Many moons ago, when I was in college, I had to take what they called a “writing course”, which was a class designed specifically to teach writing, but about subjects in our chosen major. (Mine was Econ.) I think the point was to prevent a bunch of mathematics geniuses from taking over the field with equations and graphs strung together by incoherent babble.

It doesn’t seem to have worked.

Anyway, the section I was in was unpopular, because the professor assigned not one, not two, not three, but four books. Now, they were all short books, and one of them (The Ghost Map) actually became one of my favorites. But that’s not the one I want to talk about here. I want to talk about the first one we had to read: The Doctors’ Plague.

The book is about Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who, in the 1840s, tried to reduce the so-called “childbed fever” then prevalent in the hospital where he worked. Germ theory was not widely understood at the time, and Semmelweis’s radical proposal was that doctors and nurses who treated infants and mothers should wash their hands.

This sounds absurdly obvious to us modern readers, but at the time it was heretical, and indeed, Semmelweis wasn’t taken seriously by the medical establishment. Whether due to his difficult temper, some unknown mental disorder, or possibly a language barrier, Semmelweis failed to prevail upon the medical community to adopt hand-washing as a regular practice. He died in an insane asylum, and his work was not recognized until long after his death.

Naturally, we Econ students were all puzzled by this. (Those of us that read it, that is. I suspect a quarter of the class just looked up the book’s synopsis online, and another quarter didn’t even do that.) What on God’s Green Earth does this have to do with Supply and Demand?

After the week or whatever our allotted time to read the book was, the professor started the class by giving his summary of the book–I assume for the benefit of the ones who didn’t read it. He finished up by raising the question we were asking ourselves: why did he assign this?

The point of the book, he said, was that Semmelweis couldn’t communicate his ideas to his colleagues. “So,” he concluded, “You have to learn to write well! It doesn’t matter if you discover something great if no one can understand you.”

I think he intended this as a carpe diem moment, but most of the class felt like they’d just been told the world’s longest shaggy dog story. But he was right; you do have to be able to write well, no matter how good your underlying point is.

I’m not even sure if that was really the main lesson of the Semmelweis story, but nevertheless, it’s true. And regardless of whether writing well has anything to do with Semmelweis or not, the professor created a helpful mnemonic: writing well is as important as good hygiene in a hospital.

allworkandnoplay

Most days, it’s a real struggle for me to get started on writing even a paragraph in one of my stories. Once in a great while, I’ll be struck by some inspiration and then it’s just a matter of getting the words down as fast as I can, but that’s rare. The more normal case is something like this:

 I need to write something where X happens.

 [Write a word or two]

Huh, I wonder what’s going on in the news.

 [Half hour later, force myself to write another sentence or two]

Are there any good videos on YouTube?

I have to consciously force myself to stay on task and write something down. If I manage to do that, most of the time I hate what I’m writing up until I finish, at which point it starts to seem possibly decent. But the whole time I’m doing it, I feel like I’m doing lousy work, and moreover, it takes all my willpower to even do that.

Why is this? Writing is supposed to be what I like doing. No one is forcing me to do it—it’s what I want to do.  But then why am I strongly tempted to avoid doing it, like it’s a job or something?

At first, I thought maybe I was just a lazy bum. But I follow lots of hard-working writers on Twitter, and they frequently report this same problem. I even did a poll of my followers, and while the sample was small, 100% reported they procrastinated:

So, it’s not just me being lazy. Other writers face this problem too.

The simple and obvious explanation is that writing is active. You have to consciously do something to make it happen. Whereas reading the news or watching cat videos is passive—you just find your way to the site and put your mind on cruise control.

But this doesn’t totally explain it. One of the ways I procrastinate is by playing video games. And that’s not passive; I still have to press buttons and make decisions to get the outcome I want in the game.  Yet it’s far easier for me to play a game of FTL or computer chess than it is to write. I don’t have to will myself to play a game.

My next-door neighbor has had all kinds of hobbies over the years I’ve known him, from shooting guns to building model airplanes to mixing drinks to, yes, playing video games. And he doesn’t seem to need a huge amount of willpower to make himself work at any of his hobbies. Why is my hobby different?

Part of the problem is that I’ll write something down and then think, “Well, that’s not any good”. This feels unsatisfying. And at some level, I think procrastination is a defense mechanism. Skimming the sports headlines may not yield much satisfaction, but at least it won’t be as disappointing as writing something imperfect.

But why should that be disappointing? After all, no one else is going to judge me by the first draft. No one else will even know it existed unless I show it to them. So why am I bothered if it’s not right the first time? I don’t get discouraged if I don’t win a video game right away. On the contrary, losing a game just makes me want to try again.

Writing, unlike other activities, is more closely associated with having an audience. After all, if you’re just writing for yourself, why bother writing? You know the story already—the only reason to write it down is to communicate it to others.

That’s the heart of the difference: When I play a video game or exercise or any of the other things I do for fun, my only audience is myself. If I’m satisfied with my performance, that’s all I need.

We are trained very early on that writing is different. Writing is what you do when you want to tell other people something. As a result, when you write, you are subconsciously trying to please other people.

Ta-da! This explains the mystery of why writers procrastinate. Procrastination is something you do when you are assigned a task by other people, and writing feels like that because that’s how we’re trained to regard it. It’s the same reason we all procrastinated when our teachers assigned us to write a paper on such-and-such-thing-no-one-cares-about.

Some of the most common advice I’ve seen from successful authors is stuff like “Write for yourself,” “Ignore your inner critic on the first draft” and perhaps the most common, “Lose your fear of writing”.*

This advice always puzzled me. Of course I was writing for myself! Who the hell else would I be writing these weird stories for? And my inner critic? Who’s that? As far as I knew, I didn’t have one. The fear thing seemed the most sensible, although for me, the fear wasn’t so much of writing as it was of publishing.

But now I see what all those famous writers were saying: you think you’re writing for yourself, but you aren’t really. In your unconscious mind, you are still trying to figure out what the readers are going to think of what you wrote. It’s a deeply-rooted habit, probably one that evolution instilled in us—the societies where people could clearly communicate their ideas to one another were the ones that flourished.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t write so that other people can understand you. But the point is, that has to come later. First, you have to treat writing as a personal challenge between you and the part of your mind that wants to stop you from doing it. It’s like working out: you know it’s good for you, and you know you will feel great afterward, but you have to overcome the natural instinct that tells you it’s easier not to do it.

The precise way to do this can vary from person to person. You’ll discover the method that works best for you as you go along.

One exercise that I think can help teach how not to write for an audience is to just try writing stream-of-consciousness. For this post, I deliberately tried an experiment where I turned off my sense-making filter and just spewed forth whatever came to mind. This is what resulted:

Grey window skies empty noises and duahgter nothing al dhpauiw hope thjat move listen coffee  righ fjor wdesk need time hope sk

Sitting on a cold day that is grey and deporessing why am I doing this write exercise imagine plains vision skies weird black nebulous

This seems like incoherent babble, but it’s really not all that random. For context: I was sitting at my desk by a window on a cold grey day, drinking coffee. I could hear people outside talking and someone said something about a daughter.

For the second paragraph, the other people shut up, and I started to let my imagination roam, which led to visions of Lovecraftian weird cosmic horror, because that’s my favorite genre, or at least the one I’m most familiar with.

As sloppy and gibberish-filled as that is, you can see my thought process even through all the errors and downright nonsense. Which brings me to my point: as in many other fields, “true randomness” is actually pretty hard to achieve in writing. Your brain will work very hard to force you to make sense. Which is helpful in many other ways, but the problem is that our brains have become so good that they will try to prevent us writing anything less than the perfect sentence on the first try. That part of the brain would much rather procrastinate than risk writing something nonsensical.

This is what all those famous writers mean when they say “Write for yourself” or “Don’t worry about the audience” or “Ignore the inner-critic.” It’s all true, but it’s not specific enough, because when you are tempted to put off writing and procrastinate instead, you don’t realize you’re writing for someone else, or that it’s your inner-critic, or your fear of the audience. It feels like you’re just trying to write something that makes sense, and for some horrible reason, you can’t.

That’s because it doesn’t make perfect sense, and your brain hates that. But it’s okay. You can fix it later. Editors and beta readers will make sure of that.

So my advice is: don’t worry about making sense. In fact, I’ll go even further: actively try to avoid making sense on the first draft. Just put down the most basic, sub-literate version of what you want to convey. You’d be surprised how hard it is to not make sense—your unconscious mind will keep you at least within saluting distance of it most of the time. After that, you can just iterate until your visceral idea has been refined into something your readers can understand.

FOOTNOTE

* As Phillip McCollum has observed, fear can also be extremely useful for writers. But that’s fear of other things, not writing itself.

 

“They don’t blame you — so long as you’re funny!” –Jack Point, in The Yeomen of the Guard, by W.S. Gilbert.

One of the most interesting beta reader comments on my new novel was “Why don’t you make it funnier?”

This one stuck with me, because I already had a sneaking suspicion that the book was too humorless. Paul Graham’s point about good design sticks in my head: “Good design may not have to be funny, but it’s hard to imagine something that could be called humorless also being good design.”

I’ve struggled with this quite a bit. The book isn’t a comedy by any means—it deals with some very dark subjects. And yet… that doesn’t seem like a valid excuse. For example, racism, murder, and rape are all major elements in the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet it still has plenty of extremely humorous moments as well.

I read somewhere that a novel is supposed to capture “the totality of life”. If so, then it makes sense that it needs to have both the dark and the light moments—after all, real life has both.

But how do you put humor into a serious story? You can’t just put in a slapstick comedy routine for characters who are struggling with matters of life and death. It would seem out of place.

This is the problem that so-called “comic relief” characters were created to solve. And sometimes, that can work. But it’s easy for it to go wrong, and then you get something like Jar Jar Binks—a character whose antics clash with the main narrative and annoy the audience.

A better route is to have characters who are well-rounded enough to be both funny and serious. And actually, having funny characters is probably helpful in terms of the larger goal of making the reader care about them. Funny characters are more likeable.

One of the complaints I got about The Start of the Majestic World was the lack of banter between the two protagonists. This was because I just generally don’t like banter—it comes across as too forced to me. But I wonder now if this was really about an overall lack of humor in the book. (I did try to make some of the supporting characters entertaining, if not exactly comic.)

It’s tricky to find the right point to insert humor in a non-humor book.  At any given moment, the characters are dealing with serious problems, and so there never seems to be any specific point where it makes sense to insert comedy, even though the overall vibe is that the book needs more of it.

Another way is to put humor in the descriptions. The difficulty here is that my book is set in the distant future, and as such requires a fair amount of world-building and information about how the futuristic society works. And it’s tough to give the reader that information, much of which will ultimately be relevant to the plot, and be funny at the same time.

Even more importantly, humor relies on a shared frame of reference, so it’s hard to come up with really funny things to say in a futuristic society. Humor also involves playing with social norms, and when dealing with unfamiliar social norms, it doesn’t seem funny when they get violated. It just seems confusing.

This still doesn’t justify a lack of humor, though. Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke infused their science fiction stories with wit. What it comes down to is being able to write plausibly human and relatable characters in a futuristic and/or alien setting.  That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway—write characters with both serious and silly sides to them, and then put them in situations where the different aspects of their personalities can appear.

Sometimes you have story ideas that don’t work out. They seem like brilliant ideas at first, but then they just slowly die.  It can take a while to even realize your story has died–I know I’ve kept working on some long after they’ve passed on.

Last month, the Economic Security Project had a contest to write a short story about Universal Basic Income. I tried my hand at it, but didn’t get far. I thought readers might be interested in seeing an example of a story that died.

(more…)

Blade_Runner_2049_logo
Poster for “Blade Runner 2049”. Image via Wikipedia.

*WARNING: SPOILERS!*

The movie’s title is misleading. The term “runner” is way too fast-paced for this 2.75 hour science fiction slog. It’s much more of a “Blade Walker” or even a “Blade Crawler”. Scenes drag on, and the camera lingers on things like trees, ruined cityscapes, and statues of naked women long after the viewer has gotten the idea.

The film follows officer K (Ryan Gosling), an LAPD officer in the year 2049. His job is to “retire” (that is, kill) obsolete replicants–synthetic humans created by the Wallace corporation. The older models, leftovers from the Tyrell corporation, which Niander Wallace purchased, have no built-in expiration date, unlike the newer versions–which is what K himself is.

In the opening sequence, K retires a rebellious replicant farmer, after getting into a ridiculous fistfight with him. The director and choreographer really should learn that people can’t get punched in the face repeatedly and then thrown through a wall and just walk it off. (There’s an even more egregious example later.) Also, the whole fight happened because K inexplicably set his gun aside. Very odd.

Anyway, after K kills the replicant, he finds a box buried in the yard outside his house, beside a lone dead tree. This allows for some nice shots of K standing around in his coat, looking contemplative and brooding. Get used to this.

K then goes home to his apartment, to install some upgrades on Joi (Ana de Armas), his holographic companion, who he apparently has set on “sexy over-solicitous housewife” mode. She makes him an artificial dinner, instantly switches her appearance from among a variety of revealing outfits, suggests various things they can do for fun, and in general behaves like a parody of what 13-year-old boys imagine a girlfriend is like. It’s cringe-worthy.

The new upgrade allows Joi to accompany him outside–so now, rather than just being his sexy overeager housewife, she can be his sexy, overeager constant companion. They are celebrating this by pretending to kiss while frolicking in the rain when they are interrupted by a call from K’s boss, Lt. Joshi. (Robin Wright)  She tells him to come to the police station, where they are examining the contents of the box he discovered–the skeleton of a female replicant that died in childbirth.

I was really annoyed by this scene. Basically, it was the standard police procedural trope of “the forensic lab”–except it was Officer K who spotted all the key clues! He kept telling the forensic analyst to zoom in on stuff, and figuring out what had happened to the remains himself. It seemed hard to believe that he, an average replicant rent-a-cop, would pick up on clues the forensics person missed.

At any rate, this is an alarming discovery, as replicants are not supposed to be able to reproduce, and they fear that the discovery of one who did will lead to a replicant rebellion. Joshi orders K to destroy all evidence of this replicant and her child.

This leads K to the Wallace Corporation headquarters–a strange, extremely orange building that reminded me of some of the sets from The Mummy, except with shimmering water shadows on the wall for some reason.

The corporation seems to consist of just two people: Niander Wallace (Jared Leto)–a strange, monk-like character who speaks in nonsensel sentences that are possibly supposed to make him sound smart, but in fact make him a comically obtuse guru–and his replicant secretary, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a femme fatale. It reminds me of a story I heard once about a company that employed only a lawyer and a secretary–their only job was to sue any companies who infringed on their corporation’s patents.

I frankly don’t know how the Wallace Corporation stays in business, with only two employees and a product line that exists solely to destroy other parts of the product line. Well, I guess there’s also a third product line designed to provide female companionship to the the main product line.

I’ve heard of niche markets, but this is ridiculous.

Anyway, Officer K finds out from Luv that the bones are the remains of a replicant named Rachael, and hears some recordings showing she was once involved with another LAPD cop, Rick Deckard, the protagonist of the original Blade Runner movie. (That last part wasn’t included in the script, though I half-expected it would be, since this movie insists on spelling things out for the audience.)

At some point around here, K leaves the Wallace Corp. headquarters and gets approached by a prostitute, who has been sent to spy on him by a mysterious woman. It doesn’t mean anything at the time, but it will be important later on, so file that away. Also ponder this: why are there always so many prostitutes in these sci-fi and fantasy worlds? Seriously, it feels like one-third of every fictional economy is hooker-based.

Luv is sent by Wallace to destroy the bones and to follow K as he searches for Rachael’s child. The former she does with incredible ease, considering it means murdering the forensics expert in the middle of the police station.

Meanwhile, K is telling a (somewhat tipsy) Lt. Joshi about his childhood memories. They aren’t, of course, real childhood memories–he’s a replicant, after all, but he has implanted memories. He tells Joshi about one of the most vivid–a story in which he is hiding a small wooden toy horse from some other children. We flashback to scenes of him being pursued through a dark industrial maze, and carefully securing the toy in some shelves.

This scene–not the flashback itself, but the scene where K recounts it to Joshi–was one of the best in the film. Wright was terrific as the foul-mouthed and heavy-drinking but warmhearted Lieutenant. In this scene, she’s almost flirtatious, and has far better chemistry with Gosling than his holographic love interest ever does. It’s a pity she doesn’t have a larger role.

K returns to the scene where he first found the box of remains, and finds a date carved on the dead tree beside the grave–6/10/21, which was also carved on the toy horse he remembers from his childhood. He begins to suspect (bolstered by Joi’s reassurances) that he is Rachael’s child. He checks the birth records and learns that two children were born on that date with identical DNA–a boy and a girl. The girl died, but the boy was sent to an orphanage.

This was another scene that annoyed me. As they are looking at the strings of DNA, the various combinations of “G” “T” “C” and “A” are displayed and Joi comments that these four elements make up human beings’ “code”, whereas she only has two elements to hers. I liked this line, but I didn’t like that she then had to spell it out: “1 and 0”, she says, for the benefit of everyone who doesn’t know what binary code is. I suppose there are such people, but I doubt any of them would go to see this movie.

K (along with Joi, for no reason I can discern) decides to go to the orphanage, which is located in some sort of massive junkyard, where K’s flying police car is shot down by some group of bandits–who these bandits are is never explained. K fights them off and finds his way into the orphanage–a neo-Dickensian sweatshop of sorts, where he forces the cruel overseer to show him to an abandoned area that matches his childhood memory. There, he discovers the horse in exactly the place he remembers hiding it.

 

Somehow–it was not clear how, since we last saw his flying car being shot down–he makes his way back to his apartment, and from there finds Dr. Ana Stelline, a woman with a condition that forces her to live inside a glass chamber so as to be protected from all contaminants. She designs false memories for the Wallace Corporation to implant in replicants. She is a talented designer of memories, and on inspecting his (how she did this, I have no idea) indicates that it is real.

K then becomes inexplicably angry and consequently fails the replicant behavior test that they apparently give him after every mission. He tells Joshi this is because he successfully found and killed Rachael’s child. Joshi gives him 48 hours to either flee or try to pass the test again. So he…

He, um…

Ok, this is really kind of bizarre…

He goes back to his apartment, where Joi has brought in the prostitute from earlier. She has done this because she knows that he’s been wanting to sleep with her (Joi, that is). But, since she’s a hologram and all, it doesn’t go very well. So she sort of superimposes herself over the prostitute.

Except the superimposition doesn’t totally work, so there’s this bizarre blurring effect., kind of like when you watch a 3-D movie without the glasses on.

It’s creepy and hilariously bad and stupid and probably one of the worst romantic scenes ever filmed. And it’s worse when you put it in context. I mean, I get annoyed enough when my computer installs updates without asking my permission. If it started letting prostitutes into my apartment while I was gone, I would be even more upset. And then when you add in that K has just been given 48 hours to run away from the authorities, it seems even more absurd that he would spend 8 of them making love to his virtual assistant.

Ok, looking at K, it was probably more like 10 minutes, but still.

Oh, and the morning after, as she’s leaving, the prostitute makes a catty remark to Joi. That was stupid too.

K has the toy horse analyzed by some random character who exists only to advance the plot but still manages to be vaguely offensive during his brief screen time. The levels of radiation found in the horse lead K (and Joi, natch) to the blindingly orange ruins of Las Vegas.

After finding an abandoned beekeeper’s station and some statues of naked women in high heels–just another day at the office!–K finds his way to an abandoned hotel and casino, where he meets Deckard (Harrison Ford)

Deckard enters with one of the best lines in the movie: “You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now?” This is a quote from Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, as K helpfully informs us, thus weakening the line immensely.

Deckard and K then engage in another ridiculous comic-book fistfight that serves no purpose to the story, but takes place in a casino lounge with various holograms of famous performers flickering on and off. It’s kind of cool, but it was done better in Dead Money.

After this is over with, they talk, and Deckard explains he left the pregnant Rachael behind and scrambled police records so they could not track the child.

This scene was another one of the film’s high points, thanks entirely to Ford’s acting. The dialogue is still awkward, and Gosling is pretty wooden throughout, but the gruff tones of the veteran actor make it compelling. As he was when reprising another of his most famous roles, Ford is the one of the few bright spots.

Meanwhile, Luv–remember her?–has killed Joshi and tracked K to Las Vegas. She and her men attack, capturing Deckard and badly injuring K. She also destroys the small device in which the Joi program is stored, effectively “killing” her.

Luv takes Deckard to speak with Wallace. And by speak with him, I mean have Wallace recite bunch of gobbledygook at Deckard in a dull, awkward monotone before finally producing a replicant of Rachael. Deckard gruffly responds that “her eyes were green.” I would say it’s absurd that they could get such an obvious detail wrong, but given the Wallace Corporation’s general ineptitude, it seems almost plausible.

Meanwhile, K has been rescued by some pro-Replicant freedom fighters–one of whom is the prostitute from earlier. They want K to kill Deckard before he can lead the Wallace corporation to his daughter. From this, K realizes he is not the child after all, and that Deckard falsified the records.

After a brief interlude with a giant pink naked holographic girl–just don’t even ask, ok?–K intercepts Luv and her men as they are transporting Deckard to… someplace… and, in a rather anti-climactic battle, K kills Luv and rescues Deckard. This scene takes place at night and underwater, so it’s not really a fest for the eyes.

Finally, K takes Deckard back to meet his daughter–Ana Stelline. K has realized that the memory was actually hers–she designed it and the Wallace Corporation put it in his brain. Deckard greets his daughter in her isolation chamber while K collapses in the snow outside and the credits roll.

It’s not a bad little plot, and might have made quite a good 90 minute or two hour movie. But the pacing is absolutely bad; not merely because it is slow–although it is definitely that–but also just because even with all that build-up, the final battle still seems rushed, confusing and unsatisfying. And we never see what becomes of Wallace himself, who is the main villain of the piece.

“But it’s not about the story!” say the fans. “It’s about the atmosphere! The cinematography!”

Ok, sure; but the atmosphere isn’t that great. It’s nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before in other films influenced by the original Blade Runner. I was struck, again and again, by how ordinary all of it felt.

As for the cinematography: it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as great as I expected from all the hype. That large parts of the film take place at night and in the rain doesn’t help–and frankly, as rainy noir-cinematography goes, there are much better examples.

The poster tells the story. Remember that article a few years ago about orange and blue in Hollywood movies? Well, those colors are out in force here–everything is bluish except Vegas, which is orange. (Compare the poster for 2049 above to the one for the original.)

And in the end, movies aren’t about cinematography. It’s just one tool that the filmmaker uses in service of the ultimate goal: telling a good story with good characters.

The story, as I have said, is not bad but it is also not remarkable, and certainly shouldn’t take this long to tell. And the characters? Well, there are a few good ones. Joshi and Deckard are standouts–I wish we could have had a film about the two of them working together instead.

K is probably the least interesting character in the whole thing, and that’s saying something. Joi–who is the de facto love interest–is also quite dull, since she exists entirely to serve K.

This brings me to another point: the film’s sexism. As I have said, there’s plenty of “male gaze”–besides the statues and holograms, there is a horrible scene where the camera focuses on a naked, newly-created female replicant who is immediately killed for no reason. (This should have been cut, not only because of the gratuitous nudity and violence, but also because it added nothing to the story and made the already overlong picture drag more.)

But even more significant than the sexist imagery is the fact that the women’s roles in the story are all secondary. Even Stelline, who is in a sense the central driving force of the whole plot, is shunted to the side to focus on the unremarkable officer K.

The irony is, it’s clearly a dystopian story, and the world they present could indeed be described as a dreadful dystopia for women in particular, where they are treated, with a few exceptions, as commodities. But the writers seem not to be aware of this. If they were, they could have explored that, rather than the story of officer K, the second-rate cop who wanted to bed his virtual assistant.

Blade Runner 2049 is the second cyberpunk film I’ve seen this year. The other was Ghost in the Shell. See that instead–it’s much better. You can even watch it twice in the time it takes to watch 2049.

lorem ipsum
Need extra words? Here are some random ones!

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I’ve been working on a new novel for the last two months. My goal at the outset was 100,000 words, and I’ve been keeping a running update of my progress. Here’s my latest:

I re-read it, and I think the story has a pretty decent pace overall. It may be a little too brisk (it turns out these things seem much faster when you’re reading them than when you’re writing them), but I think I have the central plot arc in place. And there’s just no way to pad it out to 100,000 words, which is bad, because it’s a sci-fi novel, and those are generally “supposed” to be at least 80,000 words.

I can and probably will throw in some additional world-building detail and “local flavor”, tie up a few minor loose ends in the plot, and add some more description of scenes and characters. (Description, as long-time readers know, has always been my weak point.) But even all that will probably bring it to around 60,000 words, at the maximum.

Personally, I have never been a fan of arbitrary word counts for a genre. A story should be told in the number of words that make it most powerful for the reader–no more, no less. Too many words, and they get bored. Too few, and they won’t get drawn into it.

But of course, the publishers don’t see it that way. They have certain rules for word count by genre. In my opinion, this “quantity over quality” approach encourages overly-long books, but then again, when you have to review thousands of manuscripts, it helps to have some rules that let you automatically eliminate some of them. (This article summarizes it well.)

The key question here is; what do readers like? Assuming the two books are equal in price, does the typical reader prefer to have a longer one to a shorter one? Do they want to maximize the number of words they get for their money? Or do other considerations take precedence?

For myself, I generally make decisions based on other factors. I read the synopsis to see if it sounds like an interesting premise, then I flip through the book a little and see if I like the author’s style. Cover art also makes a difference to me, even though we all know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

What about you? What factors most heavily influence your book-buying decisions? How much do you care about the length of a book?

For the last five years, I’ve been in a friendly fantasy football league. Fantasy football works like this: you have a team of a few players–my league’s format is 1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 3 wide receivers, 1  tight end, 1 kicker and 1 defense. Each week, players at those positions accrue points for what they do in the real-life NFL games.  My league is head-to-head, so my goal is for my players to score more combined points than the team I’m matched up against each week.

It’s a lot of fun.  It’s mostly luck, but there is a little skill involved–or at least, I’ll claim there is, because I won my league a few years ago, and it’s more fun to brag if I can say it was because I am a football expert.

So, I started thinking: for what other activities could you make up this sort of game? And I ultimately settled on movies.

Like many people, I like to imagine my “dream all-star cast” for movies. But anyone can do that. Fantasy film-making needs to have an element of strategy and resource management.  So, I came up with some rules.

The format of the Fantasy Movie Cast/Crew is as follows:

  • 1 Director
  • 1 Lead Actor
  • 1 Lead Actress
  • 1 Supporting Actor
  • 1 Supporting Actress
  • 1 Screenwriter
  • 1 Cinematographer
  • 1 Composer

Yes, I realize it takes a lot more people to make a movie, but as with Fantasy sports, there have to be some constraints.

Another constraint: you are only allowed to have two Academy Award-nominees per “team”.  That is what brings out the strategic element–it forces players to prioritize where they want the proven talent.  That’s not to say only Academy Award nominees are any good, but again, as with fantasy sports, you have to know how to find under-valued talent to succeed.

Also, you can’t cheat and use one nominee in multiple slots–no written by/directed by/starring the same person.

Finally, the selection is limited to living people–so no building All-Time teams with Stanley Kubrick directing Peter O’Toole or something.

So, here’s my team:

Director: Mike Leigh. Using one of my two Oscar slots right off the bat.  I figured having an established presence at the helm would be important. He also has experience directing in theater as well as film, and I think that versatility would be useful.

Others I considered: Sir Kenneth Branagh, Rian Johnson.

Lead Actor:  Roger Guenveur Smith. This is what I mean about under-valued talent.  I have seen Smith perform live in his one-man show Juan and John, and he is a marvelous actor. Why isn’t he more widely known?  Beats me.  He is excellent at cycling through a huge range of emotions, and can create all different kinds of characters–often in the space of a few minutes.  He also has a distinctive voice and memorable presence.

Others I considered: Ewan McGregor, Joel Edgerton, Ralph Fiennes

Lead Actress: Natalie Portman. Yeah, yeah; long-time readers probably knew I would pick her the minute they read the description of the game.  Well, she’s a great actress with a wide range, and a particular knack for dark or tragic roles.  Besides which, for a movie to succeed, it helps to have at least one big-name lead.

Others I considered: Rachel Weisz, Sigourney Weaver, Felicia Day

Supporting Actor: Stephen Colbert. People know him mainly as a talk-show host, but he does have a background in acting, which you could see sometimes on The Colbert Report when he would really dial up the crazy.  I read once that he said he always wanted to play Richard in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Just the fact that he said that earns him some acting credit, in my book.

Others I considered: Jeff Lewis, Hugh Laurie

Supporting Actress: Sara Kestelman. Like Smith, I first heard of Kestelman when she was voice acting in the game Knights of the Old Republic II. Since then, I’ve seen her perform in all sorts of things.  But it’s still her KotOR II role that best showcases what a terrific actress she is. While the writing is terrific, I think  Kestelman’s acting also made Kreia into one of the greatest characters in gaming history.

Others I considered: Rashida Jones, Tina Fey

Screenwriter: Anthony Tambakis. His work on Jane Got a Gun and his novel Swimming with Bridgeport Girls impressed me enough to take a chance on someone with a relatively small body of work.

Others I considered: None. There aren’t too many active screenwriters whose work I like.

Cinematographer: Steve Yedlin. I’ve only seen one movie on which he served as cinematographer: The Brothers Bloom. But it had something I really, really liked: color. Not just muted greens and greys and browns, but honest-to-goodness colors. This has fallen out of fashion for some reason, and it’s annoying. So, on the basis of his willingness to accommodate the full spectrum of colors, I choose him.

Others I considered: Dick Pope.

Composer: Lisa Gerrard. Another talent I first discovered in Jane Got a Gun. Since then, I’ve heard her work in the band Dead Can Dance, and I was hooked.

Others I considered: Clint Mansell

As for what the movie would be about–well, we can sort those details out later! That’s how the big studio producers do it, after all. As for scoring and head-to-head competitions, those also can be determined later.

How would you build your ideal movie cast and crew?

[You can make a case for any of these characters being “Mary Sues”. From left: Robert Pattinson as Edward from Twilight, Miranda Lawson from Mass Effect 2, Sean Connery as James Bond, and Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. All images via respective Wiki pages and re-used under ‘fair use”]

First, let me begin by defining terms. Or more accurately, letting Wikipedia do it for me:

A Mary Sue (if female) or Marty Stu (if male) is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character…

The term “Mary Sue” comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973… The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old”), and satirized unrealistic characters in Star Trek fan fiction.

“Mary Sue” is now a shorthand for an unrealistically capable character, with no flaws or foibles. It’s the mark of an amateurish writer, too lazy to flesh out their characters.

Naturally, there’s a discussion to be had here about the use of the term’s sexist connotations, and whether the pejorative “Mary Sue” is now used by lazy critics to put down any female protagonist. It’s a very interesting issue, but it’s not the thing about Mary Sues I want to discuss here.

What I want to address is the motivation for creating such characters in the first place. Often, critics assume that the reason is wish-fulfillment; that authors imagine themselves to be these characters, and make them perfect as a result. (Critics usually assume that everyone is as conceited as they are.)

But perfect–or at least, incredibly highly-skilled–characters are actually very tempting for reasons of plot, especially in a science-fiction or fantasy setting. Simply put; when your plot takes place in a big, complicated universe, you want your character to be able to participate in every aspect of that universe.

If I’m writing a sprawling epic with, say, a league of heroic knights who go around fighting dragons, it’s a bit of a letdown if I say “But sadly, Bob the protagonist was an archer who knew nothing about horsemanship or swordsmanship, and so could never be a knight.” By the same token, if Bob is a knight, then it’s a real shame if he can’t be in any archery attacks.

When you’re writing a story, you generally want your protagonist to be able to participate in most of the action. Having them figure out and solve the central conflict makes a better story than: “Bob found out a lot of interesting information about dragons. So he gave it to the experts who handle that sort of thing. 8 months later, he read in the newspaper about how the dragon issue had been solved. ‘Huh,’ he said. ‘So that’s how that all played out.’ The End.”

Now sure, you can have lots of characters with different skill sets, and still have the protagonist be involved in every step. This is relatively easy to do if your setting is the present day or recent past. For example, in a mystery novel, Ted the Brooding Detective With The Dark Past can take the evidence to Jill the Wisecracking Forensics Expert With The Rebellious Streak. (And if they fall in love, then you’ve almost got all the characterization you need.)

But this gets harder to do the more exotic your setting is, because then you have to make up a bunch of skill sets for people This is especially true in science fiction. So, there’s the girl who flies the ships, there’s the guy who fixes the ships, there’s the other guy who fixes the robots, there’s some alien who mines the raw materials for building both the ships and the robots…

It can be done, don’t get me wrong. But it’s tough to do it, and very, very tempting to the novice writer to just say, “We need to get this plot moving! We haven’t got time to meet the guy who waxes the floors. It’s faster to just make the protagonist do it.”