Who Am I? (A Reader’s Inventory)

King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, detai...
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In a recent post to the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) website, an elementary school Reading teacher shared an exercise that she does with her students. The idea is for the students to write down 100 things about themselves as readers. The point of the activity is to help the students become aware of their own reading habits and tastes.

Here’s a link:  http://readingyear.blogspot.com/2010/10/100-things-about-me-as-reader.html

I decided to take up the challenge myself, and here are some of the items I came up with:

1. I tend to divide my reading time equally between fiction and non-fiction (particularly, history).

2. To me, literature and history go hand-in-hand. You can’t truly understand (or appreciate) one without the other.

3. Starting in Junior High, I began reading everything by J.R.R. Tolkien I could get my hands on. This served to introduce me to elements of the Arthurian legend, which consequently led me to scores of other old stories. Thus, I give Tolkien credit for my career choice. (I’m an English teacher.)

4. I don’t skip around much when I read. I tend to read every paragraph of the books I choose (even the boring parts). This slows me down a bit, but that’s okay. I can usually learn something from even the most tedious passages (such as how not to write something).

5. I don’t necessarily have to like the characters in a book to enjoy it, but I do have to at least find the characters interesting.

6. There are only a handful of books that I go back to and reread. Yet I have trouble getting rid of the others, even if I know I will probably never look at them again. (Maybe it’s an illness!)

7. I find that sometimes even the worst books will have a least a few redeeming qualities.

8. I don’t like it when someone tries to strong-arm me into reading a book. I’d rather the choice be entirely my own (even if the book turns out to be the same one that the person recommended). I’m sort of like a cat in this regard. It’s my time, damn it, and I’m going to read what I want to when I want to!

Obviously, my list hasn’t made it all the way to 100 yet, but I’m working on it. How about you? What are some things you could say about your own reading habits? How has your reading impacted your writing?

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How to Watch Movies with Your Chick (and Still Keep Your Nuts)

Everybody knows that chick-flicks suck. Women still insist on watching them though and they apparently insist on forcing dudes to watch them. I’ve drawn a line in the sand myself: I won’t go and you can’t make me. Not everyone however has that sort of fortitude (you know: to be kind of a dick). So what are lesser men to do?

Well, I’ll tell you. You need to be sly. Use a little camouflage and subterfuge. Pick movies you can convince a chick she’s into (or thinks she should be into) but that don’t blow. Like this.

Say Anything. This is a fairly typical teen romance/coming of age story except for one thing. It’s well written and witty with interesting characters and good performances. Chances are your chick has seen it at least three times already but don’t worry she loves it. You’ll probably like it too but you also get Grosse Pointe Blank. Not really a chick flick but still on the romance side and it has John Cusack. Chicks love them some John Cusack. Now you have precedent for ‘romcoms’ involving paid assassins. From there you watch Mr. and Mrs. Smith with Pitt and Jolie. Pow! Double whammy: chicks love them some Brad Pitt and now you’re watching Fight Club or cite the Angelina Jolie precedent and you’re watching Wanted.

Bonus Points: The Professional. More hit men but most chicks will respond to the relationship between Leon and Matilda. Be careful though. If she figures out that little girl is the same Natalie Portman you now lust after she’ll call you a dirty bastard. She’s probably right you perv.

Thelma and Louise. Some people already consider this a chick-flick. It’s not a chick-flick it’s a buddy-flick. I submit to you that Thelma and Louise has much more in common with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than with Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. A buddy story follows the same general arc as a love story but replaces romantic love with friendship (that’s from Story by Robert McKee). It’s all good though because Thelma and Louise do love each other and now you can watch Bound, a little film by the Wachowskis. This is a tight film noir where there’s not one femme fatale but two. You know. Together. Good stuff.

Ones to avoid: Juno. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good movie. Comedic take on a serious subject with a great script by Diablo Cody and great performances from the cast. But that cast is led by Ellen Page. Your chick might want more Ellen Page and get Hard Candy. You don’t want to watch that one with your chick.

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Know When to Say When

When I was a kid if I started a book, I finished a book.  I’m not sure why but it felt like quitting if you didn’t finish the whole thing, a failure.  The problem of course is that you’ll spend a lot of time reading stuff you don’t like or stuff that’s simply crap. 

It took me a long time to be able to give up on a book and I still have some problems.  Like when is it too soon to give up?  Or when is it too late to give up?  Recently I started reading a book called Serpent in the Thorns by Jeri Westerson.  The cover claims it was a medieval noir (both things I like) but I didn’t find it to really be either.  The main character, in his second novel here, is a dispossessed knight who now works as The Tracker.  I guess he’s called The Tracker because there were no PI’s in the 1300’s. 

I kept giving it one more chapter for things to heat up until I was halfway through the book.  I’m not going to finish it.  If you like J.A. Jance and Patricia Cornwell type books this one might be right up your alley. But that’s not my bag, baby!  I stopped reading it and I’m okay with that. 

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Pacing and the Director’s Cut

Awhile back my wife (in an apparent bid to become my ex-wife) loaned one of my DVD’s out without asking me.  The movie was Troy, one I like and watch fairly often.  After a few months of it not finding its way home I just bought a new copy.  But this copy was the director’s cut. 

According to the box there was 30 minutes of added footage.  The footage was not, however, huge swaths of deleted scenes.  There were actually very few scenes that weren’t in the theatrical release.  Instead there were alternate/extended versions of scenes we already had.  Sometimes just a line or two added.  The mechanical change was small but the overall effect was signifigant.  The tense, almost frenzied pace of the original was more measured. 

So which is better?  It’s a surprisingly hard question and very subjective.  Most of the added stuff is character intro and character motivation.  It definitely fleshes out the characters, especially Hector and Agamemnon.  Odysseus and Ajax get proper intros instead of just getting plopped in there.  Those are good things but there’s no question that the longer pace changes the feel.  Instead of the headlong pace of a straight action movie it plays more as a meditation on what drives men to war. 

Personally, I like a longer movie myself but then, I like longer novels as well.  I tend to favor director’s cuts with one exception–comedies.  I saw “The 40 Year Old Virgin” in the theater and it was great.  I have the unrated/extended version on DVD and it’s not as good.  It’s not that the extra stuff isn’t funny, it’s hilarious, but comedy is so much about timing.  There seems to be an ideal length for a funny movie and you know instinctively when they should just get on with it. 

So it would seem that pace (and therefore the lengt of the actual written work) are actually tied in with your genre.  What effect are you going for?

Genre Musings

I’ve been thinking about genre lately.  Specifically, what the hell is it, where did it come from, and why is something based on formula and convention so hard to define?  I saw Wanted recently and was blown away.  Good performances from the cast, great fight scenes and action sequences.  It was heavy on special effects but they didn’t distract from the movie, they were all there for a reason other than looking cool.  It was long but didn’t drag and I would reccomend it in a heartbeat.  But it really wasn’t all that original.  It was straight Action/Adventure genre work that followed all the right beats.  So what makes Wanted so awesome and, say Bulletproof Monk, so crappy?  They have similar stories:  young loser discovers hidden talents bordering on the supernatural.  Training and testing occur and secret destiny is fulfilled.  Same genre, wildly differnt degrees of success.

Everyone goes into a movie with expectations based on the genre.  But what if the genre’s wrong?  Mr. and Mrs. Smith wasn’t really an action movie it was a romantic comedy.  More submachine guns than most romcoms, but still.  If you get thrown you’ll end up not liking the movie even though it’s good.  You’ll feel tricked.  I guess if a movie is a contract between the storytellers and the audience, then genre is where the fine print is. 

1. Are you following conventions or plastering on cliches?  Pirates of the Carribean vs. Cutthroat IslandPirates had all the conventions of the old swashbuclers but written like real characters.  People with things to say and ambitions to pursue.  Dialog that sounded like people actually talking to each other.  Cutthroat Island just dressed everybody up as pirates and figured the story would just sort itself out.  I remember vaguely there was a map and a treasure but that’s not cliche, right?  But Pirates had a tresure, you say!  Oh wait, it was a cursed treasure that you found with a magic compass so you could put the treasure back.  That might qualify as a fresh angle on the old conventions.  Plus, the main character in Cutthroat Island was Captain Morgan.  Really?

2. Are you being true to the story and the genre?  I am Legend is a pretty damn good book.  I am Legend was a pretty damn good movie- right up to the point where they ruined it with the (mostly) happy ending.  There are plenty of sci-fi/near future genre flicks with that one chance for hope at the end.  Equilibrium‘s a good one.  So is Children of MenI am Legend is not that kind of story.  It’s exactly the opposite of that story.  Especially that part about hope at the end.  No hope.  Unless you’re one of the new vampire-people.  Admittedly this one is often out of the writer’s control but this is a particularly grievous offense.  It ruins literally everything the whole rest of the movie was about.  Including the title.  The title!

3. Are you trying too hard to avoid genre cliche?  If you’re writing a screenplay about vampires, you don’t have to tell us what kills them, or what doesn’t kill them.  Don’t we have enough short-hand now that we can figure out which kind of bloodsuckers are in your movie?  Sunlight doesn’t kill ’em and they’re brooding aristocrats?  Just show them doing that and we’ll get it.  Mindless predators with no control over their unholy thirst?  Yeah, we’ll get that too.  Will a stake do it or do we have to cut the whole head off?  We don’t need someone to explain it to the new guy on the Vampire Eradication Squad and bore the rest of us while he’s at it.  Want an unreal example of letting the conventions explain themselves?  3:10 to Yuma.  That movie drops you right into the story without one bit of prologue.  It’s not needed because everybody knows they’re here for a Western, damnit.  Pretty much all the characters are there and we all know who they are so let’s let ’em do their thing!  Yee-ha.

4. Can you mix genre?  If you can’t, that’s okay, just don’t do it.  From Dusk til Dawn was a cool idea for a movie.  Robert Rodriguez is very skilled at the crime genre.  His style is almost a genre of it’s own.  Let’s call it Tex-Mex/crime/fantasy.  After watching Planet Terror I think we can also say Rodriguez is good at the over the top monster movie with old-school Tom Savini effects.  Those genres don’t really go together.  Well, I think they could, but they didn’t really land in this one.  The vampire effects were at odds with the tone from the rest of the movie.  The perfectly paced slow-build to the massacre in the bar comes to a screeching halt so we can figure out what these vampires are and how we can kill them (see number three).  As soon as those doors closed Rodriguez shouldn’t have let us take a breath until they opened again at dawn.  Now if you can mix genre, baby you go for it.  Blade Runner:  sci-fi or film noir?  Shaun of the Dead: comedy or horror/zombie?  High Noon:  western or social commentary?

It’s enough to give you a migraine.  Genre, sub-genre, sub-sub-genre, mixed genre.  Some of the distinctions can get pretty fine.  I think this definitely hits the screenwriter more than the novelist.  A screenplay is generally written with a specific genre in mind before it’s even started.  A novelist has more leeway and a good deal more opportunity to explain any genre sidetracks to get his reader onboard.  Probably best not to think about it too much.  Story is king.  A good story should stay good whether it’s on a river barge or a spaceship.