A brief, short and otherwise very nearly insignificant update on my progress with Princess of Fire (certainly in the cosmic scheme of things)

I am now back over 84,000 words on Princess of Fire. This means that I have recovered somewhat more than half (very approximately) of the 30,000 words (in round numbers) I cut during the Great Prose Massacre. That still means I am still short of completing this draft by probably about another 30,000 words– the road does seem to lengthen as I travel it. Nevertheless, I am encouraged.

My latest sticking point seems to be psychological– not my psychology (at least, not directly) but the psychology of certain of my characters. Kathy is in the position of having to induce the cooperation of government ministers and bureaucrats in dealing with an approaching crisis, and getting tremendous push-back and passive resistance in the process. My problem is that I have been finding it difficult to get into the heads of these government paper-pushers– I basically do not understand the mentality of people who close their eyes to impending doom because the action required to prevent the danger interferes with their prerogatives or daily business. Certainly, of course, we have no shortage of examples of this sort of blindness in people, from Pompeii to 911. It’s just I have trouble getting into their skin.

I think I finally got a clue, though, when the minister of the Imperial Railways said, in response to Kathy’s threat to seize trains as they arrived in the capitol, “But we have schedules to keep!”

Ah, schedules– and routines, and procedures, and red-tape– the tyranny of daily business. In truth, it consumes most of us, for most of our lives. For some people, it becomes their god. Even for normal folk, it makes it hard to think outside the box when something novel threatens. So I think I’ve found my key to these people. It’s nice when that sort of thing emerges from the interaction of the characters on the page

It is nearly October, and at this point perhaps the most realistic estimate for the completion of the first draft of Princess of Fire would be January. Add three months on that for straightening out the narrative, editing, formatting, etc., to get it ready for publication. March or April 2015 would be about one and a half years from the publication of Princess of Shadows. That’s a lot longer than I originally intended, but a novel “will be done when it’s done“. Thank you, George.

A review of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’

My wife is a big fan of this writer named Jane Austen. I mean, she has all the movies they’ve made out of her books, and she watches one of them about every other weekend. Me, I just go play Halo until she’s done. It’s gotten to be an issue in our marriage, though, and she finally made me read this book, threatening to cut off my supply of Cheetos.

So I read it.

I have to tell you, this novel has some serious problems.

First off, this has got to be the biggest chick-book in the whole world. It’s about nothing but these women trying to get married. Or they’re trying not to get married, just because they don’t like the guy. Or at first they don’t like the guy, then they do. I mean, come on, make up your minds.

Second, there isn’t a decent space battle or alien invasion in the whole story. I kept waiting for that shoe to drop, but it never did. There are no vampires, zombies, or werewolves, either. There’s no post-apocalyptic oppressive government making these women battle for the right to marry. None of them discover they have special powers, unless you count dancing, sipping tea and talking. The author just ignores all modern conventions of good literature. For pity’s sake, nobody even gets tied up in this novel! I mean, how is it supposed to hold the reader’s interest?

It would have helped if the author hadn’t set the story in Regency England. She does a pretty good job with the period lingo, but it gets convoluted at times, and it’s not really very realistic. I mean, there are several points at which it would have made a lot more sense for Lizzy Bennet to just say, “Hey, f*** off, Darcy!” A lot more to the point, too.

The two emotional high points of the novel are Darcy’s proposal to Lizzy and Lydia’s elopement with George Wickham. Lizzy rejects Darcy’s proposal because she doesn’t like him and because she’s pissed that Darcy kept her sister Jane from marrying Chuck Bingley. Ok, that’s good, except that the two of them go on for pages about it. This is where a good f*** off would have come in handy. That, and a sudden eruption of extra-dimensional demons. Would have moved the action along better.

The other high point, Lydia’s elopement, just puzzles the crap out of me. I mean, Lizzy and her family go on and on about Lydia running off with Wickham, like it’s some sort of family catastrophe. What’s the big deal? I mean, my sister Sissy ran off with the drummer of a rock band when she was sixteen, and nobody noticed for eight weeks. Just meant more gravy to go around at dinner.

How this novel is supposed to be a major piece of literature just escapes me. Austen just doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the modern publishing world. She’s not completely hopeless, but I would recommend she read up on what’s hot right now, like Hunger Games, Divergent, and Fifty Shades. Maybe throw in some time watching Transformers.

As it is now, though, she just can’t compete.

A disturbance in the Force….

“I’m going to read this,” the father said, holding up the book.

His daughter stared at him. “You haven’t already?” she said, her disbelief radiating brightly.

“Well, no– I just never got around to it,” he said.

“What are you reading?” his wife said, stepping in from the hallway.

He showed her. She looked worried. “Oh, be careful reading that on the bus,” she said.

“Why?”

“Well, you sit in the back among all those drug-dealers and punks,” she said. “You know, they’re all homophobic.”

He blinked. “So a guy my age who reads this book is gay?”

“No, no,” the wife said, “but they’ll think you’re gay.”

His daughter wore a I-can’t-believe-she-went-there look on her face.

His son came up the stairs from where he’d been battling aliens in the basement family room. He spied the book in his father’s hand, and his eyes went wide. “I sense a great disturbance in the Force,” he said.

“You’re too young to be that sarcastic,” the father said.

“It’s just…I’ve never seen you read anything other than sci-fi,” the son said.

The father grimaced. “‘Doth not the appetite alter? a man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.’ And vice versa.”

His son looked dubious. “Ok, when you start quoting Shakespeare, Dad, it’s time to exeunt omnes.”

“You’re so behind the rest of the world,” his daughter said.

“Just be careful,” his wife said.

“I’m going to work,” the father said, through gritted teeth.

At the bus stop, he pulled the book out of his backpack as the bus approached. A young woman, waiting in the crowd, eyed the cover. “Are you a professor?” she asked.

“Good grief,” he said.

He found a seat in the back. The kid in the baggy pants sitting across from him saw the cover and sneered. The father resolutely opened the book.

Now, let’s see what I have been missing.

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’.

I have made a deal with myself….

Really– I have. I had to. This is getting out of hand.

One of the most dreadful aspects of my process as a writer, historically, has been how easily distracted I am. And in my particular case, one class of distraction stands out as the evil nemesis of my writing.

I am, of course, referring to PC games.

First it was Aces of the Pacific. Then it was Privateer. Then came Doom, from which I almost didn’t escape (and they’re coming out with a new version…). After that, Everquest. Then Halo (actually, that should be HALO, in flaming letters five feet high). Then World of Warcraft.

And finally, World of Tanks.

All of these games, along with others, have taken man-years away from my writing, but some reason the last five months have been a special horror-show because of World of Tanks. I mean, this is silly– grown men (doubtless along with many kids and some women) sitting at their computers, driving these virtual tanks around a virtual landscape, blowing each other up (virtually) and getting overbearing when they win and pissy when they lose (the in-game chat is all-too-often appallingly juvenile). Entire YouTube channels are devoted to replaying battles. The standard account is free, but the makers of the game are apparently having no trouble selling millions of fans premium accounts, because, according to reports, they are raking in some serious real-world money.

And, I admit, this is doubly-silly in a man my age who worked on the real thing in his youth. I mean, it’s embarrassing. Particularly as I am not really very good at the game.

Nevertheless, most evenings at some point you will find squinting at my computer screen, wondering where that M-5 Stuart went, and worrying about whether I’ve angled my armor properly to bounce a shot from that T-34. Usually right before the T-34 disassembles me with a single shot.

Distractions, in general, are the bane of a writer. Sometimes it is just easier to start puttering away at something else– cooking, gardening, surfing the web– than it is to force yourself to buckle down and face that blank sheet of paper or the empty document page. Writing requires daily discipline, which is one of the hardest habits to develop, and one which can be easily damaged by the distractions thronging around most of us.

Of course, the reason we let ourselves be distracted in the first place is often unrelated to how much fun or immediately important the particular distraction may be– we’re tired, or we’re discouraged, or things are just to damned chaotic in your personal space to focus on the writing. This may be, in fact, a species of writer’s block. In my case, I think it was the fact that for a long while now I have not really been loving what I have been putting down for Princess of Fire. The state of my self-publishing effort was also a source of discouragement (about which I have already blogged). So it’s been easier, on too many nights, just to log into WoT and dodge shells in Kharkov or the Northern Desert for an hour or so before bedtime, and not deal with the hard business of straightening out PoF.

Therefore, I have made a deal with myself. In exchange for 500 words on Princess of Fire each day, I get to play World of Tanks. I have to complete the 500 words before I log in to WoT. Period. No 500 words, no armored combat. So far, I have often exceeded that minimum, so I am rather pleased with the bargain. Further progress reports to follow.

Of course, eventually I expect the novelty of World of Tanks will wear off, just as it did for Privateer and World of Warcraft. I will once more find some balance and be able keep my priorities straight.

At least until Star Citizen comes out.

Pray for me….

Suspension of disbelief and its limits

My recent post on The Guardians of the Galaxy got me to thinking about a part of story-telling that gets mentioned every now and then, but which (it occurs to me) is actually extremely critical, in any genre, anywhere, anytime. I’m talking about the reader/viewer/listener’s suspension of disbelief.

I’m not sure this is talked about a lot in writing classes, and I hardly ever heard about it in the various writing groups I’ve been associated with over the years- at least, by its full name. Many times, however, readers would say to me, “That just threw me right out of the story.” In other words, something about the narrative prevented the reader from suspending their disbelief in the fictional world I presented to them.

Suspension of disbelief– the ability to say “I am going to temporarily accept the baseline premises of a fictional universe in order to enter into that world and enjoy the sensation that the world is real and happening now.” That’s a little long-winded, but I think it covers all the bases.

Here’s the point– suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader/viewer/listener is essential to the story’s success. Without it, without the implicit agreement between the story-teller and the recipient of the story that they are going to pretend, for just this moment, that this fictional universe is real, the recipient of the story cannot enter into the tale, and cannot enjoy it. Period.

And this is true for all fictional endeavors. Science-fiction and fantasy have to work harder than some other genres to achieve suspension of disbelief, but SoD is in operation in every sort of narrative story, because it permeates every critical aspect of a story– world, characterization, action. If Jane Austen had written Lizzie Benet in Pride and Prejudice as her independent self in one chapter and a compliant mouse in the next, her readers would have said, “This threw me out of the story” (or early 19th Century words to that effect)– in other words, they would have been unable to suspend disbelief.

In an important sense, this was what I was complaining about in my review of Guardians of the Galaxy— there were moments (thankfully not that many) that threatened my suspension of disbelief. That giant head, for instance, for me just doesn’t work as an object in a science-fiction story– my brain starts gnawing away at questions like how is it possible to have a giant organism in space, and how are the bodily components of a giant space alien valuable? etc., all of which immediately interfere with my enjoyment of the story. The head violates what I assumed were the basic premises of the story.

Failure to maintain SoD is a threat to the very success of a story. Do it too often, or to too great a degree, and the audience turns off the television, walks out of the theater, throws the book across the room. Worse, the disappointed are likely to spread poisonous word of mouth– Yeah, that book/movie/show sucked, it made no sense. Not making sense to a reader or viewer is the kiss of death.

Or it should be. However, suspension of disbelief is actually a personal thing. Elements of a story that might absolutely destroy the experience for me might go completely unnoticed by others. It is, in fact, a factor of personal taste.

Which brings me to this–

In ordinary circumstances, the thought of a new Mad Max/Road Warrior movie would leave this particular fan-boy gibbering with delighted anticipation. Watching this trailer, however, fills me with dread. The original Road Warrior had a simple, gritty sensibility, which was actually enhanced by its low-low-low budget. Among other things, its effects and stunts had to be practical and guaranteed not to kill anybody. This gave it more verisimilitude than you would have expected from a stark description of the film (post-apocalyptic survivors fight over gasoline).

This film, on the other hand, looks like a badly-made video game– overblown, filled with explosions, hurtling cars, hurtling bodies, and pieces of action that either seem to violate basic Newtonian physics or just not make any sense (people on poles? Why?). It looks as if George Miller, now that he’s George Freakin’ Miller, is bathing in money, and has thrown most of it at this production. But to me, it is the apparently nonsensical and over-the-top action that has already set my SoD to trembling. To my eyes, the action doesn’t look plausible– and, as a consequence, I will hesitate to dive into this particular film experience without at least seeing a goodly number of reviews. Lots of reviews. And I sure as taxes will not be camping out at the Cineplex waiting for opening day.

Of course, judging a movie by its trailer is probably even more problematic than judging a book by its cover. This movie may yet redeem itself to me. But here’s where the part about SoD being an expression of personal taste comes into play. This movie will doubtless make buckets of money, because, quite simply, there seem to be an incredible number of people nowadays who, in my opinion, are undiscriminating action junkies who will watch anything with a sufficient number of very large explosions and/or fast moving objects. Think Fast and Furious or Transformers. We’re talking about people for whom, apparently, no explosion is too big, no piece of action too outlandish. People whose SoD, it seems, has acquired a nearly infinite elasticity. As a consequence, classics like The Road Warrior are betrayed by junk sequels, and movies (and story-telling in general) are left all the poorer.

I seem to have slipped over into a rant. I will therefore stop here, leave poor Max alone, and just come to my point. Suspension of disbelief is one of the absolutely critical elements of the story-telling art. Not pushing your readers or viewers into disbelief, not breaking that implicit contract with them to create a plausible world, is essential. Every creator of a narrative needs to pay attention to it.

Unless you want your story to feel like an overblown cartoon.

‘Nuff said. Later.

Guardians of the Galaxy– kind of a review, but more of a confessional…..

As of yesterday, I have now seen Guardians of the Galaxy three times–

And I think I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong with the movie.

Okay, okay, put down the pitch-forks and the nooses– let me re-phrase.

In reality there’s nothing seriously wrong with the movie– it is actually, in my opinion, the best movie of the summer and possibly the year. It’s funny, and heartfelt, dramatic where it needs to be and irreverent in exactly the right places. The cast has chemistry out the wazoo. Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill/Starlord plays off Zoe Saldana’s Gamora perfectly, quarreling while building up a mutual attraction that feels genuine precisely because it never goes too far. Dave Bautista is great as Drax, and Bradley Cooper’s voicing of Rocket is excellent. The action keeps you going, although the final battle might be just a little too frantic. Certainly, three viewings have allowed me to catch more detail, including all the pop culture references.

The movie overall is just well-written, with plenty of character and dialogue that keeps you interested. You believe that this is a hodgepodge band of losers who find a new purpose with each other, and it makes you wish the next movie was in the can and coming soon. As a child of the Seventies, I appreciated the soundtrack of golden oldies, which are not only perfectly deployed in the film but reinforce the emotional core of Peter’s character.

And yet…

(mild spoilers from here on in)

Each time I’ve seen the film, I have caught myself feeling oddly dissatisfied at different points in the story. It took me a while to figure out what was bugging me, but in the end I got there.

This movie is based on a comic.

And at this point you’re probably saying, Oh, no duh– why am I reading this nimrod…?

Allow me to explain.

It has often been said that science-fiction does not really work in comic books. The confines of panels on a page somehow make it difficult to convey the vastness of space or the intricacies of technology. There are exceptions, but all too often “sci-fi” in comics has been more metaphorical than scientific.

It seems that some of this metaphorical approach leaked into Guardians. When the team/gang approaches the outlaw mining operation called Knowhere, it is described as the gargantuan head of a dead “Celestial being”. This is straight out of the comic, but to me it is on the same level as the giant space slug in The Empire Strikes Back— both throw me out of the narrative. My suspension of disbelief, at least for a moment, goes spung. Some other elements of Guardians do the same thing to me– for example, the shiny, colorful Xandar, which looks like one big mall. And, dammit, Yondo, the chief Ravager and oddball father-figure to Peter, has a piece of plastic down the middle of his head (alien Mohawk?), which probably worked far better in the comic than it does on-screen, where I found it really distracting. In general, with the exception of Rocket and Groot, the aliens in the film don’t give me much of a sense of being, well, alien. I found myself almost wishing for the Brood to show up.

To sum up, the fault lies not in the movie, but in my own damn pickiness. I have a prejudice for the gritty, and a preference for sci-fi that tries to create a workaday world that at least looks scientifically plausible. Guardians does that in some places, but falls down in others.

Science fiction is hard; movie science-fiction, I have concluded, is doubly so. Getting right the feel of the visuals of a future or alien universe is difficult. There are movies and TV shows that do this well– Alien/Aliens, Blade Runner, and Firefly (although, admittedly, all of these films and shows had various issues with plausibility). But all too often writers, directors and production design folk don’t make the effort to do it right, and instead they fall back on tropes that suggest alien-ness (plastic Mohawks) or futurity (Xandar Mall). There is just enough of this in Guardians to leave me with a sense of unease and disappointment, at least with the visuals.

I willingly admit that this carping is unfair, especially regarding a movie that didn’t set out to be Blade Runner in the first place. The film, in general, is really well-done– for example, for all my dislike of Yondo’s appearance, his character is great, and I loved Michael Rooker’s performance. My complaints do not destroy my enjoyment of the movie– but the little things that nag me about it leave me wanting just a little bit more of something– more grit, more plausibility, a universe that is a bit more gray and shadow, like the universe I live in. It keeps me from giving the movie a perfect 5 trolls (you have to see the movie), but more like 4.75.

In the end, as a review, everyone should take this with a grain of salt. I doubt very many people even noticed the issues I had with the picture. This basically comes down to a statement about my own personal taste in sci-fi, and an acknowledgment that I am a picky, grumpy, contrarian old fart who wants things his way and complains loudly when he doesn’t get it.

I will eventually, I expect, get over it. And then there’s Interstellar. 🙂

Later.