Back to Reality: JoCo Cruise Edition

Made it back home from JoCo Cruise 2016 last night.

I’ll do a more detailed breakdown of the cruise later, but there is too much for now, so let me sum up: it was amazing.

I met some incredible people, who let me play games they had designed, told me about their upcoming writing projects, and just generally accepted my wife and I with open arms. I heard someone say that it’s like going on vacation with 1,000 of the best friends you haven’t met yet, and it’s completely true.

Oh, and the performers were great, too 🙂

If you were on the cruise this year, thank you for helping to create such an amazing community. Huge props to Paul and Storm and JoCo and Scarface and the many others that worked hard to organize it and keep everything running smoothly.

If you weren’t on the cruise, signups are available for 2017. We hope to see you there!

How to Fix Spectre

Such a disappointment.

What Went Wrong

The entire film is pure formula. Intro is an action sequence where Bond kills someone. Following scene is him seducing an informant — who is never seen again — followed by Bond fighting with M over his rogue methods. This is followed by Bond seducing another woman, getting tortured by the villain and then shrugging it off, more fighting scenes, the woman’s in love with Bond, cue credits.

How completely boring.

How to Fix It

Instead of playing to formula, we’ll subvert it at every turn.

Take Dr Swann. As written and cast, she’s just another young Bond girl. So we’ll recast her, putting Amy Purdy — Paralympian snowboarder and double amputee — in the role.

We’ll introduce her much earlier, putting her on the ground in Mexico City, where she’s on the trail of the group that’s trying to kill her father.

Bond’s there, too, but they’re working at cross-purposes. His mission is surveillance, but hers is assassination. The chase across Mexico City is in part a race between the two of them, a race that Swann wins.

Bond spends the rest of the first half of the movie one step behind Swann. When they meet, it’s not like two potential lovers chatting over coffee, it’s two fierce competitors battling it out.

Our mid-point reveal is now multi-faceted. We reveal Swann’s prosthetic legs, and that getting them for her is the reason Mr White joined Spectre in the first place. She reveals her mission to Bond, who realizes his personal vendetta and hers are aligned. Reluctantly, they join forces to go after Blomfeld and take down Spectre.

Here we subvert another expectation: Blomfeld is actually the widow from the first half of the movie.

Bond still goes to the funeral, but the widow gently puts him off when he tries to seduce her. On his way out, Bond sees Swann, and goes chasing after her, and so forgets about the widow.

But in one of the final scenes — say when Bond and Swann crash a party held at a chalet high in the Alps that they hear Blomfeld will be at — he sees the widow again.

They flirt this time, playfully, with Bond clueless as to who she really is. That is, until someone else passing by greets her by name.

Bond naturally readies for a final showdown, but Blomfeld laughs at the idea. Why would she want to kill him? He’s been doing great work for her so far.

She proceeds to outline how well Bond has helped her: how his pursuit of low-level thugs has weeded out her weaker minions, leaving the organization stronger (Casino Royale). How he failed to prevent her gaining control of vast quantities of water rights in South America (Quantum of Solace). How he took down a thorn in her side who was trying to take over her computer systems (Skyfall).

She has no reason to kill him, since he’s been helping her all along. Even the MI5/MI6 merger has been good for her, since she only needs half as many moles as she used to.

She turns to leave, but runs right into Swann. Swann, of course, has every reason to want Blomfeld dead: for first ruining her father’s life, and then killing him.

A fight ensues, Blomfeld flees, Bond and Swann give chase. We get a great sequence of them skiiing and snowboarding down the slopes at night, Bond clumsy, Swann graceful and Blomfeld desperate. They finally corner Blomfeld against a cliff, where Swann, overcome with rage, pushes her off.

Both Bond and Swann sigh with relief, thinking its over, that they’ve put their ghosts to rest. But when Bond returns to London, Q tells him of a message he intercepted: of a meeting being called between Spectre’s remaining seven heads. They’ve injured the organization, but they’ve not taken it out.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Tense, claustrophobic, and dreamlike, a Lovecraftian tale as told by Borges.

Reminded me a bit of Lost with the exotic location, the exploration of a place where strange things happen. Also because it frustrated me like Lost did, introducing mysteries and building tension that it had no intention of resolving.

Three things about writing I learned from it:

  • Repeating flashbacks in the middle of a mystery narrative can backfire. If you’ve built up enough tension in the main story, the flashbacks will be an annoyance, an obstacle for readers to overcome.
  • Beware clinical detachment in the narrator. It’s ok for a chapter or two, but over the length of a novel it drains any concern the reader might have for them.
  • If you can remove half the narrative and your story still makes sense, consider leaving it out.

The End is Visible

Novel’s at 70,684 words.

Final third of the novel is starting to take shape.

The plot’s taken two sharp left turns in as many weeks, but it’s ended up on a path where I can actually see where things are going now, and how they’ll wrap up.

It’s an odd feeling. Here I was trudging along with no end in sight, just a vague idea of how I wanted things to turn out. The plot — and my original outline — suffer two sharp shocks, and now I know where I’m going.

Let’s hope it lasts for the next 20,000 words.

Envy of Angels by Matt Wallace

Absolutely awesome from start to finish. Blends haute-cuisine, horror, and comedy into a cocktail that went down so smooth, I’ve already ordered the sequel. If you’ve ever wished Top Chef were more like The Dresden Files, this is the book for you.

Taught me three things about writing:

  • With an omniscient narrator, you can just drop backstory on readers, instead of having flashbacks or waiting for it to come out through dialog. Keep it short, though, so it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story.
  • Opening with action is tough. It’s a good hook, but without really vivid descriptions, it’s going to be hard for the reader to picture what’s happening, since they don’t yet have a feel for the characters.
  • It’s easier for readers to accept the fantastic mixing with everyday life if the characters take it seriously as well. They shouldn’t be blasĂ©, but having them face the weird head-on is a great way to make it feel more real (as opposed to, say, spending half the book in either denial or ignorance).

The Limits of Law by Peter H. Schuck

A mixed bag of interesting, well-thought out essays mingled with articulate but specious arguments in favor of traditional conservative opinions.

The first half of the book, made of the first 8 essays, is the better half. His arguments in these essays about the limits of law are based on evidence, as when he uses the conflicting conclusions reached by medical studies and the legal system in the Benedictin cases in the 80s and 90s to argue that courts are bad places to decide essentially scientific questions.

In the second half of essays, he begins to twist logic and ignore evidence in order to forcefully insist on the positions he’s adopted.

He claims that the states have changed since the Civil Rights Era, and so there’s no need to worry about devolving power from the federal government to them, ignoring the many groups — women, the LGBT community, non-Christians, immigrants — whose rights the states routinely trample on.

He dismisses Proportional Representation to elect legislators as absurd and unworkable, despite its use in the majority of democratic countries around the world.

In one of the last essays, he goes so far as to say that pushing power down from the federal level to the lowest level possible — county or city — is an alloyed good, a goal to be pursued even if the evidence shows that it makes things worse.

Despite the uneven nature of the essays, though, I did learn a few things:

  • In product liability cases, defendants that rely on statistical evidence are more likely to lose in jury trials.
  • Making employers check their employees’ immigration status is an example of private gatekeeping: when the government delegates part of its regulation powers to private individuals.
  • Modern mass tort litigation (in the US) is only a few decades old. It was basically invented in 1969, and continues to be a cobbled together reaction to the fact that a single company can now affect so many lives all at once.

Slapped in the Face with the Answer

Novel’s at 68,869 words.

My characters are smarter than me.

Throughout writing this book, there’s been a couple of weak links in the chain of my original outline. Places where various plot threads didn’t quite meet up. I’ve been debating — and discarding — different ways to resolve them, but never quite hit on the right way.

That is, until not one, but two of my characters told me the solution.

One of them did it quite early on, but I dismissed it as too easy a way out.

But this week, another character told me the same thing. This time, I listened.

It creeped me out a little, because they handed me both the solution and the justification for it. It ties all the plot threads together, makes sense of the entire chain of events, and deepens the conflict at the same time.

It’s beautiful, but even though it came from one of my characters, it doesn’t feel like my idea.

I’m using it anyway, though.

Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

Fantastic. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve been a Chuck Wendig fan ever since Blackbirds (you have read Blackbirds, haven’t you?). Nor am I saying that because his blog is a fountain of NSFW writing inspiration (though it is).

I’m saying that because it’s a Star Wars book that tells a great story, fills in some of the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, and manages to feel like a Star Wars movie in novel form. That’s a tough balancing act, and kudos to Wendig for pulling it off.

Here’s what I learned about writing from it:

  • Don’t be afraid to be opinionated in giving description. It can help keep things brief while still being vivid.
  • Part of what makes a hero feel scrappy is not things going right, but things going wrong, all the time. Little blunders and bad luck that they just manage to survive make them feel more real and keep the reader rooting for them.
  • You can frame the start of scenes just like framing a shot in a movie. Think of a character’s head popping through a hatch, or opening on a lightsaber glowing in the darkness. Can be a visual hook into the rest of the chapter.

How to Fix Revenge of the Sith

Almost done with the prequels. Thankfully this is the best of three, though given the generally low standards of the first two that isn’t saying much.

What Went Wrong

I’d be remiss if I didn’t once more point to the most comprehensive take down of these movies.

Most of the problems with Revenge of the Sith are carryovers from mistakes made in the first two movies, emotional beats that fail to land with as much impact as they should because the foundation work for them hasn’t been done.

For example, PadmĂ© and Anakin’s romance should feel tragic, with Anakin’s concern for her driving them apart even as they try to keep their growing family a secret. But their interaction in Attack of the Clones was so still and formal, it’s hard to believe either of them would miss the other, except that the plot calls for them to. Instead, their “love story” feels like a piece of background that Lucas wanted slotted into place, as cold and unfeeling as a CGI’d starship.

Even Count Dooku’s death, which should be a pivotal moment, is treated so perfunctory that it feels trivial, just one more Sith slain by a righteous Jedi. No big deal.

How to Fix It

For starters, we need to make the changes I outlined previously, for the first two movies.

This means there’s no Count Dooku in this one. He died in Attack of the Clones, a tragic end for a renegade that thought he was doing the right thing.

We also have to continue rewriting the scenes between Padmé and Anakin. Two people in love, hiding their child from their superiors, should display a lot more fear and desperation than they do. We need to see their relationship deepen and grow, despite their need to keep it in the shadows.

It would help if we got some hint that Padmé made an effort to hide her relationship with Anakin. We should see her dating other men, or dropping hints that she was being courted by someone else, to deflect attention from the young Jedi that apparently spends every night in her quarters.

Ditto for Anakin. We need to see him lying to the other Jedi, making excuses and begging away from assignments that would make him leave the capital. We need to feel the danger that Anakin and PadmĂ© are in, and how far they’ve already gone to maintain their relationship. So when we see Anakin slipping to the Dark Side in order to save her, its one more small step along the path that he’s been on for years.

We also need to see more tension between Anakin and Palpatine, preferably over PadmĂ©. As a Senator that’s presumably alarmed at the direction the Republic is going, we should witness her at her work: campaigning for re-election (with Palpatine possibly campaigning for her rival), lobbying for support for bills from her other Senators (bills that would likely reduce Palpatine’s authority), giving interviews with the media to support her position.

All of this should make Palpatine grit his teeth, and Anakin should be constantly defending PadmĂ© to the Chancellor. It’d be one more sign to the audience of his feelings for PadmĂ©, and it would tip off Palpatine to the significance of Anakin’s devotion.

And once Palpatine realizes that, he decides to kill Padmé.

That’s the final change we make. The visions Anakin sees of PadmĂ© dying are not of her “losing the will to live” — which is frankly insulting for such a headstrong character — but of Palpatine draining her life force.

We know Palpatine has manipulated the Jedi’s visions of the future before. He decides to kill PadmĂ©, knowing the visions of her in danger will drive Anakin further down the path to the Dark Side.

His plan is originally to blame her death on the Jedi, pushing Anakin to break with them for good. But when he finds Anakin near death after his fight with Obi-Wan, he drains her life force and uses it to keep Anakin alive, in a single stroke sustaining his most powerful apprentice and sealing Anakin’s allegiance to him.

Emerging from the Shadows

Novel’s at 66,694 words.

This week’s events have thrown more light onto the villain of the novel: what he wants, how far he’s willing to go to get it, and just how long he’s been planning to take it.

One of my protagonists is gone. The other has to carry on mostly alone now, and I don’t know if she can survive. She’s out of her depth, and she’ll need all the allies she can find — or cajole — to win this one.

Here’s hoping.