Ask a Writer #7

Sorry it’s been a little while, but welcome back to another Ask a Writer blog post! Today’s question might cover some familiar territory, but it actually references a bit of writer slang I’ve seen thrown around on Twitter a lot and have never directly addressed.

@may_davenport: Are you a pantser or a planner?

Okay, so first of all, for the uninitiated who may be reading this, let me attempt to clear up what’s being asked here. The idea is that when you’re writing a book, there are two types of people: one is a “pantser”, an allusion to a “fly by the seat of your pants” style whereby the writer doesn’t have a lot of established ideas about a story and simply makes up much of it as they go along, going where the story and their natural course of writing takes them. In comparison, the second type of person is a “planner”: someone who makes a detailed outline of a story (or maybe just a given chapter) before they ever start writing it, with a hard, set mapping of what’s going to happen when, characters involved, events, details, dialogue, etcetera.

Obviously the two styles each have their own pluses and minuses. Personally, I’ve always felt a bit nervous when I sit down to write, no matter how prepared I am, so the idea of just having a completely blank page in front of me would make me very uncomfortable indeed. That said, I also believe that some degree of spontaneity is necessary in a good story, and a lot of the best ideas I have simply come to me as I’m writing. By contrast, I also have a lot of good ideas randomly during the day that I’ll jot down so I don’t forget them and later on think of where best I can slot them into a given story, if they work at all. Or maybe I’ll save it for a different book altogether. Either way, I am most definitely a note-taker–always have been, always will be. If I don’t write something down, I’ll forget it and be kicking myself for the next week for not doing it. I also do have a love of organizing things (or if you ask my mother, a lack thereof–trust me, I have my own definition of “organization” at work here), and I like to have something established in my head when writing–a list of goals, for example, or ideas for the given chapter I’m working on.

Based on all of this, I’m not sure I can truly answer the question–I guess I’m a little of both, really. So a “planser” if you will?

If you look at any given in-progress manuscript of mine, you’ll find under the chapter name (provided I’ve established one yet) a probably short list of goals, developments, events, and other things that I’ve determined need to happen at this point in the story. I’m trying to see if I can fit them all in convincingly and in a reasonable amount of space. Take this one from my current WIP, “Jack Ferguson Strikes Back”, for example (SPOILER ALERT!)

Chapter 8: Outlaw Country

Barstowe meets with Drake and encourages him to switch sides—he is unsure of what to do 

Drake conscripts Lucas and Danny into helping him go back in time to recover the Dragon Sword using the Closet—ends up in frontier town on site of camp in the 1800s 

Finds Dragon Sword under care of the pioneers, who are also pacifist wizards—encounters a relative of Tessa and of himself, who is the nicest man in town and is ripped off by everyone

When town is attacked by outlaws, Drake uses the artifact to defend them, but ends up absorbing its power into himself without realizing it

Influences his relative to start ripping people off and being generally evil 

Rest of the group forces him to give up the sword—Drake realizes they don’t trust him 

ALSO: Establish Drake’s love of country music

So there you have it: that’s what most of my chapters look like before they’re written. I’m not sure if that makes me a plotter by definition–I was always under the impression that a plotter would have a bit more details in their outline than that, or plan a whole book out in advance which I don’t really do. My outlines, such as they are, are constantly changing as I rework storylines, reconsider what characters need to be involved where, and add elements from previous chapters that didn’t quite fit. Also, as you can probably tell, I don’t plan for dialogue most of the time–unless I have a particularly good line or funny joke that I write down because I need to use and want to remember, I want my characters’ conversation to flow naturally, and making it up on the spot tends to help with that. In short, action scenes and big plot details–yes, I take notes. Conversation and dialogue–normally not.

So does that make me a pantser or a planner? I don’t know. I’d say I’m somewhere in between when all’s said and done, but I had to pick one label or the other, I’d lean on the side of pantser probably. But different things work for different people! Whatever makes your book the best it can be.


Review of the Week–Solo: A Star Wars Story

As a tried and true Star Wars fanatic, I couldn’t in good conscience miss the premiere of the latest installment in the fantasy/sci-fi saga, even if I was justifiably nervous about the quality of what was to come. So this week, I’m bringing you my thoughts on Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Everyone who’s seen Star Wars movies knows the lovable rogue Han Solo, but where did he come from, and what events shaped him into the person we know? Solo endeavors to answer that question, detailing young urchin Han’s life growing up on the mean streets of Corellia and dreaming of escape with his childhood sweetheart Qi’ra. Looking to explore the universe, Han find himself forced to leave Qi’ra behind as he first joins the Imperial Navy, and then abandons the pointless fighting for a life of crime with his new mentor Tobias Beckett. Selling himself as the best pilot in the galaxy, Han falls in with a rough crew and gets in over his head–leading to his seeking help from future friend Lando Calrissian and his ship, the legendary Millennium Falcon, for one last big score that will make all their problems disappear. But Han still has a lot to learn, including that in the wild, wild west of the galactic wilderness, the cardinal rule to live by is: trust no one.

I went into Solo with very mixed feelings–as much as I like Han Solo, how will an additional movie just focused on him give me something I couldn’t have guessed before? It all felt slightly unnecessary. Also, there were stories of terrible acting performances by the leads that necessitated extensive reshoots during production–rumors that I’m glad to say were greatly exaggerated, even if the movie as a whole was ultimately forgettable.

First off, the cast. For all my reservations, Alden Ehrenreich does a pretty good job of playing a young Harrison Ford–the portrayal isn’t as spot-on as others I’ve seen in the past (like Josh Brolin’s young Agent K in Men in Black 3), but it’s solid nonetheless and I enjoyed watching him to his thing. The swagger, confidence, and cheeky cracks are all there, even if this version of Han is a bit more wet behind the ears, trusting, and idealistic than the disillusioned rebel we meet in A New Hope. Old Han would never have let the rebels get away with the money in the end–he would probably have just kept it for himself, something I found a bit out of character for the Solo I’m used to. Not perfect, but definitely entertaining.

While other side characters like Beckett (Woody Harrelson is predictably solid, if not great) the rabble-rousing droid L3 (wonderful job by Phoebe Waller-Bridge creating this hilarious firebrand of a character), and of course Chewbacca (seriously, how do you really screw Chewie up?) were good as well, the breakout star of the film was Donald Glover’s take on young Lando–as I suspected before even seeing him on screen. Glover is one of the most talented young actors of our generation, and he plays Billy Dee Williams’ mannerisms, voice patterns, and quirks to a tee here. He’s basically the same guy we met in The Empire Strikes Back except younger, and we get even a little more depth from him here, even if it’s not especially lasting.

Where the movie falls flat is, shockingly, Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke, who plays Qi’ra. I was just never sold on her character overall because there’s no real chemistry between her and Ehrenreich and we’re just not told enough about her for me to truly feel like I care what happens to her. Her betrayal at the end of the movie may have surprised Han, but let’s be honest–the whole thing was telegraphed such that I could see it coming a mile away. She didn’t really emote, wasn’t that captivating when she was in the picture, and in the end her role as a love interest kind of fell flat for me. If the point was to show her as a bit heartless and ambitious, then that’s all well and good, but I have to at least care about her a little bit, and I’m not sure I did here.

Addressing the story, what we see here is an often exciting and fun ride, but one that, again, doesn’t actually add all that much to the Star Wars universe when you sit back and think about it. How much of this could you not have just guessed by looking at who Han Solo is in the original movies? It feels like Disney felt the pressure to go for a cash-grab by making a movie about the single most beloved character in Star Wars, for no reason other than, well, why not? Everything makes sense for the most part and there aren’t that many plot holes to speak of, but things come off as just slightly too generic and hollow for me as a sci-fi action/adventure flick–definitely good, but well short of the greatness I think it could easily have achieved. But on a side note, the big surprise cameo by Darth Maul at the end went a long way toward locating this in the Star Wars universe and making its story relevant–watch the TV series Rebels for more on how it ties in. Is it too much to ask for for more Maul appearances?

I think my lack of feeling from Solo also comes from its failure to differentiate itself from past Star Wars movies. I had the same problem with the much better-received Rogue One–for all its bluster and feinted attempts at making itself stand out from what came before, these stand-alone Star Wars stories just aren’t as good as the trilogies. It’s mostly because Disney plays it way too safe and keeps their directors’ desires to be different in careful check so they don’t stray from the general feel-good, family-friendly entertainment Disney is known for. Rogue One could easily had been Inglorious Basterds in space–a dark and gritty take on Star Wars with bloodshed and violence galore, as well as flawed, troubled characters, to illustrate that the conflict between the Rebels and the Empire isn’t all fun and games, but in the end it settled for a slightly darker than normal but mostly typical Star Wars movie. Solo was the same–for all its billing as a space western and what I was expecting that would entail, it wasn’t a western at all, or even a heist movie in-genre like Marvel’s awesome Ant-Man. It was just more good-time Star Wars fun when it could have been so much more.

My Rating: 7/10

Look, Solo isn’t bad at all: it’s just nothing close to what I hoped it would be, and it failed to truly break away from the pack of Star Wars movies and give us something new. As a result, it was a fun and undoubtedly wild ride, but one that felt pretty predictable and overall was forgettable. If you want some sci-fi fun within a familiar universe, you’ll probably like it. But if you’re feeling more adventurous and hoping for a movie that pushes boundaries or blazes new trails, you’re out of luck. Oh well. Let’s just hope that upcoming Boba Fett movie can take the lead on that front!

Review of the Week–Deadpool 2

Hi everyone! Sorry for the long wait since my last post, but I’ve been quite busy recently and I wanted to take some time to make sure I actually saw some new movies to talk to you about. So here goes.

I’m sure it goes without saying that most people feel a sequel that surpasses its original movie is a rarity, if not an impossibility. But I truly think I’ve found one that does in the follow-up to 2016’s smash hit Deadpool–surprise, it’s Deadpool 2!

After establishing himself as an international assassin for hire (busting only bad guys of course), Wade Wilson has finally found happiness again as he and his girlfriend Vanessa agree to start a family together. But it’s all cruelly ripped away in a flash as a bungled job results in Vanessa’s death, and a distraught Wade contemplates–and unsuccessfully attempts–suicide, ignoring his friends on the X-Men and their desire to help him become a better person. But Wade finds a new purpose in protecting Russell, a young mutant with explosive powers and a painful past, from the time-traveling cyborg soldier Cable, who’s out to kill Russell before he can murder Cable’s family in the future. The ensuing adventure leads Deadpool on an epic and epically funny crusade to save Russell’s soul before it’s too late–and in the process possibly saving his own.

Look, I really, really liked the first Deadpool, but even I’ll admit that there wasn’t that much to the movie. The main joy of watching it was seeing it violate the generally family-friendly tropes of superhero films and listen to the main character’s fourth wall-breaking, constantly inappropriate but hilarious quips as he engaged in gruesome hand-to-hand combat. Sure, the Wade/Vanessa romance was there (incidentally one of the best on-screen love stories I think I’ve ever witnessed, truly), but mostly Deadpool was a revenge story like Kill BillDjango Unchained, or something like that–it was about Wade on a quest to avenge himself on the person who wronged him. It was also about fan service, and giving audiences a real Deadpool to enjoy as compared to the toned-down, highly altered, and frankly crappy versions of the character done in the past.

Deadpool 2, however, is a different story. I won’t lie, I was frequently moved to tears by the emotional depth of the film, which strange as it may sound is quite overpowering. The Wade/Vanessa romance gets so much more powerful after Vanessa dies–weird, but true because you see how devastated he is without her and it’s heartbreaking. It shows that while he may be the famous “Merc with a Mouth” and incorrigible rogue that we all know and love, Deadpool is in the end still just a human being like us, even if he’s an incredibly flawed and strange one. That’s something his comic books never really got at, but that’s needed for a feature film to feel real, and Ryan Reynolds once again delivered to prove that Deadpool is the role he was born to play. He was still funny, but the scenes where his inner pain showed were incredibly powerful and real, and that made the funny parts even funnier, if that makes sense.

The rest of the cast is, of course, in stellar form. I mean, I was a bit put off that basically all the members of the X-Force team, especially characters like Shatterstar who were so cool in the comics, bit the dust about ten minutes after they were introduced, but they weren’t the point of the movie so I was willing to overlook it. The good ones made it, anyway, and by good ones I mostly mean Zazie Beetz as Domino–who I think was the real breakout star of the film. She stole pretty much every scene she was in with her just completely amoral yet charmingly carefree attitude and casual badassery–even if the whole “luck” superpower is actually incredibly overpowered and ill-defined. I look forward to seeing her in future X-Men movies. Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead were back in style too, with the latter being involved in a same sex relationship (yay for great representations of diversity!) and the former showing meaningful character development since the first film in not so much having a stick up his backside. Very welcome.

Finally, Josh Brolin once again proves he can do it all in his turn as the “villain” of the movie, Cable–who isn’t really that bad of a guy once you get to know him. The beauty of his performance was in the subtle things. Sure, it was awesome watching him and Deadpool go toe to toe physically and verbally abuse each other, but it was clear especially later in the film that despite their differences, they have a lot in common. If Deadpool 3 becomes a thing, I truly hope that it will be a buddy-cop movie featuring both Deadpool and Cable together–their team-ups in the comics were awesome, and I feel a film with these two actors bouncing off each other would be nothing short of amazing.

Sure, there was still a lot of shameless fan service in this movie–from the appearance of iconic characters like Cable and the Juggernaut (!!!) to the brief glimpse of the actual X-Men team and even the references to Wolverine–but the things that made Deadpool 2 such a powerful sequel was that it did a lot to build on the world established by its predecessor, something a lot of movies fail to do. It showed Deadpool himself as a human being who was relatable to the other characters for reasons outside simply having powers like them–his death scene at the end really choked me up, even though I was laughing through my tears, and I can’t have been the only one. The way Cable then chose to change his ways and save Deadpool’s life based on that was also incredibly touching, and it was clear that though he denied it, Cable feels he’s found a kindred spirit in Deadpool and wants to keep him around.

The core issue I had with Deadpool 2 is that this movie is incredibly ambitious–there’s a ton going on at once, if we’re being honest, and it’s a lot to jam into a two-hour film–and as a consequence, more than once the story threatened to buckle under the tremendous weight of all its elements. It lead to some rather annoying continuity errors, like what the nature of Cable’s time travel is. I mean, if Cable went back to stop Wade from getting shot, how come there weren’t two Cables in the past? Is this movie following the Back to the Future theory of time travel, where you have to be careful not to run into your alternate self, or the Seven Days model where objects from the future replace their counterparts in the past. If it’s the latter, I don’t buy it–I’ve always found that theory doesn’t hold a lot of water. I get that explaining theories of time-travel isn’t the point of this movie, but still. Also, why did Russell get sent to the Icebox with Wade? From what I could tell, before Deadpool shot anyone the authorities were perfectly content to let Russell stay at the boarding school–one cop even proposed sending him to the prison but was shouted down by multiple people. So how did Deadpool’s actions change what it meant for Russell, who didn’t do anything new? It really bothered me. Oh, and what was with NTW and Yukio fixing the time-travel thingy so it works infinitely now? Huh?

I know it sounds petty, but these are the kind of issues that drive me crazy–inconsistencies that could be resolved with a few simple lines of dialogue that wouldn’t take up any time, but that are let go and the movie suffers as a result. It’s an easy fix, really. You’d think people would be more careful about these things.

In addition, while I thought the mid-credits epilogue with Deadpool jumping all around the timeline was hilarious, I was somewhat troubled by the idea that he was able to save Vanessa after all. Again, as this was intended mainly for humor, I’m not sure how canon any of that was, or whether it will have any impact at all on the story going forward. But assuming it did, that means the entirety of Deadpool 2 basically didn’t happen, Vanessa lives, and none of the characters involved get the development that they had in the film. That really bugs me. If and when Deadpool 3 comes out, I’ll be interested to see how this is addressed–as a joke or a real thing that happened. If it’s real, I worry that not only will this movie be invalidated and its truly heart-warming conclusion scrubbed clean, but the writers will have painted themselves into a corner as to what to do next. I think this might be one of those cases like Harry Potter where things were just better left alone.

My Rating: 9/10

Aside from my very minor issues with some storytelling devices, Deadpool 2 proved to be a vast improvement from its first installment, which is already a huge achievement seeing as the first was pretty good. While origin stories like Deadpool usually suffer from underdeveloped characters and lackluster follow-ups, Deadpool 2 will go down in movie history as one of the best sequels ever made. It’s pretty hard to top the combination of gut-busting laughs, explosive action, and genuine emotional moments that this movie lays out for you, even if some elements come off as a bit contrived or unnecessary. Deadpool 2 establishes its own identity even while keeping everything that made the first movie great and building upon it, which is really all you can ask from a good story. In summary: this film is fantastic. Go see it, like, right now.

Ask a Writer #6

Once again, welcome back to my latest “Ask a Writer” blog post, and thanks for reading! I know it’s taken a while, but I’m finally reaching the end of my backlog of questions to answer, and this last one is particularly challenging for me.

@Bibliophagist90: How do you deal with pressure from the writing community to do things a specific way?

It’s a very good question, and unfortunately not one that I really feel I have a great, ready-made answer for. That’s mostly because, frankly, I’ve never felt any kind of true pressure from my fellows writers to do anything specific. It’s true that I’m only a couple of months into my exploration of writing on Twitter and promoting myself on social media, but I can honestly say that without exception, all the fellow artists, writers, and people in general that I’ve met have been nothing but kind, interested, and supportive of me and all my ventures so far. You’ve all been really awesome!

That said, the one major difference I have noticed between myself and most of the other writers I’ve met and talked with is that while I’ve so far only pursued self-publishing options with my writing, mainly through Amazon, others seem to prefer the traditional route of finding a publishing company or an agent to shop their book around. It’s something that I wish I had the drive and courage to do, but with my schooling and general busyness in life right now, I haven’t wanted to wait who knows how long to see my book published in print. But that’s part of what I’m going back to graduate school for (studying creative writing and publishing)–to build up my repertoire and confidence to try for just that. I know Amazon tends to get a bad rap for a lot of reasons, too–it’s a giant, soulless corporation that doesn’t really give writers who publish through it a good cut of the profits. But I think that’s just the price you pay for the convenience and expedience that Amazon’s self-publishing service, CreateSpace, offers you, and I have to say, I have yet to have a bad experience with it. The only downside has been my need to aggressively promote my own work because an agent or publisher isn’t doing it for me, and obviously that puts me at a disadvantage. But for my busy life and where I’m at professionally with my writing right now, I’m happy with doing things this way and just trying to build up a body of work in an easy-to-do way.

I will say that publishing through Amazon has made my ability to independently market my book difficult. I’ve gone to many bookstores and asked about having promotional or book-signing events, only to be turned away when they hear how I got published. I get that there are business reasons for it, but it always kind of feels like a little slap in the face and maybe almost some form of writing prejudice? But I’m not going to read too much into it. My plan right now is to release the upcoming sequels to Camp Ferguson through Amazon as well because I think it would be silly to try to sell a publisher on the third book in an already-penned series alone–they probably wouldn’t do it just for the business reasons alone. But since my grad school program is focused on getting a manuscript written and ready for publishing, that story will be my first that I attempt to publish through traditional means. So I’m working on it!

I know that hasn’t really answered the question, and I know you’re looking for possibly some advice. But the truth is I haven’t felt much judgment or pressure from my fellow writers to do anything a certain way, other than the whole publishing debate–just a lot of lively discussions about the merits of different methods of writing or literary devices. One in particular that I recall is the use of flashbacks–personally, I find them a bit cliche and overused and therefore try not to use them. I think the same effect can be accomplished through some clever reworking of dialogue and seeding details throughout a story as opposed to one major, obvious exposition dump in a separate scene that distracts from the work at large. But other people swear by them as the best way to flesh out a character’s backstory, and I can’t really argue with their logic, either. I’ll admit, I’ve even used flashbacks myself, although very sparingly for the reasons I’ve listed above. An early draft of Camp Ferguson was littered with character flashbacks, and I scrapped that idea pretty quickly because things got way too in-depth, distracting, and out of control.

But if you’re really looking for advice on how to handle pressures, either perceived or more tangible, about the way your write, your choices, or your process, here’s what I’d say to you: don’t worry about it. Simple, but there it is. Do what’s best for you, and have confidence in yourself because you’ve chosen to do what is best for you and it makes you happy. If these things aren’t true, you might want to consider doing things another way. But looking back at my explanation of how I’ve been published so far, that’s what stands out to me. Do I want to aim higher at some point? Absolutely. But I have no shame for what I’ve done so far. I’m happy with my choices, and I’m willing to accept that there are some positives and negatives from them. That’s about all you can do as far as I’m concerned. I think that while many writers may have a difference of opinion on some subjects, you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere a single set of rules that everyone agrees on 100 percent for writing. And that’s the real beauty of it to me. Everyone comes at writing from different angles, different, backgrounds, and different styles, and what they create is completely, uniquely their own. If other writers really are pressuring you to adhere to some set of hard and fast rules, I think that’s kind of silly and they’d best take a good long look at their own pieces of work first.

That’s the secret, I think: just be confident and happy in the knowledge that you’re doing what’s right and best for you at the time, accept the consequences of those choices for what they are, and if you want to better yourself, continue to aim higher and work on improving the things you’re trying to work on.

Hope that helps!

Review of the Week–The Alien Saga

This week’s Review of the Week is actually going to cover more than one movie–six, to be precise! One of my favorite movies of all time is the sci-fi/horror classic Alien, and as the story continues (or is prequeled) by several other movies–some of which are good, some of which are bad, and all of which I have strong opinions on–I figured, how can I possibly talk about one without doing all of the others? So, without further ado, I give you a complete look at the Alien saga.

Note that the “review” for each movie will be quite a bit more abridged than I normally would write. I know you’ve all got places to be.

Alien (1979)

God, that’s such a crazy, crazy good tagline.

In the original installment of the saga, which takes place in the far future where humans have mastered space travel (but notably not faster-than-light speeds), the commercial towing vessel Nostromo is on its way home to Earth when its crew of blue-collar roughnecks is awakened as their computer detects a strange signal on a passing planet. Going down the surface and exploring a crashed ship, the crew unwittingly brings back aboard a nightmare that will span years to come: an alien life form that’s the perfect predator, savage, without conscience, and hungry for human flesh.

There are very, very few examples of what I would hold up as perfect movies, but Alien is one of them. Seriously, I dare you to find something wrong with this movie. You can’t do it. The depiction of space travel is suitably realistic, and its characters suitably relatable as just clueless working stiffs, that it really grounds the whole adventure to the point where you truly empathize with their plight. The dark, damp, claustrophobic settings of the Nostromo are perfect as atmosphere for the kind of chase that’s everyone’s worst nightmare. And the alien xenomorph itself is so completely alien (yes, a word I’m going to be using a lot), terrifying, and disturbing in its portrayal that it strikes to the heart of that monster under the bed fear that we all experience.

This was pretty much the first movie of its genre to focus on horror almost over the sci-fi aspects, and ask the question: what would happen if we encountered alien life that wasn’t like us? What if it was just an animal? The perfect predator? Something that had no interest in us other than how we tasted? It blazes a lot of trails in that regard, to be followed by other classics such as The Thing. Sure, blood and guts can be found in this movie, but it’s the visceral, around the corner, in the rafters scares that really steal the show here, and the slow-boiling horror of watching the hapless crew get picked off one by one. Plus, this was the beginning of the legend of Ellen Ripley: an everyday, unimportant woman who rises to the occasion, overcomes her doubts and fears, and does what needs to be done when no one else will. Ripley is a model for feminine heroines everywhere as the precise image of what a truly empowered woman should look like, and who never gives up, no matter how high the stakes are. Yeah, she’s kind of awesome.

My Rating: 10/10

Aliens (1986)

In the follow-up to Alien, Ellen Ripley is recovered after drifting through space in hibernation for decades as the last survivor of the Nostromo, having killed the alien xenomorph that killed her crew. As she struggles to overcome the trauma of what happened to her, greedy corporate interests have set in motion another catastrophe as, to get their hands on the aliens, they expose an entire colony of humans to them. To face her fear and save the colonists, Ripley joins up with a team of hotshot marines whose mission is to exterminate the creatures–but some on the force have their own agendas, and the threat may be even greater than Ripley had imagined.

Aliens is a completely different movie than Alien, in that instead of a psychological horror thriller, the film makes the abrupt and jarring shift into a guns-blazing, shoot-’em-up action movie. Normally I’d have a huge problem with a change like that as I hate big, dumb action movies, but director James Cameron somehow manages to put together a story that’s an incredibly worthy sequel and almost, but not quite, as good as the first film. It’s a completely different approach to the basic premise that Alien set forth, but it does so without sacrificing anything that made the first movie great: the slow-burn horror aspects are still here amid all the gunplay, there’s an underdog but plucky team of characters to root for, the aliens are as scary as ever (and there’s more of them!), and some of the plot threads left dangling by Alien–Ripley’s psychological state, her antipathy toward androids, and desire to be a mother again–are all brought into play and nicely resolved.

Truly, the only strike against Aliens is that its story is a bit more predictable than the first film, if only for the virtue of being a sequel, and some of the subtlety can tend to get lost amid all the explosions and gunfights. But on the other hand, it really delves into the psychology of the xenomorphs by introducing the queen and showing the creatures all working together–an opportunity not present in the first film. All in all, a superb sequel that absolutely lives up to the high bar set by Alien.

My Rating: 9/10

Alien 3 (1992)

Ugh. Now we get to the bad one.

In the aftermath of Aliens, Ellen Ripley once again finds herself in trouble as the ship carrying her and her companionjos home to Earth malfunctions and crashes on Fury 161, a penal colony planet where the extremely violent and unstable prisoners held run a refinery plant. Once again the only survivor of her crew, Ripley finds she can’t escape her past as the xenomorphs resurface, one having stowed away abroad her escape pod and matured in the refinery, and begin killing off prisoners. Waiting on a rescue that may never come, Ripley and the prisoners have to take matters into their own hands if they want to survive, and she comes face to face with the horror that’s stalked her for years once more–in a new and deeply personal way.

Just like it’s hard to find anything that went wrong with Alien, in Alien 3 it’s hard to find anything that went right. Unlike the first two movies, where the obviously dark tone was offset with beats of humor, character moments, and a genuine, gritty optimism that humanity would persevere despite all the odds that kept you on the edge of your seat, Alien 3 is a joyless slog through familiar, well-trodden territory, but with none of the things that made the first two movies so enjoyable. Sigourney Weaver seems genuinely tired of her role as Ripley, which is understandable given how much the character has been through, but not something that makes for a particularly engaging performance. Not to mention that fact that the supporting cast doesn’t give her any help–unlike in Alien or Aliens where they were generally likable, if not helpful, the prisoners and staff Ripley’s surrounded by are incredibly unlikable and dull–with the notable exception of Charles Dance, who inexplicably gets killed before anything fun happens. Otherwise, it’s basically Aliens without all the guns–seriously, no weapons are allowed on Fury. Is it just me who thinks that’s an awful, awful idea, even for a prison? It just reads like a why-not tweak of the movie formula: “Ooh, what would happen if Ripley had to face the aliens without a gun?” Not exactly inspired storytelling there. The great characters from Aliens are also tossed to the wayside without so much as a goodbye–again, perhaps realistic in its tragedy, but it just comes off as a massive missed opportunity. Also, the big “plot twist” of the story, where Ripley learns there’s an alien queen growing inside her, is an interesting development to be sure, but not one that apparently has any real consequences. So she’s got the odd pain here and there. So what? Why’s this thing taking so long? Anyone want to explain that one to me?

Look, it’s no secret that I love grim and gritty movies–but only if they have a dose of fun and spirit in there somewhere. Alienis everything the first two movies would be if you just took all the fun out of them. There’s no fun being scared by it because you’ve seen it all before, you couldn’t care less about the people involved, and the biggest horror moment of the movie (Ripley’s alien baby) is completely undersold. So I’m giving a half-baked score to a half-baked movie that was clearly only made to further a franchise.

Also, Ripley with no hair isn’t trailblazing or edgy. It’s just weird. That is all.

My Rating: 4/10

Alien Resurrection (1997)

You thought a little thing like death would stop Ellen Ripley? Well, you’d be wrong about that!

The fourth and allegedly final movie in the saga, Alien Resurrection, takes place years after Ripley’s death on Fury, as she fell into a fiery pit to kill the xenomorph queen sprouting from her chest. Government scientists have managed to use cells scavenged from the scene to clone Ripley and the alien inside her, allowing them to breed more xenomorphs and continue their research. The Ripley clone also lives, but with a strange twist: her genetic recombination with the alien has given her some of its abilities–acid blood, increased strength and agility, and an eerie ability to sense and commune with the aliens. When a mercenary crew arrives to deliver fresh bodies to feed the xenomorphs, one among them recognizes Ripley, but it’s too late: the aliens have once again broken free and wreak havoc on the ship. To make matters worse, it’s on a course back home, which means the aliens could have the chance to destroy the Earth if this crew of misfits–and a Ripley more troubled than she’s ever been–don’t end them once and for all.

I had very mixed feelings about Resurrection. On one hand, the idea of giving Ripley alien powers was pretty cool, and seeing her after all of her heartbreak, terror, and pain finally come around to embracing the aliens in the way she did was a nice change of pace for this movie, making you at times uncertain if she’s a good guy or a bad guy at this point. I’m also a fan of Winona Ryder, who plays Call, the “new” Ripley of the film: she’s a great mirror image of how Ripley used to be at the start of the saga in that she’s naive but determined and always looking to do the right thing. The two share a tense, semi-antagonistic relationship that makes for great chemistry and dramatic tension. In addition, we learn the aliens have picked up some new tricks from Ripley, like the new queen giving live birth to a half-human, half-alien offspring that eventually sides with Ripley (its true mother) to overthrow the queen. It’s truly heartbreaking to see the look of betrayal clear on its monstrous face as Ripley double-crosses it, with obvious difficulty, and lets it die in space.

On the other hand, what new did this movie really do besides that? Not much, actually. It was basically a remake of Aliens with bits of Alien 3 mashed in–all the worst bits, I might add, right down to the completely forgettable supporting cast. In the end, it makes for a decent couple hours of entertainment and a nice rebound from the utter dumpster fire that was Alien 3, but not by a lot. It’s a half-hearted attempt at best to make the franchise great again, and the end result is a movie that while it has a lot of cool ideas, just can’t seem to break free from the shadows of its much better predecessors.

My Rating: 7/10

Prometheus (2012)

Hey, did you ever wonder or care where those xenomorph things came from? Yeah, me neither. But we made a movie about it anyway!

Prometheus, named for the Greek titan of myth who brought fire and civilization to a savage humanity, is the first in a series of films that are set before the original Alien, chronicling the rise of the xenomorphs and the legacy of their “creators”, the Engineers. In the not-so-distant future, religious anthropologist Elizabeth Shaw leads an expedition on behalf of billionaire tycoon Peter Weyland to the stars and a far-off planet where they believe the creators of humanity can be found. But the members of the mission soon learn that these so-called Engineers have many secrets–among them, a mutagenic weapon that devastated their civilization and was intended for use on Earth. To stop the catastrophe, Shaw and her crew have to face down the beings that originated humanity, as well as their monstrous creations, while also facing division from within as secret agendas threaten to destroy everything.

Let’s get one thing straight–Prometheus is an Alien movie in name only. In reality there’s precious little to actually tie this alleged prequel into the series at large. The xenomorphs don’t even show up, unless you count a highly, highly questionable modified form and an origin story that doesn’t at all stand up to scrutiny. It doesn’t help that the follow-up movie, Covenant, basically renders everything that happened in this movie pointless, but we’ll get to that. Again, a large part of the failure lies with the cast of Prometheus. Despite some truly great talents in Charlize Theron and Noomi Rapace, nobody really manages to wow with their performances in what seems just like a pantomime version of an Alien movie without any actual aliens. The sole stand-out is Michael Fassbender’s sociopathic android David, who’s probably as close to the true villain of the film as there actually is one–again, a questionable proposition.

Honestly, if Prometheus was just marketed as its own kind of sci-fi/horror movie, with no ties to the Alien franchise, I probably would have liked it a lot more. Instead, fans everywhere were disappointed as all they left the film with were more questions and confusion than when they entered. The timeline of the whole thing is really sketchy and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. What’s more, the movie was supposed to be about man’s search for the divine–how about, I don’t know, actually spending some time talking about that instead of random alien squid baby? Yeah, that happened.

Prometheus‘s mortal flaw is that it tries to go in way too many different directions at once, and ends up doing none of them well. It’s a frustrating hodgepodge that comes off as a fumbled attempt to inject some fresh ideas and new blood into the Alien franchise.

My Rating: 6/10

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Now THAT’S what I’m talking about.

On the heels of Prometheus comes Alien: Covenant, a tale of a wayward group of space colonists who stop off at an uncharted planet when they pick up a distress call from what appears to be another human castaway (I know, familiar, right?). Upon setting down, however, they quickly learn all is not as it seems, as the wildlife-scarce and yet paradise-like planet harbors hidden dangers, including spores that mature in the body and give birth to a new breed of alien called “neomorphs”. Beset on all sides, the crew of the starship Covenant is saved by none other than David, the android from the previous film, who claims to be the only survivor of the lost Prometheus expedition. What the Covenant crew learns quickly, however, is that David is lying about nearly everything: he’s the mastermind behind the creation of the neomorphs, the destruction of the planet and the genocide of its resident Engineers, and the birth of a new race of perfect predators, the ever-familiar xenomorphs. Having graduated from sociopathic lackey to full-on super-villain psycho, David plans to use his pets to exterminate humanity, which he views as a blight on the universe, and it’s up to the rag-tag group of settlers to stop his horrific plans.

I loved Covenant. Does it retread some familiar ground from the previous films? Sure, absolutely. But it’s everything Prometheus was not: a return to form from a franchise that’s capable of greatness, a boatload of answers to the questions posed by the first prequel, and the introduction of something new for the Alien universe by placing David front and center as the antagonist rather than focusing completely on the xenomorphs.

I could spend hours gushing about David, so I’ll just boil it down to say that I think Michael Fassbender has created the single greatest sci-fi bad guy ever. David is on display from the very first scene of the movie, where he gets a lesson in callousness and cruelty from none other than his own “father”, and the wheels of doubt are set in motion to lead to the disillusioned, delusional monster we meet on the planet. Yet everything David does makes sense: he’s a creation of humanity disappointed by the flaws of his creators and wants to prove he can do better. Again, I know that other movies have covered this whole “rise of the machines” trope before, but David does it in such a visceral and human way that I can’t help but be enthralled by it. He makes the movie worth watching just for his performance alone.

Covenant also ups the ante by placing the characters not on a tight, dimly-lit, claustrophobic ship (well, mostly), but in a much more open environment that lends itself to moments of epic action that even Aliens couldn’t aspire to. It blends horror with action in a near-perfect melding of its predecessors and creates something that’s undeniably new. Not to mention the cast is just so much more likable than any of Covenant‘s more immediate predecessors: you can really root for them and feel the fear their situations brings upon them as they descend into David’s nightmarish mind.

And that ending? Oh, man. What a gut-punch. It came completely out of nowhere and I never expected it for a second, even though I probably should have. I won’t say much, but I will say it’s a cliffhanger worthy of the annals of sci-fi history. Again, something that up until this point the Alien movies haven’t really toyed with all that much. But boy, did they nail it this time.

The Alien franchise is back, baby. Alien: Covenant proves it. Let’s hope all the future movies are as good as this one.

My Rating: 8/10


Long story short: if you’re in any way into sci-fi, horror, or any combination thereof, you should watch the Alien movies. Some may be better than others, but all in all, they’re well worth your time.

Ask a Writer #5

Welcome back to my “Ask a Writer” blog segment! For this week, I’m once again addressing a pair of questions from a couple of my Twitter followers who want to know about something that’s actually quite an interesting concept that varies wildly from person to person: the writing process.

@_carmenadams_: What is your writing process and are you the type to plan out the story first or so you just sit down and write whatever comes to mind?

@J_L_PIPPEN: Did you ever find that, despite having a plan, the story would take control and change direction while you wrote?

First of all, thank you both for asking these questions! I hope you don’t mind that I tied them both together, but I think my explanation of how I go about my writing personally gets to the heart of both of them.

Generally, when I have an idea for a story, I come up very quickly with solid concepts for the beginning and the end. I know how I want to introduce the story to the audience, bring in the characters involved, and set up the plot for the overall journey that’s going to take place. In addition, I usually have a pretty good idea of where I want things to end up by the last page, what becomes of the characters I’ve introduced, any kind of climactic moments, and the resolution of the particular story’s narrative tension. So in that sense, yes, I do have very precisely mapped-out beginnings and endings for my books when I’m in the planning stages of writing them.

It’s the middle part–basically all the rest in between–that’s a little fuzzy. If what you mean by asking about my writing process is partly whether I take notes or make outlines, then yes, I do. All the time. Whenever I have a new idea of some kind I’ll make sure I jot it down, sometimes in a precise location if I know a chapter where it could fit or a point in the story it makes most sense to be in. Since I was quite a note-taker and outliner in school, those habits have somewhat carried over to my writing: I’ll usually group a few bullet points under each chapter heading summarizing what I want to have happen in that chapter (the major developments) and keep track that way. I also can pretty quickly figure out how long I want the story to be just because most of my grand, big ideas fill things up and then it’s just up to me to fit in the little details as I go along.

But, and this is where the second question comes into play, if you’re asking if my notes are any more detailed than very vague generalities, the answer is no. I don’t make plans for dialogue in any given chapter before I sit down to write it (unless there’s a particularly good line, or gag, or joke that I’ve thought of and made a note for beforehand), and I just kind of let things flow and see what happens. This often results in a lot of changes from what I originally thought things were going to look like, as I have a tendency to ramble on a bit in my writing and make chapters much longer than I thought they were going to be. What can I say? I have way, way too much fun creating, so I can’t stop sometimes. This can force me to push certain developments or other parts of the story that I was sure were going to be incorporated into one chapter into the next, or another entirely. Plus, I often switch around my chapter orders chronologically because I’ll discover that certain events don’t make sense as early or late in the story as I thought they did.

For example, I’ll use a chapter of Jack Ferguson Strikes Back (the sequel to Camp Ferguson I’m currently developing) to show you what I mean. In said chapter, bad-boy anti-hero Drake goes back in time to the Wild West to recover a very powerful magical artifact that greatly furthers his character development in the story (not too many spoilers!). He also ends up getting in a fight with an armed gang of desperadoes and uses the magic of the artifact, a flaming sword, to single-handedly defeat them in a display of his bad-assery and magical prowess. I also know I wanted to introduce the ancestors of several of my main characters into the western setting as a running gag and make fun of some of the genre’s tropes, along with a time-travel gag where Drake runs into his own ancestor–by all accounts a trusting, generous, and kindly man–and influence him to turn cynical, selfish, and more like the Drake we all know and love. Those are the bullet points I start with when I’m writing the chapter. But beyond that, I don’t really know what’s going to happen: I just try to put myself in the headspace of the character I’m focusing on (in this case, Drake), and let his adventure unfold naturally. Most of the time I get so into the dialogue and come up with enough ideas while I’m writing that these things generally write themselves. I also try to keep an eye on chapter length while I’m writing and if it looks like a certain part is dragging on for too long, I either go back and cut it in editing or simply see if I can shove some of the material I haven’t used yet further back into the story.

The inspiration to create this chapter came from my desire to have a solo-Drake adventure, as he’s one of my favorite characters to write and I felt he’d been sidelined a bit in the early chapters of the story. I also wanted to reassert for the audience the fact that he is indeed a very skilled and powerful wizard, and the recovery of the Dragon Sword (that’s what it’s called) constitutes a huge plot point for reasons I’m not ready to go into right now. Obviously who else would wield the sword but Drake, who loves fire magic? It made the most sense for him to be the one to find it. I was also dying to throw in a time-travel story (trust me, it makes sense if you read the book), and the Old West is so ripe for parody that it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Drake already sort of styles himself as a gunslinger, so he fit right into this narrative I was trying to create. Thus all the ideas came together, and a chapter was born.

A big part of my writing process, especially with Camp Ferguson, is that I’ll get inspiration from certain other works that I’ve consumed and want to use something related to or like them in my own story–usually in a sort of satirical or parody format. For instance, in Jack Ferguson Strikes Back, I knew I wanted there to be a chapter where the main characters attempt to escape from Camp Prospero in a parody of something like The Great Escape or Hogan’s Heroes. I had no idea of the specific details or how I was going to do that. But then the other day, I was randomly thinking about another one of my favorite movies, Ocean’s 11 (probably because of the remake coming out), and suddenly a lightbulb went off in my brain: how cool would it be to make the escape attempt like a crime job, where one of the characters goes through recruiting the others as helpers in a satire of the Ocean’s 11 style? I could combine the two ideas into one super-idea and it would still make sense. So how deep did I want to go with this? Did I want to have this character coming back as though out of prison–in this case, the camp stockade or confinement to quarters? If so, let’s work backward: how would it make sense for something like that to have happened in the first place, and can I drop the seeds of it in earlier chapters? And most importantly of all, which character would make the most sense to put into a role like that? I’m not going to answer all of these questions, by the way: you’ll have to read the book when it comes out to find out how I did it.

Of course, I acknowledge that this probably isn’t everyone’s writing style, and wouldn’t work for all people. I’m just trying to give you a little insight into how I do things. While I can certainly appreciate people who meticulously plan and outline their stories from beginning to end, that kind of thing just isn’t me. I like to let things roll, with a few general guidelines to follow, and just see what comes out. Sometimes this results in some rough edges that need to be smoothed over, or jarring transitions that need polishing up. But hey, that’s what the editing process is for.

Catch you all next time!

Review of the Week–The Incredibles

Yes, I know: I’m going straight back to another superhero movie. But can you blame me? It’s probably one of the better ones out there, if not THE best, even though it’s animated and not live-action. But this week, in honor of its upcoming sequel (FINALLY!), I’m talking about the one and only Pixar hero flick, The Incredibles.

Can you believe it’s been almost 15 years since this first came out? Crazy, right? Well let me tell you, even after all that time, The Incredibles has still aged–umm–incredibly well, and can stand tall with the best that Marvel and DC have to offer.

The Incredibles takes place in a modern-day world where superheroes are real, but relegated to living in hiding. Flashbacks at the beginning of the film show the adventures of Bob Parr, also known as Mr. Incredible, as he saves a man who didn’t want to be saved and sets off a chain reaction of lawsuits against himself and other “supers” that results in government action to shut down out-of-control heroes once and for all. Under a witness protection-style agreement, heroes like Bob are now average, everyday citizens, forced to conceal their powers from the world–with mixed results. After slipping up and losing his job, Bob finds himself contacted by a mysterious benefactor who offers to let him resume the hero work he misses so much. But Mr. Incredible gets more than he bargained for when a figure from his past returns as a powerful adversary with plans to dominate the world, and he’ll have to enlist all the help he can get–his super wife Ellen, a.k.a. Elastagirl, kids Dash and Violet, longtime family friend Frozone, and hero fashion designer Edna Mode–to stop this madman’s master plan.

The only strike I can really give against The Incredibles as a film is that, if you really break it down and look hard, you can see that most of its component parts aren’t really that original, and are in fact salvaged from various other takes on the superhero genre. Certainly the characters themselves are styled after existing, established comic book heroes like the Flash, Superman, Mr. Fantastic, and the Invisible Woman, just to name a few. Also, the idea of outlawing superheroes was probably taken from Watchmen, the famous dystopian retelling of the usual hero story. But admittedly, there’s only so far you can go with creating original superhero stories these days because they’re so played out and familiar at this point. Where The Incredibles finds great success, however, is in poking fun (respectfully, of course) at the genre itself while at the same time delivering a compelling, family-focused story with a large ensemble cast that really hits home for the viewer.

From a plot standpoint, it’s hard to criticize the movie: it all makes pretty much perfect sense and you can’t argue with its logic. The idea of young Buddy using his anger at Mr. Incredible’s rejection of him to become a super villain, and such a compelling one at that, was a stroke of genius in terms of storytelling, and was quite a powerful way to drive the conflict. There’s definitely inner-family conflict as well, both with sibling rivalry between Violet and Dash and Ellen’s desire for Bob to stop seeking out opportunities to be a hero and live a quiet life–being the hero his kids need instead of one the world wants. It’s all somewhat family-focused and maybe a little cheesy, but I don’t have a problem with it. There’s a ton of heart in The Incredibles because of the realism it gives to the family unit–imperfect, certainly, but far from the dark, dysfunctional characters of Watchmen, for example. Even in the conflict, there’s a sense of joy, wonder, and fun in everything the movie does, along with a somewhat old-timey sensibility conveyed by the musical score that evokes the classic superhero stories of decades past. It’s all very nostalgic for anyone who’s really into comics.

Most of the humor in The Incredibles comes from its unique spin on superhero storytelling, and using the tried-and-true tropes of the genre to play with the audience’s perceptions a bit. Probably the most famous line of the movie, “No capes!”, is a great example of this. Everyone kind of imagines heroes in capes, like Batman and Superman, right? They all have them. But in a practical, real-world setting, how does a cape make sense? It potentially causes way more problems than it solves, as a simple fashion statement can mean the difference in a life-or-death situation. We see this kind of thing happen all the time all around us, and the idea of heroes being done in by their own costume vanity is brilliant–again, a point brought back around home when Syndrome gets his comeuppance in the finale. It’s an interesting point that if you compare the devastation and destruction that the film’s fight scenes wreak across various settings, you’d have to admit that there’s a lot more jeopardy and darker overtones in this movie than a lot of Pixar’s fare–compare this to something like Finding Nemo and there’s just no contest. Personally, I don’t mind the upped stakes and greater tension, but I guess there’s a chance some families might not want to show it to young kids. I don’t think that idea holds a lot of water, but still.

The movie also plays with so many different ideas that we all face in our everyday lives–midlife crisis, child neglect, celebration of achievement, idolizing heroes, balance of power, and so much more. This is what makes The Incredibles a truly great movie: it’s about a world that’s definitely a fantasy, true, but also so grounded and relatable that you can’t help but get drawn into the story. It’s certainly loads more fun to watch than anything DC has done recently, that’s for sure.

My Rating: 9/10

The Incredibles easily ranks as one of my favorite movies ever, and definitely as the best animated movie I’ve ever seen, and I’d highly recommend it to pretty much anyone. Its appeal to the kids in us who marvel at the daring deeds of superheroes, married to the realistic emotional center that is the family drama and other real-world issues, creates a perfect mix for storytelling in an entertaining but meaningful fashion. It’s really at its core a family movie, not such much a superhero movie, just that the characters happen to have powers. It’s super-quotable, with a star-studded voice cast and truly beautiful cinematography that echoes the days gone by of classic Christopher Reeve Superman or serials like The Green Hornet. All in all, totally worth every minute of the time you spend watching it. If you haven’t seen The Incredibles yet, definitely do it before the sequel comes out!