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MATT'S OCCASIONAL WRITING BLOG

Happy Independence Day!

Wishing everyone a safe and happy Fourth of July!

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. . . ."

 

- The Declaration of Independence

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Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Lots of things moving really fast

I fell off of following comic book movies back around the second "original" Spider-man movie (back when Tobey Maguire was still doing the web-slinging). So jumping straight into a 2023 animated Spider-Man sequel set in the "Spider-verse" was kind of like, having not jogged for two decades, you one day decide you're going to do two hours of windsprints. 

 

Across the Spider-verse fits within a broader vein of classic comic book heroes reformulated into new characters and reset within bigger, broader "meta" comic book universes. The movie's center of gravity is not one, but two, spider-bitten super-heroes: Gwen and Miles. They're fighting crime in New York and tackling the challenges of adolescence (Gwen as a Spider-Woman, Miles as a Spider-Man)--but here's the knot: they're from different New Yorks in different universes.

 

This, of course, is part of the central conceit of the "Metaverse," the notion du jeure that there are infinite parallel worlds and universes all running alongside each other simultaneously. As it happens, there is a common strand between a fairly large number of these parallel universes: they all have New York Cities. More than that, though, all these New York Cities have radioactive spiders biting teenagers and turning them into a wide variety of spider-themed super-heroes who feel compelled, despite the usual challenges of adolescence, to fight crime.

 

Gwen and Miles are two such kids, misunderstood by their parents and friends, who feel overwhelmed by the awesome power of being teenagers with superpowers. When a faceless, bumbling villain called "Spot" shows up in Miles' New York, throwing holes (that look an awful lot like rorschach tests) into reality hither and yon, Miles and Gwen come to learn about the Spider-verse. Turns out all these alternate universe spider-heroes have a central node, a big futuristic city, where they basically make sure all their respective threads run the way they're supposed to. That point's really important, apparently. So important, the idea takes on a term of truly breath-taking self-awareness--it's Canon. And as long as everyone in the Spider-verse follows the Canon, everything can go on, more or less smoothly. 

 

Spot's quest for vengeance against Miles threatens to destroy the Spider-verse's Canon. While Miles' quest to chart his own destiny pretty much does the same. And, lo, lots of things move really fast and blow up.

 

This really isn't my kind of movie (we took our younger son to see it), but that's not a fair critique in a review, so I'll try to hit the highs and lows on the movie's own terms.  In terms of animation, this was a beautiful movie. Computer-generated animation has come a long way, and Across the Spider-verse shows it at its best. The action--and there's ample plenty of it--is fluid, fast (and at times, at least for this old Gen-X'er, a little bit overwhelming). The backdrops were inspired, alternating between sweeping cityscapes and, at times, evocative color spreads. The latter could've come straight out of a Ralph Bakshi movie (and I mean that as high praise). The voice actors all put in solid performances, as well. The script-writers deserve praise for the dialogue, which differentiated characters' voices while avoiding info-dumps. The score wasn't bad if urban and techno beats are your thing. 

 

The plot, however ... needed some tightening up. I say that recognizing this is comic book stuff, so its supposed to be big and sprawly and kind of winding. But still, the story line ran wild and never really cohered. It's also larded with teen angst. Everything in this movie--every parent, guardian, villain, and mentor, every secondary and tertiary character, heck, the whole "Spider-verse," becomes nothing but a crucible for Gwen and Miles' struggle of being misunderstood. That aspect of the characters certainly deserved a few beats in the story; it didn't deserve to be beaten to death. 

 

But overall, I think, Across the Spider-verse is a solid contribution to the modern take on the classics. Whether it rises to Canon or not, I guess we'll have to wait for the next installment to find out...

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Writing Out the Doldrums

She's listing...

"Doldrums" is one of my favorite words. It rolls off the tongue. It's evocative. It's nautical. It's what I named our world in Yonder & Far (because Yonder and Far's people find us so dreadfully dull). The word holds both a particular and a wider meaning:

 

Merriam-Webster.com captures both definitions, defining "doldrums" as: (1) a spell of listlessness or despondency; (2)  a part of the ocean near the equator abounding in calms … , squalls, and light shifting winds.

 

I'd offer a third definition.

 

"Doldrums": (3) the point in writing the first draft of a novel, roughly between 55% and 70% of completion, when the initial thrill of the book's idea has long since faded and every line, every word, comes to the page as a long, ponderous slog.

 

I'm in the doldrums now in my work-in-progress, my sixth novel, and it's just as it was with the prior five. Tedium. Slow-going. Listless. Oh, I'm making progress. The way an ant makes "progress" trying to cross a field. At the end of the day, it's not in the same place as it was before--but it hasn't gotten very far, either.

 

So that's where I'm at with McJustice, a book I've been poking at for nearly ten years. I finally hunkered down five months ago to devote all my writing time to it. I completely changed the POV, worked out the plot kinks, I've got a solid ending in mind. And now I'm closing in on the two-thirds finished mark, and, my God, it's a drudge. 

 

Fortunately (or unfortunately), I've been here before. Every time, I've come to a point in a manuscript where I'm not close enough to the end to see the finish line, but I've made it so far into the run I couldn't possibly throw in the towel. It's the point where you're winded, your muscles are burning, and the miles aren't going by so much as taunting you. It's the doldrums of the first draft.  

 

How do you get through them? How do you work through that deathly becalmed part of the creative process?

 

Another take on "doldrums," this from oceannavigator.com: "For centuries sailors dreaded the aptly named Doldrums. This band of windless, hot, and humid weather near the equator could stall sailing ships for weeks, driving the crew to distraction with the monotony and sometimes even leading to the onset of scurvy as fresh supplies ran out. . . . Generally, voyagers want to minimize time spent in the [Doldrums] by crossing it as quickly as possible at its narrowest point and in an area with the fewest thunderstorms."

 

There you have it. You get through the doldrums by getting through them. As quickly as possible, through the narrowest means, and by avoiding making further storms.

 

That sounds about right.

 

Good sailing.

 

- Matt

 

 

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Quote of the Day

"A man's at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he don't want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there."

 

- Blood Meridian

(Cormac McCarthy, 1933-2023)

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Authors Guild Tampa Bay Chapter Social

See you July 19 at BOOK + BOTTLE!

I serve as the co-ambassador for the Tampa Bay chapter of the Authors Guild. I'm pleased to announce that we have our first social event planned for 2023. 

 

If you're in the Tampa Bay area, please join us on Wednesday, July 19, for an evening of fun and wine at BOOK + BOTTLE. Although this is an Authors Guild event, nonmember writers who may be interested in joining are more than welcome to attend. This is a social get-to-know-you event with very little business; so it should be a lot of fun. 

 

Date & Time: July 19, 2023, 5:30 - 7:00 p.m.

 

Location: BOOK + BOTTLE, 17 Sixth Street North, St. Petersburg, FL 33701

 

https://www.bookandbottlestpete.com/

 

See you there! 

 

- Matt

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On Bad Endings

Watching Arsenal's championship run in the Premier League completely unravel in the closing weeks of the season (capped yesterday by a 3-0 loss at home to Brighton) [5/20 Edit: followed up with a 1-0 loss to Nottingham bleepin' Forest] brings to mind a certain kind of book. One where the story's enchanting beginning and middle becomes sullied by a lousy ending. There's not that many out there. Usually, a bad ending just tags along behind a badly written story. But every now and then, an otherwise brilliant tale falls flat because the author just can't quite "stick the landing," so to speak. 


Stephen King's The Stand, for some reason, stands out as an example for me. I remember reading it in ninth or tenth grade (despite my not being much of a reader back then and the book weighing as much as a cinder block). It had me hooked—for more than a thousand pages. Interesting characters. Intense conflict. A dark, paranormal build-up. And then … plop. I won't spoil the ending here, but suffice to say, King took deus ex machina to a level even a teenager couldn't swallow. Which, to me, left a pall over an otherwise entertaining epic.


So what makes for a good ending to a story? I think there are three main requisites. First, the main arcs—plot and character—have to land on solid ground. Are the conflicts the protagonists faced resolved (whether for good or ill)? Have they been changed (for better or worse)? Have events reached a natural (i.e., organic) conclusion? If not (if, for example, the story concludes with the Hand of the Almighty swooping down to detonate a nuclear bomb, killing off a quarter of the main characters, leaving two others free to return home and start a family), then the ending's going to feel shaky, rushed, unsatisfying. And an otherwise solid story will sink.


Second, does the ending deliver what was promised at the beginning? Note, this doesn't mean a predictable conclusion (in fact, many times, just the opposite). Rather, this requisite is, in large part, tied to the story's genre. If the reader bought a romance, she or he is almost assuredly expecting some kind of a romantic attachment to have been formed by the time the main characters reach the end. If it's a mystery, there needs to be an intelligent solution to the crime. Epic fantasy had darn well better deliver an action-packed, dramatic "big fight." 


And finally, are all the loose ends tied off? This one is probably the easiest to fall short on. Have all the problems the author raised either been resolved or else left in a purposeful place of stasis that suggests a likely conclusion. Did Checkhov's gun ever go off?


What all three requisites have in common is that they all embody, in some fashion, the fulfillment of the author's implicit promise(s) to the reader. One of the most important promises being: a solid, satisfying conclusion at the end of the story.

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Definition of the Day

 Asyndeton: (noun) omission of the conjunctions that ordinarily join coordinate words or clauses (as in "I came, I saw, I conquered")

 

- Merriam Webster Dictionary

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Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

A solid 17 on a d20 roll.

Whatever boundaries separate fantasy novels from movies from video games from role-playing games are delightfully blurred in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

 

A bard (who doesn't really play much music in the movie), a barbarian, a somewhat hapless sorcerer, a shape-shifter, and (for a time) a paladin, are on a quest to retrieve a magical stone that will resurrect a lost loved one. In true D&D fashion, the only way to break into the magically sealed vault that holds the stone is to retrieve another lost artifact (a helmet), which is hard to get to and well guarded, but it can be used to ... well, you get the idea. The movie has all the classic tropes of a D&D game (specifically, a heist adventure), and all the free-reeling fun of a good RPG session. 

 

There's complications, plot twists, pieces of luck (both good and bad), and, of course, lots of swords and sorcery. It's funny (but thankfully, unlike a lot of modern movies, the humor isn't entirely sardonic). It's fast-paced. It's got plenty of action. Blend that all together with just the right touch of character arcs, workmanlike acting (no one takes their role too seriously, and that really works in this movie) and you get something unique: an RPG movie that can hold together as a movie while still keeping the feel of an RPG game. 

 

Grab your favorite set of dice, crack open a beer, and enjoy it!

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Book Review: Murder Your Employer

The Hogwarts of Homicide

Aside from the Sherlock Holmes short stories, I've never been much of a fan for mysteries. The handful of mystery novels I've read always felt like I was working through a crossword puzzle (instead of enjoying a story). So it was very much an impulse purchase when, as I was looking through a new Barnes & Noble that had just opened, I picked up Rupert Holmes' Murder Your Employer. I'm glad the store placed it where it did.

 

Set in the 1950's, the book follows three protagonists, Cliff Iverson, an engineer and all-around likable guy, Gemma Lindley, a young British woman who lost her father to illness, and Doris Maye, a Hollywood maven facing the twilight of her career. The three of them, it turns out, all have one thing in common: they each work for a boss that is utterly, completely, irredeemably awful. These bosses aren't just bad to work for, they're bad for society. Each of whom, in their own way, engrandizes themselves while impoverishing (and sometimes endangering) others. Holmes does a wonderful job of making the reader, like the protagonists, wish their bosses were dead.

 

As it turns out, there's a school for people like Cliff, Gemma, and Doris. The McMaster Conservatory located in ... well, no one (except the faculty) knows exactly where this pristine, Victorian campus is. Because the students are always brought there under sedation. At McMaster, pupils who wish to "delete" (the euphemism for murder) undersirable targets, take classes to hone their skills in the finer aspects of getting away with murder. There's a code, of sorts, and the course work is quite rigorous. The campus is, of course, bucolic--with dormitories, "labs," athletic fields, gorgeous parks, a quaint pub, and even a chapel (with a serving cleric!). Think of McMaster as a Hogwarts of Homicide. If this all seems a little much for the premise of a mystery novel, it is. But Holmes layers it in manageable pieces and serves it out with clever prose and vignettes, so suspending one's disbelief becomes a delight. The author also, quite wisely, doesn't endeavor to string an entire novel around the school, but instead breaks the book into halves.

 

The second half of the book follows Cliff, Gemma, and Doris as they return to the real world to work through their "theses" (that is, the actual murder of their respective targets). You'll find yourself cheering them on as three separate "mysteries" are slowly laid out through the point of view of the persons attempting to commit the crimes. The endings are not at all predictable, with plenty of twists and complications to keep the reader on his or her toes. 

 

Overall, this was a really enjoyable read. It may be a tad long (there are a couple of points in the first half that drag a bit). And the premise is absolutely ludicrous. But Holmes makes it work with masterful pacing, relatable characters, some fine wordsmithing, and a genuine sense of fun that's suffused throughout the book. Recommended.

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Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock Gets an Award

I'm pleased to announce that Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock took 2nd place in the Historical Fantasy category of the 2023 Spring BookFest awards.

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