Monday, January 19, 2009

Writer Geeks

So here's my latest literary complaint.

I've just finished a book that was written by, let's face it, a geek. And the geekness was, alas, there for all to see.

And let me state loudly and clearly that I have nothing against geeks. Geeks know cool stuff--- which is sort of the definition of a geek, someone who is a colossal obsessive expert on, well, something or other. If I need a computer repaired or assembled, I'd get a computer geek. If I want to hike a wilderness, I'd talk to a wilderness geek. If I want to find out something about railroads, I'd talk to a railroad geek. If I want to know about the uniforms and equipment of Civil War regiments, I'd talk to a Civil War geek, or a recreationist geek.

But I've come to the conclusion that I don't want my fiction written by geeks. Because there are many geeks who are so into whatever their lives are about that they failed to acquire an actual life.

I don't want to read a fantasy novel by someone who has spent his entire life reading fantasy novels. I don't want to read an SF novel by someone who knows the throw-weight of every rocket ever built but has never moved out of his mother's basement. I don't want to read military fiction by someone who's played Squad Leader 80,000 times--- and I really don't want to read military fiction by someone who knows every single thing about war except an idea of what it's actually like to be in combat!

(Instead they'd just have a theory of what it's like to be in combat--- x percentage of soldiers will hyperventilate, y percentage will soil their drawers, a Tower musket has a 40% chance of hitting a target at 100 yards' range, but the opposing soldiers in ranks three-deep have a 1/3 chance of making their saving roll.)

There are writers who have never done anything in their entire lives but stare at a book, or sit in front of a keyboard, or hunch over a game board. And (as Jonathan Strahan and I lamented to each other at WFC last year), you can always tell, just by reading their work, who they are.

Instead of engaging in normal human intercourse, a geek writer's characters will spend all their time lecturing each other, even--- especially--- in situations where no normal person would do that. Geeks all have their special cool trivia they think is really neat. They will download at you, and do it mercilessly.

If our geek's writing about the Civil War, say, and two soldiers are meeting, they won't grouse about their officers, or talk about getting laid, or fantasize about their next leave, or complain about the chow, which is what real soldiers do. Instead they'll talk about the relative merits of the Austrian rifle vs. the Springfield, or criticize Johnston's tactics at the Battle of Shiloh.

They're not soldiers. They're soldier geeks. They're not engaging in soldierly behavior, they're engaging in geekly behavior.

Or if they're not soldiers, they're medieval ladies discussing the merits of herbs, or English lords discussing the Corn Laws, or Georgian ladies chatting on about Whig politics, or total strangers agreeing on why socialism is a bad idea and why capitalism will inevitably flourish (under the wise guidance of all-knowing entrepreneurs such as themselves, of course).

Human relationships, on the contrary, tend to be a little more shaky in your geek novel. It helps if the main character's in charge of everything all the time, in total command of reality due to her ability to lecture everyone else ad infinitum, and there's only one suitable character of the opposite sex on the horizon. Then she and he can be Destined for each other, and only the fact that armies of orcs keep separating them keeps them from fulfilling their destiny right away.

Or our geek writer takes Lord of the Rings as a dating guide, and the Object of Desire remains as remote as Arwen until the quest is over and a wedding date can be set.

Or the geek has a whole Theory of Relationships, and someone can give a lecture on how Men are thus-and-so, and Women are this-and-that (at least 85% of the time), and therefore romantic satisfaction will be achieved in at least 65% of cases.

Geek fiction contains no irony. Everything is very deadpan and sincere. Dark Lord equals Dark Lord. Hero equals Hero. Lecture equals Reality. Magic Sword does not equal Big Penis.

(Connie Willis maintains that irony is essential to real literature. I've pretty much decided she's right on the money.)

I note that there seems to be a sizeable audience out there for geek fiction. I imagine geek fiction is read by geeks, who don't know the difference between geek fiction and any other kind.

(However sad, this is not a bad marketing strategy. Geeks probably read more books than anyone. Get your books in solid with the right kind of geeks, and you've found your commercial niche [at least 85% of the time]).

That was irony, by the way. Just in case you missed it.

Despite my complaints I have a degree of sympathy for geek authors. While I was never quite a geek, I've spent a lot of my life enjoying geek hobbies. I've played board games and RPGs, I read SF and fantasy, I read a lot of history and biography, and when I play Trivial Pursuit I almost always win.

But I've never mistaken my hobbies for real life. I've always craved real life, even when I didn't have one. I've sought out life, even when I didn't know how. I've always tried to live real life, even when I didn't have a clue.

I travel a lot. I talk to strangers. I eat their candy.

It's inevitable that for the sort of fiction I write, I have to do research. I do tons of research, and inevitably so much third-hand material will result in a certain amount of geekiness being present in my writing. But when it's at all possible, I try to talk to primary sources. To find out about combat I don't read a book by Bernard Cornwell, who despite his comprehensive knowledge of combat has never actually been in a war. Instead I try to talk to an actual veteran. To find out what it's like to be shot I talk to someone who's been shot. To learn about science I talk to actual scientists. Or at the very least I'll try to read books by those people.

So jeez, guys, get out of the basement!

Because there's only one way to know about life, and that's by getting one.

PS: You know the definitive geek science fiction novel? Starship Troopers. There's just no real anywhere in this book.

Kinda weird, because Heinlein wasn't a shut-in by any means. But he had theories of war and society, and he was going to tell them to you, and he did.

I loved Starship Troopers when I was, say, fourteen. I had no reality to test it against.

But now, oh lord. The book so totally fails the Irony Test.

There's so much other Heinlein I'd rather remember.

Labels:

44 Comments:

Anonymous Steve Stirling said...

Actually, I think irony is overrated; certainly it's overdone these days, as in the "ironic mode".

Irony is like jalapeneo peppers; it's a spice, not a vegetable.

Overindulged in, it burns out the literary (and other) tastebuds; it destroys the capacity for wholeheartedness and sincerity; it leads to a cheap, unearned cynicism.

Grunts have a right to be cynical. Hookers have a right to be cynical. Coal-miners have a right to be cynical. The bubble-wrap-encased children of the middle class -don't-.

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Steve Stirling said...

Ordinary people do discuss technical matters; they don't do it -all the time-, but they do do it fairly often.

In particular, professionals talk about the details of their professions a lot, although they don't do it in precisely the same way amateurs do.

In the contemporary military, there's even a term for those so obsessed with details of equipment that they spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars of their own money to get the very best/most fashionable stuff, the latest camelback water carrier, the perfect field knife, the ultimate boots, and so forth.

They're known as "gear queers".

They even have all-military email groups and private newsletters where they spend endless hours debating this sort of thing.

10:07 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

I'm a bubble-wrap-encased member of the middle class, and I, for one, have earned my irony.

Mind you, there's cheap irony and there's true irony, and I was referring to the latter.

10:14 PM  
Anonymous Steve Stirling said...

And of course how people talk is a matter of context.

For example, when you're dealing with "soldiers", you'd find very large differences between, say:

the citizen-soldiers of an American army division in 1944;

the mostly teenage conscripts of 1968, who pulled the wrong number or didn't know the right people; and

the long-service professionals of 2008, most of whom spend 8-12 years in the ranks, and who unlike the previous two categories are there because they want to be.

And that's just Americans and a period of only two generations.

10:18 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

I have no problem with characters who talk shop when shop talk is called for. If you've got scientists working out a scientific problem, they're by gosh gonna talk science to each other.

It's when they start gratuitously lecturing each other about throw-weights that I have a problem.

10:20 PM  
Anonymous Steve Stirling said...

I think a lot of the emphasis on irony is due to a dread of seeming uncool or unhip, or of being "taken in".

Which is a cripplingly limiting way of viewing the world; it leads to glibness, a mannered knowingness, an inability to committ, and ultimately to narcissism.

Also to being excessively self-referential. Even as literary characters, people who are focused on the minutae of their own emotional states and experiences are just so -boring-.

I prefer the outer-directed type to the self-conscious.

Delany, one of the best writers the field has produced, eventually wrecked himself IMHO by falling into essentially this trap.

10:27 PM  
Anonymous Steve Stirling said...

It's when they start gratuitously lecturing each other about throw-weights that I have a problem.

-- yeah, that's bad, of course.

But people whose whole life is taken up with some task tend to be -very interested- in it.

10:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gee, Mr. Stirling. Lecture much?

(Spoken ironically)

10:46 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

If irony is glib or hip, it's either a reflection of character or a reflection of style. Or maybe just bad writing, but generally bad writers can't =do= hip, it actually takes skill.

But serious irony I tend to view as true because real life =is actually ironic.=

10:50 PM  
Blogger Dave Bishop said...

"I've always craved real life, even when I didn't have one. I've sought out life, even when I didn't know how. I've always tried to live real life, even when I didn't have a clue."

This is probably why I read your SF novels, Walter. And why I've virtually given up reading most others. That, and what I call the 'soap-operisation' SF. 'Soap Opera SF' is the variety in which the emotional lives and interactions of the characters take precedence over the ideas and the interactions of the characters with the wider Universe.

7:47 AM  
Blogger Ian McDowell said...

This kind of thing does seem more common in SF (and maybe fantasy) than elsewhere, and I think you just nailed the biggest flaw in STARSHIP TROOPERS, one that has nothing to do with whether or not one disagrees with its politics; it's the geeky hectoring tone.

To compare apples and durian, that's one reason why the final volume in C. S. Lewis's space trilogy is so much better than the preceding ones. I completely disagree with THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH's philosophy and its ignorant caricature of science (not to mention the crude and class-conscious attack on H.G. Wells), but at least Lewis stops with (well, okay, lessens) the lecturing and tells a genuinely involving STORY.

Oh, and another good thing about citing STARSHIP TROOPERS is that it demonstrates this kind of thing predates roleplaying gaming, which is usually cited as a leading cause for this kind of wankery in SF and fantasy.

And yeah, irony is a spice, and of course you kill a meal with too much spice, but vegetables cooked without any are pretty damn bland.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

Mr. Stirling, I am somewhat offended by your comment as I had big bowl of jalapeno peppers for breakfast.

So, If I want to write science fiction, should I spend more time at strip bars loosing all of my money in a lame attempt to get laid, or just get my self kidnapped by aliens?

11:20 AM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Ralph, I'd go for broke and try to get kidnapped by alien strippers.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

Alien strippers not fun. One birthday some friends made me go to a place called Cow Tippers (now named club Lysol). When I watch a girl dance, I like her to have the correct number of arms, legs, eyes and breasts.

It was quite disturbing when one of them asked me for a table dance,

DANCE THING: How about a table dance.

RALF: How about I give you $20 to go outside.

DANCE THING: Cool, lets go.

RALF: You go ahead, I think I will stay right here.

I must say, I can take a punch, but one slap from Dance Thing sent me over the bar. Just a bit of corrective surgery and some therapy (Physical and Mental) and I am as good as new.

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Jim Herndon said...

Forgive me for harping on a petty detail (or don't), but your definition of 'Geek' appears to lack consistency. You start by citing the utility of computer and wilderness geeks, (two groups which usually possess extensive direct experience), and somehow by the end of the following paragraph have constructed a stance around the notion that geeks as a population embody obsession without experience.

Of course the fact that I routinely describe myself as a geek has no relevance to this discussion...

I confess I'd have been less irritated by the post if I didn't adore your fiction.

2:54 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Jim, sorry to be irritating.

I guess I was trying to distinguish between theoretical expertise and actual experience, and probably stumbled over my definitions.

I guess what I'm looking for is balance. I aspire to be a kind of Confucian gentleman, able to perform in many different fields because I've got some kind of grasp of the fundamentals. Aristide in =Implied Spaces= is a character very like this.

When your whole life consists of a hobby, and then you write fiction about characters who aspire to function in areas other than that hobby, the disconnect shows. That's all I'm sayin'.

3:23 PM  
Blogger halojones-fan said...

It's important to remember, when reading "Starship Troopers", that you're reading a political screed Heinlein wrote because he was upset about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Things come sharply into focus when you keep that in mind.

9:20 PM  
Blogger halojones-fan said...

Also: just admit that you read a book by Neal Stephenson, okay?

And I'll point out that you got pretty geeky yourself in "Hardwired". I think that what upsets you is not so much the specialized-knowledge fetish; what annoys you is the fact that the author will bring the story to a crashing halt so that they can deliver a dissertation on how cheese is made, or on how bullets penetrate armor, or on how covalent chlorine is responsible for the carcinogenic properties of toxic waste. It's the lumpiness of a story that offends, not the fact that there's a lot of detail.

Which brings us back to Stirling's comment. A dash of habanero extract mixed into a dish is good. Pausing in the middle of a meal to bite into a raw habanero is not so good.

9:25 PM  
Anonymous Steve Stirling said...

The other bad thing about the "ironic mode" is that it tends, when overused, to be too comfortable and reassuring.

A true hero makes you conscious that you could be more than you are -- if you tried hard enough.

Irony, by attempting to "show up" all pretensions to virtue, makes no such demands. If everything is really crap and hypocrisy and false pretense, then you're no worse than everybody else just as you are. In fact, since you see through the pretence and the rubes don't, you're superior -because- you don't try.

I still occasionally ask myself "what would Allan Quartermain do?". That's not a bad thing, IMHO.

11:52 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Irony is like any other ingredient in fiction. It can be overused. So can other tropes, such as mighty-thewed barbarian swordsmen. The difference is that irony exists in real life . . . barbarian swordsmen, not so much.

My problem isn't infodumps per se--- they're necessary in any fiction, and can be handled artfully or otherwise--- but in the disconnect between the way people actually behave and the way they behave in the fiction of those who view the world through the prism of experience points and the D10.

Likewise, I can admire a fictional hero so long as he is reasonably human. But if he is one of those people Destined From Birth to Slay the Orc King with the Jewel That Only He Can Weild, I have a hard time buying it.

What would Allan Quatermain do?

Judging by the available evidence, he'd kill a lot of elephants, find a lost race, and get involved in a civil war to restore the rightful ruler.

Steve, have you accomplished any of these things?

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Steve Stirling said...

The difference is that irony exists in real life . . . barbarian swordsmen, not so much.

-- well, they used to! And may again... 8-).

>and the way they behave in the fiction of those who view the world through the prism of experience points and the D10.

-- no quarrel with that.

But there's no one way people behave.

The later sagas were intensely realistic prose fiction in their day. The people in them often seem demented to us. But that's because they're operating from a very different set of assumptions.

A realistic depiction of the psyche of a contemporary Westerner would seem just as lunatic in many other settings.

>Steve, have you accomplished any of these things?

-- Quartermain would always try to act like an English gentleman, do the right thing, stand by his friends, and take the consequences without whining or blaming someone else.

This I -try- to do.

9:51 PM  
Anonymous Martin Wisse said...

A lot of what you complain about seems to me not to be so much a problem with geekdom, as third artist syndrome, which as you know Bob is where the first artist draws from life, the second copies the master, the third copies the second. A "fantasy novel by someone who has spent his entire life reading fantasy novels" is quintessential third artist syndrome.

12:22 AM  
Anonymous Daniel Abraham said...

Geek fiction contains no irony. Everything is very deadpan and sincere.

With all respect, I think you may be reacting to something besides the place of the book on the irony/sincerity spectrum. When I read your post, what I come away with isn't that people should only write about things with which they have actual experience (because, dude, like that would work).

What I'm hearing you say is these books lack a convincing emotional life, and that the conclusions the narrators draw about human experience is simplistic and unrealistic (and therefore dull).

Also I think you believe this is a reflection of the emotionally stunted life of the authors who write it.

As it happens, I agree with you.

One of my favorite religious figures, Bo Lozoff, said something along the lines that most of the problems in our social world come from being in a culture that requires we act like we're simple when we're actually profoundly complex.

Just the way I can screw up the technical details of a battle by not knowing enough about what battle was like (or, more specifically, not imagining myself or my characters in the situation with enough clarity), I can also screw up what it's like to be a human being with an emotional life by not paying enough attention to my own (and by extension my characters').

9:25 AM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

"-- well, they used to! And may again... 8-)."

Mr. Stirling, are you saying that you think space bats might come to the Earth and turn off all of our electricity, gun powder and stuff?

9:32 AM  
Anonymous Daniel Abraham said...

Steve says:

Also to being excessively self-referential. Even as literary characters, people who are focused on the minutae of their own emotional states and experiences are just so -boring-.

I prefer the outer-directed type to the self-conscious.


No, really? :)

I think you're making a bit of a straw man there, though.

It seems to me that being focused on "the minutae of their own emotional states and experiences" is another example of what Walter's complaining about: Geek fiction where the hobby is introspection. I think Walter's talking about the narrator's psychological acuity.

Hornblower spent a lot of time wrestling with his own emotional state, and it was what made him an interesting action hero. Peter Wimsey was a better character than the books he was in because of vulnerabilities he never talked about. It was the Sayers who let us know what Peter's internal struggles were like, and she did it without having her characters sit around for chapters on end meditating. It was in their actions, the choices they made, the things they said (or didn't). Likewise, Ross MacDonald and Lew Archer. Lew Archer never mentioned *having* an internal life, but his fallibility and emotional reactions came out in his actions.

But it's a hard thing for an author to write insight they don't have. Writers are people, and some people are emotionally tone-deaf. It's not that they're bad people; it's just that's not something they're either naturally good with or have chosen to cultivate. Same is true for programmers or architects or street sweepers. Only programming, architecture, and street sweeping, it maybe doesn't show as much. :)

I don't know which writer particularly set Walter off, but I have a list of folks who I don't read for pretty much the reasons he cites. Heinlein is one of them. I came to him late, and to someone with my background, Stranger in a Strange Land is a comedy.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Annalee said...

What you're talking about here is a problem writer-geeks coined terms for years ago.

Two people telling each other things they already know, or things no one would pontificate on in those circumstances? It's called "As you know, Bob." As in, "As you know, Bob, we have been conspiring for the past ten years to ensure that the Large Hadron Collider will indeed destroy the universe."

Putting in ridiculous technical details that have no place in the story, just to prove how much research you've done? It's called "I suffered for my art, and now it's your turn."

Putting in a ridiculously brilliant character who is beautiful and whom everyone desires and listens to about everything even though they're just obnoxious? Yep, we've got a term for that, too.

These things have nothing to do with being a geek. They have to do with being a bad writer. There are the Heinleins of the world who aren't so much writing novels as thinly-veiled political treatises, and there are the James D MacDonalds of the world that know everything there is to know about one or more subjects, and use that knowledge to produce richly-detailed stories that never bore.

Good writers tend to be keen observers of human nature, so it's true that people who can't tell the difference between knowing everything and being likable are going to have an uphill battle when it comes to fiction. But I would argue that being a geek and being One Of Those People are only tangentially related.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

One of my favorite flawed authors is James P. Hogan. He has some very entertaining ideas, however his characters can be a bit shallow and he tends to put notes in his book like "If you don't want to understand the math of why this would work, please turn to page 247. This will not diminish your enjoyment of the story."

11:57 AM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

Annalee, RAH was something of a right wing nutjob with a tendency to preach, however, he was very good at developing three dimensional characters. He also had some very good ideas and wove them into some incredible plots that were paced very well.

He liked to experiment with the structure of his books and did some radical things that worked out quite well. I love the structure of Beyond This Horizon. The structure of the book left my head spinning as much as the twist at the end of Clarke's Childhood's End.

12:10 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Daniel, being smarter than I, has pretty much put his finger on it.

I was reacting to a book I'd just finished--- which wasn't by Neal Stephenson, by the way--- and trying to relate what I found annoying about that book to annoying things I found in other people's books.

Being a writer means you're not just trying to project your own inner self onto the page, but that you have to imaging =other= selves, distinct from yourself or your fictional surrogate, to whose inner lives you have to devote as much time and effort as any other subcreation.

Alexei Panshin made a good case that the characters who keep reappearing in Heinlein's books--- the dutiful young man in need of instruction, the outraged young man who finds he's been lied to, the competent engineer, and the old fart who knows everything--- are Heinlein himself at different stages of his life. He couldn't create anything outside of his own mind, which is possibly why his later works grew so self-referential. Or maybe he literally couldn't see the rest of us as truly real, which is why solipsism is such a big part of his work.

He made a big impression on me as a young person, because there was always some avuncular character who would explain life to me. I didn't notice at the time that they were all the same character, or that sometimes the ideas were insanely odd.

Solipsistic writers can be interesting if their inner selves are interesting--- Nabokov, Mailer, and Philip Roth come to mind--- but these writers also have the gift for creating characters who are =not= reflective of their own inner neuroses.

("Poor Walter," Kathy said the other day. "You had a happy childhood.")

But yeah. I'm interested in writers who use their own experience to create marvelous secondary worlds. But in order for them to do that, they actually have to have experience.

5:20 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

-- Quartermain would always try to act like an English gentleman, do the right thing, stand by his friends, and take the consequences without whining or blaming someone else.

I'm totally cool with that. But if I were looking for a role model, I'd pick one from real life, because otherwise I might pick someone like Colonel Dubois (ret.), and lord knows how bugfuck loco I'd be by now.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Daniel Abraham said...

But in order for them to do that, they actually have to have experience.

Hmm. I think you're skipping the middle part.

They need insight, and experience is a great way to gain insight. But its not the only way. And some people can experience a lot of events without having any insight into them.

5:52 PM  
Blogger A. J. Luxton said...

Your fiction is great, but the definition of "geek" here is narrower than most I've encountered.

I feel incited to respond.

The people I know who self-identify as geeks are world travelers, scientists, poetry fiends, historians, linguists, swingers, soldiers, metalsmiths, adult film stars - and above all, polymaths. Why be fascinated by one thing, when you can be fascinated by everything?

Good fiction comes out of experience, and also out of openness to others' experience.

If I were to make a critique of the writing that I think of as too driven by single-minded interest, it would be not that the writers lack experience, but that they seem to lack interest in the world outside their own experience.

As an example, you can see this in some female characterization by male writers, especially in older SF, say, 1950s: it's obvious that some male writers are going on their own experiential concepts of what women are like, but not on women's experience of their own lives.

8:03 PM  
Blogger John said...

The Irony of Literary Geeks arguing the role of Geeks in Literature.


I'm a former Grunt as you call us, so I'm allowed to be all kinds of Cynical.

8:43 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

A.J., I respect your point of view, but the problem is that nobody actually uses "geek" as a synonym for "widely experienced, well-traveled polymath."

They tend to use it in the sense of someone whose interests are narrow but extremely deep. Which is how I intended the term.

John, cynicism supported by experience is always welcome here.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

Walter,
"Alexei Panshin made a good case that the characters who keep reappearing in Heinlein's books--- the dutiful young man in need of instruction, the outraged young man who finds he's been lied to, the competent engineer, and the old fart who knows everything--- are Heinlein himself at different stages of his life. He couldn't create anything outside of his own mind, which is possibly why his later works grew so self-referential. Or maybe he literally couldn't see the rest of us as truly real, which is why solipsism is such a big part of his work."

What part of his life did Friday and the Podkayne of Mars come from? Perhaps I don't want to know.

I think you guys may be confusing geek with dweeb. I see a geek as a person with extrodanary skill that may have limited interpersonal skills. I see a dweeb as a geek wannabe.

11:47 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

I'm afraid I don't have a working definition for dweeb.

I always think of a nerd as someone without a clue. And a geek as someone with genuine talent, though not necessarily the best social skills.

But dweeb? I don't know.

I suppose I could dig out my substantial list of seventh-grade insults and we could work our way through them.

12:27 AM  
Blogger Matt Smit said...

I'd be curious to hear some examples of Geek Fiction, apart from preachy RAH- maybe it's just because I'm up at 3 in the morning, but I'm having trouble thinking of anything I've read that fits that model well, and I like to think that I'm well read...

2:19 AM  
Anonymous Daniel Abraham said...

I was thinking of Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler, myself.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

I think that James P. Hogan tops the list. Don't get me wrong, he is a very entertaining author. He just gets stuck on the technical side and skimps on the character.

On the other side of the spectrum is Gran Torino. I watched it last night on a larc. I must say, it was the best screen writing I have seen in years. The main characters were all flawed. The events gave the characters choices. The choices changed them (For good or bad).

When you were starting to feel beaten down, the writer tossed in a scene that made you laugh. When things got too light something dramatic would happen. Every line of the movie advanced the plot. I don't think anything could have been cut without diminishing the film, but it did not seem to fast.

I was also very impressed with the way the sub plots were mixed in. Sometimes when you are reading or watching a film you have a virtual bright neon sign, "Now starting sub plot II." There is nothing wrong with that, some times it is cool when the hero is left hanging off of the edge of the cliff while hungry sharks below start sharpening their lasers.

In Gran Torino everything is mixed so well together the plots don't have any distinction. This gave the movie a real life feel.

PS. You could tell the main character knew quite a bit about cars and construction, but the most offensive bout of techno babble was, "I need a roofing hammer."

10:01 AM  
Anonymous Technomad said...

While Himself makes some good points, I would like to point out that for medieval ladies to spend a lot of time talking about medicinal herbs is actually quite realistic. Such women spent hours every day in their "stillroom" working up attempts to cure what ailed the people under their authority. Life, for them, wasn't all banquets, tournaments and political intrigue---a medieval lady of the manor was a hard-working person with a lot of different jobs and quite a bit of responsibility.

Gratuitous shop-talk is wrong because it doesn't advance the story, but if Our Heroine is trying desperately to cure someone and her neighbor comes over with some herb tips, that's different.

11:18 AM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Examples? I kinda wanna confine myself here to folks who are dead. (Critics get paid to make writers angry at them, I don't).

It has to be admitted, though, that Tom Clancy is a pretty good example. Clive Cussler, on the other hand, may just be an awful writer.

Van Vogt.

Ayn Rand.

Robert Forward.

John Barth.

How's that for all over the map?

4:30 PM  
Blogger Matt Smit said...

Fair enough, I suppose. Of that list I've only read Clancy and Rand - and then only one book of each, a decade ago.

4:33 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

But if he is one of those people Destined From Birth to Slay the Orc King with the Jewel That Only He Can Weild, I have a hard time buying it.

Thinking about this, I realized the thing that can actually sell this story to me.

Suffering!

If being the Chosen One wins you nothing but suffering, if every step toward the climax is like slogging over razor blades, if friends suffer and die as a result of his decisions, if the character is boxed into a series of horrid decisions . . . then I'm inclined to believe it.

That's why I buy Frodo as a hero. He staggered all the way to Mount Doom, but then renounced his quest (irony). Gollum tried to snatch the ring but destroyed it instead (irony). And even after Frodo was rescued, honored by his companions, and returned home, he had still suffered too much to enjoy his well-earned retirement (irony). With all his heroism, he failed to win himself happiness and peace(irony), but won it instead for Sam (irony).

That's a lot of irony packed into just a few pages of LOTR.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

And The LOTR is such a short work.

The one thing that bothers me when I read Is "The Hand of Fate". When the hero does not win buy skill cleverness and the loyalty of his friends but because some unspoken higher power is clearing all of the obstacles from his path, I tend to think, "Wait, the higher power is [insert author name]."

I guess when you write the story, you can have the hero roll sixes all day

4:05 PM  

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