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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Those Who Should Know Better

We've all been in this position before. A book or movie you've been waiting for and looking forward to for a long time has finally come out. Or maybe you haven't really been looking forward to it, but you see it being advertised or stumble across it in the bookstore, and the cover is amazing, and you're familiar with other books in the same series or setting. And you're thinking, "Wow, this ought to be so cool." Then you sit down and read it or--in the case of movies--watch it. You get to about the halfway point, and it starts to sink in: it's not that great, and it's probably not going to get any better.

That's a real downer. Unfortunately, that's the position I've found myself in over the past few weeks while reading one of the newer books in the Halo series. Yes, that Halo, the X-Box game that is both famous and infamous the world 'round. Whether or not you're a fan of the games themselves, I'm personally a huge fan of the story behind the games. I've read all of the books, and while they weren't of the most amazing quality (few books based on video games are), they were generally well-written and entertaining, with one or two exceptions. Unfortunately, Halo: Evolutions set the bar for low quality in the series.

Evolutions is actually a collection of short stories set in the "Haloverse" by a variety of authors. Most I've never heard of before, but there are a couple of more well-known authors from the military sci-fi genre, including Karen Traviss and Eric Nylund, to name a few. Both Ms. Traviss' and Mr. Nylund's shorts were fairly good, but the majority of the other authors left me with one burning question: What criteria did they have to meet in order to get published in this book? It certainly wasn't quality of writing.

Now, I could spend an entire day going through the book and pulling out specific quotes to back up my claim, but I'm not going to do that. Also, to be perfectly honest, some of my gripes are purely subjective. My main complaint was that these authors made it painfully clear they had very little, if any, idea how professional soldiers behave on the battlefield. Sure, each soldier is different, each organization has a different level of quality. But when a pair of Spartan-IIs are bantering back and forth like a pair of 12-year-old wanna-be tough guys, it rather detracts from the business at hand, namely, slaughtering Covenant forces and protecting humanity from certain annihilation. There was also a lot of behavior that seemed very contrived, whether it was to force a plot point or a shabby attempt at characterization. One example: the Office of Naval Intelligence is always deceiving people on their own side, and always has an ulterior motive. Like the whole of ONI is comprised of nothing but scumbags.

Another distressing trend I discovered is that all the short stories ended just when it seemed things were finally starting to happen. Most often, it ended with the main character(s) getting abruptly shot in the head, stabbed in the back, or blown out of orbit. I got the impression that the authors had a good idea for their stories, but couldn't figure out how to develop it, and just when they seemed to pick up the thread and get it rolling, they realized they'd exceeded their word limit and they had to cut it off. And here's a purely subjective point for you: I get kind of depressed when 60% of the short stories end with the main character being killed or most likely killed. I understand that survival is no certain thing, especially not in the Haloverse, but I'd like to think that someone other than the Master Chief is capable of taking on the Covenant and living for at least a little while.

So, what's the whole point of this rant? I guess it boils down to poor research, lack of realistic characterization, and some poor plotting. I really expected more, especially from a franchise where the consumers are used to high quality. In today's publishing world, where it's becoming nearly impossible to get published, quality is a must. We can't afford to have shoddily written books flooding the market, when there are plenty of quality writers out there who can't get published because the numbers are against them.

Anyway, that's my two cents.

In other news, Kricket continues to progress well. I'm about two-thirds of the way done with the rough draft. I've gotten into a sort of unofficial contest with another writer from the Absolute Write Water Cooler (see links on right) to see who can finish our manuscripts first. The deadline is January 1st of next year. If I keep writing like this, I should be able to get it done by then. Here's hoping!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Boring Much?

Yeah, yeah, I know, I missed a week in there somewhere. Something about working 8 days straight--4 of them involving 42 kids and Uzi submachine guns (literally!)--kind of kills the motivation to work on the blog. But here I am, with updates on the writing projects and...something else.

It has slowly come to my attention that the content of my blog might be...well, boring. Let's get one thing straight. I didn't really set out to write this blog for the entertainment of other people. It was more a project to see if I could document some of the struggles, issues, and triumphs that I'm going through as I'm trying to become a published author. The problem is, along the way, it became nothing more than a place to post some numbers ("Yay, I wrote 1,701 words last month!"). And while I'm not trying to become the most popular blog on the web that people log onto every day to see if there's a new post, I don't want to bore people to death either. I want to provide something that's useful to the writing community. Writing should be fun, and so should blogs about writing.

I've noticed that a lot of author's blogs, as well as blogs by editors and publishers, do a lot of things like book or movie reviews, or interviews with authors, etc. Couple of problems with that in my case. 1.) I stay busy enough with my normal job that I don't get a chance to read very much. I could do book reviews, but they would happen only once every few months. 2.) I'm too anti-social to actually interview someone. I'd much rather read the book and then make snide comments about it while the author can't defend themselves. (Okay, I exaggerate slightly.)

So what does that leave me with? Well, whatever the heck I feel like at the time I'm writing my blog post. I can't guarantee it'll be orderly, and I can guarantee it won't be earth-shattering. I can promise that I will try to provide something useful to fellow writers, whether it be something new I learn, or just something that I observe that provides a point to ponder.

While movies and TV shows aren't exactly the same as writing books or short stories, they do have a lot in common. First, they all start with writing. Second, they usually involve some kind of research or technical expertise. This is especially true with military/police-themed works, whether it be historical, modern, or even science fiction. I saw something the other day that absolutely blew my mind away, in a good way. I was watching the TV show "Flashpoint," a series about a Canadian Police Special Response Unit. I've always admired the show for its technical accuracy. (Plus, it's got actors that don't look like they just strolled off the catwalk, which is a huge bonus!) But they took it a step further and actually did something that I teach students every day in the Defensive Handgun courses I work in.

As one police officer handed a confiscated pistol to another police officer to process it as evidence, the officer taking custody of the gun did a chamber check to ensure there was no round in the gun. Amazing! I have never seen this before in a movie or TV show. 9 times out of 10, they drop the magazine and then start waving the gun around like it's actually unloaded. Every semi-automatic handgun that I know of is capable of holding a round in the chamber even after the magazine is dropped. The only other times I see chamber checks is when the hero is about ready to jump out the airlock and kick some alien butt, and that doesn't really count, because who wouldn't do a chamber check when they're about ready to go up against aliens? But one thing we teach at my job is that when you pick up a weapon, give custody of weapon to someone else, take custody of a weapon, or just want to be absolutely sure of its condition, the very first thing you do is a chamber check. Guarantee the weapon is in the condition you want it to be in: loaded or unloaded.

Kudos to "Flashpoint" for getting it right.

Yeah, yeah, I know, most people don't notice or really care about these miniscule details. Many times, in books or short stories, if you took the time to run through all the correct procedures, you'd burn up way too much white space. But there are little things you can throw in here or there that add authenticity to the work. And in the case of "Flashpoint," it was one guy in the background doing a chamber check that took about a half a second. And yet, they earned my undying respect. Until they all muzzle each other in the next episode while talking over coffee...

Next week, what NOT to do to earn your audience's respect, and yes, it will have something to do with actual writing.

But no post is complete without those lovely numbers! I'm please to announce that the rough draft for Kricket's Song is over halfway complete! I've been able to do some solid writing on my days off, and the project is proceeding well. I'm hoping to have at least another 4,000 words written before I head back to work on Monday. As for the short stories, well... I haven't reached a final decision yet, but I'm probably just not going to bother with them any time soon. My heart's really not into the publishing process with them. Through research and reading the various markets, I really don't think my stories are the kind that editors are looking for right now. They're just too..."concrete?" Definite beginnings, definite endings, unambiguous morals, and *gasp* personal values!? In other words, not confusing enough to be called real writing.

Or it could be that I haven't yet mastered short story writing and I'm just a noob complaining about not being understood.