“John Carter” Review, Part 2

The ravishingly beautiful Lynn Collins, in the role of Dejah Thoris — fighter, princess, and scientist extraordinaire.

In fact, there are quite a few changes made from the book that I appreciate. As I understand it, Carter was sent off to Mars in the books by some vague form of astral projection, whereas the movie gets him there by letting him find an alien device in the right place at the right time. Much easier to grasp, and it seems more plausible in its execution.

The character development was also exceptional, and I loved the updates everyone received. Everyone feels more…well, human. Dejah Thoris, a beautiful princess and Carter’s eventual love interest, is now also an accomplished scientist and a talented warrior. Actress Lynn Collins brings the princess to life and makes the character entirely her own, showing her as a strong and dedicated woman with heartfelt moments of vulnerability. Taylor Kitsch plays Carter with restraint and dark charisma. He is the loner who believes in more than he thinks he does, a man who wants to make up for past mistakes and find a higher cause than gold prospecting. Willem Dafoe excels as the voice actor for Tars Tarkas, a green Martian warrior who is by turns enthusiastic, desperate, funny, and committed to protecting the people he cares for.

And I was fascinated with their decision to have Carter tell his story to a fictional version of young Edgar Rice Burroughs, thereby inspiring him to become a writer and giving Burroughs an intriguing role in the story’s climax. Given the changes made to the storyline of A Princess of Mars and integrating elements from the next book, The Gods of Mars, Burroughs’s presence in the story actually works by tying together what could easily have been a lackluster, uninspiring resolution.

A note to fans of the books: though I loved the film’s changes, I mean no disrespect to Mr. Burroughs. Like Tarzan, his most popular work, his Martian story is still one of the must-read works of fiction from the early 20th century. And another of his books, The Land that Time Forgot, helped inspire me to become a writer. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without Edgar Rice Burroughs.

What shocked me most was the emotional involvement I had toward the story unfolding onscreen. When we discover Carter’s tragic past and see him resolve to protect others, or see Dejah on the edge of tears with no idea of what she should do to save her people, it struck me in a way I never expected. Other movies with deep characters have impressed me, but I am still in the early stages of learning how to involve myself in their lives. Normally, I still watch those people struggle through the story from on high, removed but curious, like a kid watching someone else fry ants with a magnifying glass.

By the time this movie finished, John Carter and Dejah Thoris were my friends. I was with them, on Mars, feeling what they felt. I still can’t explain how it happened, and it is probably just me who felt that sort of connection. All I know is that John Carter had me caring for these two people as surely as if they were family.

The supporting cast is extremely talented, even if some of them don’t get enough material — Bryan Cranston, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Thomas Hayden Church, Mark Strong, and many others help show the unfathomable talent and love that went into producing this movie.

When it comes to spectacle, the special effects and musical score are unparalleled. CGI and the emotionally potent music are used to supplement the story and enhance its epic scope, instead of distracting from some inherent emptiness.

Does the movie have its flaws? Sure, but I hardly noticed them. Yes, the adventures of Carter are often “silly,” and it hardly ever gets its science right. That’s not the point. I don’t see how these complaints should be brought up again, when the movie (like the book) is meant to give us adventure and wonder, and stoke the fires of imagination. In my honest opinion, it is one of the best answers we have ever gotten to that favorite question of science fiction and fantasy writers: “What if?”


Skyrim’s Approach to Fantasy Storytelling

Just a quick post tonight. I found this interesting article on Mythic Scribes about how The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim fares as a fantasy story, if we judged it by the standards of a novel. All in all, it’s a thought-provoking piece on the different expectations and methods of various mediums for telling stories. I especially was intrigued by how the author points out some missed opportunities in Skyrim’s worldbuilding, if that was possible. Check it out for yourself.


Book Review: “The Way of Shadows” by Brent Weeks

Overall rating: 8 out of 10

Ultra-assassins, corrupt kings, political intrigue, prostitutes and street urchins wishing side-by-side for a better life in a world that refuses to let them gain it…those are just a few of the better trappings of epic fantasy, and this first volume of the Night Angels trilogy is a book that uses them well. The tale of youngster Azoth and trained killer Durzo Blint proves a tantalizing twist on the “precocious youth is taught by a wise old man” trope, jolting it up with moral ambiguity and a tense, hostile relationship between the two of them.

Brent Weeks has begun a trilogy that I look forward to finishing. He had me hooked right from the opening scene. He did a terrific job of fleshing out his characters, and got me to care about them. More than a few scenes and character arcs were emotionally intense, and I appreciated how he gave his protagonists enough hell so their outcomes truly were in doubt. He doesn’t pull a lot of punches, develops this world adequately, and he makes sure we have an investment in the outcome. Even when he indulges in cliches of romance, royalty, prophecies, and mages, Weeks pulls it off so well that you don’t mind reading about the same thing one more time. It’s a gritty world, full of gritty characters, so if you’re tired of squeaky clean epic fantasy and have already devoured A Song of Ice and Fire, this might be a good book for you to grab.

Shadows is not without its weaknesses. Some truly intriguing characters are set up for their own great stories that could have been threaded through the next book, only to be killed in some arbitrary manner, a la George R.R. Martin. Not that that’s always a bad thing. It just made the experience of their deaths incredibly frustrating, rather than an intense part of the story. The quality of the writing itself is uneven. It normally doesn’t have standout description, and oscillates between pedestrian and wordy (something that isn’t as grating when you listen to an audiobook, which I did in this case). And there are one too many viewpoint characters, in my opinion, at least when it comes to the single-chapter minor viewpoints.

Another weakness here is that the villains are cackling cartoons who take delight in their overt wickedness. Even though I cheered whenever one of these evil creatures died, I wished they were characters who saw themselves as heroes and doing what was right or necessary, instead of R-rated versions of the mustache-twirling devils on a vaudeville stage.

My overall impression of this novel is that it gets its strength from the character development, which fortunately makes up for the elements that don’t shine quite as brilliantly. Still, it has to be said that Brent Weeks has kicked open the door and gotten us off to a great start. This is a series that I intend to finish. Thank you, Mr. Weeks. You have done well.

Donald Maass: Boundary-Breaking Fiction

Along with all the mountains — no, continents — of praise I have already thrown onto this blog about the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, I have one more. And this is something that shatters that particular boundary, something that needs to reach writers everywhere.

On Saturday, while we enjoyed lunch in the hotel’s elegant ballroom, the man some have called “the Mick Jagger of literary agents” blew us all away with a speech I don’t think anyone in that room will ever forget. Nor can we afford to forget it. Donald Maass, author of the indispensable books for writers Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction, was our keynote speaker for that meal, and spoke of how fiction would change in the twenty-first century.

One of the important points in his address was how the borders between genres are beginning to crumble. The landscape of fiction is starting to blur its own borders. Steampunk is getting blended with science fiction and mystery (Perdido Street Station). Fantasy mingles with alternate history (Temeraire). Horror and urban fantasy meet with teen romance (Twilight). Many of the barriers that kept genre firmly divided are finally breaking down like so many Berlin Walls. Writers are more free to write what they want to write without having to hew to genre conventions.

Another huge issue Maass addressed was that people are still buying books because of two main factors: Word-of-Mouth and In-Store Displays. Some authors, especially if they are self-published, put a truly Herculean effort into trying to convince others to buy their works, slaving away at building social media platforms and trying to market their books like products. And while that is an important part of the business side to writing (and, I think, will take on a larger role in the years to come), I was shocked at the statistics Maass quoted that demonstrate all that effort currently results in less than 2% of overall book sales. Bestseller lists, print newspaper/magazine ads, and book reviews were even more surprising with similarly low numbers. By far, people buy books because they see them in the bookstores (far more titles than you see during an average visit to Amazon), and because their friends recommend the books.

And finally, Maass reminded a room of over 400 writers that the twenty-first century will give us books that will change the world. It can be problematic to call an author “The next Hemingway/Tolkien/Shelley/Doyle,” but there are still plenty of ways a book can affect a generation so powerfully that they become timeless classics. Just look at what’s happened to The Hunger Games. And Maass expressed an inspiring optimism toward the people in that ballroom, saying that we could commit to writing fiction which would still be read and loved a hundred years from now.

The best way for authors to get that kind of recognition is simply this: To write terrific books. The first step of marketing a book is to have a great one in the first place. A difficult task, of course, but it’s essential for lasting success as a writer.

Donald Maass, as a literary agent, is constantly looking for exactly that sort of novel. He wants to see you succeed and excel. So, writers, go forth and create something remarkable. It’s a huge challenge, but at writers conferences you are among friends who can help you achieve it.

Conference Report 2012

Last weekend took a lot out of me. Fortunately, I gained so much more for the experience. Pikes Peak Writers Conference 2012 was my first official writing conference, and seems to be the start of my official career as a writer. And I couldn’t be happier with the results. No wonder its attendees and faculty speak so highly of it.

Jeffrey Deaver, one of the keynote speakers, in his finest James Bond costume.

Aaron Ritchey, author of "The Never Prayer" and an awesome guy all around. Crazy in the best and most enthusiastic way possible.

Thursday consisted of all-day workshops for topics like “So you have an idea for a book,” “Writing for young adults,” and a seminar based on Donald Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel” (the one I attended). Friday began the conference proper, with more workshops all day, and a costume party at night.

My friend Patty, looking positively resplendent.

Lara Croft dropped by for a visit.

Can't have Bond without a lovely Bond Girl!

Saturday had more workshops, and pitch appointments. I pitched my manuscript to an agent, and she requested the full manuscript. That is something to celebrate right there – most writers, even at those rare instances when they can pitch in person, usually get turned down, or are asked for a synopsis or the first three chapters, so a full manuscript request is a big deal. It’s a big step forward, but I’ve also got about a month before it needs to be emailed to the agent, and it still needs some good old-fashioned revising. To the revisionmobile! (Cue the Batman theme)

And Sunday had even more workshops, with reluctant farewells to the wonderful human beings I met over three days.

And I got to see my first ladybug of the year as I left the Marriott on Sunday. Honestly, can you have a better denouement than this?

Yeah, this was totally worth it. Barring the zombie apocalypse, I am absolutely going back next year. Later today, I will deliver a recap of Donald Maass’s amazing keynote address, and some of my thoughts on it. If you can get a recording of that speech, it should be required listening for every fiction writer.

Pikes Peak Writers Conference…Almost Here

Well, the Pikes Peak Writers Conference is about to kick off. A most excellent workshop by Donald Maass has already been delivered on writing fiction that combines literary and commercial elements for a high-impact novel that readers will love. More onsite reports will be on my blog soon.

And there’s a booksigning going on at the Marriott at Colorado Springs tonight around 7 with Maass, Jeffrey Deaver, Susan Wiggs, Kevin J. Anderson, and tons of other authors, with a silent auction in the same room.

Hope to see you here!

Distracted? Hire an Editor.

He's quite the motivational speaker, isn't he?

I hope you all can forgive my absence for the past week and a half. Things have been…busy.

Well, after a very intense week of revisions, I am happy to report that the working draft of the novel has been shipped off to an editor I hired, and I will be relaxing a couple of days before the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. This is just the first step, mind you; the edits and revisions have only begun. But at least the process has started.

A few words of advice to fellow writers. I don’t know how helpful they will be. They’re just bits of wisdom I picked up along the way. Or bits of incredibly obvious things I somehow had trouble remembering, as the case may be.

1. Don’t rely on a diet of coffee and Pop Tarts to get you through a week of intense writing. It’s quick energy, but you feel awful afterward, in soul and body alike. Repeated jolts of caffeine and sugar mean there are plenty of crashes, too. And the human body simply is not equipped to run a week-long gauntlet of that kind of stress. Eat healthy when you’re writing.

2. Personal hygiene keeps you in a good mood when you’re writing (I learned this mostly in a negative way, living as a slob for the revision process). Seriously, brush your teeth and take showers at bare minimum.

3. “Go write” means “Get off of Facebook and Youtube and write the freaking book!” It does not mean you get to surf for seven hours that could be spent working on your masterpiece. Generally, if you have set aside time for writing, and yet your fingers aren’t typing prose and dialogue to progress plot and character, you are distracted.

4. Per the title of this blog post, if you are finding yourself hopelessly distracted and can’t seem to get focused on the work, it helps to hire a freelance editor and arrange certain deadlines, such as “send me the first chapter by the end of the month.” Or at least grab some friends who want to read your stuff, and tell them to expect it by a certain time. This approach worked motivational miracles for me; I know for a fact that I’d still be puttering around with 2/3 of a working draft without having someone like Bree Ervin waiting for the manuscript.

Hope some of that helps if you’ve got a writing project. Catch you all later, everyone!