Not Quite Sticking the Landing

Halt and Catch Fire Fall Quote

Well, not fall, exactly, but maybe a little stumble, right there at the end.

It’s been a busy weekend here at Unicorn HQ. The big excitement this weekend was the series finale of Halt and Catch Fire, though that didn’t turn out quite as we had hoped. More on that in a minute. First, the other news. As I’ve mentioned, I’m teaching a new class this semester, and I have to drive almost two hours to do it. That eats up a lot of my Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. At least S had a chance to do some laundry while I was out, so at least one of us did something productive.

Today we’ve been cleaning around the house. Doing it all at once would just be too depressing, so we’re doing one room a day. Or at least that’s our goal. We haven’t quite been meeting that goal, but it’s still a lovely goal to have, all the same, don’t you think? I certainly do.

Pretty soon we’re going to have start thinking seriously about our NaNoWriMo project again. We developed the outline and the character profiles back during July Camp NaNo, but we haven’t looked at them in a couple months, so we’ll need to review them and talk a bit more about who is going to be responsible for writing which parts. But that can happen another time. Right now we’re resting after cleaning our living room and slowly working our way through a pair of well-deserved Bloody Marys.

When we haven’t been cleaning this morning, we’ve been dissecting the Halt and Catch Fire finale. As I put it to S last night before bed, it was a three star finish to a five star series. It wasn’t horrible, but it certainly could have been better. Last week, S said, “assuming they stick the landing, it will rank as one of our favorite shows of all time.” Well, they didn’t quite crash, but the landing was a bit bumpier than you would hope for.

The scenes between Donna and Cameron were all fine. But there were probably too many of them. And the resolution of their relationship came at the expense of Joe, who basically disappeared for the length of a Bible during the last episode. The Donna/Cameron storyline feels as if it came to a satisfying conclusion. But Joe just wandered off, and when we saw him, he was hanging out with random people we didn’t know and had never met before. Where was his resolution with Donna? With Cameron? With Haley (who could be seen as a surrogate for Gordon)? What we got was a letter written to Haley and read by her to Cameron, which would have been fine if there was going to be another episode after this. And we got a scene of him teaching a class, which would have been a fine place to leave him if there was going to be another season in which he could reconnect to the other two main characters. But this was the end, and it just felt very strange and unsatisfying to leave him there. As S and I decided last night, the show really needed to show him getting a phone call from Cameron, asking for some unspecified help on Donna’s exciting new idea. Just something to assure the viewer that he and Donna and Cameron will continue to have a relationship moving forward, because the heart of the show has always been the relationships between the main characters. It’s a little disappointing that the writers seem to have forgotten that, and right after we’d complemented them on doing it so well last week, too.

So it wasn’t as good as it could have been. But it wasn’t terrible. It certainly wasn’t the last episode of Justified, but at the same time, it wasn’t the last episode of How I Met Your Mother, either. It’s not like it took our love for the show and stomped on it. The bottom line, I suppose, is that we’ll probably still buy the whole series on DVD or Blu-ray. We just might not watch that last episode very often.

J

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When Four Is Greater than Fourteen (or Nine)

HaltandCatchFire

The amazing main cast of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire

So, last night J and I were watching TV. First we watched Halt and Catch Fire on AMC and then flipped over to Ovation for Versailles. Afterwards, we talked. A lot. (I am so tired today. You would not believe.) Versailles is a show I’m particularly attached to, even though I find it incredible frustrating at times, and we discussed what works, what doesn’t, and how we would change the show. (For instance, put Louis and Philippe in a room, and I’m in heaven. Other characters, well, not so much with a lot of them.) On the other hand, we can’t stop talking about how perfect Halt and Catch Fire is. Next Saturday is the two-hour series finale, and assuming they stick the landing, it will rank as one of our favorite shows of all time. So, what makes HaCF different from Versailles?

Joe and Cameron and Gordon and Donna

HaCF never forgets that it’s a show about four people. Yes, there are great insights about the birth of the tech industry, but the first season never scans as an 80s nostalgia show any more than this season reads as the story of the birth of web browsers in the early 90s. Yes, these characters are products of their time, but the show is never about their time; it’s about the four leads. Bos is there (and Toby Huss is listed in the opening credits) to hold Joe, Cameron, Gordon, and Donna together, especially when the story keeps the four characters apart, but the show is always firmly about the main four. Every season sees some new characters added to the cast: Tom in Season 2, Ryan and Diane in Season 3, Katie in Season 4 (as well as the expansion of the roles for Joanie and Haley), but they are only part of the show to enhance the viewer’s knowledge of the main cast. These additional characters never threaten to take over or become some hideous Cousin Oliver.

A good example of the show’s focus on these four characters is the latest episode. One of these lead characters dies at the end of the previous episode, and this entire ep is what happens the day they all go to the deceased character’s home to begin packing. Some shows might take a scene or two for the grief and mundane tasks of those left behind, most likely after a very nicely staged funeral. But HaCF skips the funeral. We are told the service was lovely, and then move on to an entire episode of actually dealing with the death. It’s what this show is about, and why I love it.

MICE

In the terminology outlined by Orson Scott Card in Characters and Viewpoint, HaCF is a Character story. It never tries to be anything other than a Character story, and it does everything it can to be the best Character story possible. Where I think a lot of TV shows (and novels and movies for that matter) go astray is when they don’t understand what kind of story they are telling. I blame Game of Thrones. (And Lord of the Rings, as well.) Sprawling stories with a cast of thousands are the big thing these days. And the ones that work, like GoT and LOTR, work because they are Milieu stories. The cast of GoT is huge, and the individual characters are often amazing and complex, but it’s not a Character story. GoT is the story of Westros. It is a story about place, just as LOTR is the story of Middle-earth. If either of those stories tried to be Character stories, they would be so fundamentally different as to be unrecognizable. Just as HaCF wouldn’t mean nearly as much if it were a Milieu story of the 1980s Austin tech scene.

Louis and…

In terms of MICE, I’m not sure what kind of story Versailles thinks it is. The argument for it being a Milieu story is kind of right there in the title, and the cast is large and ever expanding. (The opening credits of Season 1 lists nine actors, which I think under reports the important characters in the season. For Season 2 it’s been upped to fourteen.) And we certainly spend the majority of our time at the eponymous palace, but if it were truly the story of Versailles, then Season 1 would have been about Louis XIII’s hunting lodge in the woods, and Season 2 about Louis XIV’s expansion, Season 3 Louis XV and the escapades of Madame de Pompadour, and we would eventually wrap up with the French Revolution.

But what if “Versailles” is just code for “Louis”? What if it’s a Character story? In that case, the cast needs to be halved. (In a HaCF shaped show of four main characters and a fifth who ties them together, it would have had a hard focus on Louis, Philippe, Marie-Thérèse, and Liselotte with Bontemps nearby.) If not Character, what if it were an Idea story, which is the structure of most mystery stories? The strongest plot element of Season 1 is certainly the conspiracy against Louis, but in Season 2, the mysteries are the weakest parts. The show could also have been an Event story about the Franco-Dutch Wars. This would certainly require expanding the role of William of Orange, a solid choice considering the best episode of Season 2 consists primarily of Louis and William in a room talking, following one of the most famous battles of that war.

But I don’t know that Versailles picked any of these. The history of this era is ripe for the telling of numerous amazing stories, and yet this show doesn’t seem to have settled on which to tell or how to tell it. This leads to some great characters (truly, I will watch Louis and Philippe in the same room doing or discussing anything) and beautiful moments (the previously mentioned Louis and William scenes, for instance), but it doesn’t lead to as satisfying a whole as I wish.

And so…

I’m not saying Versailles needs to be a Character story to be as good as HaCF, but I am saying it needed to pick the structure right for the story they wanted to tell. And as a writer, this discussion has made me more aware than ever that I must know what my story is about and how best to tell it. This is particularly important as J and I head into NaNoWriMo. We’re tackling the largest story we’ve ever told in a single volume, likely running to over 200,000 words with a huge cast, dozens of locations, and spread over several years and many significant events. Even though I wanted to tell this story because of my fascination with the two leads, I need to remember that I’m really telling an Event story, and while I want to make those two characters (and the rest of the cast) as strong and interesting as possible, I can never lose sight of the Event. This isn’t the novel for endless navel gazing, which isn’t a bad thing if you’re writing a Character story, but that isn’t what I’m writing. And if I start writing that, I’m glad I have J to get me back on track.

~S

Learning All the Wrong Lessons

hot_for_teacher

My homework was never quite like this.

Not that we’re bloodthirsty or anything, but we sure like ourselves a good character death.  We’ve talked here before about when it’s appropriate, and sometimes even necessary, to kill characters.

Just in case you don’t feel like clicking on those links, our three rules for offing a character are as follows:

1) Would it be intellectually dishonest not to kill the character?

2) Is it dramatically the right choice?

3) Does the character dying have interesting repercussions for those left alive?

One of the examples we used to show the proper killing of a character was Ned Stark from Game of Thrones.  As S wrote:

It would be incredibly dishonest and make the mighty Lannisters look incredibly weak if Ned Stark fails to die. And the drama in that moment is heart wrenching. Plus, so much of what matters in the moment of his death is how it will change the lives of his children, most importantly Robb. Everything about Ned Stark’s death accomplishes precisely what a writer (and reader/viewer) hopes it will.

So Ned’s death was a great moment in the story, and a great moment in TV.  Unfortunately, as we were watching The 100 this past week, it occurred to us that other shows are learning exactly the wrong lesson from Game of Thrones.  Rather than learning that killing a character can drive the story and provide motivation for the characters, it appears as if the writers of The 100 learned that it’s really cool to just bump off characters randomly for shock value.

In what’s been called the show’s ongoing Hunger Games storyline, characters like Jasper and Roan keep getting killed, not because there’s any logic or justification for it, but seemingly just because the writers want us to think “ZOMG!  They totally killed that guy!”  And then applaud them for their bold storytelling.  The worst part is the violation of the third of our rules: there are zero repercussions for anyone left alive, and in fact the other characters barely remember those who died at all.  But then again, that’s always been a problem for that show.  See, for example, poor old…oh, what’s his name?  It’s on the tip of my tongue.

Oh yes, Finn.

thomas_mcdonell

Remember when he was the love of Clarke’s life?  No?  Well, that’s okay.  Neither does Clarke. 

So that’s what’s been on our mind this week.  In other news, S just finished posting her latest fanfic series, and the feedback from readers has been very good.  So huzzah for her!  And I’m about ten chapters into my latest Myrciaverse book, which might hypothetically be a birthday present for someone who might hypothetically be S.

Yes, we write stories for each other for our birthdays.  It’s the unicorniest thing ever.  So I’ve got to get back to that.  In the meantime, let’s all hope The 100 figures out how to make character deaths count.  I mean, I’m not holding my breath, but it could happen.

J

The Unsinkable S.S. Klaroline

RMS ?Titanic?, 1911.

Pictured: not the S.S. Klaroline

As we’ve mentioned many times before, we enjoy a number of the cheesy fun shows on the CW.  Some of these we never really warmed to, some of them we stopped watching when they got tiresome (I’m looking at you, Flash and Arrow).  But we’ve kept up with Vampire Diaries and The Originals.  Many is the time we’ve been sitting around in the evening, bored and looking for something to do, when S will say to me, “Well, we’ve got vampire shows on the DVR.  Wanna watch them while I fold laundry?”

And I mean no offense when I say that’s pretty much the level of engagement we have had with those two shows recently, particularly Vampire Diaries.  They’re something mildly interesting to have on in the background.  They’re basically our equivalent of old-fashioned daytime soap operas, if you want to think of them that way—something to have on the TV while you dust the living room or peel potatoes for supper.

Even so, Vampire Diaries has been a part of our lives for years now, and we’re sorry to see it go.  I can’t say I thought the finale episode was earth-shatteringly awesome.  It certainly wasn’t like the finale of Justified (as S wrote, the ending of that show was absolutely perfect).  But it fulfilled the basic function of a series finale—wrap up all the storylines in a satisfying way so the viewers think they’ve gotten what they came for.  And don’t do anything to destroy the good will the show has built up, or pull some “clever” slight of hand that makes the viewers feel like they’ve wasted their time.  Some shows find that surprisingly hard to achieve actually.  Think of the last episodes of How I Met Your Mother or Roseanne, for instance.

Our favorite thing about the finale, of course, was that little nod to Klaroline shippers.  I won’t say that S responded to this by letting out an ultrasonic squee of delight and doing a little dance on the couch, but I won’t deny it, either.  We actually saw the episode up at my parents’ house, where we were visiting, and all the way home in the car, every twenty minutes or so, whatever we happened to be talking about, S would turn to me and say, “Oh, and by the way, J?  Klaroline is endgame!”  As S has mentioned before, Klaroline (Klaus Mikaelson and Caroline Forbes) is one of her favorite TV ships.  And as she noted yesterday, it’s the only one on this list she made more than a year and a half ago that has so far ended happily (or at least ended in such a way that we can imagine it ends happily).

So all in all, we’re pretty pleased with how Vampire Diaries turned out.  Now we just need another show to watch while S folds the clothes.

J

Teasing the Inevitable

victoria-and-albert

Gosh, I hope it works out for these two crazy kids.

Tonight is the Oscars.  S and I are going to an Oscar party, though that’s mainly just for the fun of going to a party.  As far as the nominees are concerned, as my dad always likes to say, you can’t begin to plumb the depths of my indifference.  I was just looking at the official site, and in pretty much every category, it’s just movie after movie that I’ve never seen.  We got A Man Called Ove from the library.  And we watched about the first half-hour or so of Captain Fantastic.  And I saw Zootopia on Netflix.  But other than that, I’ve seen nothing.

The truth is that S and I spend a lot more time reading and watching TV anymore than we do watching movies.  Especially movies in the theater.  It’s been a very long time since we’ve gone out for a movie, in fact.  But that’s okay, because there’s so much good TV and so many good books.

Speaking of which, we just got the DVDs of Victoria with Jenna Coleman from the library, and we stayed up a bit later than we should have last night watching the first five episodes.  That took us from Victoria’s accession to her marriage to Albert.  It’s very good, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we finish it today.

At the same time, we’re reading Ethan Frome for S’s classic lit book club.  I’ve read it before, years ago, but S hasn’t.  Thanks to a technical glitch in the Google Books version that she’s been reading, she ended up accidentally skipping the introduction.  (For those of you who have read the book, that’s the frame story, where the narrator meets Ethan Frome and ends up having to stay at his house in a snowstorm.)  So we dug out her tablet and I read it to her while she drove.  And of course it changes the story quite a bit when you start out knowing, even from Ethan’s first appearance in the book, that something awful is going to happen to him.  The question becomes, “How did this happen?”

That’s the same issue faced with historical fiction, like Victoria.  No one with even the slightest knowledge of history has any doubt how things are going to work out between Victoria and Albert.  The facts are well known, and there’s not really any way to create suspense there.

The trick, in both cases, seems to be a focus on the characters.  Both Edith Wharton and the writers of Victoria seem to be concentrating not on trying to create false suspense where suspense is impossible, but rather giving us marvelous and telling little bits of character development.  In other words, rather than focusing on the outcome (What will happen to Ethan Frome?  Who will Victoria marry?), we focus on the internal qualities of the characters—the flaws and strengths that will lead them to this outcome that we already know.

Here, for example, is the third paragraph of the main narrative of Ethan Frome:

The night was perfectly still, and the air so dry and pure that it gave little sensation of cold. The effect produced on Frome was rather of a complete absence of atmosphere, as though nothing less tenuous than ether intervened between the white earth under his feet and the metallic dome overhead. “It’s like being in an exhausted receiver,” he thought. Four or five years earlier he had taken a year’s course at a technological college at Worcester, and dabbled in the laboratory with a friendly professor of physics; and the images supplied by that experience still cropped up, at unexpected moments, through the totally different associations of thought in which he had since been living. His father’s death, and the misfortunes following it, had put a premature end to Ethan’s studies; but though they had not gone far enough to be of much practical use they had fed his fancy and made him aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things.

Even before we know why this much younger, healthier Ethan has walked into Starkfield, we know something vitally important about him—he’s a frustrated scholar unhappy with his lot in life.  Similarly, there’s a fantastic scene in episode 5 of Victoria, where Albert’s libertine older brother, Ernest, takes him to a brothel to “educate” him before his marriage.  Albert goes off with one of the prostitutes, but rather than sleep with her, he just talks to her and takes notes on what he should do on his wedding night.  It really explains a lot about the character, and about the kind of relationship we (as viewers who know our history) know we’ll be seeing later on between the queen and her beloved prince consort.

As a writer, I suppose the lesson here is to remember that “how” and “why” are sometimes more important than “what” happened.  If you create interest in your characters, you can make the reader want to keep reading, even when there’s no suspense as to how things are going to end up.

J

All Over But The Wrapping

community-christmas

And of course we still need to decorate our Troy.

A Merry, if premature, Christmas to everyone.  A Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Solstice, as well.  And to our imaginary friends in the Myrciaverse, have a safe and happy Seefest.

S and I went out yesterday and finished up our Christmas shopping, and I have to say I’m impressed at how efficient we were.  We couldn’t leave the house until well after noon, since we had an ice storm Friday night, and we had to clear away the small glacier that had formed on our steep driveway.  But even so, we managed to get all our presents bought in record time, and we got home in time to have a pizza and watch a few episodes of Rectify off the DVR (it’s a really good show, by the way).

We’ve already gotten ourselves a few gifts.  S bought herself some lovely new fountain pens that she’s really enjoying writing with.  Last month, the awesome Municipal Liaison of our local NaNoWriMo group loaned her one of these cute little fountain pens during one of our write-ins, and S loved it so much that she had to go to JetPens and buy herself a bunch of them.  (As an aside, how cool is it that there’s a website where you can order obscure Japanese pens from the States?  For those of you who don’t know, I lived and taught in Japan for three years, and yes, they really do take writing implements and office supplies in general to a whole new level.)

My old slippers had given up the ghost (the insoles had departed), so I got some new ones which are warm and fuzzy, which is really all you want out of a pair of slippers, especially in the winter.

In other news, we’re still revising here, and S is still plugging away at her latest fanfic story (using those awesome new pens, of course).  We might not be able to post quite as regularly over the next few weeks, since we’ll be visiting family.  But don’t worry.  The long, frigid days of January and February are right around the corner, when we’ll be cooped up inside with nothing to do but write and revise!  Isn’t that exciting?  I think so.  (Seriously, though, this is the time of year when S and I always ask ourselves, “Why didn’t we decide to live somewhere warmer?”)

J

A Side Trip to Versailles

philippe_1

Alexander Vlahos as Philippe on Versailles. Pic from Ovation.

Last night J and I took a break from NaNoWriMo to watch the two-hour season finale of Versailles. (Well, I think J never stopped typing, and I wrote during commercials, so not a complete break. And I need to get back to it again soon, so like a side trip to a famous location, this is going to be sadly incomplete and miss a lot of good stuff.) The show focuses on the young Louis XIV as he begins to expand the family’s old hunting lodge into the palace we all know today. Louis is played by the wonderful George Blagden, who we both still miss horribly as Athelstan on Vikings, and it’s just about one of the prettiest shows on TV. The costumes, sets, and cast are all supremely lovely to look at it.

And none more so than the King’s brother, Philippe, Duke of Orleans, aka Monsieur. Played by Alexander Vlahos, Philippe is one of my favorite kinds of characters, a perpetually angry, wounded animal, lashing out at everyone around him. However, the show pushes the boundaries of how far a character can lash out and still be sympathetic. Not to give away spoilers, but the way he treats his wife in the first episode of the season and the last are so different that I’m not sure it’s so much a character arc as inconsistent writing. Since I firmly believe most shows should get a pass on questionable decisions made in the first few episodes while they are finding their legs, and I prefer Philippe in the finale to the Philippe of the pilot, I’m basically indulging in some willful forgetting in order to enjoy the show more.

Because it really did take the show about four episodes to find a rhythm with the characters, narrative, and editing. And once it did, I enjoyed the show more and more, and I’m very excited about where Season 1 left off. When we will get Season 2 in America is anyone’s guess. (Actually, it may have already been announced and I missed it, because I’ve been avoiding a lot of news about the show until I saw the season finale.) Season 1 aired in Europe about a year ago now, but only made it to Ovation here in the US in October, but perhaps, now that the show has a US distributor, Ovation will show it closer to the European air dates? I hope?

Anyhow, for anyone interested, Ovation will be having a marathon of all 10 episodes Thanksgiving weekend. I’d love for folks to check it out and come chat with me about Philippe and what a viewer can forgive and forget in both characters and writers. He’s an intriguing and complex character. Perhaps in between seasons I’ll have to try my hand at fanfic and see if that helps me figure him out.

~S

 

The Magic is Gone

magic-city-starz-tv-show

Wishing they were on a better show.

October is upon us, and that means it’s time to start planning our novels for NaNoWriMo!  Last night, S and I started plotting things out on dry-erase boards.  And we got the long roll of butcher paper down from the office upstairs, so we’re ready to start plotting out S’s novel and taping it up on the walls.  This morning, while I slept in, S has been hard at work, naming her characters.

In the weeks to come, we’ll probably post more about what we’re doing to get ready, but in the meantime, I wanted to say a little something about a show we watched recently, Magic City.  It was on Starz a few years ago, and it ran for only two seasons.  And while there were things we enjoyed about the show, it was pretty obvious to us after a few episodes why it got canceled.

First, there are few surprises in the show, and nearly all the surprises are bad ones.  Everything you think is going to happen, ends up happening sooner or later.  You think, “Oh, I bet that guy is going to get shot,” and sure enough, he does.  Every ponderous move of the plot is telegraphed so thoroughly, you see it coming a mile away.  And as I say, on the rare occasion when the show manages to surprise you, it does so in a way that fatally undercuts the character.  For example, when Ben Diamond, the violent, over-the-top, mustache-twirling villain, finally catches his wife in bed in bed with the older son of the hero—a moment the viewer has been anticipating with bated breath for several episodes—the outcome is almost cartoonishly silly.  It turns out Diamond likes watching his wife have sex with other people.  It’s a moment from a sex farce that the show tries ludicrously to play straight, while demanding that the viewer continue taking Diamond seriously as a threat.

Many of the show’s sins stem from inconsistent characterization, in fact.  Ben Diamond is the worst offender, of course.  The writers seem to have been aiming to create an “unpredictable psycho,” but what they achieved was a character whose reactions are so out of proportion to the actions of others, and (as above) occasionally so silly, that he becomes tedious.  It’s the same problem I have with many depictions of the Joker in various Batman series and movies.  Hollywood seems to have this odd notion that chaotic villains are somehow more terrible and terrifying than villains who are thoroughly rational in pursuing their evil aims.  It seems to me that a few moments’ thought should show why that isn’t so, either in real life or in fiction.  Irrational villains get high and trash a liquor store; rational villains build concentration camps.

Then again, its probably fair to note that I’m not really fond of mob movies or TV shows.  Other than the first two Godfather movies, I really can’t think of any mob-related story that I ever enjoyed.

Other characters in the show have consistency problems, though.  Ike, the hero, is generally likeable and decent, but about halfway through the second season, he seems to get a personality transplant and start acting like a jackass to characters we like.  Again, this is a surprise, and it’s not a good one.  Several times, as we were watching the last few episodes, S turned to me and said, “Who is this guy, and what happened to Ike?”

But anyway, we’ve finished the show now, and at the very least, there was a lot of pretty 50s and 60s set decoration, and a lot of very pretty people wearing very little, and it was all filmed very prettily.  The show certainly looked good; I’ll give it that.  And it was nice to see Jessica Marais again, playing the aforementioned wife of the villain.  We remembered her from Legend of the Seeker, one of our favorite cheesy-good-fun shows.  In fact, all the way through Magic City, we referred to her as “Mord-Sith Denna,” rather than by the actual name of her character, which I’ve already forgotten.  (Wikipedia tells me it was “Lily.”)

As an amateur writer, it’s sometimes just as instructive to look at bad writing as it is to look at good writing.  So I guess what we can take away from Magic City is the necessity of consistent characterization, and the need for characters to act rationally according to their motivations.  If there are surprises about one of the characters, they should come because we’re showing the reader a previously-unseen, but perfectly logical facet of that character.  The reader’s reaction should not be, “Whoa, that guy’s nuts!”  But rather, “Ah, of course.  I hadn’t thought he was that sort of person, but looking back, it makes sense.”

And speaking of characters, I need to start doing some work on mine.  I can’t let S get ahead of me in the planning and outlining!

J

The CW of the 19th Century

 

Pearl Maiden Sculpture

Our hero, Marcus, admires the the Pearl-Maiden’s bust.

Um…let me rephrase that….

Today is Labor Day, and S and I are celebrating labor in the traditional way: by doing as little as possible.  Actually, that’s not true.  S is doing laundry, and I did some dishes.  And who knows?  If the weather isn’t too hot, we might go outside and move some more rocks for our landscaping project.

But we aren’t at work, and that means we have time to write.  S is nearing the end of Fiat Justitia, the third Oleg novel, and I’m working on some revisions.  There’s a wizard character who appears in five books that I’ve written so far, and I’m checking to make sure that she’s written consistently.  I want her to seem as if she’s the same person, but has changed in believable ways over the years.

In other news, I’ve started listening to audiobooks from Librivox.  It’s just something to do while I’m exercising.  All the recordings are done by volunteers, so it would be mean spirited to critique the quality of the reading.  As long as I can follow what’s going on, I suppose the reading is good enough.

The first one I listened to was Pearl-Maiden: A Tale of the Fall of Jerusalem, by H. Rider Haggard.  (The title of this post notwithstanding, Haggard actually published it in 1903.)  This was a book I didn’t even know existed until I saw it in the Librivox catalog.  I’ve read Haggard’s most famous works, King Solomon’s Mines and She, of course, and I liked them, so I decided to give it a try.

It was pretty good, but of course as an amateur author, I naturally have to see if I can learn something from it that I can apply to my own writing.  And the main thing I noticed as I was reading (or rather, listening) was just how fast the plot moves.

Let me give you an example.  And it should go without saying that there are spoilers here (insofar as anyone can spoil a book that’s 113 years old).  Bear with me here.

Our hero, Marcus the Roman, is imprisoned because he foiled the scheme of Prince Domitian, the evil second son of Emperor Vespasian, to buy the Christian girl Miriam (our heroine, and the “Pearl-Maiden” of the title) as a slave.  Marcus and Miriam are in love, but she can’t marry him because he’s a pagan.  Miriam, bought by Marcus and freed, is living among the Christians of Rome and earning her keep by making clay lamps.  (She’s an exceptionally talented sculptor.)  While she’s there, her childhood friend Caleb (the antagonist) discovers her whereabouts by accident, when he recognizes a scene from their childhood adventures depicted on one of her lamps, and convinces a guileless shop worker to tell him where the maker of the lamp lives.

Caleb confronts Miriam and threatens to reveal her location to Domitian if she doesn’t agree to marry him.  Miriam refuses, and she’s so good and decent that Caleb becomes ashamed of himself.  He has a change of heart and swears he will help and protect her, even if he can’t ever marry her.  Miriam, realizing that she’s not safe in Rome anymore, escapes and sails off for the east with the help of Cyril, the Bishop of Rome.

Meanwhile, Marcus gets a second trial, this time with Prince Titus, the good elder son of Vespasian, and his former commander in the army, as his judge.  Titus realizes that Domitian is a jerk, and can see that Marcus was falsely accused, but for political reasons, he can’t just overrule his younger brother publicly.  So he commutes Marcus’s sentence to three years’ banishment, instead of death.

(Again, bear with me here.  I promise there’s a point at the end of this.)

News comes back that the ship Miriam was sailing in has sunk, and everyone on it is dead.  Marcus, who is still in prison, waiting to leave Rome, learns of this and wants to kill himself.  But Cyril, the Bishop of Rome, talks him out of committing suicide and discusses heaven with him.  Marcus decides to become a Christian and is baptized.

Caleb forms a plan, with the help of Domitian’s chamberlain, to waylay Marcus and kill him.  But at the last moment, Caleb, remembering that he had promised to help Miriam, has a change of heart, and dresses up like Marcus so the assassins kill him, instead.  Marcus and Bishop Cyril find Caleb’s body, and Cyril tells Marcus he should pity Caleb, instead of hating him.

Marcus and Cyril sail for the east, and they arrive in the harbor at Alexandria, Egypt, just in time to hear people singing hymns on a nearby ship.  They go over to join the church service, and who should be leading the choir but Miriam.  It turns out that reports of her death were greatly exaggerated, and her ship didn’t sink, after all.  Marcus tells Miriam he’s a Christian now, and they get married immediately.

Okay, did you get all that?  Good.

Here’s the thing—that’s not the plot of the whole novel.  That’s just what happens in the last two chapters.  And the 27 chapters before that are just the same.  The story burns through plot at an absolutely furious pace.  In S’s words, H. Rider Haggard is “the CW of the 19th century,” referring to the way in which shows on the CW network, like Vampire Diaries and The 100 race breathlessly from plot point to plot point.

I certainly wouldn’t suggest that all stories move along at that kind of pace, and S and I have found recently that we appreciate shows, like AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, or SyFy’s The Expanse, that take their time.  But it’s important, as authors, to remember that readers want things to happen.  Haggard could easily have made five or six or ten chapters out of the events I’ve mentioned above.  Marcus’s contemplation of suicide could have been its own chapter.  His conversion could have taken up another chapter.  Caleb’s confrontation with Miriam could have had a chapter to itself, too.  And if I’d been writing that story, I almost certainly would have given an entire chapter to Caleb deciding to sacrifice himself for his hated rival, Marcus.  That’s a big moment for the character, and I wouldn’t want to rush it.

But as a reader (or rather, listener), I have to say I didn’t really miss all that contemplation, internal monologue, and navel-gazing.  I rather appreciated that the story got to the point and kept going.  And that’s something to keep in mind as I write my own novels.

J

Square Pegs in Round Holes

loathing

My silly edit of Maimie McCoy as Milady de Winter on the BBC show The Musketeers.

I want to continue the thought J started in his post Everyone’s a Critic, using The Musketeers Season 3 and the debates over how to discuss it to do so. (It’s pretty much been eating my brain for over a month now, so I might as well, right?) So, be warned, spoilers for the entire series of The Musketeers, although if you’ve never seen a second of the show, I hope to explain my objections well enough my arguments should still make more sense than not.

Story Arc

In his post, J talked about how one aspect of fiction it’s not particularly worthwhile criticizing is premise. You don’t like Outlander because you think there’s too much violence against women, make that argument all day. Don’t like it because there’s time travel, well, time travel is the point. I enjoy the premise of The Musketeers (whether it be the BBC show, Dumas, or any other iteration) of four swashbuckling dudes running around early 17th Century France swashbuckling. But what I object to in Season 3 is what I’m going to call story arc.

Season 3 opens during the Thirty Years War, which has caused a refugee crisis in Paris. One of the main story arcs for the season revolves around a refugee, Sylvie, who is a part of a band of revolutionaries living in a Paris refugee settlement. It’s a story and setting that feels like a cross between the nightly news (refugees) and something out of Les Miserables (revolutionaries in France). What it never feels like to me is a story arc that belongs in a show whose premise is swashbuckling Musketeers swashbuckling around France in the 17th Century.

All of my problems with Season 3 stem from this ill-begotten story arc. I could catalog those problems, but that’s not actually the purpose of this post. (Perhaps another time.) My purpose here is to examine the proper outlet on social media for my feelings of disappointment, and what sort of reaction from other fans I should expect.

If you didn’t like it, why are you talking about it?

This has long been a complaint of people who love a show/book/movie who grow tired of listening to people criticize the thing they love. And I get that. There is a substantial chunk of The Musketeers fandom who have serious problems with the Aramis/Queen Anne/Dauphin Season 2 story arc, and while I never got terribly upset with the people who vented their displeasure with the season, I also never especially liked reading what they had to say on social media. I read several detailed complaints early on when I first joined the fandom, decided I disagreed with those people, and then went on my merry way.

But here’s the thing: if you love a thing so much you join a fandom specifically in order to discuss it, you don’t suddenly want to stop discussing the thing you love when it takes a turn you dislike. The passion hasn’t left. The need to discuss and maintain connections to the people you’ve bonded with hasn’t suddenly disappeared.

This is akin to the “Why don’t you stop watching it if you don’t like it?” argument. I stop watching things all the time. And the things I care so little about that I just quit tuning in every week are the shows I never cared enough about to join a fandom for. I stopped watching Arrow and Flash and Once Upon a Time and Castle. I enjoyed them. Mentioned them occasionally to friends who also watched them. Never joined their fandoms though, because I never loved them enough. That’s why I could quit them without comment. The passion was never there to begin with.

@CreatorPerson

Lo, many years ago, I majored in English in college. I now write fiction in my spare time. I like thinking about narrative and how it works, and like a doctor dissecting a cadaver, I dissect stories as a learning experience. And because, dammit, I find it enjoyable. I want to understand why Emma Woodhouse is so amazing, and I want to know why I just can’t connect to Middlemarch even though I admire it. I’ve often said that I’ve enjoyed discussing Harry Potter more than I have enjoyed reading the books or watching the movies, and there’s a lot I like (and dislike) about that series.

Picking apart narrative is in my blood. Apparently, there are people without that particular gene. I hope one day we learn to leave peaceably, because we will never understand one another.

So, if I’m going to insist upon raging about fiction I once loved but now find heartbreakingly disappointing, how should I go about it? First off, I would never in a million years tag a creator (writer, director, actor, key grip) with my negative criticism. That’s just tacky. Yes, I know they could wander into my corner of the fandom and find what I have said, but it seems to me that if you are an artist and you go picking through social media, you have to take some responsibility for what you see there. Never saying a bad word about an artistic endeavor again because someone associated with it might possibly see it is a good way to end useful conversation about art.

Also, I’ve grown up in the years I’ve spent online. It’s been over a decade since I joined my first online fandom (I still talk to Browncoats every day), and I no longer go out of my way to find people who love all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica just so I can tell them why they’re wrong. (Forum culture 10 years ago was really something! You kids don’t know what mean is. #GetOffMyLawn) There are lots of fans who have enjoyed Season 3 of The Musketeers. And you know what? I’m happy for them! I’m glad the thing they love was something they could love all the way to the end. But I can’t love it, and it’s therapeutic for me and others who are disappointed with the season to discuss it with each other.

And I won’t apologize for that. I won’t say I’m sorry for watching all the way to the end or for airing my views after I watched it. I won’t pretend as though I think I was wrong to write satire fanfics that address some of my problems with Season 3. My disappointment is valid, and my need to discuss it with others who feel the same is also valid. Otherwise, why bother joining a fandom if not to find like souls?

~S