Storytelling Fails

As is tradition when I’m in Omaha, Tess and I went to a movie. We usually pick something that we like, but really no one else in our family would care for. Which means, often it’s a horror movie. Last summer it was Drag Me to Hell. A couple visits before that it was 28 Weeks Later. Both of those were better than expected. This trip, we saw Legion. Honestly, I had no hopes for this movie other than seeing Paul Bettany angelically kicking ass. Therefore, my first criticism is that there wasn’t enough Paul Bettany angelically kicking ass. There’s some, but it wasn’t really good enough. My other major criticism is that the story was poorly told. Yeah, other people have picked on the "eh" special effects (that weren’t that bad) and the cliche nature of the story (there’s a "fallen" angel and a pregnant woman…what are you expecting really?), but do a good job telling me a story and I’ll forgive those things.

At the beginning of the movie, there was a section of set up for Michael (Bettany’s angel) and background for the human characters. This was unnecessary and boring. They should have started the movie when the old lady walks into the diner. You can give me all the rest after that moment. Second, (and this might be a bit a spoilery) there are two tests: a test of strengths and a test of weaknesses. The latter was handled better than the former, but still could have been tighter. The writers could have used this structure to present all the crappy exposition they forced into the first fifteen minutes of the movie. The ending needs help too, but that’s not surprising without a strong middle. I maintain that this could have been a decent movie with focus and restructuring.

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The next book on my reading list was The Seven-per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer. I started it and put it down after 32 pages. At some point in my life, the thought of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud "together again for the first time" intrigued me. Unfortunately, now the concept seems cheesy, perhaps because I have my own thoughts on Holmes’ psychology and find Freud to be generally wrong. But I could have gone through with the book if the writing was good. It’s not. The levels of "meta" got in the way. This is Meyer writing, pretending that this was a manuscript of Watson’s, whose psuedonym is Arthur Conan Doyle. There was some effort to justify the inconsistencies in Doyle’s works, through Watson’s voice. To me, that’s un-needed. *That* isn’t an interesting story. My craft lesson? Always be aware of what story you’re telling and how you’re telling it. The telling shouldn’t get in the way.

The next book on the list, the last book that I brought to Omaha with me, is Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution. It’s short and, since I wasn’t feeling good yesterday, I ripped through half of it. Luckily, I have left many books here from my college days and another unread Holmes-by-others anthology was on my mom’s shelves.

Random Reading Notes

A couple of notes about what I’ve been reading that haven’t been transferred from my written journal:

Tolkien does an amazing job of adding detail to the travel log chapters. While I’m not a fan reading about scenery, I don’t hate these chapters. Tolkien seems encyclopedic in his knowledge of the natural world and puts it to good use. Again, I’m struck by the similarity in the feeling that both Tolkien and Dahl give the landscape.

Read the first 30 pages or so of The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I couldn’t get into it. Too many characters, and strangely, too much going out without much explanation. I’m all for the gradual revelation of information, but I felt like details were being purposefully left on the sideline. The pacing was off to me. Also, Rusch has a tendency to use some of the same passive writing qualities that I do — these are things that annoy about my own writing.

Currently reading Faith & Fire by James Swallow in an effort to expand my experience with “military” sci-fi. I’m enjoying it well enough, though a contention of the plot has annoyed me. I am interested in seeing how the author handles his female characters. One thing that I’ve noticed: while the setting involves quite a bit of jargon, it doesn’t slow me down. As a writer in the speculative genre, I worry about having too many “made-up” words. I’m not a hardcore sci-fi fantasy reader, so if I can keep up with no problem, I assume anyone can.

And I’m probably not going to make my reading goal either!

Officially, I’ve thrown in the towel on this year’s NaNoWriMo. The last word count was 28,673. A few thousand of those word might end up in some manuscript written in the near future. I’ll get back to this version of the Alterverse in January. For the remainder of November and in December, I plan on doing a “final” polish on Model Species, writing a new query letter, and sending it out to a half dozen agents. I need to follow up on Pas de Chat queries as well.

I’m not overly disappointed about not “winning” NaNoWriMo. The Alterverse is at the awkward stage that occurred about six months (?) after we started the Weordan project. I couldn’t continue on in writing-abandon knowing that so much of it is way of- base from where it needs to be. That’s not a bad thing. Unlike NaNo of 2004, when we started Weordan, I can see the flaws. Not just the superficial detail flaws, but the deep cracks in the world-building. But, these 28K words are a stake in the ground, and that’s worth a tiny bit.

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Book #20 – The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
(I have a month to read ten more books. Not likely to happen.)

The re-read at Tor has been moving at syrup-in-January-in-a-cold-climate pace, so I decided to go ahead and finish The Two Towers. Honestly, without looking at the table of contents, I couldn’t remember what all was included in this book. First off, meeting the Riders of Rohan and Treebeard were a long time ago (June and July, according to the blog). Second, “Shelob’s Lair” alone puts the rest of the book to shame. Maybe it was tainted for me, knowing who Shelob is before reading, but the tension that Tolkien built in that chapter really got to me.

I’ve started taking craft notes again and the lesson I’d like to take away from “Shelob’s Lair” is this simple thing: (Possible Spoiler Ahead)
Possible Spoilers

11

As a 1930s wife, I am
Very Poor (Failure)

Take the test!

Heh. Figures. During one of our walks, Eric and I determined that we’re fairly bohemian in our lifestyle. Which means not very respectable by 1930 standards. Probably not very respectable by 00 standards either, but tough-kitty-toenails to convention.

I’m rather looking forward to downloading Firefox 3.  That puts me in a category of subgeek that would gather funny looks from normal people and sneers from educated geeks.  *shrug*

Went back to work on Model Species yesterday.  Trying to keep up with some reading and artistic stuff as well.  I haven’t drawn in a while and it was good to do so today.  Unfortunately, as far as the visual arts are concerned, my vision usually exceeds my abilities.  With a sketch done, I haven’t decided whether I want to fiddle with paints and pastels or scan it and fiddle with it in GIMP.  Probably will scan it, then ruin it with paints.

Book #9 – Enemy Mine (and The Talman and essays) by Barry B. Longyear

This is a reread.  Well, at least I think it is.  I’m pretty sure I read Enemy Mine back in high school or thereabouts.  But I don’t remember it being what I finished reading this morning.  It could be that my memories of the movie are overriding the book, or it could be that, since this version of Enemy Mine is a “director’s cut”, it is substantially changed and isn’t much like what I read before.  Probably a combination of all three factors. 

Anyway, since I’ve been contemplating religion within the Weordan world, I figured I’d take a look at how Longyear had done it in Enemy Mine.  As a bonus, the copy of EM I have is included in a weighty omnibus that includes two other novels set in the same universe, some essays by Longyear, and what he had worked out for the Drac’s holy book, the Talman.  Did I learn much?  Mmm…  I learned that Longyear is very much a writer of his time.  The Drac’s are us, really, not something entirely alien.  That’s okay.  The populations of Weordan are us too, only not very alien at all.  But what Longyear does with the religion sort of preempts the Drac culture.  It comes first, not the other way around which it how religions seem to me.  When I consider writing the myths and holy anecdotes of Weordan, I find it hard not to ask why such a story might have come about.  What was there first that created the myth?  If I appropriate my “Egyptian” girl into Weordan, what does that say about the history of the world?  How many worm cans do I open if I make that part of the world’s mytho-history?

I still maintain that anyone who thinks world building is fun isn’t doing it right…

Book #13 – Julia by Peter Straub

Sometimes when I read older books or watch older movies, I feel like I’ve read it before, seen it before.  The tropes are thick in these works, and it takes me a moment to realize that work I’m reading was probably part of the origin of the tropes.  Eric and I talked about this and his point of view was that if the work is good, truly good, the tropes won’t feel old.  And I agree.  The problem with Julia is the tropes feel stale.  The crux of the story involves a haunting, by an evil entity, that  is brought about by parallel circumstances.  It’s the coincidences that were ho-hum.

Craft Lesson #7
Style-wise, Straub is a very interesting contrast to Bloch and King.  Instead of the repetition and quick short prose, Straub’s writing flows…continually.  Julia feels like standing on a beach.  The waves will come, the tide will rise and fall.  There’s nothing you can do about it, nothing you can do to change it.  The prose just pulls you along.  It’s not unpleasant, but it’s not thrilling either.  It’s just steady, word after word, sentence after sentence.  Looking at Amazon.com’s text stats for the book, I find that it has the most complex words, most syllables per word and most words per sentence of anything I’ve read that I have stats for this year.  The manipulation of the reader is different.  Instead of stocks and thrills, Straub give you the slow burn.  It wasn’t until I’d read into the second half of the novel that I began to become fairly unsettled.  Does this style still work?   Because it seems to me to be a style of another era.  I might read something more recent of Straub’s.  It does verge on being boring, occasionally.  Actually, looking back, I think King combines these two styles, and Shirley Jackson’s Hill House does so with incredible results.  Not only do you get the slow burn, but the occasions of  quick fear.  (Those occasions are rarer with Jackson than with Bloch.)

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

I’m two books behind my goal if I want to get 30 read this year.

Two cups of ginger tea before bed and I slept the entire night through, no coughing/choking.
Terrible headache at the moment though.  And I’m feeling very, very lazy.   I blame PMS.

Book #11 – Psycho by Robert Bloch

This is a rewrite that didn’t disappoint me.  When I first read it, probably in high school, maybe in college, I was too in love with the movie.  The differences between the book and the movie were too great for me to enjoy the book then.  Still, I saw that it was good.  It was the first of Robert Bloch’s book that I’d read.  I bought all the rest on the strength of this book.  It might be his absolute best.

It has all the things I like about Bloch’s style.  The writing is tight.  There’s less description in this book.  He uses it only when he needs it, never when we’re in the internal world of Norman Bates.  The word usage is again very charged, manipulative.  Psycho avoids the things that annoys me about Bloch’s plots.  The novel’s contemporary setting allows for the spunky, strong female characters that Bloch likes.  The gimmick is actually very simple and avoids too much of the twisting some of Bloch’s later novels have.  The only thing I *really* disliked was the second to last “explanation” chapter.  It’s long, it’s boring.  It’s fairly inaccurate in light of modern psychology, though not as bad as other more recent novels.  The movie does this scene better in it’s very concise manner.

Lesson #6

All the previous lessons are reinforced.  Also, the way metaphors are carried though.  I often give up on them after the initial statement.  One more line of followthrough makes it more effective.   Also, Block uses changes in the mood of the characters to highlight the tension.  For example: Chapter 15 when Lila is going through the Bates house.  She starts angry at the men.  That dissolves into bravado and curiosity.  And then we hit fear.  It would have been easy (and crappy) to write that scene only with fear and maybe a smattering of curiosity.  Masterful.  The other thing that I noticed (and I’m seeing this in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Night Blooming as well) is that the time and character transitions that I sweat over are handled as non-issues.  They’re there and not confusing.

Book #10 – Out are the Lights by Richard Laymon

From reading Laymon’s A Writer’s Tale, I remembered that there had been problems with the books he had published through Warner Books after The Cellar.  I remembered that one of the books had suffered from a terrible line editor and one had been the victim of a terrible cover.  Out are the Lights is the latter.  Story goes, from Laymon himself, that he used to tape note cards over the back cover to block out the pithy “teaser”  because it gives away the whole book.  And it does, though a reader really doesn’t know that until the very end of the book.  After having read the back cover I spent most of the book very confused.  None of the things mentioned on the back were happening.  Basically, I just shrugged it off and read.

In hopes of giving away less than the back cover, it must be said that the book follows two story lines that don’t converge until the very end.  And we’re talking the…very…end.  Not fifty pages from the end, but five.  For me, this didn’t work, probably because there was no indication that many of the events were taking place separately.   I kept looking for ties, spent effort trying to find ties, and of course there are none.  There’s also a gimmick.  I don’t understand why the gimmick was kept for the reader for so long.  I didn’t need to be.  Didn’t buy the character of Connie either, but I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to the physical abilities of women.  Even with the proper training (and Connie isn’t given enough grounding in that training, in my opinion), a woman is going to have a hard time overcoming a man, much less several men.

Craft-wise (Lesson 5 we’ll call it):
Laymon doesn’t repeat much.  He uses shorter sentences during action and tension scenes, but varies sentence length greatly in those cases.  For fright, he relies on the horrific action that is occurring.  He doesn’t embellish, just lays it out.

All in all, Laymon is sparse with description, something I think you can get away with when writing contemporary, earth-bound novels.  One thing I envy about his style is the lack of dialogue tags.  He writes damn good diagloue, so snappy, you always know who’s talking.