Category Archives: Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts
This is the miscellaneous category, covering whatever happens to be prancing about in my mind at the time.
Upon the birth of my third child (and first son), I find myself thinking of this piece today…
Robin Williams once said, “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Much of his work, I suppose, can be viewed in this light – the precious value of being “mad,” by which we might mean “different” or “energetic” or “brilliant.” All of them are words that apply to the great actor, for certain.
In Spielberg’s Hook (an often overlooked and, I feel, under-appreciated movie), I think this quote from Williams is given full attention. Peter Banning – the neurotic, work-obsessed alter ego of the wondrous Peter Pan – is a man devoid of any such spark of anything, least of all madness. We watch him go through his life – a wonderful life, mind you – without joy. He lives in fear of everything: of flying, of failure, of life itself, it seems. Peter Pan has grown up and, as it turns out, being grown…
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Ran into an online conversation the other day discussing the feelings of dread and fear many recall from a variety of children’s movies in the 80s. The assumption was that such dread and fear is no longer in vogue – you couldn’t (or maybe just wouldn’t) make a Black Cauldron or Rats of NIMH today or, if you did, you would do it differently.
Now, in the first place, I can’t say with any authority that this is actually true. Granted, I can’t really think of any “children’s” movies quite as harrowing as the ones I remember as a kid, but they may very well be out there. In the second place, assuming it is true (or that people think it should be), I’d like to take a moment to defend such films.
Fear, Dread, and Horror
For starters, let’s define terms. I think fear, dread, and horror are different things and, while I am definitely advocating for the second of those, I am very much not angling for children to encounter the third. So, to be specific:
- Fear is an immediate emotional response – it’s the jump, the flinch, the nervous jitters. You can get this in any kind of story and its a momentary thing. Hell, it’s essentially the same emotional response generated as you crest the top of a roller coaster.
- Dread is a sense of unease and disquiet. It is a lingering feeling that things are not quite right and that hidden dangers may lurk round corners.
- Horror is the desolation that occurs when hope is extinguished and all that is good seems lost. Like dread, it can linger, but it bears with it not a sense of anticipation but rather a sense of helplessness.
As I hope is clear, both dread and horror involve fear. Fear is the drumroll, the squeal of terror, the crash and bang your heart goes through when it is surprised or frightened. Kids have this sensation often, as the world is large and strange to them, and there is nothing wrong with exposing them to a little bit in their entertainment. Probably the best example of this is the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: she shows up, she cackles, she says “boo,” and then she falls off a cliff. Scary, yeah, but not eliciting much dread and certainly not horror.
Horror, on the other hand, is when the xenomorph pops out of the guy’s chest in Aliens and runs across the room.
Not only is he dead (irreversible), but the thing is still out there, somewhere, on a big dark ship. And there is no help to be found. And they have no weapons. Horror is also the inevitability of death in slasher movies like Friday the 13th or the despair in the face of such monstrous things as the Holocaust or genocide in general. Horror is not for children because they lack the maturity or perspective to understand that what they are being shown is not, in fact, all there is to it. They even have difficulty differentiating between the real and the fictional. Show a kid Event Horizon or (God forbid) IT and, while I’m no child psychologist, I’d say you stand to do actual damage to the poor kid’s psyche.
That brings us to dread. Dread is harder to pin down than horror or fear, I think, because it is not as clearly defined. That is really the point of dread, I think – it is uncertainty, eerie-ness. The dread I retain from Return to Oz is not because it was necessarily scary (though it was), but because it seemed to strange and so alien. I could not understand how the world worked and it was…unsettling. You look at all those heads in cases and have to ask yourself “how are they still alive? What does it mean that they are? How can this be?” The kid watching is engrossed but also freaked out. They are scared, but also fascinated.
The Importance of Dread
There is a long list of movies that made me feel this way as a kid. The Rats of NIMH, Return to Oz, The Black Cauldron, Labyrinth, The Last Unicorn, The Dark Crystal, and a lot more besides. All of these films were eerie and creepy to varying degrees. All of them had parts that frightened me. Nevertheless, I watched all of them constantly.
It should be noted that dread is not a new aspect of children’s stories. Hans Christian Andersen was a master of it, as were the Brothers Grimm and Washington Irving. You can trace that feeling – that unsettling, eerie prickle up the back of your neck – way, waay back to the earliest of folk tales. Of course, go far enough back and there wasn’t really a division between what qualified as “children’s stories” and what was meant for adults – they were just “stories.” The kids crowded around to listen to someone sing the Odyssey as much as anyone else. Our definition of what qualifies as “suitable for children” is a relatively modern invention in a lot of ways, dating back to around the turn of the 19th century, anyway.
But even in our modern conception of childhood, I think dread serves a real and important and enriching purpose for children. We’ve got to remember that children, simply by dint of their inexperience, live in a world full of the
frightening, unsettling, and unexpected. Experiencing dread in a controlled circumstance – as in a movie – gives them a chance to sort through and understand how to cope with this feeling. It instills in them a sense of caution (important) but also a sense of hope (the hero triumphs in the end). Beyond that, these stories are also wonderful fodder for their dreams and imagination. How much of my own imagination was fired by these films that I saw when I was young? A lot, I’d say. The Black Cauldron and the Rankin/Bass Return of the King are probably half the reason I became a fantasy writer.
Now, I am no child psychologist and I’m certainly not advocating forcing your kids to watch a movie if they’re screaming a crying with terror. But, I do think that exposing children to this content is not bad for them – far from it! We live in a frightening world full of mysteries and dangers, and stories like this have a lot to teach kids about how to manage such things.
Or, at least, that’s what I think.
Everybody’s writing process is a little bit different – I want to make that clear at the outset, here. Anybody telling you that you have to write at such-and-such a time or at such-and-such a pace is full of it. I, for instance, roundly reject the notion that you must write every day. Horseshit, I say! I used to try doing it that way, and my productivity was abysmal. Then I stopped worrying about writing every day and started focusing all my writing efforts on particular weeks or months where I would have fewer distractions (the summers, semester breaks, vacations, etc.), and my yearly productivity basically tripled almost overnight. I now write a novel and anywhere from 5-10 short stories a year, and have published *about* a novel and 3-5 short stories a year for the past few years. So, what I’m saying is that my system seems to work.
No matter what your writing process is like, though, I think we can all agree that the primary obstacle to producing those words is the challenge of sticking your butt in a chair and writing them (whenever and however that is done). It’s hard work, writing, though very few people who aren’t writers think about it as such. To them (the “norms,” let’s call them), we are eternal dawdlers and daydreamers, sitting in our comfy little offices and wasting our time telling make-believe stories for short money. “Get a real job,” is the sentiment (even though almost every single writer I know has a “real” job in addition to their other, evidently fake one).
Such people must be met with stiff resistance, friends. Don’t let them get away with such slights. You tell your uncle that you have taken the week off to write and he says “so you’re free for lunch?” The answer is “no, I’m working.” Writing is work. You do it for pay (well, unless you don’t, and don’t intend to, in which case a lot of this doesn’t necessarily apply). There are literally endless distractions and interference that can keep you from writing those words, from earning your (admittedly meager) pay. You must resist them.
For me, the very best tool I have against distraction is routine. During my writing periods, I get up, eat, get the kids to school/daycare, go to my office, and dive in and write for a few hours. I take breaks, usually at the scene breaks in whatever I’m working on. I work until lunch, then after lunch I put in another hour or two, and then, after approximately 5-6 hours of writing in a day, I’m spent and I read or do something else for a while before I pick all the kids up from school again. This is my approximate routine, and it works very well. Your routine may well be vastly different, but I bet, once you get into it, it works similarly as well.
I call this zone – this place where you are set in your routine, churning out the words on a regular basis – “the groove.” It takes me a few days to really get into the groove, but once I’m in it, I do not want to come out again. I resent disruptions to my routine – I don’t want to switch who picks up whom from school with my wife, I don’t want to run errands of any kind, I don’t want to have to deal with things that don’t fit into the groove – because it’s just so damned easy to get knocked out of it.
Once, I was on a deadline and we had scheduled a trip to Hawaii to visit my sister and meet my new niece. This was a 10 day stay in Honolulu with family, on the beach, hiking volcanoes, going surfing.
I was distraught.
I know, I know – what kind of psychopath is upset by a trip to Hawaii?
The writing kind, is what. What if I couldn’t concentrate? What if I couldn’t put my butt in the chair and produce those words? I’d miss my deadline (unacceptable to me). I fully realize that other people don’t understand this. Right now, there’s a significant portion of my reading audience scrunching up their nose and going “seriously? Hawaii? Poor baby.”
But I am being serious. Distractions are the #1 most dangerous thing to a writer, by far. Other than your own personal obsessions, there is almost no reason to sit in front of that computer and infinite reasons not to. Maybe you’re hungry. Maybe you hear the phone ringing. Maybe somebody’s at the door. And on and on and on…
The good news is that I managed to produce plenty when on vacation in Hawaii. How did I do it? Routine! My wife would take the kids out in the mornings to do something fun and I would stay in the little apartment and type away. Then, in the afternoon, I would enjoy Hawaii – the beach, the ocean, the city, and so on. It worked, and if it can work there, it can probably work anywhere.
Get in the groove, people. Fight to stay there. Write those words. Conquer your writing goals!
Hey everybody! I’m not dead!
Sorry I haven’t posted here in two weeks or so, but I’ve been finishing the rough draft of Book #4 in The Saga of the Redeemed. And guess what? I finished! The currently-titled THE FAR FAR BETTER THING is weighing in at about 123,000 words and does, in fact, tell a mostly coherent story. I wrote it in just under 3 months, start to finish. Go me.
But it is by no means really good, yet. I can’t be – it’s a rough draft.
When you start writing and reading writing guides and hearing writers talk, most of them (possibly all of them) say some variation of the same thing:
The real work – the real writing – happens in revision.
When you’re just starting out, this sounds…unlikely. I mean, do you have any idea how much work goes into writing that rough draft? These writers – these so-called professionals – they must just use a different method, right? They must be writing slapdash crappy drafts. My draft will be perfect. My draft will only need a few minor buffs here, a couple little tweaks here. Like Michelangelo, I am merely revealing the work, fully realized, from the block of uncut marble.
To which I say bullshit.
Look, there are always exceptions, I guess. Sometimes a writer does get that hole-in-one, needs very little revision, and it goes off to be an overnight hit. Most of the time? Like, as in 98-99% of the time? Nope. Not how it works.
The fact that many newer writers have a hard time accepting this is, I feel, one of the various pitfalls that can quickly make completing that draft nearly impossible, or at least vastly more difficult. This is because, if you’re expecting your draft to be perfection in one swing, then every time you make a mistake or see an error or realize that you need to go back and change things, you are suddenly paralyzed.
Sayeth the writer: “What? Go back and change it? Well, I have to do that now, otherwise the rest of the draft will make no sense! Egads, I have to start all over!”
This is how many writers end up writing and re-writing and re-re-writing the first chapter of their novel umpteen billion times and never actually finish the damned book. They’re trapped by a never ending cycle of sanding away at what they think will become the statue’s perfect toe. At that rate, Michelangeo wouldn’t have managed to carve squat, let alone David.
To this conundrum, let me give you a mantra – a mantra that I used as recently as yesterday that allowed me to go from zero to complete 123k word draft in about 80 days:
I CAN FIX THAT IN POST!
Say it with me, now:
I CAN FIX THAT IN POST!
As in post-production, as in revision, as in draft number two. Because, if you’re actually going for your best work and/or you actually want to publish this thing, one draft is not gonna cut it. My last book took seven – seven whole drafts. It happens.
Now, yeah, you ought to proceed with some kind of plan and hopefully you don’t need more than two or three drafts of the book before it is in working shape, but you can’t go through that rough draft rewriting every damned chapter and expect to finish it in any kind of timely fashion (not that it’s a race, but still). Mistakes happen, things you overlooked come up, and, yeah, a lot of times you get a better idea halfway through and wish you had incorporated that earlier. When such problems arise, laugh, repeat your mantra, and keep writing.
The wonderful thing about drafts is that nobody else has to read them. They don’t actually need to make sense to anybody other than yourself! Make notes in the margin! Insert little brackets with things like [rename this character later] or [insert flashy chase scene here]. Forgive yourself for writing crappy passages and move on.
Don’t worry – you are going to go back and fix it all, I promise – but for now, the most important thing you need to remember is that you can’t actually fix the book until you have a book. One chapter? Six? 35K of a Nanowrimo entry? Not a book. You need a complete story (or nearly so), no matter how flawed, before you can fashion a good story.
Finish the book first. Make it a good book later.
Writing a novel is a balancing act. You’ve got to balance exposition with action, description with dialogue, you’ve got to balance multiple character arcs and the needs of the external conflicts and the internal conflicts and lots of other stuff, too. Go too far in one direction and you wind up with a book that is either boring or one that is too frenetic to follow. It will come as no surprise then if I tell you that doing this well is hard, hard work.
When I write a novel (and, I would guess, when a lot of people write novels) there are certain scenes, sequences, or sometimes even specific lines that I know I want to show up in the book. They are the tent-pole scenes – the ones that hold up the rest of the story. The pivot points of tension and reward, of strike and impact (to borrow a phrase from this excellent craft thread from @dongwon) circle around those scenes.
Now, really intense reads – the books that really have you turning pages, that have you staying up late to finish them – have the best tent-pole scenes. They are constantly drawing you from crisis to crisis, giving you a helpless sense of being drawn along through events. A book, though, can’t be nothing but those scenes – it’s impossible. You can’t have nothing but car chase, because very quickly the chase scenes stop mattering (for reference, watch the second Matrix film). You need to build tension and you need to set the stage for the chase. The more understood the stakes are, the more powerful the payoff will be.
The trouble though, is how much buildup do you need? When I’m writing the first draft of a novel (as I am now), I get bogged down sometimes in preparing for the big scene to happen. I know it needs a stable platform to stand, so I just keep shoring up my foundations, over and over and over, until its clear I’m wasting time. In revision, I trim a lot of this buildup out, keeping the bare essentials – balancing set-up and payoff, essentially. This is a challenging process because it is difficult for the author (who has had this pivotal scene in their head for possibly years) to know if the scene is landing for a stranger.
Often I feel I’ve missed the mark – I get feedback from readers and editors who say things like “why is this happening” and I’m like “DUH, CAN’T YOU READ MY MIND?” Naturally, I’ve got to go back then and fill in blanks that I didn’t know were there. This sometimes feels frustrating – I feel like I’m back where I started, wasting everyone’s time. Let’s be honest, if it were possible, we’d like to write nothing but chase scenes and pivotal battles and emotionally wrenching death scenes and stuff. “All Killer and No Filler” as they say.
You can point to various thrillers and action-packed reads and say “see! They did it!” What isn’t commonly realized, though, is that the “filler” – the set-up, the build – is still there. It’s just done so elegantly that you don’t notice. They have just enough to make the action land, but not so much that you get bored waiting. In other words, they balance it perfectly.
I can’t say I quite do this to my satisfaction, yet. But I’m working on it.
Okay, so this is a partial writing update of sorts: I am currently buried in novel projects. On the one hand, Book 4 of the Saga of the Redeemed (which needs to be turned in to my editor by January) is perhaps 1/3 of the way through the first draft. I need to finish this draft by late August or I won’t have time to revise. That’s something of a tight deadline for me at the best of times.
Additionally I just received back Book 3 of the Saga of the Redeemed from my editor and I need to have all the edits done on that by July 12th. I bashed my face against this book so many times I’m still recovering from the scars, and yet there are more substantive edits I need to make and I’m literally driving myself crazy in an attempt to solve them.
This leaves me in the unenviable position of trying to both write a novel and edit a novel at the same time on the same days (since I can’t afford to take a break from writing book 4, but I also have to edit book 3 pretty quickly). I think a fair approximation of this feeling would be if your brain were both on fire and freezing at the same time. Sure, you can cool yourself off, but then the cold gets you OR you can warm yourself up but then the fire becomes unbearable.
The crazy thing is, though, that this is what I signed up for. Many authors, if they’re working at a good pace, have to deal with overlapping projects on short deadlines. It’s part of the deal – it’s another gate to pass through, another notch in your axe. You know, assuming you can do it.
And I can do it. It’s just fiercely difficult and very stressful and I spend a lot of time being short of breath and faintly sick to my stomach as I think about what I have to do and how quickly. I’m sure many of you understand what that’s like.
So, I am leaving you all (and myself) with this for inspiration:
Thank you all for allowing me this brief moment of procrastination. Now, back into the word mines with me.
As my summer reading-for-pleasure run continues, I’m in the midst of Cline’s Ready Player One. I’m enjoying it – certainly more than my last half dozen reads or so – and this bodes well. There is, however, one (fairly large) aspect of the book that I’m not enjoying half as much as I feel I should, and I kinda want to talk about that. It has to do with the 1980s.
Now, I’m a bit younger than Cline, but not by a lot. I remember the 1980s well – they were my childhood. So far, I’m picking up just about every 1980s reference the book is laying down (which is a LOT) with the possible exception of Zork, which was a bit before my time. I’m getting the impression (and have picked up from others) that this incessant river of 80s nostalgia is part of the book’s appeal. But, like, it isn’t really doing anything for me. I mean, I nod my head every so often and think to myself “oh, right – WarGames. I should watch that again,” but I do not, myself, feel anything upon the reference to WarGames. Reciting dialogue from the movie does not have the same feel or magic as actually watching the movie.
And this is where I think the book is failing to grab me: I love the 1980s, but I don’t especially love a non-stop discussion about how much I love the 1980s. That kind of nostalgia-based story doesn’t grab me, because it does not, in and of itself, actually do anything but reference the existence of some other story I liked. It’s like watching a clip show of your favorite show in lieu of an entirely new episode.
Now, to its credit, Ready Player One does have its own story and its own characters and plot and so on, and the aspects of the book I’m really enjoying are entirely in those parts. The problem develops when we have a five paragraph explanation of a movie I’ve seen dozens of times and then I have to be led through it all again, scene by scene. Cline does his best to get through these things with efficiency, but the fact is that I’m not so much getting a new story as a re-shoot of a classic thing I’ve known since childhood. I don’t really want to play through the Tomb of Terror again, since I’ve already done that before.
What I’d really prefer is a story that takes the elements of the movies and stories common to the 1980s that I enjoy and see those elements used to make a new story in the same loose genre. Ready Player One is, on some level, telling a “1980s” story in a number of ways (the love interest, the down-on-his-luck kid, the evil rich guys, etc.), but it isn’t doing it as well as I feel Stranger Things does, and that’s because too much of Ready Player One expects me to cheer when they reference Joust or Back to the Future without actually replicating the emotional content or importance of either of those properties.
Now, in Stranger Things, I felt real, actual nostalgia. The film looks, feels, and sounds like the movies and books I watched and read as a kid. However, it does all of this without constantly bashing us over the head with “ain’t the 80s cool” stuff. Yes, yes, many of the camera shots are direct homages to Spielberg and Zemekis and others. Yes, a lot of the elements are things we’ve seen in Stephen King novels or Richard Donner films. However, the show is not actually about any of those things. They are incidental – they’re establishing a mood, but the mood is not the main course. Even if you don’t pick up any of those references, the story is, in and of itself, is emotionally compelling and interesting. This is in large part because it is telling the kind of story that is emotionally compelling in a similar way to its forebears. It is not, however, a simple retelling of any one story, nor is it a ripoff or shallow imitation. It is a new, legitimate entry into a genre of film that has been somehow forgotten.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said about Ready Player One. If you don’t get any of the references, a significant aspect of the plot and action is going to be lost on you. Yes, Cline does a pretty good job of trying to get you up to speed, but if there is no actual preexisting emotional attachment to the things referenced, the book isn’t going to work half as well as it should.
Here’s another way to look at it: we are currently as far away from the 1980s as the 1980s were from the 1950s. So, let me ask you this question: does Back to the Future still hold together as an interesting, emotionally compelling film even if you don’t know jack about the 1950s? Of course it does! Because, even if you don’t get the “Marvin Berry” joke, more or less everything of significant import in that film is relatable to anybody. Now, if, on the other hand, the movie asked us to follow along as Marty went through an incessant primer on 1950s scifi from his father, all the way to the point where he began summarizing Asimov’s Foundation and Marty started quoting passages, you’d lose the audience. Because at that point you are more interested in making references than you are in telling your own story, and story always has to come first.
I realize that I’m coming down a bit hard on Cline here, and I don’t really mean to say that Ready Player One isn’t a good book – as mentioned, I’m enjoying it a good deal – but I think the things it does best are not the things everybody seems to pay attention to and the things it struggles the most with are the things everybody assumes are the draw.
Part of the whole point I (and many others) read science fiction and fantasy is that we really love going to new, alien worlds and living there for a while. Exotic landscapes and bizarre technology and magic are part of that, and if you read in these genres, you get pretty good at acclimating yourself to weird new worlds. There are, however, limits to how far we are willing to go. Stuff can get too weird.
Case in point, when you get to the last two books of the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, shit goes seriously sideways. You’ve got aliens now, and Severian is traveling through space/time, and becomes Archon (or Emperor…or something) based on no clear reason and the whole of everything you’ve read previously becomes dreamlike and vague. To be honest, I have trouble even remembering what happens in the end of that book thanks to how bizarre it is.
Even when the storytelling is trying to be concrete, however, there are ways a world can knock you out of the immersion just by how alien they want their world to be. I have a lot of trouble, for instance, getting acclimated into worlds where there is no common units of measurement or time. Bad enough I need to balance a dozen different alien species and understand how psychic symbiotes work, but now I also need to know how long a “krandak” is?
Now, I totally realize that in far-future scifi and secondary world fantasy there is no good reason for people to measure things in miles/kilometers, do things on “Thursday,” and drink tea. Obviously, since these worlds are so far removed from our own, there would be very few common threads. However as authors we also need to remember that this is a story intended to be read and understood by the people of Earth. If you’re going to be writing the book in an Earth-language anyway, you can take a bit more translator’s license and talk about “inches” and “noon.”
There is a balance here to be struck, of course. The author wants to create a new and unique world and they want it to feel weird and alien at first. They still want you to be able to connect and understand what’s going on, though. If they go along and eliminate every single reference to our 24 hour day, we are going to have a lot of issues understanding what day and night are and what they signify (or, at least not without a lot of work on the part of the author). If this is central to the plot and to the concept the book is trying to explore, then this is fine. But if it’s incidental – if it doesn’t really matter – you should probably leave well enough alone and let the people live in a world with grass and trees and call them such. I’d even argue that leaving a few things of common reference makes the rest of the world seem more real and even more exotic, since you have something to compare it to.
I’ve been struggling with this kind of world-building myself for a little while now. On the one hand, I’ve created a scifi setting in which there are no humans (or even descendants thereof). Everything is very weird in a lot of important ways. As a compromise, I’ve decided that this alien culture is going to use hours, minutes, seconds, and the metric system. Should they? Well, no, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be able to describe anything to anybody if I don’t. On the other hand, I’ve got a fantasy setting that is an ancient world (say, ~800-500 BCE) in which there is no sun or moon. There are things that give light up there, yeah, but they aren’t the sun or the moon. This is proving to be wildly difficult to explain in any kind of elegant way, since nobody in the world itself would find this weird and yet everybody reading would find it fantastically alien. My solution (thus far) is to not bother explaining it unless I absolutely have to. But, you know, pretty soon I’ll have to. So, by way of balance, I’m doing my absolute best to make sure a lot of the other things the characters wear, say, and do are recognizable and clear. There’s only so much weirdness the reader can take, after all.
If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.
I confess I don’t know much what to make of Kurt Vonnegut. I first picked up a novel of his – Slaughterhouse Five – in high school. I didn’t get very far in it, mostly because I couldn’t quite get a fix on what I was supposed to think about what was going on. It all seemed a jumble to me, and weirdly empty of…of something. I read Cat’s Cradle in college and felt much the same way. “What the hell is with this guy?” I thought. I was surrounded by people who worshiped him – said he was funny, poignant, the best American author of the modern era. I just didn’t get it.
Fast-foward to this past week, where I finally sat myself down and read Slaughterhouse Five all the way through. It is a brilliant work, no doubt – age and experience and the state of being a writer has taught me to notice good fiction even if I don’t care for it – but I still don’t know quite what to make of it all. I did not dislike the book, but I also cannot say with any truth that I liked it. I am left in a kind of artistic limbo.
The word that most strikes me when I read Vonnegut is “empty.” Not that nothing happens, but that no motives, no reasons are allowed to attach to the events. People just are the way they are. Things happen because they do. So it goes.
This is a derivation of postmodern thought, clearly. Vonnegut is quite adept at pointing out the absurdity of the human condition, and expounding upon how that absurdity is compounded by the human race’s fervent desire to prove that it isn’t absurd at all, but instead invested with deep meaning. He is by no means the only author to do this, nor do I dislike those other authors necessarily, so it isn’t Vonnegut’s philosophical grounding that alienates me from his work. Indeed, I find it really fascinating how he can be so aggressively post-modern without being bitter or angry or horrified.
But then, part of me I guess wants him to be bitter and angry and horrified. I don’t, in the end, find his dark brand of humor funny because I guess I care too much to laugh. I find myself flailing around in his books for something to hold on to and it just isn’t there. There’s nothing – it’s all absurd, it’s all nonsense. And there’s Vonnegut, evidently kicking back and relaxing despite all this. Just shrugging, saying “So it goes,” as though the tragedies he just described don’t matter.
And I guess he’s right – they don’t, not in any cosmic sense – but to me, I feel they ought to. Each time a bomb goes off because some ridiculous asshole decides to blow himself up for his imaginary, absurd vision of the divine (or his bitter hatred of his mother or because he’s a closeted homosexual and can’t handle it or because of no reason at all), I am of two minds. The first is horrified, angry, and craving justice. My heart weeps for the victims – innocent girls, this time – and I want very much to do something. But then there’s that second mind, that dark, postmodern one: 22 dead people, in the end, don’t really matter much. If 120,000 people could die on one day in Dresden and the world kept turning, no amount of stupid little kitchen-made bombs made by bitter, angry men will make much difference. In the Second World War an average of about 27,000 people died each day. And yet the world is still here, making the same damned mistakes, giving power to the same damned monsters, and spouting the same damned bullshit. Same with any other war. We don’t learn.
I gotta say, I hate the part of my brain that thinks this way. It’s defeatist, even if it does seem to be right. And maybe that’s my problem with Vonnegut, too – he might be right, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
In editing my latest manuscript, my agent, though overall very positive about the book, had this to say (I will paraphrase):
This book is fun, but perhaps too much fun. You are telling jokes at the expense of plot – cut some of it back. Don’t go for the cheap line.
Now, first off, if you’ve read any of the Saga of the Redeemed, you know that I enjoy banter. It works its way into a lot of my writing, honestly. I want the reader to have fun. I want them to laugh, I want them to be on the edge of their seat, I want them to cry sometimes – I want the entire emotional smorgasbord to be in there.
But mostly I want them to laugh.
This is one of the reasons I loved Guardians of the Galaxy and, indeed, why I think the MCU has been beating the pants off of the rather wretched DC Universe on the big screen of late. The Marvel movies are fun, even the deadly serious ones. There’s Cap, getting his face punched in, and he just rolls his shoulders, puts up his dukes, and say “I can do this all day.” There’s Loki, presiding over the destruction of New York, and in comes Hulk: “Puny god.”
Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 do this to a level far, far greater than their fellows, though. I loved it in Guardians 1, but in 2, seeing it as I did quick on the heels of my agent’s commentary, made me wonder: do we need all these quips? All this banter? Like (mild spoilers) when Yondu comes down saying “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!” it was funny, yeah. But was it needed?
How much is too much?
Like most things in writing, I think there aren’t precisely hard and fast rules so much as a kind of spectrum we’re seeking to describe. On the one hand is a story where a bunch of adventurers sit in space-dock (or what have you) and spend the entire time playing practical jokes on each other. Long on fun, and maybe even on character, but nothing really happens – no plot. At the other end, we’ve got a joyless, tightly-paced thrill ride of nothing but stern looks and, perhaps, the occasional grimace or maniacal laugh (some of the Bourne movies come to mind). You read/watch those and you want to yell “loosen up, you clowns!”
Finding precisely where the line is requires a keen understanding, I think, of how your book is coming across to your target audience. This is famously difficult to determine, of course, since how an author views his or her own work and how the audience encounters it are often totally different things. What you find funny falls flat with them, and what they latch on to are things you never imagined being important. This is why writing is as much an art form as it is a craft – we are assembling something in a black box of sorts, and while we have a good idea of what’s going to come out the other end and present itself to readers, we can never been 100% sure.
In the end, I think my agent is right about that last book. Perhaps a bit too much banter, perhaps a bit too much going for the cheap joke. I took out a lot of the extraneous stuff and left in the things that built character or illuminated personal conflict. Looking back on it, as much as I enjoyed GotG 2, I think they probably could have done the same and wound up with a movie that was less of a mess. I mean, again, I liked it, but a little too much of that movie wasn’t so much plot, as it was this: