Keeping Score: April 9, 2021

Writing this past week has been…well, difficult is too small a word for it. When my motivation for even getting out of bed has been snuffed out, it’s impossible to convince myself that the words I’m setting down are worth anything.

And yet they must be written. Because who knows how long this funk will last, and in the meantime the novel needs to be completed. Need to get this draft done, this junk draft, so that I’ll have something to edit later. Not that I’m looking forward to later, exactly, but I know it’s coming.

Thank goodness I stopped being an inspiration writer — that is, someone who writes only when inspired to — a good while ago. Because at the moment, inspiration isn’t just hard to summon for me, it’s completely gone. I’m writing like someone re-learning how to walk: laying down one word at a time, till a sentence is formed, and then moving on to the next. Word by word, line by line. Till my daily word count is reached, and I close the laptop.

I’m not blocked. I’m not afraid of the scene I’m working on. I’m just depressed.

I’m trying different things to lighten my mood, of course. I started walking in the mornings again, and I can now vouch for the runner’s high as a way to trick my body’s chemistry into lifting the sadness for a bit. It’s doesn’t last, but for a little while I feel…not normal, but I stop feeling like crying all the time.

Crying is a constant danger at the moment. Anytime I’m left with my thoughts for too long, I start to tear up. Which makes writing dangerous, in a way; I’ve got to think to put these words together, but every time I start to imagine the scene before me, my thoughts will veer into taking an inventory of all the reasons I’m worthless and unneeded, and I break down again. I know it’s my brain inventing reasons for my sadness, but still. It’s surprisingly good at it!

And trying to do the opposite — take inventory of all the things I have to be happy about — doesn’t help, either, because it just gives me a list of reasons I’m an ungrateful wretch for daring to be sad.

There’s no winning here. There’s just endurance, and a hope that it will pass. I’ve had dark moods before — never this bad, but still — and they’ve all come and gone like clouds in a thunderstorm. This one will, too, given time. I hope.

Short Book Reviews: March 2021

Ok, I didn’t get this posted in time for the end of March, but better late then never, eh?

Continuing the theme of posting short reviews of the things I read each month, here’s what I’ve consumed since last time, again in reverse order (so, the most recent book first):

Seven-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M Valente

The first book is also one I couldn’t finish. I love the premise of this book: a Western retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. And Valente is one of my favorite authors! Should have been right up my alley.

But the whole thing is written in dialect, which is annoying for me at the best of times. And when it’s an author from the Northeast trying (emphasis on the trying) to write an entire novella in a Southwestern accent, this Texan just can’t take it.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

This one I enjoyed! Very well-crafted fantasy. Hard to say anything without spoiling the plot, but basically it weaves in themes from Frankenstein, the Wizard of Oz, multiverses, and time travel (of a sort…you’ll see) to construct something wholly original. I’ll be studying this one for pointers on style and craft.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

I didn’t think it was possible to make a compelling single-monster horror. But Jones has done it, and done it with characters and traditions (Blackfeet and Crow) you don’t normally find in American literature. This one was so good I read it all in one gulp, in a single day.

Four Lost Cities, by Annalee Newitz

Another one I wanted to like, but couldn’t get through. It’s supposed to be a survey of four historical cities that, for various reasons, were abandoned, even after long periods of growth and popularity. It promised some insights into the debates we’re starting to have about the sustainability of modern cities, and whether climate change will mean their inevitable decline.

Instead, I kept running into mischaracterizations and outright mistakes. One glaring error is in the location of Pompeii, which the author has right in the text but wrong on the maps. One mischaracterization is the author projecting the myth of the noble savage onto the population of an ancient city, even after they relay an exchange with an expert that lays bare the flaws of their assumption!

I can’t read nonfiction that I can’t trust, so I put this one down.

Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner

Wrote about this one last week. Recommended for anyone that’s even thinking of writing horror.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

King mentions in the intro to this one that he wrote this book partially because he wanted to see if it was possible to wed a literary story about a small Maine town with a Dracula-inspired vampire tale. That duality runs throughout the book, with passages that wouldn’t be out of place in the New Yorker followed by harrowing chapters filled with dread. So in reading it, I felt like I was watching the evolution of King the writer in real time, with his literary aspirations slowly giving way to his mastery of horror techniques.

Oh, and the story absolutely still works, even after all this time!

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Holy shit, this one. Another book that hooked me from the first page, and held me until I’d swallowed it all in a single day. An absolutely brilliant — and ambiguous — take on Lovecraftian horror. I immediately went and ordered more LaValle after finishing it.

Genghis Kahn by Paul Ratchnevsky

Another book I picked up after it was referenced on Not as readable as The Mongol Art of War, but covers similar ground. Interesting for insights into how Genghis built up his empire, via political manuevering as shrewd policy as much as through battle.

Keeping Score: April 2, 2021

I feel like I’ve been to a horror workshop this past week.

It started with reading Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark, effectively a textbook (complete with exercises!) for writing better horror stories. He breaks down the different sub-genres, he explores what distinguishes horror from other types of fiction, and he pulls back the curtain on different techniques to use in horror to produce different effects.

I’ve read other writing books before — and will read more, I’ll take advice wherever I can find it — and always come away with at least one or two changes to make to the way I write. Writing in the Dark was no different in that respect, but it went one step further: It changed the way I read.

Shortly after finishing it, I picked up a copy of Salem’s Lot. I realized I haven’t been reading much horror lately, so I thought going back to one of the classics would be a good way to dive in.

And I was right, but not in the way I’d intended. Because instead of just noticing things like the parallels in the story to the original Dracula, or getting sucked into the story — both of which happened, it’s still a damn fine book — I started noticing things about the way King wrote it. Places where he was writing in a more literary voice, versus genre. Places where he slowed time down by writing everything out in minute detail, to ramp up tension. Places where he shifted point of view. How in the more “horror” chapters, he wrote in a perspective that clung tightly to one character’s train of thought, to show their reactions to what was happening, which is where dread lives. Often those chapters had very little happen in them at all, but the characters reacted to them as if they were scared out of their wits, and thus carried the reader with them.

It was like Waggoner was standing over my shoulder as I read, pointing to passages and remarking on the techniques being used in each. I could still appreciate the story King was telling, still feel the chill of being hunted by an ancient vampire in a New England fall. But I could also see how he was telling the story, and think about how I could use those techniques in my own fiction.

Next I read Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians, a horror novel which came out just last year. I had the same experience with it, though — at least for me — the seams were less visible in this one. That is, it was harder for me to pull myself out of it, and see how it was built. But it was still possible, and I noticed both some of the same techniques King used and others being brought to bear, techniques more commonly used for monster books, which Jones’ is (and King’s wasn’t).

I’m now reading Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, and having much the same experience. Loving the story, falling into the book, but on the way, paying attention to the way she’s telling the tale, from sentence length to parenthetical remarks to event ordering (no spoilers, you’ll need to pick up a copy and read it). It’s another finely constructed book, and I feel I’m appreciating it on a whole different level (and learning from it).

All of which is to say: I’ve started drafting a new horror story (finally).

It’s the one I’ve been outlining forever, afraid to commit it to (electronic) paper. This week I took the plunge, working on it after my words for the novel were done for the day. I’m drafting it in much the same way as the novel, working scatter-shot, drawing up bits of dialog before anything else, and then stitching it all together.

But this time, I’m consciously thinking about the different horror techniques I’ve seen, and looking for ways to apply them. So after finishing the dialog and blocking for one section, I went back and added in the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, to pull the perspective tighter in on them. I’m also not shying away from characters in conflict, or physically fighting; taking the time to block the sequences in my head and then setting them down. Because in this story, at least, there will be pain, and there will be blood. And if my protagonist is not going to flinch, neither can I.

It’s still the first draft, so it’s going to need a lot of editing, but I’m already feeling better about it. More confident. Like I’m writing in a more deliberate mode, more aware of what I’m doing, and why. Here’s hoping my confidence is justified, once it’s done.

Keeping Score: March 26, 2021

Novel’s at 38,160 words. The snippets I’m working on are starting to spill over into the next chapter; I’m already scoping out the reactions of the characters to the events of the section I’m working on.

Meanwhile, this section is winding down. And I’m getting the feeling that much of it — most of it, even — might be cut in the next draft. I mean, do I really need to describe how a character makes their camp dinner in such detail? And yet, if I don’t do it, I won’t know that they keep flour in this jar over there, and that they constantly gather firewood as they travel, so they have a stock of it ready to go when needed. Details like that would be completely lost, if I didn’t make a hash out of describing every little action right now. So I keep doing it, knowing that what I’m writing now will likely be cut, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be used.

I’m also…well, I’m debating whether to let one of my characters give A Speech at the end of this chapter. They have the words for it — I’ve already written the points they want to hammer home — they have the audience, they have the space and the time. But does the book have the tone for it?

I usually shy away from having characters make big speeches, or monologues. Blame part of it on a Gen-X thing: I treat displays of sincere emotion with suspicion. Blame another part on my preacher of a father, whose pompous, hypocritical sermons turned me off to religion altogether.

So I’m always pushing my characters to speak more naturally, to take any Great Wisdom they want to lay down and either show it through their actions or weave it into their dialog some other way.

But this time…this time I might let them just say what they want to say. Certainly the situation calls for it: a young girl is about to be pushed into an apprenticeship that will change her life, take her away from the family and the place she’s always known and send her criss-crossing the world with her mentor. And all because of a decision she made to pursue vengeance for her father’s death, that led to a near-deadly encounter with a dragon, and now this. Such sweeping changes, they call for a little more weight to the dialog, yes?

Oof, I’m uncertain. I’ll write the speech, I think, and see how it plays. I can always change it later, right?

Keeping Score: March 19, 2021

Ye gods, the Daylight Savings Time switch walloped me this week. It’s like I was finally adapting to 2021 — working on the novel, editing short stories, plotting out a new story — and then DST yanks an hour out from under me, robbing me of just enough energy that I’ve been struggling just to hit my daily word count.

I’ve basically been slow-motion jet-lagged all week. I really wish we would stop doing this to ourselves.

The good news is that (thanks to beta readers) I now have not one, but two stories under submission. Just waiting for their little pink slips of rejection to come back 😅

I kid, but really, it feels good to have them out there. Statistically, they will get rejected from each magazine I send them to, which is how I steel myself for it. But I like these stories. I believe in these stories. There’s a market for them, somewhere, and the only way I can find it is by sending them out.

Meanwhile, the novel’s climbed to 36,789 words. I’m starting to connect up the snippets of dialog I’ve written for the ending scenes of this section, which means I’m having to actually worry about things like “How would they have treated this wound in this time period?” and “How badly injured is the protagonist, anyway?”

I am definitely getting some of these details wrong. I do not know enough about wounds, or medical care on the Central Asian steppe in the 18th century, or early modern firearms, or…really, so much. But I know enough to write something down, something I can come back and fix later, so that’s what I’m doing.

It helps for me to think of this not as the first draft, but as the trash draft. The draft I know I’m going to mess up on, and revise extensively later. No one’s going to see this draft but me. I’m going to finish it, and then do the research needed to get each section right. Hell, some of these scenes I’m flubbing might not even be needed, and so they’ll get cut. Which would make taking the time to get them exactly right now a waste.

So it’s onward! Screwing up as I go, laying down the raw material I’ll shape into something better via editing.

Keeping Score: March 12, 2021

I don’t think I’m good at coming up with story titles. Mine tend to end up either very much on the nose — my first published story, “Wishr,” is named for the company at which it takes place — or become horrible puns, like “There Will Be Bugs” (I know).

So in trying to come up with a new title for the story I’ve been editing, I wanted to branch out from my usual process. Started brainstorming, just listing out things as they came into my head.

At first, most of them were more of the same (I really am fond of puns). But then I thought back to short stories I’ve read and liked recently, and their titles, and realized: The ones I liked the best (titles, not stories) were ones that fit the story, but where I didn’t understand how they fit until after I finished reading the piece.

So I shifted my brainstorm, away from trying to convince a reader to read the story (by telling them what’s inside it) and towards giving readers a new insight into the story after it’s been read. And voilà! I found my new title.

I’ve got some beta reader feedback to process (on the story as a whole) this weekend, and then the story will be ready for submission, shiny title and all.

Meanwhile, I keep moving ahead with the novel, which is sitting at 35,380 words. I’m past the big climactic scene, and into the aftermath, where the consequences of the protagonist’s actions come due, and her life changes forever.

This part introduces a new character who becomes a major part of the protag’s life. So after filling in the rest of the climactic scene, I’m back to sketching what comes next, setting down fragments of conversation and description as they come to me.

I’m trying to consciously develop a different voice for this character, a distinct way of looking at the world, so it’s obvious she comes from a different part of it than the protagonist. Which means I’m focusing on dialog first, nailing down the back-and-forth between her and the protag before handling any action.

I’m also getting close to the end of this section of the book. 21,000 words and counting to cover just a few days in the protagonist’s life. Important days, to be sure: You only get one first encounter with a dragon! Even once I read the end of this section, though, I’ve still got some gaps left in the earlier parts of it that I’ll need to close, stitching everything together.

And once that’s done? On to the next big section, which will leap years ahead in time, and thousands of miles across the Earth’s surface. Let’s hope I don’t get lost along the way!

Keeping Score: March 5, 2021

Novel’s still chugging along, currently at 33,884 words. I’ve pushed through the first big scene, and am well into the second.

There’s…well, there’s individual pieces of the sequence that are still missing, some connective tissue that I have yet to write. The technique I’ve been using, of skipping around to write those scenes (or sometimes fragments of scenes) that I feel like adding, has a that cost. Eventually I have to go back and write in everything I skipped.

But for now, it’s all big scene all the time, and no connective tissue…yet.

However, the big news this week is that I’ve finally cracked open a story I’ve been working on for nearly four years now. That one started out as just a character and a situation, a piece of backstory for the novel I wanted to write. But it never worked quite as well as I wanted it to, so I’ve kept tinkering with it (and submitting it while tinkering with it, which is a habit I need to break).

Tim Waggoner, during his 15-minute (!) workshop back in January, pointed me to the central problem that was holding up everything else: the motivation for my main character wasn’t strong enough. So on weekends I’ve been brainstorming different ways to go, different versions of the character that would have a stronger push for their actions.

I finally hit on one this weekend that I liked, and in the process of editing the story to match, everything fell into place. I ended up cutting away about half of the story’s word-count, focusing in on just three scenes. But in those scenes I not only lay out the main character’s motivation, I fill in the secondary characters, giving them more life and depth. And I shifted the ending, so it’s now both more complete (in the sense that the current narrative arc ends) and more open-ended (in that the world’s evolution past the story is implied).

I’m going to do one more editing pass this weekend, to clean up language and make sure it all fits together properly. I’d like to have it ready to submit in time for Nightmare Magazine re-opening to submissions later this month.

I need a new title, though; the old one doesn’t fit anymore. Anyone have any tips or tricks for choosing a title you can share in the comments?

Post-Game: Stephen Blackmoore’s Critiquing 101 Class

So this weekend I attended another online writing class, this one from author Stephen Blackmoore (of the Eric Carter series) on how to give and receive feedback in critiques. I’ve been exchanging feedback with other writers for a while now, but never really had any instruction on how best to do it; my techniques have been cobbled together from blog posts and Litreactor guidelines. I wanted to see if, frankly, I’ve been doing it right, or if I’ve been failing my fellow authors by giving them the wrong type of feedback.

It was Blackmoore’s first time giving the class, so it went a little longer than anticipated: 2.5 hours instead of just 2. But those two-hours-and-change were packed with excellent advice.

Some of it I’d learned the hard way, like focusing on the positive when pointing out problems. Or remembering that at the end of the day, the story belongs to the author, which goes both ways: you don’t have to act on all the feedback you get, and you can’t expect other writers to act on yours, either.

But the vast majority of Blackmoore’s advice were things that I had some sense of, but didn’t have a good way of thinking about. Like how you should treat each work not as good or bad, but as either complete or incomplete. A story that doesn’t seem to be working isn’t garbage, it’s just a piece that needs polishing. The difference between bad and good isn’t necessarily one of value (in the work or the artist), it’s a matter of time and effort.

All in all, I took almost twenty pages (!) of notes. Blackmoore did more than cover general ways to handle feedback, he also did a detailed break down of six different aspects of a story to examine when offering a critique, and ways to identify — and talk about — problems in each one.

In short, it was a fantastic class, and one I wish I’d had years ago, before I tried to offer any other writer feedback on their work. I highly recommend taking it if you can, when he offers it again. And I’m going to start incorporating his advice into how I give critiques to others going forward.

Keeping Score: February 26, 2021

Novel’s up to 32,300 words!

It’s been easier to write this week. My wife’s recovered from her vaccine ordeal, and is well on her way to hitting her two-week full-strength-protection mark. Neither of us have picked up anything in the meantime, so — touches wood — we should be ok to ride out the rest of the pandemic.

I also got back in the habit of writing in the mornings, which seems to help. Something about trying to switch gears one more time, at the end of the day, makes it that much harder to focus on the story. Harder to think about where it’s going, and what I want to describe along the way.

Finally, I think it helps that I’m facing down the two scenes in this sequence that scare me the most to write. They’re both action scenes, which I consider a weakness of mine. And they’re both emotionally fraught for the main character. In one of them, she winds up losing an animal companion she’s had since she was a little girl. In the second, she’s seeking — but not necessarily finding — vengeance for her father’s death.

These are big, tentpole scenes. I need them to move quickly, to feel realistic, and also to hit readers right in the feels. Which means on top of my normal first-draft anxiety, I’m worried about building up to scenes that fall completely flat. Or scenes that are laughably implausible. Or scenes that make it all seem too easy on the protagonist.

Even success, in a sense, is rough. Writing scenes like these — where the emotional stakes are high for the characters, and it can end in a broken heart — are hard on me, too. Because I live through everything they experience; I have to, in order to put it down on the page. So I feel the knot in my chest when their father dies. My own tears well up when they have to put down one of their closest friends.

So I’ve been putting them off. Writing around the scenes, so to speak. And there’s been plenty of other things to cover! But now I’ve got to write them, so I can move ahead with the story.

And somehow, once I’m in the scene, writing it, it becomes easier. Easier to picture what’s happening, and easier to describe it. Easier to say what the impact of it all is. So I end up writing more, and more quickly, than before.

It’s almost like my fear of the thing is worse than the thing itself?

Of course, this is still just the first draft. It might feel easier to write it once I’m in it, but it could still all be terrible writing. I won’t know till it’s done.

How about you? Are there particular types of scenes that you put off writing, for whatever reason? How do you overcome your hesitation?

Movie Rewrites: Iron Eagle

My wife and I are only six years apart in age, and yet our childhood pop culture was completely different.

For example, I know if she starts singing along to a song I don’t recognize, it’s a 1970s radio hit. She knows all about The Partridge Family and Three’s Company, shows I’ve heard of but never seen. Minstrel hobo chic is her fashion jam.

But move into the 1980s, and the roles reverse. She’s never seen Fraggle Rock or Duck Tales. Doesn’t know Bon Jovi or Journey (or Def Leppard or R.E.M. or Bauhaus or New Order or….).

So we’ve made an effort to introduce each other to our respective pop landscapes. It’s interesting to find places where we overlap (MacGyver) as well as the gaps (I’d never even heard of The Rockford Files before her, and she had no clue why I was so excited to hear that She-Ra was getting rebooted on Netflix).

All of which is to say, we watched Iron Eagle this week, as part of introducing her to 80s movies I loved as a kid. And it did not hold up well.

What I remember as a scrappy-kids-rescue-the-grownups movie, a sort of Goonies adventure with higher stakes and fighter jets, is actually a harrowing tale of how a group of teenagers infiltrate a military base, steal a bunch of weapons, then invade a sovereign country, kill dozens of members of its military, and destroy a major oil refinery, all for one downed American pilot (who was violating the country’s airspace).

Questionable morals aside, that might be forgiven, if it were at a good movie. But…it’s not. The Eagles are thinly sketched, the lead has no charisma, the timeline is way too short (only three days between “go away kid” and “you’re the finest young man I know”??), and the climatic battle with the “villain” is just ridiculous.

Only Louis Gossett Jr comes out well. His character isn’t written any better than the others, but he’s just so damn good as an actor that he breathes life into Chappy through sheer force of will.

But! We talked it over, and we think the movie’s salvageable. At this point it’d be a reboot, but that’s ok; it gives us license to do the extensive rewrite the movie needs.

What to Keep

Chappy. Chappy Chappy Chappy. He’s the real heart of the movie, the mentor tying everything together, and that needs to stay. We need someone with the right mix of charisma, maturity, and gravitas that can play him, like Denzel Washington.

We also keep the central conflict of the story: Military pilot is shot down in a hostile country and held captive. Their eldest kid and that kid’s friends — with Chappy — plan and execute a bold rescue mission.

I also like the story of how Chappy first met Doug’s dad. It’s sad, but true, that a Black man getting mistaken for janitorial staff is just as plausible in 2021 as it was in 1986.

We also keep the idea of The Eagles Flight Club as a place where certain military brats hang out, and as a group of friends to help with the rescue.

And we’ll keep the general sequence of how the final third of the movie plays out, with Doug ending up on his own for the rescue mission (accompanied only by Chappy’s voice) after things go wrong, the attempted blackmail of the country’s leaders to free his dad, and the need to evade a pursuing force once he’s got his dad in the plane with him (but more on that later).

What to Change

So, we’ve kept the bones of the story: A military-brat teenager is going to get help from his group of friends and an older pilot to go on a daring rescue mission in a foreign country using aircraft. But we need to shift things so that it’s both more realistic and less jingoistic.

We start by altering the nature of the Eagles Flying Club. Instead of being a bunch of military brats who have “the whole base rigged,” it’s a group of kids who work on and fly old planes. That airplane graveyard that Doug takes his date to? That’s their source material, where they go to get good deals (because their parents don’t make a lot) on parts and planes that they then fix up and fly. So right away, we position Doug and his friends as clever, hardworking underdogs, not bratty teens.

We also need to up the diversity in the casting. Half of the Eagles should be women. There should be more than one PoC. The US military (and thus, military families) is diverse, and we should show that on screen. Ideally, the Doug character himself is not White.

Okay, so now we’ve got the casting, and the reason the friends hang out put together. Now we give them an early challenge, to show who they are and how they work together: the Snake Race scene. But we make a few alterations: the bullies are not just bullies, they’re fellow military brats. But their parents are wealthier (higher-up officers), so the planes they fly are expensive and new, not the buckets of junk the Eagles cobble together. The main bully got in to the Air Force Academy, while Doug was shut out.

So when the main bully taunts Doug about his rejection letter, it’s the culmination of a lifetime rivalry for these kids. And when Doug accepts his challenge to race, the stakes are high in terms of pride: it’s the Eagle’s junkyard plane against the bully’s new Cessna. No motorcycles involved.

Doug still has to take the (shorter) risky route, because the bully’s new plane flies straight and fast down the (longer) easy way. And that’s how he wins the race, because he and his friends have modified the old plane to perform better under such stressful conditions.

Just a few small tweaks, and we’ve taken this scene from “why is this in here? is that a motorcycle in a movie about planes?” to “oh shit there’s no way they can beat that fast new plane in that hunk of junk.”

Then, just as they’re celebrating their victory, they get the news: Doug’s dad has been shot down.

Here we keep a lot of the beats from the movie, but we spread them out over time, and we don’t have anyone just waltz into a Situation Room and get access to Top Secret reports and a high-ranking Air Force officer. The Air Force stonewalls Doug and his family; they get most of their information from news broadcasts (yay, journalism!). All they know is where he got shot down, and why, and that the government is negotiating for his release (or worse: the government is not negotiating for his release, because “they don’t negotiate with terrorists, and that includes rogue states”).

A month passes. Not three days, not a few hours, a full month. Doug spirals, spending more and more time in the simulator, ignoring his friends, going through the motions with his family.

It’s Chappy that pulls him out of it. Chappy that chews him out after that he takes up the Colonel’s simulator time (and Doug is mouthy about it). Chappy that takes gives him a job, working with him at the local commercial airstrip.

And it’s a story from Chappy, about a rescue op that almost went bad, that inspires Doug to mount a rescue for his dad. Not one that uses military equipment, though. What he imagines is a stealth mission, where they get in and get out without being caught or recognized.

Because the head of the military in the country that’s holding his dad is a fan of…old aircraft. He has a collection of old planes that he’s bought from various places over the years, painted and fixed up. He likes to take them out himself, without any guards, just for the thrill of it.

So that’s how the Eagles plan to get into the country’s airspace: They build copies of some of the planes in the enemy general’s collection, so they can pretend to be just him on a joy ride.

No theft of military hardware needed, this time. No hijinks on the base that would end up with the kids spending their lives inside a military prison if they got caught. Just good old fashioned elbow grease and research.

They do still need some military intelligence, though, to track where Doug’s dad is being held and the disposition of the country’s air defenses (so they know how to fool them). This they have to steal — or maybe Chappy provides it? — but that’s it.

Chappy’s role is still advice and planning. He knows the hardware they’ll be up against, knows how to teach them to avoid triggering any reaction that will get them killed. But he doesn’t have to aid and abet them ripping off the US military, this time.

He also doesn’t go. His role during the mission is going to be monitoring everything from the ground, pulling up fresh intel as they need it, and coordinating everyone. He doesn’t fly any of the old planes they fix up. That’s what the Eagles are for.

This lets us continue to fill out the Eagles as characters (because they’re in the film more) and gives us more possibilities for the rescue (because they’re part of the mission now).

So, they spend weeks (not days) planning the rescue, and working on the planes (to make them match the enemy leader’s collection). They contact other Eagles Flying Clubs around the world — thanks to the internet, there’s franchises all around — to have a place to stop, refuel, and repair on the way from the US to the country where Doug’s dad is being held.

Just as they’re putting the finishing touches on the plan, that’s when they hear that Doug’s dad is going to be executed in three days. So we get the scene where Doug can’t sleep and Chappy shares war stories with him, but this is after their relationship has been built up over time, so it’s both more believable and more poignant.

They set off! Things are bumpy from the beginning, of course. One of the old planes starts having engine trouble over the Atlantic, and only just touches down on the borrowed runway in rural Spain (cue shots of sheep running from the incoming planes). So they have to leave it behind, along with its Eagle pilot (to repair it and fly it home).

They lose another plane as they’re crossing the Mediterranean, getting close to the country where Doug’s dad is being held. A sudden fog blows in, and one of the plane’s instruments starts malfunctioning. Unable to see, its pilot is forced to climb up and out of the fog, which uses up too much fuel. It’s forced to turn back.

Only Doug’s plane is left. He thinks about turning back himself; there’s no way the plan will work with just one plane. Chappy gives him the “I’m right there in the cockpit with you” speech, bolstering his confidence.

He makes it over the border successfully, and when contacted by ground control manages to fool them into thinking he’s part of the leader’s entourage. He heads for the prison.

This is when they switch deceptions (and where the other planes would have been handy). As he closes into the prison, Doug switches on an electronics package his Eagles worked up. At the same time, another Eagle on a fishing boat off the coast unfurls a huge makeshift radar dish on deck, and activates another one. We see the air control at the base near the prison react to seeing an American warship appear off their coast, followed by a radar ping off an F-18 (!) deep in their airspace.

Then Doug contacts the prison, issuing his threat: He’s part of a strike force sent to get his dad out. If the captured pilot isn’t put in his flight suit and set on the tarmac within an hour, the warship will start launching cruise missiles at strategic targets in the country.

The prison scrambles to comply, while contacting the leader for instructions. The leader is skeptical; he orders them to go ahead and release the American, but to set snipers over the runway and prepare their own fighter craft.

Hearing that they’re moving his dad, Doug relays the next part of the plan: His fighter is going back to the warship, and the pilot will be picked up by a civilian aircraft. He switches off his electronics package, and the “F-18” vanishes from their radar.

This makes the leader deeply suspicious. He orders visual confirmation of the warship’s presence. A scout plane is duly launched, headed to the coast to confirm.

Meanwhile, Doug prepares to land. Watches them take his father out of the prison, shove him into a jeep, and wheel him down the runway. He makes his final turn, landing gear down.

And then the scout plane spots the “warship” in the bay: Just a fishing boat, with a smiling, waving, Eagle in it.

The leader orders the snipers to fire, just as Doug touches down.

His dad falls, shot through the shoulder. Panicked and enraged, Doug lifts off again, followed by machine gun fire. He looks back at the runway, sees his dad moving, pulling himself along till he’s behind the jeep, using it for shelter.

Doug can’t leave him there. Thinking quickly, he flies back over the runway, a little down from where his dad is. Drops his spare fuel tank, which explodes on contact, creating a wall of fire on the tarmac that obscures the vision of the snipers. Under its cover, he’s able to land, grab his dad, and take off again.

But they’re not safe. Three enemy fighters from the base set off in pursuit. Doug doesn’t have any weapons, so it’s just his flying against theirs, as they race for the coast.

And it seems like he’s bested them! They’re almost to the Mediterranean, when six more fighters show up ahead of them on radar. They’re caught.

That’s when we hear the American accent crackle over the radio, letting the enemy fighters (and Doug) know the six planes ahead are real F-18s, and suggesting they do not engage with Doug’s plane.

The enemy fighters break off, not wanting to take on such odds. The Americans offer to escort Doug back to base. Doug follows, though he wonders what base they’re referring to.

…Which is revealed as they pass back through the fog near the coast, and come out the other side, where an aircraft carrier is waiting!

Along with Chappy, who “convinced a Navy friend of his” who “was going to be in the neighborhood” to let him come along (and bring his carrier).

And that’s how they work up the cover story for the rescue: The aircraft carrier strike group carried it out, not the Eagles. This gives the military the win, and lets the Eagles off the hook for the whole thing.

There you have it! An updated Iron Eagle, ready for remake in the 21st Century. We keep the emotional heart of the story, and many of the beats, but we deepen the characterization, broaden the representation, and up the realism.

sits by phone, waiting for Hollywood to call