Running Off the Rails Holding Scissors

Novel’s at 64,623 words.

My entire plot’s taken a huge left turn.

I’ve been off outline for a while, but not in a scary way. Most of what’s happening has followed on from what’s happened before, a nice logical progression of “this has happened, so the character would do that” kind of writing.

It let me forget that this novel has a villain. And they’re not sitting idle.

On Wednesday morning, they insisted on doing something so terrible, it’s thrown all my plans out the door. One of the characters might be dead. Another might be about to turn criminal.

And the villain? Well, they’ve taken a huge leap forward towards winning.

There’s no telling where the story’s going. It’s terrifying, but thrilling as well. I have to write it, now, if only to find out what happens next.

How to Fix The Phantom Menace

Stay with me on this one. Underneath all the Jar-Jar antics and the layer-cake of special effects is a good movie, I promise.

But there’s a lot of work we have to do to uncover it.

What Went Wrong

I don’t think I can add anything to the many others who have chronicled the movie’s shortcomings.

Let’s move on.

How to Fix It

Three major changes will do most of the heavy lifting for us.

First, Anakin needs to be older. Preferably pre-teen, say 11-12 years old. Just this one change by itself makes so much more of the movie make sense.

When Anakin meets Padmé for the first time, his lines are kind of creepy for a little kid. Make him a pre-teen, though, and suddenly he’s a very young man trying (and failing, horribly) to hit on an older woman.

The Jedi’s later remark that Anakin is “too old” to be trained is nonsense for a boy that looks no older than any of their younglings. If Anakin were 12, though, and already arrogant and head-strong, those objections would be sensible.

Second, we need a different motivation for the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo. I know, I know: the second movie gets bogged down in Senate procedure and no one cares. But that’s my point: the movie as written does a horrible job of making us care. The right explanation, embedded into the script, would go a long way to fix that problem.

Instead of some vague “trade dispute”, we should have a concrete problem. Naboo has an ore that gets mined by the Gungans and processed by the land-based Naboo into some material needed for making droids. Both the Trade Federation and a rival group buy that material from the Naboo and make their — rival — droids from it.

The Trade Federation comes to Naboo and asks them to sign an exclusive trade deal, so Naboo will only sell to the Trade Federation, which would give the Trade Federation a lock on the droid market.

Naboo refuses, of course, so the Trade Federation cranks up the heat: a blockade of the planet, cutting off all trade to the rest of the Galactic Republic. The Senate has to get involved at that point, since the Trade Federation are breaking the free flow of goods across the galaxy.

This is the dispute the Jedi fly in to resolve at the start of the movie: not a vague thing, but a concrete drama with greedy officials and brave (if naive) patriots facing off.

This scenario also sets up the “symbiont circle” between the Naboo and the Gungans that Obi-Wan talks about. Without the Gungans to mine the ore, the Naboo wouldn’t be able to refine it and sell it, generating trade. In return, the Naboo provide the Gungans both money — of course — and technology, by maintaining the systems that keep the Gungans underwater cities going.

The Trade Federation, with their invasion, break this circle. They not only take control of what industry the Naboo have, they start mining the planet themselves, using droids instead of Gungans.

This is why the Gungans have to flee their cities toward the end of the movie. No one is maintaining them — the Naboo are rather busy — and they’ve lost their main monetary supply. Not to mention all the extra drilling the Trade Federation is engaging in, to suck Naboo dry before the Senate can act.

Our final change is a series of small ones that add up to a big one: we need to shift both both Jar-Jar and Padmé’s roles in the story.

Jar-Jar needs a purpose. He’s a goofy-looking character that’s supposed to provide some comic relief, which is fine in theory, but he needs to serve some use for the other characters.

We should give him several things to do. To start, when he runs into Qui-Gon at the beginning, he should accidentally save the Jedi’s life: when they fall under the bot transport, Jar-Jar shields Qui-Gon from the heat of the transport’s engines using his large, floppy ears, keeping them both safe. When they leave the Gungan city to travel through the Planet Core, we should see Jar-Jar giving them directions, acting as their navigator. In their initial encounters with Trade Federation droids, Jar-Jar should take out a few, if clumsily and slowly. And when Qui-Gon goes hunting for parts on Tatooine, Jar-Jar should follow at a distance, unseen, “swimming” through the sand with just his eye-stalks showing, determined to keep watch over the human to whom he owes a life-debt.

Finally, Jar-Jar, not Anakin, should be the one locked in the fighter that ultimately — and accidentally — takes out the Trade Federation’s droid command ship. Taking Anakin to Naboo makes no sense, he’s too young (at any age) and should be left safely on Coruscant (perhaps under the watchful eye of Senator Palpatine?). Jar-Jar’s goofiness fits in perfectly with what happens in this sequence, and playing the hero here sets up his presence in the Senate later on.

Padmé’s scenes should all be shifted to show her headstrong, sometimes reckless, nature.

When the Queen and the Jedi are debating going to Tatooine, we should actually see the debate. Her Captain should make his case for not going, the Jedi should make their case for it, and the Queen should have her handmaidens weigh in. This last will frustrate the Jedi, so used to being obeyed without question, and give the fake Queen a chance to hear from the disguised Padmé what she should do.

And when Qui-Gon actually leaves the ship to search for parts, the Queen should send Padmé because he needs a translator: it turns out Padmé speaks Huttese. Instead of Qui-Gon playing reluctant tour guide to the handmaiden, we should reverse this. It’s Padmé who has seen poverty up close — which is perhaps why she ran for Queen in the first place — and the Jedi that has been coddled in the Inner Worlds. This change will give Padmé much more depth as a character, and reinforce the sense that maybe the Jedi are a little out of touch, a little too arrogant, to play their role properly anymore.

A final Padmé change: in the final assault on the palace, when she and her guard are pinned down by droids, *she* should be the one to shoot out the glass window and insist they winch up. It’d be a nice echo of Princess Leia’s garbage chute solution during her rescue, and again show us that Padmé is able to think sideways to get around problems.

With these changes, we take a movie that can be skipped without missing anything to one that is crucial to understanding the rest of the series.

Anakin, the young hotshot, both too old to be properly trained and too young to be left alone, shows both great potential and great risk.

The Republic is coming apart at the edges, its reach shortened and its ability to settle disputes peaceably in doubt.

Padmé’s recklessness in the pursuit of what she wants lets her reach her goal, but only at the cost of launching Senator Palpatine’s career as Chancellor, paving the way to his ascent to Emperor.

And the Jedi, assured and passive on the outside, are shown to have grown too insular, too used to their comfortable lives in the Inner Worlds to see the dangers to the Republic from within, or even to find a child as talented as Anakin in the Outer Rim.

Steady On

Pushed the novel to 62,769 words this week.

I’m trying to worry less and less about picking the right words, about using the right sentences to get my meaning across. As I drift further from my original outline, I’m trying to focus on discovering what happens next, on keeping things consistent, rather than the particular phrasing I’m using.

That’s rough for me, since I’ve always been careful about the words I use when talking or writing, always worried about saying the wrong thing, about failing.

But in this case, failure means not speaking, not writing. So long as I can get something down, I can move forward, and discover more of the book. I try to remind myself of that, and to remember that only once the book is done can I go back and make it right.

How to Fix The Force Awakens

Don’t change a damn thing.

Seriously, I’ve seen the movie twice now, and will go in for a third as soon as I can. It’s gotten me excited about Star Wars for the first time in years (you can date my waning enthusiasm for the day The Phantom Menace came out).

I think it echoed the original trilogy without aping it, subverted it when it could, and updated the whole thing to the 21st century without being preachy about its progressivism. It’s an amazing feat, and I don’t know how they pulled it off.

Already looking forward to the next one.

Grinding Ahead

Novel’s reached 61,085 words.

New routine is still working. I’ve managed to hit or exceed my word count goal each day, by writing for thirty minutes each day, first thing in the morning.

Such a small thing, a small amount of time, and yet it’s made a big difference. I’m starting to see progress again on the book, scenes wrapping up and new ones getting started, new plot lines opening up ahead of me.

I’ve even allowed myself to take the weekends off from writing, so I can work on other projects. I think of it as both a reward and an incentive: reward for getting the writing done during the week, incentive to hit my word goal each day for the next one.

We’ll see how long it holds, especially as I head into the uncharted (unoutlined) territory ahead of me. But for now, it feels good to be making steady, if slow, progress.

Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson

Surprising, strange, and very well done. Manages to weave alien contact, game development, and anarchist politics into a story so good and smoothly written that I finished all 300+ pages in just two days.

Can’t believe I didn’t hear about this one until just a few months ago.

Learned several things about writing from this book, including:

  • Little touches can go a long way to building both humor and character. For example, the narrator of the book is Jewish, so whenever a character says ‘God’, it’s written out as “G-d”
  • Using blog posts as the main form of narrative lets you cut out a lot of scene-setting description, get to the meat of each scene faster.
  • Be careful mixing blog posts, real life narrative, and other written forms in one novel. If they all adopt the same casual, conversational tone (as this book does), they start to bleed together, and you lose the advantage of keeping them separate.

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Terrible. Just terrible.

Wasn’t able to make it through this one; it was too tough a slog.

Every paragraph was a mess of unsubstantiated claims mixed with the author’s persecution complex and a dash of ignorance. Completely mis-represents everything from the history of rebellion to evolution.

I didn’t learn anything from this book. The author is too convinced of his own infallible intuition to do anything so mundane as deal with facts.

New Year, New Start

Novel’s at 59,195 words.

Didn’t get much writing done over Christmas break at all. Had all these great plans for cranking out mounds of text while I was off work, plans that got thrown out when my wife and I both came back from seeing my family in Texas with the flu.

Oddly enough, it seems the break was good for me. I’ve been getting up an hour earlier since the start of the new year, taking time to both exercise (nothing makes me worry about my physical fitness more than when my body breaks down on me) and write.

So far it’s working. I’m still sick, and now sore to boot, but I’ve hit my word goal every day this week. I feel like I’ve discovered an extra hour that was hiding from me.

I’ll also admit a small part of me likes writing despite my lingering cough, as if each word is me spitting in the eye of disease.

So here’s to the New Year. May we all use it to write more, to write better, to write, write, write.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Reads like a nineteenth-century fairy tale. Manages to weave these mythical characters into a bigger story about the immigrant experience in 19th century New York. Wonderfully well-done.

Taught me a few new things about writing:

  • You can use multiple perspectives to build tension into the narrative, by giving the reader access to thoughts and feelings that impact the main characters later on.
  • It’s okay to give opinionated descriptions. In fact, letting your character’s perspective color the way they describe the world around them is a great way to make both feel more real.
  • Even an absurd premise, if taken seriously enough, can become drama.