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?