The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Trying to Start the Next One

Well, here I am again, hiding from my novel. I’m ready to start my next one, I guess, but I’m… not ready.

Today I didn’t really write. Just checked my e-mail, dinked around on Reddit, copied a few tips about writing the opening scene. You couldn’t even call it phoning it in. I wasn’t anywhere near the phone.

It’s a lot of commitment to make a novel. It takes about 3-4 months to make one (~1,000 words a day for 90,000 words = 90 days – weekends and days off and bad writing days and so on). Is this one going to work? Or is it going to be another failure like the seven others I’ve written. Each time I write something I am a little less motivated to write it because I haven’t sold a damn thing in so long. And now even Replaneted, which I thought was going to be my best one, hasn’t even gotten a partial request yet.

But if I don’t write, what am I going to do with my lunch hours? Am I going to play video games all day. Just sit on fat unproductive ass, never giving anything back to the world to make myself remembered?

I’m just so frustrated at putting in all this work and not getting anything for it. It feels like playing handball against the curtains. And I feel like I’ve reached a plateau in my story-telling ability. The last three works I made felt so similar in terms of quality, I’m not sure I’m improving as a writer. I need to learn to write “beautifully”, but how am I supposed to learn that. Where is the class on “writing beautifully”?

Bad Writer — A Writing Video Game

Sorry, I just saw this and I had to share. It combines two of my favorite things–writing and video games. And I’m sure it’s going to be just as exciting. Looks like some kind of Stardew Valley mod, but I’m sure it’s as riveting as writing a real novel. This is the equivalent of my Animal Crossing — Chore Simulator 2000 (and I mean that in a nice way).

The Books I Read: January – February 2022

bookshelf books

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

This is a short collection of beautifully written essays that don’t seem to have a point. Only about a quarter of this book is really about “writing life”. That section is nothing you haven’t heard before. It’s getting your ass in the chair and writing and looking around. Nothing about the publicity tours, the writer’s block, the interactions with an editor, with fans, the relationship changes with a family (i.e. what to say during gatherings where you just want people to buy it)

The rest is about… something else. I guess it’s the things you think about when you should be writing but you’re not. Like how cold your cabin is. Or what that lumberjack is doing over in the distance. Mostly it’s stories that don’t go anywhere, like the time I had to catch the train to Shelbyville and I had to tie an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. There’s something “metaphysical” about the book, that it’s about more life and less writing.

And the problem was I couldn’t follow it. I got the sense this is something the author wrote as an exercise in-between books. In other words, it didn’t meet my expectations. I’m not sure who this book is for but it’s not for writers.

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

This guy has such a hard-on for Casablanca and Tootsie he should have been a film critic. The book was written in 2007 but all his examples are from way in the past (we’re talking Four Weddings and a Funeral or The Godfather). These are fine stories, it may not be what you want to write. I know I don’t. You may want to write “Iron Man” or “Nightmare Alley” or some crime thriller book. You can have a story that’s fun and still affects the reader. It doesn’t have to be about social issues or dour “message-driven” plots. This book emphasizes starting with the theme and snowballing out from there. Not about what “well wouldn’t it be fun if…”

For another thing, those works are once-in-a-blue-moon-type stories. I doubt Mario Puzo and Murray Burnett (the guy who wrote the play Casablanca is based on) were thinking about morals, themes, or motifs right from the get-go. They’re what Stephen King calls “geniuses” and you can’t make a genius out of a competent writer. No writing book in the world is going to do that and that is the premise this book seems to be selling. The Godfather and Casablanca were cases of the right story, right writer, and right time & place. Stephen King and Neil Gaiman say they wait until the book is finished, then examine the story to determine the theme that came out of it.

This book was much like Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maass where, if I got 10% out of what I read, that would be enough. But this book is so long, and seems so counter to current stories and best-sellers, I don’t think I can recommend it. Watch another movie besides Tootsie, John.

Swashbucklers by Dan Hanks

I got excited when I read the concept. But then the story got boring because there was no character development. It’s supposed to be like “what happened when the kids from Stranger Things or The Goonies grew up?”

I guess they get real dull is what happened. The story that happened before this would have been far more exciting to read. The author keeps telling, not showing, because the important parts all happened before.

This is like the sequel or fan fiction to a story that never happened. And the content that is there is just tedious adventuring and no character arcs. No one learns anything, they just do fighting. So there’s no way to get invested.

All These Worlds (Bobiverse #3) by Dennis E. Taylor

This is the third book in the “Bobiverse” trilogy. There are other side-spin-off books, but I don’t think I’ll read those because the story ended quite satisfactorily here for me. Far more than The Themis Files.

As with all sequels in a series, you’ll learn more about my recommendations for those if you read my previous reviews. Suffice to say, it ends delightfully and, as aforementioned, satisfactorily. I think it might be better than the second book, which is always a good thing for a trilogy. It’s got a good sense of humor, very Scalzi-esque. But as I’ve said previously, don’t wait too long between each book or you’ll forget everything.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

I think this is short enough to be called a novella, so I’d like to know how this got a publisher, because I’ve got some novellas I’d like to submit.

There’s some beautifully written prose in here, but at the cost of narrative flow. The dialogue keeps getting interrupted with some observation, facial tic, or other analysis of the narrative.

That means the story gets no chance to flow. Barry Lyga says “Small, insignificant actions like ‘looking’ or ‘blinking’ or ‘swallowing’ or ‘narrowing eyes’ distract to the reader and make the story unnecessarily longer.” This is coupled with there being too much telling about the characters, not showing, because the narrative is told through a single POV. This means I forgot who they were half the time, even though there are only five.

The more horror I read, the less I like it as a genre/medium. It gets too metafictional. Too self-aware. I guess it’s hard not to have the characters realize they’re in a horror movie when there are so many tropes. But it all comes off like a repeat of Scream. Plus you lose all the timing of the scare and the visuality of the horror.

The Law of Superheroes by James Daily and Ryan Davidson

I picked this up as research for a possible book. I guess if you were going to read any fun “accessible” book about law, this would be it. But be prepared because these guys are lawyers first and writers second. There are times even Batman’s vigilante justice can’t save all the prose (i.e. long paragraphs, high vocabulary, and plenty of adverbs). But how else are you going to find out if Superman has to pay taxes on the coal he squeezes into diamonds?

There’s quite a lot of content here, from constitutional law to criminal to privacy to property. At least everything has a tone of humor, so it’s not a dry legal document. I think if you used to watch The People’s Court (Wapner forever!) and read comic books at the same time, this is for you. It’s for a specific audience, but hey, you might be that audience!

For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten
(unfinished)

This was gifted to my wife, so of course, it got to my hands first. It didn’t look like my usual fare, but sometimes books find you. And you have to take those opportunities when they come. If you search for good books, understand that they may also be searching for you. Besides, I want to learn how to write a bestseller. Why not read a bestseller?

I really really tried. I made it halfway through–204 pages. But I just did not care about the characters. I did not see a world where I would have been glad I finished this all the way to the end.

First, I hate the style. Everything is written in this dark gothic prose with lots of gaps between dialogue detailing every wisp of hair, every bite of the lip, every taste in the mouth, every visual and audio detail between the lines. It’s wordy, wordy, wordy. There’s basically one thing that happens in each chapter and all the rest is window dressing and filler prose. Is overwriting a plague among bestsellers?

Second, I hate the story. It’s not Little Red Riding Hood. It’s not even close to that as an allegory. There’s not even a grandma to eat. The symbology is vague at best. If it’s close to any fairy tale, it’s Beauty and the Beast. And there is already a metric ton of those. I don’t need to read them again. Look at the facts: the little defenseless girl is forced to live in a castle with a gruff grumpy man (called The Wolf) who acts taciturn and rude to her until they spend some time together. They fall in love by proximity, yadda yadda yadda. You already know how it ends.

It’s got a distinct mood, but why do I need another “tale as old as time”? Why do I need to know every time a character wipes their eyebrow or looks at the floor?

Stars

stars

When you want to be a writer, you declare that you want to be one of the stars in the sky.

The sky already has trillions of stars. There is no reason for there to be anymore. People look at those trillions of light points and cannot comprehend them. The chances that any person will even focus on one, let alone yours, for even a second, are infinitesimal.

But on the chance that you are that one someone notices, the one that someone makes a wish upon, there is no better feeling in the world. And for that moment you are the only star in the sky.

The Books I Read: November – December 2021

bookshelf books

Truth of the Divine (Noumena #2) by Lindsay Ellis

This is the second book by Lindsay Ellis, famed (now ex-)YouTube video essayist, which continues the story of Cora–a young woman who made first contact with a set of very uncommunicative aliens. One in particular (Ampersand) and she have some kind of bond that’s hard to explain but is essentially love-based-on-shared-traumatic experience.

Well, in the second one, the aliens are just as uncommunicative to the point of maddening. Don’t get me wrong, the beginning is strong. Cora is experiencing some severe PTSD from the first book, having A) failed to save a baby alien B) gone through this horrific adventure of chases and escapes C) been eviscerated then put back together. But Ampersand is here to make her feel better. She’s currently working for the CIA getting the aliens to communicate and share information about what other interstellar entities might be coming. Yet, they apparently don’t pay her and she still lives in poverty.

I would call it a political science-fiction thriller. It’s largely about the public discovery of aliens and how everyone reacts (spoiler: not well, as this novel is colored by Trump-era covid wash so it’s not exactly a “Men In Black” romp). Ellis has improved on her prose–there are fewer clunky phrases like “It was a manual car with a stick shift.” She’s improved on her story structure and characterization (both new and old). But she hasn’t improved on brevity. Since it’s first person POV, there is a lot of “thinking”.

It didn’t make me cry like the others claimed to have because it’s less about the Transformers-style love story. In fact, Ampersand is largely absent from this volume. And when he’s around he’s even more taciturn, worse than a Jane Austen male protagonist, which makes the book frustrating. Basically, he’s being a total bitch. This is a dark book (as far as relationships go), and its more about psychological trauma and trying to be a valid human being when that casts a pall on everything you do and are.

So if you’re coming here to see more of the alien-human romance, you’re going to be disappointed. If you looking for more “what are the politics of aliens coming to America”, then this is what you’re looking for.

Amoralman: A True Story and Other Lies by Derek Delgaudio

Like a lot of people, I came to Derek Delgaudio from his Hulu special “In and Of Itself“. It’s part magic show, part stand-up, part TED talk and everyone on Twitter was talking about it. I loved every second. So of course, I looked to see if there was more. And this was it.

This is more of a memoir–a tale of how he grew up and became a sleight-of-hand master. But Derek Delgaudio cannot be defined because he’s both a walking contradiction and an antiquity. A likable liar. A loveable cad. Neil Gaiman said that “magic (like fiction) means someone stands up on stage and says ‘I am going to lie to you’ and you accept the lie because you want to.”

Fortunately, this book isn’t as “pull the wool over your eyes”. Probably because it’s harder to do card tricks in the written word. But also because you probably want to figure out how such a man exists. It’s all about truth vs. lies, who plays who, who can you trust. He can do with words what he does in his special.

This book expounds on the details he touches on in his special, like his lesbian fire-fighting mother and his… well I wouldn’t call it stage fright, but part of the reason he’s the master of his field is he doesn’t like performing. But he can do the same thing over and over and over, practice and practice and practice the same motions to 10th degree black belt level and never get bored.

Derek Delgaudio is the honest cheater. The Sting transformed into a force for good. If you saw the special, you’ll want to read the book. If you read the book, you will want more. It certainly did for me.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
(unfinished)

At first, I thought it was a pretty good examination of high school life and the social world of teen girls. But it also feels like high schoolers and death is a weird combination and there seems to be a lot of it out there (Thirteen Reasons Why, If I Stay, All the Bright Places, The Fault in Our Stars, The Lovely Bones). You’re eighteen and you got your whole life ahead of you. Nothing but potential. Death should be the farthest thing from a teen audience’s mind. However, I’m forty years old. Given all the other males in my family, I’ve got maximum twenty years left. I see death around every corner.

But tragic death makes for good story fodder, I guess–a young life gets cut short, either by accident or volition.

In Sam’s case, it’s by accident… over and over and over. She’s in a Groundhog Day scenario where the last day of her life keeps repeating because she needs to “learn a lesson” about not being such a bitch. And she is Mean Girl Alpha Plus.

The book starts by introducing some girls who are equal parts complex people and the worst girl in the room. I had to ask myself multiple times “is this how people really act?” And given that this was going to be an “It’s a Wonderful Life”/”Happy Death Day” where I’d have to basically experience the same day over and over with the worst people ever, that’s where I close the book.

I stopped for two reasons. 1) I am not the intended audience for this (see above statement about being a forty-year-old male). 2) It’s taking me back to high school too much. It’s too frustrating to read and the last thing I want these days is to feel more depressed. None of the content matches up with my own high school experience nor my daughters’.

These girls are so barbarous it’s bordering on assault. For example, they find tampons in a girls’ bag at a pool party and then throw them into the pool at her. Do you want Carrie? Because that’s how you get Carrie. I didn’t see where/why Sam and her clique had to be so atrocious and cold-blooded to anyone other than themselves and the “cool” guys. Does this kind of behavior just come out of nowhere? It’s got to have some origins.

That’s sociopath behavior, not teen girls. I had a miserable high school experience, but no one was cruel or mean for no reason. They did it because they were assholes and jerks, but the level of mistreatment was never at this level. And according to the book, it’s this behavior that made the girls popular. Parties and drinking and slutty outfits, like everyone wanted to be them. No one in their right minds wants to be these nutjobs.

All girls have periods. What does it serve them to call a fellow out for this? And where are the girls who would be on her side? Even The Swap wasn’t this implausible.

Maybe I have a thing about high school forming who you are for the rest of your days because I still think about high school all the time, and it’s always in the form of regrets. Maybe that’s the regret part of it. The story itself is themed around the regrets one has, even over a short life.

I think this book’s audience is women who were popular in high school but now have a little perspective to think that maybe all their actions and inactions weren’t as kosher as they thought. And that’s definitely not me.

The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

It’s short and colorful. The premise reminded me a lot of “The Little Trashmaid”, which is an excellent webcomic, or Waterworld/Mad Max starring Pippi Longstocking (minus the super-strength).

Tetley Abednego lives on a garbage patch where Britain used to be. The world is a post-apocalyptic trashbin divided into categories (e.g. pill island, electricity land, clothing world, etc.) I imagine it’s like Super Mario World but designed by Oscar the Grouch. But she loves it, and she can’t imagine living without it. She’s got the pure heart of a dumpster diver fascinated with refuse. Part archaeologist, part craphound. She’s a great character.

I guess you could call it absurdist speculative fiction? The text style is what I call “prosetry”–imagery heavy and plot light. Every sentence pops, but does it lead to a proper conclusion? Does the story result in a “Satisfying Reader Experience”(TM)?

I’m not sure, I guess it depends on what you’d be satisfied with because the story timeline jumps around, and I don’t like that. It provides an artificial puzzle that feels forced in there so the reader can feel “clever” or gives them something to “do” while reading.

But despite that, I liked it and I’d recommend it.

Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maass

“High impact techniques” is right. These lessons are so advanced, non-Proust scholars will have a hard time parsing them out. The lessons within are hard to tease out or implement. It proposes a lot of questions, but doesn’t give you a lot of answers. However, it does have examples and writing exercises.

If you’re the type of person who’s reached that level of art that you’re asking the advanced questions, then you might not need to ask. You might need to figure out how to let the art speak for itself. If you try and engineer a story that hits every single mark for every single character, setting, and plot point, then I’m afraid you’ll end up with a mishmash that reaches everyone and pleases no one.

Because stories are like food. If you combine all the edible ingredients from a cupboard, you’re going to make crap. There have to be some absences. Even the best writers can’t write a book that explains everything, that hits all the notes. Some people hate stuff just by their nature of other people liking it. An audience can sniff out unauthenticity, and if you’re following these guides to a T, I think you would end up with garbage.

I mean, the basic message is that you need to have two things: beautiful writing and intriguing story. How you get that, I still don’t know. I know the best stories have an emotional impact. I don’t know if fulfilling those exercises will result in a better story.

The problem I’m noticing with high-level books about writing is that you won’t be able to answer every single question they ask. The questions are trying to get at every possible flavor of a good story. But you can’t have every possible flavor in a recipe. You can’t put “sweet” into fried chicken or “sour” into breakfast cereal.

Can I recommend this? No. I wanted to read this because it’s by Donald Maass, an actual agent who owns his own agency. I’m sure he’s read his fair share of books. He tells you what questions you need to ask, but not how to execute those questions in the story you’re writing.

But if I can retain 10% of what I read from this book, then it’ll be worth it.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Hell, yes. Smartass scientists. Using cool math to figure out problems. Space travel. Single POV narrative of a man against the coldness of space?

Andy Weir’s first book was about a man stranded on Mars, revolutionary for its use of accessible science and character-less POV. His second book was about a colony on the moon–a lot more characters and modern storytelling, lighter on science.

This book is like a combination of those two, and I think it’s Weir’s best work. The puzzles aren’t as “hard” as The Martian and the social commentary isn’t as heavy-handed as Artemis. For some reason, Weir does better when there is little to no supporting cast.

A man wakes up on a spaceship heading… somewhere in deep space. He’s the only one aboard and he has amnesia. As he gets his post-coma memory back we learn why he’s here and what he’s trying to do. Honestly, I’m loathed to give details about anything because the less you know going in, the more fun you’ll have.

It’s full of heartbreaking plot twists, warm fuzzies, precious moments, and surprises. It made me feel things, which almost impossible for a book to do. And yes, stuff is scienced the shit out of.

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
(unfinished)

It was well-written, but just too long for my tastes. The prologue alone took me a night to read. It’s not fancy language–the prose is quite reachable and understandable. But I could tell there were going to be a lot of characters and settings.

There are few physical descriptions so you’re free to imagine the characters as you want. But that can be a problem. For example, there’s a slave race called the Skaa, but you don’t know if they’re physically similar to the dominant race or if they’re some other species. I was thinking they looked like the aliens in Oddworld at first.

It’s too bad you can’t read a fantasy story without needing to invest 18 hours (plus whatever other books there might be in the series). I stopped reading at 14% and it was mostly because of the characters. None of them had any distinguishing characteristics and I couldn’t tell them apart. Maybe I’ve been ruined by other, more memorable fantasy heists like Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows and Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Now those had some memorable, charismatic people that were worth investing time in. In Mistborn, I really only wanted to spend time with Karsier, and he wasn’t much. I felt I could get just as good a sense of the story by reading the Wikipedia summary on it.

Getting Too Old For This…

bite computer frustrated

It’s hard writing around the Christmas season. Besides being pulled in a bunch of different directions, I’m in a bit of a transition phase. Replaneted‘s submission package is done being prepped. But I’ve been disappointed in the response. Essentially speaking, IT’S FUCKING IMPOSSIBLE TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER AND SYNOPSIS. You leave out so much. In a novel, it’s not big events that lead to motivations. It’s subtle stuff.

For example, one critique that’s really bothering me says that my protagonist doesn’t sound like she has a lot of volition. That’s a fundamental problem, but it’s a fundamental part of the story. Because she’s a victim to her circumstances. But it’s not about her being a “strong female protagonist”. It’s about the little things she does to make the relationship work.

But that doesn’t come out in the synopsis. Synopses are for the big events. Big events draw people in, I guess, like the action set pieces in movies. But they don’t motivate characters. It’s the little things that do that. It’s a romance, isn’t it all right to be swept off your feet? Don’t women want that sometimes? I know I did. Wasn’t that the original appeal of “Making of a Lady”? It’s a Cinderella story. People like those. Isn’t this going to appeal to anyone? The hundreds of romance novels don’t all have Ripleys and Buffys (what’s the plural of Buffy? Buffies?).

So I’ve been frustrated lately. I finished working on my submission packages, and now I’m not sure I want to go back to The Fairy War. I’m afraid it’s still not following the same story structure that fits neatly into queries and synopses. I don’t want to start on Medusa yet because… I don’t know, maybe I’m afraid of starting something that might not be as commercial. Or that I can’t do the idea justice. I’d like to write some short stories, but I’m going through my ideas notebook and nothing is jumping out at me at what could be a short story or not.

I started writing seriously in 2007, and now it’s fifteen years later and I’ve got nothing to show for it. I was twenty-five when I started, but now I’m forty. Am I going to be struggling with queries and synopses when I’m sixty? Am I going to live that long?

How Much Do Editors Care About Length?

white book

I wonder how much of a problem I have with length.

Novel length! Jeez, what did you think I was talking about?

Not going too long, as a lot of writers do, but going too short. I used to have a problem with going too long. But ever since I’ve been actively self-improving (and using the macros, which reinforce the “eliminate needless words” fundamentals), my novels are clocking in between 80,000 – 90,000. The only one that didn’t was Black Hole Son, which is really two storylines anyway. Before that, my last serious novel was Blood 2: The Chosen and that ended up being 120,000 words (first draft was 150,000 I think). Too many unnecessary words, too much thinking, and oh god, too many uses of the word “just”.

As I get my submissions packages ready I’m wondering if coming under 90,000 words is going to “count” against me. There are short novels out there, like Scalzi’s Redshirts. Several of the nominees for Goodreads Science Fiction clock in at less than that, like Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries and Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife. So I’m hopeful this isn’t a deal-breaker. I’ve been thinking about scenes that I can add to Merm-8 and The Mudbow Sisters to extend their lengths. Maybe editors have a thing where they think the audience needs to get their money’s worth.

Fortunately, Replaneted (Terraforming Romance) is over 100,000 words, and that’s the one I really want to sell. So even if the others get knocked down points for the word count, at least my frontrunner won’t have that disadvantage.

Finished Terraforming Romance

pluto heart

Three weeks ago I finished my next try at getting published. Its project code is “Terraforming Romance”, but it has a title. I don’t want to reveal it yet because it’s too clever, but I didn’t think of it until about 90% through.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember when I started this draft. After I finished “The Mudbow Sisters” but before I started “Naga Story”, I took a little break to do some writing exercises and fiddling around. I had three stories that I couldn’t decide which to make next, so I wrote the first 8,000 words of each to see which one felt right. That still didn’t help, so I wrote the one I liked the best and felt the most commercial. That was Naga Story, but that turned out badly. I started formal production on the outline on 11/19/2019.

Terraforming Romance didn’t have much of an outline at this point, so I took a lot of time examining the characters, fleshing out the outline, pre-writing and idea-generating. Near the time I had a first draft of the outline, Covid hit. My office closed, and I was working from home. Suddenly, my writing lunch break wasn’t so solid. I finished the outline in-between program compilings, but I lost the will to start the first draft. If I could play video games and watch movies at lunch now, why bother writing? With my routine disrupted, authorship wasn’t so much of a priority. (Especially when it seemed like we all might die any day.)

But somehow, I gathered the will to start it up. Summoning the discipline to get back in the habit wasn’t easy. My new writing spot was the basement–about two feet from where I was working, so the change of environment wasn’t so sharp. But at least I didn’t have to worry about someone barging in. And I already had 10,000 words of the first draft ready. I just had to jump off that point. The outline was divided into three acts, so I wrote one at a time. Then I’d re-examine the outline, look for unnecessary scenes, and get it ready for drafting.

I don’t remember when I formally started the draft–probably around the middle of summer? But I finished on January 19, 2021. So that’s more than a year of novel creation. Most writers say that Coronavirus is slowing down their production, and I believe them. I’m certainly no exception to that rule, even if I’m not published. But now that I got a routine going, I think it’ll go a little faster.

It’s a long one–the first draft is 140,000 words. I think that’s because it’s in first-person, something I haven’t done for a few novels now. The ability to be in one person’s thoughts lends itself to easily start slipping into “navel-gazing” at the events happening around the character. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know. A lot of the female-oriented novels I’ve read have a lot of “thinking” (ex. Where the Crawdads Sing, Catherine, Called Birdy), but it’s not my cup of tea. In the second draft, I’ll have to take a machete and terminate all the unnecessary “thinking” with prejudice.

Looks like I’ll be working on this one for a long time. Ironic given that my next one I plan will be a short kids’ novel. I just hope this one ends up in something commercial enough to catch an agent’s eye. Each time I write I get a little closer to nailing those beats that make a good story.

Field of Dreams is Stupid and You’re Stupid for Liking It

field of dreams poster

Boy I’m getting all my controversial opinions out, aren’t I?

Field of Dreams is on everybody’s “Best Movies” lists, but it’s a stupid movie and no one understands why. I guess because it makes them “feel good”. Which, I guess, is fine — art is supposed to make you feel something. I suppose it’s satisfying to see a jerkass yuppie blowhard get his comeuppance or an affirmation that the life choices you made weren’t mistakes or to see a grown man get a second chance to bond with his father.

And it all hinges around baseball. That god-given, American-as-apple-pie (suspiciously-similar-to-English-cricket) sport of kings and peasants. It’s Hollywood’s go-to pastime and cinema darling. Easy to pick up, hard to master. It has so many aspects ripe for stories–the economy (Moneyball), triumph over prejudice (A League of Their Own, 42), relationship woes (Fever Pitch, Trouble with the Curve, For the Love of the Game), thriller (The Fan), coming of age (The Sandlot), wish fulfillment (Rookie of the Year, Little Big League), and of course, the good old underdog story (Major League, The Natural… and pretty much all the rest). But then we got Field of Dreams, which is a… ghost story… where ghosts are nice?

And by the way, why is it that one guy can’t see the ghosts and then can suddenly see them all after one steps out. And why do the ghosts appear as the age they were at their baseball prime, but they seem to remember everything of their lives? This is my complaint about ghost stories in general — ghosts have no rules so nothing matters. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

ghost baseball

Here’s my first problem: the main character has no character arc. What’s his problem? Well, he’s bored. He’s a man of the land, beholden to his bills. He feels like he’s missing something, that he’s meant for something more. Well, isn’t that white privilege in a nutshell. You’re stuck in Iowa, that’s your damn problem. People in Iowa look at Des Moines like it’s Capital City. (“Man, if I could just get to Des Moines I’ll have ‘made it’.” “We gotta get to Des Moines this weekend.”)

That’s what he wants. What he needs is to reconcile with his father. All he wants is to have one last “catch” with his dad. Well, that’d be fine except that it never comes up. None of the problems or conflicts in the plot have anything to do with his father. In fact, you forget he’s even a factor until the end of the movie.

And what’s worse, the movie doesn’t show you any of these motivations, it TELLS you. It tells you in the opening narration. It tells you in an actionless dialogue between him and his wife. What does that make the plot? A bunch of gibberish.

The inciting incident for the plot is that Kevin Costner hears a voice. It tells him to build a baseball field. Why does he do it? Because there’s no movie if he doesn’t. It’s like the Gremlins rules. I mean, I love Gremlins, but no sunlight? No water? Those are the two most abundant things on this planet. How have gremlins not overrun the world by this point? How does Gizmo live without getting water to drink? They make the rules silly so that they’re impossible to follow. Because if they are followed, there’s no movie.

Anyway, back to Kevin Costner. Nothing he does is character-motivated. He doesn’t build the field because his family will starve if he doesn’t, or it’ll lead to seeing his father again. He just does it because someone told him to. This is what we call “railroading” in the D&D world. The Dungeon Master is putting out notes and clues so the players will go where HE wants them to go. He doesn’t let them act according to their motivations, their wants, their mistakes, desires to love and protect and sacrifice. So what does this voice want? To get America to appreciate baseball again?

For instance, there is no reason that, at the baseball game, Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) should suddenly jump in front of Kevin Costner’s car just as he’s about to leave, thinking he’s failed his mission, and confess that he saw the ghostly message on the jumbotron too. It’s so dramatic it’s comical.

What should have happened is that, after this white guy talks his ear off about voices in his head and old dead baseball players in his yard, he sees the Jumbotron get all screwy and display a message about Archibald “Moonlight” Graham and goes “Holy shit! Did you see that? The Jumbotron’s messing up and no one else can tell! Are you seeing this?” No, he just keeps it to himself so we can have this cinematic revelation later.

“We’re coming for you, Barbara…”

Since we mentioned him, let’s talk about “Moonlight” Graham and his strange subplot. Kevin Costner does some research and finds out he was a kid who played one inning, then became a pediatrician. What does Kevin Costner need to do for him? Nothing, I guess, since he’s quite dead. But then he time-travels to 1972 and has a conversation with old Dr. Graham (or his ghost–who knows), in which he affirms how he’s quite satisfied with how his life turned out. Everything seems resolved.

EXCEPT, on the way back home, they pick up (the ghost of) young “Archie” Graham. They take him to play baseball with all the other ghosts. Later, when Kevin Costner’s daughter starts choking, there’s a big dramatic moment where (the ghost of) young “Archie” Graham has to step off the baseball field and become (the ghost of) old Dr. Graham. (More ghost rules: how does he know he can save the girl if he’s not old enough to have gone through medical school yet?)

So what was the point of that? Didn’t we already establish that Dr. Graham accepted his life choices? Why did we need to show this again? And what does it matter — he’s a frickin’ ghost. He can’t change. He can’t influence lives anymore. But the story is treating him like a protagonist who needs to learn a lesson. What is this for? Who is supposed to see this?

Speaking of ghosts — fuck “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Even the movie doesn’t make him very likable, and it’s supposedly painting him as a good guy. He’s a cheater. He’s a stubborn asshole. He’s a moron. He changed his story throughout the trial. He took $5,000 but says he “did nothing on the field to throw the games in any way”. If you take money to commit a crime, but don’t commit the crime, that’s still wrong. Even if he didn’t do anything wrong, he didn’t speak up when others did. He could have done something but he let it happen. It’s like what Spider-Man said in Captain America: Civil War.

But the thing I most hate is James Earl Jones’s speech at the end, basically browbeating us with “why this movie is so great and you should like it and if you don’t like it, you’re a communist.” And it sucks because James Earl Jones is a highlight — it’s nice to see him playing someone who’s not a king or an emperor or the voice of one. But here’s what he says when the yuppie brother-in-law tries to convince Kevin Costner to sell the farmland and he can’t think of a reason not to (other than the ghosts in his corn):

“Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it. For it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers. Sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it? That sounds frickin’ scary to me. How? How did they know? Are they zombies? Brainwashed? And there’s life after death? Ghosts are real? Does this suddenly prove the existence of God? Holy shit, forget baseball — this changes everything.

But even if divine intelligence hasn’t been proven, the whole thing sounds pretty apocalyptic to me. The last shot is this huge line of cars jampacked on the road to his house. Everyone’s suddenly been called to this farm field in Iowa. They get there and it’s “Why am I here? I suddenly had the urge to take my family two hundred miles away, ignored my job, forgot to feed the pets, and didn’t bring my wallet.” Plus, Kevin Costner’s farm is going to be trashed. Remember Woodstock?

“They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines” — bullshit. Do you see those cheap bleachers? Maybe, like, ten people’ll fit into those seats. The voice told him to build a field, but it wasn’t specific on seating capacity, unfortunately.

“Sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon.” I just have no idea what this means. What does it mean to “sit in shirtsleeves”? Does one “sit in jeans”? Or “sit in a hat”?

“It’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.” You do realize that not everyone likes baseball, Terrence? Not everyone likes sports. Some of us like our cosplay or video games or tabletop games or puzzles or self-fitness or non-competitive sports like American Ninja Warrior or Wipeout or competitive non-sports like The Masked Singer or RuPaul’s Drag Race.

“Baseball has marked the time.” What, did time not start until 1871? Was there no American history before that? Was everything else unimportant? Incidentally, no one invited Satchel Paige or Smokey Joe Williams onto the “field of dreams”, did they?

Can’t wait for this guy to sit in the stands in shirt-sleeves.

And at the very end, Kevin Costner gets his catch with his dad. He gets to “resolve” things, although they do it in a very manly way where no one expresses any feelings or apologizes. Plus, it’s his dad before he had his kid. So while Kevin Costner might feel reconciled, it’s not reciprocated. The father (who is a ghost) doesn’t understand what’s going on and gets no catharsis from it.

I mean yeah, maybe I’m being nitpicky and pedantic here. But this is supposed to be a story about faith and redemption, and I don’t see where the events of the plot reflect that theme. And I don’t see the story of a man overcoming obstacles to get to his atonement (and what he needs to atone for doesn’t seem significant). I see a man being forced into action with no stakes, no regard for motive, and no idea what the end goal is. The puzzle purely exists so that pieces can be put together, not to make a beautiful picture.

Out of Work and No Place to Go

job search

So it’s been about two weeks since I lost my job. Well, I didn’t lose it, my contract ended. The problem is, this is December, the worst time for job-searching, and I’m only getting paychecks until this Friday. The company I’m working for had me under a Salaried Professional System, but they can’t find a job for me and they haven’t been trying hard. So it’s been up to me to search for a job, with only two weeks notice before I lose my current one. And it’s not looking likely I’ll find one before the end of the year, but we’ll see. My point is I haven’t done any writing for two weeks.

Not that I’m complaining. It’s been basically a paid vacation for me. Been playing Star Wars: Knights of the Republic. I’ve been thinking about the story, but I can’t say I’ve been missing it. It’s in my mind, but job searching/dinking around at home has been taking priority. I guess this means that, unless I have a really extended break from working, I wouldn’t write if I could. Or maybe I’m just recharging. Either way, it seems I’m that guy from Office Space who, if he didn’t work, would “do nothing”. But I can’t fill my life with “nothing” for that long. Or can I? I used to say that if I didn’t write, I would just be a sponge. Always taking, never doing, never producing anything to help society. Being a lazy bum who ate bad food and laid around like my dogs.

I just hate working. And I hate that I hate working. I have a high-paying job, lots of experience. But I’m so sick of doing nothing at work, just sitting idle, trying to fill my time with the company web blocker limiting my options. I hate dealing with all the other contractors and consultants that sound like they’re on quaaludes and so worried about being deported they won’t ever speak up when something’s wrong. In other words, I have no co-workers who are charismatic, or who I’d want to be around. Just the managers. And they’re all doing their manager stuff with projects and finances and so forth.

Everyone wants me to be a manager. That seems to be the only way to make any advancements in my career, and I’m mid-career. It would suck to be stagnating as a developer for the next sixteen years. But I have no experience being a manager and I have a terrible track record of being a leader. I have no charisma myself. I have no confidence in myself. And if no one gives me the chance to lead, how am I supposed to learn. I was supposed to do some leading in my last job, but they seemed to drop the ball on that.

It’s a pretty sad Christmas when you don’t have a job and don’t know where your next paycheck’s going to come from. My wife can’t go skiing this Christmas break because we’re working “on a tight budget”. That’s a shot to the heart. So I’ve got to work. I can’t spend the rest of my life like this. But I still haven’t found any company that I like. They all either treat me like a number or never improve their technology. That’s why I’m hoping consultancy gives me the variety I need. If something sucks, at least I won’t be there much more than a year (usually).

Maybe I’ll look at doing some freelance writing for money this Christmas break. I’ve always been curious about that. Not that it’s going to take the place of my current job, but it’d be a nice supplement. And a nice thing to try out. Maybe I can moonlight during times I’m bored at work. And maybe monkeys will fly out of my butt.