Sunday, December 31, 2017

Favorite Things 2017

As I sit here, waiting for the new year to arrive, I'm thinking about a few of my favorite things of 2017. Here is a smattering, all done off the top of my head.


PODCASTS
Pod of Thunder (KISS podcast)
Fat Man on Batman
Hollywood Babble On
TechnoRetro Dads
70s Trek
The Art of Manliness
I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere
Trailblazers with Walter Isaacson


MOVIES
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Wonder Woman
Guardians 2
Thor: Ragnarok
Spider-Man: Homecoming
The Man Who Invented Christmas
Justice League
Blade runner 2049
IT
(There's probably more, but those are the ones that come to mind.)


TV SHOWS
The Killing (season 1)
Broadchurch (tune in to Do Some Damage on Saturday, 6 Jan, for my full review)
The Flash
Stranger Things 2
Longmire
Bloodline (Season 1 specifically, but 2 and 3 are okay)


BOOKS
Four Must Die by Bradford Scott
Longarm and the Bank Robber's Daughter (James Reasoner)
The Pulp Jungle by Frank Gruber
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
All Systems Red by Martha Wells


ALBUMS
The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell (probably my favorite new album of the year)
La La Land soundtrack
The Last Jedi soundtrack
Christmas in Tahoe by Train (This one took me completely by surprise. My son discovered Train this year so this was a no-brainier. As much as I enjoy Christmas songs with jingle bells and cold-weather themes, this is a great CD for a warm weather Christmas.)


SONGS
Another Day of Sun ( La La Land)
Planetarium (La La Land)
Play That Song by Train
One Night Only by The Struts
Tank! By Seatbelts (from Cowbow Bebop)
Cumberland Gap by Jason Isbell
Drinkin' Problem by Midland


BEERS AND WINES

Bulletproof Picasso Sauvignon blanc (Speaking of Train, this is one of their wines)

This was the year I discovered rose. Hey, it ain't all sweet.

Saint Arnold's (favorite Houston brewer): 5 o'clock pills, Pub crawl, and Summer pills

Real ale brewing company (my favorite new brewer I discovered this year. They are out of Blanco, Texas). They make great beers, but my favorites are Firemans blonde ale, Full moon rise IPA, Devils backbone Belgian – style triple, Lost gold India pale ale, and Rio Blanco pale Ale.

Karbach: Love Street Coelsch style

Buffalo Bayou brewing company: Great White Buffalo Belgian – style withier



Saturday, December 23, 2017

Subverting Expectations aka A Writer's Defense of The Last Jedi

While Star Wars: The Last Jedi might not be a mystery or crime film, there is something we storytellers can learn from the kerfuffle that has arisen since the film’s release last week.

No matter the medium—books, TV, movies, comics—we consumers enjoy stories. And if the stories are serial in nature, many of us enjoy dissecting every detail to discern some greater meaning. One of my favorite things about watching the TV show “Lost” in real time was the water cooler chats the day after each episode aired. Me and my office pals discussed in great length every shred of evidence from the episode, crafting in our minds what a shot of a book might mean. Then, the following week or later in the series, we might get answers. Sometimes those answers matched our expectations; other times the answer were not what we had crafted in our minds.

But we were not the storytellers. We were the consumers. We read or watch what the creators create.
When it comes to genre, certain tropes come along for the ride. If you’re reading an Agatha Christie mystery, you know you’ll get interesting characters, all the clues, all the evidence, and a chance to solve the mystery before or alongside her detective, be it Poirot or Marple. If you are reading an Elmore Leonard novel, you know you’ll get snappy dialogue and criminals who are self-aware. If you’re reading a western, you’re going to get a gunslinger, a corrupt cattle baron, a beautiful woman, and a horse with some character. If you’re watching a rom-com, you know you’ll get the charming leads, their funny fiends, and a situation that’ll put them together.

Creators of these kinds of stories know this and plan accordingly. As a beginning writer, we are all instructed to know the genre in which we’re writing and put in the tropes readers expect. We call them obligatory scenes. Take romance. Here are the must-have scenes in any romance: the leads are introduced separately, the leads meet, the leads solve a problem together, a situation arises in which one lead questions the relationship, the break-up scene, the realization scene, and the getting-back-together scene. It’s a roadmap readers and viewers come to expect, but it’s a gifted creator who can play with those tropes and present them in a fresh way, maybe even subverting audience expectations along the way.

Star Wars is not only a science fiction series (with all of those tropes) but it brings in its own set of tropes unique to the franchise. All those tropes were in the first movie, now forty years old. You know them because you’ve absorbed them for four decades. Farm boy with dreams of adventure has adventure land in his lap. Evil galactic empire after a small band of rebels personified in a princess. Lovable rogues who help the farm boy. Wise mentor who sacrifices himself so farm boy can escape. The plucky band of rebels attacks the “small moon” of the Empire’s base and destroys it. And, taking a cue from the second film, a big revelation that the bad guy is actually the farm boy’s dad.

What?!

Back in the early 80s, we spent three years wondering if Vader spoke the truth. Some of my friends didn’t think it was possible; others thought it was the truth. Either way, when Return of the Jedi debuted, we got our answers directly from George Lucas’s movie. I suspect there was some grousing from a certain sector of fandom, but there it was, out in the open.

Up until 2017, we had seven numbered Star Wars movies and one off-shoot. All but one (Empire) arguably played from the exact playbook. Every movie showed a big thing to destroy, a lightsaber battle, lovable rogues, earnest heroes, bad villains, and robots that made us laugh. Like almost every Perry Mason TV show episode, the Star Wars movies all but lulled us into a routine. As good as Erle Stanley Gardner was as a writer, when you picked up a Perry Mason novel or tuned in to the TV show, you knew exactly what was going to happen. There is a certain comfort in that knowledge. I understand it, but every now and then, isn’t it more interesting to have a creator take a left turn when you were convinced, through repetition and constant reinforcement, the creator was going to take a right turn?

Now comes Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Viewers have had two years to ruminate over all the details of The Force Awakens. I think most of us did exactly the same thing when we saw that 2015 film: put the new characters into the positions of the legacy characters. Rey was the new Luke, Poe was the new Han, Finn was the new Leia (more or less), Snoke was the new Emperor, and Ren was the new Vader. After watching that movie, we were convinced we knew exactly how The Last Jedi was going to play out because we had seen it all before.

But writer/director Rian Johnson did something we writer/creators should have the guts to do every now and then: show us something different.

(Spoilers start here, by the way.)

If Johnson had simply remade The Empire Strikes Back with The Last Jedi, complete with a bunch of shots we fans had been conditioned to expect, most of us might have been happy, or at least comforted. Oh, there’s Luke’s X-Wing under water? Well, then, we expect to see Luke lift the craft out of the water just like he couldn’t do in Empire. Johnson likely considered it and then made a different choice and likely for a specific reason: Luke’s a Jedi Master. Of course he can lift an X-Wing. Why do we need to see it? Much speculation was made about Rey’s parentage. Based on the past movies and the internal Star Wars tropes, she just had to be Luke’s daughter or Kenobi’s granddaughter or something like that. Johnson likely thought long and hard and realized there was a better choice to be made. He made it.

And, lest we forget, Disney signed off on it. Disney: one of the biggest trope machines on the planet, but a company who is willing to change things up every now and then (Wall-E, Up, Inside Out, Ratatouille).

So Star Wars fans are up in arms that the latest movie didn’t go along with the established Star Wars pattern. What did they get instead?

Well, they got a story that did not conform to established patterns. Isn’t that a good thing? Wouldn’t you have liked to have seen Perry Mason lose, at least once? We got a movie from a gifted writer who made the conscious choice to go against expectations and not service every whim of the fans. We got a refreshing film from a director with a certain point of view. Arguably, we got the most unique Star Wars film since Empire.

In short, Rian Johnson subverted viewers’ expectations.

And I loved it.

I have always contended that the best time to be a Star Wars fan was from 1977-1980. You see, up until Vader revealed himself to be Luke’s father, the Star Wars galaxy was wide open with thousands of stories to tell. Afterwards, it’s merely a family saga. The galaxy got very, very small.

Luke Skywalker goes to great lengths to liken the Force as not belonging to just the Jedi but to everyone in the galaxy. I think the negative reactions to the film are largely from a cadre of fans who think Star Wars is theirs and theirs alone. Every movie since the original trilogy has been made for the die-hard Star Wars fan, complete with callbacks that only we’d know.

The Last Jedi, with writer/director Rian Johnson, has gone to great lengths to shed the franchise from many of the shackles it has carried through the decades. It was a brave choice he made to write a movie that went against almost all the audience expectations, but how neat is it to leave the theater not really knowing how Episode IX will play out.

It’s refreshing.

The galaxy is, once again, wide open.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Kind of Person Bill Crider Is

By the time I stuck my toe into the ocean that is blogging, Bill Crider was a veteran sea captain.
His was one of the first names I kept seeing pop up over and over again in comments. Slowly but surely, in reading his comments on other blogs and especially on his own blog, I got a sense of who Bill is and the kinds of stories he enjoys. I can tell you that the day he wrote his first comment on one of my own blogs was a great day. When he namedropped my blog on his “Blog Bytes” column in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I knew I had stepped onto the stage. For so many of us writers who “came of age” in the first decade and a half of the 21st Century, I honestly think it’s a rite of passage for Bill to have read your blog and commented on it.
He has a kind, jovial face that radiates warmth and charm and a personal demeanor to match. Nevertheless, the first time in which I saw him in person, at Houston’s Murder by the Book, I grew nervous. I’m a fanboy in that I love seeing writers in person but, back then, reserved enough not to want to bother them. It was Bill’s easy-going personality that immediately put all those fears to rest. He greeted me like an old friend, smiled, and asked me about my writing. I found it odd that an accomplished writer would care about a newbie, but that’s Bill’s way. He cares about the genre, the writing, and the people behind the writing. At one meeting, right after hello, his first comment was to congratulate me on a new story. He was nice enough to respond to emails when I would send a few cover concepts to him, encouraging me all the way. He made me feel welcome, and I pass it on all the time to every writer I meet.


Monday, December 11, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas (Movie), or So That's What It's Like to Live With Your Imaginary Characters

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a writer wrestling with a story? Well, have I got a movie for you.
When I first learned there was a movie based on the non-fiction book The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford (my review), I wondered if it wasn’t merely a documentary. To some degree, it is, seeing as how the movie is based on the actual events of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol in only six weeks and publish it on his own. But the movie is more. It is a visual representation of how writers create their characters, how said characters can take over an author’s imagination, and end up becoming something more.

The movie opens in October 1843. Dickens’s finances are not what they once were, with Martin Chuzzlewit not performing as well as Oliver Twist. Add to that the author’s blank-page syndrome: he doesn’t know what next to write. When he happens upon the idea of a Christmas story, his publisher scoffs at the idea. The production time alone makes the notion a non-starter to say nothing of the fact that Dickens had not written a single word. Nevertheless, the thirty-one-year-old author charges ahead.

Anyone familiar with the novel or any of the screen adaptations will enjoy witnessing Dickens encountering various bits of dialogue in his everyday life. The famous line about the poor houses is uttered by a rich patron who dislikes Dickens populating his stories with “them,” the poor. He sees a jolly couple dancing in the dirty streets and envisions Fezziwig and his wife. And, at a funeral, he sees a man, played by Christopher Plummer, who becomes the physical embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Seeing Dickens struggle with crafting the name for his main character is fun, particularly when Dickens, as played wonderfully by Dan Stevens, zeroes in on the name itself. “Scrooge.” The look on Stevens’s face is like “Of course that’s the name.” I don’t know about you writers out there, but coming up with a name for main characters can be difficult.

But the movie really takes off when Dickens begins interacting with his creations. Plummer’s Scrooge has multiple dialogues with Dickens, and the two actors play off each other well. Stevens possesses a certain manic quality not present in his role on Downton Abbey. I could easily see him starring in screwball comedies the likes of which that made Cary Grant a star.

As any writer will tell you, when you are deep in a novel, the moments are few when you are not thinking about the story. Sitting in traffic? Check. Shopping at the grocery store? Check. Watching a TV where you’re suppose to care about that story? Check. It happens all the time. So it was utterly charming when the movie portrays Dickens’s characters actually showing up in places he least expected it.

Credit the movie also with some genuine tension. The mere fact there’s a movie devoted to this book’s creation means you know Dickens completed the book. However, the movie effectively showed his struggle with the ending just well enough that you might start to wonder if Boz would get it done.

I’m not enough of a Dickensian to know if the author truly had a different ending to his Carol or not, but the movie plays with that concept. Dickens wondered if someone like Scrooge could really turn around his life in only one night. I’d like to think that almost anyone—be it Scrooge, the Grinch, Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” (and “Scrooges”), or even Nicholas Cage in “Family Man” to name a few—would change.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a charming, magnificent movie about a remarkable author and a timeless story. I can’t help but wonder if this movie will, in the course of time, became a classic.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford (2017)

(In honor of the new movie that is currently showing in theaters and in honor of my birthday  today, I'm posting the following review that first was published in 2012. I've updated the first sentence to account for this being 2017 and not 2012. And. to make matters even more topical, I'm taking the day off today...and seeing the movie!

But in the five years since I wrote this review, I, too, have become like Dickens: a self-published author. The leaps of faith he took are not unlike the ones we independent writers take in 2017. It makes Dickens' accomplishments even more remarkable.)

One hundred and seventy-four years ago this month, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. A few years ago (2008), Les Standiford published The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. Standiford, a novelist and popular historian, fully acknowledges that much of what he has compiled in The Man Who Invented Christmas is available in other works and biographies. The beauty of this little book is the prism with which Standiford examines Dickens. It’s only about the Carol and how Dickens came to write it, the influences, where Dickens was in his life when the inspiration for Scrooge, Marley, and Tiny Tim struck his imagination, the immediate aftermath of the book’s publication, and its influence on western culture.

The book opens on 5 October 1843. Dickens, aged thirty-one, is on a Manchester stage, part of a fundraiser for the Manchester Athenaeum. He is to speak but he is distracted. His current novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, was not finding the dazzling sales figures of earlier novels like The Pickwick Papers or The Old Curiosity Shop. Not a Dickens scholar I, this fact surprised me. I just assumed Dickens’s stardom, once attained, didn’t wane during his lifetime. It was up and down for Dickens and in October 1843, Dickens was down. With sales figures dropping, his own debt rising—including his parents’ debt which he took pains to absolve—and a new child, his fifth, due early in 1844, Dickens needed to do something extraordinary in order to get back on the financial horse.

After he gave his part of the fundraiser, Dickens walked the dark streets of Manchester and the germ of an idea planted itself in his mind. With the memories of a recent trip to a “ragged school”—a school for poor kids—fresh in his mind, Dickens did something fascinating: he examined himself, as an artist, a man, a husband, and found that he could improve his position. According to Standiford, “Perhaps he [Dickens] had let his disappointment with America in particular and with human nature in general overwhelm his powers of storytelling and characterization in his recent work—perhaps he had simply taken it for granted that an adoring public would sit still for whatever he offered it.” The Chuzzlewit sales and themes proved this to be true. He tried to beat his readers over the head with his earnestness and the readers let him know they didn’t like it. He needed a different method to convey what he wanted to convey. And he needed it to be entertaining.

A Christmas Carol was the result. We all know the story so I don’t need to retell it here. But what is utterly compelling when you stop to think about it is that Dickens went through a transformation not unlike Scrooge, just without the ghosts. At a time when he could have moved to Europe, contented himself with travel writing, and cleared his debts, he chose to challenge himself. To do so, he needed to change. So he changed how he approached this book and its publication. I wonder how many of us have the courage to do that in our own lives to say nothing of something as public as a novel.

With numerous quotes from Dickens’ own writings and those of his contemporaries, Standiford shows us how excited Dickens became at his “little Carol,” how it cheered him, made his cry, and, presumably, warmed his heart as the book has done these past 174 years for the rest of us. The haggling, the negotiations, the business of writing, producing, securing the artwork, and all the other minutia needed to publish a book in 1843 is captivating. You realize that, in many ways, it’s the same then as it is now. The most paradoxical thing I learned was Dickens’ decision to publish A Christmas Carol on his own. You what that means, don’t you? A Christmas Carol was a vanity book. A self-published book.

As far as the claim that Dickens “invented” Christmas (Prince Albert also had a hand with his Christmas trees), Standiford goes into some good detail on how the celebration of Christmas had devolved to a holiday that was barely celebrated. He needs to do this and lay out for the reader where Christmas was in 1843 in order for the reader to understand the profound impact the Carol had on society. Christmas, for Dickens had the same enchanting power over him that his story has over us. That’s ironic considering the humiliation of his childhood—of having a father in debtors’ prison and being forced to leave school and work in a factory to help the family—made Christmas for Dickens not the overabundant thing it is today. The season of Christmas “accounts in large part for his development as an artist.” As Dickens himself wrote, “Any iron ring let into stone is the entrance to a cave which only waits for the magician, and the little fire, and the necromancy, that will make the earth shake.” There is a certain magic during this time of year and Dickens captured it between pages. It’s no wonder the story has thrived.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a charming book, uncluttered with footnotes so it’s easy to read. (Standiford cites his sources at the back of the book.) The book contains just over 200 pages so it won’t take you many hours to read it. I recommend it for anyone with a little curiosity about how a great work of literature came about. It’ll remove the gauzy trappings that can sometimes surround a book—you know, the awe we writers and readers impose on great works of literature, how the author must’ve been touched by a literary god and the work just fell from the pen—and reveal a real man who experienced real worries but also created something special by means of his own imagination, sweat, determination, and perseverance. It’s a good lesson for all of us.

For all you writers out there, think about this. Where we you this year on 5 October? Imagine not having a word written in a new work. Imagine, now, getting that idea and you burn the midnight oil—you still have a day job, don’t forget—and finish a manuscript by the end of November and the book you just wrote is published today. Think you could do it?


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@Barrie Summy