Hard sci-fi made me cry*

Image Source: IMDB

Tired of the remakes, the reboots, the “let’s see how much more blood we can squeeze out of this turnip” output of today’s Hollywood? I think you’ll find Passengers a refreshing change. 

If like me, you didn’t rush out to see it in the theatre, it might’ve been because of blurbs like this one from IMDB: “A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.” 

Sounds like a snore, doesn’t it? 

It is rated PG-13, just under two hours long, and tagged as adventure, drama, and romance. What it is, however, is a story about love, redemption, and forgiveness. It’s about making the best of life, even when things don’t go as planned. It’s about the pioneering spirit, about a positive future, about what a man and a woman can achieve together.

“But wait, you said this is hard sci-fi.”

Yes, I did. And I stand by it. It’s science fiction because of the setting: a spaceship traveling between the stars. It’s hard sci-fi because it’s an extrapolation of current knowledge (it’s closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey), than to the space-fantasy cum turnip known as Star Wars

But what this movie actually is, is a great example of using science/setting as a trope and a literary device for delivering a character-driven story. The science is not the point of the story, but there is enough verisimilitude that it has a real feel to it (this comes from someone who can get really picky about the scientific details).

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Story and Characters: Love-hate affairs across cultures

Earlier this month I was introduced to the most successful German-language musical of all time, Elisabeth das Musical.

This fictionalized account of the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria has been translated into seven languages and seen by over ten million, although apparently never in the United States. It made me wonder why, since it has been successful not just in Germany, but Hungary, Russia, South Korea, and Japan. In fact, the cross-cultural adaptations are worth a study in themselves. Here is a multi-language compilation of the prologue. I’m particularly fond of the Japanese costuming. And here is the international trailer with an English introduction.

Personally, I love a good anti-hero and in this case that would be Death, not Elisabeth, the heroine of this story.

Having grown up in a culture similar to the one that Elisabeth grew up in, I’d like to share my take on this story.

Know then, that for most of history, people did not marry for romantic love. Most of those who ruled didn’t (I’m sure there were exceptions). The peasants, shop keepers, and nobles didn’t either, although they had, perhaps more freedom in that regard, depending on the time period, etc.

Today, we live in a culture rich enough to allow us to casually enter into marriage based on romantic love, with less thought given to the economics involved, than in the past. All it takes in most places in the US, is a drive down to City Hall or a Justice of the Peace, the payment of a fee, and you are married. Most people are free to fall in love and marry just for that. Whether it lasts or not is another matter. So, go into this knowing, that that was not the case in Elisabeth’s time, and it is not the case in most of the world even today.

My parents’ and grandparents’ generation in Communist Romania certainly thought of marriage in terms of economics, despite it being the 20th Century. Nobody cared about love. What did they care about?

Does he have a good, stable job?
Will he be able to support a wife?
Will he be able to support a family?
Is he husband material in other ways?
Is she wife material?
Can she have children?
What kind of mother will she be?
Do undesirable traits and behavior run in his or her family?
Can the families get along?

Living as part of an extended family that were always in your business, did not allow an unmarried man or woman the freedom to just fall for someone and call it done. Even if the respective families couldn’t stop you from marrying, they could certainly withdraw and refuse support, and often did. It was also not that unusual for the older generation (the grandparents’) to be responsible for child-rearing, and for younger cousins and sisters to be involved as well (as nannies and baby-sitters for girls must learn how to be mothers themselves some day), since the concept of a nuclear family was unknown.

And I can tell you without a doubt that the idea of living only for oneself, for one’s own selfish desire was not praiseworthy, was not encouraged, much less celebrated. In contrast, today, there are plenty of young men and women who pursue “their bliss” well into their thirties, often as a result of parental generosity.

Elisabeth (as portrayed in this musical) is in many ways a contemporary embodiment of what we so often see today. She is raised in an ideal environment, which, while desirable, does not reflect the reality of the world. One moment she swears off marriage for the freedom to do whatever she wants. The next, she’s fallen in love (at first sight no less) with the Emperor of Austria (a man intended for her older sister).

Then when she does have children, they are taken away from her to be raised by her mother-in-law. She fights to get them back, but then abandons them in retaliation for her husband’s unfaithfulness. Now, I realize that some of this is being done for story reasons, and that’s fine. Conflict, shattered expectations, and a character arc all demand it. Otherwise we’d have no Story, or at least not this story, and it is THIS story that is compelling.

Elisabeth sacrifices everyone (including her beloved son) for her own freedom, while at the same time enjoying an unearned material wealth. Audiences are drawn in and cheer on her declaration that she belongs only to herself.

While it’s interesting, and entertaining to watch the character arc, the love triangle between Elisabeth, her husband, and Death personified (and yes, I enjoyed the heck out of this play–I watched the German and Hungarian versions–and it’s in the “watch again” bin) there were so many times when I wanted to reach out and strangle her and shout “You are such a selfish, silly <insert expletive>!” Then I take a deep breath and remind myself that it’s a Story, it’s meant to be entertainment, and I should just enjoy it.

Which leads to “Why am I willing to watch this again, when I don’t particularly like Elisabeth as a person?” Yes, Mark Seibert as Death makes up for a lot, but he’s not on the stage that long. And it’s not just Seibert’s portrayal of Death, even though I’d jump at the chance to go see him on stage even if that meant actually going back to Europe. Kim Junsu’s portrayal of Death in the Korean version is just as good, if not better.

It’s the characters, stupid! Plot, logic, and inconsistencies matter not when the characters have you in their grip, just like with a book you read again and again, even though you know not just the ending, but every plot point along the way. It’s why I’m on a mission to watch the Japanese and Russian versions as well, provided I can find them.

Even the language barrier was not enough to dampen my enjoyment and I’m not a fan of theater in general. The fact that it was in a foreign language made it more interesting. I really admire the translators since they had to translate not just the words, but make the syllables fit, and oh, by the way, some of it still rhymes. Think of it this way. In English, “I” is one syllable; same in German, Hungarian, and Russian. But in Japanese, “I” is “watashi(-wa)” which is three or four, in Korean it’s “naneun” also three. From what I saw of the subtitles, they did it while preserving context in most cases. It’s shown particularly well here, in a multi-language compilation featuring several of the actresses portraying Elisabeth during the 20th Anniversary Tribute. Notice how the song smoothly flows from one language to the other (I identified German, Dutch, Korean, and Japanese. Finnish might also have been in there, although I didn’t verify it).

As a writer, I also appreciate how well the Story (not the plot) delivered a highly satisfying ending.

When it was all over, I asked myself, was this a romance (i.e. it had a happy ending) or was it a tragedy? And the answer is, it was both. The climax was a tragedy, but the denouement was a happily ever after. Yeah, that’s right. THIS and the compelling characters is why Elisabeth das Musical is such a hit.

Now I’m off to add “learn more about the Habsburg Empire” to my ever-growing list of stuff I’ll probably never get around to. I really do wish they’d have spent more time on this part of history when I was going to school.

One final thing. The story shows the rising nationalism of the time period. I believe it is historically accurate. If you’re going to get offended by the appearance of National Socialism and its anti-semitism (slogans, symbols, etc), despite their portrayal as the bad guys, you might want to skip this.

Movie Review: What Dreams May Come (with spoilers)

What Dreams May Come is a 1998 Robin Williams movie  about a man who dies and searches for his wife in the afterlife. It is based on the novel of the same name by Richard Matheson.

Definitely a tearjerker: everybody dies, including the dog, which is usually the point at which I stop watching a movie, but the poster suggests they meet up in Heaven so I kept going.

I’m not going to go into a lot of story or execution details except to say that the “trick” of meeting his children in the afterlife (they don’t look like you’d expect them to look) was explained in a way that had internal logic and didn’t feel like a cheat. I have not read the book and don’t plan to (the sample tells me all I need to know and that is that I have better books lined up waiting to be read) so I can’t tell you how closely the movie aligns with the book.

The one thing about the movie is that is FANTASTIC is the message: that a man’s love for his wife was so great that he was willing to give up Heaven and join her in Hell. We need more movies like this, about couples who go through hell and Hell together, about the wonders that can be achieved by men and women who love each other working together to make a better world, even if it’s a surrealistic, fantastical afterlife.

So have a hanky (or two) ready and be assured, this has a happily ever after even if it’s not what one would call a Romance. It is definitely a romance, however. And bonus: the point of this romance is not for the woman to fall in love with a man just to demand that he change.

Movie Cheats: A Perfect Getaway (Spoilers Included)

A Perfect Getaway is a 2009 movie starring Milla Jovovich, Chris Hemsworth, and Timothy Olyphant. I was also promised Gerard Butler.

The storyline reads:

For their honeymoon, newlyweds Cliff and Cydney head to the tropical islands of Hawaii. While journeying through the paradisaical countryside the couple encounters Kale and Cleo, two disgruntled hitchhikers and Nick and Gina, two wild but well-meaning spirits who help guide them through the lush jungles. The picturesque waterfalls and scenic mountainsides quickly give way to terror when Cliff and Cydney learn of a grisly murder that occurred nearby and realize that they’re being followed by chance acquaintances that suspiciously fit the description of the killers. (Source: IMDB)

It took $14M to make and grossed $15M in the USA. Despite the eye candy (there is some breathtaking scenery, and yes, I mean both kinds) and a lot of potential, it is a mediocre movie at best.

It’s been out like nine years. Why bother?

Well, someone suggested that I watch it and just before I got around to watching it, some of us were having a discussion on Facebook about how it’s easy to spot writers that are NOT prolific readers, but rather prolific movie watchers. So it seemed apropos to take this mediocre film and demonstrate what that means, i.e. when a writer is first and foremost, a movie watcher, rather than a reader.

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What we really needed was more vampires

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Couple weeks ago I decided to give the series Van Helsing  a try. My expectations weren’t high and good thing too.

With the constant stream of disappointing fare offered by SyFy, Netflix, pretty much everyone, I pulled the plug on satellite some time back. I’m one of the binge-watchers who isn’t going to bother until the season is done and then only if I’ve heard lots of good things about it from people I trust. I don’t care for cliffhangers and they’ve been so overdone in a desperate attempt to hold on to audiences that we’ve become annoyed rather than tantalized by them. Hollywood, get a clue. Really.

I admit a moment of weakness and a desperate need for something that didn’t tax the brain too much, because I hadn’t heard about this series. It just scrolled through as recommended viewing.

I actually stopped the first episode three times to check if it was really the first episode. I was convinced I was watching things out of order. Nope. Some jackass decided it was better to drop us into the middle with no explanation, no idea who these people were, and not a SINGLE reason to care about any of them.

Ooh, vampires. Ooh, a woman Van Helsing. Yawn.

I took the self-pub plunge

Most of my author friends are self-published or hybrid writers. I often feel “out of the loop” when it comes to the details of the self-publishing process, so I decided it was time to take the plunge. At the behest one of them, I took the six blog posts about my workshop experience and why a rejection is an opinion (not a death sentence), and created a book: Rejection 101: A Writer’s Guide

Although it took all day, it took far less time than I thought it would.

I already had the KDP account set up, but I had never worked with the KDP system or Vellum (the layout software).

Here’s the run-down of what it took to go from a series of blog posts to a finished product.

I chose an image off DepositPhoto.com, and fired up Pages. This probably ate up most of my time. It had been awhile since I’d worked with Pages for anything other than writing, but it all came back to me. Create a black background. Add image on top. Check the reflection option. Add the fonts for the title and author. I spent more time playing around with fonts and colors, to be honest. Way too many choices, most of them bad. Saved it, changed the type of file, and done. Reopened it in Preview in order to adjust the ratio of image width to height, per Vellum’s suggestion. That took like another minute.

Next, Vellum. Great software, took about ten minutes and one very specific question posted to a group, and I had it figured out — the front and back matter, the chapters, the headers, dividers, everything–bam, bam, bam. It was amazing. By contrast, I was struggling with Jutoh for days before I threw my hands up in disgust and wished I’d never heard of it. With one press of a button, Vellum generated everything for all the platforms/venues/formats, all in one step: Generic ePUb, GooglePlay, iBooks, Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and Print (i.e. a PDF).

It took longer to actually proof the PDF, Kindle and iBooks files (by looking at every page inside the file) than it took to put the book together, and that includes futzing around with the fonts and colors. (BTW, leave the extra pages in the PDF alone. They’re there for a reason.)

Vellum is pricey, but worth it (works only on Mac). You can play with a full version for free, but you have to have a license to hit that magic button that spits out all the stuff you can then upload to the various venues. No, you don’t need Vellum if you’re doing KDP because you can upload a .docx or .PDF or .rtf file instead, but that doesn’t mean that all your versions will look the same if you wide (other platforms).

Uploading to KDP was simple enough. The one snag I hit was with the paperback version, which took two tries to get right, so maybe fifteen minutes to re-do.

Did learn that you don’t need an ISBN–Amazon will “give” you one.

There was a 24-hour turnaround on the approval process.

Voila. That’s it, in a nutshell. Even a rocket surgeon can do it.

Up next, publishing on iBooks, Kobo, and Nook. Also CreateSpace, D2D, all this stuff I’ve heard of but never had a reason to look into too deeply.

A rejection is an opinion, not a death sentence (part five)

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Mar. 1st, 2018

The fifth story was an exploration of dragons.

The first thing the buying editor admitted to was the fact that she did not articulate what she wanted as well as she thought she had. Unfortunately, that wasn’t apparent until she got the stories and it was too late to do anything about it. This brought up another important point about things that influence editorial decision-making. When they get a lot of stories that aren’t quite right (for whatever reason) the pressure on their time increases. They need to keep an eye on these time pressures, so they are more likely to buy stories that don’t need work.

Read the rest here: Rejection 101: A Writer’s Guide

Part Six

A rejection is an opinion, not a death sentence (part four)

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Feb. 28th, 2018

 

The theme for story four was “chances,” and although there were plenty of clues in the submission call that it was to be a romance anthology, it was never explicitly stated. Two people that take chances to be together didn’t say “romance” to everyone in the group, and I can see why that would be the case. If you don’t write romance, your version of “two people taking chances to be together” could manifest in other ways—a father and daughter trying to find each other when war comes to their world. Therefore several well-written pieces just didn’t make the cut because they were not, technically, romances.

Others had romantic elements, but the romance wasn’t the main focus, but a sub-plot.

But romances are right up my alley and since one of the examples in the call was “Anthony (conquerer) and Cleopatra (conquered)” that was the first plot bunny I chased down the wrong hole. For four days. Yep, I gave up on it some time late on Thursday and went to bed knowing I’d have Friday and the weekend to start fresh. Fun times. Fun times.

Read the rest here: Rejection 101: A Writer’s Guide

Part Five

A rejection is an opinion, not a death sentence (part three)

Part One

Part Two

Feb. 27th, 2018

The story for the third week had to do with strangers dealing with each other. And it was another one of those that made me scratch my head, especially the part about not wanting to read anything icky since it was a parent-child editorial team. No definition of “icky” was provided.

In retrospect I realize that my fear of putting in any details about sexual attraction actually kept me from adequately fleshing out the emotional aspect, which was something they did want. But, apparently, I can’t write anything that doesn’t tend towards having a romantic aspect of some kind—yes, it’s a personal flaw and probably not one I will fix since I like my romantic tensions too much.

This story started with an image of a blonde woman in a white suit and pumps, holding a pearl white briefcase, getting ready to go through a stargate.

I had no idea she was going to end up in Hell, no idea I was going to use a character I’d used in another (unpublished) story, no idea it was going to be about what it ended up being about, no idea that I was going to play off the Persephone/Hades myth. I had no idea I was going to bring in the concepts of war being hell, of military traditions, or a statement on totalitarianism.

Read the rest here: Rejection 101: A Writer’s Guide

Part Four

A rejection is an opinion, not a death sentence (part two)

Part One.

 

Feb. 26th, 2018

The workshop’s second assignment was another difficult one. The theme was “Broken Dreams” and the editor specified that she didn’t want the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Even with the 8000-word limit, I wanted to skip this uncomfortable subject.

But I had to try. Otherwise, I’d be wasting my time and money, and losing a chance at getting some valuable feedback and insight on how to do it better later.

I’d been researching privateers for some reason (probably because something shiny flew by and led me there) so the first thing that came to me was to do a story about a guy that got cashiered and lost his opportunity for command. This turned out to be one of those cases where I was doing pure discovery writing (I had no end in mind at all) and no idea how to get there. I started with a character and waited to see where he took me.

After a couple of false starts, the character took 5500 words to take me here:

Read the rest here: Rejection 101: A Writer’s Guide

Part three.