Monday, December 30, 2013

Staying Creative

This is a season when it is hard to stay creative. At least for me. Too many family events going on to keep the writing going. Then it is hard to get back to it.

Well, I have no good answers as to how to stay creative. In many ways it is kind of a question. What I find works best is to just dive back in as soon as possible. I've managed to meet every November writing goal I've set for myself, including this year, but the early months of the year have always been my least productive time for writing. I'm hoping this years is an exception.

I have plenty of goals for the year. I am working hard to finish one novel right now. I'm 3/4 of the way through it and the end is in sight. But I did take a break on another novel to write this one. So the new year sees me with several projects, including two novels to finish.

I think the one thing that does work the best for me is to keep taking the time to enjoy other people's work. It invigorates me to experience a good story. I try to turn that into energy for writing.

Staying creative is hard work. That is part of how it works. It takes work to be creative. You have to stick with it and not be an artist, but a craftsman.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Selling Your Soul

Writing is a constant struggle to maintain the balance between something intimate and something marketable. We put our soul into our work and then we turn around and have to sell it. It doesn't matter if you writer fiction, non-fiction, for movies or for books, you have to sell your writing, your soul, to someone else.

Today I stumbled across a book that deals with that singular point, selling your work. Blake Snyder takes an interesting tack on it in Save The Cat. While he is a screenwriter and his book is geared toward his industry specifically, there is a lot for any type of writer to learn. Snyder focuses on something that had crossed my mind on several occasions in the past years and that is you need to know what you are writing before you write it. Not the whole story, but the premise. To do that he asks that we answer one question BEFORE we ever start writing - What is it? He, of course, focuses on what that answer should include to be successful in Hollywood, a far tougher market than the publishing world or the self-publishing world. He focuses on irony as the key thing that draws in potential producers.

We writers of novel length fiction have different audiences with different interests. Irony is a very good hook, but it may not be the most important for every genre. Know thy genre is the critically important mantra that will help you hook the readers you want. Ultimately, not matter what you write, it has to be sold to the public, either by you or by someone you sold your work to. The public will ask "What is it?" and you need to have the answer.

The first step, before you even name your characters or pick your setting, is to get to the heart of your story. Craft a simple one line sentence, commonly called a logline. You aren't interested in who at the moment, just what. The what is the foundation of your story, even if you are writing a biography.

Once you have the what is it is time to add in genre and who. Genre colors everything. You can have a story about a ship captain, but knowing that it is a modern cruise ship in a murder mystery, a future spaceship, a nineteenth century whaler, or a ship carrying a magical item to save the world. Genre colors the conflict and the characters. Then the who gives us a frame of reference, a way into the story. Who is this story about and why should we care about them. We novel writers have and advantage over Hollywood screenwriters in that our characters don't need to be as relatable. They don't need to be vehicles for stars and they don't have to be simple.

Next is structure and pacing. Snyder writes specifically about movies and gives a very set pacing (a tad dictatorial for my taste - but his pacing works). Novels flow at a different pace. A move screenplay is just a fraction the length of a novel (under 20k and only about 150 words per page) so there is less room to play with pacing. In a novel we have 4 or more times the length to work with and can weave much more complex stories so the structure is not nearly as set. But the pacing needs to be just as consistent. Movies are commonly considered to be structured in 3 acts. Novels are more like 9. You can have multiple highs and lows that build to the final climax and denouement. There is more time to delve into characters, large and small. Still, you don't want to get side tracked. You still need to stay focused on that idea you crystallized in the logline.

The nice thing is that this works for planners and pantsters. For planners, you can go a step further and plan out your structure and fill in the details. For pantsters, you have only created the kernel of the story and are free to wander to your ending, but you must keep pacing in mind as you do so. Some of the suggestions Snyder has can help, even if you don't want to preplan where you are going, you can set goals, such as in an 80k story, by the time you reach 40k, you should be halfway through your story and should be well into the problem. On the advice of Isaac Asimov (the essays from Gold), I always plan my ending so I know where I am going, but I leave how I get there up in the air.

But no matter what you write or how long it is, if you are serious about making writing your profession you will need to hawk you wares once you have your project finished. To do that, you need to have a clear image of what your story is about, who it is about, and what genre it fits into. One trick that I have learned but not yet mastered is that in trying to find a taker for your story, you don't have to be very precise in your logline/hook or summary. You want the person on the other end to read your story and everything needs to be designed to do that. These aren't skills that come easy to most writer, but doing these things up front will give you a better chance. If you create the basic logline first and then embellish it with the who and genre of your story (and then stick to that as you write), you will have the best possible tolls to gain the readers you want. This piece of your soul called a novel needs to be read and the better you can explain the what and who to potential readers, the easier it is to sell to them.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Where To Begin...

One issue that commonly plagues writers is where to begin a story. The standard advice of beginning when the action starts or to start with an action scene doesn't always lead to good results. I will attempt to put down my thoughts on the subject in a way that I hope will be helpful.

The good news is that you don't have to find your beginning when you start writing. Sometimes it can be more helpful to your overall story if you go back and fix it after you have the ending to your story ironed out. For those who outline in depth, you might just have enough of your story before you begin your first draft, but getting in and writing it might still give you cause to go back and edit your beginning later.

The trap many fall into is equating staring your story with action to starting it in the middle of an action scene. That is the wrong sort of action. It might work for some stories, but for others it can set a incorrect image of the story. If you aren't delivering hard hitting action scenes all through your story, you probably don't want to start with one. No, the meaning of starting with action is to start with your first character doing something. It's supposed to be an action verb, not an action scene. It doesn't matter how mundane it is, but the verb should not be static. Looking in mirror is not action. Lounging in bed is not action. Driving is, opening a door, even waking up or some life event works. Visit your favorite books and see how they start. Chances are it isn't with a fast paced action scene.

What is that moment that is the best beginning? It is the moment when things change. It could be as seemingly insignificant as a blown interview or cancelled appointment or as eventful as a birth, death, marriage, or car accident. Think about it like alternate realities. What is the point where this story breaks off from all possible other stories. Then find the first interesting thing that happens. Often the very first scene will be the change, but at other times, it has already happened. Such as a couple agree to sell their house and move, but the first scene is their final walk-through of the house - the moment that sale becomes final, at least for the characters if not the bank. In the first Star Wars movie (Episode IV) the pivotal moment is when the plans are stolen, but it doesn't impact our characters until Leia gives the plans to R2-D2 during the epic battle over Tatooine. In The Hobbit, that moment is when Gandalf chose Bilbo to be the fourteen's member of Thorin's party, but we don't start the story until Gandalf puts a mark on Bilbo's door on the day of the gathering. And this is nothing new. Jane Austen started Pride and Prejudice with a conversation about Netherfield Park being rented at last, the day Elizabeth Bennett learned of the event that would change her life.

Also, if you like to be a bit more realistic, sometimes those early moments on the path to the conflict are not always that interesting. Maybe the key moment happened some months ago, but only now do things that make for a good story pick up. The key is to know what the pivotal moment is and how your characters get involved. One way is to have the opening scene be when another character gets involved. George Lucas used the two droids as his vehicle for moving the story. They are technically secondary characters, but they are the story link between Leia and Luke.

Once you lock in where to begin, the question becomes how to begin. That really depends on your story. But no matter what the story, you have to keep in mind two things. First, get the reader's attention and get them hooked by your story. Second, every story should build to the ultimate climax. You don't want to start with something so big and epic that the rest of your story can't live up to it. Now if you are going to tell a big epic war story, like Star Wars, you can start with a battle. If your character is in the military and a particular battle is crucial to the start of his story, then that works. What you don't want to do is make the opening scene bigger than the payoff later supports. You don't need big to snag an audience, what you need is something intriguing. Something that catches their interest. Movement and action verbs are just one of many tricks to do that. Mystery is another.

Like with just about every aspect of being a writer, the best education is to read and read widely. Step out of your comfort zone. Say, like me, you love science fiction and fantasy. On occasion, pick up a historical fiction, a mystery, a spy novel, or a chicklit. It will enrich your writing and let you in on what other types of writers are doing. I've found some pretty great books that way. While reading for enjoyment is always a good thing, as a writer, you really need to do more. You need to pay attention to how the plot unfolds, where they start the story, how the opening scene catches you, how the conflict builds and morphs and moves to the climax. There are many ways to structure a story and the more ways you know, the more widely you are read, the more depth your stories will have.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Annoyance Of 'Whom'

Sometimes a word outlives its usefulness. 'Whom' is nearly such a word. It has lost much of its meaning because it was most people don't understand when to use it. Consequently when in doubt, people use 'who' instead.

Part of this stems from a lack of knowledge by the learned grammarians as to the origins of the word and its correct usage in historical context. Students of German should instantly understand what I am talking about because Old English and German had the exact same structure of pronouns. Modern German has four cases, Nominative (subject), Accusative (direct object), Dative (indirect object), and Genitive (possessive). You may notice that two cases carry the name object and therein lies the problem. 'Whom' is a specifically Dative form of 'who'. That is why when grammarians say that if it is an object use 'whom' and to our ears it usually sounds wrong. Because it is. Most of the objects are Accusative and so use 'who'. Only when used in Dative do you need 'whom' and only then does it seem to fit.

The gist is that something that started back in the Dark Ages during the birth of English, is still causing changes even today. 'Whom' is becoming less and less frequent. Fewer people use it and more and more just stick with 'who' in all instances. This has been a problem for English since the original Accusative form, 'whon', went away. Those of learning have consistently replaced it with 'whom', while the common people have replaced it with 'who'. Trouble is the common people tend to win these sorts of things. This particular issue has just taken a lot longer to work itself out than just about any other linguistic conundrum. Technically we still haven't fully worked it out, but it is pretty obvious that 'whom' is on the way out at last.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Bad Witing: Who Notices and What Matters

I am making no secret I am boycotting Star Trek Into Darkness (warning, if you don't like spoilers, don't read further), but in addition to the whitewash casting that sparked my boycott, I have reports from those who have seen it on just how badly written it is. The most detailed report so far has been from James Cawley. For those who haven't heard of him, he is the other James T. Kirk. He stars and produces the fan made Star Trek: Phase II. His report on the flaws and plot holes of Star Trek Into Darkness is magnificent.

As a blog about writing, I thought it would be useful to delve into the topic of bad writing using this film as an example. The real thing I want to focus on is who notices and what sort of issues matter and what don't. Now, things are a bit different for movies than for books, but not by too much.

Star Trek Into Darkness is full of plot holes and logical inconsistencies. Cawley goes in depth on the major offenses and points out many of the minor offenses as well. The plot details don't matter for the sake of this discussion. I'm more interested in the audience reaction. With this movie it varies widely, but most have enjoyed it. Even Cawley says it is better than that last one. I'm sensitive to race issues so casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonian Singh doesn't sit well. If you've read my work you'll know from the cover art and characters descriptions that I avoid using a typical westerner unless there is a reason. That on top of a dubious sequel to the dubious 2009 film and the bad writing reported by several people I trust, and I have chosen to boycott it. Not just now, I don't plan to ever see it. That puts me in somewhat of a bind, but Cawley has done an excellent job of reporting and it is more than enough to use for examples.

No matter what you write, there are two audiences you must please. You must please the general public and those who will be reviewing it. For novelists, the latter includes agents, editors, and publishers, as well as book reviewers. There is no work that will be universally loved, so often it is a matter of finding the right people to review it. You need someone who likes the same sort of thing. That is why agents, editors, and publishers usually focus on a few select genres. In the case of something part of such a well-known legacy as Star Trek, one of the key group of reviewers is not just the followers of the genre, but the followers of the franchise. Do they matter? Yes, they do. But the question is how much.

Star Trek has a long history and the fans first stepped up to keep the series on the air. But by the third season the writing was on the wall and Roddenberry lost heart and let scripts through that were less than stellar. It shows. Such classics as Spock's Brain and Turnabout Intruder really make you question the series. When it came to the movies, the legions of fans made Star Trek: The Motion Picture a hit, even though it is a more cerebral story filled with visual effects. They came back with a trilogy of popular movies, culminating in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the biggest popular hit of the franchise. That is because it took good Star Trek and made it accessible to the general public. It did so without dumbing down the franchise.

Fast forward to 2009 and the release of the simply titled Star Trek. The movie uses an alternate timeline to reboot the franchise and rattle the cages. In spite of casting an outstanding actor for the part, the film lacked a good villain. He was poorly written and was barely involved in the plot. I won't go into all the plot holes in that film. I was able to turn off my Trek logic detector and just enjoy it. Now we have its sequel, created by the same writers and production team.

It is clear form the careless nature of the writing that both these movies helmed by J.J. Abrams are all about the action. What that does is cater to the general public, the wider audience. That is well and good and would be fine, except there are the legions of loyal Star Trek fans who expect more. We have put up with the drawn out Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the low quality (but oddly with a story that is closer to the spirit of the Original Series) Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. We dealt with Star Trek: Generations and the horrible breakdown in crew ability, all just to destroy the sets. We could deal with these because even while being less than great, they adhered to the ideals of Star Trek. That is missing from these new movies. And with the casting choice for the role of Khan, this latest one falls flat. We old timers will speak up. We are a group of reviewers that Abrams and his crew have chosen to ignore. While we may not have a big impact on the ticket sales these first weeks, we are the ones who normally see a film multiple times and then buy the home video release later. My boycott may have no impact now, but if enough Star Trek fans who care about story are disappointed enough in this film, it won't do well for long.

So what we have in Star Trek Into Darkness is a very pretty movie with serious story issues. The casual observer may not notice, or there may be just a flicker that something doesn't seem right. The closer observer, the critic, the reviewer, the Star Trek fan, is going to see these things and it will diminish the product. On a multi-million dollar effects movie, the expense of spending a little time on the script and bringing in someone who can pick out those flaws before the film gets made is minimal and would pay for itself in the end. By not caring and paying attention to those things, you lose some potential repeat business.

For us writers, this is a cautionary tale. Imagine instead of a die hard Star Trek fan, you are dealing with an agent who specializes in your genre. You write a good tale, but you goof up a few things. If you write historical fiction, perhaps you have introduced some anachronism that would spoil your story for potential readers. Perhaps you write science fiction and have leaned too far to the supernatural. These things can be a deal breaker. If you are lucky, someone will point them out to you, but in a world where the slush piles are so large, they are just looking for a reason to pass. The sort of carelessness Abrams has shown with Star Trek is the sort of thing an agent is going to pass on.

Now in this case, the movie is likely to be a huge success and Abrams will continue to ignore the protests from the fans as he rakes in the money. But consider that if he had done it right, not only would he rake in the money, but he'd make more people happy in the process and probably make even more. The lesson in this is to keep the reviewers and fans happy. You can't please everyone, but you need to please as many as you can. Writers need to focus on the agent/editor/publisher at first, and then, as they grow in popularity, their fans. It seems such a simple thing, but some people just don't get it and it shows in how other people feel about their work. So while much of the general public gives Abrams an A for this movie, this reviewer gives him an F. He failed to do some simple things that would have only given him a better finished product.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Langley, Wrights, and Copyrights

Today I thought I would delve into the issue of copyrights, piracy, and just what is good for creative work and what harms it. Copyright is supposed to protect creative work, but does it? Is it effective? Piracy is suppose to be a bad thing, but is it? Is it as dangerous as some make it out to be?

My primary example of what to do and not to do comes from aviation. More correctly, the dawn of aviation. As the 20th century dawned, there were many who were trying to use the current engineering to produce a heavier than air flying vehicle. Lighter than air had been mastered more than a century before, but heavier than air was proving a challenge.

Modern research gives us some interesting glimpses as to what the situation was. In fact, the first person to actually fly may not be who we think it is today. There are several contenders, but none has solid documentation. But to those living at the time, there was one name, more than any other, associated with flight. That was Samuel Pierpont Langley. His work was public, as were his failures. He may have been the first to build a flight worthy aircraft, but on the first try, it clipped the catapult and crashed. It took months to repair and the second attempt also ended in a crash. Before the plane could be repaired for another attempt, the Wright Brothers had flown.

The Wright brothers worked in secret. Not complete secrecy, but they didn't advertise or conduct their flight tests in the public eye. Being the first to achieve a controlled, powered flight of a heavier than air vehicle, they go down in history. Their plane flew not just once on December 17, 1903, but four times. The poof that they were on the right track lay in successive machines based on that first one. They won the first military aviation contract from the US Army. But, as I said, they were secretive. They jealously guarded their patent and sued anyone who violated it. They quickly lost the PR campaign to Langley. The final straw was when Glenn Curtis rebuilt Langley's vehicle and successfully flew it. The Wright brothers maintained their legal right to the patent, but Langley got credit. In fact, modern aviation owes more to Langley and the other inventors than to the Wright brothers. The brothers were so paranoid in their protection of their patent that they ended up stifling aviation development in the US. They were so focused on protecting their invention that Wilbur died from the stress and they made few further innovations. Meanwhile Langley was given credit and during most of the 1920's and 1930's, he was considered the father of flight. By then the Wright brother's patent had expired and Glenn Curtis had seen to it that the Langley design had become the pattern for all US aircraft.

That brings us back to the present, where we all know the Wright brothers were the first to fly and, above all, had the most successful early aircraft design (aerodynamic controls, power, distance, altitude, etc). In our electronic age, we are plagued or tempted (depending on your point of view) with a plethora of illegal digital copies of music, movies, TV, books, and games. There are a rare few that actually charge for this illegal content, but it is usually free. To compare this with the Wright brothers, their method was to sue EVERYONE. There were no exceptions. They spent so much time and money on it that their work suffered. They are like the poster child for the RIAA and MPAA, who follow those same tactics. The Wight brothers went after anyone even using their inventions, most of whom were not making a penny on it. History has pretty well proven that it doesn't work. A more workable solution is to only go after the the major violators. Those who flaunt the law and those who are profiting from selling your ideas. That would have cut down immensely on the stress the Wright brothers put themselves under.

The best way to combat someone violating your idea is to make sure the public know it is your idea. The Wright brothers failed in this. They were so concerned about protecting their idea, they never truly profited from it and, for a good deal of time, they lost the recognition. In the end they even lost the design lineage. Langley truly is the father of modern aviation. To apply this to our modern digital piracy situation, you have to look at what is worth fighting and what isn't. If you try to fight every single infringement, you will face a never ending battle and you will ultimately lose the PR battle. You fight the ones who are taking credit for your work or charging money for it, and let those who are giving it away, with your name still attached, alone. It's free publicity, after all. That will really limit what you have to watch for, reduce your stress, and maximize your creative time. And that is really far more important than worrying over every single illegal copy out there. The best weapon in the fight against piracy is to keep creating. If you let that be impacted, you have lost, just like the Wright brothers lost. Don't follow the Wright brothers example.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Bard's Last Hurrah

For well over a century there have been those who doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon wrote the plays historically attributed to him. The controversy has always peeked my interest and the more I look into it the more my mind is set that the man from Stradford was indeed the bard. The latest piece I have stumbled across concerned Shakespeare's personal life and how it relates to the plays.

The real origin of the doubts about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays dates back to the early nineteenth century. Before that, it was taken as an incontrovertible fact. But in the nineteenth century, amid the culture of owning slaves and the science of phrenology, there was the concept that some people were better then others. It led to the assumption that more primitive peoples were mentally inferior and that the upper classes were mentally superior to the lower classes. As we know today, that is totally untrue, but along with that, it was called into question how a man who was barely educated, from a middle class family in the small town of Stratford could have moved to London and crafted plays that have come to be regarded as the best literature in the English language. The doubts rolled in and a slew of candidates for the real author were put forward.

The only problem with this scenario is that there are absolutely no facts to back up the idea that someone else wrote and William Shakespeare was just an actor and theater owner. What is has done is to send those who hold that Shakespeare was the author on a quest for every last piece of documentation and evidence that could possibly exist. The shear volume of information retrieved from the Elizabethan and early Jacobian era is astounding. Every piece of evidence points to one answer, that Shakespeare did his own writing.

As a writer myself, I have always been quite offended that the only reason Shakespeare couldn't have done his own writing was because of his class and perceived education and literacy status. The most prominent alternate candidates do have that pedigree and were known to write, but there is no concrete evidence to link a single one of them to the plays. Plus, it requires all the extant attestations that William Shakespeare was from Stratford and wrote the plays. Particularly the attestations in the First Folio, be false and that there was some conspiracy afoot to preserve the secrecy of the real author. We call such ideas that lack evidence and are based more on the alternate theory or denying the real evidence a conspiracy theory. Some of the other ones are that we didn't really land on the moon and the 9/11 was an inside job. Again, no basis in fact, just a denial of the official history and facts and alternate theories that really make no sense.

Then we come to his last plays. His son, Hamnet (named after a family friend in Stratford), died at the age of 11. Just a few years later, in Twelfth Night, we find fraternal twins (mirroring Shakespeare's own children Hamnet and Judith) and the girl thinks the boy dead. It is a main focus of the play. Then we come to Hamlet. The name is different, but similar, but it is the true sense of loss that fills the story that links this play to Hamlet's son. Records of who played what part indicates that Shakespeare played the Ghost. It is an interesting twist on speaking beyond the grave.

But the real interesting bit comes from The Tempest. This story has no direct origins and appears to be original, inspired by news of the day. The records of who played the roll indicate Shakespeare himself played Prospero and that it was not performed at the Globe, but at an indoor theater where the lighting could better be controlled and would call for additional stage directions. If that is true, it is very telling that the words Prospero speaks are words of farewell, appropriate to a writer and actor in his last work. The lines seem to have double meaning, in the story carrying a strong meaning and for Shakespeare himself having a second meaning. This was the last play written and last performance of Shakespeare. He soon retired to Stratford and died five years later. All the dates correspond and it is far too great a coincidence that following the last play written by Shakespeare, the actor retired and that the lines he spoke on stage were so very poignant to a man planning on retiring. None of the alternate candidates have such a connection to the plays.

Sometimes it is hard to believe who holds an anti-Stratfordian opinion. Sir Derek Jacobi does and Samuel Clemens did. But at their heart, the words of Shakespeare have something that requires one thing of the writer, genius. No mind, no matter family status or education, could create such lasting and deeply moving works without genius. Genius knows no class and is not hindered by education. For the one thing that the plays of William Shakespeare most certainly are, are works to be spoken, not read. These are plays by an actor for actors. They offer some of the most challenging parts every created. With few exceptions, we only have dialog to get across to the audience who these characters are and it is done in a masterful and genius way. Yet in The Tempest we have what amounts to a sign off. The perfect end to a glorious career as writer and actor. Prospero is the main character, front and center and has the last lines. Playing Prospero, Shakespeare would have been on stage almost constantly. What a treat for his audience. A man noted as both a playwright and an actor (something we have many of in our own time) having a grand exit as both. Oh, to have been in that audience on the last night he performed.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Keel, Ribs, and Planking

A few days ago I discovered videos of a class Brandon Sanderson taught in 2012 on writing at BYU ( As I was watching, I began to see a new way to describe how I write. I write in the same way they used to build wooden ships. I start with the keel - the story from beginning to end, with little fleshed out in the middle. then I add in the ribs, knees, planking, masts, rigging, sails, and paint. Now that I have you confused, let me explain.

The keel is the core of building a wooden ship, like USS Constitution. It is what everything attaches to. This is your main storyline, your main idea. The thing that runs from beginning to ending. You know you start with the bow and end with the rudder, but what lies between is only an idea until the rest is built. You don't even know what the rudder will look like or how far it will turn, it's too soon for that, but you know where it meets the keel. You know where your story leads and what the end scene will be, even if you don't know how it plays out.

There are several ways to build the ship from here and I could describe in detail how a modern engineer would do it or an artist, but neither of those fit the way I work. An modern engineer would have a full CG plan of the ship done and just have to make the parts and put them together (the outliner). An artist might just wing it and through trial and error create the ribs, lay over the planking and so on (a pantster). The way it was done back in the day is closer to the way I write. I lay down the keel, construct the ribs, from bow to stern, lay in the beams, knees, overlay it with planking, starting at the keep and working up to the gunwales, then caulk the planks to make them watertight, then tar the hull and overlay it with copper sheathing (if I want it to last), then launch it. That is the first draft. A story complete and in the shape I want it, but with out the final polish. At a distance the hull looks complete, but there is work yet to do, but it does mean the story is set.

With the story set, it is time to edit, polish and finish it up. When it is ready, the hull slides down the ways into the water. So to when the story is finished and ready, it is time to submit it to agents, publishers, or get it ready for self-publishing. The book release is like a ship's maiden voyage, fully outfitted, crewed, and ready for the sea. The journey from finished hull and launching to maiden voyage is like taking that finished and complete manuscript and putting the final touches on it, editing, formatting, and giving it a cover and sending it out into the world of readers. There are many things to do to finish a book, but that story, laid down in the rough draft, remains constant. It all goes back to the keel, that original story idea and leads you from the opening lines to the final chapter.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Les Miserables - Still More To Say

It really isn't surprising that with a book the size of Les Miserables, that I would have more to say on it, especially relating to the movie.

After reading an interesting review on the new 2012 film of the musical, my mind latched on to one significant change from the musical to the movie and just why Victor Hugo went into such long detail on seemingly minor plot points. Hugo gives us long pages of detail about both the Bishop of Digne and Waterloo. To a modern audience it can seem as if these are wasted paragraphs. They are anything but.

Think for a moment about who the main character is in Les Miserables. It is Jean Valjean. Yet, without the Bishop of Digne there would be no Jean Valjean. In the musical the lyrics the Bishop sings to Valjean are "I have bought your soul for God." That really gets to the heart of the story. For the first chapters it seems that the Bishop is the main character and then we turn from him to Valjean, but do we really turn? No. The spirit of the Bishop follows Valjean wherever he goes. That lesson taught that sank in shortly after they parted, is what drives the entire story. The Bishop has set everything in motion with his un-characteristic love and kindness. Hugo spends so much time with the Bishop because, more than even Jean Valjean, this is the Bishop's story. We are just seeing one example in how what the Bishop taught by example touched even the most hardened convict.

Those who haven't read the book or seen the longer French films of Les Miserables, may not realize how pivotal Waterloo is. In the musical it is barely mentioned to indicate Thenardier had been there "picking the pockets of the English dead," but there is so much more in the novel. Where the Bishop set in motion all of Jean Valjean's actions, Waterloo sets in motion all the actions of Thenardier and Marius. Hugo spends so much time describing Waterloo, both the events of the battle and emphasizing how much time had passed since then, because it is important to understanding the story. Thenardier wasn't just picking the pockets of the English dead, he was picking the pockets and anything else he could find from all the dead, and there were a lot of dead. This is important because it shows what a miracle it was for Thenardier to find the senior Pontmercy alive among the dead. There were so many dead that it was pure chance that Thenardier found him. This effects Marius later in the story (in scenes that don't appear in the musical). In fact, Marius and Cosette aren't even born when the events with the Bishop and at Waterloo take place.

A modern writer would need to spend considerably less time delving into these two scenes. A little telling would speed up the story immensely, but to craft the same story, both scenes are necessary because they are the backbone upon which all the rest sits. Without the Bishop and Waterloo, there is no Les Miserables.

Which brings me back to the change that prompted this thought. In the musical, in the finale, the ghost of Fantine appears to Valjean, followed by the ghost of Eponine. While Eponine has great significance to the audience, she has no significance to Valjean. In the movie, Eponine is absent and in her place is the Bishop. This is very significant and meaningful for Valjean and can even be inferred form how Hugo wrote the original version of the scene. The Bishop helps close the story he started. Very fitting. Again, an improvement to the musical which only makes me love the movie all that much more. I am so looking forward to the blu-ray/DVD release.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

An Old Gem - The Conqueror

They have been making movies for a long time. Not all of them have been received well, regardless of the quality of the film. The Conqueror is one such film.

It was produced by Howard Hughes and released in 1956. Probably the two most notable things about it are that it starred John Wayne and that an unusually high percentage of the cast later developed cancerous due to the filming location. One thing the movie does not pretend to be is historical. Great effort was made to make it look right, which probably led to the unusual filming location for the exterior shots, but this is a drama inspired by history and it says so early in the opening credits.

I've read many comments on casting John Wayne to play the medieval Mongol leader and to me, it is a brilliant piece of casting, right in line with so many of Wayne's best roles. This is a grand 1950's historical epic, though it isn't very long as it only covers the opening years of Gengis Khan's career. Gengis Khan, or Temujin, his proper name and what he is called through the film, is a rough Mongol warrior who is so similar to the rough cowboys that Wayne usually plays that it is frightening. Few actors have that rough but lovable quality that Wayne did so well. Some complain about casting someone of European ancestry to play an Asian, but according to our best description and Mongolian genetic analysis, Temujin had red hair and green eyes and carried a patrilineal Y chromosome inherited from  distant European ancestory, as many Mongols matching that description.

So from the start it wars that this is a drama inspired by historical events, and it delivers. I could go into the differences between history and the film, but there is little point. It is an engaging story that gives us the spirit of these people while very inaccurately telling their story. I think the research in set design and costumes was far more accurate. Oh, and a word of note, having watch this right after watching a more historical dramitization of some of the events, it was very obvious that the horses used in this movie were totally wrong. They were probably the stock horses used in the westerns of the day and were way too big to be a proper Mongolian pony.

The one flaw was the attempt on the part of the screenwriter and the director (or maybe Hughes himself) to use stilted dialog. It lent a periodish feel, but felt forced and fake. Fortunately the story was compelling enough that I got used to it except when it was particularly bad.

Due to its age, this film could use a restoration. The transfer I watched (the only one I know of that is available on DVD) was either a technicolor print or a first generation color film copy. It suffers from some color misalignment and has the cigarette burns (the old end of real marks).

If you are a stickler for history and offended at the casting choices, this movie isn't for you. If you enjoy a good historical adventure epic, this is just your thing. The political backstabbing adds a wonderful depth and is something they did get right (in spirit though not for this period in his life)

I'd give it 4 stars out of 5 simply because of the scripted dialog and some technical issues. Otherwise it is a wonderful adventure that I enjoy watching over and over.