Category Archives: Shakespeare

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.


“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’.

The Writer’s Needful– Part Five– The Web of Experience

Thirty-six years ago, when I was the most naive newbie tank crewman in the United States Army, I had a friend by the name of Greene, from Boston (or Bahston). He and I were the only sci-fi nerds in our troop, so we basically bonded, despite the fact that he was years older than my nineteen, as well as a socialist and an atheist (the Army expanded my horizons in many ways). Even then I knew I wanted to write, and I tried to share some of my early scribblings with him. Greene basically felt it his duty to inject some realism into my wide-eyed optimism, and one of the points he tried to impress on me was that many or most writers don’t really achieve success until they reach middle-age. At the time I remember thinking I have to wait until I’m thirty-five?

The mileposts on that road have moved a considerable distance since then….

But the point that Greene was trying to get through to me was important– life experience is critical to the growth of a writer.

When I was nineteen, because of the insular culture in which I grew up, I was very naive and out of touch with how most people lived. Getting dropped into the Army was a profound shock. My lack of experience showed in my writing, which was why Greene was trying to introduce some correctives into my thinking.

‘Life experience’ is another one of those topics you can Google and get a boatload of links. In fact, some helpful people at Goodreads have gathered up a few hundred quotes on life experience from writers and put them here. I’ll just steal the topmost from the list–

“A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
― Stephen King

In the thirty-six years since my buddy Greene tried to talk me down out of my naivete tree, I can testify that the experiences of my life have informed and transformed my writing. Military service, college, failed relationships, marriage, academic success, academic failure, work, miscarriage, late-life fatherhood, all have fed into my writing. It doesn’t matter that most of my writing is in the sci-fi and fantasy genres; the mundane details of an ordinary life translate directly into richer detail in any imaginary universe, whatever the genre (I’ll tell you a secret– sci-fi has always been about people. Forget that ‘literature of ideas’ stuff).

Because I’ve lived and worked with some very interesting people, I have a wider palate of characters to draw on now than when I was nineteen. I have lived through, and survived, many, many mistakes. I know from the inside what failed relationships feel like. I know fear, because I tasted it the moment they told me my wife had pre-eclampsia and my daughter was coming into the world seven weeks early (update, fifteen years later: both are doing great). I know what it’s like to bury a father.

At this point, many, many young writers are probably dismayed, or crying foul, or saying “I have to wait until I’m thirty-five?” (Take it from me, you’ll get there sooner than you think). I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from writing just because they’re young. The first thing I want to say is that, if you want to be a writer, you can’t start too soon. Practice is critical, so if you can start as soon as you can string words into sentences, do so. No later than eight, I’d say.

The second thing I need to say about experience is that it is not just enough to live a number of years– everybody does that. The important thing a writer has to do with that experience is notice what is happening– in other words, to observe what life throws at you. Someone once said that writers are supposed to be good ‘noticers’. I like the word– to me it sums up one of the most important tools in a writer’s kit.

Jane Austen only lived to the age of 41, and she lived that short life within the confines of a small, middle-class country society of spinsters, gentry and ministers. It is generally agreed, however, that Austen produced great literature, and she did it by closely observing that society and fearlessly writing about it.

Shakespeare was probably not yet thirty when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. The film Shakespeare in Love is about ninety percent fiction, but I love it for how it depicts Shakespeare as a writer melding the experiences of his life into the creation of the play (and not scrupling at stealing a good line when he hears it). Tom Stoppard was one of the writers on the screenplay, and it shows.

S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was sixteen.

Christopher Paolini wrote Eragon at the age of fifteen.

The point is that, however much life experience you have, you can create powerful literature out of it if you observe it closely, and write honestly about it. Older writers just have the advantage of many more life lessons on which to draw. Personally, my own development as a writer was delayed because it took me a long time to understand the necessity and power of observing life closely.

So be of good heart, young writers– you can still write, and write well. You just have to work harder at it.

As for us older writers– well, we have less excuse if we screw things up.

‘Nuff said.

With this post I think I have covered everything I want to say regarding a writer’s needfuls. I didn’t want to just repeat the standard advice you can get by googling “writing advice”– I wanted to talk about some of the habits of mind and qualities of spirit I think a writer needs. Again, however, nothing I discussed is original with me.

Ironically, doing one of these posts a day has once more put me behind on Princess of Fire. I am therefore setting myself a goal– I want to get to 50,000 words on Fire by January 1st. That would be about 14,000 words in 7 days. That will be a forced-march pace, but I want to give it a shot.

All bets are off, though, if I get a job.


Review of Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

I have resumed progress on Princess of Shadows. I mean it. Really. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share some thoughts on another subject.

A few days back I went to see Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing.

I really looked forward to seeing this– I mean, oh, my God, it’s Joss Whedon! Doing Shakespeare! That’s almost as good as Joss Whedon! Doing X-Men! (ahem). Add to that the fact that Much Ado is one of my favorites of Bill’s plays, and the anticipation level was high.

And I will tell you what I thought of the movie just as soon as I figure out what I thought of the movie.

Actually, that’s stretching it more than a little. I liked the movie; but my initial reaction to it was very odd. This version, filmed on a tiny budget in Whedon’s own home in a few days, in black-and-white, no less, has so many actors Whedon has worked with before– Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Sean Maher, Clark Gregg, etc, etc. It was fun watching all these very good actors together, most of whom I remember from staggeringly great TV and movies, doing something different. Alexis Denisof was good as Benedict, and Amy Acker was a great Beatrice. Of course, I think Amy Acker is one of the most incandescently beautiful women in show business and I would watch her reading government press releases. As Beatrice, she is perhaps the standout actress in the ensemble– by turns funny, sad, fierce and sharp-tongued– and, man, can she do a heroic pratfall.

Another standout is Clark Gregg, who plays Leonato. Gregg is one of those actors who you always see in films as characters but who never seems to draw a lot of attention to himself– except, of course, he is now getting a lot of attention (at least among the fan-folk) for his roles in the Marvel Iron Man, Thor and Avengers movies. He broke everybody’s heart in Avengers in which he had one of the best death scenes in recent comic-book movie history. As Leonato he starts out quiet, until the wedding, when he explodes, torn between shame over Hero and vengeance for the Prince and Claudio’s insult.

And that brings me to my reaction to the movie. Basically, this movie is so very, very low-key that I had trouble at first tracking it– at least, until the wedding. In the first part of the movie, everybody delivers their lines easily and matter-of-factly and the action is easy-going. Beatrice and Benedict do spark off each other, but their repartee is cool and restrained. And that’s where I realized that my perception of Much Ado has probably been distorted by the Kenneth Branagh movie version from 1993. That version is fun, but it’s infamously over the top, especially with that cavalry charge opening sequence.

There’s no cavalry charge in Whedon’s version, and not just because they couldn’t afford horses on their budget (the Prince and his entourage show up at Leonato’s in cars, and not even limos). Whedon’s Much Ado is so laid back that I have to think it’s an intentional directorial choice– a decision to be the anti-Branagh with this material. As such, it’s refreshing– it’s just my own head that needed to be readjusted, because the acting is consistently good and the tension does build.

The first sign of trouble, naturally, is Don John. Sean Maher does a good job with Don John, establishing his malignant intentions, while, at the same time, creating a very different take on his relationship with his henchmen, especially a female Conrade. His scheme to destroy Claudio and Hero’s intended wedding unfolds pretty smoothly, and is played out rather more convincingly than in the Branagh version.

After being so laid back, as well as quite funny, during its first portion, the movie’s tension and conflict suddenly escalate by several orders of magnitude at the wedding, as you might expect. Everybody with speaking parts in this sequence is good, but especially Gregg and Jillian Morgese (Hero). The following sequence between Benedict and Beatrice is wonderful, and fully plays out the admission of mutual love and admiration these two people have for each other, against the backdrop of a disaster. For me this scene has always been the core of the play, the pay-off for all the tension and conflict between Benedict and Beatrice, and Denisof and Acker pull it off and make it look easy. The rest of the movie stays at this high level to the final resolution, relieved by the (again understated, but funny) Nathan Fillion as Dogberry.

Basically, this movie works, and works well, but don’t expect over-the-top. It’s easy-going and filled with humor until sudden disaster strikes, which is probably very close to Bill’s original intention, with a powerful contrast between light-hearted conspiracy and witty “skirmishes of wit” at the beginning and the horrifying catastrophe of false accusation and betrayal in the second part. Just make sure you see it with no preconceptions. Especially about horses.