Monthly Archives: April 2010

Book Review: What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I think Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best nonfiction writers out there. I tend to get pretty picky about the quality of writing in nonfiction books (if I wanted to read a boring textbook full of stilted sentences I’d go back to school), but Gladwell’s words go down smooth. Seamless transitions, compelling anecdotes, unconventional yet logical thinking. I like the guy. I’d like to invite him over to dinner and just hear him talk for two hours.

What the Dog Saw is a compilation book, the best of Gladwell’s essays cherrypicked from the pages of the New Yorker. There’s no common theme, but his work is arranged under three broad categories.

Although all the sections are worth reading, the Personality, Character, and Intelligence section held my attention more than the others. The story on late-blooming versus early-blooming geniuses opened my mind to subsets of talent, and I learned plenty about the artist Cezanne along the way.

Among my favorite individual pieces, Gladwell writes about why mustard commands so much shelf space for its gourmet iterations, while innovation in the field of ketchup seems doomed. I also enjoyed his pieces about hair dye ads in the postwar era, the birth control pill, and the talent-centered culture that contributed to Enron’s demise.

Actually, I eagerly consumed too many pieces to name them all. It’s simpler to name the few I didn’t like. Oddly enough, I could have done without the title story, What the Dog Saw, about the dog whisperer Cesar Millan. The story about the Challenger disaster didn’t hold my attention either. Still, the majority of the book is fascinating and well-worth buying/checking out from your local library/filching from a friend.

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Filed under Book Review, Non-Fiction, Writing

Four Reasons Why Frank Lapidus’ One Liners Ruin Everything

Poor Frank Lapidus! One of Lost’s more likable (and sadly under-developed) characters has been subjected to some bad writing lately. I often look to TV shows for lessons on my regular writing. Lost has floored me with its creativity and skillful use of rule-breaking narrative devices like flashforwards and flash-sideways.

I’ve also been floored lately by some truly grimace-worthy one liners.

On the April 20th episode (slight spoilers if you read ahead), Frank is tagging along with the group as usual, looking all ragged and, to quote Sawyer, like “some guy who stepped off the set of a Burt Reynold’s movie.” At some point, the writers must have figured that, hey, Frank needs to talk or it’ll seem like we kept him alive and tagging along just to fill out the cast poster.

So, when the Losties are on the sailboat cruising to Hydra Island, the writers think ohmygod, we need to clear everyone off deck so Jack and Sawyer can have a private fight.

Cue Frank. Frank says (approximately) “Hey, I think there are some cans of food down below. I’m going to go get some.” And then everyone promptly follows him, orderly as a line of elementary school kids filing out the door for recess.

But the best one liner, the moment where the actor playing Frank must have cringed, came at the end of the episode, during Sun and Jin’s long-awaited reunion.  Some background:  Sun had previously lost her ability to speak English following an accident.  Obviously, she gets this ability back while the emotional music soars and she embraces Jin.  She says she loves Jin or something like that.

Cue Frank.  The camera pans to him and he says, with a twinkle in his blue eyes, “Looks like Sun finally got her voice back.”

Groan.  Yeah Frank.  Yeah.  I like hearing your husky voice and all, but that just made me crack up on the spot.

So, Lost has taught me that:

1.  The misplaced one-liner is even worse in many cases than the dreaded infodump.

2. Show, not tell.

3.  Don’t assume readers/viewers are stupid, especially in a show that caters to the obsessive wiki-creating crowd.

4. Make use of a potentially awesome character like Frank.  Leaving him to languish is a shame, but inserting him in scenes as an unnecessary element is even worse. It’s like Chekov’s writing advice–if there’s a gun on the wall in Act 1, it should be fired during Act 3. The gun shouldn’t be used to scratch someone’s back though, it should be fired.

Check out this forum on Game Faqs though for some re-imagination of Lost.  What if Frank Lapidus had been inserted into every key, heart-wrenching scene?  It’d be pretty hilarious.


Filed under Thoughts, TV, Writing

Star Wars and Over Budget Science Fiction Writing

I read an interesting i09 article recently that compared the critical failure of the new Star Wars prequels to the pitfalls of writing science fiction/fantasy. Essentially, the writer argued that the original Star Wars movies were better because of the budget restrictions and technological constraints of the time period. Back in the day, director George Lucas was forced to work with limited money and technology, which meant dressing real humans in fur-suits and hoping that no one could see strings floating around the toy ships. But, the article argues, those limitations actually led to better overall choices and a tight, amazing story that still resonates in pop culture today.

The new Star Wars prequels, on the other hand, well…. they had Jar Jar Binks. They were basically a CGI orgy. Lucas went wild with the special effects, forgetting the story, the writing, and the fact that some things are just over-the-top in a bad way. With CGI and today’s level of technology, Lucas’ imagination had no limits. If he could dream it up, it could happen. Sounds good, but can turn out bad. (Remember Jar Jar!)

So, do speculative fiction writers fall prey to the same scenario? A writer has no budget, no technology restrictions.  A writer could pen a scene where winged elephants fly through the red dot on Jupiter, and bam, it’s a part of the story and on the page, even if it’s a terrible idea. And George Lucas could film it, if he so desired.

But there was a time when a filmmaker just couldn’t put that elephant on the screen. Some things were basically un-filmmable. And some of those un-filmmable things were un-filmmable because they were terrible.

The whole thing reminds me of that old adage: “Be careful what you pray for, because you might just get it.”

I think it’s an interesting way to look at writing/filmmaking, but not entirely true. Yes, restrictions can foster better writing. Ever try to write a flash fiction piece that comes in at under 500 words? Suddenly every word is valuable, and it’s easier to ruthlessly cut fluff. Choices become more important, because they’re necessary.

Still, not all special-effects laden films and imaginative fantasies are laughable failures.  Lord of the Rings offers a great counterexample on both points.  The story has giant eagles, elves, hobbits, volcanoes of doom, and Gollum.  Pretty wild and imaginative.  And the films rendered everything marvelously.  The CGI was there, but so was the writing, the acting, and the story.

I also think of a children’s book by Road Dahl, called Charlie the Great Glass Elevator (sequel to the famous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).  That book was never filmed, at least to my knowledge, and it had a scene with these crazy squidlike creatures in outerspace going after the magical glass elevator that was also in outerspace.  Wild, but it worked.

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Book Review: In the Woods by Tana French

I picked this book up because it seemed to promise beautiful writing, complex characters, and a satisfying mystery. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite meet my expectations and left me unsatisfied after turning the last page. I have to give it kudos for beautiful writing though.

In the Woods tells the story of Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, two Murder detectives on an Irish squad. When Rob Ryan was a kid, his best friends Jamie and Peter disappeared one day in the woods. They were never found. Rob was found, though, with blood-soaked sneakers and a blank memory of the incident.

Now, twenty years later, Rob has a friendly/flirtatious relationship with his partner Cassie, and the old case has come up again in connection with a new one. A young girl has been murdered, and her body was found on the altar stone at an archeological dig site. Rob keeps his identity to himself and teams with Cassie to close both cases.

The premise intrigued me and held my interest, although the book seemed to slow at times for lengthy description and bantering dialogue. For the most part, I didn’t mind the descriptions. I really revel in high-quality writing, the kind where a vivid picture is summoned to mind at the words of the author.

On the other hand, the banter between Cassie and Ryan became tedious. Sure, at first I marveled at the wit of their conversations, but eventually I felt like the author was trying too hard to have ravishingly interesting dialogue, and that realization took me out of the story. It didn’t feel like real life, or even the distilled parts of real life that dialogue is supposed to capture.

Over the course of the book, Rob showed promise of developing as a character, but that promise was never fulfilled. I think that’s part of why the story left me deeply unsatisfied. I understand that happy endings aren’t the only endings, but I look for characters who at least move forward in their personal development. As for Cassie, she was almost perfect in every way. Witty, wise, playful, kind, quirky, etc. I can’t hate a character who drives a Vespa, but it’d have been nice to see some human flaws in her.

I could have lived with the characters if the plot had blown me away. However, there are three major components to the book’s narrative, and only one of them was even somewhat resolved. The rest were left dangling, and after putting down the book I felt cheated. I believe that a complete narrative arc is a universal, ancient quality of writing. I had so much hope for this novel, but I just couldn’t like it after seeing how it concluded. Still, the atmosphere of Knocknaree and the woods was rendered well, and I might consider reading another book by the author, as long as there’s a real ending.

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Filed under Adult Fiction, Book Review

I Heart Harry Potter

How do you know when you’re a big-deal celebrity type? No, it’s not when you can pay people to remove the thorns from roses for you. It’s when you’re an author and the slightest wink of a whisper of a hint that you may write another book about a certain bespectacled young wizard makes CNN’s front page.

That’s right, J.K. Rowling might, one day, write another book about Harry Potter! Squeal!  No release date named other than “the not-too-distant-future” (that’s the release date for my novel too, by the way), and no real promise that the next book will actually even be a Potter book.  Still, she is apparently not ruling out another Harry Potter novel. And that’s enough to make me smile.

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Lost, Plotting, and the Advantages of Books

Warning:  Lost spoilers ahead

I love Lost.  I was a little late jumping on the bandwagon, but it’s a glorious bandwagon.  Since I watched most of it in a month-long DVD binge, I felt like I was living in the Lost universe for a few weeks, and I started to notice the gaping plot holes that were never addressed in later seasons.  To be fair, there are still a few weeks of new episodes left, but it would take some truly magical writing to address what was the point of Walt, what’s the deal with Libby, why did the Others even bother scaring the 815ers in their native garb, etc etc etc.

Overall though, Lost is a fabulous show.  Sure, there are good episodes and there are definitely some bad ones (I’m looking at you, Nikki and Paulo), but the show has been fairly consistent in delivering plot, characters, mythology, and tension.

In various conversations with Lost fans and while lurking on the internet, I’ve noticed a common gripe:  the writers didn’t have it all planned out from Day 1.  They had a vague idea, but they clearly didn’t lay out every character arc and season in advance.  They made adjustments as they went along.  They wrote out Libby and Ana Lucia after the real-life actors got in real-life trouble with the law.  They succumbed to studio pressures to deliver profits by stretching out the story.  So, all these things caused the writers’ overarching vision to change a little, and they went with it.

As a result, there are noticeable plot holes. But in real life, time travel doesn’t exist.  TV writers can’t go back and say, “Oops.  Walt’s character is going nowhere.  Let’s take him out and rewrite.”  And that’s one of the disadvantages of television as a medium. 

Books may not have sounds, special-effects, and actors, but they’re a finished product when they encounter the public. An author is expected to finish writing a book, and then go back and redraft it again and again, plugging up plot holes and adding those spiffy symbolic references in the beginning that tie it all together.  An author and editor would never leave a dangling Libby in a book.  She’d have a complete character arc, or she’d fall victim to the delete button.  A TV show, then, is the equivalent of the first draft of a book where you can edit each chapter after you’re done writing it, but you can never go back to that chapter again.  Yikes.

On the other hand, a good book sets the gold standard for continuity, for internal logic.  It’s polished, it makes sense, and everything and everyone are there for a purpose. Movies can do the same thing, but it’s quite rare for television.  The first time I found out a television show wasn’t planned from beginning to end, it was like the adult version of finding out about Santa.

I believe it’s possible for truly great shows to transcend those problems though.  Many Japanese animes are planned from beginning to end with a set number of episodes, and the TV show Battlestar Galactica had me convinced it was pre-planned until well into the third season (it wasn’t though).  Plus, didn’t Charles Dickens write many of his books in serial format? And yeah, he did a pretty fine job of it.

So, while I rate Lost among the really good shows out there, I still await the day when I can tip my hat to a pre-planned, plot-hole-free, logically consistent masterpiece of a TV show.  And in the meantime, there are plenty of books out there waiting to be read.


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