe. Fisher sports an amazingly diverse wardrobe and somehow looks good in anything. Her wardrobe nearly becomes another character in the show. But here we come to the same question as before: how do you translate this to the written word? How much space in a short story or even a novel could one sensibly allocate to describing a character’s clothing, and the impact it has on those around her? What vocabulary would you even use? Personally, I’d be at a bit of a loss having to describe in detail 1920’s era women’s fashion.

Questions, questions. But this makes for an interesting thought exercise, and hopefully gives us pause to consider adding some more subtleties to the way in which our characters interact.

Why the Force is With Us

When Star Wars burst onto the scene in 1977, no one had seen the like. It reminded me of an old Errol Flynn movie, but with special effects that blew past the bar set by 2001: A Space Odyssey nearly a decade earlier.

There was the princess who’d been captured by an evil sorcerer; the young hero whose destiny lies beyond the farm on which he’s been raised; the wise old wizard; and there was the rogue, the mercenary, who, beneath the crusty exterior, was deeply human.

This is all fundamental stuff, elements as old as stories themselves. And yet the movie seemed breathtakingly fresh. Star Wars was all anyone talked about that summer. Then came The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Return of the Jedi in 1983, and we breathed a sigh of contentment. It was over, and it was brilliant. But along with contentment we felt regret that it was all over.

falconTime passes. Thirty plus years. And now we have two teaser trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In the first, we see some people we don’t know, some X-wings, a cloaked figure who is presumably a Sith lord, and then, there it is: the Millenium Falcon, looking as if it’s just burst from its cage, reveling in its freedom as it twists and turns in the air, only to level off to face incoming TIE fighters. Was there anyone not at least a little misty-eyed at the sight of the Falcon?

The second teaser ups its game. There’s the awesome shot of the Star Destroyer, crashed in the desert, then Luke Skywalker’s voice-over. People are starting to get excited. Then we have more action shots, and finally, there they are, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Commence total freak out.

But why did the trailers have this effect on us? What makes Star Wars so good? Why do we care?

To answer that question, it helps to look at The Phantom Menace, painful as that might be. In particular, it’s well worth looking at the series of seven YouTube videos in which RedLetterMedia deconstructs that movie. It does so while making you alternately laugh out loud and cringe with horror, as a LucasFilm employee seemingly did at an early screening of the movie. The most telling part, and it’s been a while so I’ll try to get this right, was while interviewing Star Wars fans about the original series characters. They were able to describe Han Solo etc. and ascribe to each a unique personality. They were then asked to describe Qui-Gon Jinn. The interviewer was met with a blank face. Upon being reminded that he was Obi-Wan’s mentor there was an “Oh”. And they were stuck. They couldn’t say a thing about him. “Stoic” said one.

The reason we love Star Wars is that we love the characters. We know who they are and we care about what happens to them. What does happen to them is on one hand a simple adventure, but on the other a multi-level story of good versus evil, the capacity for both within us, and in the end, the possibility of redemption and forgiveness even if you have fallen to the dark side.

And let’s not forget one of the most beloved characters of the series: the Millenium Falcon, the flawed and faltering ship (“Would it help if I got out and pushed?” Leia asked. “It might,” said Han.) that nonetheless digs deep and always brings our heroes home. The Falcon has a most definite personality, and we rooted for her as much as for Han, Leia and Luke.

In another blog, while reviewing the rebooted Star Trek, I reported that it was like seeing an old friend you thought you’d never see again. After early showings of Trek, people were reportedly weeping as they left the theatre. They were tears of joy. Watching the Star Wars trailers had a similar effect, because honestly, most of us thought we’d never see these characters again. Now we can see them and hear their voices, and suddenly the world seems a brighter place. We walk around with smiles on our faces. And in this world where darkness seems to creep closer to us every day, something, even a movie trailer, that casts a warm ray of light is most welcome.

He Was Spock

Leonard Nimoy was many things, actor, director, photographer, author, even singer. But above all, for those of us who knew him only by his work, he was Spock.

SpockThe genius of Nimoy was that, when he played Spock, the actor seemed to disappear. There was only Spock. And we loved Spock. Spock was supremely logical, but let the mask of logic slip just enough to let us know when he was angry, bemused or exasperated. He, Kirk, and McCoy formed the perfect trinity of logic, intuition and emotion.

Nimoy made an appearance via Skype at last summer’s Ottawa Comiccon, an appearance that Karl Urban (McCoy in the new movies) crashed, to Nimoy’s amusement. I wish I could have been there. I recently visited Los Angeles, and saw the handprints left by the cast of the original Star Trek. Nimoy’s of course, formed a Vulcan greeting. Though at one time he wrote I am not TOS SidewalkSpock, he came to embrace the role for which he was so loved, and later wrote a  book called I am Spock.

My favourite Spock episode? The Menagerie, in which Spock, still loyal to his former Captain, risks his career to help return Pike to a planet declared off-limits by the Federation. Another favourite was his fabulous return to the role in Star Trek, the 2009 movie. Then there’s the the famous Audi commercial he filmed with Zachary Quinto. What a great sport he was.

What else is there to say except

LLAP

And Now for Something Completely Different

I’ve talked about fanfiction in previous posts, and to date that constitutes the bulk of my writing. However, I have started to write original stories. One of them is making the rounds of publishers, gathering quite the collection of rejection slips. And so it begins…

I’ve dabbled in story telling before. In fact, I just stumbled upon something I wrote back in 2001 in which a little girl learns the secret her family has passed on for generations. I thought it would be fun to clean it up and post it here, but as it turns out, there was little I wanted to change.

So, here it is, Where the Dragons Sleep. Hope you enjoy it.

Romancing the (Heart of) Stone

Would someone please tell me what it is about romance novels? I mean, what is it about them that makes people actually want to read them?

My latest Castle fanfic is another light-hearted stab at the genre. There’s a lot of romance in the Castle group on fanfiction.net. Stuff like,

“Oh, Castle!”

“Beckett!”

“Oh, Castle, I…”

“I know. Oh, Beckett, I know.”

Researching the genre a bit, I purchased a popular Harlequin Blaze novel, Thrill Me by Leslie Kelly. I was pleasantly surprised by the opening chapter. In fact, I was hooked by the first three sentences:

Sophie Winchester was skilled at only two things. She could type 120 words per minute without a single error.

And she was damn good at committing murder.

Like I said, hooked.

romanceIt turns out Sophie only commits murder on paper. As Richard Castle says, a lot more lucrative, a lot less prison.

She lives in a town called Derryville, a nod to Stephen King’s fictional town of Derry, where Very Bad Things happen. And keep happening. Nice touch!

But all good things come to an end, and we get down to it. The romance part. At the sight of the new sheriff in town, Sophie finds herself weak and dizzy, unable to stand without his assistance, unable to take her hands off him after gripping his oh so manly shoulders for support.

You get the idea.

And people like this stuff? Admittedly, I don’t read a huge amount of romance, but this type of behaviour on the part of the female protagonist doesn’t seem unusual. What happened to the concern one hears about the lack of strong, female characters in movies and TV shows? Are romance authors trying to harken back to an earlier age, in which females waited for their Prince Charming to make them weak at the knees and fluttery in the eyes? If so, what age would that be? Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I would point out, was published in the late 18th Century. I don’t see the women in that novel behaving like silly, limp dolls. Well, except for Lydia, of course.

How about a couple of strong characters with a complex relationship, buffeted by forces outside of their control, having to make life-changing decisions where no matter what they choose, someone gets hurt? Or is that sort of thing not considered a “romance” novel, but just a plain non-genre novel?

Ah well. In the end, it’s easy to poke fun at the romance genre, but at least its got people reading, and that’s always a good thing.