Public Transit Done Right.

A while ago, I wrote a posted entitled “Do Me a Solid“. It was a passing tribute to those products that just work. It seems there just aren’t enough of those around these days.

I’ve always been a fan of public transit. Here in Ottawa, it works fairly well if you live in the west end of the city and work downtown. There are bus lanes on the highway and bus-only transit ways to speed you on your way. During rush hour, buses run every few minutes. Parking downtown is very expensive. The bus, while not cheap, is cheaper and it gives you an opportunity to get some fresh air and see new faces. And, given rush hour traffic, you can often reach your destination faster than by driving.

So, public transit in Ottawa works fairly well, but those who live in the east end, or those that live in the city and work in the west end wouldn’t exactly describe it as “solid”.

1280px-Zuerich_Hauptbahnhof-2This summer I spent a few days in Zurich, Switzerland. Now there is a public transit system that is solid in every way. Their public transit is based on trams that connect to the central train station. At each tram station, there’s an automated ticket dispenser that supports English, German, French and Italian. A series of on-screen choices guides you to the ticket you want. Frequently requested tickets, such as to the Zurich airport, are right on the home screen. You can pay with credit card, or, since Switzerland widely supports tap-and-pay, you can use your smart phone. Overhead displays count down the minutes until the next tram’s arrival.

Trams run frequently and efficiently and on time. Just like a Swiss watch. So do trains. It’s surprisingly easy to find your way around the Zurich train station and it’s 30+ tracks. Yellow schedule boards, valid for twelve months, give you all the information you need, sorted by time. So, you can look up the next train for Lucerne that leaves on or after 10 AM, for example.

We had Swiss travel passes that gave us access to trams, trains and some museums and tours. We just had to show up and board. Once in a while, inspectors show up to verify your passes.

To sum up, the Swiss public transportation system is a joy to use. It just works.
It’s solid.

Oh yes. The scenery’s pretty nice too.

 

Advertisements

Going Off Script

Writing the script for an audio play is an interesting experience. I’d never done it before. The sum total of my fiction writing consists of short stories in the traditional form, original and fanfiction, and one novel currently in progress (it’s been in progress for quite some time, but that’s another story). 

The thing about an audio script is that there’s no narrator. Well, I guess there could be, but in my script there was none. And there’s no descriptive text. Nothing, really, but dialog and place holders for sound effects. Those are the tools at your disposal. 

Dialog becomes subtly different. Sometimes characters have to talk to themselves when they are alone in a scene, otherwise the listener would have no idea what was going on. When more than one character is present, you sometimes have to include descriptions of surroundings that, in TV or movies, would require only a camera shot to give you the information you need. 

“Look at that!”

“It’s a wall of metal. I’ve never seen one so tall.”

You get the idea. 

This may be why I’ve always found the book, TV and movie adaptations of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy unstatisfying. The script was originally written for an audio play. So when Arthur Dent screeches, “What the hell is that!?” And Ford Prefect calmly answers, “It’s a fleet of flying saucers”, that works on audio. In a visual medium, the camera would simply show you a fleet of flying saucers. For me, it’s the original audio version that’s the real McCoy.  

Last year I was invited to contribute a script to what would have been a series of Doctor Who fanfiction audio dramas. That series never materialized and was presumably lost in the Time Vortex. Still, writing it was tremendous fun and now I’m pleased to add that script to the collection of fanfiction on this site. Click on “FanFiction” at the top of this page, then on “Resurgence of the Cybermen”. 

A Cacophony of Caskett Heartbreak

There’s a TV show called Castle. It’s quite popular and is in its eighth season. I’ve written a few fanfiction stories set in the Castle universe.

If you are aware of the show, then you might be aware of the explosion of outrage on the Internet over the release of two of the actors who have been part of the show since the beginning: Stana Katic, who played Detective Kate Beckett, and Tamala Jones, who played Dr. Lanie Parish. If there is a season 9 (unknown at the time of writing), they won’t be in the cast.

Applicable Twitter hashtags include: #Castle, #IStandWithStana, #SaveCaskett, and #NoStanaNoCastle.

Tamala Jones will be missed as hers is a strong female character, still an oddity in 21st century media, and is a medical examiner to boot. Her character has had an on again, off again relationship with Javier Esposito, has lobbed more than a few zingers in Castle’s direction, and has served as a confidante for Beckett. If there is no Beckett, however, there is less need for Parish.

As for Stana Katic, in the beginning, her character viewed Castle as an irritant. Over the course of time, their mutual trust and respect grew, and they found themselves falling in love, even if one or the other wasn’t prepared to admit it. Finally, they were engaged and then married.

Stana-Nathan-nathan-fillion-and-stana-katic-26237395-542-594What’s been so engaging about the Beckett-Castle relationship is the apparent chemistry between the two actors, and the range of emotions they display so unerringly. They are, truly, a very cute couple. This relationship is a key anchor point for many viewers, who have immensely enjoyed the show over the years.

Here’s the thing, though. While the Beckett-Castle relationship has been a great story, there comes a time when a story has been told, and whatever follows is simply potboiling. That’s not to say there aren’t necessarily more Castle stories, but really, what else could you do with the Beckett-Castle relationship other than an endless cycle of bringing them together, separating them on some pretext or other, then bringing them together again.

If I was writing for Castle, I’d be chaffing at the bit to tell some different types of stories. In an effort to shake things up, they had Castle disappear for a few months (over the summer break, mind you) and reappear with his mind wiped. I found that to be a very weak storyline. Similarly, this season, Beckett left Castle so that he wouldn’t become a casualty in her investigation of the death of her former colleagues. And yet, they still saw each other every week. Inevitably, after the Christmas break, Castle and Beckett got back together again.

Let’s consider another show that I enjoy, Doctor Who. While the show was off the air for a number of years, it recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. What is it that keeps it going? A simple answer might be that it has all of space and time for its characters to explore, but its more than that. Characters come and characters go, no matter how beloved. The Doctor, the central character, has remained, but every three or four years a new actor takes the part. What keeps a series fresh is change. Fresh actors, fresh storylines, fresh villains.

If Castle is to continue with strong stories, and not just potboilers, it needs to change as well. One very pleasant surprise this season is the development of Castle’s daughter, Alexis, played by Molly Quinn, as an adult foil for her father. I can easily imagine some great stories centred around Richard Castle, P.I., working and trading witticisms with two strong women, Alexis and the intriguing Hayley Shipton, played by Toks Olagundoye. Why not?

So let’s put things in perspective. There was no “Caskett” in the early years, yet we watched the show. Personally, I preferred the battle of the sexes feel of those years. It put me in mind of the old Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn films.

Be that as it may, if you can’t imagine Castle without “Caskett”, there’s a simple solution. First, turn off the TV. Much simpler and less work than advocating cancelling the show. Second, read/write some AU fanfiction in which they’re kissing and making babies and solving mysteries and living happily ever after.

As for me, if season 9 happens, I’m certainly going to give it a try.

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.

The Horror!


Horror has changed.

Once upon a time, on a dark and story night, horror was Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, or Dracula. Or all three.

When I was a kid, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was on TV one afternoon while my mother was ironing. I was able to stick with it until Lawrence Talbot spied a full moon and, well, you know what came next.

abbottcostellofrankenstein“MOM!” I screeched. “Change the channel.”

She dutifully did so, switching to a soap opera. After a while I calmed down and begged her to go back to the movie. I was fine then, at least until Talbot’s next transformation.

“MOM! Change the channel!”

I loved it. Loved getting scared right to death. And I still do to this day.

When I was in my early teens, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, and immediately fell in love. The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath remains one of my favourite books. How could you not be scared when the Old Gods were after you? Or when rubbery, foul-smelling, ameboid-shaped abominations poked and prodded you as you descended fitfully to the Dream World and left your sanity behind, one step at a time?

As I started to wonder about writing horror fiction, and I read some horror anthologies and sources such as Nightmare magazine, I started to think about what constitutes horror fiction today. It occurred to me that horror has changed. It’s not so much about monsters in the dark any more. There may well be monsters in the dark, but the real horror is what those humans trapped in the house do to each other while the monsters lurk outside.

The classic modern example is TV’s The Walking Dead, a show brilliant in its writing and acting, but so dark and bleak that I stopped watching around the third season. Yes, there are zombies all about, but even as the world falls apart around their ears, people are still hungry for power, for the chance to one-up each other, and as ever, there are romantic triangles.

The idea, I think, is that when horror exists, we discover some truth about ourselves, something we prefer not to think about, a quality better left unspoken. And man, that’s frightening. 

Protagonist Purgatory

Hi folks,

I’ve added a new, original story to the site. You can find it by selecting “Original Fiction” near the top, then selecting “Protagonist Purgatory“. It’s a sequel of sorts to “Where the Dragons Sleep” and “The Right Time” but can be read independently. It attempts to be light-hearted. Whether it succeeds is for you to decide.

If you’re squeamish about strong language, best stay away. One of the characters drops the F-Bomb pretty much every time he opens his mouth. But we’ve all known that guy, haven’t we?

Here’s a quick excerpt:

“What?” said Dromhiller. “You saw a dragon?”

Michael nodded. “It flew overhead just a little while ago.”

“Well, that’s more like it,” Dromhiller said. “Now I’ve something to look forward to.”

“So there were dragons in your story?”

“Sure. Well, at least until I killed them. You?”

“No dragons,” said Michael. “There was a unicorn, though. And a few other magical creatures.”

Dromhiller laughed out loud and nearly choked. “A unicorn! You’ve got to be kidding me. Didn’t appear until the end of the story, though, did it?”

“Right at the start, actually,” Michael said. “Then again towards the end.”

Dromhiller, doubled over with laughter, stopped. Catching his breath, he said, “A ******* unicorn! Right at the start. Let me guess. Story didn’t sell, did it?”

Enjoy!

Nobody’s Perfect

We all want to be liked. Yet we all have flaws. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is that our strengths outweigh our weaknesses.

If you think about it, our notion of character flaws and positive attributes depends on the context and on the person who is making the judgement. Quiet humility, for example, may be considered a positive attribute by many, but in the context of a sales department, it might be considered a drawback.

To you, a man may seem to be full of himself, but in the eyes of someone else who is full of him or herself, he is simply self confident and this is a good thing.

These considerations make it all the more challenging to create believable fictional characters. It’s a tricky balancing act. I’ve been known to put away a novel, albeit very well written, because I’ve not found a single character that I like. On the other hand, if characters have no flaws at all, they seem flat. Two-dimensional.

11532830.jpgThis line of thinking came to me while reading Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, because virtually every major character (if they weren’t a villain) was flawed yet likeable. David himself, hopelessly naive, quick to trust, and quick to fall in love. Arguably much too quick to fall in love, and him not understanding his wife as well as those around him who’d spent far less time with her. Sometimes we want to slap him for being an idiot, yet we also cheer for him as he becomes a mature, successful adult.

Dora Spenlow, a lovely butterfly of a woman, dainty and airy, exceedingly pretty, but truly a child in a woman’s body. Yet, she understood this about herself, and this helps endear her to us.

Mr. Micawber… well, really, the list of flaws is too long. Bombastic, long-winded in the extreme, self-destructive, to name a few. And yet, every time I read this book I nearly cheer out loud when he steps onto the stage because he truly has a good heart. He loves his family, is a loyal friend to David, and in the end sacrifices his good fortunes to bring down Uriah Heep.

Betsy Trotwood, eccentric in the extreme, having walked out of her sister-in-law’s life because of her temerity in giving birth to a boy rather than a girl. She also has an aversion to donkeys. And yet, she gives shelter to Mr. Dick and gives David the first loving home he has known.

Clara Copperfield, David’s mother, too much aware of her good looks, too inexperienced in the world, too ready to give herself to a flattering suitor. But she loves David dearly and he retains happy memories of her all his life.

Interestingly, Dickens’ villains had few or no redeeming features, and so were by definition two-dimensional. And yet in the context of his stories they work brilliantly. Dickens’ villains were like the black-hatted, black cloaked, mustache twirling villains of the silent movies that everyone loved to boo as they tied the damsel to the railway tracks. Of all of his memorable villains, Uriah Heep is perhaps the best known, with his fawning manner, fake humility, cold clammy hands, writhing posture, and his propensity for delving into and exploiting the vulnerabilities of those around him.

As many great characters as Dickens gave us, he had one blind spot: his heroines. They were as pure as snow, as soft as the morning dew on the roses, as good as, well, nobody really. Nobody is as good and without flaw as a Dickens heroine. Much as I love Dickens overall, his heroines were his kryptonite. In this book, that would be Agnes Wickfield. She’s just so… good. So understanding. So calm. So patient. Such a loving daughter. Such a loyal friend to David. And I could go on but you get the idea.

Out of all these considerations I can draw few hard and fast lessons, except to provide your main characters with flaws, especially flaws that move the plot forward and ratchet up the conflicts to be resolved. Sounds easy. And it sounds like something that those of us who are aspiring writers will need to practice before getting it right, or at least, getting it better.

After all, nobody’s perfect.