WARNING: May contain naughty language.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Stranger Things" - A Brief Review



I was eagerly awaiting the launch of Season 1 of "Stranger Things", a Netflix original television program on Friday, July 14th.

Based on trailers and what I'd read of the show, it sounded like it was directly in my wheelhouse. Consisting of just 8 episodes, the show chronicles the life of several citizens of Hawkins, Indiana and how they cope with "strange goings-on" in their town.

Set in 1983, the show captured the look and feel of the time very well. Watching the young protagonists hanging out in a basement, riding their bikes in search of clues and the general sense of adventure reminded me a lot of my own youth during that time.

The Good:
- Interesting story
- Well-cast
- Nice serial feel to entire Season
- Several AMAZING surprises
- the soundtrack was pure 80's John Carpenter

The Not As Good:
- Exceptionally tropey in all ways
- Winona Ryder's "enthusiasm" for her role
- A blissful ignorance of tensions in a small Midwest town
- Scenes, dialogue and plot directly procured from approximately a dozen works by Spielberg and Stephen King. Unapologetically so at times.

While I enjoyed the show (yep - binge watched over 3 days) the finale was a bit of a head scratcher. It seemed to me that the writers and directors were expecting one or two more episodes in the season and were caught by surprise at the end.

"Well, we have a lot of plot arcs to complete, characters to punish and 'hanging chads' to punch. Let's see how many we do in 60 minutes!" Or so I imagined the conversation.

Still, "Stranger Things" is the worth the time. As I described to a couple of friends:

"The perfect mashup of 'The Goonies' meets 'ET' as written by Stephen King, shooting for a PG-13 rating. And a dash of Lovecraft for seasoning."

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Heavy Price of Insider Knowledge or How a Tour of the Jerky Factory Ruined Me



There are several authors whose work I've read faithfully for years. Think of it as "comfort reading", if you will. Series which have gone on for decades or more. Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy and numerous others fall into that category. On some level, I was well-aware that the books were not "literary tour de force" material, but I enjoyed the stories and reading about familiar characters was like visiting with old friends you've not seen a while.

In short, I was blissfully ignorant.

But since making a serious run at learning the craft of writing, my tastes have changed. There are some authors among my favorites who I cannot really read any longer. The writing style hasn't changed, but I'm no longer able to dedicate hours of my life to completing a book which is only mediocre, no matter how much I love it.

For example, yesterday I finished a book in a very long-running series. Fact is, it has long been among my favorites. But after just a few chapters, the inner editor in my brain started analyzing what I was reading, noting all the "choices" made by the author. Choices I'd have not even noticed a few years ago, were highlighted in my brain. I eventually had to "turn off" that part of my head and just enjoy the ride. Which I did.

While attending Taos Toolbox last year (a bucket list item for ANY speculative fiction writer) I had a conversation with the great author and mentor, Walter Jon Williams. I asked him about this situation and he offered me a rueful smile. 

"It sucks, doesn't it?" he said.

Its a lot like knowing all the secrets of a magician's act - you can enjoy the showmanship, but the illusions don't have the same magic they used to.

Almost a decade ago, I was working with a customer interested in the software I was peddling at the time. They made beef jerky. Part of our standard process was an on-site visit and behind-the-scenes tour of their facility to better learn how our software could help them in different areas.

This included up-close and personal visits to the RENDERING ROOM. With great pride, they showed us, from start to finish, how a dead cow ends up as a thousand strips of teriyaki or BBQ flavored jerky, vacuum-sealed and safe to eat for the next 500 years.

Since that day, I've not been able to look at beef jerky, let alone take a bite. 

In a similar fashion, I can no longer just pick up a book, dive in and enjoy the story. My right brain still craves the story, the characters and the overall COOLNESS of the tale. But my left brain will immediately start noticing all the elements of theme, motif, grammar, syntactical construction, three or five act construction, dialogue/action tags, rising tension/stakes and the myriad other components that go into a good novel.

Now, I have to muzzle the snarky bastard just to enjoy a good yarn. I have to keep quiet during movies with my wife so as to avoid pointing out foreshadowing, act breaks and other petty details. I'm unable to sit down, turn on the TV and turn off the brain. 

It sucks, doesn't it?





Wednesday, June 29, 2016

More on Rejection

I have the pleasure of working for a very progressive software company which places a high degree of value on hard work and having fun. A very open organization, my employer hosts a HUGE event every September for our 12,000 customers. Each year they solicit employees for ideas and abstracts to present during the event. For the past 4 years, I've been accepted and had a great time presenting my content in front of hundreds of customers.

Until this year.


I got rejected. By work. To present on a software package I helped create! Following Kubler-Ross to a tee, my reaction was as follows:

DENIAL: "What? I think they sent this email to me by mistake."
ANGER: "Fools! They'll rue the day they did not choose me to present my material!"
BARGAINING: "Ok, what if I make it shorter and include a section where I'm juggling flaming chainsaws? On a unicycle?"
DEPRESSION: <surly silence>
ACCEPTANCE: "I think they're doing the event in Vegas next year! I should probably start preparing now."

When I think how many rejection slips I've received from various publishers and editors over the past 5 years, I have to grin. This? This is nothing.

"You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” – Ray Bradbury

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” – Sylvia Plath

“Rejections slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.” – Isaac Asimov

“Every rejection is incremental payment on your dues that in some way will be translated back into your work.” – James Lee Burke

AND MY PERSONAL FAVORITE:

“Rejection has value. It teaches us when our work or our skillset is not good enough and must be made better. This is a powerful revelation, like the burning UFO wheel seen by the prophet Ezekiel, or like the McRib sandwich shaped like the Virgin Mary seen by the prophet Steve Jenkins. Rejection refines us. Those who fall prey to its enervating soul-sucking tentacles are doomed. Those who persist past it are survivors. Best ask yourself the question: what kind of writer are you? The kind who survives? Or the kind who gets asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe?” – Chuck Wendig

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Off Balance





















So tired.

Not from work, not from writing nor the act of living as opposed to existing. My fatigue stems from the never-ending barrage of intolerance, senseless violence, stupidity and a surge of "groupthink" not seen since the days of the Weimar Republic.

This is juxtaposed by the wonderful experience of sharing my father's 80th birthday over the weekend with family and friends not seen in decades. A celebration of a full-life and respect.

Too much of the good and too much of the bad leaving me swaying in the wind.

I won't chime in on my opinions on the horrific shootings in Orlando - there is ample text found on the Interwebs already. It does, however, remind me of a quote from Walter Jon Williams;

"I'm not afraid of werewolves or vampires or haunted hotels, I'm afraid of what real human beings to do other real human beings."

The shootings at Pulse leave me cold yet furious. But what really scares the shit out of me is the "business as usual" attitude displayed by so many in positions to actually change things. The NRA, the politicians on the take from them, the rigid and narrow minded views of Muslims by so many and just the rampant idiocy one sees on the news every night.

In the past I've voted both Republican and Democrat. I consider myself a "Rationalist" as best I can be. As such, I take on the responsibility to actually think for myself, to research and seek facts, not paid endorsements by expert pundits. I seldom like what I find under such rocks, but that is the trade-off of free thought.

Knowledge comes with a price if you're doing it right.

When I think about voting in November (and I WILL vote in November) I'm reminded of the "Would You Rather?" game we used to play in middle school as a kid.

"Would you rather go down a slide of razor blades and land in a pool of alcohol or have a 16 pound bowling ball drop on your nut sack?"

And so on. This coming election could be a lot like that...

Too many Americans are frustrated and angry at our government and are lashing out like villagers armed with pitchforks and torches, seeking a non-existent monster. We should be instead directing that energy towards other pursuits; pursuits which just "might" have a positive outcome despite the odds.

Just please don't ask me what those things are. I'm at a loss.



Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Leveling Up and Punching Water

To be honest, this has been a tough month as far as submissions and rejections go. Hot on the heels of attending an invigorating writing workshop in San Antonio, I promised myself to follow Uncle Jim's (Jim MacDonald - teacher extraordinaire from Viable Paradise) advice on writing and submitting one's work.

"Submit, submit and submit - until the Devil himself won't take it."

That particular strategy has met with less than successful results.



 


















     
In the spirit of finding a silver lining, I have realized one important aspect about the rejection emails. They are NOT the dreaded "form R" in all the cases. Don't get me wrong - I'm not receiving detailed instructions on how to fix a particular work nor am I getting guidance on where to send the next work I create.

But what it means is that Very Busy People are taking the time to not only read my work, but take that extra 60 seconds to craft a more personal response. Which I'll take any day.

It means I'm "leveling up" - my skills are improving, I've adopted positive writing techniques at the unconscious layer and am incorporating lessons learned into my new work. It is still a struggle, no bones about it.

To borrow from eastern martial arts, I've mastered the basics of the form and must now redouble my efforts to transcend to the next tier. I can punch water with perfect form, but must learn to do so without making a ripple.


 









And that might take a while longer...



 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Old School

I never really studied English while I was in college. Thanks to some AP credit from high school, I was able to skip most of the intro classes. The only English class I ever took was on Creative Writing. I enjoyed it, but it was more of a "just one more thing to get done" class than anything else. I got my degrees, moved on in life and here I am - 24 years later.

Now that I've gotten into writing once more, with intent to actually sell my words, rather than amuse friends, I feel as though I've got a great deal of catching up to do. While I've always been a voracious reader, there are a lot of "classics" which I thought I was missing. After some weeks of research I'm pleased to discover that I'm not in that bad a shape.

I did, however, pick up a couple of books with intent to study and have just finished that exercise.

"Becoming a Writer" by Dorothea Brande (1934) and "The Rhetoric of Fiction" by Wayne C. Booth (1961)

There were some hilariously anachronistic words of advice in both of them, yet the fundamentals remain the same, even today.

I spent hours turning yellow page after yellow page, typing up notes into Evernote. Took a fair portion of the long weekend, to be honest.

When I finished with both books, I realized that while the "specifics" of writing may have changed a great deal in the past 80 years, the foundation has not;

1. Be original
2. Use good grammar
3. Make compelling characters
4. Make the reader care about them
5. Tension is the only thing which will ever force a reader to turn the page
6. Make the story worth the reader's time
7. Repeat as needed

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How Honest is an "Honest" Review?

As some of you know, I am more than a little OCD when it comes to Goodreads. If I can't actually talk to somebody about a great book or a not-great book, I turn to the next best thing -- posting my thoughts for thousands of strangers to view.

So, yeah. There are over 1,500 ratings I've left and almost 550 reviews written over the years. I think my Average Rating of 3.73 is a bit on the high side, but that's cool. I've always been an easy grader.

As of late, I've received a lot of requests to read and review ARCs (Advance Reader Copies?) or books which may not have been published yet. The typical caveat is "...in exchange for an 'honest' review..."

90% of the time, I'm delighted to tear into the words, enjoy the ride and toss out my opinions on the Internet. Easy peasy.

The trouble with the other 10% usually starts around pages 1 to 3. It is right around that point that I get fed up with horrific grammar, non-stop cliches, ridiculous formatting, implausible characters or any of the myriad other things which make my "Inner Editor" jump to his feet and scream incoherently.

My Inner Editor's name is Cletus and he is a total bag-o-dicks but what can you do?

The challenge comes next. What should I do? I've given more than my fair share of 1 star reviews in the past. And I felt terrible about it; to such a degree that I now just stick my head in the sand and pretend I never read it.

I suspect there are better, more nuanced ways to handle such a thing. Or perhaps I'm making a big fuss over nothing. By the same token, if an author is sincere in their desire to get feedback on their work, I sort of feel obligated - no matter how bad it might be.

As I stated above, it doesn't happen often and never a work by somebody I actually know - but I live in mortal dread of the day that will happen.

How would you handle this kind of thing?

PS: The image above (from a Wii game console) does look a lot like me.

PPS: I do, in fact, own a gunmetal-grey body suit in which I patrol Chicago nightly, clinging to the shadows, ever-vigilant for the threat of...no.

That's a lie.