The Way of the Word

24. October 2011

Is This World Protected?

“Is this world protected?”

Yes, Doctor, it is. But who protects it? Why, Rory Williams, of course, the Last Centurion.

Would you like him to repeat the question?

29. July 2011

Review: Cowboys and Aliens

USA 2011. Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde. Runtime 118 minutes

A lone cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up a long way from home (or anywhere, for that matter). He has no memory of who he is, where he is, or how he came to be there. Which isn’t even the most bizarre thing he discovers; that would be the strange bracelet he wears on his left wrist. He eventually finds his way to the town Absolution, where at least some people seem to know them: the mysterious Elle (Olivia Wilde) and the local Sheriff, John Taggart (Keith Carradine). Actually, it’s from Taggart that the cowboy finds out who he is: Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw. Just as Taggart is about to ship Jake off to the judge in Santa Fe, they get a visit from Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the rancher who rules the town with the proverbial iron fist. Dolarhyde wants not just his son back (who shares the prison coach with Jake), he also wants Jake because Jake stole his gold.
At this point, Absolution is attacked by UFOs who abduct a considerable part of the town’s populace. Those left behind form a posse to chase the UFOs and rescue their loved ones. Along the way, they encounter a gang of outlaws that Jake used to lead, and an Apache tribe that also has missing family. Together, they take the fight to the aliens, who turn out to be just an advance party that is here to check if the planet is suitable for looting and exterminating.

With cross-genre stories like this one, one of the main questions is which one it resembles more closely. In this case, Cowboys and Aliens is more the archetypical western movie with aliens tacked on. It’s a movie about hard men riding lonesome trails — which describes the movie’s feel. Not to disparage Craig and Ford, but both of them channel Clint Eastwood (at different points in his career) for their respective parts. And Olivia Wilde isn’t really as mysterious as she is supposed to be — at least in part, for me, because I couldn’t manage to wrap my head around the baggy pajamas she wears in half the movie. Terribly distracting, and not in a good way. On the plus side, they do manage to make it feel like a classic western, even if they go overboard on the western tropes.

And that is where Cowboys and Aliens fails: the tropes. The characters in this movie are mostly stock characters. Their adventure is a mix and mash of various western tropes, played straight. (When I did something similar in my own cross-genre novel Cowboys and Barbarians, I also stuffed it with tropes, but in a tongue-in-cheek way.) There are some bizarre elements put into the second act, but those seem to be added for their own sake instead of leading anywhere. In total, the movie feels overstuffed, in places it appears as if the writers wanted to use the awe-factor to distract from the movie’s flaws. Less awe-factor, here as everywhere it is applied, would have been more.
The aliens are familiar. If you’ve seen any alien invasion movie since Independence Day, you know these aliens. The main difference is that (by necessity) they aren’t as invincible as those from Independence Day, Battle LA or Skyline. (I even entertained myself with the notion that all the three above and this movie all tell the story of the same alien invasion — they are all that similar.)
That means that any character who isn’t Jake Lonergan gets short shrift. When Dolarhyde bonds with the Sheriff’s grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer), it doesn’t work, because it’s really just a sidenote. The writers put some (metaphorical) loaded guns on the fireplace but don’t fire them (perhaps in earlier drafts of the screenplay?). Some character growth feels false because it doesn’t really develop naturally. And the showdown would have worked better if there had been more consistency — the aliens are bulletproof or not, depending on whether or not the writers want to kill the cowboy in question.

In summary: Cowboys and Aliens is an entertaining western with some sci-fi elements. You won’t leave the movie feeling that you’ve wasted your time. But you will leave the movie feeling that it could have been much much more. And by borrowing heavily from both other western and sci-fi movies, you never lose the feeling that you’ve seen all of this before.

Verdict: mildly recommended.

21. July 2011

Awesome Ideas That Will Never Be

Does anyone remember Marvel’s Epic imprint? Not the one from the 1980s/1990s, but the one from 2003?
If not, a short reminder: Under Jemas and Quesada, Marvel had resurrected the Epic Imprint as kind of a new talent search. It didn’t last very long, they folded it rather quickly. But at least they tried.
Of course I submitted. My idea was very outrageous, and I didn’t think they’d go for it:
I submitted a pitch for a Red Skull series.
Yes, that Red Skull.
A German writer, submitting a pitch for a series starring one of the most evil characters in comics (if not the most evil), a Nazi even, taking over a country in Africa as his new springboard towards world domination.
If you can’t see at least 15 things wrong with that, I don’t want to know you.
I scripted the first issue, wrote rough outlines of the following five issues of the initial miniseries, and charted a course for a potential ongoing. Then I submitted it.
To my surprise, Marvel was interested. But they didn’t like the first issue, because I recapped the origin. They asked me to revise and resubmit.
Epic’s end was announced two weeks or so after that, before I got around to doing the revisions. The Captain America movie reminded me of this old thing.
So here, for your pleasure, is the pitch (but not the first issue script) for my proposed Red Skull ongoing. The characters and everything are TM and (c) Marvel Comics Group, the story is (c) me.
* * *
The first issue would have been a recap of the Red Skull’s origin. He discovers that one of his African “trade partners” has problems delivering Coltan (a rare ore needed for most modern consumer electronics). So he goes off to take care of the matter himself, and gets his butt kicked. That gives him the idea to take over that country, become a world leader, and use it as the cornerstone for his eventual world domination. If enough people should ask, I can post the script some other time. Here, for your entertainment, the almost accepted pitch. It’s perfectly okay to read it without the #1 script, since I had thought, when Marvel asked for revisions, to just toss out the first issue and start from #2, just altering the pacing to stretch that (and parts of #1) into six issues.
* * *
ISSUE #2
· Red Skull’s forces invade the presidential palace. He murders the president of Jumalia. His army arrests all the other members of the country’s government. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner. After all, having their own countries works for Doom, Magneto, the Black Panther…”
· The next day, when he publicly executes Jumalia’s government, he declares himself the new president of Jumalia. Red Skull sets up a new government. He appoints N’Dolo to serve as his vice president.
· While Red Skull has his final argument about race and opportunity with Hitler’s portrait, and then disposes of it…
· …his troops go to every village in Jumalia and draft every unmarried man between 18 and 25 years of age into the army. Because these people are all poor, they eagerly sign up when they discover that the army pays better than anything else: US-$ 20.– a month.
· Red Skull buys some nuclear weapons. He decides that he has a better use for them than to resell them.
· Some factions among the previous president’s army mutineer, but Red Skull strikes them down.
· He organizes his new army along the same lines that Shaka did 200 years before. N’Dolo, who is becoming something of the Red Skull’s sounding board for his ideas on reforming Jumalia in the image of a new Reich, ably assists him.

ISSUE #3
· Red Skull hires several super-villains: Avalance, Constrictor, Chemistro, Cobra, Crossbones and Mandrill. He appoints them to be Jumalia’s team of super-heroes. One of their incentives is full diplomatic immunity, and a nice, regular paycheck. He also hires Taskmaster to train these villains so they can work as a team. He calls this team The Cadre.
· He calls the local representatives of several international corporations to his new office. All these businesses, which had been exploiting Jumalia’s resources, are told that their contracts are now null and void, and may be renegotiated. Two of the representatives, secure in the power of their corporations, dare to challenge the Skull’s decision. At first, it seems that they get away with it.
· The next night, they are abducted from their homes and punished for their insolence. Naturally, they do not survive their punishment.
· The corporations refuse to be treated in this way, and run to their governments to complain.
· The US administration take action. They call Red Skull and warn him: play nice, or else. Red Skull defies them.
· In Jumalia, Red Skull has the tribal elders brought to him. He tells them that they are now the nation’s council. N’Dolo is shocked: President Red Skull shares power?! No, Red Skull explains. He only gives the elders the illusion of power, because that will pacify the villages, leaving him free to do what he must do to forge this collection of tribes into an empire.
· Jumali’s underground press finds out about this and publishes both the news about the elders, and the problems with the US. Skull finds out, and doesn’t like it at all. He orders the head of his newly-installed secret police to find and bring him the publishers of this underground newspaper.
· Red Skull discovers that there are plenty of companies out there that want to negotiate for a piece of his resources. Among them are A.I.M., Hydra, Halliburton, Nokia, Microsoft…

ISSUE #4
· Poachers invade Jumalia’s forests. Red Skull’s elite troops, a mix of the new native army and his original strike forces, engage them and wipe them out. Red Skull leads them personally. He sends one survivor back to let everyone know how poachers will be received in Jumalia.
· This is very much a PR tactic, however. When the poachers attacked, Red Skull is entertaining various international dignitaries, and he makes a point of how he cares for the environment. They buy his line.
· With corporations, he discusses his plans for exploitation of Jumalia’s resources. These resources include diamonds, coltan and oil. After his earlier presentation, he stresses that the exploitation models should respect conservation of the environment. He also insists that the corporation hire local workers, and compensate them fairly. Since this is Red Skull making these demands, nobody dares to suggest otherwise.
· Red Skull also makes a deal with A.I.M. to set up a research facility in Jumalia.
· When the news about Jumalia’s deal with A.I.M. reaches the US, they openly threaten Red Skull: cut your ties with the terrorists, turn in any weapons of mass destruction that you might possess, or face the consequences. Red Skull’s reply: “Yes, dolt, I have weapons of mass destruction. If even one of your soldiers sets foot within range of my borders, I will use them to reduce your cities to piles of radioactive rubble.”
· The US government decides to send in their newest government-sponsored superteam: The All-Americans, who consist of US Agent, Battlestar, American Eagle, Crusader and Timeshadow.

ISSUE #5
· Red Skull’s spies in the DoD warn him of the impending attack of the All-Americans. He prepares for it.
· Red Skull sends out invitations to a press conference. He also sends out invitations to international charities, such as Greenpeace, the WWF, UNICEF, to set up offices in his capital and help work towards the improvement of his new adopted country.
· N’Dolo has a clandestine meeting with Jumalia’s resistance movement. They had originally gathered to remove the previous president from power. Now that Red Skull has taken over, they aren’t sure what to think. After all, he’s white. N’Dolo argues in Red Skull’s favor. So far, everything Red Skull has done has benefited the people of Jumalia in some way. He argues to give Red Skull a chance. Since he is part of Red Skull’s inner circle, he hopes he can influence Red Skull to work in the resistance’s interests.
· The secret police arrest the publisher of the Jumalia True Story. They bring him to Red Skull. Influenced by N’Dolo, Red Skull is persuaded to make a deal: the publisher is allowed to live… if his newspaper will adopt a more patriotic slant.

ISSUE #6
· Red Skull has invited members of the international press to explain his vision of Jumalia’s future. He explains how he plans to unite the warring factions within the country, how he plans to improve the standard of living, literacy, the infrastructure. Initially, he gets hostility from the press, but he wins them over: “Aren’t you an international super-villain?” “So are Dr. Doom, Namor and Magneto. That doesn’t keep them from caring for the people in the countries that they rule.” “How can you be satisfied with ruling a country in Africa? You’re white…” “No. I am not white. I am beyond skin color. I am Red.” “But you’re a feared Nazi racist…” “I have renounced Nazism and racism. I have come to see how wrong both basic concepts are.” “But you’re still a fascist.” “I still believe in a strong government, yes.” N’Dolo and the tribal elders speak in glowing terms of what Red Skull is doing.
· Stupidly, the All-Americans choose this time, the press conference, to attack.
· The Cadre, trained by Taskmaster, leap to the Red Skull’s defense. They fight the All-Americans. The US-team is out-powered and outnumbered, and Taskmaster’s training has really taken hold. They defeat the All-Americans. Red Skull places them under arrest.
· Returning to the press conference, Red Skull spins the attack to his own geopolitical advantage.
· After the press conference, he visits the imprisoned All-Americans in jail. He tells them that he will not kill them. Instead, he will send them back to the US, thoroughly humiliated.
· Which he does, a couple of days later, on the same flight that the international press take.
· When the news reports come in, they are quite in his favor. Red Skull discusses it with N’Dolo. They discuss the next important steps for the country.
· After his day’s work is done, Red Skull enters the command center he is secretly building under the presidential palace. Here, he continues his scheming and plotting to destabilize the world’s governments, in order to facilitate his takeover of the planet…

THE PITCH

And so it begins… the new life of the Red Skull. A life that places him on the same level as Doctor Doom, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner and Magneto: a truly untouchable menace who acts under diplomatic immunity. Red Skull has a new mission, a new, bigger vision. And he has found a new way to attain his goals. Gone are the days of the racist Nazi who wanted to conquer the world without too much effort, while rubbing Captain America’s nose in it. No, the Red Skull has learned from the mistakes of the past. Rejecting his past obsessions, he recreates himself and becomes more dangerous than ever.

His new mission is based on a slightly non-traditional perspective of the Red Skull. “History is written by the winners.” The Red Skull, to us, is a major villain. However, had the Nazis won WW2, we would now be reading about the adventures of the heroic Red Skull and his arch nemesis, the evil villain Captain America. From a Nazi point of view, Red Skull was Nazi-Germany’s first superhero. The Nazis were evil. Red Skull is evil. There is no doubt about that. However, from the Skull’s perspective, he was created to be the Reich’s hero. The new approach to the character is based on this shift of perspective. To Red Skull’s view of himself.

RED SKULL: HOSTILE TAKEOVER is intended as a 6-issue mini-series. It changes the character’s status quo and also provides a set-up to continue it as an open-ended series, sales permitting.

The continuing story of the Red Skull would not only relate his problems with running a country (which would turn out to be more difficult than he had expected), it would also deal with the fall-out of his decision to become a highly visible world leader. Some problems that Red Skull might have to face could include:

· The return of his daughter, Mother Superior. When she arrives in Jumalia, does she want to support her father, or replace him as Jumalia’s head of government?
· The Cadre, Jumalia’s super-heroes, are known to be quite uncontrollable. When one or two members of the group, overconfident with the diplomatic immunity their new status gives them, go on a rampage through the US. It’s now up to Red Skull and the still loyal members of the Cadre to stop them before the public relations damage they do becomes too great.
· Wakanda will not be very pleased that someone like Red Skull has conquered his own country right on their doorstep. What will they do about it?
· Now, Red Skull also has the time and leisure to finally do something about the impostor who sullied his “good name” so many years ago: Malik, the man who posed as the Red Skull while the real one was in suspended animation.
· Baron Strucker and Hydra will not be particularly happy that A.I.M. has been allowed sanctuary in Jumalia. When they decide to do something about it, the Red Skull has to choose sides. Then again, this may be a welcome opportunity to finally get back at Strucker for betraying him so many years before.
· And, of course, Captain America will also want to have a word with the Red Skull regarding this new situation.

These ideas for potential stories don’t even consider the potential for conflict that would arise naturally from the fact that our central character is president of a country in the heart of what may be the world’s poorest and most exploited continent:
· How will the Red Skull, for example, deal with the situation when, upon seeing how much the standard of living in Jumalia improves, economic fugitives enter his countries from all the neighboring countries? How will he deal with the fugitives? How will the leaders of those neighboring countries react?
· Is it possible to reconcile the Red Skull’s plans to exploit Jumalia’s resources without damaging the country’s environment too much?
· How will the world deal with the fact that Jumalia’s leader is one of the most feared men in the world? Especially when Red Skull arrives in New York to join the UN?
· Since transitional periods in totalitarian states such as Jumalia are difficult times, Red Skull will not only have to deal with internal strife, but also with those neighboring countries whose leaders would consider this an opportunity to do a bit of conquering.
· Can Red Skull really get away with running a terrorist organization, while being such a public figure?
· And all of this doesn’t even take into account yet that Red Skull’s vice president, the one man he is taking into his confidence, is secretly one of the leaders of Jumalia’s resistance movement.

Changing the Red Skull’s status quo does not limit the character. Rather, it opens the doors to a number of new, interesting developments.

25. June 2011

RIP Peter Falk

Peter Michael Falk, born September 16, 1927 in New York, died June 23, 2011 in Beverly Hills, at the age of 83.

The actor Peter Falk was famous for two things. One of them being his glass eye, which he got after losing his right eye at the age of three. Which didn’t stop him from participating in team sports as a youth. He was actually considered a star athlete in high school. While the glass eye kept him from enlisting in the US armed forces during WW2, he did serve as a cook and mess boy in the merchant marines for a year and a half. After that, he initially signed up for Israeli army’s war against Egypt, but that war was over before the proverbial ink had dried. So he went back to university. Upon graduating, he tried to join the CIA, who rejected him because he had been a union member while in the merchant marines.

While working as an efficiency analyst for the city of Hartfort, he joined the local community theater. At the same time, he studied with Eva Le Gallienne; a class he lied to get into: Miss Le Gallienne only taught professional actors. When he was found out, and she told him he should be a professional actor, he quit his day job. Moving to New York, he became a successful stage actor. From 1958 to 1960, he also played small roles in movies.

His cinema breakthrough was the role of Abe Reles in the movie Murder, Inc. in 1960, for which he got an Oscar nomination. He got another nomination the following year for his part in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles. During the same period, he also did some TV work, which also got him award nominations. He won the Emmy in 1962.

In 1968, he accepted a supporting role in the Gene Barry TV movie Prescription: Murder, a role that had been rejected by Bing Crosby. Prescription: Murder was something original at the time: a murder mystery from the murderer’s POV. Falk was cast as Barry’s foil, the police detective Lieutenant Columbo.

(Pause for effect.)

Now, if you haven’t heard of Columbo, you’re probably from another planet, and even then you’re likely to know of the character. Peter Falk played the unique, polite and much smarter than he appeared detective from 1968 until 1978. It wasn’t so much an ongoing TV series, but rather a series of TV movie specials.  The longest seasons were 2 and 3, with 8 episodes each.  It was revived in 1989, for more TV movies and specials until 2003. The people who worked on it were a real who-is-who of Hollywood. Steven Spielberg directed the first regular episode in 1971. Robert Culp, Patrick McGoohan, William Shatner, John Cassavetes, Mickey Spillane, Richard Kiley and George Hamilto are only a minor sampling of guest stars. Falk’s Columbo quickly became one of the most iconic sleuths in fiction, ranking with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Sam Spade. In parallel, he continued to make movies (preferring smaller, independent movies) and act on the stage.

After a series of dental operations in 2007, Peter Falk rapidly declined into dementia and Alzheimer’s.

This is the point where I usually explain what the person whose obit I wrote here meant to me. In this particular case, I don’t feel up to it.

I mean, this is Columbo we’re talking about, you know. If you didn’t love Columbo, that’s proof that you don’t have a soul.

1. June 2011

Novel in Progress: Die Young

It’s funny how some things develop sometimes. How the real world needs of the writer can influence a story, and actually make it better.

Case in point: Die Young. I’m writing without an outline. I know the crime, I know who did it, and I know why they did it. As I write it, I uncover the story just as the investigator, Shaw, does. And sometimes it surprises me.

Case in point: I recently had a scene where I needed someone to leave a building. If I’d ended the scene with that character leaving, it would have been glaringly obvious, a couple of pages later, why he left. At least to me, but I’m writing this assuming that the readers are at least as astute as I am. So I needed to extend the scene beyond that, but without forcing it, or at least making it seemed forced.

What happened was that the scene ended on a completely different major development, a development that I hadn’t planned, that I hadn’t foreseen, but that made complete and total sense.

Another thing was that I didn’t feel good yesterday. I was tired, distracted, preoccupied all day long. I decided to put that into the story: by giving Shaw some sleep-withdrawal, then have something happen, and let him wonder if he missed anything because he was too tired. The obvious answer is yes. 🙂

I also realized that I have accidentally created an extra viable suspect. I’ll have to nurture that character, just to see where it will take me.

Lastly, I realized that I overlooked something obvious. Because the case originally ties into the adult entertainment industry, I had Shaw begin his search for the endangered Amy Mason there. He hasn’t found her yet, nobody knows her. The obvious thing I overlooked: just because the bad guys work in the adult entertainment industry doesn’t mean that Amy has to work there. However, I’m not sure that this logic error is something that needs fixing. For one thing, the case is only two days old, story time. Shaw spent the first day looking for Diana Young’s killer, and the second day looking for Amy Mason. In the story, he has just woken up to day 3. Now, I could go back and add a line or two where he considers the possibility that Amy Mason might not be connected to the adult entertainment industry, or I could have him realize that over breakfast on the third day. I’m not sure yet which is better, but I’ll need to decide before continuing.

Frankly, I lean towards the latter, having him realize it. Shaw’s human, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t overlook the obvious. “I missed the obvious, but at least I only wasted a day looking in all the wrong places — places that I probably would have searched anyway, even if I had thought of it.” Something like that.

25. May 2011

Review: X-Men First Class

USA/GB 2011. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon. Runtime: 127 Minutes

The year is 1962. Concentration camp survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) has become a Nazi hunter. He is specifically after one person: Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon). His quest seems to come to an end when he discovers that Schmidt now calls himself Sebastian Shaw and is in Miami, FL.

The year is 1962. CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) is investigating the mysterious Hellfire Club, which is run by Sebastian Shaw. When she discovers things that are patently impossible (how can a man have red skin and a tail, and transport someone else 3000 miles within a few minutes?), she seeks out the help of a geneticist who specializes in mutation: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).  He agrees to help her out in this case, and they track down Shaw.

Arriving at the same time as Lensherr. Despite Erik’s best efforts, Shaw escapes. But Charles has a plan: Shaw has a team of superpowered mutants on his side. The obvious conclusion is that Xavier assembles his own team to deal with it. And so, Xavier and Erik find and gather a group of young, powerful mutants to fight Shaw’s group.

The situation becomes desperate when Xavier discovers that Shaw plans to manipulate the USA and the USSR into starting a nuclear war, which will reduce the world to ruins — but ruins that Shaw will rule. The newly formed, barely trained and still unnamed X-Men dash to Cuba to stop Shaw.

X-Men: First Class is technically the fifth movie in the series (after the original trilogy and the Wolverine movie). This is usually the point where I wonder: does the world really need another (insert franchise name) movie?

In this case, the answer is a resounding YES. X-Men: First Class easily outshines and outclasses not only all the previous X-Men movies, I would rate it second only to The Dark Knight. The movie does everything right.

Instead of a superhero movie, X-Men: First Class is a thriller where the protagonists happen to have superpowers. The stakes are high: the survival of the world. And the events actually happened, sort of: the Cuban missile crisis is an historic event, and it almost did cause a total nuclear war. The difference between the movie and the real world was that there were no mutants involved in the real world event. (That we know of. 😉 ) The movie does not rely on big, splashy special effects. Which means that when they do present a big splashy special effect (yes, I’m talking about Magneto raising a submarine from the ocean), it packs quite a punch. The chilliest and scariest moments, however, involve Magneto and a small coin.

X-Men: First Class focuses on the characters. This is mostly an ensemble piece, so it’s clear that not all the characters get equal time. At the center are the relationships between Xavier, Erik and, to an extent, Shaw. Vaughn doesn’t forget the X-Men, however. Each of the young mutants has their own storyarc, which is compellingly told and actually brought to a conclusion. The young actors who play the X-Men sell their roles completely. As the audience, you invest feelings into all of them, you want to see what happens to them, what becomes of them. Even in those cases where you know, such as Magneto and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), you can’t help an emotional investment in the outcome. Taking, for example, the moment when Mystique discovers that the boy she likes is just like everyone else and considers her real form ugly, that the only one who actually accepts her for what she is is Erik… you, as the audience, can actually feel her heart break.

It’s the bad guys who get the short end of the stick here, Riptide for example doesn’t get any lines at all. But it doesn’t really matter, because they only exist as foils for the heroes. The only villain who matters is Shaw — and that is because of his personal connection to Erik.

If Michael Fassbender weren’t already a star, I’d call this his breakout performance. His portrayal of Erik Lensherr/Magneto is compelling, conflicted, nuanced. His relationship with Xavier is a mutual brotherly love, two men who want the same thing, but because of their opposite pasts see the future differently. Xavier is a sheltered rich kid, who sees people as inherently good. Erik, as the concentration camp survivor, has seen humanity at its worst, and his views are colored accordingly. At the end, when the X-Men reveal themselves to the world, one man’s views will be proven right.

And the audience will see where Magneto’s coming from. Because Erik Lensherr is a thoroughly sympathetic figure. He doesn’t trust humans, and when the proverbial chips fall, he’s the one who is proven right.

The movie also manages to balance all that gravitas with a lot of humor. It’s a good kind of humor, though, the kind where you laugh with the characters and not at them. One of the funniest scenes is where the kids are in the CIA compound, showing off their powers. Kids will be kids. And let us not forget the cameos. One in particular had the entire audience howling with laughter. “Go f**k yourselves.” You’ll see what I mean, and you can’t tell me you didn’t laugh.

In summary: X-Men: First Class is an extremely well written, well acted and well-directed thriller with superpowered protagonists that manages to get the audience involved in the destinies of each of the characters. It ties neatly into the other movies (only two minor continuity quibbles remain unresolved), but stands out as the best of them. As a matter of fact, X-Men: First Class sets the blue-gold-standard for this year’s superhero movies — and frankly, I don’t think the others can beat it. Among all the other superhero movies, I rate this second only to The Dark Knight.

Verdict: extremely recommended.

24. May 2011

Novel in Progress: Die Young

I was rewatching On Her Majesty’s Secret Service yesterday evening, and I wonder: in both the novels and the movies, Marc-Ange Draco never shows up again. But he should. For those who don’t know the story: in OHMSS, Bond marries a woman named Tracy. Tracy is the daughter of Draco, who happens to be a major figure in international organized crime. At the end of the story, Bond marries Tracy, who is just afterwards murdered by Bond’s arch enemy Blofeld.

Yet neither in the novels or in the movies does Draco become involved in hunting down Blofeld to avenge the death of his beloved daughter. Sure, it’s Bond’s stories and Bond’s enemies, but I find it very much out of character of this kind of person (who earlier in the story staged a major assault on Blofeld’s fortress to rescue his captured daughter) that he just, well, seems to shrug it off.

Right now, you probably wonder why I talk about that instead of my progress on Die Young, which is what the NiP posts are about. Oh, it’s simply: it made me realize that I need to kill Amy Mason.

What, huh? Or rather, what, who? Isn’t this novel about who killed Diana Young, Teh SexKitteh?

Yeah, sure. The problem was that I needed a stronger hook for Shaw to remain involved after the first 20 pages, so I added a missing person quest.

Now, some pages later, I’m stuck. I didn’t know how to advance the story. Which is why I started to watch movies instead of working on Die Young. Distract myself, let my subconscious work on the problem. I was getting so desperate that I was considering doing a Hammett. You see, there is something that Dashiell Hammett does in his stories that I don’t like: he relies too much on coincidence to move the story forward. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart. One thing that happens over and over again in the story (the novel too) is that Sam Spade’s investigation gets stuck, and then someone comes in out of nowhere, drops a clue and vanishes again. Without Spade having to do anything for it. I hate that. But I was starting to think that perhaps I needed to do something like it as well.

Then I remembered that I had already set up a solution to it. Shaw had already talked with a contact at the NYPD’s vice squad. That one could come up with something, which meant that the information wouldn’t come out of nowhere.

But that raised another problem: once Shaw has Amy, he doesn’t have to continue to work the case. Problem solved, case close. I’d be back to square one.

That’s the problem with a MacGuffin: once the hero has acquired it, end of story.

The solution came over breakfast this morning. I was re-reading Maison Ikkoku and thinking about how I haven’t killed anyone in far too long. Which tells you far too much about how my mind works. (Although, to be fair, I mostly thought about how nobody has tried to kill Shaw yet in this novel, and realized that so far, noboy had any reason to.)  Anyway, it was then that I realized how to solve all my problems at once:

I have to kill Amy Mason. That would fix the dead end I’m currently staring at, it would provide a nice break in the story’s current lull, and it would give Shaw added incentive to get his ass in gear.

It’s like with comics. In comics, if you’re stuck, you blow something up. (Come to think of it, that’s also how they handle it in blockbuster movies.) Here, I’m stuck, so I’ll kill Amy Mason in order to move the plot forward.

22. May 2011

Vampires Don’t Sparkle!

If you like vampires (the scary kind that doesn’t sparkle in the daylight), you might want to consider spending 99 cents on Streets of Blood, my vampire novel. Only available for the Kindle.

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/jeNxaE

Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/j1e19E

Amazon Germany: http://amzn.to/jMhUdp

29. April 2011

Novel in Progress: Die Young

The single worst problem when I’m supposed to work isn’t writer’s block. It’s distractions.

It’s late in the evening, and I’m rather tired. It’s been a long day, and I haven’t slept well for two nights. I’m currently rereading James Clavell’s Shôgun, which is one of my all-time favorite novels. I haven’t read it in several years, and it feels fresh and exciting again. It’s difficult to tear myself away from the novel, and I have to expend a lot of willpower to not boot down the computer and lose myself in Japan of AD 1600.

I have several DVD box sets that I still want to watch. Among them two seasons each of Magnum PI, Starsky & Hutch and Home Improvement. I’m a member of media swap groups, so I don’t have to buy used books or DVDs or CDs. I swap out stuff that I no longer want or need, and get back stuff that I do want. The problem is willpower: it’s hard to resist impulse swapping. When I decided to write Die Young, I locked the unwatched DVDs away, to remove the temptation.

One thing I do to reduce distraction is that I write on the notebook. The notebook has  no internet connection. It has no games installed. It’s a pure work machine.

And yes, the internet and games are massive chronovores. I just finished translating a movie that took twice as long as it should have because, well, I didn’t like the movie, so I spent more time on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking places, or playing Half-Life, than I should have. And yes, I got Half-Life through one of those swap groups. It’s a major effort to not check the swap groups all the time for interesting stuff, because while I work on Die Young I wouldn’t want to take the time to watch movies anyway.

The matter is made worse by the fact that I don’t have a deadline. Die Young is a sequel to The Coldest Blood, which hardly anyone has read. Nobody’s waiting for it. It makes no difference if I finish it this year, or next year, or not at all. I’m pretty good with deadlines. That movie I mentioned above, the one that I disliked so much I procrastinated too much? I still turned it in a day early. Go me, right? Yeah – I know, though, that I could have turned it in much earlier than that. Then I would have had a bit more breathing space with the other four deadlines I have right in front of me. The next translation is due on May 2, then another on May 9, then a couple of columns on the 18th, and then there’s another translation that I need to squeeze in somewhere along the way. Busy, busy, busy. I don’t really have the time to slack off, to be distracted.

And yet, there is that copy of Shôgun over there, beckoning me to boot down, call it a night and immerse myself in the adventures of John Blackthorne, the Anjin-san, and the rise of Toranaga-sama to Shôgun.

If I were smart, I would try to use it to motivate me. Tell myself that somewhere down the line, some guy with a notebook computer and word processing software will try to resist the distraction of Die Young.

But only if I can resist temptation.

By the way, you might know the writing rule ‘kill your darlings.’ Well, every now and then, I get one that is very very difficult to kill. This time: His confusion was so obvious that I didn’t know if I should feel sorry for him or invite him to poker night. Tell me: is that a potential classic, or what?

27. April 2011

Novel in Progress: Die Young

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Okay, to be honest, it wasn’t all that great either way. Sure, I had a good writing session last night, but I’m rather unhappy with my output. To the point where I had to decide, against my habits, to fix it in revisions.

What happened?

As I told you in a previous post, I discovered that the first chapters of Die Young emulated Robert B. Parker’s method of one chapter per conversation.  Once I discovered that I had done that accidentally, I decided to continue that way for the first in-story day of Shaw’s investigation.

That meant I had to start Chapter 6 from scratch. The problem with that was that Chapter 6 is an exposition chapter. Shaw received evidence and draws his conclusions. That’s much more difficult to pull off only in dialog. From that you can probably understand why I started and scrapped that chapter five times before just hacking it out and telling myself I’ll fix it in revisions.

Then there was the final conversation before Shaw confronts the person who did the actual deed. I had wanted to get more hard information about anesthesiology before getting to that chapter, but I forgot. I had read up on it to see if my idea on how to do it would work, so I winged it with what I remembered from that. So I’ll get the hard data and insert it into the placeholders when I do the revisions.

One thing I am happy with is that I managed to work in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to The Coldest Blood. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, The Coldest Blood is the first Shaw novel. It’s available for only 99 cents on Amazon US, Amazon UK and Amazon Germany. I’m quite proud that I managed to make a reference that you can consider light snark from the character if you don’t know The Coldest Blood, but if you do know it you’ll catch a different layer of meaning.

If a blog post had chapters, I’d call the next one Evolution of a Suicide.

There are some things I always knew I would do. One was the killers’s motivations. There’s the Mastermind, and I know their motivation. And there’s the trigger person, and I knew how their motivation would result in Shaw really getting involved with it.

Huh? What?

Yeah. Exactly. The problem with the idea of Die Young was that Shaw initially gets involved out of curiosity. But that’s not enough to make him take the case. It’s not believable that he should put aside paying work (okay, which he doesn’t have) and get into danger just because he’s curious. I knew I needed to provide him with a stronger reason to go after the Big Bad. I found that reason in the Trigger Person’s motive for their part in the murder. That had also been slightly tricky, because the Trigger Person needed to go against their apparent own interest to do it. When I found an answer to why someone would do it, I also had the answer for Shaw’s motivation to follow this through.

The other thing I knew from the beginning was that I wanted to leave it vague just how much the Trigger Person knew. Did they know they were murdering Diana Young? Did they think they were doing something else? Did they know and just fool themselves into thinking they didn’t? I think I pulled that off. Which leaves the next thing nicely poignant.

The suicide.

Another thing I always knew was that I wanted the Trigger Person to commit suicide in front of Shaw. (No, this is only a mild spoiler, because it happens only 30 pages into the manuscript.) As I worked towards it, I had this image of him chasing the Trigger Person up to a roof, where the Trigger Person confesses their part and jumps. As the story progressed, that became implausible. There was no way that the Trigger Person could stay out of Shaw’s reach long enough to get to the roof. There was also no way that Shaw would meet the Trigger Person on the roof. For the leap into death, they had to be in a closed room high up in a building. Problem: windows, and windows that high in New York, AFAIK, don’t open. So I needed the Trigger Person to have a way to smash the window. Solution: the Trigger Person brings a gun, to shoot out the window. Waitasecond — if the Trigger Person has a gun, they don’t need to shoot out the window, they can shoot themselves … Also, that they had brought the gun has some interesting implications about the Trigger Person’s state of mind after the murder.

So all in all, I’m happy with some things that I managed to do, but I’m unhappy that I left so much “to fix in revision”. But if I hadn’t, I’d probably still be tinkering with Chapter 6 (the exposition chapter, remember?). It’s probably better this way, even if I feel not very good about it.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: