Greatness from an Outline: Anonymous Book Review 22—A quick look at plotting complex story arcs and subtext in fiction writing.

I can’t say that I’ve ever written a book review for the categorical best of any genre. That just changed. After reading this graphic novel again, even after watching the movie, I’m more impressed now at the attention to detail than at any time before.

Thought I was pretty good at outlining.

I’m having doubts.

I’m a writer. Like all writers I enjoy outlining, but I also enjoy free writing, too. Nothing wrong with a pantser style when we’ve got to get a story out of us. Reading this book showed me that when working toward perfection a solid outline becomes the GPS.

The success of this story comes on the back of sixty years entrenched clichés, concepts artistic communities had been talking about, and a world in real life wracked by aibiizmdv0k8mhcjuebvexistential tension. The author had a lot to work with. So like a drunken trust-fund brat pissing away a hard-earned family fortune, this author exhausted the collected cultural capitol in a single twelve issue collection. Instead of blurry nights, fast women and fiery car crashes though, he blew his inheritance on a nihilistic monolith that buried in a shallow grave the naïve superhero tropes humanity had grown accustomed.

Whoa, sounds like someone had a big bowl of metaphorios this morning.

Yes. Yes I did.

There hasn’t been a successful sequel, nor can I imagine one. The characters, the social commentary, the conclusion belong to an era. It exposed the clichés, killed them and left only sour irony for future artists.

Until a new commentary evolves.

It all started innocently enough. After having problems personifying a main character in my novel project, I turned to the graphic novel as a case study on archetypal super heroes that played with their strengths and weaknesses.

Yes, I went into it to analyze characterization, instead I’ve picked up a thorough lesson on the potential of organization, on outlining, on plotting.

It’s a graphic novel. Images are as important to the story telling as the dialog and in this one just as technically perfect. There are clues from the very first panels as to how the story will bend. Details that draw you back to the beginning once you’ve reached the finale. Innocuous scenery—end table trinkets, by-standers, litter blowing on the motionless breeze—telling a deeper story than the words alone. To us writers this is the mysterious and alluring art of subtext, a facet of literature that pushes good stories into great tales.

But these effects didn’t come by accident. They were planned and plotted before the first words were lettered. A specific, detailed outline is especially important when working with a partner, particularly since a graphic artist needs time to interpret the story, then produce the visual standards, even if the artist is a certified genius in his own right. Which this guy is. Novels take between six months and a million lifetimes to finish and in that interval important details are, umm, occasionally overlooked. If there’s a lesson to take from this, it’s that a complete and layered outline only multiplies the quality of your work.

I once sat in a crowd absorbed in an hour long speech by the famous sci-fi author, David Brin. He was funny and engaging and spoke in that cryptic language professionally known as nerd. I loved it. In his speech he suggested that all us aspiring writers should begin our fiction careers by penning a murder mystery. His point was that writers would be forced, by the very nature of the genre, to pay close attention to the details, and that the their job was to plant clues in such a way that the reader is dropkicked by the realization that the evidence was in front of them the entire time. All while stretching out the secret for the length of the novel. Solid advice, but I’m not interested in murder mysteries right now and really don’t want to commit to a novel simply for an exercise. Too much work.

Well, this graphic novel is a murder mystery. It starts as a violent and bloody whodunnit. The one person concerned starts tying clues together. The people he comes across describe him and feed in doubt to the course he’s investigating. Alternate history and character back-story knit together, each piece connects to other characters revealing their personalities through the perceptions of the people around them. This subtlety builds a pattern throughout the novel that becomes natural and even succeeds in the nuanced justification for the surprise villain’s opportunity to eliminate his greatest threat.

This is pure showing, no telling. Sure, easy with a comic book, you say. Valid argument, but there’s so much more than that.

At one point one hero narrates his ennui in past, present and future tense. It’s a little confusing at first, though the graphics help to set the context. After a quick re-read the brilliance of the passage sank in. The story wasn’t what had happened in the past, present, or future, but how the elements of those episodes led the character toward his current state. Beyond that, the significance of those episodes led the reader to understand the character’s condition without saying it explicitly.

All the characters are plays on well worn superhero tropes. The brooding detective, the superman, the wonder woman, the rich idealist gadget man, the world’s smartest, and the comic relief. Then these recognizable tropes were turned on their heads and given normal human failings.

So what? Every writer is trying to flip a trope. It’s why there are so many Alice in Wonderland stories right now.

True, but it wasn’t the failings alone so much as the way their normal faults made the superheroes pathetic on the inside. These faults drove tension in the story as the reader came to know the conflicting motivations of the characters.

Within the novel there’s a parallel comic book story. A horrible tale told in the background of a background scene. One character acts as narrator to the overall status of the world while the secondary comic book tale works as an allegory for the mysterious villain’s descent into madness. At first I wasn’t sure this part was needed. Then I put the clues together. Dreadful acts for noble purposes still make monsters.

The details in this book were so diverse that I almost needed my own outline to follow it. Almost. The author kept the detail threads relevant throughout. At no point was I fully lost trying to piece an aspect of the story together that wasn’t purposely obscured. I say purposely because there are small elements set between big details and repeated often enough to matter, yet hidden by seemingly greater things.

Keeping the murder mystery progressing, maintaining the parallel story line, edging in the back-story and narrating in three tense, plus delving into the psychological states and motivations for a vast number of characters while holding them within the narrow limitations of their particular superhero stereotypes could not have been accomplished by writing straight from imagination. There must’ve been massive amounts of time devoted to every aspect. Outlined story development, integrating character arcs, researching many, many topics from physics to psychology to ornithology. There must’ve been years worth of meetings to generate the perfect graphics that fully portrayed the themes, tones and context of the scenes. Drawn before the digital age, there must’ve also been stacks, mounds, mountains of discarded story board drawings.

I personally appreciate outlines. For me they’re where nebulous ideas and kernels of characters gain validity. I also love free writing as stories flow from the ether of my mind. But it’s when I contemplate the completeness of this novel, the cover-to-cover perfection in the art of storytelling that, for me, outlines becomes indisputably necessary. The richness, the complexity, the webs of entangled histories and character arcs have launched this graphic novel into the strata of best.

tl/dr. The takeaway.

I couldn’t find a decent outlining map online. Not one that wasn’t uselessly cartoonish. But here’s my hot take. Outline the overall plot. I like to use this beat sheet for a point A to point B plot-line. I then annotate the main or POV character’s growth points. The points in the story when they learn something in the sub-plot that moves their character business-planning-653x339arc, which then pushes the plot toward conclusion. Within this framework the theme of the story can develop. You can see how the characters and plots work together. It’s also where you can plant meaningful details that tell more to the reader than the words on the page. In essence with an adequate story outline, with the important character arc points layered over and a fair idea of the story’s theme you can plan the subtext messages.

The available graphs and charts and spread sheets didn’t help me much, mostly because each is so static. What feels right to me is a blend of approaches. A living outline that molds and adapts to the work in progress. I don’t think a static approach to outlining would’ve worked for this novel. Perhaps I’m projecting, but the turns and twists, the attention to detail, the symbolism justified by dialog contrived by the story arc must’ve been flexible enough to incorporate new ideas, place clues and illustrate motivations long before the first draft was written.

People may disagree with this claim of best and I’m okay with that. It’s the point of my book review to look at and study an aspect of this novel that stood out to me. The elements I recognize as useful writing tools to guide my art toward perfection. I could talk about the great story, the impeccable graphics, the enormous concepts, but none of those alone spoke to the organization of details that ushered this novel to greatness. It’s in the plotting that these elements came together and not only pushed the bounds of the genre, but shoved them to the ground and kicked dirt in their faces.

I’ve read a few Hugo Award winners, they’re always brilliant. This book, however, changed what I think in writing a novel. It showed me the work that goes into details. How specific details reveal characters, how characters shape events and how those events arrive at conclusions. I’ll wait patiently for the next best ever to evolve. When new clichés develop over time. When author and artist arrive at the perfect moment to create a new and substantial commentary. But I’m sure this new best will have one thing in common with the old best. An intricate and living outline.

So continues the debate of plotters versus pantsers. Please, tell me you thoughts on either style and why that style works for you.

Anonymous Book Review 21

This book sneaked up on me like a cheetah in the tall grass of low expectations, attacking from my blind side as I drank from the stagnant waters of structural homogeneity. As an entertainment piece this book was not my cup of tea—character driven romance—though I found in it qualities that amazed me. I’ve heard talk of the author coming from cheetah 1nowhere, that he wasn’t on anyone’s radar, then surprised the sci-fi/fantasy community with good writing and fresh perspectives. I now understand their point.

This book didn’t follow the rules, yet it was written in a clear manner with restraint and nuance. And in many senses that’s what I liked best about it.

The story was set in a fantasy world bayou with science and magic all around. But it wasn’t trapped in a steamy jungle. The world was broad and far reaching. The bayou was a place, not a character. There was no romantic thread to the fetid swamp that made anyone contemplate life or seek inner truths. It was just a place. To us writers, grounding.

Totally character driven without too much of a plot to speak of, not until the final few pages did the theme of the book resonate. It stayed with the main character, never deviating from his perspective, yet stayed just far enough away to pick up on other characters’ feelings, almost omnisciently. Almost. There was the nuance.

I wanted so much more of the world. Soldiers and royal courts, mystical places and madness educing prophetess’s. The guy walked around with a pet cheetah that he could talk to! But none of that really played into the story other than setting up obstacles for the main characters’ love. Which is as it should have been, but still…. I guess it’s better to leave the audience wanting more instead of less.

The dialog sounded perfectly fantasy, however, a few places one character slipped into a dialect from the American deep south. A few word choices helped generate an idea of a person that exists in modern day. These were the only instances where the author allowed outside knowledge to draft a character’s image. I can speculate on why this happened, pieces missed in editing, reaching for a desired effect, maybe the dialect is native to the author and otherwise invisible, but it was the inconsistency that bumped me out of the story. I really like the idea of having zero ties to modern culture to draw on, but I could’ve gotten behind the character with identifiable traits, too. Just keep it consistent.

In the end this book broached a delicate topic; given the chance, would you live the life you’ve led, or would you follow your heart’s long-ago denied desire? I think this speaks to us all at some level. Personally, I didn’t care for the character’s choice, but that’s me, not the author, not the book.

Here is where my appreciation for this book comes out.

Exclamation points by the shovel full. Semicolons everywhere. Non-linear story telling. Semicolons, comas, exclamation points, periods and parenthesis all in the same sentence!

Yes, it was odd to see, a little distracting at first, but it helped generate and maintain the narrative voice. There were points of subtle emotional excitement that deserved an exclamation point. There were cascading revelations that earned consecutive exclamation points. I was good with these abuses, though reading in the proper voice cartoon7255took effort toward the end, largely due to the exclamation point’s inherent shortcomings, but also followed the logic of the literary sages concerning their overuse. They lose effect quickly. It’s tough to maintain exclamatory vigilance throughout the course of a book. But the weird punctuation fit the voice.

So this author gets it. He knows how to write on an intuitive level. Like the bastard in my calculus class who had conversations with the teacher instead of madly scribbling reams of notes. At first I was distracted, put off, even, by the punctuation. But the more I read, the more I understood just how good of a writer this author is. It happened slowly as I realized that I knew about the world, the hierarchies, the alliances and the magic system without reading info dumps or exposition. I can look back and see a few places where details were given, but none of it stood out while I was in the story. Everything I needed to know was sifted in where needed and only in amounts required to move the story. I’ve heard people say this millions of times, had an idea of how to approach it, but reading the talent on display gave me a deeper appreciation of the author’s ability.

Tangent: Have you ever sat in a writers group where everyone takes turns blasting the hell out of your writing style? And not in the constructive type of, “Maybe it could be clearer if…” but that, “Go back to fourth grade and learn how to write a sentence, you illiterate dork,” kind of critique? Not a fun place to be, especially when you’ve purposely written that way for effect and you suspect most of the hostility to be coming from places other than a deep abiding concern for a fellow writer. Or worse. A deep biding concern that you don’t write like them.

This book vindicated certain aspects of my style against a lot of mediocre critique. Not comparing me against this writer and not saying all the critique was useless, it wasn’t, but to see a similar style in print reinforced that feeling of trusting myself, even against a chorus of nay.

And I don’t buy the critique perspective of “The Reader.” It’s always only the individual’s opinion. Not a singular predicted experience of all literate people in the entire English reading universe. Speak for yourself, not a hypothetical entity concocted to justify a sense of superiority.

Sorry. Wrong tangent.

Anyhow, I thought the author used his style effectively, putting feelings above grammatical structure. Let the academics have their structure. This is fiction. Fiction transcends structural limitations to deliver satisfaction at levels deeper than a GPA.

Pull it together, man. Get off the tangents.

Okay, okay. Sorry. Back to the review.

I took a writerly lesson from this book. It’s an aspect that led to enjoyment, yet one I couldn’t identify, not until I had inadvertently read an article, a Facebook post really, about specificity. Ha! I can spell it better than I can say it. I related the article to this book as I read and paid attention to the author’s craft of similes. He dialed the similes down from something broad and relatable to narrow and specific. The recognition was reassuring, like the first cool breeze of fall, when the summer-long sweat evaporates and you skin tingles with a subtle chill hinting at a sound night’s sleep through the cricket chirps and jasmine blooms for the first night all season.

This book won’t make it to my read-again pile, but I will definitely read more from this author. I’m sure I’ll be hearing his name for decades to come. He can only get better (with constant editing. See previous post of angry man rant concerning geniuses and editing). The author broke the rules in a way that worked because he perfectly understood the purpose behind the so called rules. He was able to disregard the rules of punctuation and sentence structure because he kept the narrative voice and story clear. I think this is a lesson all of us writers should appreciate; that rules only exist until you understand their purpose.

Exit question: Have you ever loved the writing better than the story itself? Share with us your insights so we all can learn.

Anonymous Book Review 20

What a rough book. I wanted to love this book, I truly did. With a few stylistic changes this would have been my favorite book ever. I’ve also never been angrier at a book. Throwing it at the front door was cathartic. Seeing it the next morning on the floor, cover open, pages splayed and curled, gave me a moment of wicked joy. But it wasn’t the book’s fault for existing. It shouldn’t have had to spend the night tortured in a stress position. Now I feel bad, as if I’d kicked a dog. Stupid book empathy.

This book took me seven months to read.

I hated it about one tenth the way through. I should’ve closed it and set it on top of the only other book I’ve abandoned. Believe me, I thought about quitting hundreds of times, but the author’s a genius.

But nothing. Even geniuses need editors.angry reader

And editors need the courage to tell geniuses to dial it back and write coherent sentences.

At some points this book felt like a slap in the face. A fantastic work you can’t help but admire, yet wishy-washy and pointless in the elements of storytelling. It seemed a celebrity excess to prove the power of celebrity, to show audiences and critics that he could write whatever he wanted. I can appreciate a nihilistic display of force from time to time—take that powers that be—but not when it entangles me and my twenty dollars.

I should’ve listened to my book club friend.

Whoa, that’s a lot of hate. What the hell kept me going?

The concepts…. I’ve been waiting to read the author….

The concepts were amazing. One after another; amusing, intriguing, imaginative. The MacGuffin of this magical mystery was my personal spirit animal, so I leaned toward this book from the title. The author’s powers of description put you there. Right there. In the museum, in the embassy, on the street.

The author writes in a genius-level strata that I never see myself ascending. That said, he needed to tone it down. His descriptions were so long and detailed I got bored. His sentence structure so complicated, I got lost. It’s as if he invented commas. Combine excessive description and complicated sentences and you get pages and pages of annoyed disinterest.

Main character? What main character? Oh, the dope who just followed along, yet accidentally picked the right group. That guy didn’t move the story until the very end and even then it was only in the slightest ways. If anyone was a little smarter, like the magic detectives whose job it was to solve cases like that, than the main character wouldn’t have been needed at all.

The other characters were colorful, vibrant beings. One in particular I wanted the entire book to follow. And thought it would because of POV peculiarities. An amazing character that needed so much more page time. Seriously, this one is among my favorite characters ever. Sadly though, the story didn’t follow her.

The tone of this book was supposed to be humorous, in the vein of Good Omens or Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and just as British. I figured the main character would be a sympathetic simpleton of a foil to contrast the magical world against the identifiable regular world us mortals are familiar with. And all for a chuckle. Not really. The main character remained unamusingly simple and then the humor dried up.

The plot was awesome, though, right?

Yeeesh…

An all consuming apocalypse to thwart, I guess, but the nebulous plot it never really registered with me. All the foreboding cataclysms were bland. So, existence is about to cease without the comfort of a new beginning, as is the case with typical apocalypses (apocalypsi?). Hey, that’s intriguing. A concept with serious stakes I could care about. The signs were there to the characters, but not to me. To me everything seemed normal. Nothing interesting in the way of end-of-world events. Why? Why tease me? Why make something great into something boring? Maybe that was supposed to be the joke. The drunken brawl in front a pub was actually a sign. If so the joke didn’t land.

One issue killed so much of this book for me. New sections would open with finite background details, thoughts and reactions of characters would build the mood, then everything would switch to a POV character for the rest of the chapter. What the hell? That’s not cool. I know the voice of narration had to set up the jokes, explain why things were normal in this magical world so the main character could react to absurdities for the laugh, but for me it didn’t add anything. It actually subtracted.

The narration became so casual that at a couple points it seemed to break the fourth wall. The narration spoke directly to you (me), the reader. It tip-toed into second person. But only in a couple places out of five hundred pages. Given the rest of the story’s style these breaches stood out and bugged me. It wasn’t consistent like Hitchhikers Guide. He’s a freakin’ genius. If I do that any editor, agent, or publisher will throw me out the door. They’ll confiscate my pencils and fire me from writing for life.

The conclusion is winding up. The pace is moving, the main character is finally doing something. Everything is coming together, things are magical and cool and now I’m moderately invested. The second bad guy and the one I was led to believe was the antagonist (the first one didn’t count) is at the threshold of winning. This should be fantastic. How is the hero going to get out of this and save the day?

Through the power of realization. The bad guy had to use mythical henchmen and a lovelorn mage, then steal and resurrect a pickled god. The good guy just remembered his occupation and somehow, across a paragraph of self awareness, rewrote, edited, and saved the world. But then, through a line of logic and assumption I couldn’t follow, he alone knew where the real bad guy was and gets there just in time to… distract the villain. Then miraculously this other thing happens, of which he had no control, to really save the day. And there they go, happily ever after.

Yes, the clues were there. I picked up half way through that this good guy would be the real bad guy, which happened, but he wasn’t connected to the other two. They were coincidental red herrings. I like following an investigation where ever it leads, but it didn’t work for me in this book because the plot was ill-defined. One third devoted to a bad guy, the rest devoted to another bad guy, the end is actually a third bad guy motivated by cliché resentments against religion that had nothing to do with anything else.

Now the part that felt like a slap in the face. It’s always been a pet peeve of mine when authors used technical writing terms as description. Writers are supposed to be invisible in their works and so, too, should the writing techniques. A really cool character was punched in the face gifdescribed as ex dues machina. I was thinking it and then I was told it. Hmm. Okay, moving on. There was a very heavy emphasis on Star Trek, you know, because this was the author’s foray into sci-fi/fantasy, which I’m not entirely against, but it was used to fill in science fictiony details instead of explaining. The references justified a significant portion of the book. Kind of fun, okay, quirky, all right, but for me and a few other committed sci-fi fans, meh. Then, at the end, in the summation of events, the narrator described the entire plot as an ambiguous apocalypse. He called his own story ambiguous! He said, in a single word, what my problem was the entire time. As if the author had awesome characters and ideas, then improvised a reason for them to exist. Then, at some point during an editing pass he recognizes the shortcoming and slips the word ‘ambiguous’ in at the end to let his readers know that he knows the plot’s vague so it’s not a naïve accident which means he’s still a genius writer.

In my current working opinion the author’s name helped this book a lot. The sketchy perspective coupled with florid description and overly complicated sentences, many, many of which made absolutely no sense to me, even with a dozen rereads just to be sure, dropped me out of the book. I never connected to the main character. I never connected with the narrator, either. I couldn’t handle more than two pages a night and even when I set out to make good progress, I’d fall asleep. Yes, I read through it, yes I figured things out, but it was an effort I’m reluctant to duplicate for this author.

The book could’ve been amazing. It was something I really wanted to enjoy. With proper editing it might’ve won all the awards.

I’ll say it again, even geniuses need editing.

At minimum I’ll use it as an example of how authors can get in their own way.

Oh yeah. The one line of dialog at the very end that earned this innocent book a bashing against the front door, my favorite character says to the boring main character, “Something tells me I’ll see you at the next apocalypse.”

No, you won’t.

Organizing the Written Word

The other day I got a chance to brag about writing. A proper chance, too. Not one of those long winded life stories that makes people’s eyes roll around like lazy Fentanyl drenched marbles. A writer friend was genuinely curious and asked what I had been up to regarding writing.

That’s a dangerous question to ask a person devoted to a lonely art.

So I described my current workload. To that novella of a text I was asked the follow-up, “How do you organize so many projects?”

Hmm. It’s not really that many, but I’ve seen the same question pop up a few other times recently. I answered my friend thusly.

Identify what needs the greatest imaginative attention. That’s usually rough drafts and early revisions. Those demand the most energy. For me that’s the first part of the day, when the coffee is fresh and the day is long.

Identify what needs attention, but not imagination. Sorry to say, but I typically reserve the after imagination hours to reading other people’s work. I simply can’t sacrifice my best for someone else’s revisions. Beyond that, I’ll take this time to hammer out my own edits. Simple stuff from tidier versions. Also blog posts and social media bits.

Identify the most mundane tasks. These I save for the last part of the day. I use paper so I spend the evening transcribing my day’s work. This is also when I do my research. Look for outlets, reply to emails, adjust plans. And it’s where I organize for the next day.

Identify with readers. How’s that? By reading. Always read before bed. And any other part of the day, but especially before bed. It puts words and ideas in your mind right before the subconscious jumbles them up and turns them into dreams of the future.

That’s my basic process. Pretty easy.

I’ve heard thousands of other scheduling formulas and every one of them works for the person espousing64bce91e-a691-4ec8-82ba-dc9efb46b54b_560_420 that system. Spend sixty minutes an hour and you’ll be published overnight. Commit just one minute a month and you’ll be on your way. Categorize according to moon cycles. Whatever works, as long as it works and what works for me is understanding my creative energy dwindles throughout the day so I prioritize accordingly. If you do your best work at night switch it all up. Read in the morning, research at noon, blogs and Twitter in the evening and novel write by cricket chirps.

I talked to another writer with this question and as she described her insanely hectic life I couldn’t help but admire her dedication. She asked because she was desperate. She can only commit one single hour a night to writing. She’s not happy about it, but work schedules, children and starting a business all consume her finite time, but she writes. She writes on top of all of that because she loves it. All I could say is that at the end of each night at least she has one hour closer then she was the previous night.

Then there’s the people who make me feel like I’m standing still. Writing tons, blogging, forming publishing companies, editing, continuing their education, marketing, hosting workshops and still managing the rest of life. Granted, their schedules are different than mine, but I’m still jealous.

That is the work life I’m striving for, though I’m not yet ready for the business end. I’m currently committed purely to writing.

But how do they do it? My busy friends take their responsibilities in bite sized chunks. There’s no way anyone can do all of that at once. So instead of committing their best hours to specific endeavors, they commit entire days to one aspect of the writing business. Covers, ISBNs, queries, websites, social media and the billion other details that go into self publishing.

And the number one way to maintain production throughout the constraints of life—Don’t play social media more than you have to. Sure, it’s important, but it doesn’t write your book. Only you can do that with the limited time you have. Now, quit reading this and go write.

 

Movie Review

Have you ever watched a movie so bad that it’s good? Maybe you have a favorite, a guilty pleasure from certain times or places. A crap movie that, by virtue of nostalgia, or absurdity, you absolutely love. Then there are those shows you loved as a kid, recall fondly, but they simply don’t hold up to your adult sensibilities. Lately I’ve found that many of the movies and television shows I liked as a kid I now find boring, slow and predictable. Styles have changed.

We have entered a new golden age of entertainment.

Yes, I’ve heard this before with respect to specific media—movies, television, books—but it all comes down to writing. So many people are vying for so few openings that all the creative industries have bred cut-throat competition, where people write harder, explore deeper topics, expand non-traditional markets. All of this dog-eat-dog for our entertainment.

Then came a recommendation that opened my eyes to the gold all around me. One of those off-the-cuff suggestions that always go ignored. This time bordered prevailed. I actually watched what was recommended. I was not disappointed. This wasn’t a movie so bad it was good. This is a movie so bad it’s genius. A movie so fantastic it could only be written by a film student studying an era. Whether a spoof or an homage, this film did not simply copy movie themes of the 1980s, but captured the experience. As best as my young self can remember. Movies, television dramas and cartoons, music and comic books.

The writer (also the director and star—yeah, it’s that kind of a movie) embraced writing clichés much to my delight. 1985 Miami with a dystopian Lower East Side feel. Random shootings, burning buildings, overwhelmed police, business as usual.

Okay, first off, remember my last post about knock-out scenes? Well, this took the concept in a different direction that worked. The action star is battling a maniacal robot, then the tracking goes out. A detail only connoisseur of VHS tapes would appreciate. When the tracking comes back the fight continues hanging from the skids of a helicopter. Tracking goes out, comes back, they’re fighting on a crane, all guns and lasers, back and forth. Tracking goes out, comes back again, the hero crashes backwards into the Hubble Space Telescope (which entered service in 1990, but I’ll forgive the continuity issue.) Then the robot and hero are about to clash in front of a full moon when tracking goes out. At last the hero stands over and shoots the robot dead with a cool, dry one-liner at the end. The entire sequence took about forty-five seconds. The idea of cutting out the how and only showing greater and greater action moved an introductory scene out the way fast while using a characteristics of 1980s technology to do it.

My second favorite cliché—the hacker. He appeared out of nowhere and turns out to be the world’s best, of course. This movie hacker could even hack time, but things go wildly wrong. The skinny nerd with glasses, an awesome ‘80s mullet and a wispy mustache who slowly faces the camera when introduced to signify his importance nailed the weak camera work from so long ago. Again, whether a spoof or an homage, it worked for this show where it couldn’t have for anything else.

(Exposition warning) Computer hackers have become the wizards of urban fantasy, able to whip up fixes to keep the characters moving through a story with little or no consideration as to how. Some hocus-pocus, geek-speak and voila. It’s fun to listen to professional programmers discuss the unrealistic abilities non-programming writers bestow upon their fictional hackers.

Reflecting it does seem there were never more instances than in 1980s shows of buddies standing back to back, guns drawn, shooting in all directions. So this movie had to have a back to back scene. Make them scantily clad women, a Viking with an Uzi and a barbarian with a minigun. A MINIGUN! One rides a giant wolf, the other a tyrannosaurus rex. Throw in some heavy metal montages and how can this be anything but the greatest movie of all

barbariana-gif

Yeah, that’s the minigun.

 

time!

 

Plus Kung freakin’ Fu!

Whoa. Slow it down.

Got a little off topic.

Some people I’ve talked to absolutely hate this movie. I can respect that. The plot’s ill-defined, there’s action, but no tension and the wild characters make no sense. Even when the main character dies, there’s no sense of dramatic loss. He is eventually hacked back to life. And the bad guy (Adolf Hitler) escapes. Where’s the closure?

Despite those shortcomings this movie spoke to me. It hit on so much of my childhood. Video games, skateboards, boom boxes, even the fonts nailed it. The hero epitomized all the action stars into one. Sunglasses, red bandana, black leather jacket, collar turned up, laying casually on top of a Lamborghini in front of a giant palm tree framed sunset. More than the nostalgic imagery, the purposefully bad acting, the plot that did more to serve the scenery and the guns that never ran out of bullets made me consider how bad eighties action movies were written compared to modern works.

It’s probably not fair to compare 2010s movies to 1980s movies. Consider 1950s to 1980s. Movies in the 2040s will be magical compared to today.

Looking back there is so much to criticize about ‘80s action shows that seemed so awesome at the time. Shows now need more story, more justification, more intrigue, more choreographed flippy martial arts fights, better special effects, deeper character arcs. All that seems to get lost to time, to nostalgia until something so over the top comes out and shines a light on what has become unacceptable, but in a fun way.

Here’s a list of movies, shows and things that I thought I noticed thematic references to.

  • Immediately Buckaroo Bonsai for the sheer absurdity, though it lacked the same excuse-for-a-bad-movie-produced-by-cocain-addicts-to-score-more-cocain-money kind of feel.
  • Every 1980s movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conan the Barbarian, The Running Man, Predator, Commando. Maybe not Twins.
  • Lethal Weapon.
  • The Warriors.
  • Rambo. Not First Blood.
  • Karate Kid.
  • Bruce Lee movies for the awesome numchuck (I know how I spelled it) action using the ripped off arm of a Nazi.
  • Miami Vice.
  • Knight Rider for sure.
  • Cartoons—Transformers, GI Joe, M.A.S.K. (Yes, there was a cheesy PSA on teamwork from a talking dinosaur at the end.)
  • Bits and pieces from tons of comic books.
  • In the background there was a Tron video game. How much money did I spend on that one…?
  • And my favorite—the old school skate board, though I wouldn’t ride one today. Too bulky.

And the name of this movie. The first movie I’ve ever reviewed for writing. The only live action film I’ve ever wanted to discuss. Hold on to your seats. It’s…..Kung Fury!

Go here. Watch. Laugh.

Anonymous Book Review 18

What a unique story. This book was fun. Overall pace was good, characters likable, interesting plot. And it had big words. I like big words.

The scope was huge. Alternate history where a tiny colonial player had nullified the real life powers to retain authority over conquered lands. But that was pure setting and never elaborated upon.

Every aspect of the plot was bedded in dualities. This power against that. One religion against the other. The nature of free will versus slavery with a fair amount of contemplation on both. That part imposed an amazing duality on a single character. A Catholic priest secretly advocating freedom for robotic slaves, pushed to horrendous actions by his religious convictions, yet arguing free will. Then captured and implanted with a spell to force his actions through pain inducing compulsion while pleading that he no longer had free will. That flip I found so cool.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy favorite duality throughout the book—alchemy versus chemistry. Yep. In this world they both exist and they’re employed by opposing forces for war. Magic clockwork robots built to slaughter can only be stopped by glue bombs with both sides engaged in an arms race to limit the other’s advantage. Yet another one of those “nailed it” parts of the story.

Now to the alchemically enhanced nuts and bolts of the story.

This was a good sized book. Four hundred and forty pages. Three point of view characters need a lot of space to work. The author wrote so floridly at the beginning, sprinkling in similes by the handful, that the story took a few chapters to get going. Not that there wasn’t a catchy hook and a compelling scene, but it all felt bogged down in the beauty of the world. Those big words that I love so much? Yeah, they became noticeable and to be honest I don’t feel good about pointing that out. Words need to be written and used, but a story isn’t about the words.

I thought this was a tremendous first novel. A bunch of subtle flags gave me that impression and after a meeting of the minds, I wasn’t the only one. Though the author actually has several other titles. Yes, the wordiness threw the first of those flags as though the industry hadn’t yet beaten the love of words out of him. Aspects of the narrative, too, waved another flag. Written in third person close perspective in the past tense (my favorite narrative form), the narrative itself had very strong opinions. The narrative used pejoratives for the opposing characters, even cussing about plot twists it had just informed me of. Yes, I understand the close perspective is interpreting the thoughts and feelings of the POV characters, but this almost treaded into a first person view that made me think it was edited from such. I found several typos, though none to suggest the perspective was actually changed, but taken together, they layered in the feel of a debut novel.

Throughout, this book was very visual. While that added to its all around goodness there was a lot of details paid to bodily functions. Including observations drawing lines to the many qualities of vomit. I could’ve done without. A little glossing over or hand waving would’ve been great for that and a few others seriously taxing sections.

Pacing…. If you read my previous post you’ll know how I like a well paced book. The hair is split with this one. Pacing in the big picture—Hit. Pacing through action scenes—Miss. Overall there wasn’t one throw-away scene, except, perhaps the gratuitous sex scene. Again, a hand wave could’ve done, but even that scene built tension that carried through the book. Things moved fast. I couldn’t tell what would happen from one scene to the next and even when I had an idea, the scene got there faster with consequences greater than I had expected. This is where the author showed his well seasoned writer chops. I liked it and it kept me reading.

The other part… this author is so descriptive he can put you where he wants. The down side to that is during tense, high impact scenes that need to flow really fast he describes the beauty around his characters. This ruined the pacing of many, many scenes. At one point his character even paused to acknowledge how funny it is that it should be observing beauty while in a race for its life from some impressively scary things. NO! I might be able to relate, (High school football, face down under a pile of animals, pondering the blades of grass poking through my facemask), but it sucked all the tension out of the scene and diminished my level of caring. (Coincidently, I wasn’t the best player, either.) This also led me to assume it was a first novel. But it’s not. He has a bunch. Sure, I turned out the light and went to bed during these parts, even cursed a little in frustration, but the story was still worth reading.

Okay, the finale. I kind of knew that this book began a series. I kind of figured there’d be a question leading into the next. And when every story line concluded with a cliff hanger I shrugged, a little crestfallen at such an open end. I would’ve preferred at least a semblance of resolution. Meh. Internet says the guy is friends with George R. R. Martin, so he gets a pass on conclusions. The part that put me over, the one scene that utterly, unequivocally disappointed, the one devise I’ve known about, yet never reacted to so strongly—? The knock-out scene. Right at the end. Right where an explanation was needed most.

A little exposition. Knock-out scenes; when the hero is in a dire situation, when tension is at its peak and there doesn’t seem to be a way out. The hero is knocked unconscious, then miraculously awakens in safety where the events of the rescue are recounted by another character. The hero survives through no fault of their own. It’s anticlimactic. Often a wave of the hand to speed along a difficult scene. I’ve even heard it called lazy writing. Personally I don’t mind if they come early in a story, they can set a tone or send a message, but this one….

Character has fought its way to the heart of the evil empire, battled enemies beyond its class. Its free falling into the center of an alchemical inferno surrounded by vats of acid with massive metal rings collapsing all around while the castle crumbles! It blinked off just before certain death. Next scene… the character wakes up safe. A nameless helper switches it on and says it was luckily buried in a gap when everything else in the chamber was incinerated and crushed. The few other survivors were found around the outskirts of the castle.

Great character. I’m glad it survived, but why did I have to read about so much vomit instead of how it managed to escape, other than knocking itself out. I would’ve preferred this character to die accepting some kind of metaphysical conciliation to living like that. It just didn’t fulfill my expectations.

Breathe….

It’s not until I looked into the structure that I saw things that robbed the tension and allowed me to take breaks during action scenes. And those are extremely picky reasons to disparage an otherwise great work of fiction. The unique alternate history, the perpetual dualities, the themes of free will and slavery, the beautiful description, the well drawn characters, all of it made such a fantastic book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It is one that I’ll wholeheartedly recommend.

Anonymous Book Review 17

What an amazing book series. This installment covers the third of a trilogy, the first two of which stunned and the last didn’t fail. The author wrote something special and I hope there will be more to this universein the future. Preferably from the unstoppable aliens’ perspective. They were funny.

As I approached the end, when the situation looked bleakest, I tried guessing where the story would go. I suspect that’s for my own comfort because the tension was so high that I wanted to imagine a victorious conclusion. The scene was set for outright devastation, odds were impossible and the main character’s only option was to give herself up to buy everyone else a little more time.

I thought of two fairly obvious ends. The main character should prevail (I’m taking comfort in the structural form of the narrative itself), but that would only solve a part of a problem which could only be resolved with more books, though I haven’t heard rumors of any more. Or the main character might die, which would have to be handled extremely well for the ending not to suck. The author is talented enough to pull that off.

Neither of those options occurred.

The pace of this book was incredible. I couldn’t tell where the end was going. In fact, at no point in the series could I tell where the next scene was headed. And not because a lot of stuff happened fast. Actually the opposite. People interacted, ships flew, aliens quibbled and the action scenes lasted only a few paragraphs, but the story moved.

This is the stroke of a master. The author stayed at least one step ahead of the reader. Granted, I’m not a very savvy reader. No decision made was apparent to me, yet every turn of this story made perfect sense. Even the end (which lacked the devastation I was hoping for) was set up in book two.

Everyone has read a book, acclaimed books, too, that drag. Where there’s never a surprise. The plot is good, the characters are likeable, action making or love scenes are handled well, but it’s an otherwise bore.

Enter pacing.

Listening to children is tedious, not because their lives are dull, but because they don’t know how to tell Child reading to elephantstories.

Enter pacing.

Radio talk show banter sounds natural until a caller tries to tell their tale.

Enter pacing.

When your coworker describes at length how his bombastic presidential candidate is better than your bombastic presidential candidate.

Enter, well… that’s just obnoxiousness.

See? That unnecessary scrap of information bogged down the pace, slowed the flow and let a reader’s mind wonder to topics outside the page in front of their face.

I once listened to a highly acclaimed author talk for a while. Audience members had asked if he was going to make a third book to the two he’d all ready released. The first was a stand alone, the second was written under popular pressure. The author revealed that he intends to write a third, that it’ll take place a few years after the others when the main character and his girlfriend are adults. Okay, none of that really intrigued me until he mentioned that the story following these adults would be written in a YA style. When asked about that he explained that word choice and pacing make the YA more so than the character’s age.

Pacing, again. There is too much to pacing, word choice, sentence length, talk styles in dialog, all of it to build the proper feeling for the right moment. But the idea to anticipate and stay ahead of a reader’s expectations delivers a surprise with every scene.

I like fast paced books and even though these books moved slow as far a locations they moved quickly in the interactions between people. And interactions make the story. Loyalties, motivations and tension move the story forward. The greater of all three, the faster the story will progress. Or slower, if the authors purpose is producing long, involved works. In this case it moved fast. Which led to the subplot which wound back to become the justification for the resolution I didn’t see coming until the very end.

I had an impression of an end I would’ve like, though that required several more books, and the pace of those books would have to change. To be honest, if I magically got my way I don’t think they’d change for the better.

The next time you find yourself either enjoying a book or bogged down and bored, take a moment to analyze the pacing. Do you know what’s coming, or is the next scene a mystery that keeps you reading?