The Anatomy of Story (Goodreads Review)

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master StorytellerThe Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a classic storytelling manual, and it certainly adds something unique to the storytelling world, but I had a lot of trouble telling what that was. If you are the sort of writer who devours writing books and collects advice, able to weigh it against everything else you’ve read, then this is a good book. Based on my reading of it, however, it is not a panacea. Not that it has to be, but I would advise against having expectations as high as the jacket copy suggests.

My complaints follow. Continue reading “The Anatomy of Story (Goodreads Review)”


Is Solo a Star Wars Story?

Or can we boldly explore some new worlds?

solo_a_star_wars_story_posterI saw Solo: A Star Wars Story on Sunday, and I was impressed.  It was a fun movie, not as dreadfully serious as the other three new films, and had some nice surprises.  Spoilers: you actually get to see Warwick Davis’ face on screen.  There is no Boba Fett, no Jabba the Hutt, and there is little about The Force, the Jedi, the Republic, and I didn’t see many stormtroopers.  Come to think of it, there was an entire fighting force devoid of stormtroopers, something never-before-seen (not counting Clone Wars).  The ships, the droids, the planets, the villains, and the primary conflict are all completely new.

Continue reading “Is Solo a Star Wars Story?”

“Just write”

I saw The Last Jedi yesterday, and here are my thoughts:

  • Plenty of interesting stuff, lots of surprising moments
  • I still prefer the swashbuckling pulpy adventure of the first movie to the overstated drama of the newer films
  • As much as it was a good movie, I would still rather see a totally new story.

I have three young boys who love Star Wars (thanks to me), and I am getting a little tired of it. “Star Wars” movie is now a phrase that gets used all the time, and it emphasizes the feeling I had while watching The Last Jedi that these films are more like TV shows in the way they tell a never-ending story. Each time the characters face basically the same obstacles and spend their time solving a fairly explicit puzzle. This was understated in the first trilogy, but now it’s almost like watching Law and Order. Continue reading ““Just write””

Phasma (Star Wars)Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book with my kids, who are Star Wars fans. I loved The Force Awakens, but just to add my own perspective, I think the proliferation of Star Wars material is a bit overwhelming and unnecessary to enjoying the movies. In addition, most Star Wars bonus material I have read is not that well done. I wanted to read this book mainly for my kids’ enjoyment, but I was excited to hear that Delilah S. Dawson was doing an entire novel. Delilah is inspiring as a writer and blogger, and gives wonderful advice on how to build a strong career. So I picked up Phasma and was blown away by the amazing prose in the opening pages. The author takes an entirely boring scenario and makes it crackle with tension. I had to read the rest.

If you like anything Star Wars, you’ll love this book. If you like science fiction and fantasy, and good writing, the best parts of this book will be the current-time conflict between Cardinal and Phasma, two rival stormtroopers in the First Order. Phasma’s backstory is an interesting quest with a very well-developed culture, and a mystery that will be satisfying for fantasy readers. I think the best writing and the biggest tension happens toward the end of the book, and it’s well worth getting through some slow “endless desert” passages. The last hundred pages of this book are filled with suspense, and I really had a good time reading it.

Phasma is already a bestseller, so if this is the first book you’ve read by the author, I highly urge you to pick up her original material, which is much much better. For example she has a Weird Western series under her pen name Lila Bowen that I highly recommend, the latest chapter of which is Malice of Crows.

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Strong Female Characters, Point of View, and The White Queen

A story has to be told from the right point of view; the author can’t always choose that.

Yesterday was the Summer solstice and marked two interesting divisions. The summer solstice (or “Langesttay” in the language of the book) marks a critical division in the plot of The Queen’s Night, and four months ago Mark Gottlieb submitted this book, and we haven’t heard anything back. Although Mark has assured me it’s not time to give up hope, he does think it’s time to try to sell the next book, so that’s where my focus is. I am not giving up hope primarily because every person I’ve shown this book, or pitched it to, has said it looks fantastic. I am extremely skeptical that out of fifteen editors who might see it, none of them would like it. It’s gotten to the point where I hope someone will tell me what’s wrong with it so I can fix it. But nevertheless I am moving on with the next book. Continue reading “Strong Female Characters, Point of View, and The White Queen”

Content and Style: The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu

In which I alienate the people most likely to buy my book.

Atwood at the 2015 Texas Book Festival; photo by Larry D. Moore

Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors, and The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books, so I was pretty excited when I heard Hulu was adapting it into a series. Of course, I also had my trepidation. I don’t care much whether an adaptation fails or succeeds, but my expectations for adaptations these days are pretty low. Nevertheless it’s nice to see such an excellent book advertised and interpreted.  I watched the first episode last night and found myself thinking I would rather be re-reading the book.  If you were confused or disappointed by the episodes you’ve seen, read the book.

Continue reading “Content and Style: The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu”

Reading for fun

In which I try to redeem my previous intellectual arrogance

A few weeks ago I questioned “reading for fun” in a post that started an excellent discussion with Michael McLendon and a few others on Facebook. I put forth that although Brandon Sanderson exhorted his students to always remember they are writing for entertainment, I don’t read for what I would strictly call entertainment, and I always aim to get something more serious out of reading a book. I don’t have the same expectations for movies and TV. Sounds reasonable enough and the discussion went fine without too much hair-splitting.

However, I became aware that I sounded a little like this:


Continue reading “Reading for fun”

What makes a book fun?

Are books just entertainment? Really?

I’ve been thinking lately about what constitutes good taste, why we read, and about reader preferences.  Last night I watched another of Brandon Sanderson’s short videos from a few years ago, and I encountered this opinion he gives in the first few minutes about entertainment versus meaning in books, especially fantasy.

The gist of his point is this: “We are doing entertainment, that’s what it is…describing a statue as a rock is true…people are going to pick up your book for entertainment purposes, that’s why they go get it… . They are picking up that book to be entertained. Don’t forget to be fun.”

A few days ago, Sam Sykes tweeted a question getting at the same point. My reply was similar to Brian Staveley:

So Sanderson’s argument is at the most basic level, people read for the same reason they watch TV. The enjoyment readers get out of reading a book is just that: enjoyment, fun, comparable to riding a roller coaster, hearing a good pop song, or watching a thrilling car chase. If there’s no element of fun, then readers, or most readers, won’t be interested enough to catch other meaningful statements the author or screenwriter tries to “sneak in.” There will be meaningful statements about the nature of life, about different sorts of people finding commonality, about the experiences of others, and so on. Your readership will be smaller if you bash your reader or viewer over the head with a “message.” When Tolkien said his stories were about hobbits, he had a point, because he didn’t mean hobbits to represent any particular people in this world, left-of-middle-Earth.

I disagree with both Sanderson and Tolkien. Although they’re both right on some level, storytelling has to be deeper than that or else it’s unsatisfying. Furthermore, a “message” or “meaning” is entertaining, albeit in a different way, and in a more satisfying way than “pure fun” can be. I would go so far as to say it’s impossible to tell a story without a deeper meaning, as bad as Firefly happens to be.

My first problem is many readers, writers, and commentators think “meaning” is synonymous with bludgeoning the reader with a political statement. Political statements are too current to be enduring, they are divisive, and they risk conflating desire with morality. In other words, I might want lower taxes, or free health care, or for the state to sponsor performance art with marshmallows, but those are not moral concerns. Stories need to be about deeper concerns, if I decide to write a story about performance artists being persecuted by a harsh government, or oh say farmers being kicked off their land by banks and moving to California during the great depression, I risk reducing my readership. Not only reducing my readership, but making it unreadable and incomprehensible to people who disagree. They won’t get any message I want to get across because of their disagreement.

More likely, however, they won’t understand or read my story because it will be bad. Grapes of Wrath is a terrible book by a good writer. It’s preachy. This is a point where I agree with Sanderson: if you have a reader who disagrees, or sees himself as an example of what you’re railing against, you’re not just turning him off, you’re actually insulting him. That’s not cool, man.

But the problem with using that argument against having any meaning, and reducing your story to “entertainment” is political or social messages are only one, and the most limited kind, of meaning. They are inexorably linked to the time in which they are written. They are not archetypal, they are not moral dilemmas. They might make a good background for a story, but writing a story with only a political meaning is extremely limiting. But there is archetypal meaning that gets readers in the vagus nerve, and it will very rarely be political. Stories are always about life and death, birth and marriage, falling in love, falling out of love, self-redemption, maturation, and menopause.

When I read a book, and it is merely entertaining, I consider it a waste of time. Sanderson argues that readers are picking up the book to have a good time, and he’s right most of the time. As I’ve really tried to pay attention to why people read, I’ve found that many readers read for the same reason that someone might watch TV: it’s engaging, fun, and a way of seeing how clever other people can be when you’re exhausted after a day of work or school. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it does appear to be the way things are for many people. I remember turning to The Wheel of Time or other novels after days of being really exhausted and knowing I wasn’t going to get any sleep that night.

Most writers I know don’t read “just for fun.” If I spend weeks reading a book, I expect a lot more than I expect from a two-hour movie or a one-hour TV show. I expect hardly anything from most TV shows. At the very least when I read a book, I expect to learn something about someone (a fake person, but a person nonetheless). I hope to see a lot more; I hope to learn something psychologically that I can’t learn just from talking to regular humans. It’s not socially acceptable to sit down and interview people and learn the things you can learn from a book. Movies and TV shows just don’t go that far most of the time. That’s fine for them, but for a book I expect it at least to be sincere about what it means to be a human being.

Sanderson’s line of reasoning also neglects that deep meaningful message are entertaining in their own way. It’s not just “boobs and explosions” (or clever people) that are entertaining. Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays, for instance, are so dripping with meaning that people forget that they were entertainment, sometimes for common people. I feel entertained when I learn about a deep truth and see it put into action, even in a pop song; it’s much more satisfying than the boobs and explosions and car chases. Those things are rather expendable. I would much rather really learn something deep than see another chase, or another trek, or just another guy solving a problem. The film version of The Martian, for instance, was not that moving because it was just a guy solving problems we knew he was going to solve. The parts about isolation and human relationships were sandwiched between very simplistic “what’s he going to do next” scenes.

Compare that to Hamlet, or even one of Shakespeare’s more simplistic plays like Romeo and Juliet. With Hamlet, “what’s he going to do next” is the basic unit of suspense, but while we’re wondering about that Hamlet grapples with life and death and all the important stuff. He goes to the core of the archetypal struggle that we all experience: “Why don’t I just give up? Why do I go on like this? I could kill my uncle, but would the end result be so different from just killing myself?” Interstellar, as opposed to The Martian, was always about human relationships at all moments of the film. The science and technical dialogue were incidental. I find that more moving. If you don’t then…I don’t know. Maybe we’re just different, and that’s fine.

(Incidentally, this is my big problem with editors or agents saying “I have to be hooked,” because what constitutes a hook is so hugely subjective. I know that what hooks me is different from what hooks people who love Firefly, so exactly what are you telling me when you say you need to be hooked?)

My last point is hardest to defend. It’s very hard to write something without a deeper meaning. Fairytales, which seem to just be funny stories, are incredibly meaningful expressions of deep archetypal truths, just like dreams. And that’s the hard part: when a story has that dreamlike quality, it is so much a better story than something that’s all about the surface of life. It may be possible to write a story without that much meaningful, but I don’t think it’s at all easy to write a good story without really digging into what’s meaningful for the characters, and thereby what’s meaningful for the reader.

I’ll close with a passage from Robert McKee (I happened to land on this passage just after watching Sanderson’s video):

Never allow yourself the luxury of thinking, “It’s just entertainment.” What, after all, is “entertainment”? Entertainment is the ritual of sitting in the dark, staring at a screen, investing tremendous concentration and energy into what one hopes will be a satisfying, meaningful emotional experience. Any film that hooks, holds, and pays off the story ritual is entertainment…., no story is innocent. All coherent tales express an idea veiled inside an emotional spell. (Story, pg 129)

Is Rogue One Fan Fiction?

In which I alienate readers by mentioning a good movie’s Big But…

I saw Rogue One last night, and it was great. I was surprised by how seriously it treated the story, and by the father-daughter connection. The ambiguity of the characters and their motives was very satisfying to watch: almost every one had conflicting motives and could have made a decision either way at every point. There were definitely good guys and bad guys, but the way they accomplished their goals was highly ambiguous and provoked a lot of moral questions. The acting was fantastic, and the production design was really cool. There were at least two very cosmopolitan cities that didn’t have the artificial sheen of Coruscant in the prequels. And of course, there were familiar characters, especially imperial characters, that I didn’t expect to see.

They broke with the typical elements that we’ve come to expect from “Star Wars movies.”  There was no crawler at the beginning, there were titles announcing the locations, and there were lots of new sorts of droids, troopers, and imperial officers and ships. The music was not John Williams, but it was satisfactory. It was loud, and distracting at some points, but the whole movie was loud and full of action. If you haven’t seen it, go and see it, and enjoy it. I really enjoyed it, BUT

Continue reading “Is Rogue One Fan Fiction?”

Elsa’s Ambivalence

Last night I watched Frozen and then started a chapter on Freud in Harold Bloom’s The ElsaPose.pngWestern Canon.  Bloom’s thesis is that Freud was dead wrong on most of his interpretations of Shakespeare, but that if we analyze Freud using Shakespearean psychology, we find some very interesting things.  The most important thing I get from Bloom’s ideas is that the quality of ambivalence is incredibly important to understanding what makes a character compelling.  Elsa, Queen of Arendelle, is a character that rivals MacBeth, King Lear, and Hamlet in her ambivalence and psychological torment, so I finally have an analytical tool to express my profound enjoyment of this great movie.

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