Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Unexpected Applause: The Last of the Venitars

Yes, it's been a while since I've done one of these, and I'm not doing a very good job at having at least one a month (my own, personal goal), but there have been... extenuating circumstances. One of those was the month of April. I did almost no reading in April that wasn't related to research for A to Z, but I'm almost all caught up now.

Before I get into the review, though, I want to make something clear: I don't believe in reviewing or rating a book that I didn't actually read. I don't mean tried to read, either; I mean completely read. It's fine to state that you couldn't get into a book and, therefore, didn't read it, but I think it's wrong to place a value judgement on something that you didn't actually experience. Why, yes, I do have an example! I'm going to go back, once again, to my son reading Treasure Island (yes, yes, I know! I've been stuck on Stevenson big time, lately! I was even telling my wife the other night that I'm somewhat fascinated with him, but that's a discussion for another time (and not soon since I just posted about him (this is not, after all, a blog devoted to RLS))).

Anyway, my (younger) son has been (mostly) receptive to reading the books I've suggested to him. But we had an issue when it came to Treasure Island, and, since I've talked about this before, we'll just say that I really had to prod him through the first couple of chapters and had to say (more than once), "Have I ever suggested anything bad to you?" The answer to that is "no," by the way. Long story short, he ended up loving the book and (unprompted) thanked me for "making" him read it (which I didn't actually do, I just strongly suggested that he give it a chance). The point, though, is that his initial impression was that he didn't like it and, if I had just allowed him to not read it, any "review" of it would have run somewhat along the lines of "this book was so bad that I couldn't read it." Of course, that was not reality.

So I don't believe in reviews or ratings based off of an incomplete experience of the product. And that story is not meant to imply anything about the quality of the work I'm about to talk about; I just want to make it clear that I read the whole thing, so the following review is not based off of the first chapter of something I decided I "couldn't" read.

Which brings us to The Last of the Venitars by Matthew Irvine.

Matthew is sort of the perfect example of why I wanted to do this whole unexpected applause thing. He doesn't have any internet presence to speak of, but he's written and self-published this book, and I thought, "hey, it would be neat to help this guy out and point people at his book."

The problem came when I started reading it. He's also a good example of why people think that self-publishing is for people that can't make it in "real" (traditional) publishing.

So I started reading his book and realized pretty much right away that it wasn't ready for public consumption. I contacted the author and gave him my thoughts, the main one being that he should pull the book and get some real editing assistance before making it available. I went on to say that I was fairly confident that I would not be able to give the book any kind of positive review if I took it in the state that it was in. Yes, I know: I hadn't gotten any of the story, yet, but the grammar issues were that bad. Bad enough that the first paragraph needs to be completely rewritten.

I do have to admire Mr. Irvine for his response, though:
"Please review it as it is and be as objective, open and critical as you would if you were describing the work privately to a friend. I know there's little point putting your work out there if you're not looking for honesty."

So... That is what I'm going to do. Not that it's an easy thing to do, but it is by request. I even re-made the offer after I finished the book, and he stuck by his first response. At this point, even though I'm going to be giving a review that holds nothing positive about the work in question, I feel it would be wrong not to give the review.

As usual, let's start with the technicals. If I was an English teacher (and I've been that upon occasion), and Matthew Irvine was one of my students, I wouldn't even accept this. I'd hand it back and tell him it's not finished and to get back to work on it. [That's kind of what I did with the offer I made.] However, being a work that's been turned in, it would get an "F" on all of the writing aspects of writing.

The author, evidently, doesn't have even a decent grasp of punctuation and how it works. I'll use the first sentence as an example:
"Once more it stood before him; this ancient beast."
Leaving the sentence itself aside, let's just look at the punctuation. A semi-colon is for separating independent clauses from other independent clauses, not from dependent clauses, so the first correction is to get rid of that semi-colon. Also, you need a comma to set off the adverbial phrase that the sentence opens with, so you'd have:
"Once more, it stood before him, this ancient beast." 
And that's... well, it's just not a strong sentence. Heavy on the melodrama, light on substance. I'd re-write it, but I'm not personally into telling people how they should actually write, but, well, if he was a student in my class, I'd make suggestions about rewording that would give the sentence more clarity.
Let's just leave it at "the work is rife with punctuation errors." And not in a good way. These are the kinds of errors that inhibit understanding. It's not style, it's just a lack of knowledge.

The next huge problem is misplaced modifiers, and these can be difficult for an author to spot in his/her own work, because, of course, the author knows what he means. The key here is, if you can't do it yourself, get some help from someone who can, which means, again, an editor. Here is the third sentence:
"Just to look upon its evil again made his fearful pounding heart feel as though it held it in a vicelike grip with its fingers." 
There are so many "it"s scattered through, it's difficult to tell what's being referred to at any given point. Not to mention that "vicelike" should be "vice like."

Along with the modifiers, there are just poorly constructed sentences, so we get things like:
"Her eyes fell to the floor."
"He threw his arms off of him."
"Her eyes were absorbed by his face."


Every time. Just ouch.

These aren't direct quotes (because I'm not going to go back and find them), but they are some of the ones that stood out the most, and I've given you the essences. Sentences like these can be used for effect but only if they are used sparingly. This work is full of them. Again, not style, lack of knowledge.

To compound everything else, the entire work is written in a very passive manner. I would imagine the author finding at the end of the day that his hands and fingers had managed to type out some words that he would need to go back and read causing his emotions to fluctuate madly and without reason. Sometimes, he would smile at the words he found on the page; sometimes, he would frown, finding that someone actually did something, because he'd find that he would need to go back and change it so that the action happened to the character as opposed to the character actually doing something as simple as walking across a room. Yes, walking across a room is rarely something you will find one of the characters doing, because they have legs that just get up and carry them across the room, and they are somewhat surprised by these actions on a regular basis.

Yes, I'm being facetious, but, again, having a character doing something without realizing it, like crossing a room, can be effective occasionally, it's tedious to read when all of the action happens in that manner.

And I'm not even going to start on the dialogue tags. Not to mention that the author was rarely satisfied with a simple "said," he frequently used words that didn't apply to the emotions being described, especially "teasingly."

Of course, none of this touches on the story.

And the story is where the real issues are, because, honestly, I can put up with some bad grammar for a good story. Well, except for the issue of it being told so passively. That's a real issue for me. But beyond that, things happen for no good reason, and that, from the beginning, was where the problems came in and why I contacted the author to begin with. Again, a good editor could really  have helped with these issues by asking one simple question, "Why?"

In the first chapter, there is a prisoner interrogation happening. The author makes it very clear that this interrogation happens every day in almost exact detail. They have the same conversations, go through all the same arguments, everything. However, on this day, the interrogator decides he's had enough and tries to kill the prisoner. Why? Well, of course, it's because the author needs something to happen to start the story up, but that's not good enough within the context of the story. Why that day? If everything was the same as it had been every other day, a fact, as I said, the author makes painstakingly clear, why would the interrogator do this? There is no inciting event, and it doesn't make any sense.

And the book is full of these moments. And continuity issues. And logical inconsistencies. And characters that serve no real purpose. Well, I think two of them are supposed to serve as some kind of comic relief, but, if that is their purpose, they fail at it by not being funny. The author also goes off on philosophical tangents that don't serve the story at all; they're just there so that the author can debate things like the existence of God in front of an audience. However, he never draws any conclusions from these things and they don't impact anything that's happening, so they come off as "listen to me talk about God."

There is one conclusion, the point of the whole thing, human greed and lust for power is bad and will destroy the world. I don't disagree with his moral, but very few people are ever going to hear it.

I really wish I had something good to say about the book. I kept hoping that a story would emerge that I could be interested in, but it never happened. That there would be some character worth caring about, but that never happened either. Even if all of the grammar issues were fixed, I'm not sure the remaining story is interesting enough to have compelled me to read it. The book is a noble grasp at... something, I'm just not sure what. And it's a good starting point, but, in the end, that's what this book is, a starting point.

There are glimmers of what this book could become if the author looked at it as a starting point instead of an ending point. From that perspective, I think, it's too bad that he's decided to release it before its wings are strong enough to carry it anywhere other than down. I also find it unfortunate in that it makes self-publishing that much more difficult for the rest of us; although, that might not be quite fair to say, because Mr. Irvine is far from the only writer to throw something out into the world before it was done. Put it back in, and let it bake some more! Gooey grammar isn't something anyone wants to taste.

Unfortunately, all of this combines into a final grade of an F. This isn't a book I could ever feel good about recommending to anyone in its current state, and, actually, I'd feel guilty if I let someone buy it unawares, so to speak. This is certainly a book where any potential buyer needs to use that preview function that Amazon has before making a purchase. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Robert Louis Stevenson and the Duality of Human Nature

After all the talk, recently, of how I so rarely re-read books, I just re-read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it wasn't really my fault! Honest! Okay, it was a little my fault. Here's what happened:

First, there was the whole issue of Treasure Island and my son reading it which you can read about here. Then, while unpacking from moving last fall, I came across a collection of Robert Louis Stevenson stories that contained Jekyll and Hyde, and I suggested to my son that he read that, too. There was no argument, this time, and he went on to read the whole book. The issue there was that meant he'd now read a bunch of RLS that I hadn't read, because I'd never read any of the other short works in that book. And, just by the way, he loved J & H and all of the other stories except one (which he couldn't understand because it's written in heavy dialect (and I haven't gotten to that one, yet, so I haven't been able to help him with it)). Then, I did that A to Z post about J & H, and, by that point, I'd had too much, and I sat down to re-read Jekyll and the rest of that book that I had never read.

I was almost immediately struck by two things, one of them being a truck. No, I'm just kidding. I do like to walk and read, but I'm pretty good about watching where I'm going.

The first thing I was struck by is how Jekyll and Hyde would never, not ever, get published today. Have you read it? You should go read it. Really, it's not that long, and it's worth your time. Wait, why am I saying it wouldn't get published? Because the audience never gets to "see" the action. We only ever get to hear about things second hand and the details are often left out because the person telling the story can't bear to repeat them. Heck, the protagonist (Jekyll's lawyer, Utterson) only ever meets Hyde once and what we come away with from that is that he gave Utterson the an uneasy feeling. Hyde made Utterson's skin crawl. We, the audience, never witness a transformation, never experience any of Hyde's evil, and, really, barely get to meet Jekyll.

And, yet... and, yet... the whole experience is creepy and unsettling and terrifically laid out as a psychological thriller. A psychological thriller that would never get published today without becoming more active and more in the middle of the action and end up losing all the things that make it so... well... horrifying. Not that it's scary, because it's not. But the concept is pretty horrific.

It does make me wonder, though, what it was that Stevenson's wife reacted so violently to that caused him to burn his first draft. And did that thing stay in the fire or was it carried into the story we have today?

Which brings us to the second thing: Stevenson really was just fascinated with the duality of human nature. Jekyll and Hyde is, of course, his most obvious expression of that. It's the story wherein he rips a man in two and explores how we, as people, subjugate and hide (see the pun there?) our "inferior" selves. Try to deny that there is anything beyond what we show the public. And, really, it's a fascinating story, and just try to tell me you wouldn't do what Jekyll did if you had the means.

But re-reading J & H made me think about some of Stevenson's other characters. Well, it made me think about one, anyway, but I also discovered some others in these other short stories.

There's one, "A Lodging for the Night," about a poet who's a thief, which makes me wonder if that's where Bono got that line from.

And the protagonists in "Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts" (from "The Suicide Club") are these guys that like to go out in disguise so that they can do things they normally couldn't, specifically, have adventures (which sounds very much like RLS). And Scuddamore, from "Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk" (also from "The Suicide Club"), is completely double-minded and vacillates so often he may as well be a metronome.

But the big one, the character that most embodies this duality of nature, is the only other character he created that rivals Hyde for popularity: Long John Silver. And, in truth, I find Silver the scarier of the two. As portrayed in the book, Treasure Island, Silver is so smooth, I mean sooo smooth, that even once Jim and the others know he's a villain, he's still able to smooth talk his way out of trouble and connive and scheme. He's so good that, at times, I think even the reader has to doubt whether he's really a bad guy. He's completely deferential, conciliatory, and just plain nice that it makes it startling every time he's ready to slit someone's throat. You can't put the two pieces together in a way that makes sense.

But, really, haven't we all known people like that? I have. Several, in fact. Maybe they wouldn't really pull out a knife and slit someone's throat, but they'd certainly do it metaphorically. And, who knows, maybe some of them would do it for real if they had the chance. If they had a potion that would release the evil into the world in a different guise. I suppose we're lucky that that kind of thing isn't possible, because it's probably the only thing holding some people back.

Thinking about it, I'm not sure that anyone else has ever written this kind of dual character better except, maybe, Shakespeare with Iago. And Long John Silver may have the edge there, because we, the audience, always know that Iago is bad, it's just Othello that doesn't know. With Silver, we're never quite sure.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Wow! What a week of awesome news! Okay, well, maybe not a whole week of it, but... well, hold on, I'll get there.

First, I have some thanks and acknowledgments to hand out.

On Monday, I announced my first bit of awesome news which was
(You can read the original post here)
This was one of those things that, really, I expected people to "ho hum" over and say "yeah, whatever." I mean, it was just kind of my own little thing and so many people are dismissive of kids that I didn't really expect people to be excited about it. I was SO wrong. So a big THANK YOU to all of you who have shown your support, but an even bigger thank you to a few people who went an extra step all on their own and posted about it. I can't even begin to express how gratified and grateful I am that you people care enough about this to do that (and did I say I didn't even ask? Well, I didn't!). So... extra thanks and kudos to the following friends and bloggers!

1. Elizabeth Twist
2. Briane Pagel (and he has a plan to give out some free copies, so you should all pop over to his blog and read the rather complicated details about how to earn one)
3. Shannon Lawrence

So thanks guys! Your posts spread through the week making it a week of awesome!
See how that works?

And, now, on to the other awesome news!

My daughter played softball for the first time this year. Not just outside having fun playing softball, she played on a team for a local league. Her team, the Dragonflies, was one of three teams in her division, the 8 & Unders. Let me just say that it was all very interesting.

Of the 10 or so girls on her team, only one had prior softball experience, and that prior experience had taught her that the proper way of hitting a ball with a bat is with your eyes closed. I think that served as an equalization so that it amounted to a team of girls that had never played softball before. One of the girls was five.

The next team, the Fire Flies, was... well, they were just little. I mean, we had one five-year-old, but they had at least three girls about that size, so, even though they had a couple or few girls that had played before the fact that their team was so... small in stature was a distinct disadvantage. Plus, they had coaches that found it hilarious when the girls would do things like run out of the baseline to avoid getting out. And I don't just mean run out of the baseline, I mean, there'd be games of tag going on on the field while one of our girls chased one of their girls around with the ball while their coaches giggled and slapped each other's knees about how cute it was. At any rate, the Fire Flies didn't win any games all season; although, they did tie us in one of the early games (because of the runs per inning cap of 4 which is quite necessary at this level of the game).

The other team, though... well, the other team made our blood run cold: the Blue Ice. They were as big as the other girls were small. And experienced. At least half of the team had prior experience in the league. Basically, all the girls that played last year ended up on that one team. No, it didn't happen by chance, because people were allowed to make requests about what team to have their daughters on, so, of course, all the girls from last year that weren't going up to the next division ended up on one team. I'm not thinking coincidence; although, I have no proof to the contrary.

Blue Ice dominated the games. Most of their girls could hit the ball from the machine pitcher rather than having to go to the tee, and a couple of them could even catch pop flies, something none of our girls ever managed (although, we did have a couple come close). To say that our girls were scared of them would be something of an understatement.

But the coaches worked hard with our girls, and there was a lot of improvement. They went from being a team that almost always had to hit off of the tee to being a team that could hit from the machine almost as often as the tee would need to be brought in. They became a team that could get outs. Even assisted outs, which was nothing short of amazing considering that at the beginning of the season if the ball was within 5 feet of whom they were throwing to, we considered it a good throw. Really, they became a team.

They even, once, beat Blue Ice. We were all stunned. No, seriously, we were completely blown away, because we didn't think they were beatable. Of course, the next game they came back and slaughtered us 12-1. My daughter was the only run to come in that game. That was our last regular game against them of the season, too.

Which brings us to the playoff and the championship. Yeah, yeah, I know. Three teams, but that's how it works.

Tuesday night was the playoff game between the Fire Flies and the Dragonflies. I was bummed, because I couldn't be there. I had this event where I was reading a bit from my book, The House on the Corner, that had been scheduled for weeks, and I didn't feel like it would be a good idea to ditch, so I told my daughter that she had to win so that I could come to see the championship game on Wednesday night. I don't know if what I said to her had anything to do with it (probably not), but they did win. [That was, by the way, only one of two games I missed all season. Just sayin'.]

And there we were... Wednesday night against the Blue Ice after a 12-1 loss to them. We just wanted our girls to do their best. I have to say, though, that my daughter voiced her opinion several times that they were going to lose. It doesn't stop her from trying, because she's competitive that way, but she kept saying it to the other girls on the team, which isn't a good thing, so we had to tell her to stop. More than once.

We were the away team, so we got to bat first. They stopped us at 3 runs. But 3's not bad, right? Right? It's not 4, but it's close. And, as I said to my wife, it was 3x more points than we had scored the entire previous game, and it was just the first inning. Blue Ice went to the plate...

and we stopped them at 1 run. Seriously. Our girls were on it. They made their plays. They held them at 1.

The second inning started, and Blue Ice held us to 2 runs that inning making it 5-1. If only we could stop them again.

And we did. Almost.

It was 2 outs and 1 run, and the Blue Ice girl hit the ball. Our girl at pitcher-right scooped up the ball and ran over to tag  the runner. She intercepted her on the baseline, but the other girl went around. Out of the baseline. The Blue Ice coach called his girl safe (no, there are no umps; it's an honor system). The Blue Ice went on to cap the score for the inning bringing it to 4 runs and tying the score at 5-5.

Then there was a... disagreement. One of our coaches called into question the "safe" call, and I joined him on the field (he's my neighbor, for one thing, and I wanted to support him, and I was going to approach the other coach and ask, anyway, so I figured since it was already being brought up, it was a good time, not to mention the fact that all the other parents were grumbling about the call (remember, we'd had lots of issues with this with the Fire Flies)). Unfortunately, I don't have a good sports background, and the other coach started "quoting" rules about how far off the baseline the girls could go, and the decision was that, basically, our girl had not been aggressive enough in trying to tag the other girl and had missed her opportunity. The call remained "safe," and the score remained 5-5.

The situation was tense.

We were up to bat, and we needed 4 runs. The head coach told the girls that's what we needed, and the girls went out and brought in 4 runs; although, they hit 2 outs, so we were all holding our breaths to see if that last batter would be the 4th run or the 3rd out. So it was 9-5, and we needed to hold the Ice back to win.

We didn't do it. Blue Ice brought in 4 runs, and we were left with a tie situation: 9-9. There was a conference among the coaches on the field. Only the Blue Ice coach had prior experience with the league. And with coaching, for that matter. None of our coaches had ever coached before, and none of them had planned to coach at the beginning of the season. It had been one of those "we don't have enough coaches, please volunteer" things. We'd play an extra inning and see what happened.

We were up to bat. Our coach told the girls it was a tie game and that they really needed to get out there and bring in 4 runs. But our 5-year-old was up to bat first, and that was always scary, because she's not the fastest runner, and her batting helmet is almost as big as she is. But the Ice's first baseman missed the catch to first, and our girl made it to base. There was a collective sigh from the parents.

We proceeded to load the bases. No outs.

My daughter was antsy. She wanted to hit again, but she'd hit last the previous inning. She wasn't going to make it back up to bat this time. Either we'd reach 3 outs or 4 runs before her turn came up again. My daughter's the best batter on the team and had the best hit of the game, the only fly into the outfield (and no one actually keeps players in the outfield, because the balls (generally) don't go there unless they roll).

The girl at bat hit the ball, but got out going to first. We were at 1 run and 1 out. Everyone was holding their breaths again. But we brought in 3 more runs without another out. The score was, now, 13-9.

My daughter is also the best fielder on the team. She plays first base because of this. However, she was having an off night with her grounders, and the first Ice batter hit a ball her way, and she let it get past her, and the Ice had a runner on first.

Then, it happened again. Two grounders to first base that my daughter missed, and they had runners on first and second. We were all holding our breaths again.

They loaded the bases. Then, we got an out at third, but they brought a run in. 13-10. Ah, I can't remember where the next out came, but they brought in another run, and we ended up at 13-11, 2 outs, with runners on first and third. The ball was hit, pitcher-left missed the grounder, but the second baseman intercepted it, but she was far from the plate. She turned and ran back to second...

And made the out! Like just a step or two ahead of the runner coming to second. It was amazing! And it was awesome! We held them to 2 runs in an extra inning of play, and I say "we," but I mean "the girls," because it was all them. They did such an amazing job of coming together over the course of the season to become a team that worked together and win the championship. A group of girls with no prior softball experience against a group of girls that were bigger, stronger, and experienced. It was absolutely amazing!

And they got trophies. Which were on standby for whichever team that won with their names on them, to which my daughter said, "My first trophy!" I can't say how proud I am of her and her whole team.

I should also mention the injuries. We went all season with no injuries until that game. Four different girls got hurt, one of them twice, one of them bloodying both knees, but she stayed on third while her knees bled without calling attention to it (and when I say bled, I mean down to her socks, not just a scrape), ran home on the next bat, limped into the dugout and asked for a band-aid. It was impressive. But, you know, there's no crying in baseball.

And here's the application that I'm sure some of you knew was coming:

Writing is kind of like this. You start out all new and inexperienced. You don't know what you're doing. There are some people, like my daughter, that just have an unfair amount of natural talent (that we don't know where it came from (except, secretly, I do know where it came from, because it came from me, because I was just like that when I was a kid (although, my wife doesn't believe me, because there's nothing left of it in me, now (which isn't my fault, but that's a story for another time)))) and do well even without prior experience. There are those that, even though they've played before, have trouble not closing their eyes when they need to keep them open. There are some that are just smaller than everyone else. And everything in between.

To make it worse, you might end up with people telling you what to do that don't know what the heck they're talking about. That think it's funny when you're playing tag on the field and don't know where to go with your manuscript. Or just plain don't know the rules and tell you to do wrong things. Or you may end up with someone that's just after "the win" and doesn't have time for you if they don't see you as someone that can perform.

The real trick is to stay out there on the field and to keep doing your best. It may sound cliched, but it's true that failure comes from giving up and going home. And believe me, over the course of the season, we had all of that. We had bad attitudes. We had crying. We had quitting. We had girls that didn't want to play when they needed to. But all of them kept working at it anyway. They practiced throwing. They practiced catching and stopping grounders. They practiced batting, and, most of all, they practiced working together. And they won. Even when they thought they couldn't.

We all get discouraged. It's tough when you're starting out, and, even if you know how to play, even if you're good, no one believes you because you don't have any previous experience. You have to keep working at it and working at it.

My daughter will be going up to the 10 & Under league next year. So will the coach for Blue Ice. He's seen her play, now, and has complimented her on many occasions. Next year, they'll be drafting players instead of having them assigned or requested. After the game, he told my daughter to "play bad" during tryouts next year so no one else will draft her before he gets a chance to. Keep playing your best no matter what. Eventually, someone will see it.

[And I just want to add that I have total respect for the coach for Blue Ice. His goal was not about winning but about making sure the girls had a good time. And I was in agreement with his call of safe on that one play, or I wouldn't have walked off the field. With the information I had, I was accepting of his decision. I hope my daughter is on his team next year.

And this is funny:
After the game, his girls were asking him who won the game, and he said, "Who's happier?"
The girls said, "They are."
And he said, "Well, they must have won. But we have cupcakes!"

I'm not sure that our girls would not have traded places. Some of them, anyway.]

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Moneyball and Why Writers Should Be Baseball Players

Okay, so not really... writers shouldn't really be baseball players, that is. At least, I shouldn't. I suck at baseball. I know; my dad used to make me play softball when I was in high school on the church team when they didn't have enough players to be a team. They would make me catcher, because the catcher doesn't really need to do anything in softball. That, or they would stick me out in right field, because the ball might come that way twice in a game. It was his fault I was no good, anyway, but that's a different story.

But back to Moneyball... Oh, wait, we weren't talking about that, yet, were we? Well, in that case, on to Moneyball!

As you might have figured out, I recently watched it. Yes, Moneyball! What do you think I'm talking about here? >sheesh!< Anyway...

Moneyball is really excellent. Brad Pitt is excellent. Jonah Hill is excellent. Surprisingly so, actually. As it turns out, he can actually act. I hope to see more of him in serious roles like this one. Beyond the fact that the movie is just good, it's very interesting. In case you don't know:

Moneyball is based on  the book about Billy Beane's revolutionary approach to building his 2002 Oakland A's team. Faced with a lack of funds and having just lost his best players to richer teams, Beane knew that a new approach was necessary. The story is fascinating.

But I don't really want to talk about it, because you can go watch it. And, if you're a writer, you should go watch it. And, if you're a writer and you've seen it and you didn't see the parallels to the publishing industry, you need to go watch it again. I will say this much about it, though:
There is a scene early on in which Beane is sitting in a room full of scouts, and they're discussing options on whom to replace their lost players with. There are comments like:

"This guy looks good."
"But he can't play <whatever position> well."
"But he looks good. The fans will love him."

"His girlfriend is ugly."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"It means he lacks confidence."
"But he's a great player."
"His girlfriend is ugly."

And it went on and on and, mostly, the scouts never talked about the abilities of the players. They wanted stars, not good players.

And I couldn't stop thinking of literary agents. They want stars, and the writing doesn't matter at all.

In the end, Beane built the team based on the statistics without regard to the externals of the player.
Too old? Does he get on base? Yes. Take him.
Looks funny. Does he get on base? Yes. Take him.
He looked at the ability of the players. Their ability to perform. That was #1. Not just #1; it was the only thing.

The whole thing had a rocky beginning. The coach wouldn't get in line with what Beane was trying to do. They lost a lot of games. A lot. Even Beane didn't know if he was doing the right thing. It felt right, I guess, but it was a... it was a giant mess.

Then... it started working, and they won a record streak of games. 20 in a row. But, now, I'm talking about the movie, and that's not really the point.

The point is that it was hard. There were rough spots. Everyone ridiculed him. Everyone. And, in the end, they tried to say what he did failed. But today? Virtually every team in baseball has someone on staff that does what Beane did. In the end, sports is about money, and winning means money, so the owners of the teams want to win, so they went where the money is.

Publishers should take a look at that and start trying to go where the money is instead of spending their time talking about how bad self-publishing is and how bad e-publishing is and how bad Amazon is. Bookstores, too. I'll leave you with this quote; you can figure out how it relates (all emphasis is mine):

"You won the exact same number of games that the Yankees won, but the Yankees spent one point four million per win and you paid two hundred and sixty thousand. I know you've taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall. It always gets bloody, always. It's the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it's threatening the game. But really what it's threatening is their livelihoods, it's threatening their jobs, it's threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it's the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people are holding the reins, have their hands on the switch. They go bat shit crazy. I mean, anybody who's not building a team right and rebuilding it using your model, they're dinosaurs."

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Top Secret, Super Secret Project

Actually, there was nothing really secret about this project; I just didn't talk about it. Well, I didn't talk about it online, because I didn't know how it was going to turn out. Really, I didn't know how it was going to turn out until last Friday, but that's not really important. At any rate, plenty of people I interact with in the actual, physical world knew all about it.

As I've mentioned, I've been teaching a creative writing class at my younger kids' school. Some of the stories that have come out of the class have been really good. I mean, impressively good. At some point in there, I decided that I should make up a book of their stories for them. At some point right after that, I decided that I should make this book available to other people. Ostensibly, this is just a fundraiser for the school, and it is. Profits from the sale of the physical book will go to the school, making it a fundraiser.

However, it's more than that to me. Some of these kids are really good, my son being one of them. When he won that contest for his story "Into the Trench," it really made an impression on him. No, it wasn't a huge contest, but it was against adults, and he was, in his own laid-back style, elated. It came up a few weeks ago on a walking field trip (because several of the boys in his class were telling me about the books they are now working on (because they've been inspired to write books because I've been reading my book, The House on the Corner, in their class (which is all kinds of cool -- them being inspired, not me reading))), and he really stressed the part about how he won in a contest against adults (and the prize money funded a Lego purchase). All of that to say, I want to make an impression on all of the kids from this class by being able to hand them a book that they wrote.

And, like I said, some of them are really good.

At this point, what I really want to do is talk about the stories I like the most, but I don't want to predispose any of you to any particular story. Instead, I'll talk about my own representation within the pages of
(And, yes, that is the very talented Rusty Webb on cover duty, once again.)
Well, I'll also talk a bit about the structure of the book, but only a bit, because that's all in the book. Almost the first thing we did, though, was do a bunch of 2nd person perspective stories. I figured they should have some familiarity with it, since they gave me blank stares when I asked about it, so I threw them in the water and told them to swim. Okay, actually, I brought them an example I wrote and told them to go to it. My example is in  there along with the stories they wrote for me. That's section one.

The other thing we did that we spent a lot of time on was working on plot. Talking with them about plot and the stages of plot development is what caused the Tib stories to grow into something real. Some of you may remember back to when I was posting those every couple of weeks... Well, I was posting them in relation to working on them for this class as examples of how you develop a plot. Starting with exposition. Yes, I did start there. I don't believe in skipping it just because publishers these days have decided to turn the story arc into a story slide by cutting the exposition and as much of the rising action as possible. We spent a while working on introducing the protagonist, establishing the setting, and introducing the conflict. [And, I have to say, there are some really great examples of exposition in that section (section three) of the book.]

Working on Tib for this class is what has caused it to grow into the book that it's becoming: Shadowspinner. I don't have a release date, yet, but you can read the first five chapters in Charter Shorts. But, really, you shouldn't buy it for my stories (okay, well, you should, but you shouldn't buy it just for my stories), you should buy it to show these kids your support. Let them know how important reading and writing is. Oh, and, well, there's a bonus!

Several of you mentioned after this post about my daughter and how she should, maybe, be a writer. Well, as it turns out, she's quite good (I did already know this). On her STAR test last year, she scored 100% on the writing section. That's fairly uncommon. My younger son, who scored nearly 100% on the entire test, lost points only in the writing section (although, it wasn't very many). Even though she wasn't in the creative writing class (not being in middle school yet), I included a story she wrote this year. Yeah, I get to do that because I'm her dad. Also, I'm the editor of the book, so I still get to do it. Really, though, it's because I just love the story and, especially, hearing her read it. She's super excited to have her story in Charter Shorts and is already hounding me for a copy. heh And I apologize that you guys can't hear her read it, but, maybe, that will change.

So, yeah, here is why you should rush out and buy Charter Shorts:
A. It's another great cover by  the inestimable Rusty Webb!
B. There are a bunch of great stories in it by literary minded middle schoolers.
C. You want to support said literary minded middle schoolers.
  1. You want to support them financially by supporting their school (because, while being a public school, it's not a regular public school in that it's a charter school and much of its funding comes from elsewhere (meaning not from the state of CA)).
  2. You want to support the future writing of said literary minded middle schoolers, because there's nothing better as new writer than other people saying to you, "hey, good job!"
D. There's no telling which of these students could one day be a best selling novelist, and you want to own a copy of their very first work to sell on eBay for megabucks when they do.
E. Oh, yeah, Shadowspinner. Five whole chapters!
F. And, okay, yeah, I have to say it, my son has some stuff in there, and, well, he's just really good. His award winning story is included, and that's not even the best of his of what's included by him.

As per usual, it's available for the Kindle, and it will be available as a physical book as soon as CreateSpace allows me to make it available (and why that's not yet available is a (short) story all by itself that I don't have time to get into). I'd strongly urge the purchase of the physical book, because that's what helps out the school, but, really, anything is good. If you do want a physical copy, it's possible that I might even be able to arrange some autographs. Probably not of all of the kids, but some of them, at least.

[Edit: The physical book is now available through CreateSpace here for the low, low price of just $9.99! Really, it's worth it!]

A few other notes:
1. The link to "The Evil That Men Do" is over there on the side. That's the back story, so to speak, for Tib. It's actually just a story that became the basis for Tib, so it doesn't read like a prologue even though that's kind of what it is.
2. It would be really great if you could stop by Amazon and Goodreads and click on things like the "like" button, especially if you read and liked any of the books.
3. I'll get all the links posted for Charter Shorts as soon as they're available, including getting it added to Goodreads.

Thanks, Everyone! I really do appreciate all of you that stop by to read my ramblings, and I appreciate it even more when you take the time to listen to me plug a project!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Things I've Forgotten To Say

Over the past little while, there have been things I've forgotten to say or include in posts. Frequently, this has to do with getting interrupted while I'm writing and losing whatever I was thinking about. Probably, most of these things were of no great import, but, sometimes, they are.

One of the things I forgot was supposed to go into my A to Z posts. When my wife brought this to my attention, I was already past where it would have logically fit within the letters, so I had planned to work it in at another spot. But I forgot. And, then, I was going to work it in at the end, but I forgot. And, then, I was going to put it into my reflections post, but I saw that article about the bionic eyes and got all excited about that, and, guess what, I forgot. This is why when I go to the grocery store only needing three things, I come back with only two of them. Actually, often that's because of the "Can I haves" from my daughter. Having to say "no" 30 times during a 15 minute trip into the store can make you forget anything.

But I digress...

Every year at Christmas, we watch Scrooged. That may be my wife's favorite movie. I'm sure that's not what she would say, but we've seen that more than anything else my wife would claim as her favorite, so I'm just declaring it her favorite. So! My wife's favorite movie is Scrooged, and we watch that every year at Christmas. [Aren't you glad we got that all cleared up? Boy, I am!]

In the movie there's this bit where the out-of-touch president of the TV station is telling Bill Murray's character that they need to have television for cats and dogs. They also need to work things into regular programming to get those same cats and dogs hooked on TV. You know, like a detective show where the cop dangles a piece of string as his "thing." This whole thing, to put into a modern perspective, is meant to show how ludicrous and absurd the 1% can be with their time and money. This guy was into cats, so he wanted television for his cats, and, since he owned the TV station, he was gonna make that happen. No matter how stupid the idea.

And, see, that's the thing: it is a stupid idea.

It's a stupid idea that has, now, become a reality. I give you DogTV! Seriously. I don't care how much science has been put into it, and they claim there has been a lot of science put into it, it's insane. I mean, I love my dog (you remember her, right?),
I even let her lick my face (was that too much?), but she's a dog! Dogs are supposed to lick faces. They are not supposed to watch TV. If dogs were supposed to watch TV, they would have grown thumbs and invented it for themselves. Heck, we did invent TV, and I don't even think we should be watching it. Which is why we just get static on ours.

Anyway... just another example of fiction being turned into reality. Even if it is a dumb one.

The other big thing I meant to mention is something that leads into something else. Not that it was supposed to, originally, but it's going to now.

I just did a review on A Thread of Grace and, really, Mary Doria Russel in general. Okay, really, it was about The Sparrow, which I'm still looking for so that I can re-read it (and that's a big deal as some of you may have picked up), but I didn't just read that one. The Sparrow, aside from winning a bunch of awards (like the Arthur C. Clarke Award), was Russel's first novel. Yes, it was her first novel. I don't mean first published, just her first.

Modern, conventional wisdom tells us that first novels are no good. First novels are for practice. First novels are to get your foot in the door and all that other... stuff that they say. Modern, conventional wisdom is often just wrong. Say it with me: it's wrong!

I'm not saying that that means that a first novel is one's best novel, I'm just saying that, often, the first is the best. Orson Welles knew it. He made Citizen Kane and said everything he did after that would be downhill. He wasn't wrong. In fact, some people have written just the one and stopped. But the one was great. Gone With the Wind. To Kill a Mockingbird (and Harper Lee was somewhat pressured to write more books, but she refused, because she knew she could never surpass the one she did write). And, even though Richard Adams has continued to write, he's never done anything better than Watership Down.

Okay, what I'm really saying is that you shouldn't listen too hard to what "conventional wisdom" tells you. Conventional wisdom is not, usually, wisdom; usually, it's just dumb things people say to each other to make each other feel better. What I am saying is that you should believe in yourself and your work and do the best you can.

Don't listen to agents. Don't listen to publishers. Don't listen to your crit partners. Only you know the story you want to write. No one else, just you. You work on it, mold it, smash it, cut it, build it, believe in it, until you, only you, after having read it 20 times or 45 times or however many times that you've read it until you're sick of it, can read it and say, "Hey, I like this. This is good. I would read this." When you have something that you would read, that you would flip through at the bookstore and think, "hey, this sounds interesting," that you would pick up and buy, well... don't worry about the rest.

You want to know a secret? Agents don't know. Publishers don't even know. Heck, the public doesn't even know. You just do the best you can. You figure out what you want, what you need, from writing, and you work toward that. Sure, I know for a lot of you that means the validation of being traditionally published, so that means working with agents and publishers and jumping through hoops and all of that, but like I said way back in this post, you have to figure out what you want. If what you want doesn't require traditional publishing, then don't go that route (really, go back and read that post (you can even still comment on it, if you want to) if you want the full discussion).

>steps off of soapbox< (who put that there, anyway?)

Look, all I'm trying to say is don't let people get you down by telling you things that aren't necessarily true. Things like "it's only your first novel, so it can't be any good." Go look at a list of first novels by many famous authors (or only novels), and you'll often find that those first novels stand out among their work. You'll find just as many who had awful first novels and kept getting better and better. Just don't think that because it's your first it can't be any good.

Personally, I like my first novel, The House on the Corner (which I reviewed here). It's good. I've read it... many times, now, and I still enjoy it (and I had a whole class of 6th graders (and the teacher) laughing during chapter 19 this morning). But it's not The Sparrow, or Neormancer, or Citizen Kane (although it has been compared with The Sorcerer's Stone by more than one person), and I hope I get better. In fact, I plan to.

I suppose what all of this boils down to is this:
Believe in yourself.
Not in any New Age way or belief that believing in yourself will bring you everything you could hope for. It won't. Don't let anyone fool you. However, believing in yourself, that you can do it, is the only way that you will keep working at it. No one else can give that to you, but plenty of people can take it away. If you let them. So don't. Believe in yourself, believe that you can make it happen, work to make that come true.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

We're almost out of ear twigs...

Last week, my daughter had a birthday. It was the last single digit birthday in our family. It makes me... melancholy. It's not that I don't want them to grow up; I do. I just miss what they were. I especially miss when my younger two would nap on me, one on each arm. Ahh...

Anyway, a birthday for my daughter means a sleepover, so our house was full of little girls Saturday night. My boys, wisely, chose to be elsewhere. In the evening, we took a walk down by the creek so that I could show them all the sights like the entrances to Goblin Town and the Troll Bridge (for those of you that have been around for a while, you'll know that I've talked about these places in my Let's go for a walk... series). They got to see ducklings in the creek, troll nests, the special flowers that allow you to hide from trolls by covering up your scent, and, even, a goblin dashing into one of the entrances to goblin town. Okay, well, I'm the only one that actually saw the goblin, but I didn't make it up! Honest. Most of the girls have been exposed to my book, The House on the Corner, so they expected stories of trolls, I suppose. During the walk, many of them came up to me to whisper, "I believe..."

But this story isn't about the sleepover or the walk.

My daughter has been asking to get her ears pierced for years. Long ago, we made a 13-year-old rule. This rule came about because, at about age 6, my oldest son wanted to get his ear pierced. We felt this was too young. 1. He was only six, and that's a little young to be making permanent life decisions. 2. There was no way he would be capable of taking care of his ear while it healed. So we made him wait. It's one of the few things that he has steadfastly held to in his life, the desire to get his ear pierced, so, when he turned 13, we took him to  get it done. Mostly, he was able to take care of his ear  on his own; although, with him, it was kind of like having them brush their teeth; you have to tell them over and over and over again. Every night. I mean, we still have to check in with him about how long it's been since his last shower (because, at 16, we kind of think he's old enough not to have to be told to go take one, unlike his younger brother whom we have to badger into the shower under protest every time).

But my daughter's not like that. She's the only one that will spontaneously take care of her teeth without being told to. Not every night, but, sometimes, when we start telling them to go brush, her response is, "I already did," and a breath test bears that out. Unless, you know, she's just sucking tooth paste from the tube. And she has her own established showering schedule that she adheres to in an almost religious manner. She even makes sure that I know when her laundry hamper is ready; whereas, the boys will often get up and discover they have nothing clean to wear (and let me tell you, those discussions are so much fun).

We (meaning my wife) decided that we could break the 13-year-old rule for ear piercing, because my daughter shows all the signs of being able to take care of her ears while they heal without us having to be on her about it (unlike, say, her accordion practice) all the time. So, on her birthday, we took her to have her ears pierced (as it turns out, she was the only girl in her class with unpierced ears, which may explain why she has been so desperate to have it done). She was quite brave about the whole thing, and the lady doing the work was surprised when she sat through the first ear and let her go on to the second ear. Evidently, most girls break down after the first and don't want the second one done. However, after they were both done, she did want a hug, so that was nice.

The piercing lady showed my wife and daughter how to take care of her ears after that. There are a number of options for cleaning, but the simplest, really, is Q-tips. That's not what the woman demonstrated with, but we figured that they would work best. The only issue is that we don't really keep Q-tips around. We only had a small bag of them left over from the move last fall and had never bothered to buy more. But my wife showed my daughter how to dip them into the solution and clean her ears with them anyway. Which brings us to the night after...

One night after the piercing and my daughter heads to the "grown up" bathroom to get her own Q-tips for the very first time. She retrieves what she needs, cleans her ears, and cleans up after herself. My wife asks her if she needs any help. "No, Mom..." My wife asks her if everything is okay. "Yes, Mom..." There is so other discussion mostly centered on my daughter exerting her independence and ability to take care of everything on her own. Except for one thing, after everything else has been said and done, my daughter pipes up with, "Oh, but, Mom... we're almost out of ear twigs."

I was so glad that I was where my daughter couldn't see me, because I laughed. I mean, I really laughed. But I also loved it. "Ear twigs." That is so awesome. Like I said, we don't keep Q-tips around. No one had called them by name. My daughter gave them a very sensible name. That's what we call them now. She doesn't know they have another name, and that's how we want it. I'm sure, at some point, she'll find out, but we love "ear twigs," so we haven't told her.

And isn't that what writing's about? Looking at something and making it your own. Taking something normal, common, cliche and twisting it just a little to make it interesting and unique again. I could care less about Q-tips, but I love ear twigs. You shouldn't be surprised if they show up in a story some day. At least the term even if they aren't still cotton swabs.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mary Doria Russell and A Thread of Grace

Back in April, I read A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell. Some of you may have noticed another book by her, The Sparrow, listed in my "Of Significance..." tab >points up to it<, but we'll get to that in a bit.

Actually, we'll get to it now. Sort of. See, I loved The Sparrow. I also loved Children of God, which is the sequel to The Sparrow. [As soon as I figure out where Sparrow is packed up, I'm going to read it again (and, as many of you may have picked up, I'm not much of a re-reader.] But A Thread of Grace threw me for a loop as soon as I picked it up. Sparrow and Children are sci-fi, but Thread is set during World War II, which I knew. I was prepared for that, so that's not what got me. The thing that got me is that Thread is written in present tense. I'm pretty sure I've never read a novel written in present tense before, so I was unprepared for it, and it was weird. Really weird.

So weird, in fact, that at about 20 pages in, I told my wife that I didn't think I was going to like the book. She was surprised. Given how much I love Sparrow, she was really surprised. I think, in my head, I gave it to about page 50 to draw me in, or I was going to put it down. Fortunately, it did. Once I got into the rhythm of it, it was great.

Of course, nearly everything is written in past tense. It's really how we think. You tell a story, either made up or true, and you think about it in ways of having already happened. So Russel has two sci-fi books that take place in the near future that are told in past tense and one historical fiction novel about events from seven decades ago told in present tense (she has other novels, but I haven't read them, yet). I think the present tense format works, though, in that it takes these events that happened in the past and makes them feel... imminent. It gives the feeling that the narrator, also, doesn't know what's going to happen next, and, for the type of book this is, about Jews in Nazi occupied Italy, it adds a level of tension. It's war. People die in war, and you just don't know who might die unexpectedly. Telling it in past tense would have given the subtle message that the narrator already knows who survives and who doesn't, but, in present tense, no one knows.

What the book's really about, though, is not what it's about. Not many authors can pull this off, but Russell is one of them. Most authors are able to touch on other themes but fail to actually elevate the story to being about something beyond the obvious. Her themes are deep and vital to what it means to be human. Things we all struggle with.

With The Sparrow, she chose faith. The book looks like many other sci-fi novels about first contact with aliens, but it's so much more than that. It's the story of a priest and how meeting aliens destroys his faith in God. Not in any way you might think, though. Father Sandoz' journey, in many ways, reflects the current crisis of faith in our own nation and in much of the world. It's the question of how faith is tested in the midst of terrible things. In Children of God (the sequel to Sparrow), she deals with the struggle of whether faith can be restored after it has been ripped from us. Both books are powerful, beautiful, and hideous. And, as I've said, Sparrow is dangerously close to becoming the third book on my "Everyone Should Read This" list.

Thread is a little more subtle in what it's about. Not that it's really more subtle, but the question of forgiveness is, in many way, much more complicated. In a culture that knows no sin, and we don't, because everything is relative, how do you deal with the question of forgiveness? Although there are many characters in Thread, the story really revolves around the sins of two men, one Nazi and one Jew, and how they deal with guilt and their individual searches to be forgiven. The most powerful aspect of the book is that you can't really see what's going on until the very end, and I can't say more about it without giving it away, but it's a powerful moment.

Just... well... don't get attached to any of the characters. It is war, after all.

Russell, I think, is under appreciated in today's writing culture. She should be a super star, but, yet, most people have never heard of her. I'm sure it's because her books are deep and complex. We tend to elevate the simplistic, in-your-face kind of stories, right now, and I think that's too bad. I do have hope, though. It took Tolkien a few decades before his works were really appreciated, so, hopefully, Russell's book will continue to creep out there until they take their place among classic literature, as they should.

Because I want to be very clear about this, if you haven't read The Sparrow, go do it. Especially, if you like sci-fi. But even if you don't. I'd find hard to imagine that you would be disappointed.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Let Me Know If Ultimate Power Needs A Magazine

It's time for another great big bowl of POP culture! And when I say great big, I mean GREAT BIG, so go get your biggest bowls and pour yourself some milk, and let's get to it.

For those of you not living under rocks, the news of the week is AVENGERS! It's actually, really, a double dose of pop culture, because it's not just Avengers; it's also Joss Whedon, who is a pop culture phenomenon all by himself. However, I'm sure that everyone is going to be going on about Joss, so I'm not going to dwell on that aspect of the movie. Much.

Before I get into it, though, I'm going to point out that Avengers broke the record for top grossing opening weekend. Not just broke it, ground it into tiny particles. If you look at the weekend records, generally a new record has only been within a few million of the previous record; in fact, 3 or 4 of the previous records fall in the $150-160 million range. However, Avengers topped the previous record by more than $30 million (also becoming the first film to have a $200 million opening weekend)! That's considerable. (Sorry, Harry.) On top of all of that, Disney released the film to nearly 40 international markets (not including Japan (the second largest movie market)) a week earlier than they released it here, so the 10-day gross for the film stands at $650 million worldwide. I'm pretty sure it's going to be the fastest movie to the billion mark.

Of course, none of that says anything about whether the movie is any good. The fact that the average audience rating is an "A+" does, though. Of course, that doesn't say anything about what I thought of the movie, which is what all of this is about, right?

So... what did I think of The Avengers? Well, to answer that question, let's take a few steps back (this is where I take some of the focus off of Mr. Whedon, because, as good as his writing was, he had an excellent foundation to work on, and what he did would not have been possible without it).

Last summer, I did a series of posts comparing Marvel's movies to DC's. In the third post, I talked about vision (not The Vision) and how Marvel has it and DC doesn't, which explains the (much) higher quality of Marvel's movies as compared to DC's (overall). The Avengers is evidence of this.

See, way back in 2008 when Marvel released Iron Man (and, then, The Incredible Hulk), it wasn't just about making an Iron Man movie. Iron Man was actually a pretty big risk for Marvel (yeah, I know, it's hard to believe that, now). Outside of comics, Iron Man was fairly unknown character. Sure, he'd had his own series for decades, but it was rarely a top selling series. Never before had a super hero movie been made featuring a character that was, basically, a second stringer. A B-lister. Could they pull it off? Most people didn't think they could. And, really, why would they even bother? They had many other better known heroes, right? But it was all part of the plan.

Marvel's goal was never to make an Iron Man movie. Or a Hulk movie. Or any of the other Marvel Studios produced movies. Their goal was to make an Avengers movie. Yes, it all started with the Avengers. Their plan, then, became to make a series of movies each featuring one of the heroes that would make up their beginning Avengers team. Why do it this way? Origin stories. The difficulty with any super hero movie is establishing the origin story of the character. Especially for a character like Iron Man who isn't all that well known.

They very carefully established the central heroes in their own stories before bringing them all together for their team movie. Yeah, I know... Hawkeye and Black Widow. Maybe, I'll do a post on them later, but let's just leave it at they didn't think they could pull off solo movies for those characters, especially with the changes (for the better) they've made to Hawkeye. [It's also why they left out Antman and the Wasp (because they did, actually, have an Antman film planned, but, currently, that project is on hold.] What they did, what Marvel did, was really quite ingenious. They've lent the same since of continuity to their movies that their comic books have (something they "invented" back in the 60s when Marvel first became Marvel Comics).

All of that to say that Marvel really very carefully laid the groundwork for this film. Making The Avengers was always the goal, and everything they've done for the last six years has been to bring about this moment.

Bringing Joss Whedon on board for this movie was, perhaps, the most natural thing in the world. After all, he is the expert in writing teams for TV and movies. There's not really even anyone else you can point to other than, maybe, the guy responsible for Stargate: SG-1, but, then, that guy has no experience with comic books. On top of the fact that Whedon is responsible for the team shows Buffy, Angel, and Firefly; he's also has movie experience and he's written for Marvel. Basically, he knows everything. He knows the characters, he knows writing teams, he knows making movies. And he's possibly the best writer in Hollywood today. There was no other logical first choice. Just be glad he said yes.

Mr. Whedon pulled all the strings together and tied them perfectly together in a beautiful little bow.

I loved The Avengers. I saw it twice over the weekend, and I'd go again if I could (but that's really the whole movie budget for May, so I'll have to wait till the DVD to see it again). Even my wife (who re-watches movies in the same way that I reread books (which is to say, she doesn't)) wanted to go see it again. It was so good that I have no favorite scene. I have no favorite line (not even the title of this post. I just thought it fit best (no, don't ask me why)). I have no favorite anything about that movie. There are too many moments to choose from. It was all great.

However, I will say that Mark Ruffalo was especially good as the Hulk. Not that he was better than anyone else, necessarily, but it was good to finally see someone nail the part of Bruce Banner. He really pulled off "nerdy scientist" in a way that Bana and Norton were just unable to. From his slouched posture to his baggy clothes to the glasses... everything was just right. I hope the do another Hulk movie with him in the lead.

Also, I think the movie set up perfectly for a solo Nick Fury movie along the lines of the Nick Fury VS. S.H.I.E.L.D. series. I don't know of any plans that they have for that, but it would be cool.

Bottom line is that The Avengers is great. It has great action. It has great humor. Yet, it never loses the seriousness of the situation nor does it sacrifice the individual characters' stories. Unless you just don't like super heroes, you should go see it. Seriously. Go now.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Looking Back Through the Looking Glass of A to Z

So... let's just get this whole reflections thing out of the way so that next week I can start getting everything back to normal for real. Or as real as anything is around here. After my a to z series, I'm beginning to wonder what real really is.

Okay, not really... that's mostly the fault of my kids.

But what did I think of the whole A to Z thing? That's a good question that I don't have a good answer for. So, before I get to the part where I start trying to evade that question, let's deal with the stuff I do know.

The first thing I know is, wow! I had no clue that fiction, specifically science fiction, introduced so many ideas to the world. I mean, I knew that science fiction was responsible for some stuff. I figure we all knew that. But I had no idea it introduced SO MANY THINGS. You think I talked about a lot? You should see the list of things I didn't talk about! What amazed me most was how many of them, especially the stuff about space travel, tied directly back to the fiction with people saying, "I was inspired by this." That's pretty amazing, if you ask me. And I'm really glad my wife made this suggestion, because it was all very interesting and good research.

[At some point, I may talk about more of these things, so I'm gonna keep my lists and my links to myself for the moment. Maybe, I'll post some in the future. (before anyone asks)]

The second thing I know is that there are a bunch of books I want to read now. I've already ordered Snow Crash and also have plans to pick up some Vinge novels within the next couple of weeks (crossing my fingers that they still have them when I go to get them (because, yes, I already called)). Doing this series made me want to reread a bunch of stuff, too, like War of the Worlds, but I know I probably won't actually do that even though I want to. My reading list (of things I haven't read) is just too long, and I don't think I'll be able to work a bunch of rereading in (even if I am rereading Jekyll and Hyde).

Those are the things I know. But it's also raised a question.

Doing all of this has, in many ways, caused me to question literature. Not in a "what is literature?" kind of way, but in a "what's the point of most literature?" kind of way. After seeing the impact of so much of science fiction, it makes me wonder about the worthwhileness of whole genres of "literature." If reading doesn't prompt us to do something, what's the point? It doesn't have to be science fiction. Dickens didn't write science fiction, but his novels were often social commentary that prompted people to respond (like with Oliver Twist). Honestly, this has been a question I've struggled with since, well, since high school, even back when I was reading Piers Anthony (and most of his books don't do anything). And I get entertainment. I like being entertained. But isn't providing something more than just mere entertainment something we should be striving for? Of course, writing books that say something is a lot harder than just writing books. Writing books that say something well... well, that's pretty rare.


The A to Z challenge itself... was it worth it? I don't think I have an answer to that question. Looking at the numbers, just the numbers, I'd have to say "no." I mean that in that I put a whole lot more work into it than I got back from it. It didn't raise my daily traffic by any considerable amount. I did gain followers, but it certainly wasn't a huge number. No great increase in comments. In fact, that number dropped, but I'm sure it was because people got burned out by the end of the month. At any rate, I think it will take a couple or few months to actually see what the real impact of participating was. At the moment, I'm saying it was tiring, it made me cranky, and it made my wife cranky at me. And, see, I had, like, 9 posts completed before April started, but I only finished my "Z" post two days before it was due. And I worked on these almost every single day (I think I took a total of 3 days off from working on blog posts the whole month (which is why my wife was cranky at me)).

Here's what I observed:

People who wrote short "nothing" posts picked up more followers and got more comments. On one level, I get this. People want to zip through the blogs and check them out, because there are just a lot of them. However, in relation to people that I already followed, those that took this approach, I really just didn't read their blogs the whole month of April. Why? Because they didn't post about anything. Whatever it was that I like about their blog was just gone, so I didn't even bother. In that sense, it all feels like false advertising to me. The people that pulled the most new people in were the ones that "lied" about who they are by throwing up frivolous posts. And I just don't know how I feel about that overall. I think it makes me sad.

In the same way, I didn't find very many new blogs I felt were worth following. The few I did choose to follow were blogs that said something. Had significant posts that took some time to read. Some of these blogs picked up so few new followers as to be insignificant. And that makes me sad. It makes me feel like most people don't want to take the time to read something that will make them think. Actually, I know this is true, because most people don't read. And, here, among people that (supposedly) do read, they're only really attracted to the short, flashy posts with pictures of kittens.

But here's the thing, of the blogs that I skipped over because their A to Z posts were short, frivolous things (like A is for Apple (because I really came across that one (more than once))), how many of them actually have blogs worth following but were "lying" during the A to Z month because the short posts attract more flies? I'll never know.

And that... that's actually why I wrote long posts in the vein of what I normally do. I wanted the people that stopped by my blog to see what I'm actually about and make a decision based on me, not a "used car salesman" persona that I threw on during A to Z month to drive traffic in. Having said that, I did do one post that was "lighter" than  the rest. It had more pictures than any other post I did and less of me talking. It felt natural to me to demonstrate that one through pictures because of the subject matter: exo-suits. They're just cool. And that post, the one I viewed as kind of a throwaway post, got twice as many page views as the next most viewed A to Z post. And I don't know how I feel about that, because, if I were to pick my top 3 posts of A to Z, or my top 5, or, even, my top 10, that one would not be in it.

I suppose it's just going to come down to a question of quantity vs quality. I chose to not go for quantity. I did that on purpose and, even, stated my decision to go the route I was going to one of the hosts. Unfortunately, quality is more difficult to measure, to >heh< quantify, so it may take me a while to figure out if the time I spent on A to Z was worth it in the grand scheme of things. I do think I picked up, at least, a few quality people, and, for that, I'm grateful. Beyond that, we'll just have to see how it goes.

[EDIT: As a follow up to my series and as an addition (specifically) to my Cyborg post, I just saw an article yesterday about the very first bionic eyes being implanted and returning (limited) sight to some people suffering from a degenerative genetic condition that causes blindness. This is pretty big news!]