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I was in a foul mood all last week, so when a friend offered her opinion of a movie I’d recently enjoyed, deeming it “fairly good, while predictable,” I took it as a passive-aggressive reference to my low-brow viewing choices.

Naturally, she did not mean it that way and (thankfully) I have a strict “reread before hitting enter” policy when posting to social media, so no damage was done, but it did get me thinking.

The movie in question is of the “coming of age” variety and my friend’s evaluation was, to be frank, pretty spot-on. The movie is predictable, as we follow a young man growing up, navigating the pain of early adulthood until, at movie’s end, he comes to terms with his father’s history of absence and utter unreliability.

Predictable. Trite. Cliché. I’ve used these words to describe (in negative terms) both books and movies. I’ve done so here on this blog, and usually I’ve not been kind about it. So, why do I look down my nose at some formulaic works, yet enjoy others? Why do I consider some works to be entertaining, even though they are utterly predictable?

We’re all familiar with the old argument about story archetypes, how many there are, and how old. According to common wisdom, there are only seven archetypal plots (though opinions differ, and widely so). Whether this is true or not, formulas are used to build stories, especially in film—the coming of age plot, the rom-com, the murder mystery—and they are often followed to the point where you can set your watch by what happens on screen. Eighteen minutes into an episode of Murder, She Wrote? A body is going to drop in three . . . two . . . one . . .

Why do we enjoy such stories, even when we know how they’ll work out? And when do we not enjoy them?

I returned to the movie under discussion, and found that my enjoyment had nothing to do with the story’s predictable nature. I knew the boy would grow up and be happy. I knew the boy’s father would remain an irredeemable two-dimensional deadbeat dad. I knew the boy would have some sort of confrontation with his father and, in so doing, accept his own adulthood. I knew all this would happen, and to be honest, those were the least engaging sections of the film.

What grabbed and held my interest were the differences, the ways in which the writers deviated from the expected. As one example, it was how a collection of men—grandfathers, uncles, and pseudo-uncles—cooperated to raise a boy, communal fathers to an abandoned son, a composite role model that was both counterpoint and counterpart to the flawed original. The formula, that’s the foundation on which the whole is built, the scaffolding that supports what is new, but it’s the differences that set it apart.

Absent these differences, that’s when formula is a problem. That’s why the 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho was a flop: simply filming it in color wasn’t enough of a difference.

But with sufficient differences, ah!, now we have variations on a theme, the same story told from a different point of view, and we enjoy the result. Otherwise, we’d never watch another rom-com, see a new staging of Macbeth, or read another mystery novel. We’d be all “Been there; done that,” and set off in search of the totally new (and good luck with that).

Some will argue that there are no original stories; that everything is an interpretation of one of the seven archetypes; or a fanglement, a mash-up of two or more to fashion what merely seems new. I disagree but will allow that, in most cases, it is true. We do tell the same stories, over and over, and we enjoy the retelling, the predictability.

So, when I begin to fret that my current work-in-progress is just another old tale retold, I’ll make a point of remembering the differences I’m working into it. Style, setting, sub-plot, backstory, characterization, tone, structure, pacing—differences large and small all adding to a unique outcome.

Formulas just are; it’s how we employ them that determines if they’re worth the time.

k

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06Jan2022

One year ago today, my journal entry ended with: “Self-medication was required.”

This year, it’s still too early to know what the day will bring.

What today is supposed to bring is suffused in mundanity—an appointment with a chimney sweep, a couple of deliveries, an inch of rain—but if 2021 taught me anything, it’s that we can never really know what the world at large will toss into the mix.

Looking back on the year between, though, I’d have to say the auspices are not promising.

Monday, we both got our COVID booster shots. Our immune systems kicked into high gear, building the desired antibodies and so, by Tuesday, as expected, we were a bit under the weather. Some of our social media contacts chided us for putting such “poison” into our bodies; one even sent us a ten-minute video on how it magnetizes our bodies. (FYI: it doesn’t.)

In a friend’s most recent letter, she told me that some people in her circle—all functional adults capable of holding down a full-time job—upon reading a book that could be classified as “magic realism,” were of the belief that because “back then, people were closer to nature,” the magic described in the book was real. (FYI: it wasn’t.)

Recently, heavy snows—in winter—are being pointed to as clear evidence that climate change is a hoax, while tornadoes and wildfires in December are dismissed with the label “God’s will.” (FYI: it isn’t and they aren’t.)

And, to bring it back around, two in five Americanstwo in five—believe that hundreds of individuals across the nation somehow conspired to flawlessly submit thousands of fraudulent ballots, all without leaving the slightest trace of their crimes, all to oust a sitting president whose approval rating on its best day couldn’t touch the 50% mark. (FYI: they didn’t.)

“I did my own research” has become the mantra of the age, with grand swathes of the American population opting to trust a few hours spent on Google, searching for what they want to hear, rather than give an iota of credence to the knowledge and experience of experts who’ve studied these topics for decades.

We are in a Desert of Reason, where logic and critical thought are as rare and precious as water in the Sahara. Common sense is not only uncommon, it is strenuouslyand at times violentlyeschewed.

Today will play itself out, ending as it will with a bang or a whimper, but either way, as it was last year, self-medication may be required.

k

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Back when I was a panelist at writing/sci-fi conventions, I would occasionally pop in at the workshops, where pros read/critiqued story submissions and provided a professional’s view. The critiques were honest assessments, often served with actual “pro tips,” but the stories submitted were usually—to be honest—pretty awful.

On one such occasion a pro author/editor I knew provided a critique that was both the shortest I’ve ever heard as well as the definition of “damning with faint praise.”

Her critique: “It’s very nicely typed.”

The newest title in the Firefly novel ‘verse is Una McCormack’s Firefly – Carnival, from Titan Books, and sadly, the best thing I can say about it is that “It’s very nicely bound.”

I’ve complained loud and long about previous titles in this series—the lone exception being Tim Lebbon’s entry, Firefly: Generations (also the only one with a title that comes with a colon instead of an en dash . . . go figger—as the entries written by James Lovegrove have been massive disappointments. Learning that this title was penned by a different author gave me hope.

Misplaced hope, as it turned out.

The basics of the plot are: Mal and crew are hired to provide security for a shipment and escort it across town from the train station to the space port where, once loaded, it flies off and they get paid. Naturally, things go wonky, the shipment goes astray, and two of Serenity’s crew are taken hostage—by the employer who hired the team—as collateral pending return of the goods or compensation for the loss. Failure, within 48 hours, and the “collateral” will be sent back in boxes.

Now, if that’s not a goofy enough setup for you, it gets better. Or worse. Example: the job pays 200 platinum (a ridiculously high wage for a few hours’ work) but when the crew is told they have to cover the losses, the sum is only 500 platinum (more than they have, of course, but 200 Pl is an unreasonable chunk of that profit margin).

The story unfolds and we learn that (unsurprisingly) nothing is as it seems, and therein lies the tale.

McCormack is a best-selling author of many television and movie tie-in novels, but reading this I came to the conclusion that those titles were best-sellers based on an established fan base and not on the style or content because . . . damn.

For any book set in the Firefly ‘Verse, you have to deal with the show’s excellent use of dialect and language. As with other books, the occasional sprinkling in of “g-less” gerunds (i.e., shootin’ and flyin’) helps evoke the tone from the show, and the reader fills in the rest. Lovegrove, for all his faults, did this well. McCormack does not. They pop up all over the place and, most troublesome, she throws them into non-dialogue sections, including those that are straight narrative and not part of a character’s internal thoughts. In addition, she decided to spice it up with other dialect elisions, such as “platinum” becoming “plat’num” which (to my ear at least) has no audible difference and only disturbs the eye as we trip over it. (In her defense, McCormack is a Brit who may very well have better diction than we Americans, so this may have made sense to her.)

Stylistically, the prose is pedestrian and flat, without any beauty. At regular intervals—presumably to evoke a feeling of action or a character making a quick assessment of surroundings—McCormack drops into a paragraph of fragment sentences. This in itself isn’t a bad practice, as it reads with more urgency, but when she drops pronouns and subjects from the beginning of the sentence, we have to re-read to make sure we get it, which obviates the point of the fragments.  In fact, McCormack often creates sentences where the syntax is imprecise or vague, and it can be read with one of two (sometimes opposite) meanings depending on inflection. This is simply poor writing, and should have been caught and fixed.

Sadly, the editors seem to have taken holiday on this book. And, halfway through, the proofreaders seem to have gone to join them. This is less McCormack’s fault than Titan Books’, though the author is not off the hook either. Content errors. Out-of-place references to current pop-culture. Missing punctuation. Typos. For all of these, the author gets proofs, too, and there are simply too many errors late in the book to deny a lackadaisical process from start to finish.

In short, it’s a hot mess and I found myself remembering Lovegrove’s less-than-stellar titles in the series with something approaching fondness.

The Firefly novels are now one for six, with Lebbon’s book being the only one worth the time. It’s sad, but it’s clear at this point that these are simply revenue streams—something I should have figured going in—hackwork without interest in the actual art and craft of writing.

Frankly, I don’t know that I’ll bother with any future titles. My love for the show, its original use of language, the depth of its characterizations, begins to suffer from such low-bar fare.

In short, these books are beginning to damage my calm.

k

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OK, Boomer. This is for you.

Last week, we signed up for a month of Disney+, and did so specifically to watch Peter Jackson’s documentary, “The Beatles: Get Back.

The Beatles were the soundtrack of my earliest youth, before I even knew who they were. I saw them on Ed Sullivan (“Why are all the girls screaming?”) and when my family took a road trip to Disneyland, I saw posters for them pasted on every block in L.A. (“Hehe. They spelled ‘beetles’ wrong.”). By the time I really knew who they were, they had begun to change, shifting from the classic rock and roll of Hard Day’s Night to the more musically complex tracks on Rubber Soul and Revolver. I followed them devotedly into their psychedelic phase, reveling in the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that swirled around them during the Sgt Pepper/Abbey Road years. And, like most people at the time, I blamed Yoko for everything in the global post-mortem of the band’s break-up.

It’s no surprise, then, that I was willing to drop eight bucks to sign up with Disney+, just to watch Jackson’s three-part documentary about that final period.

What was a surprise was how moved I was by it, and for totally unexpected reasons. (more…)

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Today I am thankful for:
Two brothers, all bundled up in matching navy blue hoodie jackets, out on the cul-de-sac in the bright drizzle, playing a game.

The game is:
Proceed in stages from a starting point (the truck at the near end) to a goal (the far end of the block), by one player tossing a Frisbee ™ as far as they can but not so far (or wide) that the other cannot catch it. It must be caught, or the disc goes back for a rethrow.

Eminently scalable, simple and elegant in rules, it’s a beautifully cooperative game. They win together, full stop. There is no losing. There are only gradients of victory.

Looks like they’re going for a team best, now.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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A week or so ago, I had a hankering to spend time with some old friends. We’d been out of contact for fifteen years, and I felt it was time to reconnect, to catch up, to share stories. So, for the past week, I’ve been hanging with Alain, Bronwyn, Wrdisten, Boduos, and the rest of the gang from old Breizh.

In other words, I re-read The Ploughman Chronicles, my 9th century historical high fantasy series.

And we had a blast. Literarily speaking, that is.

In the year AD 880, much of Europe was on the cusp between the old/pagan and new/Christian worldviews, and Brittany itself (where the series is set) was in open revolt against the expanding Carolingian Empire, so there’s a lot of historical intrigue woven into the books. Added to that, though, is an even greater intrigue between our world and the fabled Summerland, the land of the Fey, which lies beyond the Veil. Now throw in a prophecy, that there will come a man who will travel between, and master the power of both the line magic of the Veil and the earth magic of the sleeping gods.

For me, though, it is the characters I love most. I mean, they’re so . . . individual, so quirky, each with a distinct manner, their own way of speaking, and with motivations that are set (and revealed) in layer upon layer.

These books are not your usual high fantasy; I can’t think of another series that even comes close to it. Sadly, this series got no love from my agent—perhaps precisely because it isn’t your usual high fantasy—so they never had much opportunity to get shopped around. Also sadly, when I decided to publish them myself, my editing skills weren’t as sharp as they should have been, so I had to contend with the odd typo (and I really hate typos, especially when I’m the one who let them get into the final product).

But here’s where y’all come in.

You see, I love these books, even more so after my re-read, and I want to share them with you.

So, from now through Monday (November 22), the Kindle versions are free. You can find them both on this page at Amazon.

Download them for free, get the reading app for free, and (I hope) fall in love with them, for free.

Paperback versions are still available, of course.

So go, enjoy; tell a friend; hell, tell an enemy, I don’t care. I just want to share them. And if you like them, write a review. If you don’t, tell it to my agent; I think you’ll find a receptive audience there.

k

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First, many thanks to those who showed interest in my new book, From the Edge (now available via Amazon). If you liked it, please  consider writing a review, as that helps drive its visibility.

Autumn figures strongly in From the Edge, as it is without doubt my favorite season (how’s that for a smooth segue?), so it should be no surprise that I’ve scheduled some time off for mid-October. We’re not going anywhere special—trips during the pandemic still carry too much anxiety—so we’re planning local activities and, as is our habit, we’re over-planning.

The kitchen white board now lists a few museums to visit and a couple of the bookstores we like to hit on stay-cations, but one category has grown out of all proportion to its fellows: Day Trips for Fall Color.

Seattle and the Puget Sound region are blessed in that we actually have four seasons. Much as we joke about us having only three—Summer (three weeks), Smoke (three weeks), and Rain (all the rest)—we really do have a distinct Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. And though we’re known as the Evergreen State, we have many areas of deciduous flora that make for stunning fall color vistas.

In combination, the region and the season have another advantage: variable elevation. Fall colors peak at different times at different elevations, so if (as has happened) our fall vacation arrives and the colors aren’t ready down hear near the Sound, we can drive up into the Cascades or the Olympics, where the colors get a two-week head start. Of course, if it is peak color time here at sea level, we have a great collection of parks and gardens from which to view them.

So, the Day Trips for Fall Color list on the white board includes the near (Kubota Garden, Washington Park Arboretum, Japanese Garden), the close and basically sea-level (the Mountain Loop Scenic Byway, the Whidbey Scenic Isle Way, the Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway), and the not-so-close and higher elevation (Stevens Pass Greenway, Leavenworth, and if we’re feeling adventurous, the Chinook Pass). It’s an embarrassment of fall-color riches.

More than just driving around to view the colors, though, we like to stop and enter the autumnal world, for there are scents and sounds that only come at this time of year, in leafy places when the colors rage.

There’s the crispness, a bit of sass, that thrives in the morning and evening air. There’s the urgency of chipmunks, seeking oil-laden seeds on which to grow fat for the coming winter. Birds, their feathers adapted for camouflage amid deep summer shadows or against dark wintry limbs, dart about in deep contrast to the bright riot of translucent hues. And the scents! The smell of moisture has returned after summer’s sere mien has passed. The earth-wood aroma of fallen leaves and rising mushrooms are the umami of forest glades. Rivulets and streams chuckle, happy in rebirth, and all around are the tiny paper-rustles of birds searching beneath leaves, the pit-pat of squirrels covering their caches, and the tentative steps of blacktail deer mincing along narrow, leaf-strewn tracks.

Autumn, to me, is a reward. It’s a reward for surviving the busyness of spring and the chores of summer. It’s the year’s twilight before winter’s somnolence. Autumn is the cognac by the fire before I turn in for the day.

And I intend to enjoy it.

k

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