Saturday, June 29, 2013

Some Stats and Experiencing "That Moment"


Scott D. Parker

Today is the penultimate day of June 2013 so it's close enough to list some statistics. I've been blogging about my restarted writing after a long fallow period. One of the things I wanted with this reinvigoration is to have some metrics. I wanted to see numerical proof of my progress. One thing I did was set a daily goal: at least 500 words. That's really doable, if you just carve out 30 minutes a day. I achieved that goal for 27 of the 28 days in June. I so wanted to be perfect, but I messed up on one day. Darn it! But I'm more than happy about my progress and the new habit of writing. Even on the day (10 June) I didn't meet the 500-word threshhold, I *did* write. That makes 33 consecutive days writing. By the time this post goes live, it'll be 34 (since I'm writing this on Friday and I write around 6am in the mornings).

Here are the actual stats:
  • Minimum threshold: 14,000 (500/day for 28 days)
  • Total words: 31,159
  • Difference: 17,159 words above the minimum
  • Average: 1,112/day (Somewhat misleading because I only topped 1,000 words 9 days, but those days were usually nearer 2,000)
  • Best day: 3,571 (2 June)
  • Worst: 313 (10 June)
  • Items worked on:
  • --Finished one story, an 18,000-word "whatever" (novelette?) (1-2 June)
  • --Started and finished a 9,500-word short story (3-8 June)
  • --8 chapters of the current book (9-28 June)
  • --New scene of another short story (22 June)

So, I include the data here not to toot my own horn--I'm am much more proud of myself for the consistency than the numbers--but to demonstrate how metrics can spur you on. I have a calendar in my office on which I write a nice giant red X onto each day I write. Using the Seinfeld chain concept, it starts to get to the point that you force yourself to write something just to keep the Xs going and not break the chain. That was the story on 10 June when I only managed 313 words but I wrote something, got to write my X, and moved the novel forward.
Speaking of the novel, I had a little breakthrough yesterday morning. I've been plugging away at it for most of the month and I've had one mantra: move forward and make progress. Get it written. You can fix later. So I've not been looking backward except to check on character names. [BTW, this is where Scrivener is great because there is a special little folder for character names.] As I've forged ahead, I've realized that I will have to tweak the order of some of the scenes but I'm okay with that. All I care about now is getting this story that's been in my head on paper and pixel.
Yesterday, literally as I was wrapping up my session, something in the tale clicked into place. For all you writers reading this, you know what I'm talking about. It's not as great as typing "the end," but it's in the Top 10, maybe even the top 5. To quote David Bowie, "The moment you know you know, you know?" It was that little moment when I knew that threadwise, storywise, I was moving forward and had reached a place where, while the end of the road was not yet in sight, I knew I was on the right road. Man! That's a great feeling.
Do y'all ever keep metrics on your writing? If so, mention it in the comments and we'll all go read about your successes.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Sonic Boom

Contains minor spoilers for Man of Steel

After the bombastic and eye-straining opening twenty or so minutes of Man Of Steel, it seems like things might finally slow down for a moment. Putting aside the incredibly silly and ill-conceived view of Krypton (I still don’t get why they don’t leave the planet when they have the technology) and the bizarre plan of Kal-El’s dad (He’s a natural born Kryptonian but we’ll still mix him in with the unborn Krypton drones), its tempting to think that perhaps the film might slow down for two seconds and let us get to grip with any characters we can care about.

But it doesn’t slow down. Although it does have the most “Superman” moment of the movie crop up as Clark, who is living as a drifter, finding his way in the world and working on a fishing boat, spots an oil rig on fire and flies off to save the day. He saves the men trapped on the rig with an amazing display of his powers and then realises he can’t go back on the boat and instead decides to stay underwater a while with the whales and reflect on his life.

Its a promising start. As are the scenes that follow where we flash back to his early life, as he deals with his new powers (there’s a hint of autism on the way he runs into cupboard to escape the noise and size of the world) and what people will think of him (when he saves his classmates from drowning, people begin to realise there’s something odd, and his dad goes mental with worry which seems a very human reaction).

But then you realise, this new film isn’t play with time or telling out of sequence, its simply suffering from a very real kind of ADD. We don’t stay with any quiet scene for more than a few moments without some kind of bombast. When Pa Kent goes to talk to Clark about what it means to have his powers, he does so in a very angry kind of way, slamming his coffee mug down and crashing through the screen doors of the Kent home*. The camera zooms in on the sloshing coffee and the door slams loud, and we jump cut outside and... its so dramatic - pardon me, so melodramatic - that it loses all meaning. If a coffee cup can be bombastic, what hope the Superman Punching that will come later in the film?

What hope indeed. The film is desperate to get to the punching. So desperate that it skips over everything (except exposition - - there’s a whole ten minutes of Russell Crowe gently explaining everything that should have been included in the opening prologue over and above Krypton Dragons and an inexplicable civil war). It throws in fanwank at an astounding rate: Hey, they said “phantom zone”.... oh look its an intern called Jenny Olsen (was there any point in including the character at all... no problems with the gender flip from Jimmy Olsen, but the fact is that she does nothing except get stuck under some rubble at some point when we’re supposed to care about this character that’s never said a word)... cool, its The Daily Planet... and so forth. It doesn’t explain anything. It doesn’t give us any character development at all. Lois Lane comes in, does a little bit on spunky reporting, decides to tell the world about Superman and then...? Who is she? Why is Superman so attracted to her? Is it because she found him? Is it because she’s cute? God only knows, we’re given no reason to believe that Supes would so instinctively trust her, especially when she disseminates his story across the world when he doesn’t really want her to. If we were take out ten or fifteen minutes of Henry Cavill Punches Things Real Good (tm) we could have got to know our supporting cast a little more, especially Lois, who is the ideal character through which to tell the Superman story. If we saw things from Lois’s POV, perhaps we could have created a story with tension, mystery and rising action. A story where the Henry Cavill Punches Things Real Good (tm) moments were emotionally earned.

The best movie superhero fights come from where we give a toss about the wellbeing of the people involved. The Batman/Joker fight in Tim Burton’s Batman was earned due to us really liking the kooky Michael Keaton character and the intense, scene-stealing Joker. The final showdown between Green Goblin and Spiderman was earned through spending time with Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker and knowing what he had to lose. And so on and so forth. Hell, check out The Dark Knight where the final confrontation between Joker and Bats is turned on its head, as the Joker realises he is no physical match for Bats but instead tries to break him down psychologically by showing him how his mission is all a joke. Its a great moment and it has far depth than just Two Chaps Punching Each Other in increasingly implausible ways.

Yes, it does mean you need to spend a bit more quiet time with the characters, but when a film is all one (very very loud**) note, it becomes very dull. Frankly I knew less about Superman at the end of this movie than I knew at the start. Other than he punches things real good.

And its a shame because Superman has a great potential to create a conflicted character. He is super powerful, so powerful that he can be a God*** in the eyes of humanity. He cares for us, he wants to save us. He has a supreme moral core. And yet the movie chooses to ignore this (other than lip service) to get straight to the punching as Zod comes careening out of the sky to turn Earth into a new Krypton at the expense of humanity. As impressively epic as the fight sequences with Zod are, I couldn’t help but feel they betrayed the character (and not in the way that the resolution to the fight seems to imply to certain fans - - another moment they didn’t earn at all) in his attitude. Superman is open to interpretation but if you ignore his sense of morality then he is simply another Big Punching Superhero in a natty costume. Yes, they give him lots of speeches about how Earth is now his home and how he is “American” because he comes from Kansas. But what makes Superman is his absolute and total concern for humanity. He will let the villain leave the scene in order to save innocents (which is why that allegedly controversial final moment is not actually completely out of character even if it is contextually very suspect). He will not allow one person to be hurt. The needs of the few and the many are one and the same to him. One human is as important as 1 million. Which is what disturbed me so much about the final scenes of the movie; the big climax. Superman and various kryptonian soldiers have this massive, insane fight through the city of Metropolis**** (and earlier in the small town of Smallville)during which Things Blow Up Real Good. But the disaster is so epic that when you stop to think about it, no matter how far citizens might have tried to run away, many of them will be left behind and caught up in terrifying situations as their world collapses and Blows Up Real Good around them.

Now, Superman as we know him would try and save these citizens. This would take priority over Punching Zod In The Face Very Very Very Hard, which seems to be Superman’s main response to the situation. But he doesn’t. He just crashes through office buildings and residential dwellings with barely a thought except taking Zod out of the picture. Now, this might be a fine approach to the character if he later comes to a realisation that his actions have consequences. Perhaps a minor character we have come to know dies***** and suddenly Supes realises that he has to make more nuanced moral decisions. Or perhaps Lois gives him an earful about how he has to take responsibility for his actions. Or he has another memory of his father telling him that he needs to realise how powerful he is and how capable he is of destruction as well as good acts.

Or perhaps he realises this in the first place.

But no. Zack Snyder, as usual, uses all the right ingredients but doesn’t know how to mix them. The same mistake he made in Watchment, where he had the right cast and the right look, but not the right tone. Taking a movie about how uncool it would be to a Superhero and making it look supercool. And its the same with MoS. There’s lots of potential here to make a Superman movie with nuance and intelligence and some troubling questions about what it means to be a God among mortals, but instead it becomes about unsubtle Christian Imagery and Punching Things Real Good (which is exactly what Jesus would not have done). In challenging Zod a final time, Superman would try and lure him out somewhere deserted (say, the Indian Ocean where Supes earlier destroyed a world engine that was in the middle of absolutely nowhere) rather than destroying an entire city.

In Nolan’s Batman trilogy there was debate about whether we get the Hero we need or the Hero we deserve. In Man of Steel, despite Cavill’s attempt to imbue Supes with some kind of humanity against the neverending bombast, we wind up with a hero we neither need (imagine the death toll he’s responsible for both through his own action and inaction) not the one we deserve (In this current world, a hero like Superman should be trying to be a guiding light, even if he gets it wrong).

Not only that, but we also get one hell of a headache. Whose decision was it to get every single cinema in the world to turn the volume up to 11?

* This is what Michael Bay refers to as “fucking the frame” - - ie, constantly having things in motion so that the viewer doesn’t get bored. The irony is that it often winds up being very boring indeed. See any and all of the modern Transformers movies

**Both myself and The Literary Critic came out with intense headaches brought on by both the noise and constant camera movement during the never ending fight sequences.

***Oh did I mention the ham-fisted Jesus Symbolism that made Russell T Davis’s attempt turn the Doctor into a lonely God seem positively subtle.

****Which could be any US city; at least in the Batman movies, Gotham had something of a character. Here we could easily be in NYC, Seattle, San Francisco, any anonymous US city

*****This does happen to three characters with speaking parts who are in more than one scene in the movie, but everyone seems to merely shrug aside their deaths and move on, even Lois Lane which is right there when these deaths happen (but is of course saved by Supes).

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Grammar Chameleon

By Jay Stringer.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a moving picture filled with words that's also narrated? Well, that makes my brain explode. I asked Siri how many words that was worth. Siri said "lots"

Siri actually said, "go away, you creep" followed by, "the Chinese restaurant on Dalmarnock Road opens until 11pm." But That's not important.

Dave White and I have both made arguments against the grammar police. We've gone round on that particular dirt track a few times.

But Dave sent me a link to Stephen Fry summing it all up quite nicely.

So go watch this video. And then remember, which side of an argument do you want to be on? I think you want to be on the side that has Stephen Fry.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

School's Out

My son finished his first year of high school last week and that got me thinking about the end of my first year of high school - 40 years ago.

This song was a year old then. And although none of the students at my high school had their own cars, it did look a little like this:

Enjoy your summer!

Monday, June 24, 2013

James Gandolfini - The death of a series character

In the aftermath of James Gandolfini's death I was struck by a couple of things, one of which was the level of assessment and accolades thrown his way. I think this was partly fueled by the surprise of his passing due to his young age. The other was how personal people took it.

Here's the thing, and again I say this as a fan (I was managing a video store when True Romance came out and his performance was notable, even then.), his filmography, if taken simply as a list, isn't that impressive. It's not impressive in the same way that Paul Newman's was when he died. It's filled with small parts and memorable supporting roles. His fame rests on the success of primarily one role, Tony Soprano.

The era of TV that we are in now is often referred to as the Golden Age of Television and The Sopranos is often credited with ushering this age in (which is an unfortunate snub to OZ). No one here needs me to explain what the Golden Age of Television is but suffice it to say that one of the hallmarks is its focus on more serial type, long form story telling. The best examples are often compared to novels, or are described with terms that had been reserved for novels.

If you look at a show like The Sopranos where, despite the large cast of fully developed characters, there is one touchstone character the only comparable thing is the series character in novels (Rebus, Bosch, Scudder, Parker, etc.).  The Sopranos ran for 86 episodes. That's 86 hours of time spent with this character and those around him. The intimacy of spending that much time with one actor/character is going to really connect him to his audience. Hence the reaction to his death, because we had witnessed what felt like the death of a series character.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Making it better

by: Joelle Charbonneau

So, you've finished writing a book.  Congratulations!  Celebrate.  Get out the marching band and pop the cork on the champagne.  You've earned throwing yourself a party.  Because I truly believe that getting to THE END is one of the hardest things a writer can do.  Especially writers who are first starting out.  So--please--when you hit THE END acknowledge the accomplishment.  You did it.

Now what?

Should you start trying to decide who to query or whether to self-publish.  Um...nope.  Now you need to make the manuscript better.

It is time to revise and edit your manuscript and turn it into a book.

What?  Hitting THE END doesn't make your manuscript a book?  Well, I suppose depending on who you talk to some people would say yes.  Me...not so much.  Because to me a manuscript is something that isn't quite ready for public viewing just yet.  There are lots of steps still ahead so that the story is turned into something others will hopefully want to read.  Manuscripts are filled with potential.  Doing revisions and editing are about turning that potential into something better and more readable.

It is not a coincidence that I am writing this post today.  Why?  Because I just finished revising GRADUATION DAY and am now working on editing A CHORUS LINE-UP.  Now, you might ask, aren't revisions and edits the same thing.  Well...some people might say yes.  Me...not really.  I use those two terms to define two very different processes.

For me revisions refer to the process of changing major plot points and character moments in the book and then pulling those changes through the story.  In GRADUATION DAY, my editor asked me to consider moving a plot point from page 89 up in the story.  I did.  It is now on page 38.  Altering the story in that way shifted the pacing, the character development, the sequence of events in the book and just about...well...everything.  Revisions to me are about moving pieces around and trying new things.  Writing the manuscript is about telling the story.  Revisions are about tearing the story apart and seeing if you can tell it in an even better way.  For me, revisions are exciting and incredibly challenging.  It can mean taking a leap of faith, cutting a hundred or more pages of a book and trusting that the story will be better for it in the end.  Sometimes it is.  Sometimes it isn't and you have to go back and try again.  But I have always become a better story teller by going through this process.  I truly believe there is no wrong way to tell a story, but there are better ways than others.  Revisions give you the opportunity to find the best approach to tell your story.

Edits (when it is me doing them, not my editor) is something very different.  When you see me on twitter talking about editing a book, it means that I am going line by line through the manuscript and tweaking every word to make sure the cadence is exactly what I am looking for.  Too many words in a line can ruin the cadence and spoil the humorous moment or the tension I am trying to built.  When I edit, I look at sentence structure to see if the lengths of the sentences on the page are varied enough to keep the reader zipping along.  I also make sure that the continuity of the story and all the plot threads that I have woven together are tied up in the end.  This work is very detail oriented and can get irksome to some authors because while it is important, it doesn't feel as creative as the drafting and revising part of the process.

Call me crazy, but I LOVE editing.  Adding that final polish and making the book sparkle is fun.  It requires time and focus, but there is something wonderful about shining up a page and moving onto the next one.  Revisions are scarier to me.  I really enjoy them.  I enjoy the challenge of trying new things and seeing where it will take the story.  Because I don't outline (I wish I did, but I just can't!) I never know how the story is going to turn out until I get to those final pages.  Revisions are my chance to finally see the big picture and find better ways of getting to that final moment.

Regardless of what you call your process after getting to THE END, making a manuscript better should  receive just as much attention as getting to the last page.  Trust don't want to have people read the manuscript.  You want them to read book that manuscript becomes.

And for those who have offered to read Graduation Day...nope!  It has only been revised--once.  I'm betting there's at least one more revision to go.  Then it will need to be edited.  But I really appreciate the offer:)  But I promise that when you do read it - it will be the best version of that book that it can possible be.  (At least...I hope so!)