The Way of the Word

25. July 2010

Review: Tod Goldberg – Burn Notice: The Giveaway

Filed under: books,review,TV — jensaltmann @ 14:58
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Originally published in 2010. Based on the TV show.

His name is Michael Westen. He used to be a spy. Until he got a Burn Notice on him and was out of the business. Now he lives in Miami and helps people out while he tries to figure out how to get back in.

In this adventure, Michael helps out his friend Barry the money launderer. Barry has a friend, Bruce, who is a thief. Bruce robbed the wrong people — the biker gang The Ghouls. Now there’s a price on Bruce’s head, and he needs Michael’s help to get out of this mess. Michael’s solution: fake Bruce’s death and incite a gang war between the Ghouls and their greatest rivals, so that they’re otherwise occupied. Unfortunately, things rarely go as planned…

The Giveaway is the third tie-in novel to the popular TV series. It is so far the best. Previously, Goldberg did a creditable job writing the main character, Michael Westen, it had just been that the voices for the supporting cast of Sam Axe and Fiona Glenanne felt a bit off. Practice clearly makes perfect, because this time Goldberg nails the voices of the entire cast. The result is a very fun pulpish adventure that is difficult to put down and really captures the feel and pacing of the TV show, up to and including the various character quirks of this admittedly very quirky cast of characters. The only problem is that the novel’s climax seems somewhat forced, as if Goldberg suddenly realized that he was running out of space and had to wrap things up right now.

The Giveaway would work very well as an episode of the TV show. That is both to the novel’s credit and detriment. Credit, because when I read a tie-in novel to a TV show, I actually want the source to be evoked. Detriment, because it doesn’t take the best advantage of the different medium to tell the kind of story that, even for simple budget reasons, the TV show couldn’t.

Verdict: recommended.


Made of Fail Backstory: Amy’s Writing Gig

Today’s Made of Fail strip marks the conclusion of a 5-part storyarc. Which became a 5 part arc by accident, as I had planned things a bit differently.

By the way, clicking on any of the links in this post will take you directly to the strip under discussion.

The arc kicks off with Ignored. Wherin I spoof the ages-old wisdom that if you’re unhappy with what’s going on, you are supposed to make yourself heard by writing in. That wisdom doesn’t take into account that once you’ve been identified as someone who constantly complains about something, people will ignore you.

The story arc that followed was originally intended to run independently, at a much later date. But because of Marvel publishing the O.M.I.T. story in Spider-Man, and the end of BND being announced, I decided to run it a bit sooner than that. So how did Ignored become a part of this story arc? By virtue of working flawlessly as a lead-in. Be honest: if you didn’t know better now, wouldn’t you think that Amy’s implied constant letter writing resulted in the events that  follow?

The one that follows is The Deal. Where Amy gets the chance to put her money where her mouth is and prove that she can write a better Spider-Man. Amy, like the entire cast, is an amalgamation of various real people. Some of whom are very vocal (to the point of being OCD) regarding the current direction. And yes, I’m almost surprised that Quesada and Wacker have never come up with the idea of telling the one or two loudest complainers to do better.

You might wonder why I clipped and pasted headshots of Joe Quesada and Steve Wacker into the strip. It’s simply: I can’t draw. I originally got those pictures for the purpose of visual reference. Then I tried to draw their likeness. I failed so totally that I decided to do what I had already done twice during season one, and just paste the pictures into the strip. If I could draw better, I’d have drawn them instead.

Writing the Best-Selling Spider-Man Comic is my nod to how difficult that task is. It’s one thing to sit on your couch, read all those Wolverine and Deadpool guest appearances, and complain about crossoveritis. The problem is: apparently, those things work. (Even for Made of Fail, the Wolverine/Deadpool guest appearance got more readers than usual.) So if you’re a guest writer on a book that goes downhill, and you need to come up with something that’s guaranteed to boost sales, what do you do? Do you take a chance, or do you at least consider doing the tried-and-true formula stuff? Just to be on the safe side?

Amy’s first idea regarding the new love interest goes back to the strip that introduced her back in season 1. Looking at that strip, I don’t know if my drawing has improved, but it has at least evolved.

Writing… also has guest art by J. Kevin Carrier, who writes/draws the webcomic Glorianna. I was again borrowing an trick I had used before by getting a guest artist to differentiate the main story from the, well, fantasy stuff. Amy’s story vs. what goes on in her mind.

Oh, and if anyone would like to read a story that introduces Spider-Man’s new love interest, guest-stars Wolverine and Deadpool and has Black Widow and Black Cat mud-wrestling, write to Marvel. I’m sure they’ll be happy to oblige. Actually, the only thing of the above they haven’t done yet is the Black Widow/Black Cat mud-wrestling. They’ll probably slap their foreheads saying, “D’oh, how could we miss something that obvious?”

Writer X’s Advice hearkens back to the last time Spider-Man sales tanked. It was the time of the Clone Saga and the Mackie/Byrne reboot. At about the time Howard Mackie disappeared at Marvel, they had a “Writer X.” It was widely assumed that Mackie was Writer X, and that Marvel had done the stung to show people that Mackie wasn’t a bad writer, that the readers were just biased against him. When I worked on that strip, I also realized that that had been the first time Marvel had tried to get rid of the Spider-Marriage. Might there be a connection?

By now, the current story arc has made sure that I will never be working for Marvel. But what about DC? Shouldn’t I burn that bridge as well? Enter The DC Exclusive Contract. Yes, that is supposed to be Dan Didio. Yes, that is how things turn out when I try to draw a likeness. Didio is easier to draw than Quesada and Wacker, though, so I gave it a shot.

17. July 2010

Review: Black Death

Filed under: Fiction,movies,review — jensaltmann @ 09:00
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Germany/UK 2010. Directed by Christopher Smith. Starring Sean Bean, Carice van Houten, Eddie Redmayne. Runtime 102 minutes

It is the year 1348. Europe suffers under the black death, the bubonic plague. All of Europe? No, a remote, tiny village in England seems to be immune. Surely, this has to be evil sorcery, the Devil’s work. Therefore, the bishop sends out the knight Ulric (Sean Bean) to investigate. The young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) serves as a guide to Ulric’s group — for his own reasons. They reach the village, where everyone is friendly and healthy. But as suspected, the village harbors a deadly secret, at the core of which is the mysterious Langiva (Carice van Houten).

Black Death is, so far, the most intelligent movie I’ve seen all year. Not the best, not the most fun, but the most intelligent. It feels authentic in its presentation of life in the Middle Ages. The characters feel real. They are nuanced, balanced and, even though it’s difficult to remember their names, individuals. The story does not take a time out to explain that THIS IS WHAT LIFE IN THE MIDDLE AGES WAS LIKE. Instead, it shows instead of telling. That makes it chillingly effective.

Christopher Smith’s previous credits include the humorous slasher Severance and the horror movie Creep. Black Death utilizes elements from both genres to tell its story. Ulric’s group gets killed off one after another, almost according to the slasher movie rules. (Actually, if you know to apply those rules, the order of the deaths becomes somewhat predictable.) There are nods to zombie movies and even to Revenge of the Sith. And throughout, you wonder just what kind of movie you’re actually watching.

The cast manage to disappear into their roles. Sean Bean is halfway back into Boromir territory. Carice van Houten play her role in a very natural and convincing way, and is definitely the absolute highlight of the movie. The one who suffers from that is Eddie Redmayne, who plays Osmund — it is particularly the scenes he shares with van Houten that emphasize just how stiff his acting is.

Black Death’s greatest problem is the cinematography. Smith employs various artful camera and editing techniques to emphasize certain aspects, such as the Osmund’s confusion, or the chaos of a battle. Unfortunately, those techniques had the effect of pulling me out of the story by drawing attention to themselves. Blurry pictures and strange cuts don’t work to enhance a story. They only scream, “Look at me, I’m art!” and serve to irritate the viewer. (I wasn’t the only one in the audience who felt that way.)

As mentioned before, Black Death is easily the most intelligent movie I’ve seen this year. (At least so far, I haven’t seen Inception yet.) It’s also a very dark and depressing movie.

Verdict: recommended.

8. July 2010

Mad Pulper Project: Return to Grover Springs

Yesterday, I deleted 250 words that I had written on Tuesday. It turned out that deleting them made no difference to what I had already written. They were just chaff, useless exposition.

While the exposition part was tedious to write, it’s actually a very funny twist on an old action movie/thriller trope. Any genre-savy reader will get it on the second reading (or at least by the time they finish a first reading), and hopefully find the twist as funny as I do. Even if the scene itself isn’t funny.

I brought the novel to 4,175 words yesterday. Which is a pretty good result under the circumstances. I also had a huge load of fun writing Max Horton. So much fun that I’ll have to be careful not to center the story on him. It made one thing clear, however. I need to revise the first couple of chapters. Max’s voice is so unique that the other chapters seem very bland in comparison. I need to make Billy’s and Liam’s voices equally compelling.

Okay, on with the show. The plan is to crack 5,000 words today. Unlike yesterday, I actually have time, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

7. July 2010

Mad Pulper Project: Return to Grover Springs

As mentioned, I have decided to write 12 novellas of between 25,000 and 30,000 words. Each of these 12 novellas will be of a (more or less) different genre. Or mix genres. They will all be nicely pulpish. I’m going to write until I’m comfortably ahead (meaning 5-6 complete manuscripts) before publishing the first one. From then on, I will publish them on a regular schedule once a month. The plan here is to self-publish them for the Kindle. If it turns out that there is demand, I would consider adding a print edition. (Actually, I might do that anyway — I don’t read e-books, and I might like a copy for my own shelf. We’ll see.)

The first of these is a western. We have our own pulp culture, and westerns are huge in it. Return to Grover Springs will be a classic western. I had the idea several years ago, but there was a major stumbling block that kept me from actually doing this. The story in a nutshell: When Jake McFadden hears that a rich rancher in his hometown Grover Springs wants to hire the infamous outlaw Jerry Lassiter for an unspecified job, he decides to return and see if he needs to help his family. He discovers that during the 10 years that he was away, his father climbed up from the dirt-poor farmer he used to be to the rancher who now hires gunfighters. The McFaddens own Grover Springs now. And Jake has to decide whose side he’s on.

This story needs to be done in prose. There’s no other way to properly tell it, because it has a major twist that would not work in any other medium. What had kept me from starting is this: I couldn’t figure out why Liam McFaden, Jake’s father, might want to hire gunfighters. That is, I could think of several reasons, but none that hadn’t been done to death already. That changed last month. For some reason, it popped into my head that the railroad would come to Grover Springs, and Liam doesn’t want that. It works.

This was actually what sparked the entire Mad Pulper Project. If these solutions to story problems keep popping into my head anyway, there’s no way I can restore my sanity unless I actually use them. But none of the ideas that I have here are actually big enough for their own novel, so…

I have a lot of ideas that almost made it, or were never submitted for some reason.  The Mad Pulper Project will very much be a catch-all for old ideas. Old but not forgotten…

Since solving the villain’s motivation for Return to Grover Springs was what set things in motion, I intend to burn that story out of my system first. Once I’m done with that, I’ll pick and choose which of the other ideas I will tackle next.  I’ll give an occasional pice of background, talk about what inspired a certain story, why I’m doing things the way I am… and I’ll try to avoid spoilers.

5. July 2010

Workblog: The Mad Pulper Project

his is basically the fault of Danny Bowman and Kristine Kathryn Rush. I won’t say what Kristine contributed, but Danny, who published pulp novellas, said in an interview that the decreasing attention span of readers makes this the perfect time for shorter fiction.

Mate, in this day and age where most people have the attention span of a retard with sunburn I believe that short, punchy and unpretentious novels are the way to go, trust me.

This put an idea into my head. 12 months. 12 novellas, each between 25K and 30K in length. 12 different genres. Go in, tell the story with no punches pulled, go out. I would write them, package them and self-publish them as cheap entertainment for the Kindle.

Wait, I hear you cry, isn’t Jens totally opposed to self-publishing? Isn’t this hypocritical?

Yes I am, and no it’s not. Writers don’t need to self-publish, and if you need to self-publish you’re not a writer. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m a complete failure and a total loser.

Maybe it’s just a manic phase of my depression, but right now I find it liberating. Because if I weren’t coming to terms with it, I wouldn’t even think of doing this. And it occurs to me that, unless the idea were submitted by a writer of, say Stephen King’s or John Grisham’s standing, no publisher would take a chance on this kind of experiment.

12 novellas of up to 30,000 words. I’ve already noted down the ideas. None of them are new ideas, they’ve lurked in my files for years. Some of them even almost made it to publication. They cover everything from fantasy to horror to action/adventure to spy fiction.

12 ideas. 12 short novels. 12 months.

Now, there are problems that need to be resolved. One is that I’m not exactly a fast writer. But I can work around that by working ahead. If I’m not ready to start publishing them in January 2011, for example, I can hold off publishing until January 2012. Or simply use this as an exercise to become faster. I could work on several of these in parallel, so that I can switch stories if I get blocked on one of them.

The other problem ties into this: lack of time. My non-paying working time is already taken up by my webcomic Made of Fail. I might have to stop working on that to make a go of this 12 stories project.

The third problem is covers. The stories will need covers. I’m not good enough to draw them myself. I can’t afford to pay artists for them. I don’t expect to make money with this. (Heck, I’m not doing them for the money. There’s no money in self-publishing. I’m doing them for their own self.) That means I need to figure something out.

4. July 2010


Filed under: Commentary,general,movies,Uncategorized — jensaltmann @ 15:06
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Yesterday, I found an old paperback. I decided to keep it, as it was a novel I hadn’t read yet. It was a novel by Agatha Christie, starring Miss Marple.

Miss Marple is my favorite of Agatha Christie’s creations. I have never held much love for Hercule Poirot, but I always liked Miss Marple.

That’s probably because it was those fantastic Miss Marple movies with Margaret Rutherford that introduced me to Agatha Christie’s work back when I was a kid. 4:50 From Paddington, to be precise. Now, whenever I read a Miss Marple novel, the character’s voice in the story is provided by Margaret Rutherford.

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Margaret Rutherford’s portrayal of Miss Marple is iconic. I can hear you ask, how do I define an iconic portrayal? It’s simple, really. If you hear a character who has been put on the screen many times, which actor do you associate with the character? Automatically, without thinking.

Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple is a terrific example. Can you think of any other actress who played the role? Actually, yes, I can, but it’s Margaret Rutherford who defines the character for me. Nobody else who played her ever even came close.

Unlike Hercule Poirot. I don’t think anyone has ever made the definitive, iconic portrayal of the Belgian detective. Most people praise Albert Finney. I’m more fond of Peter Ustinov’s portrayal. But none of the 14 actors who played the part really defined the character.

It’s similar with James Bond. While Sean Connery is the yardstick to which they all get measured, most of the actors who played the role were able to make it their own. Also Dracula: quick, who do you think of: Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee? At least there is no question regarding the Frankenstein Monster: everyone knows there can be only one — Boris Karloff.

Clint Eastwood is the Man Without Name. Even if Hollywood were stupid enough to remake the Dollar trilogy (as it’s been called), nobody would come close. I wonder if Dirty Harry is equally iconic? Not for me, because I can actually imagine other actors in the same role. If Hollywood were ever to continue making Dirty Harry movies, I wouldn’t complain if they cast Hugh Jackman as Harry.

However, if you hear “Superman” and you don’t think of Christopher Reeve, then I suppose there’s something wrong with you. Superman has been played by several actors – Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, Dean Cain, Brandon Routh and arguably Tom Welling. But the yardstick they all need to live up to, and fall short of, is Christopher Reeve. That’s a part of what makes an interpretation iconic: it’s not just that all others are measured against it, nobody else can match it.

When I thought of Batman, on the other hand, I couldn’t think of any actor whose work on this character is iconic. Then I realized I wasn’t thinking far enough. There is one: Kevin Conroy. He voiced the animated Batman, and people have complained more than once if someone other than Conroy voiced an animated Batman.

There are so many others. Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood comes to mind. Bruce Willis as John McClane.  Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan. Heath Ledger’s Joker. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator was so iconic that they had to CG him into the fourth movie!

Let’s not forget one who stands out. The iconic player from the Star Trek movies. The Enterprise. Think about it.

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