Bits And Pieces

My sister-in-law is partway through her final check of the Action Figures manuscript, and so far the errors are few and far between. She probably won’t be done by the end of the month as hoped, but as long as I can meet my goal of getting the book out to the public sometime in August, I can deal.

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The willing suspension of disbelief is always an interesting study in contrasts, and my wife and I had some stark differences of opinion about Pacific Rim, which we saw on Saturday. I grew up on Japanese movies and cartoons featuring giant monsters and robots fighting it out, so the movie was great fun for me; I wanted big-ass robots fighting big-ass monsters, and that’s what I got, and I was content.

Veronica, however, couldn’t forgive the idea that the best way to fight gigantic city-wrecking monsters was with titanic robots that, for the most part, did nothing but punch them. She thought it was stupid, and yeah, from a very practical, realistic perspective, it is a dumb idea…but I didn’t bat an eye because, in the context of this movie, it made perfect sense.

The irony is when we went to the theater the next day to see RED 2, which she enjoyed a lot and I found entertaining enough, but not great. I reminded her that the original RED featured Bruce Willis stepping out of a car in mid-spin and, somehow, avoiding having his legs swept out from under him by the tail end by walking at a normal pace, and John Malkovich shooting an anti-tank rocket out of the air with a handgun. Those things, she had no problem with.

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After sitting on my Netflix queue forever, I fired up SyFy‘s The Dresden Files series from 2007. I expected some changes from Jim Butcher‘s novel series (one I recommend picking up, BTW, because the books are damned addictive) because of the jump from printed medium to visual, but I’m finding myself struggling to like the TV version.

I understand that a straight adaptation of the series might have been problematic due to the depth of the source material and the limitations of the budget (which are very obvious at times), and a more streamlined version made the show more practical to produce and more accessible to non-fans, but some of the changes feel arbitrary or not fully thought out.

The changes I like, or at least am okay with:

* Giving Bob the skull — in the novels a spirit of knowledge who appears mostly as, well, a skull — a human appearance and making him more of a sidekick. The novels are told from a first-person perspective, so a lot of the text is Harry Dresden’s internal monolog. Having Harry self-narrate constantly would get annoying fast, so having someone to talk to addresses the issue.

* Turning Harry’s staff and blasting rod into a hockey stick and a drumstick. I’m only partway through the 12-episode run, so this may be addressed at some point, but it looks like the show made Harry’s distinctively wizard-y tools more mundane in appearance to explain why he carries them around Chicago and no one much bats an eye.

Changes I don’t like and/or don’t get:

* Changing Lieutenant Karrin Murphy — Harry’s Chicago PD connection — into Connie Murphy. The name change has no point.

* The same goes for the White Council, the wizarding world’s inner circle, into the “High Council.” I think viewers could have grasped the concept without the name change.

* Back to Lt. Murphy: she has a kid in the show. In the books, her lack of interest in becoming a parent is a rather significant element of her character. Again, having seen only about half the run, the son may become a story point, and it strikes me as the only reason why the show gave her a child: for the sake of a future storyline.

* The magic. The rules of magic in the TV setting, if they exist, are unclear, and Harry doesn’t use much magic. In five episodes he’s used his staff once, his shield bracelet once, his blasting rod (his “magic wand” in the show) twice (in a situation in which he should not have even had it on him), his pentacle not at all, and other applications of spellcraft have been few and far-between. I imagine budgetary constraints played into this.

I could go on at length, but I won’t. I’ll probably watch the show through (it’s only 12 episodes) and then go back to devouring the books.

Kill All Cliches! – Teen Edition

In an effort to get this blog a little more active again, I’m going to ramble on a bit about some cliches in writing that I think need to be eradicated.

One thing I realized about cliches is that they can be surprisingly insidious. Sure, we all know the horror movie cliche of the fake-out scare — victim thinks something is lurking behind a curtain, in a closet, etc., jumps forward to confront what turns out to be a non-existent threat, breathes a sigh of relief, turns around — BOO! But there are cliches that are less obvious but just as commonplace, what you could alternately call “writer’s shorthand” or, less charitably, lazy writing.

Some of these came to mind while I was working on Action Figures, which is set amidst the world of teenagers, a setting that most adult writers have reduced to a list of tired cliches because A) they’re lazy and/or B) they’ve completely forgotten what high school was like.

In one scene the main character, Carrie, encounters in the lunch room a table full of jocks and cheerleaders — a bit of a cliche in and of itself, but one more based in reality than other tropes; people tend to sit with their friends, and in high school friendships often arise from shared interests, so it’s not unreasonable to have the sports-oriented kids sitting together.

The cliche kicks in with the portrayal of said table. In TV or movies, 99 times out of 100 all the guys at the table will be wearing their varsity jackets and all the girls will be in their cheerleader regalia. From a practical standpoint, this is the quickest and easiest way to tell the audience This person is a jock/cheerleader. It takes no dialog from any of the characters to get the point across. And yet, I HATE this trick because it is something I personally never witnessed as a high school student or in my years covering a local high school for my hometown newspaper, so I approached the scene with this bit of first-person perspective narrative:

I’m guessing that it’s a jock/cheerleader table based on the fact a couple of the guys are built like refrigerators. You see, unlike high schools as portrayed on TV, jocks and cheerleaders do not constantly wear their uniforms during the school day. I mean, come on.

Writers use similar shorthand for other stereotypes: the brainiacs wear glasses and carry lots of books, the geeks/nerds have zits and wear T-shirts emblazoned with super-hero logos, stoners have long hair and short attention spans, the outcasts wear black and have lots of piercings, etc, and yes, it gets the point across quickly, but it’s lazy writing nevertheless.

Another favorite of mine is the after-school job scene, which often involves: a McJob at a very gimmicky fast food restaurant; which requires the employees to wear embarrassing hats; and to greet invariably surly customers with forced cheer and a cheesy slogan; all the while suffering under the thumb of a tyrannical boss who views his job as far more important than it really is; who at one point will make the employee perform some nauseatingly humiliating task.

See, people? The job sucks! It’s sooooooooooooo terrible!

I think the American public knows that working at a fast-food joint blows, even if they themselves have never worked at one. Put a person behind the counter at McDonald’s or Burger King and that’s all you need to elicit sympathy or pity. The audience doesn’t need to be beaten over the head with it.

The Secret Origin Of Secret Origins

I recently heard a gripe about the upcoming film The Amazing Spider-Man, but it wasn’t the gripe I was expecting.

Me, I’m irked at Hollywood for rebooting the Spider-Man franchise all of a decade after Sam Raimi’s perfectly awesome 2002 film, but I heard someone crab that yet another super-hero movie was adapting a character’s origin story.

I’ve heard this complaint before, usually from film critics who were tired of Hollywood doing origin stories instead of all-new adventures, but from a writing perspective, it’s an extremely logical choice.

My first argument is that not everyone knows a particular character’s backstory and, from a business perspective, studios need to capture a wide audience, not just the fanboys, to make their money. To do that, they need to introduce the character to the masses, and what better way than by telling the story that made the hero a hero?

Sure, you’d be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn’t know that Superman is the sole survivor of the exploding planet Krypton or that Bruce Wayne launched his crime-fighting crusade after his parents were gunned down by a mugger, but I dare you to find anyone outside the comic-reading community who can give you the origin of, say, the Flash or Dr. Strange off the top of his head.

Second, and more importantly, by doing an origin story the movie gets to easily honor one of the most important rules of storytelling: characters should come out of the story different than how they went in.

To use Spider-Man as an easy example, the character of Peter Parker starts his story as a shy, withdrawn nerd with no friends and little going for him beyond a talent for science and a loving family in Uncle Ben and Aunt May. After he gets bitten by a radioactive (or genetically engineered, depending on which interpretation you’re presenting) spider, he gains super-powers that also grant him a new sense of confidence…a sense of confidence that quickly becomes self-centered arrogance, and that ego balloon is popped in a huge way when his selfishness winds up costing him his uncle.

That’s a great character arc, filled with drama, tragedy, and self-discovery, and Peter is definitely a changed man by the end of the story. Why wouldn’t you use it? It’s infinitely more interesting than your standard “good guy fights the bad guy” action plot.

Keeping Pace

Let me get this out of the way first: screw the Super Bowl. Couldn’t care less.

Instead of non-stop football bullshit, I’m puttering around the house today, doing some light cleaning while my usual background noise of bad horror movies drones on. My current viewing is Deadfall Trail, a tale of three men who go on your standard trip into the woods that goes awry, and it took maybe 15 minutes to make a common but crucial mistake of jumping the gun on the pacing of the story.

(Warning: spoilers ahead!)

Particularly with horror films and thrillers, the strongest stories build over time, starting off slow and quiet and ratcheting up the conflict and tension in increments. It would be easy to cite The Exorcist as a great example of this, but as I’m in a low-budget frame of mind, I’ll instead mention Grave Encounters, a “found footage” deal in which a team of ghost hunters enter an abandoned mental hospital and, well, bad stuff happens…but not for a good long while, and the worst of it doesn’t happen within the first act.

In Deadfall Trail, however, the characters are resorting to drinking their own urine to stave off death by thirst halfway through act one, declaring with teeth-gritting determination that they’re doing what they need to to survive. Drinking your own piss, fresh from the tap, is third-act desperation. Nothing feels quite as drastic after that. In harrowing tales of survival, the drama derives from watching the characters struggle on in the face of ever-worsening conditions, hitting a breakdown point, and then rebuilding themselves and fighting for their lives with renewed ferocity. When the characters break down after the first 15 minutes, you’d better have some industrial-strength shitstorm on the horizon or you’re just wasting the rest of the movie.

(Just ask the producers of 24, who in season six set off a nuke in the fourth episode and had nowhere to go for the next 20.)

Hillside Cannibals, The Asylum‘s knock-off of The Hills Have Eyes remake, makes the same mistake. A half-dozen victim characters head into the desert and are attacked by a clan of inbred cannibals — and 15 minutes after the opening credits four of them are dead, one is captured, and the other is on the run. The rest of the movie is pure tedium as the two survivors are tortured and pursued, and occasionally a random group of new victims wanders in to be unceremoniously slaughtered minutes after they show up.

In news writing, the standard model is the “inverted pyramid,” where you start with the most important stuff first and work your way down to the trivial details. I’d say that in fiction storytelling the pyramid should* be inverted to its normal pyramidal** position so you start small and work your way up to the good stuff, building conflict and tension — therefore, the readers’/viewers’ anticipation — over time. The payoff is the reward for making it to the end, not the reward for starting the story in the first place.

* There are always exceptions to any rule, but if you don’t fully understand the rule, you shouldn’t be breaking it.

** The spellchecker isn’t registering “pyramidal” as a non-word. And here I am, thinking I’m making a contribution to the English vocabulary.

Whine And Women

While I was submitting Action Figures to publishers the other week, I noticed an interesting theme running through their submissions guidelines pages. When it came to young adult fiction submissions, two phrases came up time and again, the first of which was “no vampires.”

The second — and I am presenting something of a composite phrasing here — was: “We are interested in stories with strong, proactive heroines; no whiny, angst-ridden female leads, please.”

I don’t think it’s a stretch to trace both of these to the Twilight novels, which have spawned a legion of copycats and, judging by the moratorium on Bella Swan-like characters, wannabes, complete with wussy, shallow female protagonists who spend their time wallowing in anxiety and being led around by the nose by their male love interests.

(I say all this freely admitting I have never read any of the books or seen any of the movies. My knowledge of the Bella Swan character comes mostly from critical reviews and from friends who have read the books and told me, quite emphatically, how much they hated Bella because she was nothing but a self-obsessed lovelorn wimp.)

On one level, I am not a fan of female leads who are so, for want of a better term, damsel-in-distressy. It’s tough to root for a character whose primary, if not sole motivation is to win the man of her dreams, a goal she achieves by simply being there for said dreamboat to rescue from whatever threat presents itself. They’re not much fun to read and they’re no fun to write.

Conversely, I’m also displeased with how often stories sometimes go out of their way to empower their female leads, particularly in period pieces. I readily acknowledge that history had its fair share of real-life Xenas, from Boudicca to Joan of Arc, but what made these figures so extraordinary is that they were very much the exception to the rule. Most women of ancient history were not bad-asses; they were more likely to be in the role of damsel in distress.

Creating a weak female character is a tricky task, if for no other reason than the reception she’s likely to receive from the audience. There’s little tolerance for portrayals of the woman as a victim, a doormat, a prize — even a sexpot or a femme fatale can be subject to scathing criticism for embracing their beauty and sexuality over their more profound qualities.

The question for the writer is: what serves the story better? If the story calls for a strong, smart, independent woman to make things happen, great. I’m happy to write a character like that (and I do in Action Figures. The main character is one of my favorite creations).

But sometimes, a different approach is necessary. In Bostonia, I have two female leads who are definitely not cast from the strong protagonist mold. I could describe both of them as broken people, individuals who have been crushed by their life experiences and have adapted in their own ways to deal with it, neither of these ways all that great. One is reactive, passive, afraid of herself; the other is more proactive and takes shit from no one, but she is also selfish, self-destructive, filled with self-loathing. Neither of them are heroes in a true sense, but they are what that story needed, and I can’t bring myself to offer even a false apology for that.

However, I will reiterate that writing more positive female characters is much more gratifying and fun. I’ll close on an up note and present some of my all-time favorite female characters.

Ellen RipleyAliens

Sigourney Weaver’s iconic sci-fi heroine ends up on just about every list of great movie characters, female or otherwise, and there’s a damn good reason for that: she belongs there.

Ripley is the godmother of the modern action heroine, not because of her capacity to kick ass, but for why she does so: the thing that galvanizes Ripley, that allows her to break free of her crippling fear of the titular xenomorphs and crushing survivor’s guilt is the overpowering need to protect her child — or surrogate, in this case, the young survivor Newt.

Before Newt enters the picture (so to speak), Ripley is literally along for the ride, but then this little girl falls into her lap, and from that point on, everything she does is for the sake of getting her de facto daughter out of hell alive.

(If you’ve never seen the director’s cut of Aliens, rectify that as soon as possible. There is a crucial deleted scene that fleshes out the Ripley/Newt relationship to a much more profound degree than is presented in the already excellent theatrical cut.)

Hermione Grangerthe Harry Potter series

Harry might have been the star of J. K. Rowling’s mega-best-selling series, but Harry wouldn’t have survived the first book without Hermione. She was more than Harry’s co-sidekick (along with Ron Weasley); she was the brains of the operation, the voice of reason, and that against which even Harry occasionally checked his moral compass.

Hermione had her girly moments throughout the series, but she wasn’t simply “the girl,” and never let anyone force her into that role. She embraced her intelligence, never backed down from a direct challenge, and never apologized for sometimes being a right royal pain in the ass — and more often than not, she was proven right in the end.

When great modern literary heroines are mentioned, Hermione is often listed in the same breath as Bella Swan, but they do not belong on the same list. Bella is what young girls should avoid becoming. Hermione is everything young girls should aspire to be.

Briar Wilkes and Mercy Lynchthe Clockwork Century series

Cherie Priest has become a favorite author of mine, and I can always count on her for brisk, exciting stories filled with colorful characters, and Briar Wilkes of Boneshaker and Mercy Lynch of Dreadnought perfectly exemplify the tough-as-nails protagonists common in her novels.

The characters are similar in that they are both haunted by their fathers (albeit in different ways), are trying to live up to their late husbands, and are driven by their familial ties — Briar by her son, who gets trapped in the deadly ruins of Seattle, Mercy by her dying father, who summons her from the front lines of the Civil War for what could be their final visit.

Despite their respective tragic backgrounds, these women never let the past crush their spirits. Instead, they are driven by their prospective futures, futures that could turn out as badly as their pasts — if they allow it. Their status as action heroines is incidental; they don’t go out looking for a fight, but they won’t back down from one if it stands between them and their goals.

Kara “Starbuck” ThraceBattlestar Galactica

The re-imagined Starbuck (as brilliantly portrayed by (Katee Sackhoff) was one of the standout characters in the new BSG, which is saying something considering what a uniformly superb cast that show had.

It’s kind of a cop-out to simply call Starbuck “tough but vulnerable.” Was she tough? Hell yes. Put her in a combat situation and she was fearless and unstoppable, but take her off the battlefield and she was a mess. Killing she could do, dying she could handle, but living scared the shit out of her.

Almost purely id-driven, Starbuck could be an incredibly frustrating character. She could be a hardcore bitch, often to people who did not deserve it. She constantly sabotaged her own happiness. The people who cared about her the most were the ones who got hurt the worst by her selfishness. It was honestly hard to like her sometimes, but she was always compelling.

Sue SylvesterGlee

I wanted to end with a great female villain, but I had a devil of a time thinking of one that truly spoke to me. There are a lot of she-devils in film, TV, and literature but few rose to iconic villain status in my mind…and then I remembered Jane Lynch’s delightfully vile cheerleading coach and kicked myself for not thinking of her sooner.

Sylvester fits a number of villainous categories: the villain you love to hate, the villain who believes she’s the hero, and the villain with a hidden softer side — and it is that last category that makes Sue a fully realized character and not just a walking one-liner delivery system.

One of the character’s defining moments came in the first season, when she allowed Becky (Lauren Potter), a student with Down’s syndrome, to join the Cheerios. The audience spent the rest of the episode wondering what her angle was, how she would use and ultimately destroy this poor girl, only to learn that Sue’s decision was utterly sincere — and that she had an older sister, Jean (Robin Trocki), who also had Down’s syndrome.

Sue’s fierce devotion to and adoration of her disabled sister stands in stark contrast to the monster that roams the halls of William KcKinley High School, and while it humanizes Sue to a great degree, it does not diminish her boundless capacity for cruelty. Indeed, it makes her moments of genuine anger all the more terrifying, because the audience knows what sort of heart beats beneath that track suit: one that, when given just cause, can fuel an engine of absolute terror.

Spoiler Theater: Scream 4

The original Scream was a case of a movie being the right tonic delivered at the right time.

Released in 1996, Scream hit theaters as the slasher genre was reaching its nadir. The Friday the 13th franchise had hit its lowest point three years earlier with Jason Goes to Hell, the Halloween franchise came to a stumbling conclusion two years previous with Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, and two years earlier horror maven Wes Craven had what proved to be his final outing with Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

The slasher genre had been, pun intended, done to death by the time screenwriter Kevin Williamson came out of nowhere with his love letter/satirical critique of the horror films of his youth, a movie that embraced the genre’s well-worn and overly familiar tropes while simultaneously playing them against a jaded audience’s expectations. It was familiar but fresh, and Scream still boasts once of the best opening sequences of any movie, horror or otherwise.

In retrospect, Scream should have been a fond farewell for a sub-genre of horror that — like Schwarzeneggarian action films with their cartoonish violence, paper-thin characters, and witty kill lines — had overstayed its welcome. The day of scantily-clad teenagers getting massacred by unstoppable serial killers armed with an array of gardening tools was over.

What we got instead was a brief revival of sorts, wherein many of the same formulas and cliches remained in full effect, but were now ironic and self-referential. Even Scream fell into the trap, spawning two strained and progressively less effective sequels.

Fast forward through the 2000s, which heralded the arrival of “torture porn,” a sub-genre steeped in brutal and protracted violence against, in most instances, unlikable characters who spiral uncontrollably toward pessimistic endings; and then the remake explosion, when every classic horror movie was re-imagined as something slicker, bloodier, darker, louder, more cynical, and less fun.

The horror films of the past decade (not counting the handful of impressive low-budget first-person POV thrillers that have spawned their own sub-genre) are the thematic foundation of Scream 4, itself a re-invention of the original that tries — and fails — to be as relevant now as the first film was at its time.

WARNING! SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!

Ten years have passed since the events of Scream 3, both in real time and in movie time. Heroine/survivor Sidney (Neve Campbell) has returned to her hometown, the site of the original murders, in time for the tenth anniversary of the original, as part of a promotional tour for her newly published biography.

Long story short, Ghostface resurfaces to hack his way through the cast, and Sidney and her fellow survivors from the first trilogy, Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers-Riler (Courteney Cox) must uncover the killer’s true identity to save their own lives, and the lives of the cast of secondary characters — a group of teens who bear some striking resemblances to the original characters.

Therein lies the movie’s problem: everything is familiar — too familiar for its own good.

Structurally, Scream 4 closely mirrors that of Scream — a fact that is pointed out by the characters after they realize the killer is “remaking” the original murders for the remake generation. In fact, the characters spend a great deal of time pointing out all the similarities, and how things might be skewed to reflect modern horror film sensibilities, and in doing so they rob the entire movie of any surprises.

Scream worked because it got the audience to look in one direction so they wouldn’t see the curve ball coming from the other direction — and the audience didn’t need to be reminded at every turn how the game was supposed to be played because they already knew, intimately and instinctively. Scream 4 didn’t work because it told us (repeatedly) how things happened in the past and how they were likely to happen differently in the present, then did exactly what it said it would do, all while echoing the first film — right down to the conceit of two characters swapping off the Ghostface identity to throw everyone off.

The final twist, that Sidney’s own cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) is the mastermind behind the new murders, lacks any serious punch because the audience has been so thoroughly coached to expect the unexpected (and it doesn’t help that Jill’s motive is lame: she resented growing up in her survivor cousin’s shadow, so she decided to stage a new massacre and cast herself as the sole survivor, this assuring wordwide fame in the age of Internet-born insta-fame).

Maybe the movie was a doomed effort because the “new rules of horror” are not as clear-cut and/or ingrained in movie audiences as the old rules were. Classic slasher movies had The Sin Factor (virtuous characters live, everyone else is fodder) and The I’ll Be Right Back Death Sentence (anyone who says “I’ll be right back”, won’t), among others, but nowadays, the only thing audiences can take for granted are that the protagonists are going to be brutalized and that there is an excellent chance that none of them will make it out alive.

(Guess which one of these new rules was utterly ignored? That’s right: once again, Sidney, Dewey, and Gale all survive.)

Nevertheless, the concept might have worked had Williamson and Craven approached the story with a lighter touch and not felt compelled to telegraph their every move. Or, to give you an appropriate contextual metaphor: they took a chainsaw to the audience’s head when they should have slit their throats with a scalpel.

Spoiler Theater: Green Lantern

Green Lantern showed up in the mail the other day, and I knew going in that this was not a well-reviewed film (it earned a painful 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.com). Not quite Catwoman bad, as comic book-based movies go, but certainly not The Dark Knight either.

It wasn’t a good movie, but it wasn’t terrible either. What it was, however, was nearly two hours of lost opportunities.

Look at the strongest of the comics-turned-films — The Dark Knight, X-Men: First Class, Iron Man — and one of the elements that makes them great is some strong characterization.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!

The big problem with Green Lantern is that none of the characters, including the title character, have an appreciable character arc, which is especially tragic since the writers had a potentially meaty arc sitting right in front of them.

I’ll start by looking at the title character, Hal Jordan. As a child, he saw his test pilot father killed in a crash, and that pivotal event winds up defining his life in a somewhat perverse way: Hal grows up to become a test pilot — a very reckless test pilot. Why would he embrace a career that killed his dad?

Geoff Johns, who writes GL’s comic adventures, addressed this in his take on Green Lantern’s origins, tying the death of Hal’s father into his borderline self-destructive behavior; Johns portrays Hal as a man who faces his fears with such ferocity that it borders on a death wish — and yet, he never truly faces his great personal tragedy. Simultaneously, Hal is honoring his father’s bravery; Pappa Jordan sacrificed himself to steer his crashing jet away from spectators, saving their lives.

It’s an interesting contradiction. That complexity would have put some great meat on the character’s bones for Ryan Reynolds, but all we got was one instance in the opening sequence when, while his own plane hurtles toward earth following a combat demonstration, Hal freezes at the controls as he flashes back to his dad’s death. Later he pays some lip service to his fears and his difficulty in facing them, but Reynold’s Green Lantern neither gains a sobriety that tempers his recklessness nor does he discover untapped courage to help him overcome clipping fear. This aspect of his character is introduced and resolved without ever being explored.

Further, it’s never clear whether Hal Jordan is a pseudo-fearless daredevil or a man who bares keeps his anxieties in check. He shows elements of both, but neither aspect of his personality hits an extreme; he’s more a balliser-than-most type of guy with a touch of self-doubt.

Aside from failing to define the main character, and thus failing to give him a direction, the writers missed a chance to tie a great theme together through four other characters: Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), daughter of Carl Ferris (Jay O. Sanders), owner of Hal’s employer, Ferris Aircraft; and Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), son of Senator Hammond (Tim Robbins).

The plot establishes that Ferris Aircraft is in line for a lucrative government contract for a drone fighter, and Hal nearly blows the deal when, in front of Senator Hammond, he actually beats the “unbeatable” drone — and in doing so, wrecks one of Ferris’ expansive fighter jets. His actions nearly destroy the company, but Carol — the company’s heir apparent — manages to salvage the deal.

Hector Hammond gets involved when, through his dad’s behind-the-scenes manipulation, is brought in to examine the remains of Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), the alien that gave Hal the power ring he uses to harness the power of Green Lantern.

The fear of failure is a basic and common human frailty. It’s something to which almost everyone can relate. And fear of failing a parent? That’s even more powerful. That’s the kind of framework the writers had in their hot little hands and failed to capitalize on in the main character alone: What if Hal’s fear was not of dying, but of failing to live up to his father’s (real or imagined) expectations, of failing to become the kind of selfless hero his father was?

Carol’s relationship with her father is touched on, and it appears to be just fine — therefore, dramatically dull. But what if Carol, facing the daunting prospect of one day taking over the company her dad built from the ground up, fears letting her father down? Especially in the face of a catastrophic financial blow caused by her erstwhile lover Hal — the man she personally chose for the demonstration? Instead of her saving the company complete off-screen, apparently with little effort or stress, there could have been a solid subplot involving Carol and her father dueling over whether she was worthy to take over.

As for the Hammonds, a couple of off-hand lines indicates that the senator thinks his son a loser, but it’s never clarified as to why he feels this way. Hector, a college professor, is a bit of a shlub, but that’s his greatest offense; he doesn’t ever come off as a disgrace to the family name or as simply failing to live up to some amazing potential. It’s also a question as to why Senator Hammond pulls the strings necessary to get his son into the lab holding Abin Sur’s body. Was he trying to give his slacker son a leg up on a better career? Was it a pity move?

This relationship could have been defined, and made much better, simply by employing the time-tested trope of playing Hector as a man following his own path while simultaneously trying to please a disapproving parent (think The Jazz Singer…or that episode of The Simpsons with Krusty the Clown’s rabbi dad).

This theme of fear of failing a parent could have broadened a little to include what is supposed to be a key figure in the Green Lantern mythos: Sinestro (Mark Strong), the Green Lantern who rejected his membership in the Corps, embraced the power of fear, and became the Green Lantern Corps’ greatest enemy.

The movie’s main threat is Parallax, a former Guardian of Oa (the Green Lantern Corps’ bosses) who tapped the power of fear and transformed into the crazed, world-destroying living embodiment of fear. Abin Sur, the greatest of the Corps, imprisoned Parallax, who escapes at the beginning of the movie and takes out his captor (leading to Hal inheriting the ring from the dying Abin Sur).

Sinestro, Abin Sur’s protege and the Corps’ biggest gun after Abin Sur himself, leads the Corps into battle against Parallax and gets slapped down, hard. In response, he proposes forging a new ring to tap the yellow energy of fear, intending to fight fire with fire. Before he can use it, Hal faces Parallax and sends the monster hurtling into the sun.

(I know, it all sounds pretty wild. Trust me, it makes perfect sense in context.)

Throughout the story, Sinestro is portrayed as proud, pragmatic, dedicated to the Corps, and uncompromising. Therefore, when at the very end of the movie he steals and dons the yellow ring, there’s absolutely no reason for it. Nothing that’s happened in the story feels like sufficient incentive for him to turn his back on his beloved Corps.

In the comics, Sinestro defected after he came to believe the Corps was soft and lacked the resolve to cross a few lines (murder, for example) in the name of the greater good. That would not have played well in the film’s story, but what if Sinestro had been explicitly faced with the opportunity to prove himself to the Guardians as worthy of assuming Abin Sur’s mantle as the greatest member of the Corps? His failure to take down Parallax — at the cost of several other Lanterns’ lives — and thus his failure to live up to the Guardians’ expectations AND Abin Sur’s legacy could have provided the motivation he needed to attempt the radical solution of tapping the yellow energy of fear.

Green Lantern had other problems at the script level, but had the writers focused a little more on developing an underlying theme and tying the characters in to that, the movie might have at least gone down as a noble failure instead of, as stated on Rotten Tomatoes, “Noisy, overproduced, and thinly written.”

And The Winner Is…

I’d been stuck for a topic for a new post, until I got a small slew of writing contest announcements in my inbox.

First, a bit of background: like many aspiring writers looking for a big break, I entered a TON of contests early on. I never won a single one, but I was pleased to see my name popping up in lists of quarter-finalists, then semi-finalists, and on occasion finalists. Small stuff like that can bolster your self-confidence quite a bit.

Earlier this year I received an announcement that one of the contests I’ve entered annually for many, many years was accepting entries for this year’s competition, and I did something unusual: I deleted the e-mail without entering. There was no extended period of consideration, not a moment of introspection, I just sent the e-mail to the great electronic beyond and moved on.

Afterwards, for whatever reason, I wondered why I did that. At first I thought it was because I wasn’t comfortable forking over the entry fee — money is tight for me too — but then I hit upon a theory: the list of past winners included in the pitch e-mail? I did not recognize a single one of them.

Out of curiosity, I went onto IMDb and started looking for their names. The first name on the list, his screenplay was turned into a movie that he directed, which garnered tepid reviews. This particular winner had already been active in Hollywood on and off as a director and producer since 1998 — nearly a full decade before he won this screenplay contest. Why did someone working in the industry enter a screenplay writing contest?

Another winner, from 1997, had his contest-winning horror movie script made into a film that was scheduled for release last year and is still on the shelf.

One gent won the contest and received three big writing assignments with three big studios for three big directors. As best as I can tell, each and every one of these projects fell into Development Hell and collapsed.

One of the very first winners had his script made into a movie that got poor reviews among the few people who saw it, and has done nothing since. Another doesn’t even show up on IMDb, even though the contest organizers boasted he landed a writing assignment with a big-name director.

I could go on — and on and on — but the point is this: the winners of this contest have, with very rare exception, never really gone anywhere. I did find one winner who has published two well-received, if not wildly successful novels in the past two years, and another pair who went on to direct one of the lesser entries into Will Farrell‘s very uneven oeuvre, and another who was part of a pig pile of screenwriters who turned out three lame thrillers that their big-name stars probably don’t even list on their resumes.

In other words, those few who did succeed did not succeed impressively.

After discovering all this, I felt vindicated in my decision to forgo the contest. Why waste my time prepping for a contest that, statistically speaking, has produced a lot of winners (small “w”) and, really, no Winners (big “W”)? Fame and fortune are never a guarantee for any aspiring writer, but it costs me a lot less to e-mail a query to a prospective publisher or agent than it does to enter a big writing contest.

The contests were good for me in the beginning. They kept me motivated, kept me focused, and on occasion gave my ego a shot in the arm, but I think I’ve outgrown that phase of my career. I’m looking for a sustainable career, not a one-time and very fleeting taste of faux success.

Sisyphus As Writer

My first-ever writing pitch was made to DC Comics way back in 1990. I stumbled across an obscure character named Dr. Occult, an early and lesser-known creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (who also created a character you might have heard of by the name of Superman), and thought he had potential.

At the time DC was keen on reviving its C-list characters and taking chances with edgier mature material — this was the era of Grant Morrison‘s brilliant relaunch of Animal Man and Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman — so I developed a proposal that brought Dr. Occult into the modern era, gave him a purpose in the Modern Age DC Universe, fleshed out his supporting cast, etc.

I submitted it to DC Comics and, lo and behold I received my first-ever rejection letter. It was on cool official DC Comics stationery and hand-signed by the editor I sent it to. Even though my idea was rejected, I had this awesome rejection letter. I still have it.

I still have all my rejection letters. Every last one. And when I finally get that letter that tells me yes, we will buy your novel/screenplay, I will buy a nice frame for my DC Comics letter (it’s that cool, people) and burn the rest. There may be naked dancing around the fire. I haven’t decided.

I admit, I am growing impatient for that day to arrive. My pile of fuel is a little too high for my liking, and it’s grown a bit — virtually speaking — over the past weekend.

Satisfied that Action Figures was as complete as it was going to get, I e-mailed it on November 4 to a prospective agent, who took eight days to send me a form rejection e-mail. I spent a day feeling lousy and drowning my sorrows in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, then got back on the horse. I sent a query out to another agent, who was far more efficient than my first victim, taking a mere two days to tell me thanks, but no thanks. So, another day of moping, then two more queries out the proverbial door.

This whole process is perhaps the most frustrating for me because of the nature of the beast. Agents and publishers get slammed with submissions, and for that reason many of them ask for just a synopsis and sample pages, sometimes nothing more than a bare-bones initial query letter in which I have three paragraphs to accomplish phase one of my mission: I have to hook the reader on the concept with the first paragraph, sell him on the concept with the second, and sell myself as a writer with the third. If I’m successful, I may be asked for a synopsis, a detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown, and/or a full manuscript.

I understand the whys and wherefores of this process, but I hate hate hate it nonetheless, because the sum total of my effort is being judged on a small sampling — sometimes literally nothing more than a one-paragraph summary. Worse, with big publishing houses the first reading in carried out by low-level editors who decide whether to bump the query up the ladder. It’s publishing triage, and again it’s a necessary evil, but it means that every given submission could be shown the door because the low man on the totem pole is having a shitty day and taking it out on writers asking nothing more than a fair chance at success.

You might argue that a stellar pitch will overcome all obstacles, but I dare say you have never attempted to reduce a full story to one paragraph. Just for fun, go ahead and pick your favorite movie and then describe it in one tight paragraph. Chances are it will not sound anywhere near as awesome as a lengthy, detailed description. More likely, it’ll sound boring, or ridiculous, or like a story you’ve seen or read a hundred times before.

If you still think it’s not all that hard to make a story sound enticing in one measly paragraph, consider: Stephen King’s Carrie? Rejected 30 times, and one publisher declared it would never sell because it was so “negative.” King actually threw the manuscript in the trash in frustration (his wife Tabitha saved it and, unwittingly, her husband’s nascent career as one of the best-selling authors in history). The Chicken Soup for the Soul series, which currently boasts about 200 titles? Rejected 140 times. The only reason J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone saw the light of day after receiving dozens of rejections is because one publisher’s eight-year-old daughter read the manuscript and loved it and begged her dad to publish it.

Do a Google search for “rejected authors” and you’ll find several lists bearing some of the greatest names and works in modern literature, and you’ll see that some of these people and their books were sent away, sometimes rudely, dozens upon dozens of times before someone decided to take a chance and give the author a shot.

What’s the take-away from this? To me it’s that talent seems to be, for good or ill, almost a negligible element in the process, because there are some truly awful books out there that someone somewhere thought were good enough to print; rather, the key appears to be persistence to an obsessive degree.

That’s not entirely fair, but I learned long ago fairness doesn’t enter into it. There are too many variables at work and you can’t compensate for them all. All you can do is, as the saying goes, just keep swimming, just keep swimming.

Spoiler Theater: Undead or Alive

The inspiration for this post is my need to vent about an example of what I view as an absolutely tragic choice by a writer. What follows is an analysis of that choice, which reveals the end of the movie, so if for some odd reason you’re keen on checking out a horror-comedy entitled Undead or Alive: A Zombedy, stop reading now.

So, last night I fired up the topic of my discussion on Netflix for some background noise, as is my practice. The concept is simple: zombies in the Old West. Okay, I can get behind this. And it was co-written by Glasgow Phillps, a former staff writer for South Park, which gave me hope this might actually be funny.

Not so much, but my gripe isn’t with the forced, flat, and sometimes too-juvenile-for-its-own-good humor, but with the climax of the film.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!

In this setting, the zombie plague is the result of a curse placed on the white man by Geronimo (just roll with it), and the only way to negate the curse is to have to cursed individual consume the flesh of the man who cast the curse — or, lacking that person, a blood relative.

At the end of the movie two of the heroes, Elmer (James Denton) and Luke (Chris Kattan), become infected and turn into zombies, then go after the third protagonist, Susan (Navi Rawat), to satisfy their unholy hunger. They face off. Sue, armed with a cavalry saber and resigned that her former friends are now the undead, charges in, ready to fight.

What’s important to note here is that Sue is Geronimo’s niece.

Take a guess what happens.

If you guessed that the movie jump-cuts to our heroes Elmer and Luke, no longer zombies, sitting atop their horses and lamenting in a very cavalier and off-handed way that it was a shame they had to eat Sue, you’d be right.

Up until this point, the story played out very much like any other mismatched buddy adventure with the standard romantic attraction subplot thrown in (between Luke and Sue in this case). Sue was portrayed as far smarter and more competent than her male counterparts, and her motivation was stronger: she was out for vengeance against the Army regiment that slaughtered her people. On the other hand, Elmer was an Army deserter and thief, and Luke was a jilted suitor who threw in with Elmer after the two of them broke out of jail and assaulted the local sheriff.

In other words, Sue was a better, more likable, more sympathetic character than the de facto heroes who, in the end, killed and ate her and afterwards acted like it they’d just gotten take-out at McDonald’s. They were even debating good-naturedly what the aftertaste of her flesh reminded them of before literally riding off into the sunset.

It was a scene shockingly devoid of emotion. Yes, it was a comedy — and because it was a horror-comedy hybrid, it’s something of a dark comedy by default — but to so callously dispose of a main character like that was a terrible call by Phillips and his co-writer Scott Pourroy.

They had many other viable options. Elmer had been infected first, during the obligatory final battle with the zombie horde (a mix of the Army regiment Elmer left and random bad guys) and he had an opportunity to go out a hero. The plan was to blow up the fort and the zombies along with it, and Elmer could have stayed behind to set off the explosives after Luke and Sue escaped.

This ending would have brought the character arcs to logical and satisfying conclusions. Elmer, who left the Army because he found its practice of indiscriminately slaughtering Native Americans repugnant, would have enacted revenge against the Army on Sue’s behalf and atoned for his own sins. The milquetoast Luke, who really wanted nothing more than to find love and happiness, would have found it in Sue, who would have laid to rest her all-consuming hatred of the white man.

Instead, the writers opted to force a ridiculous and, on many levels, repulsive twist ending, and for what? One last cheap gag that fell on its face?

One of the greatest sins any writer can commit is the abandonment of characterization for the sake of forwarding the story, and that sin is amplified when characters who have behaved consistently throughout a story do an abrupt 180 for the sake of a joke. This offense is particularly great in Luke, who wept like a girl whenever he suffered even a mild emotional blow but apparently was very comfortable with cannibalizing a woman he was in love with.