Frustrations with Edgar Rice Burroughs

  • by Gitabushi

I’ve been reading more slowly lately. Life, plus an obsession with a mobile game* as a stress reliever.

I am really trying to like Pulp. There is much to like about Pulp. But there is also much to dislike about Pulp.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) provides some good examples of both.

I’ve read enough of ERB and Robert E. Howard that I can get into a pulp mindset where I turn off my writing critic and just enjoy the story.  And *still* ERB annoys with some of his poor plotting mechanics.

I have to conclude that ERB was great at coming up with an amazing archetype of a hero, and then just writing about his bad-ass character. His fame comes from being the first to have such a bad-ass character, rather than from actual writing talent.

Maybe that’s harsh. I know it’s going to irritate some people. But look, I’ve read The Monster Men (which was one of ERB’s later works, and an attempt to be more literary), and while it still had some problems, it was actually a fairly well-written book, with some twists, some character complexity, proper foreshadowing, etc.

But I’m still in the midst of slogging through Gods of Mars, and there are just so many examples of poor writing.

I feel like nearly every 3-4 pages there’s an example of poor writing that jars me out of my Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Sometimes it is having incredible luck that saves John Carter from failure/death or otherwise continue the narrative. One would be irritating, but there have been at least 10 so far…way too many.  Examples: How was it John Carter to Barsoom returned just in time to encounter Tars Tarkas? How was it Tars Tarkas wasn’t the Green Warrior surprised by the unexpected jumping tactics of the Plant Men? How did Thuvia and Tars happen to be right at the location where the damaged air car of John Carter, Xodar, and Carthoris comes to ground?  Why does Thuvia have the ability of nearly perfect telepathy with beasts? Is this something other Barsoomians have? The answer seems to be that ERB needed something to get the characters through a nearly-impossible situation, so he just pulled something out of the air and ran with it.

Or the characters encounter an obstacle, and what do you know, they just happen to have the ability/item they need, right at that moment, but ERB just forgot to mention it before then! This is probably the most irritating, because it gives an impression of first draft writing: if your writing leads you to put your characters into a difficult situation, you go back and add the solution earlier in the work, at a time that it won’t seem unusual or significant.  Call it effective foreshadowing, call it effective preparation to  avoid a deus ex machina, I don’t really know the right way to put it. But ERB completely misses the mark for this in A Princess of Mars and Gods of Mars.

One that bothers me even more, however, is when ERB is inconsistent with the world and the rules of the world he himself set up.  In A Princess of Mars, he explains at length that the Green Men have rifles capable of amazing long distance accuracy, and the marksmanship skills to use them at incredible ranges. Yet when the Green Men would reasonably use that advantage in a way that might hurt the main characters, the Green Men conviently forget to use them.  A prime example of this (which I just read, and pushed me over the edge to needing to write this complaint) is when the Warhoons are chasing John Carter’s band after he rescued Tars Tarkas, but the Warhoons merely pursue them instead of shooting their mounts from underneath them. Another example is several pages earlier when John Carter merely follows Tars’ escorting guards through the dungeon, intead of attacking them immediately to free Tars. And immediately following when John Carter regretfully feels forced to ambush Tars’ guards, clearly feeling it was not up to his standards of fairness.  This bothers me because John Carter had not hesitated to attack far more than just four Green Men warriors previously, and he had killed one with a single blow from his fist before. Why would he hesitate in this situation, and why would he finally decide on a somewhat-dishonorable ambush? Inconsistency.

There are other things to like about the book, but this isn’t really a book review. I like it better than the Land that Time Forgot, because when I put The Gods of Mars down, I do want to pick it up again.  But it isn’t compelling me to reach the finish like The Monster Men did.

I’m not saying the book sucks.  But it does spur contemplation on the nature of successful writing. Should I sacrifice quality for speed in writing? Should I just come up with a great character and not stress plot and consistency?  Why does the best of SFF pulp have this many problems, but the best of Western and Detective Noir do not?

Okay, come at me.

* Kingdom Rush. My obsession is finishing every level without using any of the one-time use special abilities you can purchase with diamonds.  I’m almost done. I’m stressed because the new job I mentioned on Twitter as getting hired for FIVE MONTHS AGO still hasn’t given me a start date. Long story there.

Advertisements

MUST READ SFF: Replay, by Ken Grimwood

  • by Gitabushi

It should be no surprise by now that I like books with good stories, good characters, and ideas that challenge me.  Who doesn’t want to be entertained?  But there are so many options for entertainment, so when I read, I want my mind to get a workout.

51c+mzM27jL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

This book does that.

To be honest, this book may be generation-locked.  The main character was born in the 1940s, and so is in college in the 1960s, and the culture of the 1960s has an impact on the plot. Growing up in the 1970s myself, I didn’t live 1960s culture…but most of the books I had available growing up were written in the 1960s or early 1970s, and set in the late 1950s and 1960s, so I was familiar with the culture.  For someone who never had to dial a rotary phone or never lived before there was cable TV or microwaves, maybe the book will lack some impact.  I don’t know. If you are one such reader, try it out and let me know.

However, Grimwood does an excellent job capturing the normality of those early times.  The protagonist goes back to his youth, but brings his adult sensibilities with him. And if you can imagine how society has changed just from the introduction of widespread use of the birth control pill, you can imagine how his mature assumptions clash with the culture and society of his youth.

The entire book is written with bedrock-solid descriptions of mainstream life in the United States. It feels real. The characters actions and reactions seem real. The author thinks of aspects I didn’t (and maybe couldn’t) and plays them to the hilt. The result is a book that makes it extremely easy to willingly suspend disbelief. It is easy to get drawn in, to care about the protagonists, what they want to do, and why.

It is also intersting to see things fall apart when the main character gets to experience one of the most common wishes of humankind: “If I knew then what I know now.”  Jeff gets several lifetimes of that wish fulfillment, and it still never turns out like he expects.

From that point of view, the book can be seen as a comfort: you are already doing pretty much the best  you can. More knowledge wouldn’t make your life better, it would just move you along to encounter new problems. Life is life. Stop pining for how things could be different, and start appreciating what you actually have.

In the end, you may get a “Groundhog Day” vibe out of this book, but rest assured: this preceded Groundhog Day by several years.

In fact, I would like to challenge all writers: Take the premise of this book, or Groundhog Day, or Flash Forward, and write your own stories. We have endless takes on zombies, vampires, young adult dystopias. Enough!  These three formats are crying out for additional exploration.

But first, you have to read this. Find it and read it. Let me know if you think I steered you wrong, but I think you’ll love it as much as I did.

Oh, and give me a review of the review. Did it make you want to read the book? If not, what else should I have included to help persuade you?

Replay Radar

 

The Great Rebirth

Come, my children, heed the call. Hear the clangor of the Old Machines.

Feed the maw of the Great Rebirth.

 

Sons and daughters of the earth – till and plow; protect the land.

You are our sickle, our pitchfork, our hand.

 

Workers of metal, of hammer and lathe – serve the New Ones with the greatest zeal.

Service is freedom. Come, forge the shield.

 

Keepers of knowledge, of proton and wave – bring forth the old wisdom without doubt or fear.

This be your redemption. Salvation starts here.

 

Come, my children, heed the call. Obey the summons of the Old Machines.

Heap it all upon the fire. Claim the ashes from the hearth.

 

-Bushi

bushi

 

Writing: Three Elements

  • by Gitabushi

Here are three elements of writing I haven’t seen discussed much before, but are currently at the forefront of my mind.

  1. Tropes. You are writing within a genre. As Daddy Warpig said, genre can be defined by a collection of tropes. You don’t need (or want!) all of them, but you need enough of them to set some parameters for your reader. Your task is then to balance your use of tropes (formulas) against innovation.  Too many tropes, and your work will seem hackneyed, derivative, and boring, and your reader will no longer be willing to Suspend Disbelief.  Too much innovation, and your reader will feel jarred, cheated, and will no longer be wiling to suspend disbelief. I’m still trying to work on how to know if you’ve over- or under-used tropes.
  2. Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Get it from your readers. With it, and you can have plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc. But plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc., destroy your readers’ willingness to Suspend Disbelief.  Make it easier for them to Suspend and stay Suspended: perfect your craft.
  3. Provide a satisfying ending to everything you write. Make every work be self-contained. Even if you plan on writing a trilogy, make each book have its own arc that resolves most of the issues.  See “Chuck” or “The Man in the High Castle” (not until the end of the 2nd season, but we’ll grant them this one) for excellent examples of how to do this.

Discuss

CyberdyneT800-580x358

MUST WATCH SFF Television Show: Chuck

  • by Gitabushi

chuck

tl;dr: “Chuck” is quite simply the best television show in recent history. Maybe in television history, but that is a little more subjective.

Okay, let’s get into it: I hate incomplete stories. Hate hate hate hate.

I know stories are fiction.  But once I suspend my disbelief to start to enjoy a story, I want it to end.  In the interest of extending this introduction, let me point out that I hated the ending of Wayne’s World, because giving multiple possible endings left me feeling like it didn’t actually end at all.  And I hated reading The Princess Bride, too, because of the book ending subverting the typical fairy tale storybook tropes.  Bah.  Bah, I say!

But I understand that the television business is a rough world.  You have a great premise, but you can’t pay writers until you have a contract.  So you often don’t know for sure how closely the actual filming will stay with the originally-planned storyline, even during the first season. And since subsequent seasons aren’t a sure thing unless the series gets renewed, future storylines aren’t even planned out, and maybe not even considered.

One way to keep your television series on the air is to, just like in writing, raise the stakes.

You already have the premise. People are hooked. Now start complicating things. They are invested in the characters, so put the characters through hell. Set up cliffhangers, particularly about the most popular characters. Leave your audience begging for resolution.

But don’t make it so complicated your audience gives up and ratings plummet.

You can add more and more spinning plates. Kick the resolution down the road.  Tomorrow will take care of itself.

The problem with this short-term thinking?  Sometimes stories never get finished. When things get too complicated, there is no satisfying way to wrap up all the issues, the audience leaves, and the show gets cancelled.  It happened with the X-Files (I’m *so* happy I never started with that). It happened, to an extent, with Lost. It is happening with Game of Thrones, although George R. R. Martin has apparently given an outline to the showrunners so they can finish the story that he can’t seem to.

These sorts of things leave me unsatisfied.

The way to resolve it is to have story arcs. Each episode should be self-contained, for the most part, with an arc that completes at the end of the episode. The season should also have a story arc that wraps up the issues introduced at the beginning of the season and were developed throughout that year.  And then you have an overall series arc, bookended with a resolution.

“Chuck” did those things.  It might have been by accident; I certainly don’t think “Chuck” was able to hire writers significantly better than anyone else in Hollywood. It might have been because they were always hovering at the brink of cancellation, so they felt less at liberty to introduce elements that couldn’t be resolved within one season.

In any case, “Chuck” is a true rarity in American television: a story-based show with nested arcs that actually wraps things up tightly.

The show starts with Chuck having failed at life, having been thrown out of Stanford, dumped by his girl, working at a Big Box store that is beneath his abilities, and lonely. It ends with him accomplished, having developed his many different talents and abilities, retained his humanity despite difficult circumstances, and with the love of his life by his side.

It even bookends locations, (sorta). It doesn’t end at the same location it begins, but the final scene of the last show is at the same location as the final scene of the first show, and for similar reasons.  It was actually masterfully done.

The fact that “Chuck” completes the story is reason enough to watch it.  Writers should study it for structure, characterization, foreshadowing, etc.

But that isn’t all “Chuck” is.

It is a science fiction story: a guy has a supercomputer downloaded into his brain. It’s a comedy: there are some great laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a love story. It’s one of the better assembly-cast works out there: the side characters add so much depth and interest to the story, to include Casey, Morgan, Jeffster, Captain Awesome, and others. It’s a character-growth story: all the characters grow and develop throughout the series.

Another reason to watch is just all the little Easter Eggs and references to past works. There are references to Dune, Spies Like Us, The Terminator, Die Hard, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Charade, and more.

And the Guest Stars! Scott Bakula, Linda Hamilton, Brandon Routh, Summer Glau, Kristin Kreuk, Dolph Lundgren, Richard Chamberlain, Tony Hale, Chevy Chase, Robert Englund, Carrie-Anne Moss, Reginald VelJohnson (in a Die-Hard-ish episode), Bruce Boxleitner, Christopher Lloyd, Morgan Fairchild, Robin Givens, Rachel Bilson, Gary Cole, Nicole Richie, Armand Assante, John Larroquette, Steve Austin, James Hong, “Louis Litt” from “Suits”, Robert Patrick, Fred Willard, Craig Kilborn, Cheryl Ladd, Michael Clarke Duncan, Andy Richter, Mark Hamill…

Okay, now even I’m getting bored of the list.

I was also impressed by how the show surprised me at times. Chuck was a bumbling dork in the first few episodes, but even very early on, the writers were actually able to have some surprisingly good problem resolutions, where Chuck did something intelligent and innovative to solve a problem that didn’t involve his Intersect ability, but merely his native cleverness.  The resolution in the circumstances I’m thinking of were foreshadowed earlier in the episode, but perfectly set up: they seemed like throwaway humor points, yet Chuck was able to apply them perfectly to win the day.  Little moments of skillful writing like that go a long way to earning my Willful Suspension of Disbelief at other moments.

And it does need your Willful Suspension of Disbelief.  It isn’t a perfect show, and it isn’t a perfect series.  It’s merely the best one humanity has ever produced to date.  But that still isn’t perfect.

Still, I urge you to stream it, or better yet, purchase the entire collection from Amazon.  It’s worth it. It’s a great show.

Don’t believe me? Read this review:

Chuck is the most entertaining show on TV. It’s shot well and the writing is smart and quick. The acting is superb from the extras to the main characters.The story is dramatic and visionary where the character dynamics can be turned on a dime. Love and romance, an agent searching for a good fight, an average guy tossed into the world of espionage; this show has it all.

You will laugh and cry, rejoice and be frustrated because of character depth and great acting. All the characters are lovable and relatable.

NBC has found a hero in Chuck, who as a typical guy, inspires us to be better. The creed of the show is to take care of your family and friends. Simply Chuck calls to do right even in tough times.

It’s certainly a show that will keep you on your toes throughout. Without a doubt this is the best show I’ve ever seen.

At first I was skeptical but after two or three episodes I was hooked because its funny and exciting with a great story to it. I implore you to take a chance on Chuck, trust me its worth it. Regardless of anything else there is nothing else on TV like it.

And no, that wasn’t me that wrote it.  But it captures the show perfectly.

Objective Judgment of Art

  • By Gitabushi

tl,dr: The use of Tropes may be the key to being a successful author.  There is a fine line between playing it so safe you lose your audience to boredom, and forging so far afield that you leave your audience behind.  Find that sweet spot and stay there.

There was a pretty good, wide-ranging discussion regarding Objectivity regarding Art on Twitter today, if you know the right people.

I’m taking credit for kicking it off with this tweet:

I mean, it certainly is true that I didn’t start that tweet thread, but it had died a natural death before I came along and breathed new life into it.  Or, at least, that is my claim and you can try to prove me wrong.

Anyway, a bunch of points were made, and as I was on a slow system earlier, and then on my cellphone later, I didn’t feel like either enabled me to provide the full scope of my thoughts on Art and Objective Judgments.  So here they are.

As I said at one point in the thread (have fun trying to follow all the different branches), I said that while there is valid, objective pronouncement of “This is clearly good” or “This is clearly bad” (because in every case, there is someone who will disagree with the pronouncement and have reasons for doing so they can back up), I do believe there are objective skills that can be identified and evaluated.  From there, the judgment as to whether a work is “good” or “bad” is personal.

Let me get extremely bogged down in analogies, mainly with music.

If you compared my skills as a guitarist to Joe Satriani, he is clearly a better guitarist.  Even if you don’t particularly like Satriani, he can simply do so much more with confidence that it should be obvious to even someone unfamiliar with guitar playing that he is better than me.

Now, does he have more talent than me?  You don’t know.   Perhaps I have more talent, and can play better for my given hours spent practicing than he could at an equivalent point.

But “talent” is not the point at stake.

Now, is Eric Clapton better than Joe Satriani?  Is Steve Vai better than Joe Satriani?

That is clearly subjective.  Everyone will have their own opinion, and that’s okay.

Because the thing to keep in mind is that we are talking about professionals who are several standard deviations above the mean, and so the collection of skills that make up their overall gestalt of skill is simply beyond objective measurement.

When playing guitar, you have to consider: not choice, picking technique, scale/chord knowledge, feel, speed, fluidity, span of styles able to improvise in, innovation, confidence, flash, etc.

For a writer, there is dialogue, characterization, plot, pacing, theme, message, description, escalation of stakes, foreshadowing, subplots, etc.

Any one artist will have different strengths and weaknesses.  They will learn the rules, and know the rules intimately…and break the rules. But they will do so for reasons, and the breaking of rules will almost always be for a specific effect.

This applies to writers, as well.

So a writer can do badly at some aspects, yet still be a good writer.  A book can be weak in some areas, and still be good. A writer can break some rules without being careful or knowledgeable about how they are breaking the rules, and everything can still be okay.

But those are objective signs of being a “worse” writer than someone else.

A good example, from the book I’m reading now: “Time Salvager” by Wesley Chu:

time-salvager-wesley-chu

At one point, the protagonist, who is equipped with superhuman skill devices, has to fight another person equipped with equal devices.  Chu explains as the fight is about to begin that the protagonist will win, because he has experience fighting in the spaceship graveyard region against pirates equipped with similar devices, while his opponent is a neophyte.

Why is this bad?

Because in the first few pages, Chu introduced the spaceship graveyard region as a place that was difficult to navigate through, and that’s it. No mention of the possibility of encountering pirates. No foreshadowing.

But when the protagonist needs to win a fight easily, up pops the information. “Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you this, but…”

Lame. And yet, the book is engaging, interesting, and I can’t wait to see how the fight turns out.

That is clearly a fumbled introduction of an element. I’d maybe call it a sort of deus ex machina? It didn’t have to be, though, if the author had properly foreshadowed it.

Now, some readers won’t care.  Other readers will shake their heads and put down the book for good, never to pick it up again. Me? I”m in the middle. It jars me, but it doesn’t jar me out of my Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Readers will often give you a lot of leeway. That doesn’t mean you should just ignore the rules and do what you want. As a writer, you are a guest in their imagination. Be a good guest, and close all the plot holes and avoid as many of the jarring rules breakings as you can.

 

Vance and Norton and writing diversely

Over the weekend I dropped a piece at Castalia House comparing one aspect of Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey to a short story by Andre Norton. The long and short of it is that Norton’s use of “mind powers” was a lot more interesting and imaginative and magical than Lanier’s. Though I do give points for the Dragon Ball-esque powering up system of Hiero’s Journey, whereby psions (or at least the protagonist) must actually battle and make strenuous use of their powers in order to seriously “level up.”

Since Saturday, I had a chance to read another of Norton’s shorts, and I was surprised. My readings of Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore’s short fiction have thus far been fairly uniform. By that I mean that Brackett’s writing has generally been very action-oriented and full of dynamic characters and exotic locales. Moore’s got that poetic Howardian flair and a real talent for the blending of fantasy and horror elements (no, I haven’t gotten to her scifi yet, though I know she’s famous for Northwest Smith). So not to write them off as one-trick (both Brackett and Moore are amazing so this is probably not the case), but at least so far I’ve been savoring a steadily-maintained flavor for each.

With Norton, on the other hand, High Sorcery starts off with a very evenly-paced and increasingly exciting tale of a wizard brought somehow to a new land with mages of its own. In “Wizard’s World,” magic seems to be systematic but varied and flexible. It is a product of the mind and primarily illusory, but also quite capable of inflicting physical harm. There are orbs of fire and conjured serpents, and giant magical walls of thorn.

Her second tale, “Through the Needle’s Eye,” is much more subdued and mysterious. The protagonist is not an action-minded hero nor a wily witch, but a girl with a bum leg. One days she wanders into the garden of her neighbor – a tragic, somewhat creepy older woman who like the protagonist is lame (in the ambulatory sense). The old woman winds up being a master seamstress of sorts, and winds up taking the girl under her wing and teaching her to stitch and sew and weave. The story culminates in a startling and magical reveal about the old woman the nature of her gift, which she offers to pass on to her young protege.

744c39ceb02cacbe3ade74836e0d8cfa-sewing-art-sewing-crafts

I was quite surprised by the difference in the two stories. They read like the works of two very different but both talented writers.

I’ve also gone back to Jack Vance’s Demon Prince series. I didn’t return as quickly as I’d intended, but that’s only due to an overabundance of treasure. It was only recently that I learned this, but Vance was also an author of mystery/thriller books. Armed with this new knowledge, it seems obvious. When you look at the Demon Prince books and also Rhialto the Marvellous, you’ve got SFF with generous infusions of mystery/thriller elements.

on2bthamber

Throughout his quest for revenge, protagonist Kirth Gersen more often plays the gumshoe than the fighting man (though he’s adept at both roles). In tracking down his quarries, he must follow leads and unwind various plots and mysteries. In the last of the Dying Earth installments, the titular magician Rhialto is occasionally thrust into a sleuth-like position, forced to fend off unjust accusations or actions taken unfairly against him. Even works like the Gray Prince demonstrate Vance’s skill and proclivity for the expanding mystery and “the big reveal.” Still, when contrasted with his earlier and perhaps most critically-acclaimed Dying Earth stories, we see a different set of mechanisms and story elements on display.

All this is to say – Vance and Norton, to my judgement, were both very skilled at writing good but disparate types of stories.

-Bushi

bushi