Category Archives: Writing

What have I become? What do I want? February in review(#SFWApro)

garden-forkingI dropped from completing 79 percent of my goals in January to 60 percent this month. Which is understandable because the tractor article and my Screen Rant stuff took up lots of time I hadn’t planned on spending. As a result, my fiction writing got short-changed (Illustration from the Illuminations blog. Don’t know photographer).  Which is the point of this morning’s post.

Between the time I finished Now and Then We Time Travel and the time I proofed and indexed it, I had about eight months to focus on nothing but fiction (plus And columns and blogging). I really liked it. I’ve always had to balance fiction writing with a day job (before moving up here) and paying freelance gigs (after moving up). It was refreshing not to have any.

But of course nonfiction brings in more money. Not a lot, but some. It’s not a significant amount compared to TYG’s salary, but I do like contributing. Particularly when who the hell knows what will happen over the next year.

Fiction, however, makes me much happier. And who knows, if I ever sell a novel, that would bring in some money too, so I don’t want to just let Southern Discomfort sit in limbo. I stopped working on it during the crunch-time period of writing Now and Then We Time Travel, and I don’t want to fall behind again.

Fortunately I seem to be getting much more efficient at the Screen Rant articles. As that process gets smoother, my time will free up for fiction. Unless something else comes in (I just applied for an online reporting gig. No word back yet).

Yes, first world problems and not even most first-worlders — poor me, having to choose between selling articles and writing fiction!

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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, Southern Discomfort, Time management and goals, Writing

Pornography, old musicals and fiction (#SFWApro)

drowsy-02There’s a great line in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE where the protagonist, who adores the absurd, inane 1920s musical The Drowsy Chaperone, comments that we can’t judge it the way we would most plays because it’s like porn. In porn, character and plot are simply bridges to get us between sex scenes; in older musicals, they’re bridges between musical numbers.

I think that can apply to fiction too. Kathleen Woodwiss’s Shanna, according to some of my female friends, is a scorching hot romance (or at least it was scorching when it came out in 1977) — the friends who spoke of it didn’t talk about the characters or the romance, they talked about the “screw parts” (but according to friends whose judgment I trust, it’s a traditional romance with sex, not erotica or porn). The description also fits the kind of story where the plot and characters are just setting up the ending twist. In many slasher films, most of the film is just a bridge to get from one killing to the next. More generally any story where the hook is the big set-pieces — battles, monsters, murders — could fall into this category.

Focusing on key scenes doesn’t necessarily make a book fit into this porn analogy. The first  slasher film, Halloween, has more to it than just the killings. A romance can have intense sex scenes and still be intensely readable in-between them. A book or movie with big, spectacular set-pieces can still keep me glued to the page the rest of the time as well.

Attitude makes a difference too. There are lots of books with long boring stretches, but where the author clearly cares about what’s going on — they just didn’t write it very well. The Wise Man’s Fear had long tedious stretches (YMMV) but Rothfuss clearly meant them to be interesting, not just filling pages.

Porn-equivalent stories can sell, if the sex scenes or the set pieces or whatever are good enough, but I don’t think it usually leads to quality. Lots of the slashers churned out in Halloween‘s wake got butts in theater seats, but they were crap. Nightmare on Elm Street outshines the subsequent films in the series because it has good characters I cared about, it’s not just bridging between Freddy’s reality-warping murders. As I noted in the twist ending blog post, stories that are all about the ending shocker never work for me. I’ve seen porn that actually had good character arcs between the sex scenes, and it’s much more interesting (at least to me) than porn without. Musicals like the ones The Drowsy Chaperone satirizes have gone out of fashion (Drowsy Chaperone itself is meta and parodic, so not in this category) in favor of ones where what’s between the musical numbers does matter.

None of which says set pieces or high points are bad things. They’re not, obviously. But I know I’d prefer my readers be glued to the pages between the big scenes because they like the pages, not because they’re waiting to see when things will get interesting again.

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Dis-Enchanted by Salman Rushdie: The Enchantress of Florence (#SFWApro)

2460911THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE by Salman Rushdie (jacket design by Gabrielle Bordwin, images by various creators, all rights to current holder) is a book I’d really like to like. But even though I gave it three stars on Goodreads right after finishing it, I’m feeling much less enthused a day later.

The framing sequence that opens the book is great. Mogor, a thief/murderer/con-man from Europe, shows up in the court of the Mughal Empire of India around 1600. He poses as a British ambassador and despite the Emperor Akbar’s suspicions, pulls it off. It doesn’t hurt that Akbar gets an immediate bromance for the rogue. They’re strong characters, there’s a lot of tension (if Mogor doesn’t pull it off, he’s dead) and Rushdie really writes beautifully. But it turns out there’s a twist: Mogor claims that he’s kin to Akbar by the enchantress of the title, Qara Koz, a captured princess who married Mogor’s father.

And then we jump back in time for the story of said father (alleged father—Akbar doubts this for various reasons) in Florence decades ago, along with best friend Nico Macchiavelli. While it was fun at first, when it became obvious we weren’t going back to India immediately, the story dragged. It’s the same problem I had with Black Wolves, snatching away the characters I’m interested in and replacing them with a less interesting crop. Much of the story is told at a distance, like someone remembering family history, which makes it hard to be engaged. And there’s none of the tension Mogor’s imposture generates, again partly because of the distance.

Then there’s the sexism. Pretty much every woman in the book is either a wife or a hooker (including one hooker with a heart of gold who generously gives Mogor the magic potion that helps him succeed at court). While Mogor refers to Queen Elizabeth I, women only seem to exist in relation to the men, and they’re constantly backstabbing and scheming and glaring jealously at each other over men. Because what else to they have.

This is also a very male gaze-y book, though in an unusual way. A running theme in the book is the way men bind themselves to women by the fantasies they impose on them (my interpretation, anyway). Akbar’s favorite wife Jodha is a fantasy he longed for so much she became real. Qara Koz seems to exercise a similar magic on the men of Florence — and Mogor’s stories about her make her, and the enchantment they generate, make her appear at Akbar’s court, displacing Jodha in his heart. Women don’t spin a web to trap men, men spin it for themselves.

It’s a good idea, but both James Branch Cabell and Carly Simon (in Take Me As I Am) have tackled it to much better effect. And in Enchantress it strips away even the power of beautiful women — ultimately it’s not even their own power. Jodha loses her grip on the emperor and fades away. Qara Koz, for all that she’s the title character, is passed as a spoil of war from one leader to another. Mogor’s father has mindwiped one woman, stripping away her memories so that the only thing in her brain is the epic of his personal adventures. Macchiavelli tries to cure her so that he can screw her, and only drives her to her death.

The good parts are good enough I wish I liked the book. But I don’t.

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New Screen Rant post out (#SFWApro)

This time it’s on the Justice League (edited for right link). See Superman kill an alien and joke about it! Watch Batman plot to destroy the team! See a non-super teenage boy trap the entire JLA! Learn how Marvel once published its own JLA series! Cover by Mike Sekowsky, all rights to current holder.


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Regaining my rhythm (#SFWApro)

I finished another Screen Rant this week (I’ll let y’all know when it goes live, of course), and it’s getting both easier and faster. That’s a good thing, as I’d like to keep doing them. And because it was easier and faster, I got more other stuff done.

800px-farmall_tractor_pulling_a_combine_harvester_queensland_1950_5682298084-1•I finished my History article on tractors (illustration via Wikimedia Commons found here). I’ll format it (as I’ve said before, I don’t trust Apple Pages to do it right), proof all the dates and names and send it out Monday.

•I got several thousand more words done on Undead Sexist Cliches: The Book. Though I think the chapter I finished today is less well-structured than the first three.

•I got a little bit of work done on indexing Sex for Dinner, Death for Breakfast, though not as much as I’d hoped. But indexing goes much faster with a book that’s so much smaller.

•And I finally got back to work on Southern Discomfort. The plot for the final section is still unpleasantly vague, but I decided to start rewriting anyway. I got in about 4,000 words.

•Plus I spent a great deal of time sorting receipts and tax paperwork and assembling forms. Because lets face it, it has to be done.

And that’s that.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Sex for Dinner, Death for Breakfast, Southern Discomfort, Time management and goals, Writing

Difficult characters (#SFWApro)

When I was younger, I’d read articles by creators — comics particularly — where they’d refer to someone as a “difficult character” to use. At the time it didn’t make sense to me. Characters, after all, are not magic. Having a great character doesn’t guarantee a great story will just write itself. Even Batman and Spider-Man have had crap stories.

Years of added reading have given me a higher appreciation for the concept. A great character can’t save a crappy story, but they can make a mediocre one readable. Put Holmes and Martin Hewitt in exactly the same story, and the Holmes version will be better, because he’s so much more interesting. Batman will typically make a better story than Dr. Midnite or Silver Age Green Arrow. A great character can survive mediocrity.

As a collateral to that, I think maybe it is easier to write about a great character—or conversely, harder to write about a difficult one. Non-difficult characters are easier to write because they have something extra: More range, more character, they can fit into a wider type of stories, they can work even with a second-rate writer. Difficult characters may only work with one narrow approach or only one writer ever really gets them.

spiderwoman01For example, Spider-Woman (cover by Joe Sinott, all rights remain with current holder). Introduced as spider turned into a human, she was meant to protect Marvel’s claim to the name Spider-Woman before Filmation could do a Spider-Woman cartoon (they settled for Web Woman instead). She could have vanished into oblivion, but Marv Wolfman liked her, used her in some guest appearances, then scripted her in her own series. And he did well presenting her as a genuine outcast. Even after she learns she’s human, she has no experience interacting with people and it shows (which is not original to this series, of course, but Wolfman did it well). The book was odd and strange, with villains including Brother Grimm, the Hangman, and Morgan leFay … but by the end of his time with SW, Wolfman was writing it more like a horror anthology where Spider-Woman was secondary (and there’s the minor annoyance that Wolfman completely forgets about the Hangman imprisoning women to “protect” them. so presumably he kept right on doing it)

Then Mark Gruenwald took over and did a fantastic job with more odd adversaries (Gypsy Moth, the Needle, Kali cultists) while helping Spider-Woman make some human connections. After that we got Michael Fleisher turning her into a bounty hunter and making her just very … normal (it didn’t help the stories sucked). Then Chris Claremont started writing her as a kind of deeply thoughtful, sensitive character like Storm in X-Men, but that didn’t fit either. I wouldn’t say there’s only one way to write Spider-Woman, but there’s a lot of ways not to write her.

Likewise the Phantom Stranger. DC’s shadowy mystery man is a favorite of mine, appearing out of nowhere to help out people threatened by occult forces. Len Wein, writing his book, got it perfectly right — the Stranger intervenes and guides, but he’s more about steering people to the right path than just destroying the villain himself. Later writers got it wrong by having the Stranger not do anything. He offers advice, which the protagonist then ignores, and so comes to their doom — it’s more like he’s the narrator of a horror anthology than a hero. So yeah, difficult to get right (though Grant Morrison and Alan Moore have done good jobs with the Stranger in bit parts).

So yeah, difficult characters is a thing. (Cover by Neal Adams, all rights reside with current holder)


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Time-travel love stories: some recommedations (#SFWApro)

Continuing with my recommendation for time-travel movies other than the ones every “Best” list recycles. Which is why despite its charms, Somewhere in Time isn’t on this list of love films  — that’s one everyone knows. And yes, I should have written this for Valentine’s Day, my bad.

209007_1020_AQUEST FOR LOVE (1971) is a personal favorite. It’s schmaltzy as hell and has the implausible Exact Double resolution but even so. Brilliant physicist Tom Bell is hurled into a parallel world where he’s a famous playwright (WW II never happened, JFK is alive and running the League of Nations, Everest hasn’t been climbed, to name other divergences). He’s also a complete douchebag whose wife, Joan Collins (and lord, was she gorgeous back then) despises him — can Bell convince her he’s a different man now? And even when he does, all is not well … “If the time we’ve spent together is all there is, it’s been enough.”

Molly Ringwald’s TWICE UPON A TIME (1998) has her as a frustrated business woman — didn’t get the promotion, wishes she’d married her baseball-star ex-boyfriend, tired of her beta-male beau — plunged into an alternate world where women executives bond over power croquet games, her mom is alive (better cancer treatments) and she did marry the ball player. By the end, of course, she realizes where her heart lies and it’s not with him … not an A-lister, but fun, and I like that Ringwald’s selfish parallel-world counterpart wants to get home just as much as Molly-One does.

FAMILY MAN (2000) is an excellent Nicolas Cage film in which angel Don Cheadle shows him the parallel world where he married his college sweetheart (Téa Leoni) and became a tire-store manager and yes, family man, instead of a corporate shark. Well done, charming and extra points for acknowledge the Leoni in the original timeline is not going to be the same person as the alt.version.

ME MYSELF I (1999) is an Aussie movie with Rachel Griffiths going through the Family Man experience. It’s fun too, mostly because of Griffiths’ strong performance in the lead.

11 MINUTES AGO (2009) has a time-traveler from the future (Ian Mauro) crash a wedding party in the course of gathering some samples for his research. Oddly, everyone remembers him from earlier in the evening, but why would he have come back there again when it takes so long to prepare for a time jump? Then he meets Christina Mauro, who remembers him very well indeed, and he starts to understand … I found this charming, but my sister and our best friend hated it, so fair warning.

HAPPY ACCIDENTS (2000) stars Vincent D’Onofrio as a time traveler whose come back from his dystopian future to win the heart of Marisa Tomei. She thinks he’s crazy with all his time-travel talk, but they can make this work, right? She hasn’t just fallen for the wrong guy again … has she? D’Onofrio does a great job as someone just slightly out of synch with the way people are supposed to behave in our time.

IL MARE (2000) is the Korean film remade as the Sandra Bullock/Keanu Reaves The Lake House, and I think I prefer it (though I do like the remake too). As in the later film, two people living in the same house two years apart discover they can send mail to each other, fall in love, and try to arrange a meeting. It appears, at the climax, that everything’s gone horribly wrong, but is it really too late?


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