Sunday, December 20, 2009

Blog Revisited 2 – End of Year Wrap Up

Another year gone and its time to look back on the blog’s past. This is my second full year of blogging and I have to say that it’s been just as fun and informative as last year. There are a few things I’ve noticed, and a plan for future blog entries but let’s get right to the important part.

Thanks to everyone who’s been reading and commenting on my blog. I really appreciate it. I know most of you have many other blogs you can and do read, but I appreciate that you are still reading mine and providing feedback. I read all the comments and e-mails and do my best to reply in some fashion. So thanks for the stimulating conversation.

And now the numbers for this blog:

First Blog of 2009: Scattershot Narrative – The Right Stuff
Last Blog of 2009 (other than this one): History is a Game – Assassin’s Creed

Total Number of Blogs – 110
Total Number of Comments on MySpace - 502

Topics with the fewest comments (2)
20 topics total

Topics with the most comments
- A despicable hero – Lord Foul’s Bane (8 comments)
- The Department of Redundancy Department – Self editing for Fiction Writers (8 Comments)
- Macguffins Gone Wild – The Maltese Falcon Novel (6 comments)
- Not So Great Expectations – Great Expectations (6 comments)
- Rome if you Want to – Rome (7 comments)
- The War that Inspired a Story – 1812: The War that Forged a Nation (6 comments)
- Threads of a Story – Anansi Boys (6 Comments)

In general the number of comments has gone down this year. My high point last year was 12 comments. In addition the topics with the highest comments happened in the months from January to April. After that no other topic cracked 5 comments until the blog on “Anansi Boys”.

Now I believe that most of this has to do with the stagnation of MySpace. I’ve noticed less and less traffic in general around there and that is where the majority of my comments have come from. On the flip side, I joined Facebook and linked my blog to it. I don’t have regular readers over there yet, but I have received comments, so that’s a good sign.

On the flip side all of my topics gathered some kind of comment this year, and that was usually followed by a reply from me. So the lowest number of comments was always 2. And the total of 2 comment blogs tells me that I lost readers or my blogs aren’t as engaging as the first round.

Looks like I’m going to need to approach blogging in a different way if MySpace continues its decline. But I have a plan that I’ll share in January.

I did some series of blogs this year. This included a comparison of three anime titles that were similar Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star and Trigun. Then I did a case for and against Mystery Science Theater 3000. I tackled the revisits of Star Trek the Motion Picture and Star Wars A New Hope. Then there was my series dealing with NaNoWriMo. I had some fun with these series, but the comments were kinda light. So tell me if you enjoyed this type of thing, or not.

If you have any topics about storytelling that you’d like to see me tackle, feel free to suggest and I’ll do my best to work it in this year. Or if there were any topics that you found less interesting, feel free to tell me as well. This blog should be a fun and interesting read, that’s my goal.

Thanks again for reading and commenting, and making this year another great one for my blog. Have a great 2010!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

History is a game – Assassin’s Creed

First “God of War” and it’s sequel took Greek mythology and turned it into a bad ass adventure game with lots of blood, monsters, sex and a Ragnarok storyline (if you’ll let me mix my mythologies). The game was fun to play and the storyline was a great mix, something a talented writer had to think out and execute, and still keep in mind game play and entertainment.

Then I stumbled into “Assassin’s Creed” a game that takes history and turns it into something fascinating and interactive. The game itself takes place during the third Crusade when King Richard of England was facing Saladin with The Holy Land as the prize. With key locales in Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem, the art department worked overtime to create vivid locations, populate them with period accurate characters and costumes and give everything a lived in feel that immerses the player in the medieval world.

You play as an assassin dedicated to a sect of killers that works outside of politics. Their goal is preserve the Holy Land for everyone, not to conquer it. This allows the player to tackle both sides of the war, Christian or Muslim – both become targets. The game forces the player to use stealth, information gathering and deadly fighting skills in combination. You find the target, get close to them and then take them out, before the whole town takes you out. The game was a blast to play, even if it did get a bit repetitive here and there. The atmosphere provided by the graphics, sound effects and music were top notch.

But let’s get back to the story or a minute. I explained the main action of the game, but there is a framing element that provides the game with two important features. This framing story is a 180 from the Crusades – it’s science fiction. You start the game in the near future. Your character is a test subject for a large corporation. He is required to link up to a machine that uses genetic memory to plunge his mind back into past lives. These past lives are etched into his DNA and provide him with the persona of the assassin during the Crusades. Ok, maybe it’s more like science fantasy, but it’s an interesting idea.

Since the time traveler isn’t physically going back into time, it is only a persona traveling along engrained memories, this explains how the assassin can “die” but return to the memory at a certain spot (save point). It also allows the writers to mix history up a little bit. According to the game, the history books are based on perceptions of those who are in power. But the true memories are in the character’s DNA. So who’s to say that a group of Assassin’s wasn’t manipulating events in the past, and made sure that their involvement was never known.

During the game, the player jumps from this future state, learning a little about why he was picked and what the corporation is after, to engaging the dangers of the Crusades. Links between both stories become clearer and clearer and leads to revelations on both stories.

The other reason for the future storyline becomes clear at the end of the game. The Medieval storyline is concluded with a solid climax, but the future storyline ends in a cliff hanger. There may be further need for other memories in the future, so the main character is kept on hand – just in case. This can lead perfectly into a sequel. Guess what “Assassin’s Creed 2” is already out in stores in time for the holidays. This time the memories seem to occur during the times of the Venetian trade empire. A very interesting cut scene is available to view showing the square of San Marco as well as the canals of Venice (not to mention some new weapons and sneaking techniques).

Clever game writers were able to do two things here. They could create a game based on a rich time in Western history. The Crusades provide them with plenty of opportunities for intrigue, combat and colorful settings (even if they seemed to borrow from Ridley Scott’s take on the Crusades in “Kingdom of Heaven”). But they also had a framing story that allowed them to tweak with history in a believable way (at least for the game’s world) but provided the perfect outlet for sequels.

Have you played “Assassin’s Creed”? What did you think of the two storylines and their effectiveness? Is this the type of thing that can only be pulled off in a game, or could this have been done in a book or movie? Ever read a historical fiction that tamped with history? Did it work?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Is it Modern - Peace

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we went to see “Peace” by Aristophanes. I’d seen an ancient Greek tragedy done before “Oedipus Rex” but never an ancient Greek comedy. I knew a little from some quick research, that Aristophanes stuff was on the bawdy side and in your face kinda comedy. And truthfully my taste in comedy tends more toward wordplay and irony, not so much with the fart jokes.

I also had the suspicion that the production was going to be on the modern side of things. Now, I’m no fan of modern art, and performance art always leaves me cold. I’m even iffy about updating Shakespeare plays without a good reason to do so. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but most of the time I just end up feeling like it was done to shake up the visuals and not really to make the play more acceptable to a modern audience.

When we arrived at the theater things became more suspicious. The seating was arranged like an ancient Greek or Roman theater, facing toward the entrance of the Getty Villa. So you had a kind of makeshift stage in front. But what disturbed me was the fact that a mound of trash was in the middle of the theater and a set of silver yoga balls piled against the door of the Getty. Suddenly I had visions of a Christmas episode of “South Park” where minimalist composer Philip Glass worked on the Christmas pageant. Would this be nothing but people dressed in black sweaters spouting verse and doing interpretive dance?

All this changed when a man dressed as a Mexican mariachi walked out with a blue foam finger on his arm that was emblazoned with the Dodger’s logo on it. He began to speak in a very serious tone of voice about how we all must keep our cell phones off, and how we could laugh but must keep the noise level down for the neighbors. His little reminders dropped more and more humor, but delivered as deadpan as possible. But in the end the audience chuckles seemed to pass on down to him and he cracked a little. The absurd combination was the perfect intro to what was to be a very interesting show.

The approach was modernized, and yet completely fantasy at the same time. The basic plot of “Peace” goes something like this. An Athenian farmer is sick of war, so he jumps onto his dung beetle and flies up to heaven to confront the Gods. When he gets there he finds the Gods have all left except for Hermes. Hermes tells the farmer that the God of War is cooking up more trouble for mankind. Not only that but the evil god has locked away peace in a cave and blockaded it with boulders. The farmer goes the cave, gets some help from other Greeks and together they release Peace from her prison. Some of the Greeks who stand to profit by war voice their opposition, but they are silenced. The whole thing ends with Peace bringing joy to Greece, a marriage ceremony and a celebration.

What’s interesting are the bits of humor that this production kept in. The dung beetle for instance. In the original version the farmer needs to feed the poor beast, so he has his slaves collect dung and turn it into cakes. Pretty much the same thing happens here, except fudge-cicles are involved, and the dung beetle is shaped like a Volkswagen bug and is referred to as a hybrid because it runs on methane. Ancient Greek comedies often had characters wandering around with huge phalluses strapped to them and used for comedic purposes. We got the same thing here, with balloon phalluses being used and popped. This lead to a rowdy musical number about masturbation: with accompaniment provided by a string trio.

Then there was the exclusively modern stuff like the interview with Aristophanes on a radio show, or the annoyed neighbor coming down from the audience with her little dog in her purse, or the entire Marx brothers routine involving a statue of the Goddess of Peace, pulled right from the interior of the Getty (don’t worry, it was only a foam recreation).

The show was funny, rude, and of course carried a message about the trouble of getting peace delivered to our world. There was nothing subtle about the message, but from what I’ve read about Aristophanes, he never did anything subtle at all. In the end, I had a very good time, not all the humor landed (lots of low humor here folks) but things moved quickly enough that if one set up didn’t work, chances are the next one would. It was a fun 90 minutes of entertainment at a beautiful location. I’ve never been to the Getty Villa at night and with all the smoke in the air because of the recent fires, the red moon actually added to the surreal feel of the show.

In a way all the mad cap antics and mixing of styles worked fine for the play. Its basic plot is nothing but a fairy tale in the first place. So once you accept that a farmer can fly a dung beetle up to heaven, you don’t really mind that he’s a pot farmer, or that his son is obsessed with Michael Jackson, or that the God of War is annoyed that the “White Devils” are being lead by “a skinny black guy”. For the most part the humor reminded me of “South Park” – no holds barred, offensive to everyone and still really damn funny.

Most writers will tell you that comedy is harder than drama. And I think staging a Greek comedy in its pure form must be more difficult than staging something like “Oedipus Rex”. Some form of adaptation must be made, because most viewers aren’t going to know their Cleon from their Pericles. But throw in humor about Rush Limbaugh or Barak Obama, and you’ll get chuckles out of most people.

Ever see a Greek comedy or tragedy? Was it modernized? Was it still effective either way? When tackling a historical figure or event, how much modernization should the writer allow him or herself?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Wrap Up 2008 – NaNoWriMo

Well I was able to finish my novel. That means I get to write a nifty wrap up blog about my NaNoWriMo experience. I’ll try to keep this short, for those of you who aren’t too excited about my NaNoWriMo ramblings.

My biggest fear was not having enough time to write the entire novel, what with one less weekend this year. I knew that I was going to have to write at least one day ahead at some point to make it work out, and I did that in on the 21st and 22nd. I just added 1,500 words to my total needed on those two days and I was able to get that jump. It was a good thing too, because this month proved to be a bit tougher than I anticipated. There were surprise visits on my writing night, as well as work interfering with my schedule. I still finished a couple days early but it was a bit of a challenge to pull it off.

One of the things I noticed was that NaNo encourages you to meet and interact with other writers participating in the contest. But at the same time, writing is such a solitary act. There were several meetings with writers in my area, and while I did want to go, I wasn’t sure how much writing would actually get done (and that is even if I had a laptop with WiFi). Writing really requires me to go deep into this place inside and the less interruptions I have the better. I think that writing in a group just wouldn’t work for me. On the flip side I got to find a few other writers in my area, so maybe I can connect with them outside the contest and meet to talk about our work and techniques.

How do I feel about the first draft? The way I usually do about all my first drafts. I’m not entirely pleased with it. I feel that I was character heavy in the first half and plot heavy in the second half. I think that I ended up back loading a ton of exposition in the last two chapters (something that seems to happen a bit with these horror novels). I think the characters of Adrienne and Rachel are greatly improved compared to their old versions. I think that the inclusion of the mysterious older character was a big help to the story. I was able to write the ending as I envisioned it, but I’m curious to see if it actually works with the story as is. I think my description was much stronger in the first half than in the second half. I’m going to have to look up some synonyms for “frost”, “cold”, “ice” and “frozen”.

What’s next? After I finish a novel, I usually take a break from writing. I’ll read more, play videogames a bit, just take a week or two off from writing. Doesn’t mean I won’t research (something I’m planning on doing, dealing with the sci-fi novel I wrote over the summer). I think my next focus will be that sci-fi novel, give it another pass and see if I can tighten it up a bit, maybe work it into something solid. As for “Forever Cold”, I’m thinking of revisiting it over the summer for a second draft. This will include me reading it in one go, marking it up (and getting rid of my repetitions), seeing what works and what doesn’t, and re-fitting it around a bit. I think the core story is solid and will work out but, but I’m curious to see how long this turns out – story or novella?

Well that’s about all I’ve got for this year’s NaNoWriMo. It was exhilarating to participate in and I got a finished first draft out of it. Thanks to all of you who provided encouragement and good wishes. All writers need this, and I for one appreciate it.

How do you feel after completing a first draft? Do you usually take a break or do you dive into something new? Do you have any specific questions about NaNoWriMo that I can answer?

Monday, November 23, 2009

First Draft Blues – NaNoWriMo

Just wanted to post a quick blog this week. Things got a little tough last week with work intruding on my writing time and other interruptions. But I accomplished my goal of getting ahead of the scheduled word count (mostly because the week of Thanksgiving is going to be crazy). Still things haven’t gone all that smoothly.

I got the first draft blues, something that happens every time I work on long fiction. It usually hits after the halfway point and I attribute it to a couple things: story fatigue and self-doubt. Self-doubt is self explanatory, but story fatigue is a little stranger. Basically I get tired of telling the same story. I want it done so I can work on something else (usually some new-fangled idea that popped into my head while writing this one). Story fatigue is sign that the fire to write the story is growing dim – it also means I need to wrap this puppy up.

The self-doubt portion of the First Draft Blues is the whole “this story is crap, what was I thinking” mantra that pops up. It occurs after you run into a few hard patches in story – places that you found really difficult to write. You begin to wonder if you’ve written yourself into a hole. You begin to think back on what you’ve written and feel that it’s horrible. You question the need to even finish this turd.

I think this happens to most writers, and the only solution is to power forward and finish writing. In a way that’s what makes NaNoWriMo a great tool. You’ve got a self imposed deadline, you’ve got to meet it with a quota of words, so no matter what you end up writing it’s completed – and that’s the key. The first draft is supposed to be bad. The second draft is where you sit down, read the puppy and find all the great bits that are inside. You pick up the themes and tie them together. You weave the story tighter, cut out all the fat, and add muscle where it’s needed. The second draft is closer to the story the way it should be told.

Stephen King has a great analogy of writing. The first draft is just cracking off the huge piece of marble that will be the story. It’s lumpy and misshapen, but the basics are there. The next passes will reveal the statue underneath. And that is where the real story is made.

So the first draft, blues and all, is important because the completed idea is done. It’s the first step and you can’t have a completed version without the first draft. It just takes some additional will power to say “Hey this draft stinks. No worries, I’ll check it out in a month or two and see all the great stuff it does have. I don’t fear the red pen.”

So for now, I’ve got to forget the blues, forget the other “amazing” story idea I just got (or write an outline for it), stop whining in my blogs about hating the first draft – and just write it in time for the end date. I did it last year and I can do it again.

Ever get the first draft blues? Ever hit story fatigue? What do you do to fight these monsters? Do you never have any of the issues above?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Recycling is for everyone: even writers – NaNoWriMo

I mentioned in my last blog that I ended up using my old story “The Grey Man” as the basis of the story I’m working on for NaNoWriMo. Is this cheating? Doesn’t this mean that I can copy and paste the material that I did write into the contest and boost my word count. Well, I could, but I didn’t.

First off, that draft was written about four years ago, and my style and skills have improved since then (just reading some of my older work brings a shudder to my body even if I smile at some of the good stuff). The original version had a prologue that was very redundant. It was the first to go in the new version. I wrote an entirely new chapter to open the story. Initially I didn’t show you Adrienne’s revenge. I was more interested in her adjustment back into life. But looking at the story now, I felt that showing the reader what she had to do and how cold she became was an important base. It also gave me the opportunity to show a bit of foreshadowing, which is always fun.

Next, I removed all the police material. While Adrienne’s father was a detective, and knew people on the force, I kept them in the periphery. In fact I took the character of the detective from the first draft and turned him into the older mentor police chief in this new version. The original chief was pretty cookie cutter, while the detective was a more rounded character. So I took the more rounded character and put him in the key role. Sadly his partner Kasumi had her part cut considerably. She’ll show up as a side character, maybe have two scenes at the most.

Adrienne’s childhood friend Rachel also received a make over. In the original draft she was supposed to be a successful business woman, but behaved like a wet blanket and was a total pushover. Just reviewing her dialogue made me embarrassed. No way could this woman run her own business. My parents have run their own business for years and it takes assertiveness and guts. Rachel still needed to run the business, its part of her story with Adrienne. So she got a rewrite and I think she’s a much more interesting character. She’s tough but understanding. Hopefully the reader will get the strong connection between the women without all the fawning and pathetic dialogue from the original draft (shudder).

I also rethought the supernatural element of the story. I don’t want to say to much about it, but in the original draft it was actually pretty pedestrian in the execution. This time I added a new element that makes will make this a bit more complicated for Adrienne to resolve and hopefully more interesting to read about.

In addition I created a bit of a subplot involving another of my long existing characters. He’ll pop in to deliver some “Book of Thoth” type information, but with his usual deadly spin. That element just came to me last night and I think it will add to the tone of the book.

With all the changes there is no way I could cut and paste the puppy together. I’m re-writing from scratch. The only element I lifted was a poem and I even edited out a few lines from that (because they referred to the old version of the supernatural element). The poem was really a space saver. I’m not a poet, but I want to come up with something a bit more acceptable than what I have now. But the idea is there and I captured it well enough in the original to keep it without many changes.

So basically my recycling is just that, recycling. I’m taking an idea that I had, rethinking it, reworking it and rewriting it. The initial idea is solid. It just needed four years to find all the right parts and maybe four years of writing experience to improve it.

Have any of you writers ever read your older work and said, “Wow, what was I thinking?” Did you ever start writing something and had a neat side idea pop into your head? Were you able to work it into the story or did you take into a new story idea?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What to Write: Part 2 – NaNoWriMo

I already had something that was inspired by Lovecraft, a set of stories I came up with in the 90’s that I’ve been tooling with and refining for years. I came up with a great outline of the stories and world about three years ago and I’ve been writing novels and short stories in that world off and on for a while now. Now it was time to dive back in.

Last year my NaNo journey was more planned out. I knew I wanted to write a supernatural thriller and was actually plotting it out before I started writing. This time, all I had was a vague outline of stories that needed to be written out. Last year’s NaNo novel “Pierced” falls in there. As I looked over the outline one story popped out.

About four years ago I started a novel tentatively called “The Grey Man”. I was finally going to delve into a character I’d created back in the 90’s, named Adrienne West. Miss West has been bouncing around for years and some of you may have read a strange short story where she found herself in a bizarre dream world. Anyway, I’ve wanted to flesh out her story for a while and four years ago I gave it a try. The beginning was pretty solid, however I fell into one of my traps. I got obsessed with perfecting details as I wrote the first draft.

I had some police characters in the story, detectives assigned to solve a series of mysterious murders. These detectives would end up crossing paths with Adrienne and be torn between feeling she was a suspect or a witness. The problem was, whenever I got to these detectives I would obsess over police procedure in that type of situation. And since I’m not a detective, I had to make it up. And since I was making it up, I knew it was wrong. It really started to bug me, because they were becoming more and more a part of the plot and they were slowing me down more and more. I never finished writing the novel because the detectives stopped me cold.

Now I have a solution. Drop the whole subplot with the detectives. They didn’t really add anything, since the reader already knew how Adrienne was involved. There was no suspense really, just wondering when the detectives would piece it together. Instead of bouncing back and forth between the detectives and Adrienne I would stick with my main character. She was more interesting anyway. I might have the detectives appear in a scene or two, but they will no longer drive a parallel story.

The only issue now is that I feel like I’ve lopped off half the original story idea. Will that make this new version too short, a dreaded novella in length (not much market for that length of story)? Or will Adrienne be able to carry the full story to a complete length by herself. We’ll have to see , but that’s what I’m going with. I do have some additional details that I can add in, things that I hadn’t really considered four years ago, but now feel like they fit. And of course I can add that extra Lovecraftian touch.

So what is the story about? Here’s a back cover for you.

As desert winds howl like banshees around Adrienne West as she faces a deranged murderer. She’s hunted him for three years and today, she’s going to end the chase. Her revenge, which should have quenched the fury within her, only starts something new.
Adrienne returns to the city of Ten Bay hoping to start her life up where she left off. But everything’s moved on. Friends are gone or seem to find her too changed. Worse the visions that guided her hunt have not stopped. They continue to plague her with new terrors. One in particular, a brutal thing with icy breath and frozen fangs, seeks her out in her dreams. When the first frozen body is found, Adrienne begins to be very afraid of what she has become and whether she will remain Forever Cold.

For you writers out there, do you find yourself digging up your older stories and looking for ideas or inspiration? Ever let the details derail you on a first draft?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What to Write: Part 1 – NaNoWriMo

NaNo snuck up on me this year. Between the two large projects at work that were requiring overtime, and the crazy schedule that forced my wife and I to come into work at 4:30am, I didn’t really have time to consider writing a novel. It wasn’t until I got an automated e-mail from the NaNo site that I remembered. I saw the e-mail and said, “Oh yeah, that’s coming up. Well I should think about doing it again.” And then I forgot because work drove everything from my mind.

When I had some down time I did bring it up to my wife. While most of my projects would wind down in mid October, she would still be doing follow up and would end up working from home. I didn’t want to end up with both of us needing to work in the home office at the same time. Work has to come first, and if I had to do my own NaNoWriMo in December, I would. But she assured me that we wouldn’t really be in the office at the same time and it would be great if I got back to actually writing again.

Well with that figured out, it was now Halloween. Um, Ok, so NaNo starts tomorrow – what do I write… Hello? Anyone? Any brain cell wanna chime in there?

This wasn’t writers block. This was just my brain stunned for a few hours. I knew what I had wanted to write for NaNo this year. There’s a fantasy adventure story I’ve been kicking around for over a year. Now would be a great time to power down a first draft.

There was one slight problem with this. NaNo falls in November. What have I been doing all October? Reading H.P. Lovecraft and watching horror movies. This means that I’ve got horror and supernatural fiction on the brain and in blood. I didn’t feel like writing a fantasy story. And one thing I’ve learned, if I end up forcing the writing it almost always comes out poor. Strike while the iron’s hot. So horror fiction it is.

While reading Mr. Lovecraft’s work, I was surprised how much of it has been borrowed and influenced most modern horror – and yet there are very few successful adaptations of his stories. Of course Lovecraft’s writing offers several limitations for adaptation. His style is stilted and hard to get into. His world view is bleak and unforgiving. His heroes can be very passive, hardly heroes at all. And his horror is created by generating dread, something that is very hard to do in a movie or television show.

But with the right amount of tweaking and fleshing out, you could make a solid series based on Lovecraft’s fiction. This was the kind of thing I’d been thinking about this October, how would someone create a movie series or television series based on Lovecraft’s stories. I came up with all kinds of ideas and actually got a little pumped to work on them.

Then my logical brain stepped in and said, “Hold on. Why are you doing this? Are you seriously thinking that you can create a whole television show or movie franchise idea based on Lovecraft? Seriously? Think about that for a moment.”

I did and my logical brain was right. Unless Hollywood goes through a major shift in perspective, Lovecraftian fiction is going to remain in books. Most mainstream viewers don’t want dread. They want solid scares and blood. Can’t say I blame them.

Ok, novels then, I can write Lovecraftian novels that are…

Yeah Mr. Logic stepped in again. “There are already a whole bunch of Lovecraft novels and fan fics out there. Maybe you’ve heard of the Cthulu Mythos?”

“Yeah, but this would be…”

“Different because you did it? No. It would be more of the same. And you don’t really want to waste time on more the same do you?

Logic brain wins again. I’ve fallen into this trap before. I become enamored with something and the fanboy in me starts creating what is basically fan fiction. It’s fun to write, but it isn’t satisfying in the end. What is satisfying is taking the inspiration of these works and working it through my brain and fuse it with my style and create something new. Not necessarily original, but something less than a “inspired by the works of…” type deal.

What did I end up writing? Well I’ll post part two of this blog this weekend and you can find out. Or if you want t sneak peek, head over to this website and check out the “Novel Info” tab.

As of this writing 9,088 words, or 45 pages.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Time to Start that Novel – NaNoWriMo 2009

After much consideration I decided to attempt National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) again this year. This means in the month of November I will write a novel. Sounds like a challenge, but I pulled it off last year with a solid first draft. Still haven’t gotten around to editing that puppy, but it did prove to me that power writing through a first draft is a great way to get things moving. And I need to get things moving.

Ever since I got the lovely little white box called the Wii, I’ve been slacking off. Now I can’t blame it all on that wonderful birthday present (thanks Chris!), it’s also the simple fact that I’ve been a lazy bastard. Sure I’ve done some short story polishing here and there, but nothing really came of it. The most writing I’ve been doing is this weekly blog and I’ve been slacking there a bit too.

So maybe NaNoWriMo is what I need. For those of you that are curious, I’ve got 30 days to write 50,000 words. That translates to roughly 175 pages. So really this is more of a novella sized work. Still this is a first draft and you can usually expect these kinds of things to change size after editing.

Last year I shot for 3,000 words each day I sat down and started working. 2008 had 5 weekends in it. This year I’ve only got 4. But I think the 3,000 word limit will work fine. This breaks down to me writing for four days a week till the end of the contest on the 30th which falls on a Monday.

I’ll be starting up tomorrow and I’ll also try and post some blogs with progress reports and some insight into what it’s like this time. I’ve already got a story idea and I’m eager to see where this one takes off too. I’ll go into a brief synopsis of the idea in my next blog.

Here’s the website if you wanna check it out:

Have you attempted NaNoWriMo before? How did you fare? Sound interesting to you or do you think this is a hopeless task?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Is this a horror movie? – Poltergeist

“Poltergeist” scared the hell out of me as a kid. I didn’t see it in the theater, but I did see it at a friends house. He was a horror fan, and I wasn’t quite into the genre yet. He felt this would be a good movie to start with, and so popped it in. I have to say that the scene where the investigator rips his face off was probably the most horrific thing I’d seen in a movie at that point.

After watching the movie again this year, my wife turned to me and said, “You know, this isn’t really a horror film. It’s a family drama”. This reminded me of the second time I saw the film with my buddy back in the late 80’s. We didn’t like it because it wasn’t like “Creepshow” or “Nightmare on Elm Street”. And that is what most people think of when they think Horror. Well that and the countless “Saw” films that seem to be plaguing us.

Truth is, lots of things can be considered horror. I’ve covered a few opinions in this blog (including Stephen King’s look at the genre in “Dance Macabre”), but for me “Poltergeist” works with one of the most effective types of horror – the fear of the unknown.

The reason the movie still works and rises above some of its dated special effects is because of two key elements. The family is introduced in a way that makes them very familiar. They remind you of your neighbors or yourself. In fact the trailer goes out of its way to say how normal the house in “Poltergeist” is. “A normal town, with a normal neighborhood, and a normal house… except for one detail”. This normalcy does two things. It makes the family relatable and it shows that these aren’t super heroes, just average folks. Contrast this to “The Haunting” where the house is a towering mansion, or even “Dracula” where the heroes at least have Van Helsing and his key knowledge. Here, the family is on their own facing something they can not explain.

And that is the other key to “Poltergeist”, the forces at work in the house are powerful and unknowable. You can’t reason with them, because you can’t communicate with them. Some don’t seem to want to do more than move things around the house, and others seem bent on taking Carol Anne into their world. Logic is thrown out the window and there seems to be only two options – fight the unknown or run away. And the Freeling family would have run away if Carol Anne hadn’t gotten sucked into that brilliant vortex.

To add to the horror you’ve got the two forces summoned to combat it: science and magic. The ghost researchers are obviously the scientific weapon. They come in and try to figure out why’s and how’s. They feel logic and documentation can solve this mystery. Quickly they are assaulted at all sides and the weakest of their number is driven away from the house (after he hallucinates that he tears his own face off – I’d run away too). This unknown force can not be quantified and the researchers end up doing little more than catching some great evidence on tape. But they realize that they are overmatched and turn toward magic.

Enter Tangina, the short and shrill psychic who’s able to contact Carol Anne and even figure out where in the house the portals to the other world are. At first Tangina seems to be the solution and it makes sense: use magic to fight the unknown. Humans have been doing it since the dawn of man.

Notice one key thing – Tangina does not go into the portal herself and rescue Carol Anne. She’s prepared to do it, but instead it is the mother, Diane, who enters the unknown world and comes back with her daughter. This works with the main theme of the film, of facing the unknown. The family, who we have become connected to must face the danger by themselves and even if they have help of science and magic, they must make the sacrifices and take the risks.

Well it all turns out well, with Carol Anne being rescued and the worst of the horror just giving Diane a streak of white hair. Tangina even declares the house “clean”. But the movie isn’t done yet. In a final defiance – the forces go right back attempting to take Carol Anne again. Magic was not effective. The researchers are gone, so even the reassurance of science is nowhere to be found. Even dad is far away - just mom and the kids and house full of malicious forces. The horrors are unleashed one on top of the other and things go bad very quickly. But it is the family that fights and escapes. Notice that all the members of the family show up by the end of the film, even the teenage daughter who was staying with a friend manages to show up just as the house is destroying itself in it’s unknowable fury.

The last image ties the knot. The family is together, exhausted and shaken, but together. They check into a motel room and push the television out of the room in a moment of dark irony. As the credits roll, Jerry Goldsmith’s score goes into a lullaby, ironic and maybe over cute. But stay till the end when the demonic giggling kicks in. Nice ending.

“Poltergeist” has a lot of great things going for it. Personally I wouldn’t have shown as much of the ghosts ands the powers as they did in the film. Horror of the unknown works better when it’s intangible. And since it’s the effects that are dated, these things could have been avoided with a less “in your face” approach to the story (See the 1963 version of “The Haunting” for a good example). But aside from that its power lies in the set up and in the execution of the story. A family drama? Sure it is. The family as a whole faces the forces of the unknown and survives. But the horror of the unknown is the other key. “Poltergeist” wouldn’t be as effective without either part.

What do you think of “Poltergeist”, solid horror film or over-rated special effects movie? Would you call “Poltergeist” a horror film or does it straddle a line? Do you have a favorite haunted house film?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dark Demented Noir – Lost Highway

David Lynch has been one of my favorite directors since the end of the 90’s. I remember seeing a scene from “The Elephant Man” when I was a kid. In it the nurse sees the unfortunate man, and his image terrifies her. It was filmed like a horror scene and it scared the hell out of me.

As a kid I also watched “Dune” because I loved “Star Wars” and my dad brought home anything sci-fi related. Needless to say The Baron terrified my sister and I found it to be the most disturbing sci-fi film I’d ever seen. I know others feel the same way for other reasons. :-)

I can’t remember if I saw “Lost Highway” before I got pulled back into David Lynch, or seeing that movie was the cause – but I do know I saw it and the film impacted me profoundly. It was surreal horror in a way I’d never seen before. Lynch had captured the feel of the nightmare, and in doing did something that I had rarely felt – he scared me.

Most of the time, horror movies are gross and don’t do much more than startle me. But there are the rare films that use atmosphere to build horror, and the first half of “Lost Highway” does it very well. I heard the first 40 minutes described as a pressure cooker, with you feeling certain that something horrible is going to happen, but you wait for the other shoe to drop.

Now if you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll tell you right now, most people leave the film immensely confused after the first viewing. The first forty minutes move very slowly, and many find them boring. The next hour or so seems to be a completely different movie and the final fifteen to twenty minutes are screw with your sense of narrative so much that confusion is the only resolution. To be honest this isn’t good story telling.

Now, this provides a bit of an issue, if Lynch doesn’t tell an effective story than “Lost Highway” fails as a movie right? Correct. But if Lynches goal wasn’t to tell a story but create an effective and horrifying atmosphere that creates mixes an uneasy and uncanny feeling in the viewer, then his goal is met. To be honest I don’t know what he was trying to do in this movie, and if I got a chance to ask Lynch, he wouldn’t tell me. His favorite reply to that question is “What do you think I was trying to do?” For him it’s more entertaining to hear what others make of his work.

So maybe he’s just a snobby guy who has a very good eye behind the camera and knows how to create nightmare visions on the screen. But he does this in such an effective way that many other filmmakers have used his techniques to great effect – and especially in horror films.

Lynch’s follow up to this movie, “Mulholland Drive” is a better film. The story makes a bit more sense, (once you piece it together after multiple viewings) and the style seems more assured and concise. The pacing is quicker and fits the mystery of the film.

But “Lost Highway” is primarily a horror film dressed as noir. Shadows and light play huge parts in the film. Lynch utilizes sound and music in such a way as to disorient and horrify the viewer. Early scenes seem to have eerie silence, or undulating rumbles as if the world is waiting to close over the main characters. The house of the characters is always in shadow and hallways seem to stretch into a dark oblivion.

Lights are used in ways that seem to be perfect. Flashing white-blue bursts signify power and a moment of change. Brilliant headlights bath nude bodies in the desert. And the red light of a jazz club illuminates the face of a man who feels suspicion and rage building inside him.

Haven’t seen it and curious? Let me tell you a bit about the premise of the first part of the film. A couple living in modern house seems to be having a strained relationship. There is no sign of understanding or passion between them. One day a video tape is left on their porch (movie was made in 96, so no DVDs). The tape shows a slow pan of the front of their house. The next day another tape arrives, showing the same thing, but after a burst of static, it now shows the inside of the house, from a very high angle, almost as if it was floating in the air. It moves down the hallway and into the bedroom right over the sleeping couple. They are so disturbed that they call the police, but the detectives are unable to find any evidence of a break in. Later on the couple is at a party, and the husband meets a small pale man with no eyebrows. The man claims to be in their house, “right now”. He hands his cell phone to the husband, who dials his home number, and the man answers, even though he’s standing right in front of him.

Seriously, it’s one of the most surreal and messed up phone calls in movie history. And that bit of the uncanny starts the unraveling of reality for all the characters, and only gets darker from here on in. If you are familiar with Lynch’s other work, “Twin Peaks”, “Blue Velvet” or “Wild At Heart”, you’ll know what to expect. But this film is darker, perhaps the darkest of his movies (although I still haven’t made up my mind about “Inland Empire” yet). But in my mind, it’s the closest we will get to a David Lynch horror film and that’s why it’s one of my favorites for Halloween viewing.

Seen “Lost Highway”? What did you think of it? David Lynch: skilled film maker or insane pretentious “arteest”? Can a movie or novel be successful if it only accomplishes mood, but fails in telling a cohesive story?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Whole Book about Walking – The Long Walk

In some ways Stephen King is a polarizing figure among book readers and writers. Some feel he is completely commercial and writes to please the masses. Others find his work to be among the best of modern storytelling. I dislike extremes, but I have to admit, Stephen King is a very good writer. Nearly every book I’ve read by him, I’ve enjoyed on some level. Some of them are better than others, but most of them keep you reading until the end.

While King is known for his horror work, he’s written plenty of other things. Some of the best adaptation of King’s work to screen come from his non-horror offerings: “Stand by Me” (based of “The Body”), “The Shawshank Redemption”, and “The Green Mile”. In fact one of the books I recommend to King neophytes is “Different Seasons” a combination of four short stories that don’t really have much to do with the supernatural.

My sister recommended “The Long Walk” to me, saying it was another one of King’s different tales. I knew little about it, other than it was written by King when he was using the Richard Bachman pseudonym. The introduction to the book explains King’s view of Bachman and about the alter ego’s untimely death. King says of Bachman “…he’s not a very nice guy.”

What is very interesting about this book is that it shouldn’t work. It has two things going against it. First off, it’s bleak. There is very little humor here and what there is black as the depths of space and nearly as cold. The setting is harsh, grim future – a true dystopia. The tone is hard and unforgiving and it doesn’t let up, not even at the end.

The second strike against it is the subject matter. The basic plot is a publicized game. It seems to be the only game in this future U.S. One hundred teenage boys start walking from a point in Maine heading south. They can not stop, they can not drop below four miles per hour. If they do either, they are warned. After three warnings they are shot. The winner of the game is awarded a fabulous prize. All you have to do is survive.

That’s it. You start off with the main character and follow him all the way through The Long Walk until his end. There is nothing else going on, you don’t get to see anything outside of what the main character experiences, and so you don’t get much background as to why the game was created, how it is promoted and televised, and why anyone would want to participate in such a thing in the first place. You only know that it’s happening and that you are trapped with the main character as it happens.

The thing is, the book works very well. There are two key reasons for this. For me the most important element is the set up. If the first couple chapters don’t grab the reader then they are not going to stay with the book for the long haul. King creates an interesting character with Garraty Davis. He’s someone we can all relate to in a way. If you’ve ever been a teenager then you understand some of what Garraty is going though. You wanna seem smarter than you are. You feel invincible one level and very self conscious on another. You do things on impulse with much though for future consequences. You have something to prove but don’t know what it might be or who you want to prove it to. In a way he reminds me of some of the better drawn teen protagonists of Japanese animation or video games.

Most readers will understand Garraty and as King slowly feeds you more information about the game and what’s happening, your curiosity grows. Garraty obviously knows some things, but his mind isn’t focused on them, instead elements of the game and the dystopian future come out in conversation and internal monologue.

This is the second key to the book. There are elements that are hinted at from the beginning. Why is Garraty involved in the Long Walk? Who is “The Major” and why is he in charge of The Long Walk? Why do some of the boys act the way they do? Each of these points perks your interest and keeps you reading. Garraty finds some of these answers, the readers may have to glean others from Garraty’s reactions and dialogue. Some are never fully revealed. Then of course there are other questions that arise as the book unfolds.

King handles it all very well, and kept me reading even when I questioning the point of the book. It’s so grim and dower, and yet there was something going on at its core, a cold nugget of truth that seemed to elude me. The book made me think, and for most of us writers, if you can get your readers to interact with the book and think about after they’ve shut it – you’ve succeeded. I definitely recommend this for anyone in the mood for something a little different from King, and not afraid to take The Long Walk.

What did you think of “The Long Walk”? You think King is over-rated? Ever read a book that didn’t seem like it should work but because of the writer’s skill, it did?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Threads of the Story – Anansi Boys

I think I mentioned this when I did my blog about “Stardust”, but I really like Neil Gaiman’s concepts for his books. He obviously loves mythology about as much as I do, he seems fascinated with storytelling, and he had no problem mixing the surreal and the humorous together with fantasy and horror. All in all it should be the perfect mix. However all three of his previous novels, “Stardust”, “Neverwhere” and “American Gods” never quite clicked for me. In all three cases it was because of the protagonist. I never connected with the main character and instead kept wanting the book to be about the supporting cast (who were all amazingly colorful.

Well Gaiman bucked his trend in “Anansi Boys”. Not only does he create a leading character that pulled me in, but the entire story was a blast to read. Our hero is a typical sad sack character with the unfortunate name of Fat Charlie. The story starts with an explanation of why Fat Charlie is called Fat Charlie, even though he’s not fat.

The story goes like this, Fat Charlie was given the nickname by his father. We’re told that once his father gives anything a nick name – it sticks forever. So even though Charlie was a little pudgy kid that grew out of his husky state; he remained Fat Charlie to everyone he knew. This little story nugget establishes several key points right off the bat.

First off Fat Charlie didn’t get to pick his name, it was forced upon him. And pretty quickly we see that Fat Charlie has a lot of things in life forced on him. Sometimes he minds, sometimes he doesn’t, but there is nothing he can do about it. Life does things to Charlie and he reacts. And since life seems obsessed with giving him crap, Charlie’s always seems down on his luck or just surviving his existence.

Second we learn that Fat Charlie’s dad has no problem calling his son “fat”, and making sure that everyone else calls him “fat”. Right there you learn enough about the father to understand why Fat Charlie doesn’t like the man. But there is more to the story and it becomes apparent that Fat Charlie’s going to have to come to grips with his father.

The story continues along its merry way, introducing a mysterious sibling, a bit of magic involving spiders, and an ordinary lime that just might save the day. Because we like Charlie and feel bad for the guy (nothing seems to go his way no matter what he tries), the story carries you along, just waiting to see if Charlie is going to manage on the up side of things. Gaiman does a good job with the character and developing him over the course of the novel. Fat Charlie is not the same man at the end of the book, but after all his adventures – I’d be a little different too.

If asked what kind of book this was, I’d find it hard to place. It’s almost like a fantasy tale told in modern times. There is magic, there are gods meddling in human affairs, there’s lost siblings, lost loves and murderous corporate a-holes. You get a little bit of everything. But the book is always entertaining and has quite a few laughs in it. I especially liked the bit about the lime. I’ll never look at that little green citrus the same way again.

So all in all, “Anansi Boys” was a great read and one I’d definitely recommend. It’s my favorite of Gaiman’s novels, and a good place to start if you haven’t read any of his short fiction (which I also recommend). It’s good to see him finally create a protagonist I could connect with and one that I wanted to follow on his journey. Gaiman has never lacked for imagination and skill with creating worlds and supporting characters. This time the whole package is very satisfying.

Have you read “Anansi Boys”? What did you think of it? What did you think of Gaiman’s other work? Do you have a favorite “down on their luck” protagonist?

Monday, September 21, 2009

You can’t go home again – X-files: I Want to Believe

I have an odd relationship with the X-files. When it first started out on TV I resisted it’s siren song. A co-worker was a huge fan and she kept trying to get me to watch it, but the commercials I saw just didn’t pull me in. My wife (girlfriend at the time) watched it infrequently and enjoyed what she saw, but I still didn’t care to see it.

I actually saw about half of one episode, (early season 3 episode with a young man who can control electricity). Coming in halfway and not getting set up, the whole thing seemed silly. I wrote off the show. And then a about halfway into the same season I caught the episode “Pusher”. The story was simple, a man has the power to persuade others just about anything he wants to. It’s not mind control per se, but it was a tool he could use very effectively – even convincing someone to take their own life. He ends up facing down Mulder and the episode was very effective. It was tense, the acting was good and the script was solid. I was hooked and continued to watch the series and pick up the VHS episodes.

I watched up until the movie, “Fight the Future” came out. I was seriously pumped for the film and found it disappointing. I picked up the show when it came back the next season, but missed a few key episodes. When I was able to watch again, I was lost in regards to the overarching story. I stopped watching and never really got back into it.

Eventually I revisited the series on DVD and found it just as entertaining as I remember, but with some elements that were so 90’s it hurt. Most of it had to do with the general feeling of paranoia and grimness that seemed to permeate the episodes (helped in great measure by the Vancouver locations). While the 80’s always seemed to be colorful and loud, the 90’s were dark, dirty and aggressive. Something the “X-files” seemed very much in tune with. Seen out of that light, it comes across a bit trendy at times. The core stories and acting are still very good, but some of the trappings are less appealing.

So I was surprised that the long rumored second X-files film was green lighted. In most cases nostalgia takes about 20 years to kick in completely. This means that X-files still had a few years to go before it could really jump on that bandwagon. The problem is that the stars and crew aren’t getting any younger and I suppose the idea was to strike while everyone was still willing and around to do it (and not make it look too silly with senior citizens chasing down UFOs).

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a bad idea. The first X-files movie, while entertaining and part of the over-arching story never really captured my imagination (even on repeat viewings) as a solid film. It still felt like a television episode blown up for the big screen, but not quite measuring up. Star Trek had similar issues with it’s Next Generation films, especially “Generations” and “Insurrection”. The extra something needed to make them feel big screen worthy is missing.

I was afraid a second X-files film would fall into the same trap. And in a way it did. I know everyone was hoping for a success and possibly a string of movies with this being the genesis, but it ended up being something that disappointed the hardcore fans and didn’t generate enough interest for new comers. The plot does not revolve around some of the more sci-fi or monster elements. Instead it seems to be a simple serial killer investigation. Supernatural elements appear, but they don’t’ drive the case the way they would in the television series. It’s an interesting new direction, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like the X-files.

It’s been a few weeks since I saw the movie and I’ve had some time to think about it. What I think we ended up with was an epilogue of sorts. It was a summation of two people’s lives (and the acting is still solid with plenty of good moments for Mulder and Scully). They seem different from how I remember them (but I never saw the last few seasons), but it seems fitting in a way. They’ve evolved just as I have and this case brings up some pain for both of them. In a way it was interesting to see that dynamic work.

As I mentioned in my blog about the first season of the show, one of the reasons it works so well is that the characters of Mulder and Scully are well thought out and well matched. They create their own tension and support and to see it at work in a new story was the highlight of the film. But in the end I couldn’t help but feel that it was a bit hollow and a too late (or too early) to really capture what it needed to. There is a sadness to the film, but I think it also reflects on how I felt when it was over. Sometimes, you just can’t go back.

What did you think of the new X-files film? What did you think of the first film? Have you had the experience of a revisit to something you enjoyed in the past and were disappointed?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Story Evolution – Makers of Rome

I had a history teacher in college say something to the effect of, “Plutarch wrote a series of histories about famous Romans and Greeks. These are called ‘Plutarch’s Lives’. It might be better to call them ‘Plutarch’s Lies’.” It got a nerdy chuckle from most of us, and I never really delved into Plutarch after that.

After my adventures with Herodotus last year, I decided some more ancient histories could make a good read. I ran into Plutarch’s name quite a bit, and since I had recently finished watching the HBO series “Rome” it seemed like reading some of Plutarch’s Roman lives would fit the bill.

I settled on the penguin classics version called “Makers of Rome”. This covers nine lives spanning from the legendary (and possibly mythical) general Coriolanus up to Mark Antony, the infamous lover of Queen Cleopatra. I also got to read about Fabius Maximus, Marcellus, Cato the Elder, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaiu Gracchus, Sertorius, and Brutus. For those of you who could care less about all these guys with “us” at the end of there names – hold on, there is a point.

First thing, the introduction pointed out that Shakespeare used Plutarch’s lives to create three plays: The Tragedy of Coriolanus, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. Now I’d never heard of a play about Coriolanus, but like most people I had to read Julius Caesar back in high school. I remembered that the play was more about Brutus than Caesar, and reading the Life of Brutus makes it all fall into place.

The really interesting part comes with Mark Antony. The Penguin edition includes an Appendix all about this particular life. It not only points out all the changes that Plutarch made to the history, but also pointed out the changes that Shakespeare made on top of that.

Now, I should clear something up here. Plutarch never set out to write history. His goal in writing these lives was to create a biography of these famous people to prove a point. Most of the time these were ethical ideals that the famous figure would be measured against – sometimes acting as an ideal example, other times failing to make the grade. In either case, Plutarch would sometimes warp history to fit the needs of his biography. So really Plutarch should read, “Based on a true story.”

Shakespeare makes some dramatic changes as well. Most of this has to do with shortening the time in which the story takes place, but there are other historical differences. However, since he is basing his play on Plutarch’s version of events, his version of Antony comes across a bit different from the historical version of the man.

And this was the version of Mark Antony that appeared in HBO’s “Rome”. It was interesting to see how long the image of an impulsive and completely manipulated Antony has prevailed. Even Cleopatra fares on the poor side of things. She is usually shown as a woman who is driven by her base desires and impulses. These end up causing her and Antony misfortune. But modern historians find that Cleopatra was far from the impulsive woman she is usually portrayed as.

This all tells me that writers have been messing with history since the time of Plutarch (and even before if you take a look at Herodotus). It also tells me that the evolution of a story can take many forms, twisting and turning through time. Each new author adding their new take on the old tale. Does that make all us storyteller liars?

It reminds me of a Mystery Science Theater episode called, “I Accuse My Parents”. The movie revolves around a young man who lies about his parents to his friends and classmates. His parents are drunk good for nothings, but according to Jimmy, they are wonderful caregivers. Jimmy’s lies pile up and up and up. At one point in the movie one of the robots quips, “He’s a gifted storyteller”. And that actually got me thinking. Are all storytellers liars?

Have you read Plutarch? What did you think of his work? How about Shakespeare’s take on historical events? If you are a writer or storyteller, do you consider yourself a liar?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Art is staring you in the face – Pearls before Breakfast

The Best Non-required Reading for 2008 included all kinds of interesting bits of writing. It had non-fiction essays on whale hunters and Bill Clinton. It had excerpts from graphic novels. It included an interview with Judy Blume. Stephen King had a story in there. There was even a list of some very interesting Facebook groups.

But the one piece that I found the most interesting was called “Pearls before Breakfast”. It was about one of those social experiments you read about sometimes. You know the kind, where they have a crowd of people and one person acts like a madman and the scientists see how the crowd reacts. This was very similar but with a little twist.

World famous violin maestro, Joshua Bell took a priceless violin, went into a D.C. subway station, plunked down the open violin case with some seeding money and treated anybody who walked by to a free concert. Of course the area was infiltrated with reporters keeping their eyes on the crowd and watching reactions. Then they would catch up with anyone whose reaction was notable and interview them.

The piece contains a myriad of reactions from all kinds people: from commuters trying to catch a train, to a man who worked in a small bakery inside the station. The results weren’t too surprising. Very few people noticed that Bell was even playing. Only one person recognized him at all. And he didn’t make much money at all.

I urge you to seek out the whole article if you can, it’s a fascinating read and one that disturbs and fascinates me all at the same time. What I want to explore a bit here is the way we seem to have been able to ignore our surroundings.

Many of the people interviewed didn’t even notice Bell was there. The few that did remember seeing a guy with a violin don’t really remember if he was any good or not, they just remember a guy with a violin. The few people that did actually notice Bell and knew he was good had backgrounds in music.

So even if most of the people there were indifferent to classical music (not hard to believe. Most people I know care little for it), you would think they would be able to tell if someone of genius level skill was among them, right?

Maybe not, maybe people are so conditioned to ignore their surroundings and focus only on their immediate goals that they won’t notice if a genius is there standing next to them unleashing a huge amount of beauty into the air for all to enjoy. I believe it. People walk around with their music players on or their cell phones latched onto their ears. Maybe they are thumbing through their blackberry or iphone. Maybe they are just going over the upcoming challenges of the day. But it’s safe to say that few of these people even notice the changes in the world around them, unless they directly affect them.

I keep saying they, but I mean me too. I have my trusty ipod in my pocket as I do chores around the house or yard work. I listen to what is familiar, I watch what is familiar, hell I even eat what is familiar. It’s a big deal when I leave my little box, and I think most people fall into the same boat.

But this has been going on for decades. I read an article from the 80’s talking about the Japanese and their trains. The writer was an American, from the east coast. He is used to trains and buses, but he had never seen anything like what he encountered on the Japanese train. Few people spoke or looked at each other. Instead most had some kind of newspaper or comic book (manga). And many of the younger passengers had the then new walkmans. The writer was filled with wonder at the fact that these people could basically step aboard a train, and then seal themselves into their own world of music and manga and not even interact with anyone else. He thought that kind of behavior would be strange in the US

Jump forward a couple decades and now it’s normal. People look at you strangely if you try to have a conversation on a train or bus. Isolation into the familiar has become typical.

What does this have to do with storytelling? Well it tells us writers that it may not matter if we write the greatest book the world has ever known. If we can’t get anyone to read it, it will remain unknown. And even if you step into a crowd and start reading it, don’t expect anyone to listen. Most of us aren’t Joshua Bell.

But if the article did tell me anything it pointed out that beauty can be right in front of you. Maybe we all need to take some time to actually look around us and see what we may be missing. What does the world sound like without your music playing?

Did you read the article about Mr. Bell and his DC train station experiment? What did you think of it? Would you have noticed a genius playing the violin right next to you? Can people even recognize beauty anymore?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Third Time’s a Charm - Rusty Nail

I was in the mood for some light summer reading so I picked up J.A. Konrath’s third book in his Jack Daniels series. For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Konrath is an active blogger and offers plenty of tips for writers. So I’m always interested in looking at how he approaches his novels.

Now Jack Daniels is a thriller series about a police detective who gets mixed up in dangerous cases. Konrath mixes danger, comedy and drama pretty well in all three books, but I was specifically interested to see how he would tackle book three.

He took a bit of an unexpected tactic. He based this case off of the events that occurred in the first book. At first Jack thinks she’s dealing with a copy cat killer, especially since the case from the first book was very high profile. But as things go along, it becomes obvious to the reader (and eventually to Jack) that this is something new – but tied very closely to first book.

Now Konrath has stated that his books are meant to be picked up and enjoyed, no matter what order you find them. He calls them airport reading, and I can see that. They offer quick, fun escape reading, perfect if you need to put it down, but just catchy enough to keep you reading.

This makes the prospect of tying back to the first book dangerous. You end up having to sum up the first case so that new readers won’t be completely lost. But at the same time you have to keep the exposition down to a minimum, because momentum and thrills are very important to this genre.

Konrath’s solution makes good sense, he has Jack think about the older case, specifically in how it relates to the current one. He actually makes it tantalizing, give a new reader enough to be interested (and maybe pick up that first book). Jack goes back to the old evidence to see if there is anything that matches with the evidence on the new case. This little journey triggers memories for Jack and for any reader who may not have picked up “Whiskey Sour” in a while (I read that book about a year and half ago, so my memories weren’t too sharp either).

As Jack gets closer and closer to putting the pieces together, the more the past plays into the story, but Konrath never bogs things down. He manages to keep the balance going and the story chugs along to it’s crazed conclusion.

This gives book three a different tone compared to the previous two books. Obviously the first “Whiskey Sour” was the intro novel. The follow up “Bloody Mary” was much more intense and graphic. It also moved at a very high speed. This book slowed down the pace a bit more and focused more on piecing the puzzle together and delving into Jack’s character a bit more. The element of the past plays a key role in the story and gives it a theme all it’s own.

So Konrath kept the series fresh feeling, even if he did end up with a serial killer on the lose as the basic plot again. The twists were pretty good and the identity of the killer had me guessing for a good while, but this time I did figure it out a few chapters before Jack did. I’m interested to see where he goes in book four. Will he keep the serial killer, or will Jack face a new type of danger? All in all, I found “Rusty Nail” to be a good read and an interesting study in keeping a series fresh.

Have you read “Rusty Nail”? What did you think of it? Do you have a favorite 3rd book or movie in a series? How did the writer keep the book feeling fresh and different?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Back into Hell – The Descent

You can’t get away from the underworld. No matter how old the story is, or how new fangled the tale proposes to be: there is always a moment where the main character must descend into the dark heart of the world and face the most brutal of fears.

Not too long ago I did a blog about “The Writer’s Journey” a book that explained how to use and understand the mythic hero’s quest style of storytelling. The journey into the underworld is a key moment in that mythic structure, and you see it in many forms in stories.

Sometimes it’s obvious, like in the Greek myth of Orpheus. The famous poet literally go into Hades to find his dead love and bring her back to the world of the living. He faces many trials and tests and completes most of them. But it is the final test, what should be the simplest, that ends up betraying Orpheus and causes him to turn from a hero into a tragic character. Find a good book of Greek myths and give the tale a re-read, it’s actually a great example of Underworld mythology.

Want something a bit more recent and less B.C. How about the most recent Star Trek film? The finale of the film takes place aboard the dark and dangerous Romulan space ship. Kirk and Spock must sneak inside, wander around in the darkness, face the king of the underworld (Nero in this case) and rescue the captured companion (Captain Pike). It’s the last major test for the heroes, one that ends up changing all of them and pushing them to their limits.

Well enough of those examples, let’s take a look at the book I read, Jeff Long’s “The Descent”. The title itself is a bit of a give away, but the bulk of the story is a journey into the underworld. The premise is simple, hell does exist and it is revealed to be a huge network of underground caverns that houses a civilization of beings that aren’t quite human, but seem to be a splinter of homo sapien.

Soon, “hell” is invaded by countries, armies and corporations. They do their best to eradicate the “demons” below but things might not be as easy as that. The main story follows an expedition that is sent into hell. It is comprised of scientists and a mercenary band for protection from the “demons”. At first the journey seems to be simple, straightforward exploration of a new frontier (very “Journey to the Center of the Earth”). But it becomes apparent that there are different loyalties among the group and that an operative among them might have a very different goal. Following along with this main story is a side story about a group of scholars and their search for Satan. They figure that since hell turned out to be a real place, that Satan must be real too, or at least based in historical fact. This search provides some clues that end up affecting the readers perception of what the explorers are experiencing.

So very literally Jeff Long has created an underworld and based his whole novel on the search and exploration of this world. The explorers initial journey into hell is actually one of the best parts of the book. It seems to be a simple matter of taking a colossal elevator/train to the bottom of the sea and then traveling in the underground corridors to the frontier settlements. But Long does a good job of allowing the reader to follow along with Ali, a nun who specializes in languages. Her journey from the upper world, the only one she’s known, down into the darkness of hell is actually the crux of the story. By giving you Ali’s perspective the reader feels the weight of the journey. As she travels deeper into the earth, the more the reader feels her wonder and her horror at the discoveries.

Of course no one can journey into the underworld and not change. Ali is an interesting character because as a nun she has seen horrors. She worked with the poor in Africa, and saw the toll that war and famine could take on humans. What she sees in hell is a new type of basic and elemental drive – something primal and almost bestial. It challenges what she felt she understood. This includes not only her teachings as a nun, but also what she felt was the basics of humanity. At the end of the story Ali is a very different person.

Ali is only one of several characters who makes the descent and each of them is changed in different ways. The book is interesting in its take on the underworld, and is worth reading for these elements (as a whole the book was good, but something was missing to make it a real knock out). It was interesting to see what Long did with his concept of making the underworld a real place.

What are your favorite stories the feature a plunge into “The Underworld”? Have you read “The Descent” or any of its follow up novels? Do you think the use of “the underworld” is a valid storytelling technique or is it too cliché?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Vampires Bite – Dracula

Over at one of my favorite DVD review sites (DVD Verdict), there is a particular reviewer who enjoys horror films. He gets to review quite a few, but lately he’s been lamenting the sad vampire flicks he’s had to watch.

Over at Reelviews, one of my favorite movie reviewers did a whole blog about the pathetic state of vampire films and how the mighty Dracula has fallen.

I even ran into a coworker who was disgusted with vampire movies, manga and anime. He recommended a good anime series where vampires “actually acted like creatures from hell”.

It seems like there is some kind of problem with the current state of vampires in fiction. Some of it comes from over-exposure. As the reviewer at DVD Verdict is quick to point out, nearly one out of every five horror films he ends up reviewing is a vampire flick (of course 3 out of the five end up being zombie flicks, but that can be another blog). You see enough of these movies and after a while they all end up feeling the same.

Then there is the whole Anne Rice issue. She took vampires and turned them into tortured souls who yearn for something greater than what they are. She fused Romance novel sensibilities into a gothic horror and created a genre unto itself: and it’s successful. I know lots of people who enjoy Rice’s work and the work of others who have fallen in line with her creation (the Twilight books being the most recent reincarnation).

Hell, I admit that one of my favorite shows, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” had it’s share of romantic vampires, but there was a good balance of real monsters and vampires that would sooner tear your throat out before they even start spouting philosophy. So I think you can say that Buffy at least covered all it’s bases.

At its core, the vampire myth is a horror cornerstone. You have a creature that appears to be human and yet it must drain the life out of a living human to survive. This fuses the vampire into a strange beast/human hybrid, one that must kill to survive. Keep in mind, this is a basic description and you can apply it to monsters that aren’t strictly vampires (at least in the standard gothic book of monsters). You can have something like the Wendigo that drains the soul of a human, leaving on a shell behind. Or something like the salt drainer from the Original series of Star Trek.

The element that makes the vampire appealing is that fusion of beast and human. It’s easy to see how this mix can be turned into something romantic or erotic. You have a human that must kill to live, and yet it’s so human-like, it could be appealing. The lure of danger is strong.

Did the most famous of vampires, Dracula, have this uncanny draw for women? Unfortunately I don’t have the book handy. As far as I remember, it’s never specifically stated. Dracula is deadly, hungry and clever. He bides his time, manipulating others and sneaking around. Sure he ends up claiming poor Lucy, and turning her into a creature of the night, but as far as I recall, he never gets romantic with her. It’s more the horror of draining her slowly and then killing her off.

When Coppola made his version of the story in 1992, he strove to keep the story close the original book, and succeeded in parts. But in the end, even he injected more romance into the story, creating a Beauty and the Beast version of the tale. I actually enjoy the movie a great deal (wonderful visuals, an awesome score and arresting sound effects), I just wish the casting had been a bit better. I actually would love to see the film as a silent movie, with title cards or subtitles instead of the spoken dialogue and the rich score guiding the story.

Back to the issue at hand - do people want actual fictional vampires to be scary any more? Has the vampire gone from being a monster and been transformed into a bad boy/girl with severe anemia? Or is there another answer. Has the vampire just become a very versatile character – one that can be used in a variety of situations and appeal to a variety of audiences?

Either way, I find it difficult to even think of writing a story including a vampire character. Is there anything that hasn’t been done with the bloodsucker? And if not, does it even matter?

What do you think of vampires in current fiction? Have you seen a resent vampire story that didn’t feel like the same old story? Why do you think people are drawn to this creature?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Ticket to the Future is Always Open – Trigun

In the final part of my three-part Cowboy/Space Opera anime examination, I’m taking a look at the series “Trigun”. Back when this show first came out (and had regular rotation on Cartoon Network’s “Toonami” block), it was a popular series. Remembering the animation cons I attended back in the day always bring back memories of several folks dressed as characters from the series: especially Vash the Stampede.

Now Vash makes a pretty big impression on anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Trigun. He’s a tall man, with spiky blonde hair, a bright red long coat, yellow sunglasses and a really huge revolver. He’s a striking figure when you first see him in the opening credits, standing in the desert with the blazing suns overhead. The opening credits go out of their way to show you just how cool Vash really is (especially with the hard edged electric guitar wailing away in the background).

But if you spend any amount of time with the man, you begin to notice things. First off, he’s a complete and total goofball. In the series, Vash never looks serious for very long. Give him a few minutes and he’ll warp his face into some stupid or grotesque way, courtesy of the Japanese technique of super-deformation. His voice actor has to be able to deliver deadly serious threats one second and completely lame jokes, or insane screaming the next.

In the first five episodes, it’s very difficult to get a grasp on the character of Vash the Stampede. You find out early on that he is responsible for destroying a town and killing everyone in it. He’s got a huge reward on his head for the destruction he’s caused. People fear him or are hunting him down for the cash reward. He’s supposed to be an expert marksman, and one that would rather kill you than look at you. He’s a complete and total Wild West bad ass.

When you finally meet him, he’s a coward. He runs away from just about every fight he get’s involved in. He doesn’t draw his gun for about three episodes and never fires it till episode five. He hits on anything thing remotely female. He makes horrible puns and jokes. His mantra is “Love and Peace” flashing the “V” for victory hand signal. In short - he’s a total freak.

I know a few people who dislike the show because of these early episodes, but they are essential to the character of Vash the Stampede. Looking back on the show it’s very clear that the entire story is motivated and revolves around Vash. He is the backbone of the tale and if the audience doesn’t like him or doesn’t connect with him, then they usually end up disliking the series.

There is a very interesting element introduced in the first episode. Vash the Stampede will not kill someone and will allow anyone around him to be killed. He will go out of his way, including putting himself in very real danger to make sure no one is killed. This includes his enemies. This makes Vash an interesting paradox. After all his is responsible for decimating an entire town, down to the last child.

As the series continues more and more strands are revealed. When someone does end up dead around him (be they friend or foe), Vash takes it very hard, often blaming himself for being unable to help or save the person. He rarely shoots anyone with his gun. Instead he will shoot near them to startle them, or shoot an object nearby to create a diversion. He can take a huge amount of punishment, more than a normal character in the series can take. You begin to suspect that Vash may not be entirely human and further evidence presents secrets to his past.

The first half of the series is constructed to create a very balanced picture of Vash the Stampede and the world he inhabits. Most of the adventures in this half seem like one off stories. You could probably watch them in any order and not be too lost. Some introduce key supporting characters like Nicholas Wolfwood or Millie and Meryl (the Insurance Girls), but mostly we learn about our protagonist. Then around the halfway point, we meet a man who claims to be part of a deadly group of assassins called The Gung-ho Guns.

Once these folks appear things take a turn for the dark. The world Vash inhabits is a brutal place of deserts, blazing suns, little water and advanced technology without the knowledge of how to use it. The people he encounters are struggling to survive on the hostile planet and death is very real. Many times the people seem too eager to mete out death and punishment and Vash does his best to curb these instincts; but they are ingrained in the world and the story. Once the second half kicks in, these elements continue to increase.

The result not only allows us to know and understand Vash better, but to see him sorely tested. With each passing episode Vash fights against the things that would keep the world from being peaceful. It seems to be losing battle.

The finale is a brutal and cold piece of work. Vash faces the antithesis of everything he believes, and it is forcing his hand to do what he can not do – willingly take a life.

For my vote, “Trigun” is the best of the these three series. Vash is one of the most memorable and interesting characters I’ve run into in an anime series. His character is fully fleshed out and the series builds with each episode. At the end, his character is tested, his beliefs are challenged and he begins to question his values. This conflict brings the drama home, and we understand that the battle within Vash is a battle we may all share.

Have you seen “Trigun”? What did you think of the series? What is one of your favorite book, movie or television examples where a character drives the action and conflict of a story. Why did this work so well?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Catch ya later Space Cowboy – Cowboy Bebop

Wow, these anime blogs are playing rough with me. I’ve had to rewrite the first two I started and I couldn’t find a way to make the third one click (still working on it at this time). For some reason, I keep getting off track with these. Probably because I reviewed anime for so long, that most of these blogs start out about storytelling and turn into mini reviews. So, if this comes off a little rough, then it’s because I had to rework it on the day I published it (something I don’t like to do).

Looking at story structure “Cowboy Bebop” is set up like a situational comedy. This is odd because when you look up Bebop, most people list it as a sci-fi action show with some funny moments. In truth, that’s how I’d categorize it. But examining the structure reveals something interesting.

“Outlaw Star” and “Trigun” both are linear stories with a definite chronology to them. If you start either of them part way through, you’ll end up confused (especially the case with “Outlaw Star”). Cowboy Bebop is pretty much nothing but stand alone episodes. This means you can just catch any episode of “Cowboy Bebop” and enjoy it.

One of the keys to this are the characters. Much like the crew of “Outlaw Star”, Bebop features a set of stock characters. By looking at them and listening to a few lines you know right away who you’re dealing with. Spike is the super cool, devil may care protagonist. He never breaks a sweat, always has a retort ready and is naturally able to get out of any situation with a well-placed shot or karate chop. Jett is the older, world-weary partner. He’s more responsible and less rash than his friend and will be there to bail him out if things get too sticky. Faye Valentine is the smoking hot gambling babe, who smokes cigars, has no problem using heavy weapons and seems to attract her share of trouble. Ed is the kid computer genius who acts several years younger than she is (yes Ed is a girl) and whose eccentricities usually say more than they first appear. Instead of a cat girl, we’ve got a data dog named Ein. This little Corgi is super intelligent but still a dog at heart. He doesn’t talk, but he doesn’t have to. The animation is so good you know just what Ein is thinking at any given time. And yes Ed and Ein are best friends.

Basically the writers toss our crew into various situations and let the action roll. Most of the time the story has something to do with a specific character – Spike’s past with gangsters, Jett’s past as a cop, Faye’s lack of a past, Ed’s hacking skills, or story behind Ein’s super intelligence. What is interesting is that no matter what happens to the characters in any given episode, they are no different in the next episode.

One of my favorite episodes deals with Jett. He ends up saving the daughter of his old cop partner. The girl is attractive and very appreciative of his deed. Jett is obviously attracted to her, but she see’s him as a father figure. You can tell it frustrates him, and he make some comment to Spike that’s he just too old to play the hero – because he can’t get the girls any more. Spike has a wry comment, but you can see that Jett is actually feeling his age in this episode. You’d expect this to have some kind of pay off in the later episodes… but it doesn’t. Jett just defaults back to his old self in the next episode.

This actually annoyed the hell out of me when I first saw the series. But watching it again, I realized that this was more akin to sit-coms. To keep the comedy interesting, the characters can’t change. The situations change all they want, but the audience expects the characters to act a certain way, that’s what makes it funny.

That’s what Bebop is going for. It’s not a dramatic series, even though it has a definite film noir look to it and the amazing animation does a great job of mixing sci-fi, the old west and 60’s spy movies together. Bebop is just a good time, with some super cool characters and some entertaining adventures. Sure Spike does have a bit of a change in the last few episodes (and the center entirely on him), but that’s as deep as the story gets.

Why construct the series this way? Bebop has some serious creative talent in it. The animation is probably the best of the 90’s generation of anime. The music is amazing (a mix of jazz, blues, and 60’s John Barry inspired scoring). The voice talents are top notch. The production design is creative and visually interesting. Add to it that fact that is just captures “cool” in a way I’ve never really seen in animation since. That is a lot of good stuff in it – but it seems all surface. The writing, the place where depth could be added, is really straightforward. The best thing about the writing are the wry comments from Spike and Ed’s funny twisty dialogue.

I always feel like Bebop is a missed opportunity. It could have been something seriously special, but it ends up being fun and entertaining. For “Outlaw Star” I accept it, because that’s all the series seemed to be shooting for. “Bebop” with is huge talent behind it seemed to want to be something more and never quite reached it. Or maybe I’m the stick in the mud expecting more from something that just wanted to show the audience a good time.

With that said, I think the series could have really knocked it out of the park with a story line that developed over the 28 episodes. It didn’t have to be depressing or deep, but it could have given us characters that changed in a way that pulled us into their world more. I think that’s what I miss in this series. It’s fun to watch the characters, but I never get pulled in, because they are always reset at the start of the next episode.

In a way it even gives the characters immunity because you know they all have to be around for the next adventure. This is contrary to “Outlaw Star” which killed off a character who I was certain would be a main character about four episodes in (and thus made the space pirates a real threat), but also kept the thrill level higher, because you were never sure what dangers they would encounter.

Bebop never has those thrilling moments, except for the ending three episode arc, where you know something can go down, because the series has to end. It’s amazing how good those episodes play because the noir look has a real threat behind it. Spikes gangster past really seems to be dangerous for once and those episodes turn out t be some of the best.

But let me state for the record that I’m in the minority on this one. Lots of people love this show and think it’s one of the high points of all Japanese animation (or at the least the best series of the 90’s). I see lots of raves of the storytelling and even the characterization (which always seems to be reading more into the series than there is on the surface). The series clicked for just about everyone. But I find it to be very pretty, and nice to spend some time with, but not something I return to or even think about too often afterward.

Have you seen “Cowboy Bebop”? What did you think of it? Can you make a story with serious impact and not have the characters change or develop over time (28 episodes in this case)? Do you have a good story about style over substance writing or movies?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

You better get ready - Outlaw Star

Trends are weird things. In the late 90’s Japanese animation jumped on a trend that seems a bit odd. Three different shows were made that combined traditional American Westerns and sci-fi trappings. One of these shows, “Cowboy Bebop” is still considered one of the best animated televisions series out of Japan. The other two, “Outlaw Star” and “Trigun” enjoyed success, especially in the US when they were released and still have a pretty solid fan base now.

I decided to take a look at all three series, and see what made them work, or didn’t work. The first one is one is probably the least known, “Outlaw Star.

In most ways Outlaw Star is the most traditional of the three series. It is a straight forward space opera, with bizarre aliens, strange worlds and adventures around every corner. The basic plot is a treasure hunt, with our heroes racing against a group of pirates to seize the Galactic Leyline.

For me the focus of “Outlaw Star” was the adventure. You get pulled into the plot and tune in to see what happens next. Most of the time, the show’s writers did a good job coming up with engaging clues to the next stage of the hunt, or throwing in a particularly dangerous obstacle. The fun was in seeing what the crew would do next.

When it comes to the crew, “Outlaw Star” plays it safe. You get a solid set of character tropes that you’ve seen in just about any adventure story (animated or not). The lead is Gene Starwind (I guessing it sound a lot like Luke Skywalker on purpose). He’s the hotheaded, cocky leader. He acts tough but he’s got a heart of gold. Then you’ve got the kid brother character, Jim, who’s young but has a real mind for strategy and mechanics. There’s the resident robot-girl character, named Melfina. This type of character turns up a lot in any sci-fi anime series. Typically she’s soft spoken, wonders why she was made and has a mysterious past. There’s the deadly assassin, Suzuka, who was sent to kill Gene early in the series but ends up being part of the crew. She doesn’t talk much, but her sword is nearly unstoppable. Finally there is the cat-girl (another anime favorite), Aisha. She’s spazzy, super strong and is often guided by her instincts. While this can lead to problems, more often it ends up saving one of the crew members.

What’s great about using characters that are familiar, is that you don’t have to flesh them out too much. In the first few minutes, just from their appearance and dialogue, you know what kind of character you’re dealing with. This allows “Outlaw Star” to throw much of it’s early episodes into getting the story started with a bang. For me, those first few episodes are some of the best, with space pirates after Gene, Jim and Melfina, and a new twist at the end of each episode. It all leads to the trio stealing the experimental ship, the Outlaw Star and getting their first solid clue to the Galactic Leyline.

Of course the unfortunate side effect of shallow characters is that the only way to keep things interesting is based more on the plot. The writers have to keep throwing in twists and turns, because you can’t really spend time developing the characters. In fact Gene and Melfina are the only ones that change in the story. By the end Gene is basically the same guy, but now he’s more experienced and little less rash. Melfina knows why she was made and has come to grips with being synthetic (not really a robot per se, but “not of woman born” either).

This leads to some hiccups along the way. There are a few episodes in the middle of the show that just don’t work. Most of these have nothing to do with the search for the treasure, or dodging the pirates. To keep the ship going, Gene needs money, so he ends up taking on some jobs along the way. These are usually the types of jobs that no one else will do, like hunting a sewer monster. Or maybe it’s a contest where the prize is a bunch of cash, like the intergalactic race episode.

These feel added on or slow because there is no danger. We know that Gene and the crew won’t get killed by some sewer monster before the end of the story. If someone does get killed it will be during the quest and by one of the major villains. That’s just the way it is in adventure stories. So these detours don’t work too well. There are a few exceptions. The space race is a solid episode, which keeps things fast and fun. Again you know that Gene can’t get killed on the way, but it doesn’t mean he’ll win either. The other one is played for laughs where Gene enters a woman’s wrestling match to win easy money. Of course it goes horribly wrong.

The other issue is build up. As the story goes along for 28 episodes: each clue is picked up, pirates are encountered and defeated, some characters are injured, captured or worse, and it all comes down to the final treasure. The longer this goes on, the more people talk up the treasure and the more people that end up after it (and doing vicious things to get it), you start to have expectations of what the Leyline is. This build up can end up killing your ending, because if the treasure doesn’t measure up with what you’ve been selling, well the audience is going to feel let down. This is the case with the Galactic Leyline. When you get to the end you just look at the screen and say, “That’s it?” It was a bit better with the second viewing, because I found myself just enjoying the ride. However I ended up disappointed with the ending.

“Outlaw Star” is a good example of how to do an adventure story right. The use of stock characters gets the plot moving right off the bat. All the good episodes threw in a curve or obstacle that kept you guessing if the heroes would make it to the end. The show never took itself deadly serious, and injected plenty of humor and fun. It’s not my favorite of the three shows I’m going to look at, but it was the most fun.

Have you seen “Outlaw Star”? What did you think of it? What is your favorite adventure story? Did it use stock characters, or did it manage to use well rounded characters? Is momentum key in making a good adventure story?