Ask a Writer #3

I apologize for the delay, but better late than never, right? Welcome back to my Ask a Writer blog segment! Today I’ve got a double question coming at me from a long-time Twitter friend of mine, Bianca, who asks:

@Biancas_always_: Do you ever worry that the tone or plot line in current books you are reading sway or disfigure your WIP? Also I genuinely want to know how is Wattpad? Do you recommend it?

I’m happy to answer both of these questions! I’ll do them in order, starting with the first about how other media I’m consuming might affect a work in progress. The short answer is yes, I worry about it all the time, and sometimes with good reason. If you follow me on Twitter you may have read this story before when I was asked at one point about my most embarrassing writing moment, but if you didn’t, this is for you.

I have a photographic memory. I see words, scenes, and dialogue in my head all the time, sometimes original and sometimes inspired from many different sources, from books to movies to TV shows or even song lines. They stick in my head and I can recall, with scary accuracy, exactly where they came from and the other content surrounding them. There are whole movies I could quote at you line for line, I kid you not, just because my memory of them is that good. I don’t mean to brag: it’s just true. And sometimes, it can be a problem. For example, when I was first beginning to work on Camp Ferguson in college, one of my friends was at the same time producing a comedy web series that I loved to watch. Months later, when I got to a certain chapter in the draft, I ended up drawing on an episode from that series that had a similar plot to the chapter and rewrote, word for word almost, the dialogue and jokes from that episode, without even realizing I was doing it. Later on, said friend was beta-reading my draft when he noticed the similarity and rightly called me out on it. I explained that it wasn’t plagiarism and had just been an innocent mistake, but I was still very upset about what happened and felt like my artistic integrity had been tarnished.

That’s just the most glaring example. I readily admit to using books, TV episodes, and films as “touchstones” for my work (I’ve talked about this before in other blog posts) and I’m often influenced in the direction of some chapter or other or development in a character by what I’ve seen in material elsewhere. I worry that a joke I’m borrowing or reworking for a particular scene in my own book will be recognized and criticized later on down the line. I mean, come on: my current WIP is called Jack Ferguson Strikes Back. I’ll give you three guesses where that inspiration came from, and the first two don’t count. For the Camp Ferguson series, these touchstone works include mostly sitcoms with dysfunctional ensemble casts, like SeinfeldArrested DevelopmentIt’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Crazy Ones, and MASH, just to name a few. I’ve copped a plot point here, a joke there, and maybe a running gag that I want to modify and use so many times I can’t even count.

I hate to use the whole “there’s no such thing as an original idea anymore” defense for what I do, but I really do think it applies here. It’s hard work trying to be funny all the time in writing, especially with original content, and there’s a lot you can do on TV that you can’t do in a book because all the visual humor doesn’t translate well to the written page. But I think this is where my main point comes in: you are not the creator of these other works. The way you look at your writing, at the world, and the creation of a narrative is inherently different, making your product inherently different, even if it’s just by being set in a different context or situation. You also have to remember that we as writers are our own harshest critics, and it’s true of other writers reading your work as well. People like me who have no life and stuff their brains with pop culture knowledge all the time may call you out for using a joke or plot line that’s even remotely similar to something they’ve seen before, but for the vast majority of readers, they’re probably not going to look hard enough at what you wrote to make those kinds of connections, unless you really want them to. They’re going to take your story for what it is: its own world with its own unique spin on things and events and characters, even if it’s similar to something they may have seen before.

Spinning old stories in a new way is what a great deal of writers do, and there’s nothing wrong with that in my opinion. Especially in today’s internet-obsessed society, if you can think of it, chances are someone else has already done it. But they’re not you. They’re not going to think of it, or take a joke, or see a character the same way as you do, and the inspiration that comes out of it will therefore be totally and completely your own. So I would argue that instead of swaying or disfiguring, the other stories I consume can sometimes give me fresh new ideas to adapt into my own writing. And since I’m always encountering new things like this, I find I’m constantly being inspired to push the envelope of what I was comfortable with before even further. There’s a definite line between borrowing inspiration and outright plagiarism, and to me it’s pretty obvious when something is one and not the other, well-intentioned or not. Far from theft, borrowing ideas from other works is in my view a high compliment to those other stories you enjoy. I don’t feel bad about it, and frankly I don’t think you should, either. If you’re reading or watching something, you like what you see, and inspiration strikes, go with it! But always make sure that you can adapt it in such a way that it feels natural to the context of your own story.

On the second subject, I’m not sure I’m a great judge of that so far because I’m very new with Wattpad myself and have a grand total of probably 10 followers so far. But my first observation is that since Wattpad is a free platform, what do you have to lose by putting yourself out there? Why not try it? While I haven’t gotten a ton of comments on my work so far, I have gotten a few that have been quite constructive and flattering that have inspired me to keep going. Plus, Wattpad allows me to keep up more in depth with the current projects that other Twitter writers I follow are working on. It’s like Facebook for writers, and it’s a great concept to offer and receive feedback on work in real time from all over the place for free, assuming you can build up a reliable readership and follow base. In summary, I haven’t made a ton of progress in the first few months yet, but I’m encouraged by what I have gotten so far and I plan to continue. So yes, I would recommend Wattpad to any writer out there who’s willing to try it. Sure it’s a little scary putting something out there you’re not totally confident in and may not be polished to the point that you want it, but isn’t that true of any rough draft of something you’ve written? Go for it! Get a Wattpad page! I’ll be the first one to follow you back and take a look at what you’re writing–there’s nothing I enjoy more.

Talk to you all next time!

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Review of the Week–Lost in Space (Netflix)

Yes, it’s another repeat review, and for that I apologize–well, sort of. I’m actually pretty stoked to talk about this one, as I just finished watching the Netflix reboot series of the classic 60s sci-fi adventure Lost in Space. While most of the concepts behind this latest version of the property are pretty cool, and the new interpretations of its characters refreshing and original, the series as a whole somewhat struggles to stick the landing. No pun intended.

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Lost in Space follows the Robinson family–parents Maureen and John and children Will, Judy, and Penny–after their spaceship crash-lands on an alien planet en route from Earth to Alpha Centauri. Since a meteor collision is making the Earth uninhabitable, people selected as the best of the best in their specific fields, such as the Robinsons, are being allowed to take their families to start a new life on another world. As the Robinsons and the other colonists who crashed with them struggle to work together to survive the strange new planet they find themselves on, they’re also plagued by interpersonal strife as they each try to make amends and move past the various things that make them dysfunctional and broken. But that’s not the only thing they have to contend with, as there’s also three total wild cards in their midst: mechanic and smuggler Don West, who only looks out for himself; an imposter posing as the mission’s doctor who’s willing to use any means at her disposal to get what she wants; and an alien robot that befriends Will, but may be hiding a dark secret that could jeopardize everything.

Like much of science fiction, Lost in Space has gone through many evolutions over the decades, from its cheesy, campy beginnings in the 1960s to the edgy, grunge-inspired cyberpunk blockbuster from the 90s (for more on that movie and why it was so disappointing, see my previous review). In their remake, Netflix offered us a middle ground between those two extremes, painting a future that while challenging, is still full of light and hope and promise, and a cast of main characters who, despite their obvious flaws, are all (well, mostly all) good people who want to do the right thing. First of all, I loved the idea of the Jupiter 2 only being one of several Jupiter pods (they aren’t really ships so much) that’s involved in the story, and the Robinsons just one of many other families making the trip to Alpha Centauri. One of the things that made the earlier versions so corny was the idea that this one, single family represented the best of humanity. This interpretation does away with that and introduces several major characters outside the main group who are just as expert in their fields as the Robinsons are in theirs, most notably the Watanabe and Dhar families. While they didn’t get nearly as much screen time, even the side characters each got their moment in the spotlight, and it made the whole survival ordeal much more realistic because it was basically a team effort and not lumped on any one person’s shoulders or expertise. The design of the human-built ships also reflects some very optimistic projections of the future, a la Star Trek, but with realism injected as well: no artificial gravity or supercomputers or anything like that. In fact, there isn’t even any interstellar travel truly involved–from humans, at least. More on that later.

There were some other big changes as well in the Netflix series, most of which I can absolutely get behind. I at first chafed at the idea of taking Don West from being a hotshot pilot, as he’s traditionally portrayed, to a grease monkey who knows nothing about flying, but it works for the story. There wouldn’t really be much use for a pilot character the way this show is set up, so props to the producers for taking West in an interesting new direction, and one that might overall have been much more rewarding for his development. In addition, the Robinsons do not have a robot that does menial chores and lives on the Jupiter with them: in this incarnation, the Robot is the nickname given to an alien construct that Will encounters when he’s separated from the group. As it turns out, the reason the Robot enters into the story at all is because he was sent by whatever race created him to steal back something humans stole from them: an interstellar drive system from an alien ship that was shot down and ended up poisoning Earth. It’s this drive that makes travel to Alpha Centauri possible in the first place, and is the major plot twist that focuses the series. I have to admit, I didn’t see it coming. It’s definitely a cool way of retelling the story of the Robinsons and why they’re leaving Earth in the first place, and of bringing the Robot together with the family in a meaningful way, but one that’s still fraught with perils.

Aside from the drama of being dumped on an alien planet and having to survive, most of the show’s tension comes from within the characters themselves. Once again, we see the Robinsons being painted as far from the picture-perfect family they were in the 60s. It even goes a little deeper than the 90s film by highlighting the differences between John and Maureen, who are on the edge of divorce, and showing how a life with two completely different people prizing very different things can lead to a lot of friction. The children aren’t nearly as bad, but still have their differences: mostly between Penny and Judy, where a clear sibling rivalry and resentment is presented. Will, much in contrast to his former portrayals, is a sweet and obviously intelligent but innocent kid who’s prone to anxiousness and self-doubt. It’s a strong departure from previous Wills, who have normally been shown to be quite confident and forceful in their displays of intellect. But again, I think it works for this series, where you had to have at least one character look at everything set out before them not as a horrible struggle or inconvenience, but as a wonderful new universe to explore. The show absolutely wouldn’t be the same without the childlike joy that this Will brings to the Robinson clan.

I’d like to single out Maxwell Jenkins and Molly Parker especially for acting credit: as I said, Jenkins brings a naive but infectiously positive Will to the table in this version of Lost in Space, one who truly does need a strong and silent guardian like the Robot to protect him, and the connection between the two is often heart-wrenchingly real. In addition, Maureen Robinson is the standout character of the entire cast, and Parker really does well bringing a powerful, confident, independent woman forward as the lead in the series. Maureen in this show should be a role model for people looking to create those kinds of characters across all mediums. I enjoyed Don West as well, though I probably could have done with a bit less of Ignacio Serricchio’s snark and sarcasm, as it seems somewhat out of place in this more troubled interpretation of the Robinson extended family. Also, while not really human and with minimal lines, the Robot was done amazingly well in this series, his performance full of physical and facial (well, such as it was) cues that seemed to hint what the machine-man was feeling or thinking at any given time. You really leave this show wondering just how sentient the Robot is, and whether he does actually feel emotion as the story seems to hint: for example, how much of his temporary turn to the dark side is explained by the fact that Will, his closest friend, betrayed him by making him walk off a cliff to his “death”? It’s a testament to the way the Robot was done that we can even think about it, and that’s something to be proud of.

And now we come to my biggest beef with this Lost in Space incarnation: Dr. Smith. Look, I don’t have a problem with the casting choice or background the producers chose for this version of the perennial villain, but I do question the writing behind her. “Dr. Smith” is actually a criminal named June Harris who, in a series of escalating blunders and manipulations, makes her way onboard the Resolute with the Robinsons and company and passes herself off as a dead man, the real Smith, to hide her true identity. Her sole stated purpose is to do what it takes to make it to Alpha Centauri at any cost, as is fitting with the generally self-centered nature of the character. But this “Smith” is more complicated as well, much more in line with a sociopath than an egomaniac, a compulsive liar and expert con-artist who will say anything to get her way. She is shown to have a problem with the idea of taking a life, too–several times she’s given the opportunity to kill someone, only to back down from it, and the one time she did was kind of an accident. So she’s not a bad person–not really?

As interesting as this seems on paper, it didn’t really work out in practice. I’d be fine with the moral see-sawing Smith goes through if it made any sense in the context of the story, but it doesn’t. There’s no rhyme, reason, or pattern to the good and bad things she does, and therefore precious little to base an argument on that her character develops in any meaningful way. It’s like the writers came up with various life-threatening situations to put the Robinsons in, and the ones they couldn’t write their way out of, they were just like “Oh, let’s have Dr. Smith have a random change of heart and save them.” I was just left very confused about Smith’s motivations and purpose in the story, because being a wild card is all very well, but it has to make sense. No offense to Parker Posey: she did the best she could with what she was given, and made this Smith much more understated, insidious and menacing than her over-the-top predecessors at times. It was a welcome change of pace, but just didn’t come off as in any way logical or convincing.

With the Robinsons, Smith, and West finally all together on board the Jupiter 2 at the end of the season and being hurled into uncharted space, you could argue that this first Neflix season really was more of a prequel chapter and that the true Lost in Space adventure is set to begin. The whole alien wormhole engine bit was pretty sweet in that respect. But they’re down one Robot, of course–he’s going to come back, right? Danger, Will Robinson.

My Rating: 7/10

Netflix’s first season of Lost in Space is a strong debut for a reboot of the classic show, and while it’s not perfect and has its share of stumbles–mostly from Dr. Smith–it’s all in all a fun, exciting, and at times heartwarming sci-fi adventure about extraordinary events bringing a fractured family back together. A fresh look at old concepts, some outstanding acting from several key characters, and the near limitless scope of possibilities for what can happen next make me very hopeful that Netflix decides to keep this one around. If they can learn from the mistakes of season one and course-correct, I think the streaming service has another winning property on its hands.

Review of the Week–Ready Player One

Well, I told myself I wasn’t going to do it. I thought, “If I’ve already talked about the book, why would I bother talking about the movie? Seems kind of repetitive.” But after some reflection, I decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up. So without further ado, let’s talk about the movie version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One!

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You can read my thoughts on the original book version of Ready Player One in one of my previous reviews. I won’t overdo the story explanation in that case, because in that respect the movie basically mirrors the book: teenager Wade Watts lives in a dystopian future where society is deteriorating and more and more people spend most of their time in the OASIS, a virtual reality environment where they can travel anywhere, do anything, and be anyone they want. When the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, dies, he leaves behind a series of cryptic clues, challenges, and puzzles that will in theory allow anyone in the OASIS to succeed him as the controller of this new world. When Wade stumbles upon the answer to the first challenge, he’s drawn into a struggle for control of the OASIS where what happens in the fantasy can have real-world consequences, as a giant corporation will stop at nothing to take over the OASIS and eliminate anyone who stands in their way.

As I thought the book version of Ready Player One was pretty awesome, the movie version had a lot to live up to, and I figured with someone like Steven Spielberg at the helm, it would do that and more. But when initial reviews came in, I was disappointed by its lukewarm reception and debated whether I even wanted to see it at all. I eventually did, and at first was pretty disappointed with the adaptation and all the changes it made to the book. But the more I thought about it, the more okay with it I got, to the point where I’m talking to you here today to say that while it falls short of greatness, the film Ready Player One is still pretty fun to watch.

As you can read my last review for some of the context of my analysis, I won’t spend too much time explaining what happened in the book, but dedicate that time instead to explaining how the movie version was different. The first major thing that struck me was how different the challenges were in the movie: much more physical and spectacle-based in nature rather than an honest test of skill, smarts, and cultural knowledge. Just look at the first one, where a massive race across an ever-shifting and chaotic version of New York City replaces a simple one-on-one video game match between Wade and a computer opponent. I guess I can understand it, though. Would people going to see a big action-packed movie really want to watch a tedious video game match with, if the setting of the game is to be believed, pretty low graphics quality? Probably not, obviously. And I admit, watching the DeLorean go on a Death Race tear through the collapsing environment was pretty awesome. I’m just saying that I think it misses the point of the exercise. Same with how “The Shining” replaced “WarGames” as the film to be reenacted. But more on that later on.

The character development in the movie was also significantly changed from in the book, with the romance between Wade and Artemis taking a front-row seat. While this was obviously a big theme in the book, too, the film largely skips over the question of what a “real” relationship is in the OASIS or anywhere else online that plagues their love story and introduces Wade to Artemis’s player, Samantha, way earlier than expected. As such, some of the dramatic tension and one of the more meaningful questions the book poses is somewhat deflated. I mean, there’s never really any doubt in my mind that Wade and Samantha love each other and are going to end up together in the movie, where in the book it’s still very much up in the air even by the ending. Taking away those kinds of meaningful themes was a recurring problem I had in the movie, which was taken as a much more straightforward, blockbuster adventure than an exploration of 80s culture or the role of virtual reality.

In that sense as well, I was slightly disappointed: while I thought the occasional music choices in Ready Player One were enjoyable and the references, like the DeLorean, Mechagodzilla, and “The Shining” were on point, the movie greatly downplayed the role of the 80s as a decade in James Halliday’s life, and was much less of a pop-culture grab bag than the book way. I guess this might be for the best because first-time viewers who don’t know the 80s at all wouldn’t be quite as overwhelmed. The book, while it did try to explain all the references it threw out, probably did cause a few readers to have to go back over it several times to get everything. The whole point of the book was being a tribute to that decade of entertainment, and I was kind of irritated by the fact that other so-called movie critics didn’t seem to get even the meager parts of that the film did throw out. “Why talk about the 80s?” they asked. “It’s such a regressive view of pop culture.” Dude, that’s kind of the whole point. How could you not understand this? I guess if you weren’t an enormous fan of the 80s like I and many other people are, you probably just didn’t get it. I think Spielberg does, though, and felt that it needed to be toned down for a wider audience to get it. Whatever.

Going back to what I said earlier, I don’t think the movie did enough to get us into James Halliday’s head. That was the whole point of the book Ready Player One: to show how growing up in the era where video games, movies, music, and all kinds of entertainment were finally coming into their own affected this one man who identified much more with them than he did with people. Halliday wanted someone to take over the OASIS who valued the same things he did and who was as much like him as possible, so he knew the future would be in good hands. I don’t think the movie did enough to demonstrate that. On the other hand, you could also argue that showing how Wade didn’t make the same mistake as Halliday and actually told the woman he loved how he felt shows that he’s a better man than Halliday ever was, and will find a better way to run things (as the mandatory break days eventually put in place prove). I guess it’s just a matter of differing interpretation.

Okay, enough about that. Some positives about Ready Player One the movie are that its side characters are much more well-developed, and it creates much more of an ensemble cast feel. With some of the things that Wade does in the book, like masterminding the plan to get arrested and break into IOI from the inside, makes him seem almost like a kind of superman, an unstoppable hero. The movie showed a much less confident, less charismatic version of Wade, who eventually grew into a person who was somewhat closer to his book counterpart, but not quite there. In fact, he wouldn’t have made it without the help of his friends. Sure that point exists in the book, too, but the movie did even more to drive it home. Also, I liked how Nolan Sorrento, the villain of the piece, was much more fleshed out in the film as not just a faceless evil corporate overlord, but as someone who was personally obsessed with taking over Halliday’s (his former boss’s) legacy. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’s obviously a bad guy. He killed a lot of innocent people and did really unethical stuff. But whereas he’s never given any kind of opportunity for redemption in the book, the movie goes there in my view, especially in the final confrontation. He could easily have shot Wade there in the truck just as pure revenge, but he doesn’t. After everything that happened in the story, I think that moment where he was clearly as much in awe as everyone else said a lot about him. Credit where credit is due in this movie: most of the actors are pretty great. Wish they could’ve done more with Simon Pegg, though.

On that note, one thing I loved about the movie Ready Player One was that it left Easter Eggs of its own in the story, throwing doubt on whether Halliday was actually dead. I mean, think about it: the level of personal interaction whenever he or Anorak appeared seemed way too real for just a computer recording or something. Plus, instead of a written journal as in the book, the movie version presents Gunters like Wade with a full visual archive, publicly available, of every moment of Halliday’s life, recorded for posterity. Wait a minute, how is that even possible? There’s no way Halliday could have been recording himself every second of his life in preparation for a future he never knew he was going to have. So where did all that video come from? Unless it’s not footage, but live memories of a REAL LIVE PERSON. Plus, that non-denial of his death in his final scene with Wade really pulled the nail out of the coffin, so to speak: I’m convinced that in the film universe, Halliday is still alive out there somewhere after deciding to step out of the spotlight. Pretty cool when you think about it. Also, that twist where Ogden Morrow was the Curator the whole time? Nicely played indeed.

My Rating: 7/10

While the film version of Ready Player One may have boiled down and simplified the plot of the book source material in a way I wasn’t always comfortable with, I have to admit that it was still pretty well done, and pretty fun to watch. Sure it often focused on spectacle more than the deeper messages that I think the book was trying to convey, but enough of it was there that I’m sure viewers with no clue about any of this would really, really like it. For those of us who are long-time fans and read the book, probably less so, but I have to admit that forcing everything in the book into a two-hour movie would be pretty difficult. I also like that the movie brought an ensemble cast together much more quickly and made Wade less of a loner, along with providing additional fleshing out of the background cast, but disliked what I thought was a lessened emphasis on the pop culture of the 80s that I know and love.

All in all, a mixed bag really, but definitely passable entertainment that will delight newcomers and give existing fans some things to smile about. Ready Player One the movie isn’t better than the book, but isn’t really worse: it’s just different. And it’s probably better than half the adaptations out there based on that alone.

Ask a Writer #2

Hello again everyone! And welcome to another edition of “Ask a Writer”. Today’s a special one because I had two questions submitted from fellow writers on Twitter when I asked for submissions this past week, and I’m combining them into a two-for-one column because after thinking about them, I honestly believe they have the same basic answer. So without further ado, here they are.

B. Storms (@grabthefish): Do you ever find yourself in an editing spiral and if so, what have you found to be the best ways to get out?

Kim Plasket (@KimPlasket): How do you keep the momentum going when you feel as if you have run out of words?

Wow, both very good questions ladies, and in all honesty, ones that I considered passing over because I struggled with how to answer them in a way that might be helpful, informative, and/or at least entertaining. But I figured that 1) that wouldn’t be fair to those who went out of their way to ask in the first place, and 2) that I should really challenge myself for this column I’m doing if I want it to mean something. So I wrestled with how best to respond for most of this week, and I think I finally have something for you.

First of all, I totally get what both of you are saying. By “editing spiral”, I’m assuming you mean the kind of depressing, destructive cycle we as writers can get into when we start obsessing with a new work we’re creating and wanting it to be as perfect as possible the first time out. As a perfectionist, I understand. It drives me crazy to think that I’m not putting my best foot forward, and before I’m even done the work in question I’m already going back and editing chapters to change what happened in them, completely throwing off my rhythm of writing and leading to a dangerous precedent for me. This kind of behavior can absolutely consume all of your time if you’re not careful, and has often lead to me deleting entire chapters in despair and starting over from scratch: in essence, setting myself back before I’ve even gotten to the end of the story.

In addition, I do often feel that I’ve “run out of words” when I’m writing, as I’ll get to a certain point and be unsure about the best way forward. I usually sit down inspired to write with some lines of dialogue playing in my head and the scene running before my eyes like a movie: I can see everything that’s going on, and I totally feel like a part of the world I’m creating. But once I get past the part I’m imagining, it gets complicated. Sometimes the direction things have taken and how I’m feeling at that specific point in time will inspire me to go onward, beyond what I was prepared to do. Other times, even when I want to and know I should write more, I just can’t. It starts to feel unnatural, I feel the quality is slipping, and before you know it, I’ve stopped altogether.

I think depending on who you ask, a lot of different people would give different advice. Many writers I’ve come to know and admire here on Twitter might tell you that the best course of action is to push on ahead, regardless of how you feel about what comes out. What matters is that something productive happens, and you performed the act of writing. You can go back and edit and clean up later, but the point is to show progress and move forward. Myself, I can’t really do that. At least, not yet. Maybe I’m just not as good of a writer as they are, and maybe I’m just not developed or disciplined enough yet. But as such, my advice in this case is something very simple but probably paradoxical: just the opposite. Walk away.

That’s it. Just walk away.

I often tell people that the true secret to being able to write a novel, or any decent-length piece of fiction, is perseverance. That means sticking with the project no matter how tough it gets, and no matter how long it takes: you’re willing to do whatever you have to in order to see it through. And for me, a critical part of that process is knowing when to take a break. Sure, you could see that as a “loss” of momentum, or inaction that wouldn’t necessarily help you get out of the downward spiral of editing and doubt you find yourself in. But seriously, think about it.

When I’m feeling frustrated by what I’m writing, and I feel as though I’m not making progress or the quality is slipping, it’s important for me to not feel ashamed if I walk way for a while. Leave the story alone, for a day, for a week, or even longer if you have to. As long as it takes to remember why you fell in love with the story in the first place. Once that happens, the gears in your head will start to turn again, and in my experience the writing will come. Life also often inspires my writing: random circumstances I find myself in that I think would make a great scene in one of my books. Or I just do something else I love, like go outside hiking, or to karate class, or playing games. Even a bath or a shower sometimes does the trick! I’m not kidding, I’ve had some of my best plot ideas in the shower. I’m a regular Archimedes.

There’s such a thing as pushing yourself, which is good, and there’s such a thing as overtaxing yourself and burning yourself out, which is bad. It’s true for anything. If you were at the gym and you felt like you couldn’t take one more step, what would you do? You’d go home. It’s the same with writing. When I’m down about my stories I also sometimes go back to my touchstones–usually TV, movies, or other books that have the kind of tone, characters, themes, or other things that have influenced the story I’m working on and partially inspired it. For “Camp Ferguson” and its subsequent books, that’s often sitcoms like “Arrested Development”, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, or “MASH”–I watch and re-watch these shows way, way too much, but it really does help put me back in the mindset and I want to be in. Also, when you’re doing something that’s truly making you happy in that moment, you’re much more likely to get the creative juices flowing again and just have a random good idea pop into your head. Trust me, it’s happened to me a lot.

In conclusion, as a writer I don’t think it’s wrong to take a break from your work, and you shouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to do so if the situation calls for it. If you’re feeling run down, out of things to say, or starting to doubt the quality of your story up to this point, take a deep breath, put down the computer (or pen and paper if you’re still into that, I guess), and walk away for a while. Doesn’t matter how long: just as long as it takes for you to get back into the right frame of mind. Nothing good comes from forcing yourself to be creative: only more frustration and bad writing. I’m sure there’s a balance between what I’m advocating and that, and it’s different for every person. But walking away and taking a break from a work that’s giving me trouble is hands-down the best way I’ve found to get through these blocks and spirals.

I hope that maybe helps some of you out there who are going through this, and if you are, feel free to reach out to your fellow writers or myself and talk more about it! That’s another thing that can help: community. Twitter has proven to be an awesome place for me to chat with and get inspiration from other awesome writers. Plus, if you have a sense that you’re part of a group and belong in that way, chances are you’ll have a more positive outlook on the whole writing thing–and maybe even find some advice that’s better than mine! Or that just works for you better.

Until next time, keep your pen to the paper and your nose to the grindstone. Except when you’re taking a well-deserved break.

Review of the Week–Mad Max: Fury Road

I don’t often have big disagreements over movies with my parents. Even though we’re fundamentally from two different generations, my mother, father, and I all have very similar tastes in entertainment and will generally agree on the quality of most movies and TV shows, with some minor divergence. Which is why I just can’t wrap my head around why they don’t like a film that I think is probably the single best action movie ever made: the 2015 Mad Max franchise reboot, Fury Road.

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I have this poster on my wall. God, it’s badass.

For those of you unfamiliar with this series, Mad Max focuses on Max Rockatansky, a former cop who survives a nuclear apocalypse that turns much of the world into a wasteland, and reverts most humans to primitive savagery. They live in a world where the only guarantee of survival is speed, gasoline is more precious than gold, and only those with strength of will and a sweet ride live to see another day. Once a defender of law and order, Max becomes a self-centered survivalist who only believes in looking out for number one–until he’s sucked into various situations that call for this wandering renegade to become a hero once again.

In Fury Road, which is a reboot of the Mad Max story, Max is once again lost and wandering the wastes, haunted by the ghosts of those he failed to save, when he’s captured by a gang called the War Boys. Their leader, the ailing but still brutal Immortan Joe, rules an outpost of humanity called the Citadel with an iron fist, exercising absolute control over its population via his supply of fresh water. Just when it looks like Max will spend the rest of his days a slave, he’s caught up in a plot by Furiosa, one of Joe’s top lieutenants, to abduct a group of female childbearing slaves and take them to freedom in the legendary “Green Place” beyond the desert. The perilous odyssey is fraught with trials and tribulations, and in keeping with the franchise’s past, Max will be forced to look past just living another day to find true meaning in his survival. Will he simply run away when he could have taken a stand again, or will he face down an entire unstoppable army to prove he too is worthy of being saved?

Let me just get this off my chest: this is a great action movie. In fact, this may be the greatest action movie that has ever been made up to this point. I’m not exaggerating. Everything about the spectacle in Fury Road, from the post-apocalyptic grunge-flavored vehicles to the epic chase and weather scenes and even the bloody brilliant one-on-one fights are packed with so much punch (pardon the pun) and visual flair that you can’t help but be totally absorbed by them. All credit goes to director George Miller for finally getting Mad Max right. Look, I get that the Mel Gibson movies started all of this, and I appreciate that, but I’ve just never been a fan of them like my parents are. I find them unbearably campy, somewhat dated, and filled with leaden acting and interminable dialogue. I’m also not a Mel Gibson fan. Sorry not sorry. But anyway, Miller really nailed the unique, quirky, and yet terrifying vision of the future Fury Road provides. It makes you laugh at the same time it horrifies you with its unabashedly over-the-top style, pulling no punches and making no apologies. That’s just the way I like it.

Really, it takes some serious skill to convey as much about a culture we know nothing about as this movie does with such comparatively little dialogue or exposition. Even if you know nothing about Mad Max before watching Fury Road, don’t worry: you’ll still fit right in. The visuals of the film take a lot of the heavy lifting off the characters by showing, rather than having them tell, about what’s going on, and that’s no small feat when you’re trying to introduce an audience to a whole new world. The dialogue is actually quite minimalistic, usually for effect, to show how alien and animalistic the characters, especially Max, have had to become in this harsh, unforgiving world: another style point that makes perfect sense when you think about it.

And trust me, I’m all for a movie once in a while that may be short on story but long on spectacle. I do like Pacific Rim, after all. But the beauty of Fury Road, and what makes it such a stellar piece of cinema, is that it actually does have a story, and quite a powerful one at that. The main piece of brilliance is that Max himself, played expertly by Tom Hardy, is relegated almost to a side character role in his own movie. Much of the work to move the plot forward is actually done by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who should serve as a model for feminine heroes everywhere. Badass? Check. Compassionate and human? Check. Smart? Check. Hell, she’s even disabled, too, and it still doesn’t stop her from kicking ass and taking names. Never again will I question Theron’s acting chops after this movie. Furiosa is basically a female Max–but probably better–who literally drives the action while Max is just swept along for the ride. I could spend all day going into all the themes present here between Max, Furiosa, the young War Boy Nux who just wants his short life to have meaning, and all the other unforgettable characters. There’s redemption, revenge, feminism, social ethics, power structures, survival…the list goes on and on. All of it packed into an action thriller that never stops gluing you to the screen so you won’t miss any bit of it.

The place I think that most people, like my parents, get hung up on Fury Road is that, admittedly, Max and Furiosa’s journey turns out to be quite circuitous: after failing to find the Green Place, they’re forced to turn back and make a run on the Citadel, the very place they tried so hard to escape from, because it’s the best hope around for a better tomorrow. “But they don’t actually go anywhere!” my parents complain. “The whole thing is pointless!” See, this is where I beg to differ, as the trip I think illustrates probably the biggest and most impactful lesson Fury Road delivers: it’s about the journey, not the destination. Without going through everything they did, Max, Furiosa, and the others never would have had the opportunity to develop into fully-formed, redeemed human beings. Paradise is a myth: it doesn’t actually exist, and everyone knows it. So in a rough world, the best you can do is to find somewhere you belong and stick with it, trying to make it a better place than you found it. That rings true to me on a number of levels, and it’s great because even in as dark a version of the future as Mad Max gives us, Fury Road still leaves so much hope for a better tomorrow. Even at the end of the world, the human spirit endures.

My one and only beef with the movie is that I do wish a little more attention was paid to Max’s backstory. We get flashes that kind of give us the gist of what happened and convey the emotions of guilt and pain that Max feels and that continue to haunt and drive him, but no actual story is told at any point. I feel like that was possibly a missed opportunity for him to bond even more deeply with Furiosa and the other characters, and for us to get a little insight into his state of mind. A pretty small quibble for sure: the movie doesn’t suffer because of its absence, but it would’ve been nice.

My Rating: 9.5/10

I don’t usually do .5s in these ratings, but I felt like I needed it to convey just how much I love Mad Max: Fury Road. It may not be a perfect movie, but it’s pretty damn close. It’s certainly not family-friendly, and shouldn’t be viewed by those with a weak stomach, but in terms of thrills, chills, and genuine, compelling character beats and plot lines, it’s an action-adventure film that shouldn’t be missed. Big thumbs up to George Miller and his entire cast and crew for finally giving the world the version of Mad Max Rockatansky we so badly wanted and deserved.

Ask a Writer #1

Hello everyone, and welcome to my first weekly Ask a Writer column! In it, I’ll be addressing a question submitted by one of my followers on Twitter or other social media platforms and rambling about it at length for your enjoyment. Well, hopefully.

Anyway…

Onto today’s question, from my good friend Kelly Kowalska!

Have you been writing?

Side note: I at first took this as a joke, but then decided that I just had to chose it as my question for this week. All credit to Kelly for rolling with it, coming up with it in the first place, and just being awesome in general. Check out her horror writing! @KellyKowalska

It’s a simple question, with a not so simple answer, which is: yes…and no.

See, I’ve always had this little problem when I’m writing: I can’t write on a schedule. Of course, I’ve written on deadline for years as a professional journalist, and before that as a college student, so I’m no stranger to the method. I’ve just never enjoyed putting it into practice in my personal writing time. I tend to write just as the inspiration comes to me, and when I reach a critical mass of ideas that I know I just have to put down on paper before I lose them, that’s when I sit down to write. And usually I can go for quite a while before stopping again. But the schedule sort of looks something like this: write steadily for about a week, stop for two weeks. Write for a few days, don’t come back for a month. That sort of thing. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, and for the longest time I didn’t even try to make any out of it, thinking that haste makes waste and good writing never comes when you’re pushing yourself. I’ve honestly deleted whole chapters and books of work because I felt like I tried to push them out too fast when I wasn’t ready for them, or “feeling the flow”.

The result of this, of course, was that while I was mostly satisfied with the quality of my writing, the quantity left something to be desired. It took me about six years to finish and publish my very first book, “The Showstopper!”, and then three years to publish “Camp Ferguson” (both are available on Amazon, by the way!). I’m proud of both, but I acknowledge now that if I want to be a writer for any kind of living and maintain a reliable fan base, I need to be more consistent about doing it. But still I resist putting goals out before myself. I see a lot of my fellow writers on Twitter and whatnot constantly talking about “word count” and “writing days” and other measures of success in the creativity department, and I’ve always felt left out because I don’t hold myself to those kinds of standards. I think this has both its advantages and disadvantages, but the deeper question here is, why do I not want to set goals for my writing?

I’d say it’s because I have a busy life, what with a retail job making me work odd hours, a soon-to-start graduate school program, karate classes, hanging out with friends and family, and the other standard stuff that most people do. But that’s only partially true: plenty of other people have much busier lives than me, and they still manage to write on a more consistent basis. Also, I have this built-in fear of writing that I’ve always had, ever since my school days: I mean, I love writing, but I also fear it. Every time I sit down to being a new chapter or pick up where I left off, I wonder if it’s just going to be a pointless exercise where I end up wasting my time and deleting everything I did because I’m not happy with it. I’m also a bit of a perfectionist–okay, a big bit–so that doesn’t help either. Because of this fear, I procrastinate like a pro. I put off and put off and put off my writing with the excuse that I’m just not “feeling it” today, and that I’ll try again tomorrow–which of course rarely happens. You may not be able to put creativity truly on a schedule, and writer’s block is a very real thing, but what I realize when I finally sit down and start writing is that I get over my initial awkwardness and into it pretty quickly. I did this kind of thing all the time in college: I would put off writing a paper until the very last minute, thinking it would be so difficult to do, but once I actually sat down and focused I would usually bang out the assignment in record time and think, “Huh. That wasn’t so bad.” It turns out that the thing I dreaded and put off actually is enjoyable like I seemed to remember it being before! But of course I don’t remember this the next time I feel compelled to sit down and write, and the cycle continues.

As I’ve gotten deeper into the writing community, however, especially on Twitter, more and more people I’ve talked to have been convincing me of the value of writing regularly. Not only do you have a higher chance of publishing more often, but you also feel better about yourself and your writing in general, and it’s consistently easier to get back into the flow of the story you’re working on. This is part of why I decided to set up a Wattpad account for myself recently: on a weekly schedule that I’m holding myself to strongly, I’m posting chapters from my current work in progress (usually half a chapter at a time because my chapters are so long in total) not only to say that I did, but so that people can give me comments and feedback in real time as I develop the book (which is the sequel to my recently-published “Camp Ferguson”). I’m also trying to do more weekly blog postings on this site and share them on social media, such as my “Reviews of the Week” and now “Ask a Writer”. These are not only things I enjoy doing, but writing exercises that help keep me in a creative frame of mind and thinking about the stories I’m developing. Finally, I set myself a goal of getting my WIP, “Jack Ferguson Strikes Back”, published by the end of 2018, meaning I have until then to get it drafted, edited, and finalized. Seeing as I’m currently finishing up Chapter 6 of what will likely be a 17-18 chapter novel in early April, I think I’m on track so far to make this happen. Hopefully? It might not be realistic to finish a book in a year, especially when you’re me, but I’m certainly going to try for it.

Anyway, to answer the original question in a very short and condensed form: why yes, I have been writing! In a way, that is. Thanks for asking!

So I hope you enjoyed this week’s writing ramble, and that I might have offered a little insight and guidance, or just entertainment, for my fellow creatives out there. If you have a question you’d like to ask me of a writing-related nature, hit me up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Wattpad, or wherever you can find me, and I’d love to talk about what you want to know.

Happy writing everyone!

Review of the Week–Pacific Rim: Uprising

I’m willing to admit that while I pride myself on having good taste when it comes to movies, I can usually be sucked in by something that doesn’t look great, but has the promise of big, ridiculous action. I mean, giant monsters fighting giant robots? How does it get more awesome than that? Given this, I was eager to check out the latest installment in the goofy sci-fi action franchise Pacific Rim. Did I think it would be fun? Yes. Did I think it would be good? Honestly, no. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised.

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In case you didn’t see the first movie, Pacific Rim is about the struggle between humanity and the Precursors, a race of aliens from another reality who have been sending giant genetically-engineered monsters (known as kaiju in the Japanese tradition) through tears in space under the Pacific Ocean to wreak havoc on our planet. To battle the rise of the kaiju, humanity created jaegers, giant robotic fighting machines controlled by a tag-team of pilots.

Uprising picks up 10 years after the first movie, when a final assault by jaegers closed the breaches and ended the Kaiju War. In the aftermath, the world has gotten mostly back on track, but not everyone is on board yet: especially not Jake Pentecost, the son of hero Stacker Pentecost who sacrificed his life to end the war. In the years afterward, Jake has become a scavenger and a criminal who makes a lavish, if dangerous, living by stealing and selling off scrapped jaeger parts. After being picked up by the government following his most recent arrest, Jake is given a choice to either go to jail or finish what he started years before and rejoin the jaeger program. As Jake and his fellow outsider Amara work their way back into the training, the survival of the jaegers themselves is threatened by the advent of a corporate-controlled drone program that would make the current human pilot system obsolete. But Jake, Amara, and the rest of their trainee squad will have to grow up fast when the worst happens: the breaches reopen and the kaiju return, this time with a plan that will destroy all life on Earth. And they have to deal with the fact that one among them is a traitor to humanity.

I would characterize the first Pacific Rim movie as having a bunch of cool ideas and a ton of spectacle and fun, but not much else: critically, the acting was pretty wooden and awful, and the plot had holes in it big enough to drive a jaeger through. Naturally, I didn’t expect much more from Uprising seeing as sequels are rarely better than the first movie. This was one of the exceptions, though. While Uprising‘s plot isn’t revolutionary or anything–it’s pretty much the classic lovable rebels become the heroes the world needs story–it does take a lot of the elements introduced in the first movie and shift them in interesting new directions. The idea that the kaiju were meant to activate the Ring of Fire? Maybe a slight stretch, but makes a lot more sense than just random destruction. Jaeger drones with kaiju brains who turn into robot/monster hybrids? Pretty cool. The robot vs. robot action was refreshing as well instead of just another kaiju vs. jaeger story–the kaiju didn’t show up again until about halfway though the movie, which made way for a lot more inter-human drama that the series really needed in my opinion. There was also some pretty strong consequences in regard to the carryover from the first movie: Mako being killed off in such a tragic way was a pretty powerful motivator for Jake (she was his adoptive sister), and Newt Geiszler’s betrayal was unexpected and awesome.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the villains here. Like most people, I was under the impression that Shao and her evil drone jaegers were going to be the bad guys in the film. I was pretty certain that Charlie Day, reprising his role as Geiszler from the first movie, was going to be again relegated to the role of comic relief. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: Day was the best thing about the first movie, as he plays the wacky mad scientist role really, really well. But talk about callbacks! It turns out that linking with that kaiju brain to save the world in the first movie was what lead to him being brainwashed/mind-controlled/whatever by the Precursors into being their willing puppet on Earth, sabotaging the drone jaegers and allowing the kaiju to reenter our world. That’s a pretty dark turn for his character, and I loved it. Although I must say I’m not sure if the film went far enough in portraying his change of heart. Adding other friendly characters like Hermann Gottlieb to give it a little extra weight helped, but evil Charlie Day was pretty much just like good Charlie Day, except he was on the wrong team and had a deeper voice sometimes. I would have loved to dig a little deeper into the psychology of what happened to him and make him a little more menacing–something I think Day could easily have done. In addition, I didn’t really buy Shao’s change of heart going from a flashy corporate CEO driven by profit and greed to a humble grease monkey willing to give her life to protect the planet. If there was a little more background to her character, it would have been much more believable. I get that it happened out of necessity, but still.

The character/acting beats were much better from John Boyega and Cailee Spaeny. Both were highly likable renegades who very believable found a higher calling in the jaeger program, complete with their own powerful backstories and personal setbacks. These two I could really get behind, and I wasn’t a bit surprised when the pair of them ended up piloting the jaeger that saved the world. Was it original? Definitely not. But was it enjoyable and logical? Absolutely.

My Rating: 7/10

While it’s not setting any records for originality and definitely isn’t best picture material or anything, Pacific Rim: Uprising did a fine job of following up the fun but sometimes flat first movie by highlighting all the things that made it cool and resolving some of its most serious flaws. The new twists on old ideas are what make this sequel worth watching, and able to stand on its own as a much better movie technically than its predecessor. In the end, it is still mostly about the spectacle, but like I said before, there’s nothing wrong with that once in a while. If you’re looking for a fun afternoon and spending $10 that you won’t feel too bad about afterward, this movie is for you.

Also, the blatant setup for the sequel at the end was sort of bland but kind of cool too, with humanity set to take the fight to the Precursors on their home turf. Independence Day much? But maybe for Pacific Rim, the third time will be the charm and a truly great movie will come out of it all the next time around. I know I’ll be seeing it when it does!