Category Archives: Fiction

Give me something, something I can read

I’ve got a long road trip and 10 days of no exercise allowed after a spot of surgery (it’s not a tumor!).

So I need things to read. You know, book-like substances, printed bits of dead trees.

And I want a honking pile of them.

Therefore, good people, my plea is simple. Sock it to me:

  • Nominate a popular book that’s actually horrible and I’ll bleed red all over the first page
  • Tell me your Favorite Book of All Time so I have something delicious to chew for hours
  • Hit me up on Twitter, gmail or the comment sections if you want to collaborate on an insanely creative and secret project
  • Give me a movie or music video you want dissected and taken apart, to see how it works like magic or smashes into the hard, heartless rock named Fail
  • If you’re not a nancypants who’ll wind up in therapy, ship me the first page of your WIP and I may ink it up and whip it back, because EDITING IS CRAZY FUN

Also: You’re right, that headline riffs on a Don Henley song. Here it is, live.

The Red Pen of Doom’s Greatest Hits Collection: 10 Epic Posts

  1. Epic Black Car deserves good owner; are you worthy?
  2. The Mother of All Query Letters
  3. Why every man MUST read a romance – and every woman a thriller
  4. The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
  5. The Twitter, it is NOT for selling books
  6. A BOWL OF WARM MILK AND MURDER
  7. 30 achy breaky Twitter mistakeys
  8. Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt
  9. The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
  10. Quirks and legs matter more than talent and perfection

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Photo by Suhyoon Cho

 

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

24 Comments

Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Red Pen of Doom, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Thrillers and mysteries

Why the classic movie DUNE is a hot mess

I remember watching DUNE in the theater and thinking, “Whoah.”

Then again, I was a whippersnapper with no taste when it first came out. So on Old Movie Night, we popped in DUNE and fired it up.

Oh my.

There’s no doubt that DUNE is a hot mess. The question is, why?

Suspect No. 1: Horribly Cheesy Special Effects

This is a good place to start. You can’t excuse David the Lynch for not having access to better special effects, not when this movie came out after all three of the original STAR WARS movies were out.

Check out the trailer and tell me the effects are up to snuff, even for the era.

So, the effects in DUNE are Dr. Who-level lame. You expect the rocks to some styrofoam they bought off the old Star Trek set.

But bad effects aren’t the main reason this film is a hot mess. An audience will forgive bad effects if the story and characters are compelling.

Suspect No. 2: All Kinds of Crazytown

You don’t hire David the Lynch to direct a normal movie. You hire him to spice things up and go a little nuts.

Being absurdly weird can earn your movie cult status, with college kids playing it simply for the biggest excesses and worst moments of wackadoodle.

Moderately good or bad things are mediocre and boring. Give me stuff that's horrifically good or amazingly bad, then we'll talk. Kthxbai.

Moderately good or bad things are mediocre and boring. Give me stuff that’s horrifically good or amazingly bad, then we’ll talk. Kthxbai.

Then again, the tough part is once you base-jump off the Cliff of Normalcy, there’s no guarantee your chute will open.

And this film sprints away from Normal, stiff-arms Edgy and slides right into Bizarre.

This is half of the reason the film is a hot mess. You’re constantly distracted, sometimes by the bad effects, but more often by the weird, bizarre and gross sideshows that don’t truly move the story. The Baron Harkonnen’s massive zits get a ton of screen time. The Guild Navigators are grotesque. The bad guy troops have reverse mohawk hairdoes while the good guys wear surplus World War II uniforms. It’s constantly and consciously odd, which pulls you out of the story.

But if the story kept moving, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on all the weirdness.

Suspect No. 3: Ponderously Beating the Audience with the Cudgel of Pretentiousness

This is the true culprit.

Audiences will believe in sorcerers and elves if you don’t explain them. They’ll buy lightsabers and aliens who are into M & M’s — but not if you get pretentious and deep trying to explain all those things.

See, audiences want to believe. If you set things up from the start, they’ll stick with you. What you can’t do is (a) switch mid-way though a normal book or movie to say “Hey, actually the hero is a vampire. Surprise!” (b) commit the Hollywood sin of double-mumbo jumbo — trying to have a story that’s about dragons and trolls … plus space witches with lightsabers or (c) constantly stop the story to intrude with pretentious narration and dialogue that’s on the nose.

It’s that last sin that DUNE commits right away, with a long narration setting things up following be another and another and another.

Every time the story moves forward two inches, somebody has to stop to explain it to the audience for three minutes, as if we aren’t smart enough to watch the story and understand.  It feels less like a movie and more like a lecture. Then the credits roll.

I bet there’s a supercut of DUNE somewhere, a lot like STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM EDIT where some kind person sliced out all the boring nonsense, like Jar Jar Binks and all the talkative scenes where George Lucas is patiently over-explaining things to you and ruining the Force forever by saying it’s caused by space bacteria or whatever. No.

DUNE breaks new ground with the Unnecessary Voiceovers by having every actor whisper a voice-over of what they’re thinking, which is usually stuff the audience already knows, but hey, beat them on the head with it again.

Which is too bad. There are great actors in here like Kyle MacLachlanPatrick StewartSting and Jürgen Prochnow. A less wacky, less ponderous film with the same cast would have been awesome, even with the same cheesy special effects. It would also be far shorter and more watchable.

Related posts:

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, The Big Screen

Why THE LEGO MOVIE works like magic

Movies based on toys, or cartoons from the ’80s designed to sell toys, tend to suck like Electrolux.

THE LEGO MOVIE is a happy exception to this rule. It’s worth talking about how they accomplished that trick.

They didn’t do it with snazzy special effects and big-name actors. Just about every film based on toys has great CGI explosions and big actors who aren’t so big that they won’t cash a giant check: BATTLESHIP had Liam Neeson, TRANSFORMERS had Megan Fox, G.I. JOE movies have had the Rock and Bruce Willis.

What makes this movie about interlocking bricks any different?

Reason Number 1: The Humility to Make Fun of Yourself

You don’t see the other toy movies doing this. They try hard–too hard–to be serious, and real, and only tangentially related to all the toys they want your kids to buy.

THE LEGO MOVIE has the guts to poke fun at itself, not once or twice, but during the entire film. Relentlessly. Brutally. Hilariously.

Reason Number 2: Subverting and Smashing Conventional Storytelling

This is the real secret. THE LEGO MOVIE picks up typical Hollywood structure by the throat and body slams it to the asphalt.

A normal action movie features a cartoon hero (Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Bruce Lee or Bruce Willis) who’s tough and cool in Act 1 and doesn’t change by Act 3. In fact, this hero doesn’t change, suffer or grow in any of the sequels.

Instead, the writers of this movie picked a hero who’s an Everyman that the prophecy says will become great and powerful, and save the world … except he never really gets those powers, and the prophet (Morgan Freeman!) admits in the end that he made it all up. There is no prophecy.

In parallel, the screenwriters take Batman, who stands in for your typical cool/tough hero, and show that he’s actually a hot mess. Is he still tough and capable? Sure. But you see the real man behind the façade, and it’s funny and insightful.

The villain is where the writers truly nail it.

In a typical action movie, there’s a cartoon villain doing evil things for no apparent reason other than he’s a villain and that’s what they do. Then in the finale, the hero kills the villain in a dramatic one-on-one gunfight, swordfight or fistfight.

Not this time.

The villain in the Lego world is President Business, whose secret identity is Lord Business, and his evil plan is to freeze the Legos into position with his super weapon, the Kragle (Krazy Glue) while the hero is the only one who can stop him with the Piece of Resistance (the cap to the Krazy Glue).

The writers make the bold choice to break POV here, to switch over to the real world for the first time, showing a little boy playing with a city of Legos in the basement. It’s a museum that his father set up, with signs everywhere warning against not touching what has been perfectly constructed based on the exact instructions.

These aren’t toys, his father tells him. They’re interconnecting plastic construction modules.

In real life and the Lego world, the hero doesn’t win by killing the villain, who has the upper hand. There’s no miracle comeback by the good guys.

The Lego hero echoes the language of the little boy and convinces Lord Business / Dad in Real Life that he doesn’t have to do this, that he’s the most amazing and talented person, who could build anything, and that it doesn’t have to be this way.

There’s an acid test for any story, when you’re trying to figure out who’s the hero. Sometimes, it’s not obvious.

In this movie, the person who makes the biggest leap is the villain, who gains insight and makes the decision to reverse course and allow his son (and daughter) to play with what had become a Lego museum, a no-fun zone.

A brave and brilliant choice, and to me, that’s what makes the movie different.

Bonus featurette:

Related posts:

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, The Big Screen

A little girl discovers rain — and what we all can learn from her

This video is simple, short and wonderful. Watch it for a second, and then we’ll talk about it. Because there are important lessons for any writer or storyteller.

Why does this work?

There are no words, no script, no production values. It’s just a little kid seeing and feeling rain for the first time in her life, and reaching out to touch it, taste it, feel it.

But it’s impossible to watch this without smiling and laughing. Without FEELING something yourself. And that’s a lesson grown-ups could learn from this toddler.

You have to feel the emotion you want your audience to feel. This is true whether you’re giving a keynote speech, writing a novel or filming a movie that Hollywood is spending $212 million for all kinds of robots and CGI explosions.

Watching this video, you feel pure joy and surprise. Why? Because that’s what this little girl clearly feels. She doesn’t need to use words to say it. We don’t need a narrator to explain it. She shows it with her face and body. And that’s more than enough.

The Red Pen of Doom’s Greatest Hits Collection: 10 Epic Posts

  1. Epic Black Car deserves good owner; are you worthy?
  2. The Mother of All Query Letters
  3. Why every man MUST read a romance – and every woman a thriller
  4. The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
  5. The Twitter, it is NOT for selling books
  6. A BOWL OF WARM MILK AND MURDER
  7. 30 achy breaky Twitter mistakeys
  8. Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt
  9. The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
  10. Quirks and legs matter more than talent and perfection

###

Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

Leave a comment

Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, The Glowing Tube

The Red Pen of Doom harpoons MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

Now, this classic book is so ingrained in our culture that movies can get all deep and interesting simply by alluding to a metaphor–which is like a simile, only different–that refers to this doorstop of a book.

Like this: “Maybe I’m Ahab and he’s my white whale” uttered by Bruce Willis in DIE HARD 17: THE HAIR DYES HARDEST could change that movie from just another 120-minute shootout in a nursing home into a penetrating examination of the purpose or life, or lack thereof.

Does that make editing the first page of this thing any harder?

Not really. Bring it, Melville.

MOBY DICK

by Herman Melville

Call me Ishmael. (People have been riffing off it for so many years that those three words are invincible. Can’t touch this.) Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. (This second line is also good. It makes the narrator a smidge unreliable, which is always interesting, and gives him a motive that everybody can relate to: being poor and wanting to see the world.) It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. (On your third swing of the bat, Herman the Meville, you whiff. Nobody cares about other peoples’ spleens and such. Kiss those words goodbye.) Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. (Whenever I read a ginormous sentence with five zillion semi-colons and commas, I reach for the red pen and turn it into a nice, short sentence with one comma.) This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. (Another semi-colon, but this is the last one that gets to live.) There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf. (Hate this sentence. It’s like our friend was talking to us about an interesting story, then started reciting beat poetry. Rewrite follows.) The city of Manhattoes is belted with docks and ships, like an Indian isle is encircled by coral reefs. Right and left, the streets take you waterward.

Verdict:

The fact this book is a classic doesn’t mean page one is perfect.

Herman the Melville is wordy on this page and he only gets wordier later on in this book, where he stops the action entirely to devote entire chapters to lectures about whale tails and such.

There’s a lot of fluff to kill, and I was pretty gentle with the word slaying. You could kill more.

Compared to most first pages, though, he does a good job of setting things up. Ishmael wants to see the world and that means sailing, because he’s not rich. So we’re in for an adventure.

How could we improve this? More foreshadowing. Maybe he mentions a friend who’s a sailor, the one who told him stories that got him interested in a life at sea, and this friend just served on a whaling ship that limped into port after getting attacked by a big whale. A ghostly white one. But his friend was drinking a lot of rum and tends to make up stories…

Got a suggestion for a Page 1 that deserves the red pen? Hit me in the comments, the Twitter or secret emails.

The Red Pen of Doom’s Greatest Hits Collection: 10 Epic Posts

  1. Epic Black Car deserves good owner; are you worthy?
  2. The Mother of All Query Letters
  3. Why every man MUST read a romance – and every woman a thriller
  4. The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
  5. The Twitter, it is NOT for selling books
  6. A BOWL OF WARM MILK AND MURDER
  7. 30 achy breaky Twitter mistakeys
  8. Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt
  9. The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
  10. Quirks and legs matter more than talent and perfection

###

Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

8 Comments

Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Red Pen of Doom

Why WORLD’S END ended with a wimper

On four different British Airways 747′s to India and back, I watched many, many movies. And it’s worth talking about them not in a “hey, this is out on DVD, so should you fire up Netflix?” kind of way, but in a storytelling way.

Did it work? Why or why not?

WORLD’S END proves that talent doesn’t always equal success. This is a movie with great comedic actors, yet a structural problem kills it. Because it’s truly two different movies slammed together.

The first movie is a comedy about five mates in England getting back together for an epic pub crawl they didn’t finish as college kids.

The second movie involves robots from space, which comes as a huge surprise, and not a good one.

Simon Pegg is brilliant, and he teams up with his sidekick once again, like in SHAWN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ. Brilliant!

This movie had potential but is not up to Simon’s usual snuff. The thing is, fixing this film wouldn’t take much.

While the Simon Pegg character is talking his buddies into returning to their home town for the crazy pub crawl, he could’ve dropped hints about drunken fights in pub bathrooms with possible robot imposters. A single line like that could’ve saved this movie.

But instead, we get an orphaned payoff with no real setup.

Bonus: Simon continues the stunt casting of former James Bonds with facial hair playing villains. Timothy Dalton with a Tom Selleck mustache was in HOT FUZZ and this time we’ve got Remington Steele with a goatee. Loved this.

Related posts:

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

5 Comments

Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, The Big Screen

What are your evil plans for 2014?

2013: better than Orwell's 1984, but not quite a party like Prince's 1999--though we have great hopes for this new 2014 thing.

2013: better than Orwell’s 1984, but not quite a party like Prince’s 1999–though we have great hopes for this new 2014 thing.

Writers and editors, screenwriters and playwrights, poets and scribblers — what are your writerly plans for this new year of 2014?

Also: what were the greatest hits and misses of 2013?

SOCK IT TO ME.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller (FREEDOM, ALASKA) that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

8 Comments

Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, 6 Friendly Friday, Fiction, Thrillers and mysteries

THE WOLVERINE proves Writing Law #1 – Less is More

Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine on the big screen 873 times so far, and I love the man. Does a great job in the role.

However: Even the charm and acting chops of Hugh the Jackman weren’t enough to salvage the hot mess of the first solo Wolverine movie, which I believe was titled WOLVERINE: A TRAIN WRECK OF A SCRIPT.

So it is with pleasure that I say this latest Wolverine flick, now out on DVD and BluRay and 3D smello-vision and such, is far more watchable than the first hot mess. Check out the trailer:

But hear me now and believe me later in the week: even with the same director and a SMALLER BUDGET, you could have made this latest movie infinitely better. (Spoiler alert: I’m going to fix the movie while revealing big plot points and plot holes.)

Here’s how to fix it: Cut out every possible character. Show no mercy.

Because less is more. Continue reading

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, The Big Screen

Why creativity gets squashed like a bug

Oh, everybody says they want something new and creative. But as this article from Slate shows, even places that are supposed by be hotbeds of artistic and creative genius, like magazines and ad agencies, are often machines built to squash the life out anybody who dares think outside the box.

Now, that's creative. I salute you, random dad.

Now, that’s creative. I salute you, random dad.

You see this in so many places.

Newspapers, which I adore, all did the same thing in reaction to the Series of Tubes: “Hey, let’s not let this train pass us by. How about we innovate by doing what every other newspaper is doing. We’ll put all our stories on this Interwebs for free, then money will pour through the windows from all the banner ads.”

They didn’t question the fact that other papers doing this were bleeding more money than Kim Kardashian on a 12-hour shopping spree.

All these newspapers and magazines did the same thing everybody else was doing. But expected different results.

People who thought outside the box, who said (a) make people subscribe to the paper to read it online or (b) don’t put it online at all, because then people won’t subscribe and advertisers won’t advertise and America will lay off 15,000 journalists, well those people got ridiculed as crazy. They weren’t hailed as creative prophets, avoiding doom. They were seen as nuts and the people in charge ignored them.

PETA and the creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams take a different approach. Instead of doing the safe thing, and what everybody else is doing, the guerrillas at PETA and this random nerdy looking man who worked at banks figured out you can’t plan on hitting a grand slam on your only at bat. You can’t even count on hitting a single, or getting the baseball over the plate.

On paper, getting the gall over the plate looks easy.

On paper, getting the gall over the plate looks easy.

Successful creative types are idea hamsters who try dozens, or hundreds, of different things. Because you can’t predict what will be a world-smashing success, and you certainly won’t somehow break through while doing the same thing that 185,892 other people and businesses are doing.

Scott Adams didn’t have a master plan to become a syndicated cartoonist. In his books, he writes about having dozens of long-shot ideas, and that for somebody who couldn’t draw when he started out, being a cartoonist wasn’t exactly a sure thing. He kept swinging for grand slams and kept missing until Dilbert took off.

PETA doesn’t have the bazillion-dollar advertising and marketing budget of corporations like Coke and Ford, or even non-profits trying to cure cancer and such. PETA gets all their publicity from free ink and airtime. Do they guilt magazines, newspapers and blogs into covering their cause? No. They try dozens and dozens of wild, creative long-shot ideas, most of which fail spectacularly. Why? Because the one idea that takes off can get them free press around the world.

I wrote a series of posts about PETA and publicity stunts for about.com, back when The New York Times owned that blog. (Related: I can say that, as a journalist, I cashed checks every month from the NYT, then got fired, though technically all of the contributing writers got axed, so it’s not as romantic as going on strike and getting replaced by the staff of the Lower Kentucky Valley Register, then walking into the editors office and handing in your resignation via a punch to the nose, which every journalist does dream about at one time. I had fun, and they were kind to me, and I learned many things by writing them down.)

Here’s one of those posts showing how PETA makes it happen.

Social media is the other big area where you FEEL like you’re being creative and different, when actually, you’re doing the same thing, oh, about 1 billion other people hooked up to the Series of Tubes are trying to do. Except you’re expecting a radically different result. While that may be magical thinking, it is conventional, safe and boring–not creative.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller (FREEDOM, ALASKA) that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

 

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Speechwriting, Thrillers and mysteries

Mixed Writing Arts is to writing as MMA is to fighting

Since the dawn of time, writers have spent their lives toiling in their own secret tribes and guilds, each clan claiming to have mastered the One True Art.

  • Copywriters swore their kung fu was far more powerful than that sissy screenwriting nonsense, because if you can’t sell tickets to a movie, the movie doesn’t get made.
  • Working journalists cranking out two stories a day scoffed at poets spending all week on five hippie lines about trees and clouds, while poets saw the mass-production lines of the Priests of the Inverted Pyramid as lacking any sort of soul or art.
  • Romance authors gathered in huge, organized conferences while mystery novelists gathered in small secret groups to put a dent in the global bourbon supply while trading secrets and lies.
  • Speechwriters clutched their tomes with 2,000-plus years of wisdom from Plato, Aristotle, Burke and countless other giants, who were inventing rhetoric and drama and comedy long before Syd Field arrived in Hollywood and Blake Snyder started saving cats.

To me, with a foot in all of these worlds, it felt false.

I got started in journalism and speech, my sister is a screenwriter and I have a great literary agent (Jill Marr!) after writing a novel that won some award.

It hit me, again and again, that I got better as a writer not when focusing like crazy on one thing, but by being exposed to other aspects that often would never have entered my mind as an option. Like hanging out with romance authors and editors, who have made me 100-times stronger as a writer. NOBODY COULD HAVE PREDICTED THAT.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: There is no one supreme writing art.
Continue reading

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, 6 Friendly Friday, Fiction, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Speechwriting, Thrillers and mysteries