Monday, May 24, 2010

"Lost" and Trust in Storytelling

I can hear the chorus: "All right, enough already!"

But here's yet another commentary on the series finale of that crazy, mind-bending television series, "Lost".

If you've never followed the series, nothing I can outline here can clarify the storyline in a succinct fashion. If you're already a fan, there's no need to rehash the series.

Shortly after "Lost" first hit the airwaves, I was at a writers conference and overheard a clutch of writers debating the series. They were gathered in an alcove, but the conversation was loud enough that most of us standing in the noisy hotel lobby could follow the debate with ease. One woman repeated, "They're gonna write themselves into a corner! I tell you, there's no way they can untangle it!"

I laughed to myself, and figured I was hearing the voice of someone who had never read fantasy or science fiction, or she just couldn't let a story unfold without knowing all the answers up front.

Turns out, I was the naive one and she the sage.

For the first couple of seasons, I was an avid viewer then lost interest for the next two seasons, only catching an episode here or there, but returning at the end of Season 4 and hanging around until the end. I was re-hooked, you might say, but was waiting for the finale before deciding whether or not to add the series to my DVD library. After all, an excellent last chapter can mend a lot of ills in the preceding story.

The end matters. But the writers and producers didn't bring it home. They didn't fulfill the promises made by all the plot threads and secrets, and therefore they "lost" my trust as storytellers.

And then there were the last scenes, where they presented a mishmash of religious symbols -- for intance, that ridiculous stained-glass window that someone, I'm sure, will applaud as being ecumenical. That amalgam of religions was weak, even offensive. The creative team should have stuck with a more science-related ending.

Until the final season, the story seemed pointed toward the genre of "hard science fiction" with a leavening addition of a little fantasy, but the final season tipped completely over into fantasy. Remember how a clanking chain sound or growling would signal the imminent arrival of the black smoke? There was a definite machine-like sound. Then a couple of characters confronted the smoke, and it reacted with a seeming intelligence of its own. Were we misled from the beginning, or was the smoke's "intelligence" an accident of storytelling that was later used in the mythology presented in the final season?

Whatever the answer, I can't help but think that the creative team should have steered clear of the soft, faux spirituality, and done the difficult work of writing an ending that was hard science fiction and truer to most of the extant material. By closing the story as they did, they essentially negated all the story that came before.

They made all the audience's investment in the story pointless. In essence, they didn't keep their promise(s). They didn't play fair.

It's probably needless to say, but I will not be adding "Lost" to my ever-growing DVD library.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Monday on a Friday

Friday at the Club was -- not dull.

Almost immediately after children and teenagers started arriving after school, I dealt with several disciplinary problems, one right after the other, and narrowly averted a momma fight in my office. For the uninitiated, a "momma fight" occurs when two mothers let their mouths precede their minds, and say things to one another's children -- or to each other -- that usually have no business being said.

Today, the unfortunate remark in question: "Is that the other little worm who hit my daughter?"


And the mother of the "little worm" is convinced the staff treat her children differently than everyone else, and that's why they're so angry all the time.

Yeah. That's it.

She doesn't seem to consider the alternative: they're treated differently because they're so angry all the time, and that anger leads to foolish actions that lead to consequences. Besides anger, there's a deep vein of disrespect toward authority.

There was a time, many years ago, when I would have tried to play therapist and resolve the problems. Well, I have a much thicker skin now, and a crustier attitude, and I think my "just not interested in your crap" demeanor went a long way toward quelling their disturbances today. They can get therapy on their own dime.

Which makes me realize I'm more like a couple of my fictional characters than I previously realized.

We writers don't often like to admit it, but every character -- even the nastiest ones, the craziest ones -- are pieces of ourselves. In my case, there are a couple tough-minded individuals I wish I could be more like than I am in real life. But, as I continue to write them, maybe some of those fictions are becoming truths.

That's not so bad. Not bad at all.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

By Darkness Hid - Day 3

This marks the final day of the CSFF Blog Tour for By Darkness Hid, first book in the Blood of Kings series by Jill Williamson.

Usually, funky names intrigue me. There are a few of them in my own writing. They can make characters distinct from one another, add interest, give clues to cultural or language differences, and hint at the core personality of characters. The protagonist's name in By Darkness Hid is a prime example: "Achan", the various interpretations of which involve "trouble" -- and the main character does indeed encounter trouble. However, some of the character and place names in the novel felt awkward, as there was almost too much effort to make the world feel real.

But, as long-time readers of this blog know, I do love maps, and there's a nifty one at the front of the book.

Because he's the hero, I knew I was supposed to be interested in what happens to Achan, but -- to be honest -- I really didn't care much at the beginning. For one thing, his patient submission to Poril's beatings. I didn't buy it. I've been whupped with everything from Momma's hand to Daddy's belt to a willow switch I had to cut myself, and there wasn't any quiet submission about any of it. I anticipated the pain -- that's almost worse than the actual pain -- and had a way of twisting out of the path of whatever was aimed at my backside. Unfortunately, that skill only made my parents angrier, so maybe that wasn't such a good plan.

The early scene where Sir Gavin gives Achan his first lesson in sword fighting is well done, the characters speak with confidence, and the writing seems to even out a bit. It's the first place in the book that feels real, and it's where I began to be interested.

Although Williamson pointed out in a comment on my Day 1 post that Marcher Lord Press doesn't publish young adult fiction, it fits nicely into that category. In earlier blog posts, I listed some of my favorite childhood authors, and described the vagaries of imagination. There are some names missing from that list of authors -- Lloyd Alexander, for example. I was first introduced to his work in the Prydain Chronicles, and the stories so captured my attention that I didn't notice their spare style until I re-visited them as an adult. The Chronicles are classic children's literature that many a grown-up still reads with delight.

As a young reader, I forgave authors much, especially if I liked the stories they were telling. However, as I grew up and pursued my own writing, I started looking critically at all work -- mine and theirs -- and sometimes it's difficult to turn off that editor. I realize an author has done his or her job when I make it all the way through a book without thinking about its construction, or how a paragraph could have been structured differently, or keeping a tally of all the unnecessary sentences.

Or unintentionally comical ones, such as the second sentence of By Darkness Hid:
The morning cold sent shivers through his threadbare orange tunic.
His tunic shivered?

Yeah, we all know what the author meant, but that's not what she wrote.

As I said before, it's hard sometimes for the editor to turn off and allow the reader to just enjoy.

By not being 100% enthusiastic, I've probably committed sacrilege this go-'round. However, I also know that my own writing doesn't appeal to a broad spectrum, and I've sat through some unexpected and harsh criticisms of what I considered my best work. It happens. But we should all be free to like what we like, to write what we write, to be allowed to offer an opposing opinion.

That doesn't mean I didn't like the book as a whole. By Darkness Hid is an award-winning novel, and has opened doors for Williamson to teach creative writing to kids, and that's awesome. Any chance to get kids interested in literature, literacy, and creativity is an opportunity not to be missed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

By Darkness Hid - Day 2

It's been a crazy couple of days, and I'm late with the second day's posting in this month's CSFF Blog Tour, featuring the first book in Jill Williamson's Blood of Kings series, By Darkness Hid.

As stated in yesterday's post, if I'd met this book when I was a kid, I'd be all over it and probably clamoring for more. But, as an adult, I wasn't drawn into the story in quite the same way as I might have been 25 years ago.

That could be the result of many factors: receiving a copy of the book so late, exhaustion, workload, preparations to travel out of state. Then there's the fact that I'd just finished reading an awesome piece of science fiction I'd avoided for years. That story is still resonating, and -- sad to say -- coloring all the other fiction I've encountered since.

Yeah, I know, each book should be judged on its own merit. And By Darkness Hid did become more interesting as I read. I especially liked the scenes with Achan and Sir Gavin.

"Bloodvoicing" is a cool term, by the way. And I liked that strays are recognizable by their animal surnames.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

By Darkness Hid - Day 1

This month's Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour features the first in the YA fantasy series, Blood of Kings, by Jill Williamson.

If I'd met By Darkness Hid when I was twelve, I'd be totally into it. Back then, my own writing abilities were limited -- I hadn't found my way yet, and was always trying to copy someone else -- but I was already a master at being totally absorbed in fantastical tales. If this story were around when I was twelve, I'd be fighting off the bullies right along with Achan, and be curious about the strange names, the goo that Achan's forced to drink, the religion or the ruling class, or why Sir Gavin wants a stray to become his squire.

This is an abbreviated post, but I'll have more to say about the book in the next couple of days. Meantime, check out these stops on the tour:

Brandon Barr
Keanan Brand
Gina Burgess
Beckie Burnham
Melissa Carswell
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
R. L. Copple
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
Emmalyn Edwards
April Erwin
Sarah Flanagan
Andrea Graham
Tori Greene
Ryan Heart
Joleen Howell
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Dawn King
Rebecca LuElla Miller
New Authors Fellowship
John W. Otte
Crista Richey
Chawna Schroeder
Andrea Schultz
James Somers
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
Phyllis Wheeler
KM Wilsher

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sometimes There Are No Words

Ever have days like this?

This is my friend's nephew, a camera ham who was overwhelmed by the attention or all the wedding activities this past weekend. I think he just wasn't able to find the words.

Which is my dilemma. Literally. I'm trying to reconstruct lost scenes for the dark fantasy novel, and the next episode of Thieves' Honor is undergoing yet another dissection.

Yeah, Ethan, sometimes I want to just throw my arms over my head and have a meltdown.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Get It While It Lasts

Shortly after midnight on Monday morning, I edited the last story in the acceptance stack at Fear and Trembling, and it's a good'un.

The May 2010 issue of Fear and Trembling marks the final chapter in the short, dark, and literate life of a Christian horror magazine.

Check it out before it's gone for good. There are a few more pieces to publish this month before F&T closes its doors, but there is also a deep archive to be mined -- but only for a short time.

For our long-time readers, this is your last chance to re-visit your favorite stories and poems.

For our new readers, sorry we can't stick around.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Graveyard Tales

"Tales of the Crypt" is an annual event in Fort Smith, Arkansas, when local actors portray a few of the individuals interred in Oak Cemetery. There is a lot of history in the Fort Smith area, from Indian conflicts to "Hangin' Judge" Isaac C. Parker to various war heroes and Old West events, natural disasters and fires, famous visitors and outlaws.

This year's "Tales" tour was held a couple weekends ago on a windy but sunny afternoon, and I snapped a few shots. Unfortunately, as I tried to avoid obstructions, other visitors' heads or hands in the shots, and obvious anachronisms, many of the photos are less than ideal. On the whole, the actors were excellent, and many of them injected humor into the history.

Harold Trisler as James Richardson (1849-1886)
US Deputy Marshal killed in the line of duty

Mike Richardson as S.A. Doran (1840-1886)
gambler shot on Garrison Avenue, confessed to 9 murders before he died

Susan Trisler as Sarah Jane Parke (1836-1918)
Confederate spy

Barbara Chatham as Mary Ingraham (1843-1929)
wife of Dr. Ingraham and daughter of John Arbuckle

Cliff Scott as August Krone (1859-1930)
respected businessman whose family provided fine tobacco products

Claude Legris as Ralph Howard (1878-1931)
policeman who died as a result of wounds received in a shootout in 1931

Mary Beth Kropovic as Nancy Wheeler (1810-1852)
wife of John Wheeler, editor of the first Fort Smith newspaper
sister of E.C. Bouidnot, Sr., and Stand Watie

unknown actor tells about Alfred Reynolds (1860-?)
personal bodyguard of General Bonneville

Reginald Moore as George Winston (1841-1919)
former slave who became bailiff for Judge Isaac C. Parker

Ethan Millard as Robert Kuhn (1885-1916)
fireman who died in the line of duty

As far as I know, Oak's the only site, but there are many other cemeteries in the city, including a National Cemetery. It's a huge task to research all the histories, but I'd like to know about other folks buried in the area. The stories I heard this year were inspiring and interesting. They're definitely rich in material, not only for biographers but also for curious fiction writers.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

An Embarrassment of Fiction

The expression "too many irons in the fire" might be overused to the point of blandness, but it's accurate. I tend toward long-term projects — novels — which means I don't get the chance to celebrate "the end" as often as I'd like.

Right now, I have several novels in some stage of progress. One is hard to classify, I've never written anything like it before, and it's gonna be controversial, but my father is demanding I hurry up and finish it. I want to oblige him — hey, I want to know how the story ends, too! — but there are other languishing projects, including one I'm writing for my eldest niece. She's probably given up on me, or figures she'll be reading the story to her own children by the time it's finished.

The story began a couple years ago when I was battling pneumonia and couldn't do much but lie there and think between bouts of sleeping or coughing. Tonight, as I was looking around for an imagination jump-start before beginning work on another manuscript, I re-read some of the earlier paragraphs of "Jamie's book", and concluded that a passage I'd thought boring was actually 1) full of necessary details, and 2) a classic cliffhanger. I needed that reminder as I set to work on the SF serial. (photo right, Thieves' Honor as of April 2010)

Sometimes a writer's best encouragement or inspiration comes from reminding oneself of all the words already written — and that some of those words are actually worth reading. "Hey, I did it once. I can do it again." Writing is one of those professions that often requires a practitioner to go back to the beginning before being able to progress to the end.