Star Trek Discovery!

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The JJ Abrams aesthetic has overridden the classic campy look, but I’m hopeful for a character driven show that packs a punch. Star Trek has always been at its best when it focuses on the individuals that make up Star Fleet.

Star Trek has the charm of a stage play: soaring rhetoric, grand visions, and character dilemmas that carry the show. This is because each series only uses three major reoccurring sets: the bridge, the mess, and crew quarters. These setups serve to emphasize the claustrophobia of space.

I know Kirk’s love interests, and Spock’s inner struggles. I learned how principled Picard became when he was tortured.  Sisko learned that being a father was probably more important than being a good commander. Worf showed me what it’s like to be caught between two cultures.

The ship is also a character. This is something the JJ Abrams shiny reboots don’t get: it’s not a prop to blow up.

Discovery started off with lots of explosions.  That’s sort of thrilling and eyeball-punching to be sure, but as viewers, we have no attachment to a ship yet. Sensational explosions can be a way for shows to distract from plot issues.

For instance, the crew of the Shenzhou beams a bomb onto a fallen Klingon warrior being retrieved by his commander. The body blows when it gets back on the Klingon ship, which makes for a clever move of sabotage by Star Fleet. However, directly after, Captain Georgiou and First Officer Burnham are beamed onto the Klingon ship to take prisoners. Why not just do that with the bomb in the first place?

Perhaps there was some hand-waving to explain this away, but I missed it, because BOOM goes the Klingon ship! Fight scene! Don’t think about it!

This is my worry, going forward. I don’t want a show that tries to build tension off of bad or questionable decisions made by the characters.  Discovery is going to be slick, shiny, and it’s going to show off its budget. I contend that this is not the show’s strength.

So, what’s working for this show? Burnham’s character, for one: a human raised by Vulcans because her parents were killed by Klingons. While I think Sonequa Martin-Green needs to grow into the character a bit, I think she’s up to the task, and that Burnham has the potential to move viewers by showing us the inner conflicts of her heart. (A few lofty lines delivered by Martin-Green fell a bit flat for me, but I think she’ll get there. For instance the whole, “Sculpture is spirituality given form” might look nice on paper but the delivery was so-so.)

Burnham’s mutiny carried the dramatic punch it should have, and I hope the show dwells on her betraying Georgiou, because I want this to be more emotionally devastating for the viewer as the show progresses. Georgiou cannot merely be collateral damage, like the rest of the blown-to-smithereens Federation fleet that we’ll forget about in a week.

Now, a note on the Klingons: I’m wondering if we’ll see more human looking tribes with less brow-ridges? There’s a frustrating scene in Deep Space Nine where the crew goes back in time to the Enterprise. Worf looks very different than the Klingons on the Enterprise, and his crew-mates ask him why.

“We don’t talk about it,” he says cryptically, signaling to the viewers that the writers don’t care about continuity, or are unwilling to bridge the gaps. What a missed opportunity!

Discovery’s Klingons are cool. I really like them. They look like dark elves with the convictions of Spartans. But if I were writing this, I’d take Worf’s hand-wave dismissal as a challenge, and definitely go there. We’ll see?

I have high hopes. Let’s see what the show can do.

I’ve Figured Out Why Game Of Thrones Bothers Me

A Song of Ice and Fire is a soap opera with Dragons and Ice Zombies. I’m not trying to besmirch the soap opera (we tend to revile things women like, so while soaps aren’t my thing, that’s just a matter of taste), but George Martin’s books, like some soaps, have a tendency to revel in the baser things of life. Sometimes it hinders my enjoyment of the epic world he’s built. I feel like I’ve been entranced by a snake-charmer, and should pull free.

Why am I reading this stuff?

I’m not afraid of reading about hard truths, about the things people can do to one another. George Martin has obviously studied medieval history. Tales of war are full of violence, rape and political intrigue. Mythology, of course, is full of sex. So what’s my problem?

In the last published book (A Dance With Dragons), we are treated to Princess Asha submitting to a rape, because as it turns out, she likes it after all! The ideal woman likes it rough, right boys? (I will not be reproducing that passage here.)*

Here’s my problem: was it really necessary for me to read a rape fantasy? I’ve seen authors joke that they don’t know what “plot-relevant sex” is anyway, so readers should stop being such prudes. But I feel compelled to point out that many speculative fiction authors deal with gritty subjects, and many do it with a great deal more class than Martin does. Louis McMaster Bujold, for example, in Shards of Honor (one of my favorite books) writes about the difficulties a woman protagonist faces in a militarized society. Cordelia Naismith is captured by the enemy and threatened with rape in a very tense scene, where we see her would-be-rapist prodded toward her like an animal. Bujold does not mince words, but she also doesn’t rub the reader’s face in in. In fact, even though we are treated to images of this naked, barbaric man, Bujold’s Cordelia pities him.

I read fiction so that the world in which I live can be recast in a new light. I should have an insight into human nature. That insight does not have to be accompanied with flowers and roses, or packaged in shiny Disney animation with talking animals. Oedipus has sex with his mother. Orpheus, the idiot, looks back. (Honey, you had ONE JOB.) Psyche looks at Cupid’s face. Lot, in the Bible, is intoxicated by his daughters and raped by them.

I could go on.

My point is that the hero does not always win, and I don’t need that to be the case for a story to possess verisimilitude, to have an insight into some deep truth about human action. I am not, therefore, upset that Martin kills his heroes. His storytelling has surprised me, even delighted me at times.

And yet, I still, at the same time, think that something smells. Martin gave an interview to Time Magazine recently, and he said something that I think nailed down what it is about his fantasy that bothers me. Here is the passage:

Did Lady Stoneheart come about because it was hard to say a permanent goodbye to Catelyn?

Yeah, maybe. That may have been part of it. Part of it was also, it’s the dialogue that I was talking about. And here I’ve got to get back to Tolkien again. And I’m going to seem like I’m criticizing him, which I guess I am. It’s always bothered me that Gandalf comes back from the dead. The Red Wedding for me in Lord of the Rings is the mines of Moria, and when Gandalf falls — it’s a devastating moment! I didn’t see it coming at 13 years old, it just totally took me by surprise. Gandalf can’t die! He’s the guy that knows all of the things that are happening! He’s one of the main heroes here! Oh god, what are they going to do without Gandalf? Now it’s just the hobbits?! And Boromir, and Aragorn? Well, maybe Aragorn will do, but it’s just a huge moment. A huge emotional investment.

And then in the next book, he shows up again, and it was six months between the American publications of those books, which seemed like a million years to me. So all that time I thought Gandalf was dead, and now he’s back and now he’s Gandalf the White. And, ehh, he’s more or less the same as always, except he’s more powerful. It always felt a little bit like a cheat to me. And as I got older and considered it more, it also seemed to me that death doesn’t make you more powerful. That’s, in some ways, me talking to Tolkien in the dialogue, saying, “Yeah, if someone comes back from being dead, especially if they suffer a violent, traumatic death, they’re not going to come back as nice as ever.” That’s what I was trying to do, and am still trying to do, with the Lady Stoneheart character.

Understanding Tolkien requires an understanding of Christianity. This does not mean possessing a fundamentalist view of sex or an inability to cope with gritty, ugly things. (Lot in the Bible, remember.) It requires a different understanding of death. To die for one’s friends is worthy of reward. That is why Gandalf comes back more powerful than before. That’s why it’s not a cheat.

In Martin’s view, Ned Stark is a probably fool. In my Christian view, he is a martyr. If Ned Stark’s death isn’t any different than Joffrey’s, then what the hell is the point? Am I really supposed to believe that they both end up in the same place?

Martin’s books like to show readers how hard it is to be a hero. That being good might not come with material rewards or power. In that respect, I understand the project.

But I’m afraid that we’re not going to get the eucatastrophe, the good that comes from the bad, that Tolkien so effectively delivered in his own stories. I don’t think readers will get that from Martin’s mind. Maybe it’s not fair to accuse Martin of not being Tolkien, but it helps me see why I have major problems with his his narrative decisions.

 I’m too Catholic.

*Theon Greyjoy’s sister, as she’s named in the books.

Avoid These Story Mistakes: As I judge A Short Story Contest

PAPERI’ve been helping evaluate short story submissions for a contest, and I’m on the hook to give meaningful feedback to young writers. It’s been fun! I’d like to share some common mistakes I’ve seen cropping up in aspiring writers’ prose in this post.

Don’t crowd a story with too many concepts 

When writing, the ideas flow: have fun! See where it goes! But then, edit. Focus on one idea and flesh out it’s implications in a meaningful way. If you start the story about a robot, follow through with it. I’ve seen several stories that start with once concept, and then they split off into completely different concepts that don’t make sense. For instance, a robot story becomes a story about a pirate who steals it, which then becomes about a ghost watching over them, and ends with a serial killer. Don’t create new elements to get yourself out of problems. Readers will know you’re fudging. In a short story you have time for one idea. State the idea in the opening, and then complete the arc.

Give readers command of the world and the characters right away

If you’re writing an alternate history, a fantasy in your own made-up world, or about the near future, the reader needs to know right away. Readers will get frustrated if there are no clues about the setting. I’ve seen several stories that didn’t establish a sense of place until they were halfway through the tale. That’s sloppy, and gives the impression you were making it up as you went. That’s fine for a first draft, but your readers want the polished end product. This will make them trust you.

There’s no narrative arc

All stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Spaceships aren’t interesting unless we’re made to care, and the engine of making a reader care is conflict. You might have a great idea, but nobody will care about it if you don’t get your protagonist in trouble because of it. Here’s a basic breakdown of an arc’s structure:

a.) Beginning: conflict

b.) Middle: fallout

c.) End: resolution/catharsis.

These are the basics. Don’t submit your brainstorming notes: mold that idea into an arc.

Some basic prose/ grammar tips

A metaphor is a complete idea that compares unlike things. It’s not enough to say, “Paul is an ant” and leave it at that. Why is Paul like an ant? What are the implications of such a comparison? Never obfuscate for mystery, because chances are you’re just being unclear. “Paul is an ant: diminutive, better in groups where he can disappear into a collective effort.”

Be careful when jumping from one internal monologue to another. Point of view should be cohesive. Is it first person or third person? (Does the narrator say “I” or does it pull back and say, “Mike did X”?) Make that decision before writing each draft. The reader should never feel jarred.

As always: read more. Learning how to develop a prose style is essential to writing anything well. Be sure to read the basics: Dorothy Parker loved Elements of Style , or pick up William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

And never self-reject! Write and submit to as many contests and magazines as possible. You’ll never get better if you don’t keep working on it. Get as many eyes on your work as possible.

** The original version of this post claimed that Parker wrote Elements of Style; that was a mistake. (Written by Strunk)

Anne With an E is Achingly Perfect

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When I heard that Moira Walley-Beckett of Breaking Bad was going to work on an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, I joked that we’d finally see Anne and Diana start a drug ring selling “cherry cordial” on the black market. Since our media is saturated with obnoxiously gritty reboots of beloved tales (think 2010’s Alice in Wonderland), I wasn’t looking forward to what I assumed would be an unnecessary catastrophe.

I was wrong. Anne With an “E” stays true to the spirit of L.M. Montgomery’s original work, while punching up the gritty realism of a story about a moor-less orphan and her resulting eccentricities. This show reads between the lines: we all might think Anne has a charming imagination, until we recognize that she developed this as a probable means of escape. She was grossly mistreated before getting to Green Gables, we forget.

This artistic decision by Walley-Beckett just shows us what Montgomery let her own readers assume. Consider this passage from the book, which I think served to inform the showrunner’s goals: “Marilla guided the sorrel abstractedly while she pondered deeply. Pity was suddenly stirring in her heart for the child. What a starved, unloved life she had had – a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect; for Marilla was shrewd enough to read between the lines of Anne’s history and divine the truth.”

Here’s what this adaptation made me realize: Light isn’t so notable unless we’re aware of the creeping darkness around the edges. The grit only makes the humorous moments more memorable, more earned. Anne’s hopeful outlook is radical considering her upbringing. Far from dragging a beloved heroine through the mud, illuminating the gritty details of Montgomery’s classic allows the show to achieve an emotional impact that resonated with me.

The second thing I realized was that I’d always judged Montgomery’s work by the beloved, saccharine 1985 classic miniseries instead of the other way around.  Most dramatic revisions of Anne of Green Gables focus on the positive, without recognizing what it’s reacting to, or why it’s important.

Anne With an “E” doesn’t shy away from hard questions, and I love it for that. It’s the adaptation I didn’t know I wanted, and it will renew in viewers an appreciation for  the original source material.

 

Writing Stories That Aren’t Boring

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Ready for this? This is what a story needs to keep the reader interested:

1. Main character is in trouble right away, and we care! Oh no! How will this be resolved?

2. Main character tries to fix her situation, but everything she does makes it worse. Oh man!

3. Lowest Low: Everything looks hopeless for the main character.

4. Highest High: The misfortunes that befell the main character have taught her how to personally overcome the opposition.

Since I know this, why is writing a novel so hard? I feel like I’m in a jungle hacking down vines to make a path, and now I’m lost and have to wee and fire ants are swarming at my ankles and I’m crying while chewing on tree bark.

Guess I’ll write a fight scene till I figure it out.