Saturday, November 30, 2013

Catching Fire Review

It was awesome. The end.

What? You want more? Ok. Everything that was good about the first movie has been improved in the second. Everything that was bad about the first one is less noticeable in the second.

Possibly the greatest strength of The Hunger Games was the casting. Donald Sutherland as Snow, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna. Catching Fire added Philip Seymour Hoffman as Heavensbee and Sam Claflin as Finnick, both of whom are perfect choices for their roles, and play them wonderfully. In fact, every performance in the movie was good at the very worst, excepting perhaps Willow Shields as Prim, who could be a bit wooden at times.

After the casting and the acting, the fidelity with the book was The Hunger Games’ strongest point, and again it is even stronger here. Catching Fire was loyal enough that, as a reader of the book, I was able to relax and trust the filmmakers to take me where I needed to go. They had to cut a few things of course, but most of what they cut is hardly noticeable, and some actually tightens the flow of the plot. I wish that they would have explained a main plot element just a little better, because I worry that some people might be confused. But other than that, I can see the reasoning behind any cut they made, even when they cut something I wished they’d have been able to keep.

The music was solid. There were only a couple of points during which I remember noticing it being particularly good, but I never had an issue with it.

One of the points in the original movie that I disliked, but that I grew to look forward to in the sequel, were the scenes away from the main character. In the books, the entire story is told from the perspective of Katniss, but in the movie adaptations, they chose to explain things to the audience that Katniss did not know. In the first movie, I felt—and still feel—that this was a weakness. But in Catching Fire, most of these end up being scenes between Snow and Heavensbee (between Sutherland and Hoffman), whose interplay is enjoyable and informative, particularly for someone who has read the books or watched the movie previously. I love these scenes.

Perhaps the weakest point of the movie was the same as the first one—that the filmmakers had to make small changes to the execution of the story in order to maintain a PG-13 rating. A couple of seconds here or there were cut or toned down, and one sequence in particular suffers from a shaky camera that never quite seems to focus on the action. But even this has been improved upon, so that it’s only truly noticeable in the one sequence, unless you’ve read the books and are looking for the places they toned down.

I was on the edge of my seat for much of the movie, and walked out of the theater completely satisfied with a film for the first time this year. I give Catching Fire an 8.5 out of 10. If it weren’t for a few minor gripes, it would get a 9.


Ok, here’s the part where I warn about spoilers ahead. :)

These are mainly minor gripes that didn’t really influence how much I enjoyed the movie. Altogether, they cost the movie half a point.

I wasn’t totally happy with the execution of the fog. It seemed like there was an invisible line—on one side, they weren’t hurt by the fog, on the other, they were getting burned alive. I would have been happier if there had been a middle area where the fog caused minor damage. I was also disappointed by how effective the salt water was—that it just washed away the poison. I would have preferred if there had been marks left on them, irritation from where the poison had touched, even after the salt water had leeched it from them.

I was disappointed that they had to cut the foreshadowing for District 13. I could see why they did it, and even why it was necessary, but it made the reveal at the end a bit jarring.

Likewise, I wish they hadn’t needed to cut the explanation of the previous Quarter Quells and Haymitch’s victory. I would have been willing to sit the extra ten minutes for these elements to be explained, but I’m not sure everyone would have. They made the right decision, but I wish they hadn’t needed to.

I thought that a couple of scenes felt slightly rushed. Again, they had to be, for the sake of time, so I don’t hold it against the movie too much. 


All right! There's my opinion of it! What did you think of it? Feel free to comment and let me know!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

While I Dream

I've said it before, but I mean to support myself with my writing. Eventually. For now, I write when I have the time and fantasize about having more.

And I do fantasize.

I think about the stupidest things.

Like, I want my name to never be larger than the title of the book, on the cover. I don't trust authors whose names are larger than the book's title. To me, it suggests that they value themselves more than the stories they tell, that they aren't willing to sacrifice for what they have.

It's stupid, I know. No one thinks in those terms. And authors don't even get to have an opinion about the layout of the cover, half the time. Having your name larger than the book title means the publishing firm thinks your name has grown into a brand, that it sells books better than the book title. It means you're popular. That's it.

But I spent years reading books, thinking, "Wow, this guy's arrogant. His name is twice as large as the book title, and four times as long as the series title." And I don't want my readers to think that when they pick up my book.

Another thing I think: I prefer the headers to contain the book title and chapter title, respectively, rather than putting the author name there. I'd rather my readers remember the name of my book, and not have to flip pages to remember the name of the chapter. They'll actively set out to learn my name, if I do my job right.

I know, another thing I likely won't have control over. But there it is.

Finally, I think about the picture in my About Me. I want to be smiling, I've decided. I want to smile at my readers. I want my picture to say:

"Thank you for reading my work, and if you've bought it, thank you so much for that. I care about you. I care about your hopes and dreams, your ultimate goals and those little things you always mean to do but never get around to. I really, really do. And I sincerely hope that my work has brightened this little piece of your life. Thank you."

These are the kind of things I think about while I dream.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Things I Can't Tolerate In Writing

I don't use these in my writing. I can't stand them. They're more than pet peeves; they crawl under my skin and irritate. They're poison to my enjoyment of the story.

This doesn't mean I hate you as a person, or even an author, if you use these in your work. It doesn't even mean I hate your story. But if your story contains any of these, you'd better have a compelling reason for me to continue reading. Because I usually put the book down.

1) Love Triangle.

I'm not going to be kind here. A LOVE TRIANGLE WILL NOT IMPROVE YOUR STORY. Period. There have been a handful of stories in the course of mankind where a love triangle was appropriate, useful, and entertaining. A handful in which a love triangle was an improvement to the story.

Yours isn't one of those.

Yes, I'm talking to you.

A love triangle is a contrived device to aid the also overused "will they, won't they" plot. The difference between the two? "Will they, won't they" can and has been told in new, interesting ways. Observe the Iron Man series, in which Pepper and Stark have a slow falling-together sort of romance. But there's always this question: Is Tony capable of caring about someone else more than he cares about himself? And is he able to express that?

Love Triangles, on the other hand, are trite and pathetic. The best execution I've ever seen has been in the Hunger Games trilogy, and that was strictly bearable. It would have been a better series had that not been a part of it.

I put down the Mortal Instruments series as soon as the triangle popped up. Note: I tolerated other serious offenses, but as soon as this happened, I stopped reading. AS SOON AS IT HAPPENED.

You are not immune to the harm it can do. You are not immune to me putting down the book.

2) School Days.

I've been through school. Elementary, Middle, and High School, I've been to them. I know what they're like. I didn't enjoy my time there. I wouldn't go back if I could.

Want to know a secret? 99.9% of readers feel the exact same way. If you put your characters in school, you need to be ready for the consequences. Just today, I put down a story when it revealed that the characters would be attending school.

School is not an interesting framework for a story.

School is not an original setting.

School is not innovating your genre, whatever genre you're writing in.

Consider: Must my character be in that age range?

Consider: Why can't my characters be out of school for one reason or another (summer break, school having burned down, kids skipping class--all are viable options)?

Consider: Why do these scenes need to take place during school hours? Could they not happen in the evening?

Ok, granted. if you're writing for Middle Grade or Young Adult, I might let you get away with this. Assuming you don't try to make me attend Math class. Then the book will burn.

Also granted, if you make it interesting enough, I will work through it. The Giver, by Lois Lowry, has a scene near the very beginning that's set in school. The difference? Lowry uses this everyday activity to point out that this is a totalitarian society that controls how people think, and it starts in school. Similarly, Halo: The Fall of Reach has children learning about the ancient Greeks in class. The difference? These children have been abducted from their homes and are being brainwashed into becoming the Sci-Fi equivalent to Spartan soldiers. (Both of these books are must-reads, whether you're into Sci-Fi or not, whether you're into Halo or not.)

You see where I'm going here? Your version of school will not impress me. Don't try, unless you're doing something truly incredible.

3) Character Mulch

I'm fine with an author killing off a character. I'm fine with an author who kills off a handful of characters in every book. I'm fine with an author who kills main characters, even unexpectedly. There's nothing like a main character death to set the "Anyone Can Die" mood in your stories. Nothing affects the reader to that degree, and nothing raises that much tension.

Heck, I've done it myself, more than once. Whenever the story demands a character die, I do it without the slightest hesitation.

What I'm not fine with, what I can't stand, what will make me throw down the book in disgust, is when an author kills off a character to set the mood, and doesn't consider the repercussions.

A comic book reviewer named Lewis Lovhaug (also known as Linkara) briefly described the main problem with doing this. To put it simply, you need to consider: Does killing this character provide me with more opportunities to tell great stories than I'd have if I left a character alive? Or in other words, DOES KILLING THIS CHARACTER IMPROVE MY STORY?

That's pretty vague. When you look at the surface, of course! Shocking the reader, producing emotion, is a good thing. So if you aren't sure what I mean by that, I'll go in better depth.

Does the character you're thinking of killing have an arc? A journey that he or she goes through during the story, coming out a different person? If the death is supposed to matter, the character should. And if the death isn't supposed to matter, then WHY KILL THEM in the first place???

If your character has an arc, has he or she completed that personal journey at the point you're thinking of killing him or her off? Nine times out of ten, you shouldn't kill a character before he or she completes the arc you've designed.

The only exception to that last rule is "Kill 'em All" stories, in which the unpredictability, horror, and inevitability of death is the point. This is a step beyond "Anyone Can Die". This is "George R. R. Martin must be ghost writing". This is a story set in the Vietnam war, or a guerrilla resistance of an invasion from China.

The last guideline I'll give is this: If the character has a name, don't kill them off-screen. I'm looking at you, Feist. I'm looking at you, Rowling. If the character has a name, particularly if he or she has been around for at least one year (real world or in-world), don't kill him or her off-screen. And for God's sake, don't make the death embarrassing if the character is famous for being capable or intelligent!

If you disobey any of these rules, I might not put your book down (these tend to happen more than halfway through the book), but I will refuse to recommend the book to friends. Unless the rest of your story is so awesome as to overwhelm these.

Rowling, for instance. Harry Potter has all three of these. And other problems, besides. But the rest of her story is so good, and these elements are introduced in such a tolerable way, that I still recommend the books to the curious.

Well, there's my thoughts on things I can't stand! Do you have any you'd like to share? Anything on my list you want to rant about? Feel free!


I try to link to pieces I get information or inspiration from, but sometimes I can't, and well, sometimes I just want to link to awesome stuff I've mentioned. As such...

Here is Linkara's comic review show, Atop the Fourth Wall. Consistently funny, and constantly informative to anyone who wants to learn more about comic books.

And here is Writing Excuses again, this time on killing characters. I tried not to repeat what they said here. It's not easy. Almost all the good points were taken. Seriously. Listen to this before you kill someone. Err, a character.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Random Insight Into My Writing Process

I write more slowly than you. Yes, you. If you're reading this, and you write, I write less words an hour than you do.

I'm still coming to terms with this. When one of you encourages me with the words "Well, just do an extra thousand words a day. Thinking small will help," well, I'm discouraged. I have to reply, in embarrassment, "Um, my goal is one thousand words. No, a week." And I turn that in late.

Unacceptable, right? Completely ludicrous! I'm just not writing enough. BiC, HoK, baby. Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.*

Nope. I write plenty.

I start my session by revising the section before it. And by revise, I mean rewrite, word for word, and change any I don't like. It's a lot of work, and slows me down, but it lets me keep the energy of the scene while adding the poetry, the beauty.

I also do three drafts of a scene before I'm ready to completely move on. The first is exploratory, in which I have only the general idea of where it needs to go. The second is to make my fumbling seem less blind than it was, fixing consistency, fixing tone, fixing flow. The last is the polish, fixing things on a word-to-sentence level. The end product is something I'm willing to share, if not something I'm willing to submit.

This means that my first actual "Draft" is actually draft three. I write extremely slow, but I need to do less "Drafts" than most people.

My first draft is cleaner than yours. Yes, yours. If you're reading this, and you write, my first draft is probably prettier than yours.

I'm coming to terms with being slower.

*BiC, HoK borrowed from Writing excuses, Howard Tayler in particular.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Why Fantasy Needs Tarantino

Woah, hey, let’s put down the torches and pitchforks, people. Just let me explain what I mean before you burn me alive.

I don’t mean that we need any more “melon famers” spouted from our characters’ lips, and I don’t mean that every fight should involve a decapitation (though quite a few already do). I’m only talking about the skill with which Quentin Tarantino writes dialogue would be a great skill for burgeoning Fantasy authors to learn.

I’m going to use the movie Pulp Fiction to explain what I mean. In doing so, I’m going to spoil some plot points from the movie. If you haven’t seen Pulp Fiction, I’d suggest you minimize this and go watch it online. I’m sure it’s streaming free somewhere. And I know it’s on Netflix.

Pulp Fiction is a movie Tarantino wrote and directed in the 90’s. It’s the movie he’s most famous for, even more so than Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs. It’s so iconic that you probably can’t go a month without someone you know making a little allusion to it. But I probably don’t need to tell you that. You likely already know exactly what the movie is. If you’ve watched 10 movies in the last 20 years, this was probably one of them.

The clips I’m going to use are from one of the more famous scenes in the movie (and thus one of the most famous scenes of all time). It’s also what I consider to be one of the greatest scenes in cinema history. These scenes are our introduction to characters Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson).

If you’re familiar with Tarantino, I don’t need to warn you that these clips contain a lot of language and some violence. But there’s your warning anyway. I also apologize for whatever pops up in the related links, but I can’t pick and choose those.

Again, I’ll be using full spoilers in explaining why it’s so good, so if you haven’t seen it yet, WATCH IT. It’s not considered one of the greatest movies of all time for no reason.

Wow. See what I mean? Oh, maybe not, since I haven’t explained myself.

In the first scene alone, Tarantino establishes many things about the characters. He establishes both that Vincent has a history (since he just got back from being overseas, during which time he visited multiple countries, ate at restaurants, and so on) and that he and Jules have a prior partnership (since they chat so easily together, like good friends do). They both express interests outside the plot, some of which never enter into the story.

The second scene starts to introduce plot elements. It alludes to both Marcellus Wallace and his Wife, Mia, who will both become central to the plot later on. But that doesn’t mean it lightens up on characterization. On the contrary; it establishes that Vincent is cynical, practical, and pragmatic, while Jules is somewhat more optimistic, more of a dreamer.

In fact, these first moments establish their character arcs, and their paths throughout the movie. Jules has an eye toward the future, and it is this that will get him out of the life and onto greater things. Meanwhile, Vincent is stuck in the rut he’s in, is relatively happy there, and will die as a consequence.

The third scene pays off what’s been set up. We see Jules and Vincent do their job, and do it well. It shows the other side of them, the side you never, ever want to see.

These clips establish that Vega and Jules are relaxed and in their element. The violence that is about to happen is commonplace for them. So they can banter, talk about the future, and then go into the room and kill everyone there. Afterward, they revert to their easygoing camaraderie, like nothing happened. These are killers, lifelong criminals, who never regret hurting other people. But you like them anyway.

So, to summarize what I’ve just spent the last while jabbering about, these scenes establish character, setting, and plot, give foreshadowing, and take us from opening to the action without having us bored for a single second. More than anything, though, it just plain feels natural. All of it. Every stinking line.

How does this fit into Fantasy, you might ask? Haven’t I just been praising the great and talented Tarantino this whole post?

Think about the most common complaints in Fantasy, particularly in novels. The story starts too slow, the characters feel like they’re born on page 1, and the dialogue is filled with exposition. The foreshadowing is forced, and there’s an inherent black and white morality that makes it hard for you to like a main character who does something bad.

Studying Tarantino, the way that he builds his dialogue, could treat, if not cure, these illnesses in Fantasy novels.

And for those of you thinking, “But, but, Whedon!” Yes. Joss has done some of the best work in the field. Us geeks owe him a lot. But he’s just the beginning.

Not only do we all need to learn at least some of this as Whedon has, but we need to learn to take this skill into novels. We need to learn to develop our dialogue so that it works for us just as hard as our prose does. We need to make dialogue just another tool in our toolbox. We need to be almost as comfortable with dialogue as screenwriters are. And for that, we have to hold ourselves to the standards of screenwriters.

Or in short, we need Tarantino.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Man of Steel Review

This took me a while to finish; I wouldn’t be surprised to find Man of Steel out of theaters already. But I figure since I’ve already written it, I might as well post it.


Man of Steel is a flawed movie. That’s inescapable. You can’t watch the movie without coming to that conclusion. But a lot of movies are flawed. If you look close enough, every movie is flawed. What, then, do I mean by saying it’s flawed?

I mean that the writing wrecks this movie beyond repair. But I’ll get around to that in a moment. First, I’m going to talk about the things I like about it. And there are plenty of those.

The casting is flawless, from leading man Henry Cavill (who’s a Wheel of Time fan, of course) to Laurence Fishburne as Perry White. I don’t remember even once looking at a character and thinking, “Really? They chose that actor?” Almost always—Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy in particular—I was immediately behind the choice.

The performances that follow are just as good. Cavill is perhaps more convincing as Kal-El than any other I’ve seen; Michael Shannon is ruthless and compelling as Zod; Amy Adams is solid as Lois Lane; Russell Crowe sells the part of proto-Superman Jor-El, and Diane Lane deepens the part of Ma Kent.

The sole exceptions are the children version of Clark Kent, who were both terrible.

Another strength is the decision not to weaken Lois Lane. She’s more capable for much of the movie than Superman is himself; she helps to solve more problems than he does, even if it does lead to her needing Supes to rescue her.

The effects are awesome. In particular, I love Superman’s first flight. I would have enjoyed the movie if it had been two and a half hours of that scene. Other effects I liked are the Dragonball Z-level destruction in the fight scenes, the incredible opening sequence, and Faora’s fights—against human opponents in particular. During these moments, I feel hope that Superman may get the movie he deserves one day.

This isn’t that movie. Here’s why:

There’s no character depth in this movie, no character growth. No, I’ll go further. There are no characters in this movie. There are only vehicles for exposition.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, exposition is the part of a story that presents information to the reader. Whether the information is factual or a revelation of internal conflict, it is critical to the story that the reader has this information. Everyone who writes anything worth writing uses exposition. The way the exposition is handled is one of the main things The Avengers gets absolutely right. It’s hard to do it well, though, and easy to do it badly.

It’s not easy to do it as badly as Man of Steel does.

(Here’s some information about dialogue. Exposition is a large part of what people need to learn to do correctly.

One of the more obvious examples of the problem is what Superman says to one villain right before the fight begins. He actually says these words, mind you. “You’re a monster, and I will stop you.” No clever twist on this 1930s comic book line. No humor, no little nod that this was an unoriginal line. No “sorry we couldn’t think of a better one”. They treat it like gold. Even a fool wouldn’t think it is.

Let me repeat this: Cavill’s performance is spot-on for 99.9% of the movie. But he can’t make this line convincing, top of his form as he is.

On the rare occasion that the characters aren’t spoon-feeding me information, they were giving me lines that produced this exact reaction:

Granted, there is an exception to this. One exception. About halfway through, when Clark Kent returns to Ma Kent after learning his origins. This scene, 4 or 5 minutes long, has maybe 10 lines. This allows the performances to breathe, and it pays off. Both Cavill and Diane Lane give a depth and reality to their character that they aren’t allowed to before or after that point.

An oasis in the desert of horrible writing.

The plot is…serviceable. Were it lying beneath better dialogue, it would run from beginning to end with few spots truly stretching suspension of disbelief. It is never as weak as the exposition or (lack of) characterization would make it out to be. The worst part of the plot is the need for flashbacks.

And my god, the flashbacks.

Not only are the little Clarks wooden, but the characterizations are bizarro versions of themselves (and not in the good way); no one has sensible motivations, and all of it feels like it’s there because it has to be there, even when no one wants it.

Now it’s time for the smaller issues I had with the movie. These range from things I would have spent pages picking on had the overall writing been better, to problems I probably wouldn’t have even noticed.

Spoilers beyond this point.


Pa Kent is given a nonsensical Uncle Ben. That is, he dies for no other reason than to hammer home the lesson he was trying to teach. Literally, he stands there and lets himself die when he doesn’t have to. Unlike Uncle Ben, though, Kent is teaching a terrible lesson; essentially, “Don’t be Superman, Superman.” It goes against Clark’s entire childhood, his entire set of morals.

Speaking of people who just stood there and let bad things happen, Superman doesn’t have to kill Zod. Essentially, Supes has Zod in a headlock, and Zod decides to cut down the family in front of them with his heat vision. Not only could the family have simply moved out of the way, but Supes could have lifted Zod up, or flown them both the heck out of town.

In fact, Superman never intentionally draws the villains away from civilian-populated, “target rich” environments. Not once does he think of the destruction that will rain down on the city and act accordingly. Never does he balance the battle against the villains with saving individuals that the battle puts in harm’s way. He doesn’t do anything heroic in the third act aside from defeating the villains, and never does anything clever at all.

I wanted to put this up to his inexperience. I mean, he’s a twenty-something still trying to discover himself, trying to explore his powers, his origins, come to terms with who and what he is. He makes mistakes. He’s stupid. But he’s young. What else should we expect?

Huh? What’s that? He’s supposed to be 33? Really? 33? Wow. Well, all I can say to that is, WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!

I know what they were thinking. They wanted to turn him into Space Jesus. Anakin Skywalker, eat your heart out. I’m not going into details as to the many ways they did this, but I will point you to the trailer for the movie, the now-infamous crucifix pose. That’s just the beginning.

The question is, why are all these Space Jesus people such terrible heroes?

That brings me to another point. The depiction of Superman is always just slightly off. It was like the writers had never watched one of the dozen animated series’ he’s in, let alone read the comics. Every depiction of Superman that I love shows him to be clever, to wield a dry wit, to have a slight Hollywood-esque aura around him. It’s like nothing ever can or will go wrong while he’s present. He projects strength. He always does the right thing. These things define Superman for me. Making him less capable to fit the plot might very well be necessary, but making him less him isn’t.

The tone of the entire movie is darker than it needs to be. A conservative estimate of the deaths in the movie is in the tens of thousands; I’ve heard the numbers as high as a couple million. Many of them don't need to die. Many of them shouldn’t die.

Finally, in the last flashback of the movie, Clark tells Ma Kent that he wishes Jonathan (Pa) Kent had seen him become a hero. Ma states that Pa did see Clark this way, because they both had always believed that he was destined to do great things. As the scene fades into that last flashback, you have about ten seconds to think: “wow, that’s actually a pretty great note to end on.” Then a child Clark is running around with a shirt pinned to him like a cape. His arms are outstretched, “flying”. Then the scene ends with him standing in the classic fists-on-hips superhero pose. That’s all fine and good, and actually kind of cute. But then you remember that all those superhero tropes were built from Superman, and he must thus be pretending to be a future version of himself.

That’s about it. I won’t go into the armor designs, which everyone agrees are ridiculous, or the kiss at the end, which everyone knows is forced, or the shaky cam, which everyone already hates. The music, composed by Hans Zimmer, is entirely forgettable, but never distracting. The directing by Zack Snyder is heavily stylized, slick and proficient, but is neither a strength or a weakness to the film.

The funny thing is, I know Iron Man 3 is much better, objectively. But I’m far less attached to Supes, and therefore far less conflicted about the movie. As awful as the dialogue is, as inept as the character development is, as unnecessarily bleak as the tone is, I enjoyed this film in a popcorn-movie sort of way, almost as much as I did Iron Man 3. 

Man of Steel, you get a 6 out of 10 from me.

The movie’s biggest mistake? Writer David S. Goyer. He’s done some fine work elsewhere, but this movie kills any good faith I had in him.


Tell me what you thought of the movie. Did you like something I trashed? Did you notice a problem I didn’t mention? Put it in the comments, and we can discuss them.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

My Thoughts On Monsters University

I am so sick of Monsters University. I haven't even seen it yet, and I'm sick to the point of nausea.

I mean, first of all, It's a prequel. An unnecessary prequel. A money-grubbing, unnecessary prequel.

And then it is pretentious enough to say, "You've been waiting 13 years for this! Just a little longer!"

Son of a--!

No, I haven't.

I've been waiting 13 years for Square-Enix to release another good Final Fantasy.
I've been waiting 13 years for a true sequel to the Halloween series.
I've been waiting 13 years for Tim Burton to start making non-formulaic movies.

But what I've not been waiting for is Monsters University.

Have I been waiting for our heroes to meet? "I don't like you, yet." "Yeah, well I'm not to taken with you either. Yet." No.

Have I been waiting for them to get into some stupid college competition? To see if they make an enemy out of a certain reptile that likes to turn invisible? No.

Have I been waiting for one of them to get in "danger" of expulsion? To see if the other one gets dragged into it for the third act pinch? No.

I haven't been waiting to see another Monsters movie.
I haven't been waiting to see another Monsters movie.
I haven't been waiting to see another Monsters movie.

When I watch this, it will be on cable. It will be knowing how terrible it will be. It will be alongside friends, who are also watching it to laugh at it.

And if you're thinking, "Well, he's gotta know that the movie's going to wind up being awesome, just to show him"...

Yes. Yes I do. I fervently hope that happens. I hope I'm wrong about it. I would love another Monsters, Inc. But I don't think I'll get one.

Look at it this way. Even if I'm right, it can't be worse than that unbearable-looking Cars spin-off.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Smurfette Principle: Being Part of the Problem

I write fiction. It’s what I’ve done for a significant part of my life, and one way or another, it’s what I’ll do until the day I die. I glory in the possibility of it, the freedom from depicting the world as it is and as it has to be. Instead, I can depict the world as it could be, as it deserves to be. I can even (and do) depict different worlds entirely.

And so I was understandably a little unsettled by a trend I’ve found in fiction. I consider fiction to be purposeful only when it tries to improve the world; completely accepting something that is flawed and unjust in the world weakens a work. As senseless as it is, that is exactly what most of the fiction-making world is doing with each page, each episode, each blockbuster. Ignoring a problem. A troubling trend.

I was understandably a little disturbed to find that I was following this trend, as well.

The Problem

This particular issue has been addressed by many before me—by so many and so often, in fact, that it has a name. What I am referring to is the Smurfette Principle. According to, the Smurfette Principle is:

“[T]he tendency for works of fiction to have exactly one female amongst an ensemble of male characters… Said only woman will almost always be used as half of a romance subplot.”

This problem is ubiquitous among works of fiction, whether they be TV shows, movies, comics, or literature. Even as you read this, you’re likely realizing that one of your favorite works of fiction falls prey to this. But here is the question that people are constantly in debate over:

Why is this a thing?

It goes without saying that women are half of a given society’s population, and it is equally obvious that women match men as consumers of fiction. Intuition states that they would be well-represented, then; that half, or more than half, of all creative works should have female main characters, and that even those whose main character was male would be full of interesting, powerful women.

But that’s not the case. Women are underrepresented in fiction to a startling degree. When they are present, they are often “the girl” and nothing more. In the rare case that there are interesting, capable women, they are hobbled by a patriarchal society which does not allow for women to gain power.

Let me put that to you in a different way. In worlds which the artist has created, and which need not resemble our own in the least, women are largely either nonexistent, romantic interests, cardboard-cutout fringe characters, or powerless damsels.

The Popular Theory

Some people believe that this is a marketing ploy. There has always been a Smurfette, even before Minnie Mouse was introduced as Mickey’s other half. Because there has always been one, the audience expects one, don’t they? They don’t expect equality among gender representation in fiction. The very idea is ridiculous! How can they want something they’ve never known they could have? Thus, the big-wig executives, “The Man”, only green-light media that are part of the problem. And the creator of the fiction figures, “make what sells, right”? and hops on the bandwagon.

Personally, I don’t buy this. There has been fiction that fairly represents women. X-Men, in which there are almost as many women as men, and in which the women have equal depth and importance, comes to mind. The Wheel of Time does, as well, not only because half the cast is female, but because the characters live in a matriarchal society in which it is hard for a male to gain traction. Harry Potter does, too, since the title character only has a chance of outshining Hermione if You-Know-Who is around. I find it unlikely that “The Man” would okay some stories with women in the lead, but not others.

Why, then, are women so poorly represented?

I believe that supporters of the previous theory are half right. I believe that most of the blame does rest with the creators of the fiction in question. But, as one such creator of fiction, who also just happens to be male, I feel I have insight into the problem that reveals a very different cause.

My Theory

As a man, it is easier to write men. It is also safer. There will be no one waiting to cast stones of “wrote him wrong” at a glass house of pretty words. No one will accuse the creator of being sexist for depicting the thoughts of a man unfavorably. Not like they might if that man was to write women.

That’s it. Simple as that.

Now those of you who have watched or read most anything worthwhile will know that way of thinking is just stupid. Women in fiction are characters who happen to be female. Treating them as anything more mysterious is doing a disservice to equality in fiction. And  a writer opens himself up to at least an even amount of criticism for not introducing worthwhile women in the first place as he does for writing them badly.

But a fourteen year old writing his first few precious words can’t see this. To that fourteen year old, women are mysterious, impossible to comprehend. And to that eager teenager, who looks for approval from every eye who glances at his work—that teenager, who is crushed by every well-meaning criticism—there is nothing in the world more frightening than attempting to write women.

So he doesn’t. Maybe he decides this in a firm sort of way, that he just will not try, or maybe he decides this one character at a time. I’m just not ready, he might say to himself. The next one will be a woman. I promise. But he finds, as he grows as a writer, that it is progressively easier to write men, progressively more comfortable. Soon, he knows, he probably could write a woman. But that must be a hassle, to worry about every word, every thought, and suppress the part of himself that is inherently male.

He can’t know that his difficulty in writing women stems only from a fear and refusal to do so, and that, should he try, he could double his repertoire and expand his world’s possibilities exponentially.

And by the time he realizes, he might have already found success with what he has. Why should he change what has worked so far? Why fix what isn’t broken?

I fell prey to this mindset for years. But beneath my growing comfort with writing the male mind, there was also a growing sense that something wasn’t right. Strange as it sounds, it had become so natural to include women only as a romantic interest or because, “Hey, there has to be some women, right?” that it took a real look to realize what was missing.

And then a light bulb clicked on, throwing the grotesque shape of my work into focus.

I realized that, in my 800 plus page novel, I only had one significant female character. I realized that, as capable, powerful, well-developed, proactive, and essential to the plot as she might be, she was also essentially just a romantic interest. I realized that, though my world had the shadows of ten thousand years of history behind it, there was nothing in it that should cause the patriarchal traditions I had naively set in place. I realized that I had somehow, amongst all my other considerations, left the women out.

And by then, three drafts in, there was nothing for it but knuckle down to finish and promise to myself that, in future books, things would be changing very quickly.

To anyone who wonders how such blatant sexism could occur with relatively little outcry, I propose one theory I have not seen elsewhere: it happens because it always has, because teenage boys are stupid, and because men, as they say, are only boys grown tall.

I have been a part of the problem without ever seeing there was one. Now, when this disparity haunts each step I take down the path toward being published, I find myself incapable of being a part of the problem anymore.


Thanks for reading!

Here’s the full page on the Smurfette Principle on

And here’s another  good article to read on the subject:

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Iron Man 3 Review

Movies are a passion of mine, but it’s not often I get the chance to review one. I got to go to Iron Man 3 recently, and I figured I’ll be talking about it anyway, so I might as well put it up here.

I’ll run it down element by element.

Let’s start with the performances, which were universally excellent. Robert Downey Jr. gives a depth to Stark beyond what has been reached before. Paltrow is great as Potts, the go-between for Stark and the sane world; patient, affectionate, and no-nonsense as always. Cheatle is amazing as always with what he has to work with (read below), and has some of the best one-liners in the movie.

Guy Pearce is all snark and arrogance as Aldrich Killian. Rebecca Hall does well as Maya Hansen, though her part is a mixed bag. Ty Simpkins plays Harley Keener, and keeps up with the other person who’s on screen for most of his scenes (Robert Downey Jr.). Ben Kingsley outshines everyone, though. In any scene he’s in, the Mandarin steals the show.

Stark’s character development is just as good as Downey's acting. Both humbled and haunted by the events in The Avengers, Stark lives with panic attacks and PTSD. He’s driven to the edge by the events that in Iron Man 3, closer to his breaking point than he’s been since the first Iron Man. But he remains a compelling character, possibly deeper than he has been before. When he succeeds in the end, you cheer. He regains a portion of his original confidence, everything he’s earned and an inch more, in true Tony Stark fashion.

Possibly the best part of his growth is the friendship he develops with a kid named Harley Keener. This relationship parallels Stark’s relationship with his father, antagonistic at times and never sugar-coated. It serves to remind the audience that Iron Man 2 presented Stark’s first honest look at his relationship with his father. Iron Man 3 allows him to finally come to terms with his father’s absence, and maybe take his first steps toward preparing for fatherhood himself.

Pepper gets a true storyline independent from Stark, as was promised, but this falls somewhat flat. If they had given her another ten minutes and explored her as a character, it would smooth out some of the other problems in the story. But that would have made her well and truly Stark’s equal, which must have made them nervous. Instead of the revolution we might have had, we got reform. It’s hard to complain. But I do, anyway.

Rhodes doesn’t get a storyline, an arc, or development. That makes sense, seeing as he got all three in Iron Man 2. Good development, if cut short in the name of safety like Pepper’s story is in Iron Man 3. I find it strange that he returns to two dimensions as if he’d never been given a third at all. It makes me concerned for Potts’s character in the future.

Next is the story. You can pretty much consider this spoiler country, though I’ll try to keep them down.

The story is good, but not great.

One of the best things about it is the cohesion with the events in The Avengers. Not only are there constant Easter-egg references, but the events in Iron Man 3 would well and truly not have happened were it not for The Avengers. In addition, there are little continuity nods to the comics, the previous movies, and even real life. From the comics, we get a cameo of the Hulkbuster suit. From previous movies is Stark collecting Butterfingers (his robot assistant) personally from the wreckage. And from real life, we get Happy’s job change; Jon Favreau stepping down from directing is hardly a secret, and this reference is amusing.

Between my comments about the writing, Starks’ character development, and Pepper’s increased screen time, I’ve given a good idea about what I like from the story. Here’s what I don’t.

Let me start with the biggest problem: the villains.

No, not the Mandarin. He’s terrific. While some dogmatic comic fans might have some problems with Sir Ben and his performance, I am not one of them. One of the first things I thought upon the announcement of the Mandarin was, “That’s awesome! We’ll finally get to see Iron Man’s biggest foe on screen!” That was inevitably followed by, “So, how the heck are they going to fit a racist depiction of a sorcery-wielding Napoleonic Chinese villain into the technology-based Marvel cinematic universe?”

Better than you’d expect. That’s how.

No, I refer to the other pair in the villain trifecta when I mention disappointment. Maya Hansen and Aldrich Killian are inexpertly handled after the halfway point.

Maya develops out of a comedic antagonist for Pepper into what you could almost call a friend. Her monologue about the death of innocence is legitimately touching. Unfortunately, it’s followed almost immediately by betrayal. That betrayal is then hacked off at the knees by Maya’s continued waffling. There’s a difference between writing a sympathetic and even reluctant villain, and one that is just weak. Rebecca Hall is consistently giving everything she’s got, but no one can save a role so muddled.

Is Maya really a villain? Because some of her dialogue suggests she is. Then again, other bits of dialogue portray her as a victim, manipulated by the heartless Killian. Has she made a deal with the Devil? If so, what were the terms? Does she still think it was worth it? How much influence does she still have over Killian, if any? To what extent is she involved in the crimes? Is she merely taking blood money, or does she help to bloody it? Is she a sociopath, or just desperate? Why didn’t she come to Stark before this? Was she so insulted at being snubbed years ago that she wouldn’t take help she obviously needs? And finally, why is she so determined to have him now?

None of this is made as clear as it should be.

Killian is clearer, but completely unrealistic. He wants, in this order (I believe): Money, Influence, Freedom, and Pepper. What doesn’t he want? And if he has all the power the story gives him in the later scenes, why doesn’t he openly take what he wants?

Maybe with another ten minutes, we could have clarified these things. But each minute has a cost, both in practicality and in pacing, and they couldn’t afford it. No matter what it might have bought.

My second problem with the story is Stark’s narration throughout. None of it is bad, per se (not after you’ve watched 10,000 B.C., anyway), but it always seems out of place. It is explained at one point, and somewhat justified. But considering that it is totally unnecessary, and considering that Robert Downey Jr. and Shane Black last worked together in “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” in which the narration is key to the story, it’s clear they were just having fun. It hurts the story.

Maybe they’ll pull a “Blade Runner: Director’s Cut” and cut the unnecessary, distracting hand-holding.

This next problem would be the largest, if it were simply born of laziness or ineptitude. As it is, it comes in third. The plot undermines itself.

Mark 42 is the key to the movie. Built after the Extremis comic design, it is lighter, more agile, and more responsive than any model before. It also has a “call” button (kind of). It is the focus, the thread that holds the film together and can ultimately sew it up neatly. It successfully ties together the three acts and stitches most of the ending into place. It is beautiful, a work of art like few single elements are in a movie. And then the string is cut, and the plot tears wide open.

I agree with their decision to cut that string.

That string made Pepper a damsel and nothing more. It made her entire story null and void by placing her in the same position that women have been relegated to for the history of filmmaking--and, some would say, for the history of the world. This would have would have undermined everything the writers, director, and actors had been going for. It would have been terrible. But it would have made for a more cohesive story than the tacked-on, anticlimactic subversion that stands in its place.

What they did was good. What they could have done, given an extra draft of the script, overhauling the foreshadowing, would have been great.

Another, smaller problem is simply that the comic book physics pushed the comic a little too far. In fact, when my brother and I got up from our seats, we weren’t discussing the plot or characters. We were discussing the physics. This is harped on elsewhere, so I’ll be brief. Airplane airborne rescue. “Really? That’s how you’re going to do it? Why didn’t you just remove the stunt altogether?”

From story and stunts to cinematography and direction. It was sufficient. I never saw a shot that made my eyes hurt (and I was watching it in 3-D, so I might be understating that achievement), but I never saw a shot that wowed me. The fight sequences were clear (minus the very end of the last one, which plain happens too quickly for easy 3-D comprehension). Let me repeat this: even at the end, when things are crazy and stuff’s blowing up everywhere, you can see what’s happening and tell why it matters. Shane Black obviously pulled great performances from actors that are consistently great. I think you can see where I’m going with this. Good, but not so good that I’d use it as a selling point.

Finally, I’ll touch on the music. To be honest, I found it mediocre at best. There was a place or two where the score really struck me as being good, and an equal amount where it was overtly bad. Generally, though, it was simply unmemorable. Except for that weird credits sequence, like it was from the ‘70s. Really, guys?

My final verdict is this. Iron Man 3 gets 7/10. It’s a good movie that tries to do great things. In some places, it succeeds. In others, it fails. But it takes risks. Can we really ask any more of our comic book movies?

Yes. Take the larger risk. Run long. Provide deep characters and satisfying arcs all around. I will sit for the extra twenty minutes while you develop them. I will cheer at the credits for your courage and make others come to see it if I have to drag them. Take the risk. Make the story matter.

And for goodness sake, if we’re going to sit through the credits for the special clip at the end, make it worth our while, huh?

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Problem I Noticed...

I'm about to hop back into the jobfaring world like a boy flying a kite hops into the pilot's seat of a 747. That is, I'm relatively sure someone's going to get hurt. :)
So I've been contemplating the state of the job market. As could be expected, what I've seen is troubling.
Here's some cliff notes:
In the last twenty years, more and more jobs have gone overseas. India, China, and a dozen other places that don't get nearly as much recognition, manufacture and ship because WE WON'T. The US doesn't make anything for itself, anymore, and imports both its necessities and luxury goods.
But that's not all.
In the last ten years, technology has taken what few jobs are left. Why have a man build a chair by hand, when a factory can build a dozen at the same cost in the same timeframe? You don't. For every job created by the need to repair or maintain these machines, a hundred entry-level jobs are lost.
On top of that, the population is growing so rapidly that it's begun to flood over its banks. In my lifetime, the US population will likely swell to almost a billion. For perspective, that's:
The consequences of all this worries me. We are officially Corporate America, now. Our mentality is one of cubicles and minimum wage. No employee is important, and no job is ever secure.
Does that terrify anyone else like it terrifies me? NO job is secure.
No, not even yours.
Somewhere, there is someone with the same education and experience that you have. Unemployed, two steps away from starvation, one away from homelessness, this person will do your job at half the cost, and will work twice as hard. Because this person is desperate.
This is the person you will become, after you're replaced.
There are no skill sets and no special, secret knowledge that can save you. The only way to keep your job is to shut up and take what they give you. Your employers can treat you however they want because you both know the truth.
In this economy, you're lucky to be working at all.
It is essential to the human spirit that a person finds purpose in what he or she does for a living. One needs to feel important, unique, or at least appreciated. Without these things, the human spirit withers.
People with doctorates are working in fast food.
People with masters are in the unemployment line.
Human Resources is our new god, our dark idol to whom we sacrifice our dignity. Our every manager, benign or not, becomes a slave master bloated with the power to crush lives. Intention doesn't matter. Power breeds a desire for power, turning the very best of us to tyranny.
This is the state of the market as I find it. "Panem et circenses," indeed. But the bread is running out. 
Next time: More "Bread and Circuses" and our troubling ties to Rome.