After 3 weeks of non-stop editing, I finally had a break this weekend. And it was awesome.
I saw three movies, thanks to moviepass, in anticipation of the Oscars. In my opinion, The Shape of Water is a grossly overhyped, boring movie, but I, Tonya and The Post were amazing. I doubt either one of them will win anything. My hope is Get Out will get Best Picture and Best Director, though I wouldn't bet money on it.
I also had some errands to run, and while I was out and about I stopped by the mall and tried on some high-waisted jeans. I've been resisting this trend for a few years now, because I suspected they would make me look fat...and I was right. On me, they are possibly the least flattering thing I've ever seen. Actually, it was kind of nice to confirm that since it means I won't have to waste any money attempting to be on trend.
Now if only the jeans I already own actually fit...The current pair I'm wearing most days has several holes in the crotch. Because I'm classy that way :)
Sorry for the blogging break. It's been a busy few weeks. Good for my bank account, not so good for the blog. But let's jump back into it with a quick run down of a few things I've been enjoying lately.
First, I saw The Last Jedi on Friday and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a little long, and some plot elements dragged (too many storylines), but the scenes with Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren/Ben blew me away. They just absolutely shine in this movie and I only wish more screen-time had been devoted to their characters. I'm probably going to see The Last Jedi again just so I can watch more of Mark Hammill. Maybe it's all the voice acting he's done in the last thirty years, but he's become a damn good actor and it wouldn't surprise me if he had a bit of a career renaissance after this movie. Anyway, that's all I want to say because I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but go see Star Wars if you haven't already. It's a solid movie with some excellent scenes.
Next up, Alias Grace (the polar opposite of Star Wars). This Netflix miniseries is based on the novel by Margaret Atwood (author of The Handmaid's Tale), about a maid in 19th century Canada who is accused of murdering her employers. The story's told by the maid, Grace (played by the incredible Sarah Gadon), to a psychiatrist while she's serving a life sentence. What we don't know is whether she's telling the truth, lying, or is simply insane. The acting and cinematography completely sucked me into the story and I more or less binge-watched all six episodes. Now I may even have to read the book. It's hard to say exactly what makes it so compelling, because it's a fairly simple plot. A combination of excellent storytelling and acting, I guess. Some of my favorite books and movies are structured around a character telling a story to another character, so that's something to think about...
Anyway, that's two movie/TV show recommendations for you that could not be more different, but both excellent in their own ways.
In terms of reading, the best books I've read lately were Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng and Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, both recommendations by my friend who leads our book club. Winesburg Ohio is a series of interconnected vignettes that explore the darkness of small town America and the people who live there. Apple pie Americana this is not. If you want to learn how to write and build characters, and how to use details to surprise and unsettle the reader, then Winesburg Ohio is your book.
Everything I Never Told You is also a character driven novel as well as a thriller about a family grappling with the death of their favorite daughter. As they seek to find out why she died, we see how deferred dreams and wishes have affected the parents and their children, and what it's like to be Asian American and a biracial family in a predominately white community. I really felt something for each character in this book, which speaks to Ng's skill as a writer. My only criticism is that the ending wraps up a little too quickly and neatly, but I think that has more to do with the failings of the thriller genre than anything else. I speed-read this book, so if you're looking for a compelling, well-written novel, Everything I Never Told You would be a great choice.
Well that's it for today. See you again next week and Happy Holidays!
Not a lot of time to blog today, so I'll just say this:
Go see Get Out as soon as you can.
It begins wide release on February 24, but I was able to see it a little early at an advanced screening in Chapel Hill last night...and it was amazing, easily in my top 5 (3? Maybe number 1?) scariest movies of all time. Just a very tightly written movie. Extremely well made. Super creative. And I'm not even a fan of the horror genre, but I was completely absorbed in the story the whole time.
Systemic racism as a horror trope is not just a brilliant idea, it's fucking on point. Everyone in the theater was so freaked out that this collective hysteria kind of swept over us. There was screaming, laughing, cheering - I can't describe how involved everyone was in this movie.
Also, in the current political climate, I really am trying to get outside of my echo chamber as much as possible since I think that's at the route cause of a lot of the issues the country is dealing with today (that and not bothering to just shut up and listen). I'd never heard of Jordan Peele before, who wrote and directed this movie, so I'm really appreciative of my friends who introduced me to his work by giving me their extra ticket. I'll be checking out his show for sure.
Get Out - 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Go see it. Totally worth the price of admission.
Confession: I am a sucker for a good couple to ship.
I am such a shipper, it's embarrassing. A lot of my favorite comic books, tv-shows, movies, etc. were more or less based on the fact that I shipped some obscure fictional couple. Let's list them, shall we? In approximate chronological order:
Batman and Catwoman (From the old Adam West series.) It's the earliest memory I have of wishing two characters would get together. I spent a lot of summers at my Grandparents' house watching old reruns of this show, hoping each episode would feature Catwoman (or Batgirl, who was equally awesome and had the sweet motorcycle).
Batman and Catwoman (Batman Returns). I was pretty young, but I still shipped them. No doubt the cartoonishness appealed to me.
Batman and Catwoman (From Batman the Animated Series - sensing a theme!) Ok enough, yes Batman is pretty hot, and when you add him to the equally hot Catwoman, it's pretty fucking awesome.
Gambit and Rogue (X-men) So doomed! So frustrating! Technically, I got into this pairing like most 90's kid did - through the animated series, but I thought this comic book illustration was en pointe. Rogue by herself was awesome (I want her powers), Gambit had an undeniable sex appeal, and then when you threw these two southerners together and added some reluctance on Rogue's part (cause, you know, she might kill him), it was pretty hot.
Conan and Jezmine (Conan the Adventurer) What can I say? Jezmine got to throw ninja stars. Who wouldn't love her? Conan was alright. This was shipping for lack of many other options (there were like, four characters in this show - tops).
Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood (Raiders of the Lost Ark!) There was no one more attractive than Harrison Ford in his prime. Plus, Marion was a bad ass, AND she got to wear a pretty white dress too. Talk about my ideal fictional avatar.
If we're going to talk Harrison Ford, then we have to mention Han Solo. I came around to Luke Skywalker later in life, but when I was a kid, Han and Leia were my jam (Star Wars).
Mulder and Scully (The X-Files) I was introduced to this show fairly late by the first movie, which has some pretty heavy shipping themes. Ironically, I think it was actually the X-Files where the term "shipper" comes from. That show had one of the earliest internet fan-bases, and those who hoped for a Mulder/Scully pairing were termed "relationshippers," or just "shippers" for short. The more you know.
Krycek and Marita (The X-Files). Cause I grew up and realized that it was more fun to be a bad guy. There was really not enough information on these characters, but I found that to be part of the appeal. You could make up some pretty epic fanfiction between those two, and set it in Russia!
There may have been others, but these were the couples I shipped the hardest, while other characters may have had fleeting, but unstained appeal. (Robin and Batgirl, for instance. I need more interaction!)
Then it kind of falls off for me. I don't know, maybe I grew up, and it got harder to care about the love lives of fictional characters. Or maybe there haven't been many good new ones in a long time. Most of the TV I see these days is strangely heartless, even cold. Everyone says we're in the "golden age" of television, but it's all so serious. I'm dying for a good romp with a decent couple that just refuses to get together.
Finally, if we're going to discuss shipping, then I feel obligated to mention Harry Potter, but personally, I never understood all the Harry Potter pairings. To me, those characters seem almost asexual, so I have no idea where the appeal of a Harry/Malfoy, Hermione/Snape, or Lupin/Tonks coupling comes from. But then again, I'm sure there are plenty of kids out there who wouldn't understand my love for Batman or Krycek. It's generational, I'm sure.
Who do you ship?
Have you seen Stranger Things yet?
If you haven't, maybe you should click over to Netflix and get started on that. I'll wait.
Stranger Things is a Netflix original series, which is like a cross between classic Spielberg movies (e.g., E.T., Goonies, and Poltergeist), Resident Evil, and a dash of Stephen King (who also recommends it). It's the tv show/movie I've been wishing someone would make for the last 15 years.
It's set in the eighties and totally nails that vibe. Do you remember flying around on your bike, feeling like you were the king of your neighborhood? This show is basically built on that premise.
Mind you, It's not perfect, and if I had one criticism it's that it sometimes strayed from homage to outright ripoff, but it's not a huge issue and I wasn't put off by it. There's a fine line between acknowledging your influences and plagiarizing, and I think Stranger Things pulled it off.
So if you like sci-fi, and you enjoy old Spielberg movies, seriously, do yourself a favor and get started on Stranger Things.
I've been struggling to finish my latest Aubrey/Maturin book (it's been a total slog) and Stranger Things was such a good reminder that I should pick up a fun sci-fi novel next. I deserve it.
Happy Thursday kids! Or as my spin-instructor used to say, “Happy tiny Friday!”*
I actually wrote a blog post a few days ago, but by the time I got around to posting it, the moment had passed, and I scrapped the whole thing. It was just a lot of hemming and hawing about whether or not I should take a job that someone offered me out of the blue, and spoiler alert, in the end I decided not to take it. Mostly because it didn't seem like a great fit for my interests and because I didn’t want to abandon my editing business after spending so much time and energy to get it off the ground.
But I guess this was the week of job offers, because then a former employer of mine reached out and asked if I was interested in a part-time appointment to edit papers and proposals for his group. Now that was something I was definitely interested in, since it relieves a lot of the pressure from me that it takes to attract and develop relationships with new clients. We debated salary, I emailed him a number, and then he doubled it.** Not bad! We’re not talking Trump dollars here, but I’m pleased. A small, but steady-income to supplement my freelance work will make a big difference.
In non-work related news, I saw an awesome new movie in theaters this past weekend. Seriously, check out your nearest independent movie house and see if they’re playing Hunt for the Wilderpeople (100% on Rotten Tomatoes!). It was light-hearted, funny, likable, etc. It’s the first movie I’ve seen in a long time where I really enjoyed myself and didn't feel scammed out of the price of a ticket.*** Really nice chemistry between the two main characters, including Sam Neill (Dr. Grant!), as a crotchety New Zealand bushman, and his foster son, a Maori city kid played by Julian Dennison. Loved the director’s cameo as a local priest, too (see above). And you can’t beat that New Zealand landscape. My only critique of the movie was that it was maybe 20 minutes too long, and very occasionally got a little too close to saccharine for comfort, but overall it wasn’t a problem. I so enjoyed the movie that I checked out the book that it’s based on, Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump. It’s a cute little story, with a great narrative voice. It’s funny, I’ve often found that short, simple books like this one make good movies. Winter’s Bone comes to mine as another great novella that adapted well to cinema.****
The other big news in our house is that we broke down and bought one of those Roomba style robot vacuum cleaners (not a Roomba though, the cheaper knock-off model). I was against it, I hate wasting money on gadgets (I’ve got a juice-maker, a Mia Clairsonic, and Wii gathering dust in my closet), but my husband couldn’t take the animal hair and grit anymore and didn’t like my suggestion to just wear slippers.***** Anyway, it arrived yesterday, and so far I’m pleasantly surprised. It actually seems to work, and does so with a kind of cheerful efficiency. It was humming away all morning and each time I thought about docking it to give it a little rest, it just looked like it was having so much fun that I didn’t have the heart.
Aren't its whiskers cute? (That's the first video I've ever uploaded to YouTube. It's a brave new world!******)
And since this post turned into something of a jumble of updates and recommendations, I’m also going to suggest you check out two articles published in the New Yorker this week. They’re both pretty amazing:
Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tell’s All by Jane Mayer.
Illuminating and frightening to say the least. Best quote: “If he were writing “The Art of the Deal” today, Schwartz said, it would be a very different book with a very different title. Asked what he would call it, he answered, ‘The Sociopath.’”
The Libertarian’s Secret Weapon by Ryan Lizza
A great profile and explanation of the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, whose name you may have heard tossed around as a kind of alternate to Trump for Republican voters. I’m firmly a Democrat, but this Johnson guy sounds far more reasonable and sane than Trump. I have no problem with people who have a different ideology from me (the appropriate role of the federal government for instance). I do have a problem when a narcissistic lunatic is making a serious bid for running the country, who lacks any kind of belief other than his own superiority.
In other news, I’ve been writing a lot more these past two weeks. If I haven’t yet gotten back into the habit of a daily writing routine, I’ve at least been powering out three to four thousand words at a time. I’m cool with that.
Almost the weekend! Hope you have something fun planned.*******
*Let’s make “tiny Friday” a thing.
**This makes me wonder why I continue to undervalue my own work. I seriously thought the salary I had quoted him was too much. I asked my husband why he thinks that women like myself tend to do this. His answer? “Because you’re afraid of confrontation.” Sounds about right.
***Unlike The Revenant…I don’t care how difficult it was to make. If I don’t give a shit about the characters, your movie was no good.
****Featuring Jennifer Lawrence, no less, before she was famous.
*****Pro-tip: If you wear slippers in the house, you can’t feel how dirty the floor is.
******And now I know to rotate the phone sideways if I want to share a video…
*******Can I suggest you go see Hunt for the Wilderpeople?
I love Batman. Loved him ever since I saw Batman (1989) when I was probably 3 or 4 years old. When Batman Returns came out, my mom took my brother and I to see it in theaters, even though I was only in kindergarten and my brother must have been in pre-school. I remember the theater being almost completely empty, so no doubt we went to the first matinee, which was typical for my family.
In retrospect, I'm a little shocked that my mom did that, though I'm also so thankful she did. I loved that movie, especially Michelle Pfieffer's rendition of Catwoman and Tim Burton's costume/set designs. But let's be honest, it's a dark movie. There's a ton of violence and gore. There's one scene where Catwoman scratches some woman's face, leaving bloody claw marks across her skin, and I distinctly remember my Mom leaning over and whispering, "It's just ketchup."
And you know what? I was like, yeah, that's just ketchup. It's not real. I wasn't remotely freaked out.
So how did my Mom know that I, a kindergartner, could handle that? Because I think her judgement was spot on, and I gained by getting to see one of my all-time favorite movies.
I don't have kids, and I'm not planning on having kids anytime soon, but with all the fun sci-fi and action movies coming out this summer, it's been making me think about how you know when your kids should get to watch what look to be some awesome, but admittedly violent movies. I'm psyched for Suicide Squad. But would I take a kid to see it? Would they enjoy it?
Maybe it has something to do with the cartooniness of the violence, as in the case of Batman Returns. But what about Batman v. Superman? Captain America? And how about a hundred other borderline movies? I'm a big believer that kids can handle scarier stuff than we give them credit, but I don't know where you draw the line. You want them to have fun and see a good story, but you also don't want to be that psychotic parent that lets their kids watch Saw III.
Any parents out there have a violent movies litmus test they'd like to share?
I'm going to come right out and say it: I didn't think Pixar's Inside Out was very good.
The three "human" characters were normal. Nothing interesting going on there. The emotions were caricatures of emotions and definitely not well-developed characters. And the scenes featuring Joy and Sadness navigating long-term memory were so slow that I fell asleep, woke up having no idea how much time had passed, but it didn't seem I had missed anything important that affected the story-line so I was able to keep watching. I feel like you shouldn't be able to tune out of a movie for extended periods and still be able to follow along, but you could with Inside Out because there just wasn't that much going on. It was, I think, a rare example of a story that was too simple.
That last Pixar movie I saw was Brave and I feel like my criticisms of Inside Out could be equally applied to it as well. I saw Brave in theaters and regretted that choice. So much money to spend to hear a story that I feel like I've heard a hundred times before, and got bored with by the time I was in the second grade.
What happened Pixar? You used to be the king of great storytelling! The last Pixar movie I saw and really liked was Up; not a perfect movie, but still pretty good. The last really great Pixar movie, in my opinion, was the first half of Wall-E.
The next Pixar movie, The Good Dinosaur, looks like it's going to have the exact same issues as well. These are just not very good ideas, they're too simple. The characters are one-dimensional, which makes them hard to emotionally invest in. I have some theories as to why Pixar has been trending in this direction and a lot of it has to do with internet PC homogenization. Compare Toy Story to Inside Out and I think you'll see the difference. Toy Story was irreverent, the characters were naughty, they sometimes hated each other a little. But no one is even bad in Inside Out. There's no villain. There aren't even competing interests. The message in fact seems to be that every emotion is valuable. You can't argue with that, but that doesn't mean it makes an interesting story.
Last June, when my husband and I were on vacation in Italy, we spent a lot of our time lazing by the beach or pool. T was reading the Conan series, and at one point turned to me and asked if the book I was writing was "complicated."
"Yeah, I guess so," I told him. I thought about it and corrected myself. It was definitely complicated and that was one of the reasons it was taking me so long to write.
"Hmm, cause these books are definitely not complicated," he told me, holding up old Conan the Barbarian. "They're almost ridiculously simple."
I've been thinking about that for a while. No one is going to claim that Conan the Barbarian is great literature, but I bet there's a lot of people who would argue that the series is fun and readable. Think how quickly Robert E. Howard must have been able to churn those stories out. You'd have to if you were being paid by the word. Complexity isn't a luxury you get to enjoy under those circumstances.
I think about all the stories or movies I've seen that have really simple premises, and how much I tend to enjoy them. Superbad is about two underage kids trying to get alcohol for a party. What a great idea. It's so simple and everyone (at least in the U.S.) can relate.
This year's Mad Max was about (spoilers) a fat old dude trying to get his women back. If the movie had been anything more complicated than that, I doubt it would have worked. Mad Max is all about simple premises and basic instincts so you can enjoy the action without having to think too hard.
I've always thought Dragon Ball Z was kind of genius for this same reason. Train really hard, and you can become a martial arts master (it helps if you're also an alien). Find the seven dragon balls, and you get any wish. That's basically it, but there's so much that can be developed around those two simple ideas.
Ender's Game has a fairly simple premise if you think about it. Boy goes to battle school and kicks butt at video games and simulated warfare. The simplicity of the plot, which is practically episodic, lets the narration spend more time on Ender's personal issues.
Can you summarize your book or short story that easily? Is the concept that simple?
I think about my book, and it's not that simple. I try explaining the story to my husband sometimes and I'm all, "and then this happens, and then this, and then this, and she can do that because this, and he can't because yada yada yada."
Maybe I want to/need to write a simpler book? In fact, while writing this post, it occurs to me that I've plotted a section near the center of the narrative arc, because I felt like it needed "more story." But when I think about that part, I realize it's totally unnecessary. It complicates things for the sake of complicating them.
Kids, I'm just going to cut that part out. Boom, that's 10,000 words I probably just saved myself of having to write and later delete.
I'm going to keeping thinking on this simplicity idea and see if I can figure out a way to summarize my book in one sentence. And if I can't, then maybe it's too complicated for both my tastes and my abilities.
Of course, some people like complex stories and that's absolutely cool. A Game of Thrones and The Wheel of Time books, come to mind, but neither of those are my cup of tea. So...why have I been trying to write a story on their scale?
If you're working on a story, do you find it simple and straightforward to explain? Or is it complex, maybe more complex than you originally anticipated?
When I was a kid, my brother and I went to a home day-care. Our babysitter had two sons, so her house was filled with video games and action figures for us to play with. It was pretty much a young nerd's paradise. Lots of Batman, Ninja Turtles, and X-men stuff (this was the early 90's), and of course the ubiquitous Star Wars.
I remember sitting on the floor, watching one of the boys play Street Fighter or something, and strewn in the mess around us was the ripped off back of a Boba Fett action figure box. On this scrap of cardboard was this vague and mysterious description of Boba Fett, which said something about his Madalorian armor and his ties to the Clone Wars. I distinctly remember reading that description, re-reading it again, looking for some kind of clue that I had missed to make sense of his backstory.
Who was this Boba Fett guy? Of course, I recognized him from the movies, but honestly I hadn't given him much thought up to that point. Why was his armor special? What did he do in the Clone Wars? And what were the Clone Wars anyway? I sort of recalled Leia mentioning them in her hologram speech to Obi-wan in the movie, but it struck me then, sitting on the floor of my baby-sitter's basement, that there was this whole previous story to Star Wars, an exposition that was unknown to us except in little pieces and fragments. It blew my mind. Star Wars was more than just a few movies. It was an epic and we'd only (at that point) seen a few chapters.
I was reminded of this thought while listening to The Weekly Planet podcast. In celebration of their hundredth episode, the hosts caved to fan requests to discuss the Star Wars prequels and all the reasons why they don't work (one of my favorite topics). The biggest failure, they cited again and again was the prequels' bizarre need to explain events that take place in the original trilogy; right down to the smallest, stupidest details.
For example, in A New Hope, Luke wears a helmet with the blast shield down to practice his light saber moves and use of the force. It's a fun scene and it stands on its own. But in Attack of the Clones, the youngling Jedi are wearing helmets with blast shields down to practice their own force skills...Why would these Jedi in training be wearing fighter pilot helmets, or something that essentially looks like a pilot's helmet? Why do they have to be doing the exactly same thing as Luke did some thirty years later? Because, for whatever reason, Lucas thought that was an important detail to explain? Even then, it doesn't really make any sense.
This pattern repeats over and over again in the prequels - this tendency to over explain everything at the detriment of the mystery and mythology of the original Star Wars trilogy. What's the force? "It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." What a beautiful, simple explanation, one of my favorite speeches for how much information it conveys with so few words. I didn't need to have that ruined by midichlorian pseudoscience. Why couldn't the force just be a mystical thing that we don't entirely understand? Why is it bad to admit a little ignorance?
My ten-year-old self could more than make up her own backstory for Boba Fett. I didn't really need it over-complicated with his father, Jango Fett, who meant nothing to me. The copywriter who wrote that paragraph long description on the back of the action figure box had it right: here's some limited information about Boba Fett, do with it as you will and go wild kids.
This is a lesson that I need to apply to my own fiction. I think there's this common fear among writers that we won't be understood unless we explain everything, every detail. Sometimes, I find myself wondering how the world I'm building manufactures goods...but that's really boring and frankly, it just doesn't matter. Goods are made somehow. I have to stop worrying whether my fictional global economy makes sense. Or sometimes, I'll feel compelled to explain the exact tilt of a character's head; the way they lean against a wall, one knee over the other. Really, it doesn't matter. The reader has an imagination. Trust that they'll use it.
The same holds true for bigger issues like exposition and character backgrounds. I don't need to establish a multi-generational genealogy. I don't need to explain what wars happened fifty years ago. I can mention maybe some basic information and move on without further explanation, because the reader will either use their imagination, or have the intelligence to select what information is important to the story and what can be glossed over without any great loss.
I thought that was one of the biggest problems with The Hunger Games. I only read the first book, but that was more than enough. It just annoyed me the way Katniss kept explaining all this exposition, to herself, in her own head. I mean, who was she talking to? Me? Then where am I in this story? The Hunger Games would have been so much better if she described what she was actually witnessing, which would have been enough to suggest the brutal oppression and poverty without having to tell me everything that led up to it. Then I'd have more fun figuring out what events happened to create this world. Then I'm engaged in the world building and the mystery. Then I'm invested.
So kids, moral of the story, write like the back of the Boba Fett box. Leave your reader a little surprise, something a little strange, something that doesn't entirely make sense. Resist, resist, resist the urge to fill the first fifteen pages with detailed exposition (I'm looking at you Ready Player One). Strunk and White said, "Omit needless words." Let's add to that, "Omit needless story."
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