Tag Archives: James Bond

The Versatile Blogger Award!

versatile

Try to picture me now, six foot three inches of hangdog pout, twisting the toes of one foot back and forth on the floor in shame at having let something sit for far too long.  A month or so back I was nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award, and like a lazy farmer wondering why the crops aren’t doing anything when the seeds haven’t been planted yet, I let this sit, and sit, and recede into the shallows of memory, assuring myself that I would indeed get around to it.  Terrible.  Well, after a few other projects have been swept from the deck, here I am finally, getting around to said thing.  Despite my drag-assedness, I’m deeply grateful to the four stellar talents who were kind enough to nominate this tiny corner of the Internets:  Michelle Gordon, Jessica West, Nillu Stelter and Debbie Vega.  Thank you so very much ladies!  Keep being awesome, and more to the point, keep writing awesomely.  And sorry I’ve taken so long to accept your generous nomination!

The rules for this particular honor are:  thank the person(s) who nominated you (check!), disclose seven interesting factoids about yourself, and nominate fifteen more deserving winners.  As regards the seven interesting facts about myself, well… I’m not really that interesting a person.  I can string words together pretty well on paper and I’m okay at parties until my material runs out, but you’d probably brush past me on the street and not even realize I was there.  I suppose I write fiction to make up for the tame trappings of an average, middle-class upbringing and ongoing life.  But if you’re looking to be regaled by recollections of jaunts through the African savanna or the backstreet jazz clubs of New Orleans or rubbing elbows with the famous and the powerful, you’ve clicked on the wrong link.  It’s why I have to try to captivate you with my words; the rest of me won’t do it.  Regardless, here goes with a few things you might not otherwise know about me.

1.  As noted above, I am six-foot-three, shuffling along in a world designed for the five-foot-six.  This means a chronic case of slouching and a neck somewhat out of alignment from leaning forward to look down.  It also means, for whatever reason, strangers predisposed to think you are athletic.  I am incredibly not.  I marvel at shorter folks who can run marathons – I’m wrecked after a half-walked 5K.  At the risk of sounding a bit Dangerfield-esque about it, I was such a lousy athlete as a child that even the teachers picked me last.  Can’t throw, can’t hit, can’t kick, can’t field.  And to think that a childhood dream (swiftly extinguished by reality) was pitching in major league baseball.  Nope – closest I’ll get is field level seats, and you know what?  I’m totally okay with that.

2.  When I was a teenager, I drew comic books.  This is similar to #1 in that I cannot really draw, either.  My character was an anthropomorphised simian version of James Bond (for the simple reason that monkeys were easier to draw than humans) and I did seven books with him, only four of which were finished.  The last one, that part of me regrets not completing, was a James Bond-Star Trek: The Next Generation crossover, in which Bond fell for Dr. Crusher.  And because I couldn’t draw, the story was a lot of dialogue and character development as opposed to splash pages of pencil-crayoned ass kicking.  Doing these books did teach me a great deal about how to create character beats and arcs, how to plot, and how to sharpen the storytelling edge to finish within the number of pages left in the purloined school exercise book.

3.  I usually wear at least one piece of Disney-related clothing on any given day.  It started a few years ago with one solitary T-shirt; now the wardrobe has expanded considerably through ties, boxers and other apparel, and I’m writing this with a grinning Mickey Mouse displayed proudly on the left breast of my black golf shirt.  We’ve added Olaf to our growing empire of stuffed animals; he’s on a shelf in our living room, enjoying the summer and peering down at the mischievous kittens who are plotting to knock him from his lofty perch.

4.  Speaking of kittens, after we said goodbye to our beloved Muffins, we acquired two new furry friends to carry on her legacy:  siblings Dudley and Daila.  Dudley is an orange tabby while Daila is a tortoiseshell, and while they are both very sweet, Dudley is a master thief!  He has stolen articles of clothing, stress balls, batteries and keys, but his favorite target is pieces of fruit, specifically, bananas.  We have to hide any bananas we buy in the microwave, otherwise we’ll wake up in the morning with a banana in our bed.  Last weekend Dudley figured out how to open the desk drawer in our kitchen, and pilfered a ball of string.  Even though we were proud (and a tad terrified) of his ingenuity, we were somewhat disappointed at his descent into cliche.  It’s all right, he’s young, he’ll grow up and be quoting Proust before you know it.  (A la recherche du souris perdu, anyone?)

5.  My wife and I are part of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, and we mentor a young boy we’ve known since he was nine.  It was a year and a half after we met him that we were introduced to the then-11-year-old who would become our adopted son.  So you don’t have to be a major in anything to connect those dots and realize that the experience of mentoring made us realize that we could parent an older child.  A project still lingering on the backburner is a detailed article about being a mentor which I’m hoping to get finished in the next couple of weeks, so watch this space for updates on that.

6.  The infamous novel to which I have alluded from time to time is still working its way through the query trenches, now numbering 11 rejections all told.  I refuse to accept that this is a trend, and I soldier on.  One rather disappointing (yet interesting) tale from this process is having a Twitter pitch for it favorited by one particular agent after she had already rejected the query and sample chapters, which were sent to her because she favorited the same pitch in a prior Twitter contest.  (She was great about it though.)  With that sort of thing, you just have to laugh and keep going.  There was another form rejection I received that was so apologetic I almost felt I should have responded, assuring the agent that I didn’t take it personally and that I wasn’t going to go fledermaus-scheise on her.  Probably a result of too many wannabes doing just that.  As an aside to any literary agent out there who might be reading this, I promise promise PROMISE that I won’t be a jerkwad if you say no to me.  I’m taking a stand against that crap.  I may even develop a variation of the Serenity Prayer for rejected writers, or something more basic, like “I will not break, I will not bend, I will not turn into a raging douche-a-holic.”

7.  And lastly, I have struggled with my hair since as long as I can remember.  The avatar I use for all my social media profiles is one of the rare few pictures in which I find it looks somewhat respectable, instead of like a wildebeest flayed by a helicopter rotor.

Ok then!  Onwards to the third part of this here deal.  Versatility to me suggests, at least by its dictionary definition, individuals with a wide range of skills.  Applied to blogging it would therefore seem to mean people who write well about a lot of different subjects.  This runs contrary to most blogging advice, which posits that in order to build an audience you should focus on one topic you know really well and then just write the bejeezus out of that, rather than trying to be good for all time zones.  I suppose that when you become established as a “voice” that others seek out, you are then freer to weigh in on whatever you want, as opposed to trying to build a niche audience from nothing.  Some blogs I follow are informative writing resources, others are pop culture treasure troves, others still are founts of creativity expressed through wildly imaginative fiction.  What they share, however, are voices I look forward to hearing, and find myself missing when absent.

You’ve been bearing with me for this long, and I want to shake it up and end on something of a twist, so here it is:  rather than list fifteen names and links you won’t click on, I’m going to do Q&A’s with each person I nominate.  I enjoyed hosting Emmie Mears in June and it’s given me the itch to do some more of that there stuff.  I just think you’ll get more of a sense of why I admire these writers, and it’ll give them a chance to talk about what drives them, what scares them, what they’re after and what they want their legacy to be.  None of this fill-in-the-blank, true-or-false quick answer claptrap, we’re going to dive deep down, tug at the heart and probe the soul.  I’m gonna be the Brian Linehan of the blogging world if it kills me.  (I am aware that Brian Linehan is dead, so that could be taken the wrong way.  I meant in the sense of his detailed interviewing style.)  And each will of course be asked for their favorite swear word.

This might take a while so don’t expect all fifteen to show up in the next week, or even the next couple of months – it’ll be an ongoing feature here and I’ll categorize them so they’re easy for you to find.  To my unwitting subjects:  watch your Twitter DM’s and your email inboxes, like so many arrows loosed by an intrepid archer, or darts flung at a perforated cork board by a drunken punter round the pub, my questions will be coming for you.  Mwa ha ha.

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Star Wars VII and cultural karaoke

xwing

For someone prone to dropping Star Wars references in almost everything he writes, I haven’t had much to say since the official announcement, just a few cycles prior to Star Wars Day, of the cast of J.J. Abrams’ continuation of George Lucas’ fabled saga, in which months of speculation and rumor about who said what and who else was photographed coming out of where were put to rest snugly inside the belly of a Tauntaun.  The lead three from the first beloved trilogy are back:  Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and perennial “Han Solo bores me” grump Harrison Ford (undoubtedly for a handsome chunk of change), along with the unseen but ever-present Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Kenny Baker as R2-D2 and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO.  They are joined by a mix of screen veterans like Andy Serkis, Oscar Isaac and the legendary Max von Sydow, and relative unknowns like John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Domnhall Gleeson and Adam Driver.

Nothing was forthcoming, however, about what contributions to the saga the new players are making.  In the leadup, Driver was said to be the preferred candidate for the “Darth Vader-like villain,” whatever you take that to mean.  As an aside, granted I don’t know what goes into the science of casting, but having endured a few minutes of one episode of Girls I can’t imagine looking at him and having my first thought be, “ruthless galactic bad guy!”  I stand by my opinion that young actors make lousy villains – they often come off as spoiled brats having hissy fits because Mommy confiscated the XBox – but yeah, yeah, lesson of Heath Ledger and all that, we’ll wait for the movie.  And although J.J. Abrams says he regrets being coy about who Benedict Cumberbatch was going to play in Star Trek Into Darkness, suggesting that it hurt the movie in the long run, he seems to be sticking with his policy of keeping everything locked in the mystery box for now.  The only other tantalizing tidbit we’ve heard is that Han Solo is supposed to play a major role in the story while Luke and Leia will be relegated to supporting parts.  (I don’t think this works – the character of Han was never meant to be a lead, only a strong foil, but again, we’ll wait for the movie.)

The best decision Abrams made in taking on this daunting yet coveted assignment was to hire Lawrence Kasdan to help him shape the screenplay to his satisfaction.  Kasdan’s work on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was invaluable, particularly his gift with sharp, concise dialogue, and his pen was sorely missed in the prequels.  I recall reading somewhere that Lucas did ask him to help with Episodes I-III and Kasdan declined, suggesting that Lucas needed to write his own story this time.  Shame – we might have been spared I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here.  Here everything is soft and smooth.  Kasdan comes from the antecedent generation of screenwriters, prior to the reigning group that grew up watching movies in video stores, and as such he’s less likely to fall into the Admiral Ackbar-forewarned trap of making this new movie nothing but a callback to the highlights of the first three – if he can keep Abrams, the leading member of the aforementioned reigning group, and the man with the last word on this movie’s story, in line.

Star Wars Episode VII has a Sisyphean task ahead.  It has to measure up to the standard of the first three movies, expunge the bad taste left in many mouths by the soulless, over-digitized prequels, and convey the feel of the Star Wars universe without simply repeating what is not only familiar, but entrenched in the souls of an entire generation.  Even the original trilogy couldn’t manage to do this; that’s why we had two Death Stars to blow up.  But it’s the challenge awaiting anyone who tackles a sequel, no matter what the series.  People always want more of the same thing.  James Bond has to order the same drink, wear the same tux, introduce himself the same way and end up with a girl in the end.  When he doesn’t, fans (and critics) pout.  Formula is a straitjacket:  stray too far and you lose your target market, nestle too comfortably inside it and you’re lost in the cesspool of endless fan service.

When Super 8 came out, critics were quick to dub it the second coming of Steven Spielberg, at least his late 70’s/early 80’s aesthetic, missing the point that when Spielberg was making Close Encounters and E.T. he wasn’t trying to pay homage to anything, he was just telling stories of the time.  With Super 8, however, J.J. Abrams seemed to be trying so hard just to recreate the look and feel of that era of moviemaking that he forgot to tell a story that had any heart, or was even remotely interesting.  My concern for Episode VII is that Abrams will focus on all the wrong elements again, packing a most visually impressive movie with winky-noddy retreads of beats and lines of dialogue from IV-VI that are so familiar they have lost their original meaning and have become geek and nerd shibboleths instead.  Abrams blew the landing of Star Trek Into Darkness by turning the last twenty minutes into a variation on the finale of The Wrath of Khan, yanking us out of the story with “oh yeah, that’s a reference to X, that’s a reference to Y” right when we needed to be locked deep inside it.  I don’t particularly want to be sitting in the audience at Episode VII and eyeing my watch to pinpoint the inevitable moment someone announces “I have a bad feeling about this.”  We’ve been sated with franchise movies constructed from checklists instead of scripts that have emotional resonance.  That way lies the banality of the Friedberg/Seltzer “oeuvre” (i.e. Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans and any one of a dozen comedies built on evoking Pavlovian audience reactions to limp parodies of stale pop culture.)

Note that in the coverage of the cast announcement the new actors are getting much less attention than old.  The new guys (and one girl so far) in Episode VII will be blown off the screen if they are merely retreads on the naive farm boy, the steadfast princess, the wisecracking cynical smuggler, the former hero fallen to the dark side.  They will be dismissed as pale revisions of a superior first draft.  They need to have their own wants and goals and quirks in order to etch themselves into our hearts the way the originals did and to become new shibboleths that we can exchange and quote for another forty years.  They won’t be able to do that if they are plugged into a paint-by-numbers Star Wars plot designed primarily to bring back a sense of 1977.  And if at some point in the movie Daisy Ridley breathes “I love you” to John Boyega and he replies “I know,” we’re just going to roll our eyes.

It’s perhaps ironic to criticize Star Wars for relying too much on repetition of the familiar when it is in itself a pastiche of hero tropes that have existed since cave wall storytelling.  Those tropes are not the problem; the problem is choosing to use them as targets rather than starting points.  That I think is the major issue I have with the kind of storytelling espoused by J.J. Abrams and his contemporaries.  They’re not trying to do anything terribly new, they just want to do their own version of the stuff they liked when they were young, focusing not on creation but on re-creation with a modern spin.  It’s cultural karaoke on a billion-dollar scale, and if we’re going to invest that amount of money, talent, effort and time, it would be nice to walk out of the theater having experienced something worthwhile.  Having been taken somewhere we’ve never been before.  George Lucas himself proved the disconnect that occurs when you construct a story predicated on hitting specific beats (a systematic problem with pretty much every prequel ever made) rather than growing organically from rich characterizations.  We know where you’re going with this, you’ve practically handed us the coordinates and programmed the navicomputer.  And we stop caring.  Just like we stop listening to the guy at the karaoke bar doing “American Pie” for the fifteenth time, no matter how good a voice he actually has.

In any event, the gauntlet has been thrown down, Messrs. Abrams, Kasdan et al, to step away from what’s expected and venture instead into galaxies unknown – dare you pick it up or recoil lest your arm be severed by a lightsaber?

With a Song in My Heart: J is for…

“The James Bond Theme,” The John Barry Orchestra, 1962.

Another day, another obvious song choice?  What can I say, folks, you know me so well.  This is the original version, written by Monty Norman, arranged and performed by John Barry and his orchestra for the debut of the 007 series, Dr. No, fifty-two years ago.  Interestingly enough in that movie’s opening credits sequence the theme is chopped up and rearranged to suit the transitions of the animations and the captions, but the revolutionary sound remains:  Vic Flick’s electric guitar, drenched in reverb, racing through a surf-rock-inspired lick that to this day is an indication that something mind-blowingly cool is about to happen.  Never has another leitmotif offered that sort of guarantee, still valid after all these decades.

Although John Barry’s is the name most associated with the “Bond sound,” the film series has been through a good assortment of composers during its tenure, each of whom has attempted to leave his individual echo behind.  Beatles producer George Martin was the first to follow in Barry’s footsteps, offering funk and jazz-flute stylings to Roger Moore’s debut Live and Let Die.  The renowned Marvin Hamlisch, fresh off Oscar wins in the mid-70’s, gave The Spy Who Loved Me a fusion of traditional grand orchestra and disco, a trend explored to its somewhat ridiculous end with Rocky composer Bill Conti’s work on For Your Eyes Only in 1981.  At the end of the 80’s, it seemed you could not have an action movie without Michael Kamen at the conductor’s podium, and so Licence to Kill accordingly inhabits the world of Kamen’s Die Hard and Lethal Weapon work with plenty of Latin flavor for the plot revolving around South American drug lords.  French composer Eric Serra attempted to relaunch Bond in 1995 with his unique synthesizer-based approach, leading a significant number of fans to jam cotton in their ears and clamor for a return to the ways of days past.  David Arnold’s assumption of music duties for five straight films beginning in 1997 brought the orchestra back to the forefront, but layered with computerized rhythm tracks in accordance with the lightning pace that movie audiences now demanded of their chase scenes.  Most recently, Thomas Newman’s complex, dignified, by turns stately and others relentless style in Skyfall led to the first major awards nominations for Bond music in decades.  Throughout these evolutions, though, the James Bond Theme has remained the vital ingredient, no matter what form it finds itself rearranged into.  You can’t have a Bond movie without the Bond theme – a lesson learned well by the makers of the clumsy, half-hearted Never Say Never Again.

The James Bond Theme, like the hero who struts across the screen in his tuxedo as it plays, is a reassuring constant.  Though it may flex and stretch in reaction to or in anticipation of the times, it remains unbreakable, unmalleable.  Play it on a guitar, on a piano, with a host of trumpets, on a set of bongos; the true feel of it never changes.  Everyone knows how it’s supposed to go; everyone can hum a few bars when asked.  Like so many of our greatest songs, it belongs to everyone, to a multitude of moments.  For me the Bond theme can evoke either waiting for my father to come home on a Friday night with a Betamax rental of Diamonds are Forever, or parking myself on the couch with my son to watch a Blu-Ray of Quantum of Solace.  It can make me stand a bit straighter, cock my eyebrow and offer a risible pun while watching gin and vodka pour from an ice-cold martini shaker.  I know I’ll never be James Bond (nor would I really want to, as I’m fully aware that his lifestyle is destructive to the soul) but I can model myself after the best of what he represents:  confidence, taste, refinement and charm.  For a character dreamed up by one author crouched over a typewriter in sweaty Jamaican heat to become a cultural icon outlasting any pretenders to the throne, he must be able to touch something primal in our minds, to tap into aspirations we didn’t even know we had.  As we grow older and watch this character evolve with us, his theme song becomes connective tissue between the dreams of wide-eyed youth and the nostalgia of the adult.  An unbroken line from which we can pluck any memory we wish to relive, any old wish we feel like dusting off and setting out into the world, just to see what might happen.

Going to the movies is one of the last things we do as a group in our society these days – inasmuch as social media has made connection easier, that connection is still for the most part one person sitting alone with a device, interacting with digital data.  However, when you are sitting in an audience and that electric guitar fires up, you can sense the shot of adrenaline jolting through the veins of everyone around you.  Everyone gets it.  Everyone knows what everyone is thinking and feeling about it, and we can smile at each other in recognition.  You’re in this collective of shared cool, and it’s an experience whose frequency is diminishing as the years creak on.  But it will linger as one of the last vestiges of such things, welcomed every few years with the newest installment.  When Warren Zevon was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he said he hoped to live long enough to see the next James Bond movie.  One needs offer little more than that as affirmation.  Bond, and his theme song, are forever – as are we.

The Advice Guy Is In!

Wikimedia Commons.
Wikimedia Commons.

Anyone who blogs is familiar with search engine spam:  the nigh-incomprehensible, often hilarious terms that somewhere, someone is typing into Google and finding themselves directed to your site with.  Since I’m a conscientious writer who likes to ensure that no fan is left behind, I’m taking this opportunity to address some of the possibly legitimate questions that have gone unanswered.  Let us have at it then, and continue doing our part to bring light to the world’s mysteries.  I should note that according to the WordPress calculamatron, every single one of these searches has been entered more than once, which means somewhere someone waits in vain for a response.  Wait no more, say I!  Behold:

“how to sick solar panel to car bonnet”

Firstly, you should check the solar panel’s temperature to determine whether or not it has as a fever.  If it does, make sure it stays warm and feed it plenty of broth.  Flat ginger ale is always a good option as well, but be sure it’s completely flat because you do not want to have to burp a solar panel.  Once the panel is feeling better you may then go ahead and attach it to the car bonnet.  I recommend a good strong length of rope and a bowline hitch.  Do not drive faster than 20 mph or in southeasterly wind conditions.

“where can I buy graham crackers in london”

Round the shops, guv.

“el final de Breaking Dawn: Part II”

Mucho gusto!  El final is caliente with mucho, mucho vampiros emos attacking el chupacabras with nada shirts on.  Es muy bueno!

“face Stockholm French martini”

This is actually one of my favorite drinks.  To make it, shake equal measures Lillet and Bollinger over ice and pour into a chilled martini glass.  Garnish with an Allen key and then smash your face into it.

“have I displeased you”

Yes.  And you know why.

“what does being forged through fire mean”

I had to check Google Translate on this one but the closest definition I can find is that apparently it involves taking an item, placing it in a fire and hammering it until it’s the right shape.  It is strongly recommended that said item is not any part of the body.

“did john lennon appear in on her majesty’s secret service”

This is a little known piece of movie trivia, but in fact, he did.  About thirty minutes in, he can be spotted hiding behind George Lazenby’s left eyebrow.  The predicament of Lazenby as the only James Bond to ever appear in only one movie inspired Lennon’s later solo unreleased demo, “You Cooked Yer Golden Goose You Naff Git,” which was rerecorded by the surviving three Beatles in 1995 but lost after the master tape was eaten by a passing walrus, goo goo g’joob.

“professor splash sexy picture”

Borat, is that you?

“life lessons learned from Mario”

  1.  Eat every mushroom you can find
  2. Stars are a plentiful source of invincibility
  3. Avoid bananas on the rainbow road
  4. The princess is in another castle
  5. Keep leaping because there’s always another barrel coming

“my little pony dude”

Now that’s a name nopony would self-apply where I come from.

“google coldplay”

Google them yourself.  I’m not your damn keyboardist.  Well, I was, for a time, in the hazy progressive rock band days I don’t like to talk about, where we would eat mushrooms (see above) and spend hours contemplating the collected works of Frank Herbert before attempting to translate them into song form.  Sadly, “Be My Shi-Hulud” never really burned up the charts the way we hoped it would – though it did result in a surprising number of restraining orders.

“snack crackers shape”

Trapezoidal, because five-sided crackers are for posers.

“sequence of events to become president”

Witness:

  1. Make a lot of money
  2. Join a political party (suggested method:  coin flip, depending on weather)
  3. Find someone else who is richer than you to back your campaign
  4. Run for office and don’t say too many stupid things
  5. ??????
  6. PRESIDENCY!

Alternatively, use the Frank Underwood House of Cards method:

  1. Be evil
  2. Convince everyone between you and the presidency to resign
  3. PRESIDENCY!

“conjuring demons through music katy perry”

It’s relieving to know that I’m not the only person out there who thinks “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is an invocation of the evil power of Our Dark Lord Satan.  I mean really, when she sings about dancing on tabletops, that would be enough to get you burned at the stake in Inquisition-era Spain.  I know, you probably weren’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition.  *loud, ominous note*  NO ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!  Our chief weapons are fear, surprise and Katy Perry.

“sean bean 2012”

I totes would have backed that ticket.  Oh well, there’s always 2016.  As long as he can pledge not to be beheaded/impaled/blown up/shot/drowned/stabbed before the end of the term, I think he’s in like Flynn.

“argument for god the devil and the perfect pizza”

I’m for it unless it will make me unpopular, then I’m against it to my dying breath.

“I just wanna spend my life with you lyrics”

You know, some men will search their entire lives to find a really beautiful, deeply understanding and heartfelt set of lyrics they can pledge themselves to until death does them part.  I mean, I’ve had a desperate crush on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” since puberty, when lyrics stopped seeming so icky, but she’s never had any time for me.  Seriously, once you’ve heard that “Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine/I’m on the pavement, thinkin’ bout the government” couplet, how can your heart ever belong to another?  Though I’ve found as I’ve aged my tastes too have leaned toward older lyrics and now I find myself very curious about “Use your mentality, wake up to reality” from “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

“tolkien rips off harry potter a lot”

Please, do the world a favor and just go away.  There are some lovely caves in Canada’s north that you might find appealing.  Unless bitumen is located beneath them, then it might be a bit noisy with all the drilling and fracking equipment moseying about.

“things people do not know about graham crackers”

If you eat 100 of them in a single sitting you will attain superhuman strength.  (Editor’s note:  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, IN A CAR, AT WORK OR REALLY, ANYWHERE YOU MAY FIND YOURSELF WITH OCCASION TO TRY EATING 100 GRAHAM CRACKERS AT ONCE.  THE MANAGEMENT BEARS NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR INABILITY TO DISTINGUISH SATIRE FROM ACTUAL THINGS THAT ARE REAL.)

“the parent trap the end”

The twins realize life is a meaningless existential hell and tragically accept a teaching post in Australia.

“youtube videos of sweet honeys tied and gagged in inexorable bondage”

I don’t… I can’t even… heavens, where to even begin.  I’m not sure what’s more perplexing, that such a query would lead to my site, or that the person searching for said videos was literate enough to include the word “inexorable” in their search string.  Admittedly, it is possible that each one of those words has appeared in a different context somewhere back in the archives of my 262 posts, but that the mysterious forces of the algorithm should see fit to mesh them into a giant arrow that points here is, honestly, an argument for the existence of the fickle finger of fate, or at least, the conclusion drawn by the twins at the end of The Parent Trap.

This post is humbly dedicated to all those who have ever penned a “sarcastic advice” piece, because Zeus knows I didn’t come up with the idea.  And to all those who continue to fuel our biting wit with their comical inability to use the Internet properly.  We salute you.

Weighing in on Wonder Woman

ww

“Don’t let them screw it up,” was producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli’s advice to his daughter Barbara as he handed her the reins of the James Bond franchise.  The same six words tremble on the lips of every comic book fan who dreams of seeing Wonder Woman represented on a theatre screen with hundreds of millions of dollars and a booming Hans Zimmer score behind her.  While the last three decades have seen Superman and Batman go through their cinematic paces with both triumphs and nadirs, WW remains shackled in the vault, a victim of Hollywood’s utter inability to figure out how to handle her.  While her comic continues to sell, and she’s seen some action in animated form, the leap to live action feature remains daunting.  Big industry movers and shakers like David E. Kelley and Joss Whedon have tried and failed to bring her to life.  But as everyone with even a passing interest has heard, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, best known from the recent spate of Fast & Furious franchise offerings, has been signed to appear as Wonder Woman in the next Superman movie, alongside Henry Cavill reprising his role from Man of Steel and Ben Affleck taking over for Christian Bale as Batman.  That’s all we know at this point.

What we can offer by way of conjecture is that the role for Wonder Woman in a film already top-heavy with marquee characters and A-list names, built around a conflict between DC’s two heaviest hitters, is not fated to be of the substance her biggest fans crave.  Firstly, the movie is intended as a sequel to Man of Steel, so it’s not meant to be an ensemble piece with each character having his and her requisite beats.  Superman remains the lead part with Batman as a second lead/supporting player.  The primary character arc, the hero’s journey, will be Superman’s.  The demands of a limited running time mean Wonder Woman is unlikely to be given much of an origin story; she’s likely to merely show up at some critical point (or be disguised as Diana Prince, new reporter for the Daily Planet and Lois Lane rival, for the majority of the plot before a third-act costumed reveal).  And the character’s Greek mythological (i.e. fantasy) background is an uneasy fit in between Superman’s science fiction nature (at least, as it was depicted in MoS) and Batman’s hard-boiled detective leanings.  The Justice League animated series adopted a “just go with it” approach whereby the characters simply got on with battling whatever military/magical/alien villain happened to show up this week, without stopping to explain how all these genres could logically coexist.  But I doubt that an intended-for-mainstream-audiences movie will be satisfied with that.  Marvel’s The Avengers had the advantage of five different introductory movies to get the exposition out of the way so you could accept the idea of Thor and Iron Man together; MoS II or whatever it’s going to be called has no such luxury.  (Part of the problem is that the rollout of the DC properties has been haphazard, first with the mediocre Superman Returns, then the abysmal Green Lantern, and the incompatibility of Nolan’s wildly successful Dark Knight trilogy with an overarching story, and now they are struggling to play catch-up to Marvel’s much more strategic approach.)

The thought, then, is that her extended cameo in Man of Steel vs. Dark Knight, or whatever they’re calling it, may serve as a springboard for her own standalone spinoff.  That puts a heckuva lot of pressure on Gadot to deliver a performance that stands out just enough amidst the testosterone-fueled Kryptonian/Gothamite smackdown without taking so much focus off the two male leads that we lose interest in their story.  And she has to accomplish that herculean (hera-ian?) task while competing for attention with Amy Adams, no slouch she with screen presence.  While the trolls trashing the relatively unknown Gadot for not having the right look or not being American or not being insert favorite large-breasted actress you’d love to sleep with here need to open a window in that basement of theirs (seriously folks, have we learned nothing from the short-lived backlash over Heath Ledger and The Dark Knight?), legitimate questions can be asked about how the character will be written for her to play.  For one of the most difficult characters for any person to write well is an empowered woman, and especially difficult is a superpowered woman.  Going back to my mention of James Bond earlier, while he may be held up as an aspirational example of a certain kind of masculinity (he shouldn’t, in my view), hardly anyone in criticism writes of Bond as a template for Man.  But every time a woman of significance appears on screen in a role that calls for slightly more than “focus group-required love interest,” critics leap to immediately assign her a greater significance in the canon of All That Is Female.  Woman becomes Everywoman.  So too, we expect, will Wonder Woman.

And they won’t be able to help themselves.  Wonder Woman is essentially, a goddess; flawless beauty and figure combined with indomitable strength and abilities, an aspirational, unachievable paradigm of feminine perfection.  You’re the writer of Man of Steel 2: Batman Boogaloo or whatever.  Now quick, go pen some dialogue for this character.  Dialogue that, you know, intrigues and endears audiences but doesn’t send them bolting for the exits with a preachy collection of dumbed-down feminist stereotypes, or turns a beloved icon into a brainless git making sure to point her shapely hind end provocatively at the camera while slam-punching supervillains through buildings.  Fancy that assignment?  Particularly when we’re still operating within the restraints noted above, that she has to be memorable but not so memorable that she diminishes Batman and/or Superman, the latter of whom the movie is mainly supposed to be about?

If it sounds like I’m not holding out a lot of hope for Wonder Woman circa 2015, you’d be partially correct.  I hope she’s the most awesome version of the character we’ve ever seen, leaving folks asking Lynda who? and begging for Wonder Woman Begins.  What I’m missing is the faith that this can be executed properly by the creative team handling her live-action feature debut, or indeed by any creative team in the realistic position to handle this potential franchise.  Because too often in the past, we’ve seen them (the generic them) screw it up.  They screw it up by refusing to invest female action heroes with humanizing nuance, by writing them as archetypes instead of as people.  Broad caricatures who have to lose what makes them women in order to compete on the same playing field as men.  Or, they venture too far the other way, where femininity is cranked up to vampy extremes for the benefit of naught but teenage boys.  The Lara Croft movies presented a lead utterly without warmth or any discernible charm and consequently any audience empathy.  Catwoman put its lead in bondage gear and involved her not in a battle for the fate of the world, but in a silly plot about toxic makeup.  (And the failures of these films set back the female action genre by years, as shortsighted executives figured people weren’t going to see them because they didn’t like action movies with female heroes, not the real reason – because the movies themselves just sucked.)

What I’d like to see, and what I expect folks who are far greater fans of Wonder Woman than I am would want to see as well, is a character who despite her superpowered trappings still possesses emotions that we can understand and encounters situations we can recognize.  (You know, like walking to work one day and running into a massive, marauding interstellar beast.)  A character with some real weight and depth.  A goddess who is still human where it counts most, in her heart and in her head.  That’s what will make us love her and want to see more of her.

Over to you, Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Gal Gadot.  Show us the Wonder.

Must we come to hate our darlings?

oldbooks

So this was interesting.  Variety ran an interview with Stephenie Meyer the other day asking her about the new movie she’s producing, Austenland.  Naturally you don’t interview one of the most successful authors in the world without posing at least one question on her signature achievement, but Meyer’s response upset some of her more devoted fans (as noted in the comments, which I give you leave to read this one time, but remember, don’t read the comments.)  She said Twilight isn’t a happy place for her anymore and she has no interest in revisiting it anytime soon.  Sheesh, some might be inclined to say, it made you a household name and a bajillion dollars, what on earth are you complaining about?  Yet, Stephenie Meyer is neither the first nor will she be the last artist (yes, you cynical wags, I called her an artist) to have an ambivalent relationship with her art.  I’m reminded of the story of Alec Guinness telling a kid he’d only give him an autograph if the kid promised to never watch Star Wars again, and I wonder if it’s a fate that befalls all of those of us who dare to create – is it inevitable that we will come to hate the creation?

One can forgive Meyer for wanting to move on.  It would be one thing for her to simply wish to expand her pursuits into new arenas following a profitable run with her first endeavor, but Twilight generated as much scorn, probably far more so, as it did praise.  You can say what you like about the Harry Potter series, but those who aren’t fans don’t detest it with such visceral hatred as you’ll see anywhere on the Internet Twilight dares to enter the discussion.  The pastiche of the Ain’t It Cool News comment section mentality I posted in the last entry?  The most generous of compliments in comparison.  Plenty of memes sprang up mocking the characters, the actors who played them in the adaptations, the quality of the writing, every single creative decision taken in the crafting of that saga.  (“Still a Better Love Story Than Twilight” is probably the one that resonates the most.)  In essence, popular culture saw this largely-teen-and-tween-girl phenomenon and decided to take it to the woodshed and whack it with a two-by-four, as if it were singularly to blame for the decline of post-modern civilization (well, that and Obamacare, naturally).  I don’t know Ms. Meyer personally, but I can’t imagine, even in the glow of unimagined wealth, that this wouldn’t have cut, and cut deeply.  In the beginning, she only wanted to tell a story that was important to her.  Now, however many years later, she wants nothing to do with it, and in a way has even more to prove now than when she was a nobody.  It’s a bit sad.

I’ve befriended quite a few writers on Twitter.  Most are unpublished, working away diligently on their dreams and hopeful that someday they’ll break on through the stubborn glass to a cheering audience and critical acclaim.  Each has a story they feel passionate about telling, otherwise they probably wouldn’t be writing.  As I chat with them and read their blogs and learn more about their works-in-progress, I chance to imagine a future time where they are exhausted by the attention, answering the same interview questions fifteen hundred times, and fans wanting to know every iteration of every character nuance of that single work as revealed by word choice and punctuation.  We do so love our darlings but is the moment when we come to despise and regret their existence that distant train rumbling down the track and headed right for us?  Paul McCartney refused to play Beatles songs in concert for most of the 1970’s.  Both Fleming and Conan Doyle tried to kill off their star characters only to be pressured into resurrecting them by fervent readers, and the works that followed were of lesser quality – their hearts just weren’t in it anymore.  (A particularly cutting review of Fleming’s You Only Live Twice I read recently pointed out that it’s almost a deliberate, sniping, mean-spirited parody of what readers had come to love about James Bond, like a middle finger from the worst of Fleming’s snobbery as his health began to fail.)

There are times, very few I’m happy to say, where I even find the modest demands of this blog to be an irritant – the pressure to keep to a regular schedule, to continue to find things to write about that will interest more than just my immediate family.  But I keep going because for better or worse, I still love doing it.  Then again, I don’t have one million fans (or haters) pestering me to write less of this or more of that or what have you.  And I can’t really imagine ever arriving at the point where I say screw you all, I’m done, I’m going off to finally start my dream project about 8th Century cabinet making and I don’t care if nobody but that one guy in Mongolia likes it.  Then again, I’m sure that neither did Stephenie Meyer.  It seems to be a given that success is not always the most comfortable destination.  However, you look at folks like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, who after struggling against typecasting for years finally came to embrace the work that had given them international renown and the life they earned as a result.  I Am Not Spock eventually begat I Am Spock.  Maybe it’s a full circle after all.  Like raising kids.  First they’re cute, then they’re irritating, then they’re rebellious pests, and ultimately you love them again, more than you ever have.  If that’s the case, then we can learn to treat our art the same way.

Failing the Bechdel Test

HBO
HBO

The Bechdel Test, while not, admittedly, without its detractors, should be in the back of mind of any men who write female characters.  I first became aware of it about a year or so ago and it is quite amazing how many fictional works don’t live up to its very simple requirements.  The cartoonist Alison Bechdel who created it in 1985 describes it as follows:  the creative enterprise (film, play, novel, what-have-you) has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.  Watching this week’s The Newsroom last night I found myself thinking of the Bechdel Test and how the episode (“The Genoa Tip”) failed it.  There were at least four scenes involving two women speaking to one another, but on each occasion the subject was a man or men in general – even dropped into conversations that ostensibly had nothing to do with dudes.  Sloan and Maggie, Maggie and Lisa, Maggie and Mac – men hovered invisibly between them as both sub- and super-text.  You couldn’t help but shrug, especially since the show keeps replaying the clip of Maggie teeing off on Sex and the City (in the form of an embarrassing YouTube video) for its depiction of women who have nothing better to do than talk about men.

It’s important to remember that the Bechdel Test is not an absolute for judging whether something is worthy of your time.  For example, The King’s Speech fails the Bechdel Test because the plot focuses on the bond between two men and the only conversation between two female characters in the movie is also about them.  Perfectly serviceable material nonetheless, and the theme of the story transcends gender.  But it’s disappointing when a television series in particular that features ostensibly strong, professional female characters can’t get them talking about anything other than guys they’re dating/want to date/love from afar/can’t stand the sight of.  Most women I know define themselves and the scope of their lives far beyond the parameters of their romantic relationships, or lack thereof as the case may be.  They are people of greater substance than the boy-crazy constructs our screens and e-readers tend to be littered with.  The problem is that success, as defined by (largely male-driven, let’s be honest) popular culture, means very different things for the sexes.  The man wins the big game, scores the important account, kicks the villain off the precipice to his doom.  The woman gets Prince Charming and the happily ever after.

The key to starting off any story is figuring out what the character wants.  What’s interesting is that for most male characters, “getting the girl” is almost always the secondary goal.  In any James Bond movie that consideration comes only after the cat-stroking baddie’s plan to blow up the world has been thwarted.  By contrast, “getting the guy” is usually the primary goal for a female protagonist, and her professional goals (if there are any) are depicted as less important in the face of the possibility of true love.  (In stories where getting the girl is the man’s primary goal, said “getting” often means “getting between the sheets with” and an apple pie’s honor gets besmirched in the process.)  It therefore follows, given this premise, that conversations between characters, whether the same gender or not, would be oriented exclusively towards the pursuit of the primary goal.  In the case of two women speaking to one another, this means the subject will be a man and/or men, and thus, bzzzzt!  Bechdel Test fail.

No one is suggesting that we should stop writing love stories, or, more to the point, stories where love is all you – man or woman – need, or want.  Love is so indelibly part of the human experience that to expect otherwise is unrealistic.  It behooves us though, particularly male authors, to consider the Bechdel Test as we craft the interactions of our characters.  It’s a premise as simple as the old advice about avoiding clichés.  Instead of writing lazily that something is “as black as night” or comparing the blackness of said object to coal or ravens, force yourself away from those hoary old examples toward something new.  Likewise, if you’re writing a conversation between two women, say to yourself from the outset that the subject of men is verboten and see where the words take you instead, once you manhandle them (pun intended) onto a different path.  Yes, a large portion of “The Genoa Tip” was devoted to the aftermath of Maggie’s breakup with Don, the implosion of her friendship with her roommate over her now-very-public feelings for Jim and so on, but did a perfectly reasonable and professional discussion between Maggie and Mac over whether or not Maggie could go to Uganda on assignment have to be spoiled by Mac’s unnecessary comment about Will’s doucheyness?  I may be picking nits a little, but when the episode (and indeed, much of the series to date) had already ventured so deeply into Bechdel-fail territory it was just one tiptoe too far.

Ultimately, the lesson of the Bechdel Test, and why I consider it useful in approaching fiction (and even non-fiction opinion pieces such as this one) is this:  there is far more to a woman, and to women, than the men they fall in or out of love with, and our stories about them should reflect that.

Bond 24: And they’re off!

bond24

So, this piece of news hit the Interwebs yesterday:  Bond 24, officially announced, to be directed again by Sam Mendes and released on this side of the pond on November 6, 2015.  While Mendes had withdrawn from consideration some months ago, citing his theatre commitments, and fanboy excitement had been stirred to exploding by the revelation that producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli had met with Christopher Nolan, in the end it seems that after Skyfall blew apart box office records across the planet, no one was willing to let Mendes go – even if that meant delaying production to wait for him to finish up his work on the London stage.  So yeah, it blows that we have to twiddle our thumbs two and a half more years, but I’m happy to wait for a production that equals or even betters the last one rather than have a rushed, half-assed job by some other hack-for-hire.  Sam Mendes will become the first director to make back-to-back 007 movies since John Glen in the 80’s.  And of course Daniel Craig will be back, along with Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw as Q.  John Logan is handling writing duties.

That is all we know at this moment and all we are likely to know for quite some time.  However, that won’t stop the entertainment press, per their S.O.P., to print thousands of words of misinformation and other misleading nonsense in the hopes of drumming up clicks and ad revenue tied to the golden touch of 007.  Whenever a new Bond movie goes into production the same rumors spring up like the annual dandelions in your otherwise impeccably manicured front lawn.  They get the same circulation and eventually someone from Eon (Bond’s production company) is forced to issue a denial.  In the interest of expediency, I thought I would save the press some time and write the story for them here, based on the fifteen hundred other versions of it we’ve seen ever since the first Bond-related article sprang up in cyberspace many moons ago.  They can then plug in the name of the requisite D-list starlet whose overzealous publicist is trying to boost her profile by linking her falsely to a Bond role.  Anyone who follows Bond gossip will find it all too terribly familiar.  Please to enjoy:

(GENERIC ACTRESS) Set to Star in Next Bond Film

HOLLYWOOD – (Generic Actress) is being wooed to match wits with the cinema’s most dashing secret agent, James Bond, in his next adventure, (Misguided Entertainment Publication) has learned.

(Generic Actress), who has appeared in (Swiftly Canceled CW Teen Fantasy Series) and (SyFy Channel Original Movie Featuring Sharks and Tornadoes), is the number one choice of Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who are said to be “desperate” to ink the rising star for the upcoming production, tentatively titled Bond 24.  “(Generic Actress) is perfect for the role of 007’s leading lady because she’s beautiful and alluring, with that slightly dangerous edge that marks the greatest of the Bond girls,” says a source inside Eon Productions, who asked not to be revealed for this story.  “We’re excited that (Generic Actress) will be a part of this film and are certain she’ll make a memorable addition to the James Bond legacy.”

Next up for (Generic Actress) is a formal screen test with Bond star Daniel Craig to take place at Bond’s home base, Pinewood Studios in London, and a meeting with director Sam Mendes.  Also rumored to be joining the cast is (usually Kevin Spacey) as the villain, and (Completely Unknown Bollywood Actor) as a henchman.  (Forgotten X Factor Winner) will be performing the theme song.  Bond 24 is set to be released in cinemas in November of 2015.

Use it wisely, my friends.  Royalties are not required, but would be nice.  Just leave me your bank account number and password in the comments.

Yes, I would like Fry with that

fry
Credit: SamFry Limited, Creative Commons License. http://www.stephenfry.com

I come to you today with a confession, though not one unfamiliar to anyone who’s peeked at my Twitter biography.  I am an Anglophile.   Although perhaps it’s more precise to say I have Anglophile leanings, or, curiosities, as it were.  I haven’t taken the full plunge yet into declaring an allegiance to a U.K. football franchise, or learned what the hell is going on in a cricket match.  Downton Abbey remains unviewed to this day and I’ve never been able to glom onto Doctor Who (those cheaply made space monsters with the creepy accents scared the piss out of me when I was little.)  I do, however, have an enormous infatuation with certain cornerstones of British popular culture – James Bond, the Beatles, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens, Eddie Izzard, the original Whose Line is it Anyway, David Attenborough nature documentaries, The King’s Speech.  My taste in music is almost exclusively British bands and performers.  My conversations are peppered with British idioms, and when required, British profanity (nobody swears better in English than the ones who invented the language, you bollocks-arsed wankers).  My sense of humor has always leaned British in its dryness and self-deprecation.  And in this spirit of confession I am forced to admit a massive man-crush on that pillar of all that is magnificent about being British, Stephen Fry.  In fact, one of my little goals for my Twitter experience is to somehow convince Stephen Fry to find reason to follow me – without going the usual route of “hey plz follow meeee back!!!!”  (He follows about 50,000 people while over 5 million follow him – so I figure I’ve got a 1 in 100 chance, hardly impossible odds.)  I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this post is part of that strategy, but what the hell, Stephen Fry rocks, so even if he never sees this, it’s still worth writing.

The name might not be immediately familiar, but the face and voice are – the tall, imposing if sad-eyed figure with the bent nose, the deep, plummy voice you’ve heard narrating the Harry Potter audiobooks.  Stephen Fry has led a remarkably rich if not always charmed life, which you can read about in copious detail on his Wikipedia page.  From humble beginnings (naturally) he has become something of a world-renowned adventurer, not of the climb-the-mountain-while-battling-wild-zebras type, but of the mind, pursuing ventures literary, theatrical, televised, cinematic and everything in between, fueled by a love of language and a curiosity about everything.  As he says on his website, he finds it uncomfortable recounting his achievements, but he has nothing left to prove with a CV so varied.  One of the most interesting facets of Fry, particularly in his film roles, is that his screen time is usually limited, giving you a mere taste – as a result, he is this inscrutable larger-than-life character who never lingers long enough for you to figure him out and thus lose your interest.  You’re always left curious for more.  Indeed, there never seems to be enough Stephen Fry, and he seems to like it that way.  (Twitter in particular is tailored perfectly for people like that – I’m sure I come across as far more interesting in periodic bursts of 140 characters than I do in real life.)

The first time I saw Stephen Fry was in catching up on reruns of Whose Line.  In one episode he took part in a sketch where Josie Lawrence read every other line of a play while Fry was a flustered customer trying to purchase an airline ticket from her.  You can watch it for yourselves here.

His command of language is obvious; clearly a brilliant mind at work, confronting and embracing the absurdity of the premise and diving in with the bone-dry, semi-flustered and entirely elegant phrasing that marks the best of the British sense of humor.  Later, as I discovered and devoured his genius sketch comedy collaboration with Hugh Laurie, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, I could see the man at the height of his creative endeavors.  One of the biggest reasons why English humor often doesn’t translate is that much of it is built on the class system, one social stratum poking fun at the foibles of another.  Fry has the education of an upper class “to the manor born” man but he resents that caste’s appropriation of high culture, and slays mercilessly, on their own terms, those who attempt to use their Etonian upbringing to peer down snootfully past upturned noses.  Check out this brilliant sketch where Fry displays his unbridled love of the English language while mocking the personae of highbrow elocution-happy would-be intellectuals.

So much of popular comedy, particularly on this side of the pond, is based in being crude, breaking taboos for the sake of “oh no he didn’t” shock value, mocking those who can’t punch back, spewing endless profanity at high volume.  What I’ve always appreciated most about Stephen Fry is that he proves by example that you can be smart about being funny.  That in English, we have an enormous, infinitely quirky tool at our disposal that can be bent, twisted, turned inside out, dropped on its head, sent through the post, dusted off, sprinkled with garlic and spread about liberally to uncover some wonderful and unique ways of expressing ourselves in a manner that will always evoke a smile.  Fry loves puns; he loves surprising us with linguistic connections we’ve failed to realize.  Behold, my favorite Fry and Lauriein which this trick was never more hilariously illustrated.

When I’m working on my novel and I write the phrase “He was crestfallen; in fact, his crest had completely fallen off,” that’s me doing my best Stephen Fry impression.  For me, English words have come more alive since discovering the collected works of Mr. Fry – I’m looking for those connections now and holding them up proudly while jumping about like something of a crazed jackrabbit when I find them.  Stephen Fry has also shown us, in his very public struggles with his manic depression, that a flawed man can still achieve great things – in fact, his greatness is emphasized by his ability to manage his weaknesses.  Not defeat them, necessarily, but acknowledge them as an inexorable part of the whole.  In The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Fry talked about wanting to keep his mania phases, even if it meant having to suffer the extreme craters of the other side – a bold choice, to be certain, even if some might justifiably disagree.  Contradictions and all, Stephen Fry remains someone to admire, a man who has been described as one of Britain’s national treasures – one can imagine the bemused smirk on his face at hearing that.  But as an Anglophile, or Anglophile-curious, I can think of few Brits who deserve it more.  So thank you, Stephen Fry, for being you, for the influence you’ve had on this one Canadian whom you might humbly consider lending a Twitter follow to at some point, some day.  Soupy twist!

How James Bond can help you avoid information dumps

skyfallopening
Who is this man? What is he doing? I am intrigued. I must know more.

A disclaimer before we start today:  I know nothing, Jon Snow.  I am offering the following merely as the opinion of a layperson who has not, for the record, published a single book – not as a treatise of indisputable fact.  So it’s entirely possible that the words lying in wait below may be a complete and utter waste of the precious time I’ve requested of you.  But please try to give them some consideration before you sit down to your next draft.  Trust me, I have been there and done that and I want to try to steer you away from the rocky shores I know lie in wait.  Put simply, you need to stop opening your stories with massive information dumps.

Across the Interwebs lies a plethora of sites where authors both experienced and perenially aspiring have posted excerpts of their books – usually the first chapter – for ongoing perusal and feedback.  As a veteran lurker I’ve thumbed through a copious number of them, and as my own interest is in writing fantasy (at least for the time being; I’m not limiting the scope of future projects) those tend to be the ones I zero in on.  And it pains me to point out that a great many fall victim to the curse of the information dump.  The following is my own pastiche, but let me know if any of it rings familiar:

CHAPTER ONE

Prince Xakhar Tazeros, half-dragon Ninth Regent of the Grobulan Confederacy of United Independent Feudal Kingdoms, was seventeenth in line to the throne of Erador.  Erador was one of three countries fighting for dominance of the island of Makteros, the only source of the prized mineral hermulite, which was needed to forge the precious Lion Scimitars that were wielded by the ancient warrior race of Qobari.  The Qobari Order, descended from the first colonists of Zathan, were the finest combatants that had ever walked beneath the twin suns and possessed the secret martial art of sha’Kaj, which allowed them to possess the forms of trees and plants and turn them against their enemies.  One of their most formidable foes was Duchess Zalana, Prince Xakhar’s blood-sister and a sorceress of considerable power, who had long held a grudge against the Qobari and sought to wipe them out.  Zalana drew her magic from the Goddess Ia, matron of darkness and one of the Six Gods of Grobular, along with Gatharsa, Yelene, Mq’mal, Rappan and X’gi.  The Six Gods were worshipped on every continent except the sub-lands of Serkana, whose belief system operated on a belief in the divinity of blades of grass.  Xakhar and Zalana were descendants of the last King of Shocen, who had died in a battle against the Qobari twenty-nine semicycles ago…

Are you still awake?  Hope so, but if you’re not, I’m not surprised.  Granted, this was a bit over the top, but this is the feeling I sometimes get in reading some of these manuscripts-in-progress.  I am in awe – SHEER JAW-DROPPED AWE, I tell you, of the imaginations that can craft these complex worlds that are at once both familiar and alien.  I can’t do it.  I just come up with silly names like Grobular.  But what usually happens is that the writers get so caught up in spilling out these intricate details that they forget to tell a story.  Go back and read that paragraph again and note that nothing happens.  It’s just fact after fact laid out for you with excruciating precision and at no point does the story start moving.  Theoretically, everything I wrote there was important to the telling of the story that is to follow, but rather than introduce this stuff organically, I threw it at you like a bucketload of baseballs.  And there’s nothing there to keep you reading unless you really want to know how the last King of Shocen died (fell off his six-legged zorse into a pit of hungry hoopdehars).

Let’s try this again.

CHAPTER ONE (revised)

Xakhar removed his blood-soaked Lion Scimitar from the face of the dead Makterosian soldier, thinking that while his headache of this morning had not eased, it was certainly preferable to that which his opponent had just suffered.  Xakhar slid the blade back into his scabbard and cast his gaze upward to the angry, swirling clouds which blotted most of the light from the twin suns, the storm the result of the spell cast by his blood-sister.  When they were small they fought over toys or the last slice of dessert; it bemused Xakhar to note that while the scale of their battles had escalated considerably to include thousands of innocent casualties, the stakes had more or less remain unchanged.  Zalana still wanted his toys – the kingdom-shaped ones, naturally – and she was not above using her magic to wipe out anyone who stood between her and the prize she sought.  As he looked skyward, he could see her evil smile in the curve of the clouds, hear her mocking laughter in the thunder, and feel the might of her anger in each crash of lightning.  “Going to be one of those days,” Xakhar said to himself.  He glanced down at the soldier’s bisected face.  “You got off easy.”

Okay, while this is still not the most magnificent prose ever crafted, at least we have some sense of Xakhar as a character, the world he occupies, and the conflict that is likely to form the spine of the story.  We’ve hacked out most of the unnecessary exposition and placed a character in the middle of a tense situation.  And while the setting is still alien, the situation is more understandable on a human level.  Troubled dude with a jealous, possibly insane sister who won’t leave him alone.  This has potential.  It still needs to go through the rewrite oven a few times, but we can work with this.

If you’re writing a detective novel, you can usually get away with the most minimal of introductions to your world.  “It was raining in San Francisco that Thursday afternoon.”  Everyone grasps the setting almost immediately.  Unfortunately, a fantasy or SF author has no such privilege.  The world and the rules must be established early to provide a point of reference that the reader can latch onto.  How do you do that?  Well, less is more.  And this is where 007 can be of assistance.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on the planet who hasn’t seen at least one James Bond movie.  So I’m guessing that most of you reading this are familiar with the basic Bond structure and the pre-titles teaser sequence, which is usually a huge action setpiece that may or may not relate to the main story.  You can even argue that it takes its inspiration from William Shakespeare, who almost always begins his plays with a scene involving minor characters before getting on with business.  This stylistic invention was, like many things, a creation born of practical necessity – audiences in Elizabethan England would take forever to settle down and pay attention to the stage, so Shakespeare put a bit of fluff at the start to give the rowdy masses a chance to cool it without really missing anything important.  The Bond teaser is meant to grab the audience by the metaphorical balls and reintroduce them to their favorite hero in smashing, not drawn-out, polysyllabic style, and much in the same way as the Bard, doesn’t start laying out the important plot until after the main titles.  So it’s okay if you’re still distracted a bit when things first start up.  After the explosions and the power ballad is when the real story will begin.

My modest suggestion, then, is to “steal from the best” and open with a scene that will introduce a strong character – preferably your protagonist – in a situation where they are forced to do something active instead of idling and recounting the tales of twenty-eight generations of their ancestry.  (Think about it – how realistic is this?  Do we go to work each morning thinking in exacting detail about the sheer scope of our family bloodline?)  The other thing too is that the more of this stuff you hold back in the beginning, the more mystery there will be around your character, the more tantalizing secrets to reveal.  When I was first drafting my novel, I fell into this trap.  I had the heroine tell you in the first chapter exactly who she was, where she came from and why she could do the things that she could.  When I realized as noted above that no one goes around thinking these things about themselves on an average day, I started hacking those parts out, and finding that my leading lady was consequently a lot more interesting – because now you wanted to read on to find the answers.

When you’re world-building, don’t throw it all at us at once, in a blizzard of arcane references and unpronounceable names.  Focus on movement, wants, and action, and sprinkle in details where they are relevant.  Or, to use a cooking metaphor, use them like spices and not the main ingredient.  Come into the story in medias res (in the middle of things, for the non-Latin speakers/non-English majors among us).  And if you can open with a Bond-esque, rip-roaring cracker of a scene, with peril and tension and stuff blowing up, more power to you.  The aim is to hook us, not give us a history lecture.

Verdict, ladies and gentlemen?  Am I on to something here or merely blowing smoke?