Monday, September 24, 2012

Expendable expectations

Last year, a friend made me sit down and watch The Expendables. I didn't see it in the theaters because it looked like a poorly written excuse for aging action stars to draw a paycheck. After watching it, I discovered that I was right on all counts. Yes, the explosions were awesome, but the cliche "I'm badder than you" dialogue sounded like backstage trash talk at a body building competition (and not just because Arnold was there). So, when I saw the sequel last week, I went with the expectation that it was going to be about the same, just on a slightly larger scale since they added a few more action stars.

I was wrong.

It was better!

Expendables 2 had everything I was hoping for in the first movie (namely, a plot that didn't revolve around everyone whipping out their junk to compare size) and more. Instead of cliche "I'm going to rip your head off and feed it to you" dialogue between explosions, it had gut-wrenching plot twists and the allusion that the Expendables aren't just a band of rogue misfits, but an actual business. The film also didn't take itself too seriously. The witty banter was delightful, the cold war references were perfect, and the Chuck Norris ex machina was awesome!

So, other than a few well executed plot twists and timely comebacks, why was it better? For one, they hired better writers. The first movie was written by Sylvester Stallone and David Callaham. I don't know if Sylvester did any of the writing or if he was more of a consultant, but it's pretty easy to lay the blame for the first Expendables movie's foibles at the door of David Callaham. The most recognizable title in his credits is Doom -- not the game, but the movie that no one wants to admit to have watched because it was that bad. For the second movie, they hired Ken Kaufman, one of the gents responsible for Space Cowboys. If anyone could be trusted to write scenes that cater to the abilities of talented but aging actors and entertain audiences, it's him. He knew exactly what buttons to push and he wasn't afraid to do it.

The second reason was that like a good book, the opening sequence set the stage perfectly. As soon as I saw the team bust into the village A-Team style in vehicles labeled "shock and awe" and "coming soon" with a steel battering ram labeled "knock knock", I had an expectation of what kind of film this was going to be and it was a promise that was fulfilled at every step.The Cold War references gave all of us old enough to remember a shiver while keeping us in the present by pointing out the unforeseen consequences of the fall of the Iron Curtain. If nothing else, this alone makes the film worth studying because that's a difficult balancing act. They had to explain enough for younger viewers to understand the situation, while not boring the rest of us with a deluge of facts that we already know.

However, I think that the best thing that the writers did was not trying to pay homage to the cast's notable past roles by re-creating scenes. Rather, they gave Van Damme a chance to sneak in a round house kick, Chuck Norris got to tell a Chuck Norris joke, and Schwarzenegger and Willis exchanged catch phrases. Each moment was subtly slipped in so that it was a pleasant surprise, full of win, that didn't detract from the scene. (Speaking of win, that shot of Liam Hemsworth running up a hill with a fully loaded pack = drool!) They didn't insult our intelligence and while there were more gun fights than fist fights, the pacing was fast enough that you didn't mind the imbalance.

The writers knew what we expected and realized that even though the title was expendable, our expectations weren't. They knew that ultimately this wasn't a movie for the twenty-something college crowd. Yes, a lot of twenty-somethings saw and liked the film. Guys like Couture and Statham are (in my opinion) in there for them, but at the end of the day, this movie was for the people of my generation and my parents' generation. This was for the moms and dads that ate JiffyPop while they watched rented VHS tapes of Die Hard and The Terminator after the kids were in bed. It was for the big brothers that ran around the back yard with red bandanas tied around their foreheads. It was for the little boys that broke a lamp trying to imitate their favorite scenes from Bloodsport and The Way of the Dragon. Expendables 2 was the dream match that we would have paid a fortune to see in the 80s and for one reason or another, didn't get until now. As a girl that grew up watching these kick-ass action films, I must say that it was worth the wait.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Monkey-throwing Wrench

It seems that there is a never ending list of demands our time. The day job(s), significant others, religious observations, friends, co-workers, kids, housework, yard work, laundry, honey-do lists, and so on. It's a difficult balancing act -- one that even a Chinese acrobatic team would struggle with.

We all know that old saying that "you can't please all of the people all of the time" but somehow that never stops us from trying. We want to make our family happy, have a clean and orderly home, and still have time for our hobbies and pursuits. It doesn't help that being a writer is so time consuming. I know several authors who attribute their success to an understanding spouse who was willing to take the lion's share of the duties. But what do you do if, like me, you don't have a spouse and aren't likely to have one in the foreseeable future because the average member of the opposite sex thinks you're too weird for words? How do you cope when a monkey throws a wrench into your day and screws everything up? Or in my case, it's usually a wrench throwing monkeys into my day (they're far more dangerous because an airborne monkey does a lot more damage than an airborne wrench).

Well, becoming a workaholic has been effective for me, but I can't keep that up indefinitely. I have no desire to work myself into an early grave and all work and no play makes for a very cranky Kim. There's always the option of saying "to hell with it", but that won't put me on the NYT bestseller list or make my living space, well, livable. So, where is the middle ground?

That's an answer that has eluded me for some time. Just when I think I've found just the right balance, I discover (or remember) something else that I somehow have to make room for. Currently, the wrench that is throwing monkeys into my plan (and the reason for this week's topic) is college football. I'm a University of Oregon fan and I love my Ducks. I've told myself that it's only for three or four months that I'd be slacking off on writing and that I can make up the pages in the offseason. But if I use that excuse now, I'll use it for other things and that's a consequence that I can't live with. Being a writer requires vigilance and dedication. So, what's a fan girl to do?


It's not a perfect plan, but it is a plan. So far, most of the games have taken place while I'm at work so I haven't had any other option. On the plus side, I can use the recorded game as a reward for reaching my weekly word goal and still be a respectable fan girl. I don't have a plan worked out for live games. I could use the same motivation but if I don't make my word goal, I'd have to sequester myself in another room and listen to the rest of the family cheer. I may be slightly masochistic, but I'm not into self-torture. I wouldn't be able to resist the lure of the game for very long. In the past, I've allowed myself a night off every once in a while to kick back and relax or to chase the dust bunny that's been haunting me, but to take every Saturday night (and the occasional Thursday) off smacks of habit.

(Sigh) I could go round and round about this all day and in the end, I'd be no closer to a perfect solution. I like having a reliable routine that's monkey proof and I'm starting to doubt that such a thing exists. Either that or the wrenches are spying on me and are very good at developing anti-monkey proof plan technology. (Wow, that sounds incredibly crazy.)

I suppose that doing our best really is the most we can do. It sounds a bit defeatist to acknowledge that you'll never completely rid yourself of monkeys but I guess that's life. Right? 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Idea overloaditis

As I mentioned last month, I worked on the outline for my cyberpunk series. I spent the entire month doing research, brainstorming, and establishing cannon just so I could throw out half of my outline at the end of it. That's bad enough, but it gets worse. It wasn't the original outline that I threw out, that's still there, it's the new half of the outline that I had to throw out. Some of my friends and Facebook followers already know a bit about this but I'll explain for the rest of you. You see, after a month of deep immersion, I had a bad case of idea overloaditis. I was so distracted and wowed by the cool world I was creating that I had too many ideas and I couldn't tell the difference between the good and the mediocre.

 I've suffered from idea overloaditis before but not quite to this extent. The last time I had it I was writing the YA novel and it set me back six months. That's why I intentionally gave myself the entire month of August to contract and recover from it. Plus, since I was just outlining, the damage was negligible. It's much easier to cut three pages of an outline than 30K of a novel.

So, how did I separate the wheat from the chaff? Simple. I wrote the back copy.

I know a few of you raised your eyebrows at that, but you should know by now that there's always a method to the madness.In the back copy you have to boil down that pot of cool ideas to a teaspoon of awesome.  I know that most authors save that for last, but by writing the back copy while I'm outlining, I can focus on the best ideas and discard the rest. It also gives me a great opportunity to get potential reader feedback. My original outline boiled down to this:

"Badger used to be one of the best Ghost hackers around. People paid her millions to hack into corporate and government systems and make their dirty little secrets public. But after a routine job that nearly took her life, she turned her back on the business and people she loved, and disappeared. 

Now as Mara Jeffries, s

he has a carefully constructed life in Seattle. Life is peaceful and she wants to keep it that way. But a desperate message from an old friend threatens to destroy that.

Mara has to make a choice. She can keep her peaceful existence, but at the cost of her best friend’s life. However, if she steps in to help, not only will she have to don the mantle of Badger once more, but the web of secrets she’ll have to unravel may kill her.

It was a lot of blah and "I've seen that before", which was exactly the feedback I got. The above story was going to turn the glorified lovechild of "The Amazing Race" and "Alias". Not cool. However, since I finally had a clue (thanks to the feedback) as to which ideas were mediocre, I went back and tweaked it into this:

"When Kai Tanabe was invited to join The Nexus, he accepted without hesitation. But, the cost of enlisting was much greater than he could have anticipated. He needs to get out fast and only one person can help him do that…

Badger used to be one of the best 

Ghost hackers around. After a routine hack went horribly wrong she turned her back on the business and people she loved. Six years later, as Mara Jeffries, she has a carefully constructed life in Seattle. However, a desperate call from an old friend forces her to return to the life she left behind.

The only way she can get to Kai is to join the Nexus herself. However, once inside, she quickly discovers that the only one of them will be able to get out

This wasn't much of a tweak -- the second paragraph was from the original -- and the bit about Kai, while not mentioned in the first draft of the back copy, was in the original outline. The last paragraph is what caused me to throw out half of my outline because it completely changed the direction of the story. No more "Alias Race". I ended up moving events from book 1 (the best parts of the global journey) to book 2 and my entire outline for book 2 to book 1. The resulting story is one that I'm pretty proud of and am excited to write. The best part of this experience was that not only did I get a stronger book, but all of the changes were still within my overall arc for the series. (I didn't have to alter cannon! Huzzah!) Plus, I was able to keep my whiz-bang finish.

Speaking of which, I should go write so I can get to said whiz-bang finish sooner rather than later.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Reading with new eyes

This week one of my co-workers asked me "does being a writer make it harder to enjoy reading a book?"

I had to think about this one for a minute because in some regards, the answer is yes, and in others it's no. I've always been a picky reader and if it can be believed, I've become more picky. It's harder for me to read a badly written book. There are authors whose books I used to devour (I'm not mentioning names) that I just can't pick up anymore. In the past I'd only give up on a book if it was historically inaccurate or really boring. Now, it could be because of a potential plot twist that never happened, unimaginative phrasing, or poor characterization. For the authors whose books I can't read anymore, their ability hasn't decreased, rather my ability to see how it could've been written better has increased. Before, if a book was boring, that was the end of it. Now, I can identify exactly where, and more importantly, why it lost my attention.

Back in "the old days", before I became a writer, when a book tugged my heartstrings and kept my attention, it went straight onto my "love it" list. Now, not only does it have to have that same resonance,  it also needs beautiful prose, clever world building, and delicate foreshadowing to make the list. In the past couple years only a handful of books have made it on the "love it" list and I'm okay with that because the titles that made the cut are stellar works. A couple of them (Wise Man's Fear and The Way of Kings) even gave me a panic attack because they were so beautifully written and I was convinced that there was no way I'd be able to match their skill.

In many ways, this is just like my Wolverton-given ability to pick apart movies. When a book isn't  catching my attention, I can identify why it's failing and learn from it. Conversely, when a book is giving me a professional panic attack, it's because I'm enjoying the author's skill on multiple levels. It's pretty cool. To quote the Apostle Paul, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)" The more I read and the more I write, the more I learn. My vision and understanding of the craft is increasing on multiple levels and it's wonderful.