Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dudes On a Hike (My Problem with Fantasy Novels)

A few months ago, my wife and I started watching Game of Thrones. What amused me about it at the time is that it took her weeks to agree to watch it with me, despite the fact that she’s much more of a fantasy reader than I am.

We’re talking about the woman who insisted that we go and see Return of the King in the theater on opening weekend, despite the long lines, long running time, and other obligations.

But I digress.

We started watching Game of Thrones, and midway through the first season, my wife remarked that she really wanted to read the books. Amazon was running a deal, four books, twenty bucks. So we became the proud owners of the first four books in the series.

This brought us to the next hurdle: Reading four massive, massive books.

It wasn’t until the box of books was actually staring me in the face that I remembered something sort of critical: I’m not much of a fantasy reader.

A friend of mine once gave my wife and I six fantasy books for Christmas. Two series worth, with a shared character. He thought I’d blow through them, as I’m a fairly speedy reader. In the end, I read one series, and it took me the better part of a year.

When a totally different friend asked me why it took me so long, I told him my Fundamental Theory of Fantasy: Sooner or later, the book(s) turn into the story of a bunch of dudes on a hike.

To be fair, I was basing this theory on two major series. The one I had just barely managed to read, the The Lord of the Rings, which is a lot of fun the watch and super, super, super boring to take in through my eyeballs.

(This ties into my Lord of the Rings theory, which is this: Everyone who loves the series either encountered it for the first time when they were 12 or 13, OR, high on weed. Maybe both, but that theory depresses me, so I hope it’s not the case.)

I’m knee-deep in Games of Thrones: The Text Version now, and I’m enjoying it, but dangit if the book isn’t mostly about dudes going on hikes.

However, I’ve been discussing the series with a buddy who is now somewhere in the middle of book three, and getting frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of forward movement.

And so, based on what I know of the series, and what I know of fantasy in general, I came up with this theory:

Most fantasy is like watching two really funny guys play a bad game of pool.

The object of pool, of course, is to get the balls into the holes. That’s it. But with a fantasy series, you have to watch a pool game where the players keep screwing up.

Bob is supposed to go to Loompaland. Instead, he gets involved in a land war in Legoland. He has one goal (get to Loompaland, ball in the hole) and he keeps missing the hole over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Now, the guys playing the game are top flight comedians, so every time they miss, they do something entertaining. But after a while, you just want to see a ball go into a hole, and see Bob GET TO LOOMPALAND, ALREADY.

That was, more-or-less, where I ended the metaphor, but the more I think about it, the farther I think it carries.

Fantasy authors, for example, love inserting extraneous details and background stories into their books. If you like those stories, they’re like a little present the author gives the reader every twenty pages or so.

If you don’t like those kinds of details, it’s like the author is pulling out your teeth with a heroin-crazed Chihuahua.

Subsequently, if you enjoy reading all the songs in Lord of the Rings, you’ll be a happy, happy person. But if all they do is grate on your nerves, you’re in for a slog.

Does some epic fantasy avoid this trap? Harry Potter almost does, until it gets into the seventh book and becomes Harry Potter and the Extraordinarily Long Camping Trip. And really, I think the Harry Potter story does have a similar problem, inasmuch as Harry’s Job is to top Voldemort, which he fails at six books in a row.

But at least there’s not much walking.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Enforcers: A Blood Calling Novel: An Excerpt:

What follows are the first ten pages of the third (and for now final) book in my Blood Calling series. It'll be available soon. In the meantime, you can pick up the first two books on

Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Joshua-Grover-David-Patterson/e/B005OGX39K/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

or nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/joshua-grover-david-patterson

Please note: This slice of book three will spoil some surprises in book 1 and 2. You might want to go read those first...

My dad was a full-on science fiction and fantasy geek.
Or rather, he still is. He’s still alive, after all.
Which is in direct contrast to me. I might be walking, and talking, and running away from mortal danger nearly all the time these days, but I’m still technically dead.
I digress.
When I was a kid, my father constantly was trying to turn me into his little geeklet. As soon as he figured I was old enough, he started handing me books with rockets and unicorns tinkling on trees on the covers. He began pulling out DVDs and VHS tapes of so-called classic sci-fi, which featured modern (when they were made, anyway) moral dilemmas moved to the distant future.
There’s probably some fifty-cent word for it, when you take radical ideas and put them in spacesuits for pop-culture consumption. Who knows?
When it came to movies, a lot of the time all I could see were the painfully outdated special effects, or the zipper on the monster’s back. In the case of the books, the technology that seemed so far out when the books were written had, by the time I read them, been left in the dust.
Not long ago I read a story that took place in a dystopian future where people are burning all the books. The only problem was, as I sat there turning the pages, I could see my mom reading a book on her smartphone.
But at their best, the flaws fell away and the stories would suck me in.
As my companions and I trudged through the New York City snow in the direction Alex’s phone’s GPS was pointing us, I thought of the situation we had left behind a little over 24 hours ago.
We had run away from a burning house, while a handful of vigilante vampires called the Enforcers slaughtered more than 100 innocent people. And possibly, a not-so-innocent vampire.
And Emma’s friend, a vampire named Bets.
For some reason, a line from one of my dad’s favorite movies kept returning to me as we walked: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”
I knew why that line in particular kept echoing in my brain. Many, many people were dead, and I felt responsible.
Granted, I could see, from a logical standpoint, why it wasn’t really my fault. I had not asked to become a vampire. Wash, my now-kind-of-boyfriend of less than an hour, had sired me when he thought I was about to die of blood loss, after I encountered John Smith, one of the world’s oldest and most dangerous vampires.
Not long after that, I fought Smith and defeated him in hand-to-hand combat. And by defeated, I mean I used sunlight to set fire to his head, and then watched his body turn to ash.
Before we managed to stop him, he had killed several homeless people in my city.
Then Emma took me and Wash to Pittsburgh to repay her friend Bets for multiple favors he had granted her (it’s a vampire thing) and we ended up ticking off a glam-rock-wannabe vampire named Nathan. We went to Nathan’s house to rescue Bets’ girlfriend, Charisma.
That fiasco ended with the Enforcer attack. They burned Nathan’s giant mansion to the ground. They killed the policemen who came to remove the intruders (namely, us) from the house. And they killed Nathan’s army, which was made up of down-on-their-luck men with too many tattoos and too little in the way of job offers.
As far as I know, Nathan only killed one person directly: Charisma.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint, Bets had force-fed some of his blood to Charisma a few hours earlier. So when she died, she came back as a vampire.
Speeding along the highway from Pittsburgh to New York City, Emma had gotten a phone call from David, who I gathered was one of the higher-ups in the Enforcer corps. Or gang. Or whatever they were. Corps works. Since they’re dead, they’re technically a corps of corpses. And who doesn’t love a little wordplay at a time like this?
Emma had smashed her phone, my phone, and Wash’s phone, since there was a chance that the Enforcers could use them to locate us, and we had driven the rest of the way to New York City. Now, we were headed to a place Emma knew, where we could get new IDs. And phones. And whatever else we would need to get out of the city before the Enforcers could locate and kill us.
We had other problems as well.
My parents still thought I was alive, for one, and they had no idea I had both become a vampire and was now traveling with a group of them.
A video of Emma cracking open Nathan’s skull, and Nathan healing and getting up had gone viral, and ended up on the news in Pittsburgh. Wash, Charisma, and I had cameos.
And the Enforcers, in addition to burning down Nathan’s house, had torched a goth bar called The Pitt in Pittsburgh, and the homeless shelter Wash had been running in my hometown.
Oh yeah. And I almost got caught helping a homeless man die in Denver, Colorado. We had averted that by running away from a policeman named Officer Garcia.
When we had left our hotel, our strange tale hadn’t yet penetrated the New York City news, or the national news.
That was about to change. Big time.

Emma held up a hand, and we all stopped. We were standing in front of a decrepit apartment building, one of those kinds with a set of buttons and a little microphone/speaker outside so you can press one and tell your friend inside to buzz you up.
Emma pressed one of the buttons, but the microphone/speaker combo didn’t offer up the crackle that indicates a live connection. She pressed it a few more times, the way you push an elevator button over and over in hopes that it realizes that you need it right now, no, not in a minute, now.
Finally, she held the button down and said, “Zuki? It’s Emma. Buzz me up. I need your help.”
There was no answer. Emma pressed the button a few more times, apparently hoping she could will it back to life.
She turned to Alex. “I need to borrow your phone for a minute.” Alex handed it over, and Emma stared at the screen, eyebrows crinkled. I guess when you’ve been around since before phones were invented, it’s probably harder to remember everyone’s number.
After some thought, she tapped in a number and held the cell phone to her ear. Since being a vampire comes with super-hearing as one of the perks, I let myself hone in on the sound of the ringing.
I heard a lightly accented voice on the other end. “Who is this?”
“Zuki? It’s Emma.”
“You aren’t a safe individual to be around. You need to leave.”
As one, my traveling group looked around, as if to ask, “Did you hear that?” Except for Alex, who didn’t have super-hearing, and was going to have to wait to find out just how much trouble we were in.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Emma.
“Don’t be coy. I saw the videos on YouTube. Judging by the number of hits, I’m guessing everyone in the world has seen the videos on YouTube.”
“Then you know why I need your help.”
“I know that if I buzz you in, you could get me killed.”
“And I know that if you don’t buzz me in, when the Enforcers catch up to me, the first thing I’m going to tell them is that I came to see you, and that you were living with a human.”
Charisma and I exchanged glances that mostly read, “Whoa.” Alex’s face read, “What’s going on?” Wash's visage remained neutral.
“You wouldn’t,” said Zuki.
“I would,” said Emma. “It’s not just me out here, Zuki. I’ve got four people with me who also don’t deserve to die for the horrible crime of doing the right thing.”
There was silence for what felt like forever. The wind had kicked up, and the snow along with it. We weren’t going to freeze to death any time soon, but if we didn’t start walking, someone was going to come along and question why a bunch of people were standing on a dark street in the middle of the night.
Finally, I heard Zuki’s voice again. “Wash is with you?” It curled like a question, but the firmness of her tone indicated she knew he was here.
“Yes,” said Emma.
I heard a pop that indicated that Zuki had hung up. A second later, the door buzzed. We walked inside.

We took the stairs to the fourth floor, and Emma knocked on a door that used to have a number nailed to it. Now the number was gone, and only the lighter spot on the door where the number used to be indicated which apartment we were about to enter.
Emma knocked twice, lightly, and the door swung open.
Zuki stepped into the entrance.
Alex blinked. “Interesting. In the same week I’ve learned that both vampires and anime characters exist in real life.”
I could see his point. Zuki was a petite Japanese girl, dressed in a Catholic schoolgirl outfit consisting of a dark skirt, white shirt and a blue tie. Her hair was straight and long, and held up with barrettes with some kind of Japanese characters on them.
Her face started as neutral, but Alex’s comment twitched it towards bemused. “It’s a costume,” she said.
Wash cleared his throat. “Were you in the middle of something?”
Zuki smiled. “No. There’s a school two blocks down. I wear the outfit, and people assume I’m a student. It helps me blend in around here.” Her nose twitched. “Wait a minute. You’re human?”
Alex dropped and raised his head in a type of short bow. “Correct.”
Zuki looked at each one of us in turn, before settling on Emma. “This is like a bad joke. ‘A 2000-year-old Jewish girl, a bi-racial ex-slave, a baby vampire, a newborn vampire pin-up model and a human go to a Catholic schoolgirl ID-forging vampire.’”
I looked around at my companions, realizing for perhaps the first time what a motley bunch we were. “Amusing, but it has no rhythm. Work on the wording and we’ll talk. Can we come in now?”
Zuki backed out of the doorway and we walked into her apartment. There wasn’t much to see there. A couple of cheap, worn couches, a couple of easy chairs, a TV and a stereo were in the living room. The kitchen was visible, and I was surprised to see a plate and some utensils on the kitchen table.
Then I remembered. “You have a human here?”
Zuki nodded. “My boyfriend. Hank.”
Emma smiled. “He’s still around?”
“I’m still around,” said a gravel-filled voice behind us. We all turned. The 60-something face of Hank greeted us. “Retired, and getting old, but still around.”

How to Write a Book

Recently, I had a Twitter buddy of mine ask me if I could tell them how to write a book.

If the rest of my blog doesn’t make it clear, I enjoy helping. And complaining about how certain TV shows bug me. But I don’t think anyone is looking for information about what some dude on the Internet thinks about various TV shows, so I’ll kind of wander away from that topic for now.

Okay? Okay.

Honestly? I don’t know if one blog post can really tell you how to write a book. That implies that a book is a singular thing. It’s like asking how to bake a cake. Well, okay, I can Google a cake recipe, and send it to you, but if it’s for a sheet cake and you wanted a German chocolate cake, it isn’t going to do you much good.

Really, to talk about writing a book, you need to come up with a branching tree of questions, and answer them to your satisfaction, and at the end you’ll have a book. Or at least a manuscript, which isn’t quite the same thing.

I would argue that the first question you need to ask yourself is, am I going to find an agent/publisher for this book? Or am I going to indie publish?

Now, this can be a fluid answer. You could change your mind in the middle of the project. You can publish the book yourself, and then if someone wants to put it out you can sell it to them and let them put it out.

Or you can look for an agent/publisher, and if no one wants to release your book (a very real possibility) you can decide to put the book out on your own.

If you’re going to try to get an agent or publisher, do yourself a favor and Google the following things and people:

Writer’s Market
Stephenie Meyer
Janet Evanovich

The latter two are authors, and they have a lot of information on their respective web sites about how to write a book and get it into the hands of an agent. (Janet turned all her posts into a book on writing, if you’d rather pay to consume the same information.)

Writer’s Market is a big book (if they still sell it as a book… I’m not sure, really) and more importantly, a web site that has information on pretty much every publisher and agent in existence. For maybe five bucks a month, you can run a search on agents and publishers who are looking for the kind of book you’re writing.

On the other hand, if you’re self-publishing, Google:

Joe Konrath Blog
Amanda Hocking Blog
Karen McQuestion Blog

These are three of the most well-known indie writers in the world, and all of them offer massive amounts of “how I did it” blog posts for free. Perhaps more importantly, Konrath has links to the people who do his covers and book formatting. At some point, you’ll probably want that information.

Now, here’s the reason this is important – the next question is, what kind of book are you planning on putting out?

For the sake of brevity (too late!) we’ll divide this into two choices: Fiction, or Non-Fiction.

Fiction books work like so: You write the book, from the first letter to the last. Then you revise it. Then you either publish it, or start looking for agents and publishers.

Non-fiction books, however, don’t usually work that way. What happens is, you write a book proposal, and reasonably sized chunk of the book, and then you send that piece of the book to agents and/or publishers.

Why do it that why? I’m not totally sure, but if I understand it correctly, it’s kind of a marketing decision. Essentially, it’s so the publisher can say, “Well, we really don’t want to read a story about an autistic man who has memorized pi to the 2 millionth place. However, it sounds like this guy is also a ninja. We could use a book about an autistic ninja. Why don’t you completely rework your premise and get back to us?”

It’s probably not that drastic, but that’s the general idea.

Of course, if you’re planning on putting out the book yourself, you can’t publish in incomplete manuscript. So you should plan to write the whole thing.

Okay, now we’re getting into the stuff that’s sort of impossible to quantify.

For both fiction and non-fiction, before you dive into the process, I would read four or five books that are similar to yours that have been published in the last ten years or so.

Chances are good that you’re already doing this. Maybe you love young adult vampire books, and want to write one of your own. Great. By now you should have a feel for what they look like. Go ahead and start writing.

Or maybe you love memoirs, and as an autistic ninja, you think your story is interesting enough that the world will want to read it. Get right on that.

But, seriously. If you’d never been in a car before, you wouldn’t hop into one and try to drive it. So if you’re looking around, and seeing that YA Paranormal Romance is selling, and you figure you can knock one of those out, because your friend told you “Twilight” was dumb and nothing happens in it and you figure that you can write a dumb book where nothing happens…

I’d give you maybe a 5% chance of finishing that book. Probably less, but no more.

And if you do finish it, I give you maybe a 0.01% chance of finding an agent or publisher for it. And really, your chances are probably even smaller than that, because unless you’re some kind of YA PNR savant, chances are good that your book won’t give your intended audience what it wants.

Now, you may, accidentally or on purpose, create a new thing that someone thinks will sell. But I wouldn’t count on it. If you try to build a house, and you make a train instead, it’s possible you’ll find someone who wants to buy that train. But chances are better that people are going to say, “But I wanted a house!”

So, to reiterate: Read at least 4-5 books in the genre you’re trying to emulate, all of them published in the last ten years. The last five might be better.

Next, figure out your book format.

In fiction, you can quite literally write a book any way you want. I’ve read 450 page novels with over 100 chapters. I’ve read a 200 page novel that had no chapters. Some people like to name their chapters. Some people have short chapters, and some have long. Some people like to divide the long chapters up into sub-chapters, for easier reading.

I once read a 600 page non-fiction book with 12 chapters, no titles or subheadings. Holy cats, was that confusing sometimes. The book was very long (obviously) and very rambly and bounced around a lot from topic to topic. And with those long chapters, I had no frame of reference.

The point is, that’s how he did it.

Which leads me to non-fiction, which can also be written any way you want. But if you’ve read a few books in the genre, you’ll have a good idea of what they look like. Again, long chapters? Short? How is the subject matter divided up?

And so on.

Again, you can make a decision and then change it later, but then you get to deal with the trouble of undergoing a massive book reformat, which can take anywhere from minutes to days.

When I wrote my own non-fiction books, the first thing I did was lay out what all my chapters would be, and then typed up some notes on what each chapter should include.

I added and subtracted stuff as I went, but in the end, I stuck pretty close to my original outlines. (And I guess it worked. “How to Find a Job” made it as high as number 6 in the resumes category.)

With fiction?


Again, this is where reading those four or five books comes in. Because I can’t tell you how to write your novel, first because it’s your novel and not my novel, but second, because different kinds of novels come with different expectations and demands.

Most publishers want a novel to be more than 80,000 words, but consider 120,000 words to be sort of an upper limit. Unless we’re talking about fantasy, in which case sometimes 120,000 words is maybe the halfway point…

Which is where I go back to understanding your genre.

Ultimately, knowing what “your” kind of book is “supposed” to look like will help you to determine how to write your book. If long chapters are the norm, you should take that into consideration. If your genre specifies certain types of outrageous (or buttoned-down) characters, try to accommodate that.

Do you have to follow every single data point? No. In fact, being a little different is often how you stick out. But your book should have the shape of other books in your genre.

So, let’s talk plot.

I was once asked, by a totally separate friend, how you write enough words to make up an entire novel, because they always got stuck around page 20.

There are a lot of reasons that happens. I would argue, first of all, that maybe the idea they had wasn’t designed to be a novel. Perhaps it was a short story. Or a novella. A novel, quite frankly, is not just one complication dragged out for 400 pages. It’s a very large complication that involves a lot of other smaller complications.

I don’t know if that was my friend’s issue or not.

A secondary possibility that I see an awful lot is the sheer daunting fact that 90,000 words is a whole lot of words. I just finished a 65,000 word YA novel. In manuscript form, it was about 315 pages long. When you’re on page 20, and you know you have 295 pages to get to the end, and the only way to get there is to pull stuff out of your own head, it’s easy to go find something else to do.

Another possible problem you can encounter when trying to write a novel is that you simply don’t know what’s going to happen next. Some people like to call this writer’s block.

Honestly? I’m not really sure I believe in writer’s block. I think writer’s block mostly happens to people who either have no fear of starvation, or no real deadline.

When I have a freelance journalism gig, I have a deadline. My story must be in X inbox at Y time, or I’m not getting paid and probably never getting another phone call to write another story from that particular editor.

Journalists aren’t allowed to have writer’s block. At Y time, the story needs to be there, or you’re done. So you have to write something.

(Edit: There used to be a paragraph about John Scalzi here. I have removed it because John kindly came here and corrected me on my understanding of the situation. My apologies, John.)

(Second edit: I pulled out some other stuff, about some other authors. Because, really? They weren't kind. And on the whole, I'd rather be kind.)

What I suspect happens to a lot of wannabe novelists is that they stop writing one day, and then never go back to it. Not unlike all the people who sign up for a new gym on New Year’s Day and then have stopped going by February.

Are there ways to fix this?

There are a couple.

First, set up a writing time and stick to it. One hour. In the morning, or at night. And you sit in the desk for that entire hour, in front of the computer, and you’re not allowed to play games, check your email, or do anything fun. You can write your story, or not.

Second, before you start writing the novel, put together a beat sheet. Which is to say, write down the entire novel, scene by scene, in short form. Some authors claim that outlines kill creativity, but, eh. No one said you can’t change your outline later.

But if you can’t even put together five pages that tell you what the story is going to be, trust me, I’m 99.9% sure that it isn’t going to magically come to you if you start writing the novel anyway, and you hit the point you got stuck on. What will happen is, you’ll stop and it will probably be game over.

Once you’ve got an outline, all you have to do is fill in the details. Is that still hard? Yep. It still time-consuming? Yep. But you will never wonder what comes next. It’s right there on the page. You just have to expand on it.

One final thought, as far as plotting a story goes.

First, always keep in mind what makes for a good story. I’ve always said it something like this:

A good story follows a character you find interesting through a series of increasingly difficult obstacles, until your character wins.

Now, granted, if you’re reading a horror novel, your character might lose. Sometimes, characters do lose. But that definition at least gives you a starting point.

For that matter, if you get stuck, ask yourself this: What’s the worst possible thing that could happen to my character next?

Stop short of death, and you can probably at least write the next scene.

So… you type and type and type, and then you get to the end. What then?


Let it sit. Stephen King says six weeks, I think. But unless you have a super-awesome memory, I’ll wager that by the time you get to the end of your story, you’ve probably forgotten whole chunks of the beginning.

So I’d say, wait a week, and then go through and read your book, cover to cover. Makes changes. Make notes. Some people edit on paper, but I do it on the screen because I like to fix problems immediately.

If you’ve never written a novel before, I’d recommend editing on paper, only because it’s easier to make notes, and scribble little changes you want to try, but aren’t committed to.

How many times should you edit? I have no idea. I know one friend who struggled with editing a book for seven months. That friend? Got six figures for the three books.

Amanda Hocking, on the other hand, wrote a novel in two weeks. She edited it (though I don’t know that she ever said how much) and then sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

I’d say the answer is it takes as long as it takes.

Next, find a couple friends who have English degrees. And are willing to be harsh with you and/or your typos and/or any other issues the book might have. Give it to them. Let them read it. Edit again.

Then it’s time to submit to agents/publishes and/or self-publish the book, whichever you wanted to do.

How do you self-publish? Type kindle publish into Google and sign up, then follow the steps/tutorials they give you. It’ll take you a few days to figure everything out. That’s normal. I realize that if you’re really close to done, not getting your book out RIGHT NOW might drive you insane. That’s hard. Work through it.

You’ll need cover art. If you have a friend who knows how to use Photoshop, they can probably help you with this. Or you can hire someone. That’s where the Joe Konrath search will have come in handy.

If you really want to, you can pay someone to format your book as well. That’s up to you.

You can pay someone to professionally copyedit your book. Not a bad idea, if it’s your first novel and you want to look like you know what you’re doing.

What will all this cost you? Anywhere from $100 to $2500. Shop around. Remember that, yes, it takes money to make money.

If you’re going to agent/publisher route, look stuff up on Writer’s Market. They’ll tell you what they want to see. Usually a cover letter and some part of the book.

After that? Well, you’ll either get a publishing deal, or you’ll have a book on the Kindle. You can also do the nook (Google pubit).

How do you sell the book? Eh. Tell your friends on Twitter. Tell your friend on Facebook. Ask them to tell their friends. Some will. Some won’t.

After a week, stop talking about it, because people will get sick of hearing about it, the same way non-parents get tired of hearing about your new baby.

And then what?

Depends. If you liked writing a book, and all the stuff that goes with it, write another one. If you didn’t enjoy the process at all, well, you never have to do it again. That’s your choice.

And for what it’s worth, that’s a VALID choice, which is something people forget. If you start writing a novel, and get 100 pages into it, and realize that you hate writing and you don’t want to do it anymore? Quit. Really. There’s nothing wrong with that.

That’s how you write a book. Good luck.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How to Fix Glee (and Why They Won't)

I’ve probably been watching TV now for more than 30 years, and in that entire time I can think of two pilots I absolutely loved.

The first was “Freaks and Geeks.” You should go buy that show on DVD right now. I will warn you, there was only one season, and when you’re done watching it, you will be angry that there wasn’t a second, and a third, and possibly as many as ten.

But I’ll come back to that.

I was talking about pilots.

The pilot of “Freaks” is so good that if the pilot was all you ever saw, you’d feel pretty content, I think. When it was over, I was not only in love with the show, but I felt that the money I spent on the box set was justified by that episode alone. And the show only got better from there.

So now, let’s talk about “Glee.”

In many ways, “Glee” is “Freaks and Geeks,” but with more musical numbers. (Come to think of it, there’s a surprising number of songs contained in “Freaks”). A bunch of misfits trying to get through life in high school. And then, there was that pilot…

Well, no, actually, there was that musical number. I first stumbled across “Glee” via someone’s bootleg YouTube video of “Don’t Stop Believing,” the big closing number of the “Glee” pilot. It was, in every way, a brilliant mini-pilot for the show. You had your kid heroes. You had the teacher who wanted them to succeed. You had Sue, the boo-hiss villain. It was all there, in three or four minutes.

I had missed the first broadcast of the pilot. But I got a copy, and I watched it with my wife (who I knew would love it) and boom, we were in. We had to see where the show was going next.

The problem with pilots, of course, is that they’re often bug-filled, and maybe 60-70 percent of what a show will actually become. And the creators have forever to craft a pilot, from the script to the filming to the screening, they literally have almost all the time in the world to get it right.

Once they’re actually on the air, though, it’s a race, and sometimes those races clean up problems, and sometimes they increase those problems.

The next few episodes of “Glee” were a bit wobbly, as the show worked to perfect its formula. And then came the last episode of the mid-season. They won sectionals. They sang “My Life Would Suck Without You.” Will finally wooed his lady. Sue was vanquished.

For all intents and purposes the show was over. Fully aware that they might not get more than 13 episodes, the creators and writers crafted a mid-season ending that just as easily could have been an end to the show.

And I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Somewhere in an alternate timeline, there’s a version of the universe where “Glee” is as revered as “Freaks and Geeks.” A place where only those first 13 ‘sodes exist, and everyone talks about how the show was cut down in its prime, and isn’t that terrible?

Oh, if only those people knew…

Then, Fox did something brilliant with the show, which up to that point had gotten decent, if not great ratings. They put out the first half of the season on DVD just in time for Christmas. People bought it. People watched it. And then the show came back and the ratings SHOT up.

And the show was renewed for seasons 2 and 3.

And then? Then the show started flailing. The vanquished bad guy came back to do more damage. Will found trouble in a just-established paradise. Someone decided it would be fun to do a theme episode, based around the songs of Madonna, which led to every song in a single ‘sode getting a very special EP release.

And? Gah.

What to say, what to say?

Things started to get bad. And then they got worse. And then they got worse-er.

To start with, let’s talk about Sue.

Sue is, of course, played by the brilliant comedic actress Jane Lynch. By all accounts, she wasn’t part of the original story, either when it was a movie or in its original pilot format. Apparently the problems of high school weren’t enough to deal with in song, and so Sue was born.

When the show got great ratings, Sue got a lot of credit. And when characters were quoted in pop culture, that was usually Sue.

The only problem was, she was a breakout character on a show that wasn’t really about her.

In episode 13, Sue loses. She’s done. She should have been ejected from the show. Who should have taken her place? No one. She didn’t need a replacement. Teenage kids have lots and lots and lots of problems to deal with, without adding an angry coach who quite literally gets away with massive amounts of property destruction without anyone batting an eye.

But when you have a hit formula, you aren’t allowed to change it, ever. And so Sue sits around. And gets a mentally disabled sister, to kind of humanize her. Except that character dies, so Sue runs for office, for in order to help people like her sister. Only that might show character growth, so instead she runs to shut down the arts. And loses.

Which is mostly ridiculous.

I love Jane Lynch with all my heart, and Sue still get a good moment here and there. But her story is done. Please get rid of her.

Or, you know, use her in a way that makes sense. But really? No. Get rid of her.

This leads me into my second major problem with the show: lack of character consistency. Not from season to season, or episode to episode, but sometimes within one show.

For example, the Christmas episode, wherein Rachel keeps asking for things for Christmas. Except she’s Jewish. Which has been a major character point since just about day one. But she totally forgets that, until a voiceover bit at the end where she yells out happy Hanukkah at the very last second.

And in that same ‘sode, for some reason she’s suddenly really interested in bling. Granted, she’s always wanted to be a star, but why is she suddenly do strangely greedy? What was that about?

And speaking of characters who ping-pong from emotion to emotion and through scads of bizarre character choices, what’s up with Will? Why does he have no friends? What kind of teacher asks a student to be best man at his wedding? What kind of idiot doesn’t realize his own wife isn’t pregnant? If he really cares about his girlfriend, which he seems to do, sometimes, why aren’t they in counseling together?

For that matter, what’s driving the guy on a day to day basis? Because back in the beginning, he wanted to keep the glee club together because of how happy it used to make him. And now, he’s… what? He passed up his chance to be on Broadway so he could help his kids win.

Which is kind of cool, I suppose. But also kind of creepy.

As for the rest of the characters? I just dunno, man. We get so little sense of most of them most of the time that when one of them comes to the forefront, it’s hard to work up any enthusiasm for their tiny little arc.

This very season, we had a girl decide she wanted to be a bad girl. For reasons I’m still not clear about. And then she figured she’d try and get her baby back, by making the adoptive mother look unfit, which is just weird, and insane, and would never actually work.

And we didn’t even get some kind of inspirational song to indicate how she thought the plan might work.

Speaking of inspirational songs, how about that time everyone decided to try to convince someone it was okay to be gay by singing at her a lot? And then, she sang a song about being a fake lesbian to celebrate the fact that she was a lesbian? And then she tried to tell her Grandma about it, and her Grandma rejected her which, okay, could be dramatic and work if we had ever seen this super-important Grandma ever before or ever again.

And that slides us into another problem, where stories come and go so quickly that they never really get a chance to have an impact. To take the same example, we had Kurt, who is gay and out and dealing with it, and we could have had someone who was now not dealing with it, and what might have happened with her family, but no, most of that was taken care of offscreen, because her parents weren’t going to sing at her.

But, yeah. The plots. They come. They go. Sue runs for office, and it’s over by November because that’s when the elections are. Except now her one reason for existing on the show is gone again, so they’ll have to come up with something else.

And we have our Asian dancer whose dad doesn’t approve of his choices… except then his dad sees him dance, and as a viewer, it’s really nothing special. He didn’t even get one of his (admittedly awesome) dance solos. But now dad is 100% behind him. And his girlfriend forged his signature and applied to a bunch of schools for him, too. Uh… what?

Heck, the baby thing that I mentioned, that was sort of insane? That’s over.

As are the two glee clubs at one school.

Oh, and a character is back, never mind that he vanished at the beginning of the season, and the actor announced on Twitter that his contract was cancelled.

And in order to make that character’s return make sense, he had to change schools in the middle of the semester and move hundreds of miles away from his family.

What am I getting at?

There’s no logic to the show anymore. No feeling of consistency. No sense that we’re watching actual people who exist beyond the moment the cameras are running.

They aren’t even characters anymore, really. They’re puppets, who say and do the things the people writing the show tell them to do, whether they make sense or not.

And the sad thing is, this broken thing could work, but there’s no way to this season at this point. We’re at the end of January now, and the show is putting together the episodes that will run probably through April. The strings that are there must be played out.


But there’s a fourth season yet.

It hasn’t been announced, but let’s be honest. The show is no longer a huge hit, but it’s still pulling in numbers that are solid enough to give it a fourth year. And after a fourth year, they’ll also have enough episodes to stick the show in syndication, where it will make money forever and ever and ever, and Fox, I’ m sure, both needs and wants that.

They’ve also said that The Glee Project the cast feeder for the show, is getting a second season, and I can’t imagine they’ve started that process if season four isn’t a go.

And now, after almost 1900 words about the problems of the show? Here’s what I think will fix it.

1. Ditch Sue.

I already wrote at length about this, so, yeah, I’ll stop. But for better or worse, the character needs to go, either in a big spectacular way, or you can just have her fade into the shadows. Still working at the school, but no longer a focus of the show. That’s fine. But she needs to be gone.

2. Let the seniors graduate and go. Please.

For a while there, it was a big deal that a lot of seniors were going to be leaving the show, effectively ditching some of the stars who made the show the hit that it was. And you know what? Let them.

Right now, the creator of the show is claiming that they’ll be around in a way “never seen on television before.” Um, dude? Guess what? No matter what you’re thinking of, it’s been done. Unless you plan to stick a short film called “What happened to the seniors” in the center of each episode. That hasn’t been done.

Otherwise? Going to a local university? Getting their own tangential storylines? Making guest appearances? It’s all been done. In fact, all of those were done on Degrassi, which I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with, because you seem to borrow a lot of storylines from them…

But, yeah. Let the people who need to go, go. Build a new cast, and start new stories. You know why? Because you also need to:

3. Make the show WAY less hyperactive.
If you chuck the songs from “Glee,” you’ve got about enough time for a decent 22-minute sitcom. You know what sitcoms have? Two plots per episode. At most. Know how many Glee does? Four. Sometimes, as many as five.

No. No, no, no. That simply doesn’t work, and it turns the emotional core of the show into something with the depth of a Petri dish. The actors are killing themselves trying to make the emotional moments land, and sometimes they almost get there. But it’s getting more and more and more rare, now.

Slow down. Let the plots stretch out as long as they need to. The show is funny, and audiences can follow an idea for more than eight minutes. Let them.

And while you’re at it:

4. Ditch a song or two.

I realize there’s money to be made on iTunes, but man, could the storylines use those three extra minutes.

5. Figure out where your characters are going.

Because if they’re headed somewhere, it seems super-random. And when they get there? It doesn’t go much of anywhere. Remember when they had that big school election? And Rachel got suspended (off camera…). What happened there? What’s the winner doing about their win? How did the loss actually affect Kurt?

I… Okay, credit where credit is due, it’s only been two episodes since then, and they needed to concentrate on making a Christmas episode for some reason… oh, right, iTunes. But that stuff is over now, and it’s time to move those plotlines forward.

The fact is, you’ve got a pretty deep bench, and you’ve already settled down and figured out who is a junior (staying) and who is a senior (leaving) so okay, give your seniors that moment in the sun. Let them play out their plotlines (which could be great… trying to get to New York, trying to get out of a small town, teenage engagement… all good stuff) and let’s…

Eh. It’s not going to happen.

Look, I realize I’m just a guy with a blog, and the people writing the show don’t care what I think. (Though if one of them is willing to offer up an extended rebuttal/explanation, I would love to hear it). But the fact of the matter is, fans are falling out of the bottom of the show.

And there’s that pilot. That really lovely pilot.

I understand, of course, that at any point during the show’s run I’m free to stop watching. And the truth is, I kind of want to.

But then they get something right. Like Rachel and Kurt realizing, for the first time, that while they might rule the school (artistically) they aren’t anything to the rest of the world. That’s genius.

Or the moment when Rachel is suddenly being asked to marry her boyfriend. Oh man. Teenage engagement. Haven’t seen much of that on TV. Could be great.

And that’s just it, really.

I miss the potential I love so much.

Truth be told, the show is borked, and it’ll only get worse from here on out. So I’ll enjoy the handful of numbers I still enjoy (about one song per show, now) and I’ll watch for the good parts, where the flotsam falls away and I get to pretend the show might someday improve.

And when it croaks at the end of season four, I won’t mourn it.

Thanks for the pilot, “Glee.” It almost made the rest of the ride worth it.

How to Handle Bad Reviews (Or Not)

I really don’t like Dan Brown’s books.

To be fair, I’ve only read two of them. First, I read “The Da Vinci Code,” because at the time it was a cultural touchstone. Everyone had read it. Friends of mine who never read anything, read that book. People I knew who never bought books had picked up a copy in the super-special edition with extra artwork.


I read it. Actually, I got it in audiobook, because I tried to read the first ten pages or so and I just wasn’t getting into it, and an audiobook keeps rolling ever on and on, telling you the story whether you’re enjoying it or not.

So, yeah. I read it. And I hated it.

Here’s the funny part. I don’t remember why I hated it so much. Not fully. But let me come back to that.

I shared my vitriol over the book with various people, and I was usually met with the same three responses. 1) Yes, the book was terrible, I was right. 2) The book was just okay, but the book that came before it, “Angels and Demons,” was much better. 3) The book was a fun ride, and that’s all the reader wanted out of it.

So, here, I made my big mistake, and I read “Angels and Demons.”

The thing of it is, with authors I really enjoy, I tend to dive deeply into the waters of their back catalogue. When I first discovered Neil Gaiman (via Sandman and American Gods) I didn’t just pick up copies of the stuff I liked. I quite literally went to the bookstore and mass-bought everything he had on the shelf. What he didn’t have on the shelf, I bought on Amazon.

If I dislike an author, I try to avoid their work like the plague, even if they produce a second highly-loved work.

So, yeah. “Angels and Demons.” What a terrible book. And what’s worse, it was pretty much the same book as “The Da Vinci Code,” starting with the female sidekick and ending with the “plot coupon” story, which dragged the “hero” from place to place using clues that most people figured out long before the protagonist did.

And then there were the plagiarism lawsuits, which said that the theories Brown came up with were taken wholesale from other books. And then there were the multiple books that said everything Brown claimed as facts in his book were pretty much totally fictitious.

Meanwhile, people were making religious decisions based on the so-called facts found in the book.


As I type this, I can feel my anger rising again. After all, we’re talking about two books, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 pages, if you combine them.

By the time “Angels and Demons” wound down to its last terrible joke (that I’d heard about a million times before) I was just frothing at the mouth.

I discovered there was a strange sort of Dan Brown anti-cult in the world. With web sites that tore apart his awful writing style. Even the mainstream media was getting into it, mocking Dan’s ridiculous use of short chapters (more than 100 per less-than-500-page book). With each chapter, of course, ending in some sort of cliffhanger.

Why tell you this long story, which I could have summed up as, “I really dislike Dan Brown books?”


Here’s what you need to take away from this.

Dan Brown doesn’t care what I think of him. I suspect that, even if I was outselling the guy, he wouldn’t care what I have to say about him. He’s sitting around somewhere right now, in his silk pajamas, pipe between his teeth, having one assistant read a research book to him, while he occasionally holds up a hand and tells another worker to type up notes based on the information being read.

Sometimes, he takes a nap and lets them sort out what might be important information for his next novel.

What I’m saying is, Dan is rich, and he doesn’t care what a guy on the internet thinks of him.

But, of course, you aren’t rich. (Or maybe you are. If so, how did you end up reading this?) You don’t get to cry yourself to sleep in a big pile of money.

So, okay. You got a bad review. How do you deal with it?

The real answer is, nothing. Don’t blog about it. Don’t tweet about it. Don’t complain to your Facebook friends. If you like tracking your reviews, save the link, or print it out, or whatever you do with such things.

The internet is a tiny little place in many ways, and if you say something mean about the person who chose to write about you, well, guess what? That guy may find out. And they might not care. But they also might be furious, and decide to start an Internet slap fight, and no one wants that.

So let’s expand on that.

1. A lot of times, a review is like a bar fight. You’re not thinking clearly, and suddenly all you know is you really, really hate THAT GUY. In this case, that guy is a book or an author. So you throw a punch (bad review) and maybe it lands, and maybe it doesn’t, but the next morning, one thing is for sure – you don’t really remember what you’re mad about.

(See, I told you I’d come back to my residual Brown anger.)

After reading Dan’s books, I was not only offended that Dan Brown had written and published a book, I was angry that he had been born at all, and was sucking up space on bestseller lists while much better authors floundered.

What came of those feelings? Nothing. Dan Brown released another book, and made a bunch more money, and you know what? I didn’t read it.

When you get a bad review, you need to remember that for the review writer, it’s a heat of the moment thing. Someone didn’t like something about your book, and they’re angry about it, and perhaps they have a right to be. You took up their valuable time. Or did you? Well, no, not really. The person writing the bad review could have stopped at any time, decided the book wasn’t to their taste, and walked away.

But they didn’t. That was their call. And now they’re angry about it, and you have to let them be angry, because the other option? Bar fight.

2. Sometimes a review gets under your skin because there might be a grain of truth in it.

I personally once got a review that said (in the comments) that some people just shouldn’t publish.

Dude. I’m not made of stone. That’s hitting below the belt, right there. And this came after a review that tried really hard to keep the gloves on, essentially saying they hated the book while acknowledging that there was probably someone, somewhere, who MIGHT like it.

(Okay, here’s where I’m going to violate my own advice here, but only as an example. Yikes. Good plan, right? Coming here and saying, “Don’t do this!” while I’m doing it?)

Now, here’s a hard truth. I’m indie published, and it wasn’t originally by choice. I wrote a novel, I couldn’t even get an agent to look at it (which still perplexes me, but I digress) and so, with the whole indie publishing movement taking off, I decided to give it a try.

But I’m a writer. We overthink everything. It’s what we do. And so, some nagging part of my brain always, always, always says, “Well, maybe the reason you never got an agent is that you aren’t good enough.”

And this review (or rather, the comments to the review) grabbed that emotion and thrashed it. Hard.

Now, in a bar fight, if someone takes a swing at you, the smart thing to do would be to leave the bar. You walk out, get in your car, you drive away, and the fight is over.

Instead, most people will swing back.

And this was a rare instance where I kind of wanted to. Not to make the author of the review look bad (an opinion is an opinion is an opinion) but because I wanted to look good. Maybe cite some sales stats. Talk about my reviews (between seven books I’m sitting at 4 stars on Goodreads, which is kind of impossible… and I’m higher on Amazon).

For that matter, I’ve got some high-profile kudos. A Kindle bestselling author has endorsed my work. And three actual, published-in-bookstores authors have endorsed my work as well.

The point is, “not ready to publish” hurt, and I wanted to strike back.

But I didn’t. Except here. Kind of. But not really.

If the author of the review ever finds this (I doubt it, as I imagine self-same author will never, ever, ever Google my name) hey, buddy, no hard feelings. Sorry you didn’t dig the book. I thought it was your kind of thing, and clearly it wasn’t.

The point is, a review can sometimes hit on the one thing that really bugs you. Leave it alone. Unless there’s something you can do about it.

In which case.

3. Take the criticism, and improve.

Now, in the case of that review, there wasn’t much to take away, besides “don’t publish.” Unless I’m being overly sensitive.

But I do see things all the time, like, “numerous typos” (mostly in indie books, but not always) and “story doesn’t go anywhere” and “this passage was confusing.”

Some of that kind of thing is immediately fixable. If there are errors, and you’re indie published? You can fix those. Make a corrected file, upload it, and Amazon will push out the fixed version to your readers, free of charge. How great is that?

If you get one comment that someone just didn’t like something, let it go. But if five people tell you that your story is too slow, then your story is probably too slow. You can choose to correct it, but you might be better off taking that lesson and applying it to the next thing you’re working on.

The same with character problems. Or too many flashbacks. Or passages that confuse readers.

Now, here’s the thing. When I wrote my first novel, it started with a lot of flashbacks, along with information about what was going on the present day. I worked hard on those passages, making sure dates lined up correctly, that the story kept moving forward, and so on.

And I got a lot of really excellent reviews. But I also got one person who said it was confusing, to the point where they had to read the opening multiple times to figure out what was going on.

What happened there?

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.

So I got a bad review, and you know what? I posted it to my Twitter feed, because it was a new review, and even though I didn’t agree, well, hey, it’s an opinion, and I find opinions interesting.

Did I take it to heart? To a certain extent. My last few books have been much more linear. But that wouldn’t prevent me from doing something complicated again.

I would do it, however, with the knowledge that some people just aren’t going to be able to handle that. And that’s valuable info to have.

4. Enjoy every review. Even the bad ones.

I had one friend who, when asked what people thought of their book, posted a list of ten reviews saying how much their book sucked.


I dunno. But I learned something from that. Even bad reviews can be kind of fun. “Some people just aren’t ready to publish” is pretty scathing, but it’s also super-fun to use when selling your book. “Come! Read the book that should have NEVER BEEN PUBLISHED. I DARE you.

Because in the end…

5. Remember that it’s just an opinion. And just having your name out there can help you.

Over the years, I’ve read reviews of books and movies where the object in question got a so-so review. But the pop culture flotsam in question sounded like the kind of thing I’d enjoy, and I consumed it. Most of the time, the review was right. But sometimes, it just didn’t hit the reviewer the way it hit me, and I found a new thing to enjoy.

The truth of the matter is, if you put something out into the world, sooner or later someone is going to judge it. Let them. They wanna. Or need ta.

And if it helps you, take something from it.

And if it doesn’t, walk away, and maybe someone out there will find their curiosity piqued.

Just keep writing. That’s your job.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Grindhouse, Hobo with a Shotgun, and Machete

It’s strange to think about, but as I write this, “Grindhouse” is now five years old. It came out in 2007. That blows my mind.

If you don’t remember “Grindhouse,” well, that’s not surprising. The premise was kind of great. Robert Rodriguez makes a movie. Quentin Tarantino makes a movie. The two movies are released together, along with a handful of fake movie trailers and fake commercials.

Two movies for the price of one? From two writer/directors whose work I’m a big fan of?

I thought it would be a hit. Maybe not a huge one, but Rodriguez is a smart dude who keeps his costs down, and I thought at the very least it would make its money back.

Yeah. Not so much.

The movie crashed and burned its first weekend at the theater. People didn’t seem to know what it was. Theaters broke the one movie into two movies, and tried to get people to go by saying they could see either one, or both, for the cost of a theater ticket.

Not a terrible idea, but it didn’t work either.

So the two flicks were revised, and expanded, and released on DVD as two separate movies, and “Grindhouse” sort of vanished.

But the thing is, it was easily my favorite movie theater experience of 2007. A friend of mine and I went, and sat in a mostly empty theater, and after it was over, if we hadn’t had to work the next day, we would have sat through it again.

Here’s where things get really interesting.

The first fake trailer featured in film was “Machete.” It looked fun, impossibly fun, even though it was clearly not a real movie. When the trailer ended, my buddy and I both remarked that we’d totally watch the flick, if it existed.

Rodriguez also held a “Make Your Own Grindhouse Trailer” contest, and the winner actually ran with the Grindhouse movies up in Canada. The winner? “Hobo with a Shotgun.”

And you know what? Both of those movies actually exist now.

What’s odd is, they both might have done better, dollar for dollar, than “Grindhouse” did.

“Hobo with a Shotgun” was the one that intrigued me the most. Sussing out why is tricky. Probably because the trailer looked cheap, and mostly featured a hobo shooting a bunch of people in the face. It sounds fun (if you’re amused by that kind of thing…), but if someone handed me a pile of money and told me to turn the trailer into a movie, I would have no idea where to even start.

(It’s worth mentioning, by the way, that people turn trailers into movies a lot more often than you’d think. “Cannibal, The Musical” started as one. And it’s not uncommon for people to get a star on board their script, cobble together a trailer featuring OTHER movies the star was in, and try to get it made that way. Happens a lot with foreign financing-type projects. I digress.)

What really blew my mind is that the team making “Hobo” managed to get Rutger Hauer to star in it.

Granted, Hauer’s star fell some time ago, and while he has a certain cult cache, it mostly revolves around people who forgot that “Blade Runner” came out 30 years ago.

What happens in the movie? Well, a hobo comes to town, and discovers that the city is rotten to the core. The cops are dirty. There’s some guy basically running the place, using the power of fear. And… I don’t even remember, really. Some other bad stuff.

So they push the hobo, and push him and push him, until he pushes back. Then he agrees to star in a bum-fighting video, so he can make fifty bucks, and buy a lawn mower, and start a business.

Only, while he’s there, some guys try to rob the store. So he buys a shotgun instead. Yup. That’s about the size of it.

In the end, the hobo spends about fifteen minutes toting around the shotgun, mostly in montage form.

Of course, you can’t sell a movie called, “Hobo Who Sometimes Has a Shotgun,” can you?

Does the movie work? Well, it was clearly designed to mimic the grade-z Troma flicks of the 1980s, like “The Toxic Avenger” and “Class of Nuke ‘Em High.” The originals weren’t great, exactly, but again, if you enjoy that kind of thing, there wasn’t much else out there like it.

Does the movie suffer by comparison? I’d say yes, as “Hobo” only rarely manages to vault the bar of “completely insane,” whereas the best Troma flicks jump that bar over and over and over again.

So, as a lost Troma flick, “Hobo” is perhaps a B or B-. Yes, a B-grade Z-grade movie. As a regular old movie? Probably a C.

But, hey. I’m almost certain they managed to turn a profit, which might be more than “Grindhouse” ever did.

On the flip side of the coin is “Machete,” which came out as a pretty straightforward movie, mostly forgetting about its “Grindhouse” roots by the time it hit theaters. And that time, Rodriguez got the formula right. Whereas the original “Grindhouse” came in at a cost of 70 million dollars (so I’ve read), “Machete” came in at a cost of 10 million, and easily made it back, and then some.

In this case, the flick covers the adventures of a man who started life on the right side of the law down in Mexico. But, when things went badly for him, he escaped to the United States as an illegal immigrant. Then things get crazy.

If anything, the film’s biggest flaw is that it can’t escape its origins. There is, for example, a sequence in the original trailer where the title character spends some very special time alone with two women near a waterfall. In the motion picture, he meets two entirely DIFFERENT women, and they get into a pool… and then the footage cuts to the waterfall stuff that was previously shot.

Funny? Kinda. But for people who never got around to seeing “Grindhouse,” the sequence probably made little to no sense at all.

And really, that’s the flaw in “Machete.” It wasn’t built from an idea into a screenplay, and then assembled in the best possible manner. It has to follow the trailer, and while the trailer had a handful of cool shots and fun ideas, trying to get them all to fit into the final movie, just because they were in the trailer in the first place, makes the movie awkward in spots.

Also awkward? Jessica Alba, who really shouldn’t ever be allowed to “act” ever again. I say this seriously. I understand that she’s nice to look at, but, you know what? There’s this place called The Internet, and it has pictures of her, and in those pictures she’s not delivering lines. And when I say delivering, I mean, saying them in a manner in which humans do not actually speak.

Sorry, Jessica. I’m sure that hurt your feelings.

The thing is, “Machete” is still super-fun. It’s not as fun as “Grindhouse” (I miss the fake trailers, honestly, and the movie is so overstuffed with plot that it goes on maybe 15 minutes longer than it needs to), and it doesn’t quite live up that that wonderful first trailer (though I don’t know if any movie CAN, frankly… that’s the joke, after all) but just like Daddy Grindhouse, the flick offers up more fun on a minute-by-minute basis than is has any real right to.

As a regular movie, it maybe merits a B. But as an experience, it hops up to a B+ and hangs out there pretty well.

Back when Rodriguez and Tarantino were pushing the project, they made a lot of noise about doing additional variations on the theme. Perhaps a chop-socky pair of “Grindhouse” flicks. Maybe some sci-fi. The sky was the limit.

Except, of course, the whole endeavor crashed and burned.

The thing of it is, I think Rodriguez fixed the problem with the first movie – the budget. At ten million bucks, “Machete” made its money back, and then some. So maybe there’s still hope for this series. Keep costs down, keep the movies fun…

And maybe I can get one or two more “Grindhouse” double features out of it.

Let’s make this happen, people.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In Which Fright Night Gets Remade

It’s interesting.

I don’t really understand the need to remake movies. I think, perhaps, if you back the world up about 15 years, remakes kinda-sorta make sense. After all, at that time, every movie ever wasn’t immediately available to you.

So if, for example, in 1995, you said you were going to remake The Evil Dead, well, it sort of made sense. The original had only ever been released on video. It looked awful, because videotapes were a non-digital format prone to snagging in VCRs and, barring full-on destruction, just plain wearing out.

Even though it was a cult classic, it was just plain hard to find. If the copy in your local video store broke? Well, then it was just gone. There was no Netflix, no Hulu, no Amazon Prime, no YouTube. No Half.com, where you could buy someone’s horribly beat up copy.

I’m overstating my case, but I need you to get my point. Back then, it was often hard to lay your hands on the original version of whatever interested you. An so a remake allowed you to grab a whole new audience who had never seen the original.

It was kind of brilliant.

But today? There’re remaking everything. And everything they’re going to remake? Is out on DVD. Or some kind of instant watch format.

And the problem is, all too often they’re remaking genuine classics. The world really didn’t need a new version of Halloween. We have the original, and it’s amazing, and it still holds up after all these years.

And like a lot of remakes, Halloween wasn’t necessarily a bad movie. But it was always, always, always going to suffer by comparion.

Which brings me to Fight Night. And a near-complete reversal on where you probably think this essay is going.

Because the truth is, Fright Night is probably the perfect movie to remake. The original was well-liked, and a big enough hit that they made a (not-well-liked) sequel.

But honestly? It’s kind of forgotten. It isn’t on cable all the time. People don’t quote it at comic book conventions. The director never went on to make, say, Spider-Man, thereby turning his backlist into a perpetually-on-DVD re-release fest.

But that’s not all they did right.

They got themselves a Buffy writer to assemble the screenplay.

They got a cheap but fairly brilliant cast. If I have any complaints, it’s that Jerry, the vampire, is good at being attractive (about half of his job) but doesn’t really project menace. But that’s okay, because…

The director really knows what he’s doing. Nothing flashy, but a strong awareness that if you put the camera HERE, and move the camera HERE, and frame the shot THIS WAY, your flick is going to be fun and creepy and nervous-making.

And the flick does some of my favorite things, namely, it gives you little twists on vampire mythology, including one of my favorite moments of the flick: i.e., how does a vampire get into a house it hasn’t been invited into?

Almost as good: How do you fight a vampire using fire?

The fact is, this movie did everything right. It took a good movie, and created a remake that might be a little better. (Or not. You can feel free to argue about it. End of the day, though, a case can be made either way, which almost never happens.)

I’d say more, but I don’t want to, because I’d much rather that you go out and see it. Or rather, rent it, or buy it, or Netflix it…

(I realize I haven’t said what it’s about. In short: A formerly-geeky teenage kid finds out the new guy next door is a vampire. So he consults a Vegas magician on the subject of fighting back. Carnage and car chases ensue.)

I’d end my review here, but I think it’s worth talking about why I think the movie failed at the box office. Not because I want to pour salt on the wounds of the people who made the movie, but because I think some people will see that it crashed and burned at the theaters and avoid it because of that.

You want to know what went wrong? Here you go.

1. Horror comedy. It was one. And honestly, most horror comedies crash and burn in the theater, and find an audience later. Slither. Tremors. The Monster Squad. In fact, the only horror comedy I can think of that did well in theaters is Arachnophobia. Frankly, I’m amazed they’re not remaking that.
2. The 3D thing. To the movie’s credit, it was shot in 3D, and not just converted. But you know what? It really didn’t need to be in 3D. And you can sense it, when watching the flick. Objects fly at the screen maybe once or twice, and that’s about it. So 3D junkies didn’t get much for their extra dollars, and people who wanted to see the movie probably avoided it because of the 3D.
3. The R rating. I get that there are a lot of people who think horror movies should be R rated. I’m not even sure that they’re wrong. But I suspect the flick could have grabbed an extra 10-20 million at the box office if teenage kids looking for something both funny and scary had been able to pay and walk in. As it was, the blood offered up was only slightly more than what you see on the average Supernatural episode, and the handful of expletives contained in the film (10? 20?) could have easily been cut.

The thing that saddens me the most is that movies like this deserve a shot at being seen, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. It will do okay in rentals, and get on cable, and in the end it’s going to make some (but not much) money for the studio.

But much like the original, I suspect this remake will grow a small fan base, exist on video for a while, and then slowly sink into the murky depths of the ocean called, “Oh yeah, I kind of remember hearing about that…”

Pity, really.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reconsidering Kevin Smith: Red State (The Movie)

Over the course of the last couple of years, some friends have mine have spent a whole lot of time and their own money making a movie called “Dead Weight.”

Maybe it’s because it rhymes with “Red State,” but I find that “Weight” and “State” are linked, in some small way, in my mind.

There are a few obvious things that tie them together. Both are horror movies, and both are low-budget, and shot digitally.

Of course, low budget is a relative term as I’ve heard “State” came in somewhere between 2.5 and 4 million dollars, and I’m fairly certain the cost of “Weight” didn’t even make it to five digits.

Both movies were/are being released independent of any studio, with the creators footing the bill and getting the movies into the world on their own dime.

And it’s here, of course, where they part ways again.

My friends have, if I remember it all correctly, a blog, and a Facebook page, and I think that’s it. They might have 100 followers on Facebook, or perhaps as many as 500.

Kevin Smith, on the other hand…

Well, that’s where it gets interesting. Kevin Smith took a DIY approach to “Red State,” right up until he didn’t. He got his venues set up, and he took the film on the road himself. But here, of course, is the rub.

Kevin Smith can charge thousands of people fifty bucks or more to see his movie… as long as it comes with a free Q and A afterwards.

My friends… can’t. It just isn’t going to happen. Even if they booked a local theater, and told every single one of their friends to show up? Their friends aren’t going to cough up fifty bucks to see their movie, or to see them talk about it afterwards.

And after they were done taking their movie on the road? I doubt my buddies would be able to sell their flick to, say, Lionsgate.

I might be wrong about this. In fact, I hope I am. But the fact is, Kevin Smith has a big, fat, fan base now.

And my friends… don’t.

But let’s step away from all that, and go back in time a bit.

A handful of years ago, Kevin Smith announced that his next film would be a horror movie. Obviously, as a guy who usually wrote cheap comedies that did okay in theaters and then cleaned up on video, this was going to be something of a departure.

And then, something interesting happened.

Miramax, the studio that coughed up the cash for the majority of Smith’s previous films, said they weren’t interested.

Smith seemed to move on. He talked about finding alternative financing, but, well, he made “Zack and Miri” and “Clerks II,” and then he started podcasting, and that started making him so money so, you know, I kind of figured “Red State” was not just dead, but super-dead. Along with the “Clerks” cartoon, the “Clerks” cartoon movie, and a smattering of other projects Kevin had worked on over the years, but which never came together.

But no. The money was raised, and Kevin made the movie, and then he decided to release it himself.

You know. Up until they got an actual studio involved, and put it out on DVD in actual stores.

I’ve debated trying to talk about the film without spoiling the ending, and I can, but only to a certain extent. Because what I really think I need to talk about is how the movie does NOT end.

So, be warned, I’m going to have to give some things away here.

For maybe the first half-hour of the film, Smith manages to create a decent horror movie vibe. We get to see the bad people from the bad church, and we meet our three heroes, and credit where credit is due, Kevin doesn’t build much of a plot around them. They’re going somewhere to get some man-on-woman action.

Why gives props for this? Because Kevin seems to understand that most of what Roger Ebert calls “Dead Teenager Movies” revolve around this, but build up a cardboard plot that most audience members don’t really care about.

Of course, it also leaves us with three heroes we don’t care much about, but okay. Moving right along.

The three boys get into a car accident, and the car they hit just happens to belong to the local law enforcement, which is why anyone goes looking for them in the first place. There are subplots there, and Kevin tries to prop them up, make some of the decisions matter, but, well, they just don’t.

And then we get to the surprise (that isn’t a surprise). The whole thing was a trap, and the three teenage boys are going to be killed (sacrificed?) at the evil church, by the evil people.

Smith does his best to drag this out, giving his evil preacher a nice, long, monologue, and letting the boys sweat it out. And I give Kevin credit. His comedies are frequently so loose that he still, after making so many flicks, doesn’t appear able to direct.

But in “Red State,” he seems to know what the genre should look like, and he gives it the correct look and feel.

So bravo for that.

What he does not do, however, is hold onto his horror movie vibe.

Because then the feds get involved, and the movie sort of becomes a siege movie. Or maybe a drama. I have no idea, because after a while whatever plot the movie had goes loose and floppy while Kevin tries to give us multiple storylines and perspectives, none of which add up to much, and all of which appear to be a time-killer until we get to the big finish.

We’ve got the two remaining kids, who try to escape the church, which is located on a compound. But since all we know about them is that they were hoping to get some sweet, sweet action it’s hard to get emotionally invested in them, even after one of them gives a monologue about how now that his friends are dead, he doesn’t really have anything to live for. (Um… really? Nothing at all?)

We get the teenage church member who just wants to get the kids out alive.

We got the head of the Feds, who is, basically, told to kill everyone on the compound, but he doesn’t want to do it.

And we have the evil preacher, who, now that his monologue is done, is kind of at a loss.

And the tension slowly leaks out of the movie.

There are deaths which, unfortunately, close of storylines in ways that felt too quick and easy for me. Yes, I suppose there’s an immediate shock to them, but knowing that most of the people who might suffer emotional damage won’t even have to face it weakened the flick for me.

But then… that ending.

Oh, it’s glorious. There’s a loud trumpet sound, and it crushes the eardrums of everyone. The evil preacher says this is it, it’s the End of Days, and for a minute or two, the movie looks like it’s going to go in a really surprising direction.

And at one point? It really was going to go that way. Long story short, it was really the end times, and our bad guy? It would appear he might have just been the “good” guy all along.

That’s bold, and on many levels, possibly the scariest possible conclusion.

Except, that part doesn’t happen in the finished film. Instead we get a “and then this happened” ending, and the flick comes to a close with the bad guys sort of being punished, kind of.

And the movie, which could have been, if not a great film, then certainly a cult classic in it's own right, instead became one third of a standard horror movie, one third of a drama... and more than likely, something of a footnote, more important for its marketing than its content.

Kevin has said that he’s going to make one more movie, and then get out of the directing game, but I have to say…

I wish Kevin would try making one more horror flick, and I wish he would take it all the way this time.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ballad of a B+ Writer

Recently, I’ve started having weird little flashbacks.

I suppose I should clarify up front and emphasize that I’m not talking about actual flashbacks, where the world falls away and suddenly I’m in some version of the past.

For that matter, I should state that the flashbacks aren’t traumatic. They’re mostly just me suddenly remembering some oddball detail of my life I had forgotten.

For example: I took music composition for two years in college. And at one point, our professor sent the entire class to a room in one of the libraries to watch the movie “In the Heat of the Night.” For reasons that I can’t recall.

I remember him saying it was a good movie. I remember watching it with the rest of my class. I even remember him asking about it, though I don’t recall what any of us said.

This, in turn, reminded me of the time our education professor had us watch “Pollyanna.” Why? No idea. But I had a strong vision of the twenty-odd members of the class sitting and watching the flick.

More recently, I had this flashback:

Well, no. Wait. First, a wacky fun fact.

I make my living as a writer, and have done so for a little over six years. As a writer, I’ve done a surprising number of things. I’ve had screenplays I’ve written produced and go to film festivals and win awards. I’ve been a journalist, covering everything from pop culture to cooking to used cars. I’ve done PR. I’ve been a professional blogger. I’ve been a technical writer and a communications specialist.

And the last time I took a writing course was as a senior in high school.

Now, granted, I took two classes. One of which was a creative writing class I took just because, hey, I like to write creatively. The other was a college-credit course.

It was the college credit course that I flashed back on recently. Specifically, my grades.

Each week, we had to write a paper that was supposed to teach us a particular style or type of writing. Of course, for the life of me, I can’t recall any of the styles by name now. I can’t even recall most of them not by name, if that makes sense.

Here’s what I do remember: Every week, I took home a B+.

Now, ostensibly, the idea behind writing a paper every week is that you improve your abilities in some way. (In my case, I seem to recall an over-use of the work “to.”)

Here comes the important bit. To me, anyway. (See, there’s that to!)

These papers were due on Wednesday. Every week, we turned in our papers, and then the teacher explained to us what kind of paper we would be writing for the next week. We would be given some sort of sample, so we could get an idea of what these kinds of papers looked like in the wild…

And then we had a whole week to come up with a topic and produce 500 words.

Now, 500 words isn’t a lot. (I’m already there, in fact.) And if you’re a reasonably fast writer, and have a topic you’ve given some thought, you can probably churn a paper out in an hour or so.

Which I did, every week, on Sunday. And then, on Tuesday night, I’d look at the paper again, and I would nip and tuck and try to take out the repeated words and bad grammar and whatever else plagued the paper.

Then I would turn it in, and on Thursday I would have yet another fresh and shiny B+ to show for it.

And then one week…

I had, once again, written my 500 words, and edited them, and I felt pretty good about my paper… right up until I didn’t.

The thing of it is, I thought the paper was well-written. But I also thought it was mean-spirited, to the point where I’m not going to tell you what my original topic is, because some things are just better off forgotten and not lingering on the Internet.

My English class was in the afternoon, and in the morning I had a study hall, wherein I could get access to a computer. So I came up with a new topic, sat down, and pumped out 500 words in perhaps 40 minutes. I might have read it twice in order to clear up typos, but I kind of doubt it.

I printed the paper, stuck it in my folder and turned it in a couple of hours later.

Frankly, I was a little panicked about the whole thing. My B+ papers were a result of careful thought, of typo and error weeding. And I realized, perhaps too late, that while my other paper was kind of mean, it wasn’t like anyone outside of my teacher was going to ask to see it. My parents weren’t going to put it on the fridge to admire. Other people were not going to ask me for a copy, so they could learn what a B+ paper looked like.

I had panicked, and damaged the grade in my college-credit course for pretty much no reason.

Except, of course, you probably have a good guess where this story is going.

It makes sense, of course. I would only tell this story if it ended one of two ways. I got an A, and learned I needed to trust my instincts and not do so much revising.

Or I got a B+, and learned that perhaps that was just where I sit in the world spectrum of writing.

I won’t keep you in suspense. It’s the latter.

The fact is, for better or worse, I’m pretty much a B+ writer. The one exception to this rule appears to be research papers, where citations count. I’m a pretty good rule follower, so that brings me up to an A-. (And, in one memorable instance, a grade of “A-ish.”)

It’s weirdly freeing, being a B+ writer. I’ve got to admit, after that I stopped trying pretty much at all to raise the quality of my writing, because there didn’t seem to be a point to it. I was going into Music Education, and frankly, the ability to write to a B+ grade on a college level is nothing to sneeze at.

Of course, in many ways, going to college was the acid test. I had to take a “pass-out-of-English-class” test, which I flew through with no trouble. I was then asked to submit a couple of papers to demonstrate my writing ability, and I turned in the A- research paper I’d done for my college-level course, and my “A-ish” paper I had done for music history.

And that was that.

Except, of course, that college is all about papers. Short essays. Twenty-page annotated research laden tomes.

I watched people work on these well in advance. I watched some people pull all-nighters to accomplish them.

And then there was me. I’d think for a while, as my days wore on, and when the time came, I’d tip and tap and type away and put together my B+ (or, you know, A-ish) paper.

I’ve found myself thinking about this more and more over the last few weeks, and I’ve pondered my lot in life. For better or worse, I’m an indie novelist right now, and there is, quite frankly, baggage that comes with that.

There are different kinds of indie novelists, of course. The ones who state they hate the publishing game, and think that publishers pay nothing, rake in cash, and keep all of it for themselves.

And there are the indie writers who seem to desperately wish that an actual publisher would call them up, tell them that their book is brilliant, and offer them a big fat check to put it out in Wal-Mart, where it will sell Dan Brown numbers, just like the author always thought the book would.

And I’m not gonna lie. I started this novel-writing journey with the idea that to really make it, you need to get an agent, and sell your book to a publisher, and get it out in physical bookstores. I went indie because I sent out 75 letters to agents and none of them even wanted to read the entire book.

That book was “Mercy,” which, as I write this, is rated 4.5 stars on Amazon, and 4 stars on Goodreads. In other words? B+.


That’s pretty good, really. Nothing to complain about.

Heck, “Twilight” is rated four stars, and sold so many copies that I’m pretty sure the author’s kids will never have to work, and will end up with their own reality TV show at some point in the coming years. (“The House that Twilight Built,” perhaps?)

So why am I pondering this?

Excellent question.

I suspect it’s because most writers I know are neurotic on some level, and recently, I’ve been on the receiving end of some surprisingly kind words, and I don’t know what to do with them.

I had a three-book-deal-author tell me that even though they aren’t a zombie fan, they really liked “Mercy.”

I had another friend, a person with a Masters Degree and experience teaching English and running an English department, tell me that “Blood Calling” really needs to be in bookstores, and also in movie theaters. This same person said it was up to quality of “The Hunger Games.”

And I’ve had other indie publishers tell me how much they enjoyed my work, and pushed it towards their readers.

And yet?

And yet I’m still a B+ indie writer. Not a well-off B+ indie writer, or a rich B+ indie writer, or an indie writer who just got a call saying that someone wants to turn his book into a movie, or an indie writer who just got offered a fat publishing contract for his work.

Just a B+ indie writer.

Again, I’m not complaining about this, but the problem is, the kind of praise I’m getting makes me feel like I’m missing something. Like I could do something, or be something more, than a B+ indie writer. It’s like being in high school all over again, with people telling you that you have “potential,” and that you have to live up to it.

It makes me wonder.

Is it possible to sit down with one of my books, or all of my books, and revise and short and sift and shape until the books stop being B+ books, and start being A books?

Or are the ideas themselves B+ ideas, and what I really need is an A idea to go with my B+ writing?

Once, in the middle of my years in college, I had to write a paper for an education class. I wrote the first page on a Monday, and then forgot about the essay until after 1 AM on Wednesday morning. I literally sat bolt upright in my bed and realized that a) I was totally exhausted, and b) my paper was due at 10 AM, and I had classes right up until then.

I went to my desk, wiggled my mouse, and my computer woke up. I opened up the document I had started the paper on, and I began typing. It took me perhaps fifteen minutes, and I never once re-read the first half of the paper. In my sleep-deprived state, it never crossed my mind to do so.

I printed the paper, and turned it in, and realized that I had no idea what the first page said. And the next day, when I got it back? B+.

As I write this essay (which, at something like 2000 words, is probably the very definition of what makes me a B+ writer) I’m wrapping up the third novel in my “Blood Calling” trilogy. (The first book, by the way, is 99 cents and rated, yes, 4 ½ stars) I find myself struggling with my B+-ity.

Why this book in particular? Well, there’s a lot invested in it now. Assuming the book caps out where I think it will, I’ll have written more than 200,000 words during the creation of this trilogy (more, if you count Baby Teeth, a novella in the same universe). Perhaps more importantly, readers will have read more than 200,000 words, page by page by page.

If the previous books ended with a bit of a whimper, well, the next book was on its way. I didn’t need to perfectly cap the book. I just had to say, “Until next time, folks!” and step away from the keyboard.

But this ending has to do a lot.

It has to end the series perfectly, because this is the last book in the trilogy. At the same time, I have to set up a thread that will, alternately, make it look like this world is going to go on, either in the imagination of the readers or by my own hand, if the series sells enough copies to warrant additional books.

Perhaps most importantly, the ending has to be good enough that readers finishing the series will tell their friends to grab all three books right off the bat, as though they were one big fat boxed set. Because a rating of, “Well, the first two books are good, but then it totally falls apart at the end” means I may as well have not bothered to write the first two books at all.

And so, I struggle with my B+.

I struggle to nail the ending of this novel.

I struggle to figure out if I want to stay an indie writer or if I want to try and get an agent and a publisher again.

And I struggle with the question of whether I really have a choice in the matter. If it’s worth sending out another 75, or 100, or 150 query letters.

Or if I’ll always be a B+ indie writer, no matter what I do.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Top Gun Story

Recently, a friend of mine announced on Facebook that she had never seen Top Gun, with the implication being that she intended to keep it that way. I commented that at some point, I would have to tell her my “How I’ve never managed to see Top Gun” story. I was going to write it as a note on Facebook, but, frankly, I tell the story often enough that it’s probably time to write it down and purge it from my brain once and for all.

I’m going to go ahead and spoil the ending right away, because it’s a long story with an unsurprising ending: No, I have never seen Top Gun, despite the fact that I’ve tried to watch it (or planned to do so) on several occasions. There. Now you know. So no blaming me if you read the whole thing, get to the end, and realize that there’s no great lesson or stunning conclusion.

Granted, I think the components of how I’ve never watched it are fun, but… well, you’ll see.

It all started when the movie first hit home video. I didn’t have a ton of male friends as a kid, but I did have some, and all of them had seen the movie. Literally, to a person.

And yet, I hadn’t watched it.

Thinking back on it, I know at least part of that had to do with my parents. As my mom recently stated to me, my brother used to tell our babysitters that we weren’t allowed to watch movies with kissing in them. That was how he perceived the issue. In truth, however, it was all the stuff that comes after kissing that my mom was trying to avoid.

In other words, Top Gun had, shall we say, scenes of a somewhat adult nature. Granted, they probably weren’t all that bad, since it was a PG-rated film. But still.

And while I was ten or eleven, my brother would have been seven or eight, and generally when I watched something, he watched it too.

And on the other side of the equation, I had no real interest in viewing the flick. I’m not a big fan of planes, and whatever battle sequences I might have enjoyed were readily available on, say, GI Joe.

In a sense, I filed Top Gun away with all the other movies I wasn’t watching, which were mostly horror films that my friends’ strangely permissive parents had no troubles with them viewing.

No matter. Top Gun went from being the movie every kid was watching, or had watched, to being yesterday’s news.

Years passed.

During the summer of my first year home from college, my girlfriend and I cut a deal. I had taken her to see Pulp Fiction, which she had hated so much I’m not even sure I can describe the anger using words. If I was writing this on paper, I’d probably just spill a blob of ink and call it a rage cloud. That about covers it. Much of her rage came from how much violence there was in the film.


We decided, or perhaps she decided, that we were going to start “trading” movies. She would choose one, and I would choose one.

She also wanted to us this movie-exchange to fill me in on movies she’s enjoyed when she was younger, and I would, in turn, do the same. (One of her choices was, no lie, Commando. Which is, of course, much less violent than Pulp Fiction. But I digress.)

And this is where Top Gun was about to reenter my life. She had seen the movie as a kid and loved it, and as the summer drew to a close, she promised that when I came back from college for Thanksgiving break, Top Gun would be next on the list of movies we would watch.

Then she dumped me, just before Thanksgiving.

There’s a story there, too, but now it’s almost 15 years in the past, and why dredge it up? What it boiled down to was, we weren’t going to be together forever, and we certainly weren’t going to be watching Top Gun together either.

Time passed.

I went back to college, and started spending more and more time hanging out with a friend of mine. I’m going to leave her name off of this, just because I haven’t asked permission to use it. I’ll call her A, for Anonymous.

You know how there are people in your life who come in for kind of a short burst, and become sort of oddly all-encompassing? That was A. We fell into each other’s orbit, and settled there, and it was a lot of fun. We liked hanging out. We enjoyed watching movies, and talking, and eating together in the cafeteria of the college. She had a car, and when she or other friends were heading out for coffee or ice cream or taco bell, she’d call me. (I should state, for the record, that some people wondered if more was going on. Nope.)

Here’s the key thing: Her roommate had a copy of Top Gun. And they probably watched it just about every day. Or maybe every third or fourth or fifth day, in rotation with a handful of other movies that were always, always, always on every time I dropped by. (I recall that Robin Hood: Men in Tights was also in heavy rotation.)

I mentioned, at the time, that I hadn’t seen Top Gun all the way through, and also about my breakup, and how the two things tied together. And she decided that we needed to watch it.

We grabbed the videotape, and took it back to my room. We got comfy, and started the movie… and about three minutes in the picture started to flutter.

I pulled out the tape, and it was quite literally broken.

I felt terrible, sure that my VCR had somehow eaten the tape. But when I took it to A’s roommate and offered to get her another copy, she told me not to worry about it, and that she had watched it so much she was surprised it hadn’t happened earlier. A and I watched Alien instead.

Later that semester, I found myself with some free time, and started flipping through the channels, and there it was: Top Gun. Granted, it was on a network channel, where it would be lacking most of the bad words and any scenes of an adult nature would be trimmed down, but, well, now I was starting to feel like the movie was deliberately avoiding me.

I got about five minutes in, and A called, asking if I wanted to go for ice cream. I told her I had no money (which was true) and she said she would pay.

You can’t beat that. So I went.

The semester ended, and summer came, and with it: free time. I had to find a job, yes, but my school let out later than the local colleges, and I found myself scrambling every year to find anyone who would take me on for three months. Most years, I had my name in at four or five temp agencies, and I still barely managed to find work, picking up a day or three at a time.

One night, my parents were out, and I once again found myself flipping through channels, looking to see what was on. And there was Top Gun again, virtually at the point I had shut it off when A had called me for ice cream.

I started watching, and five minutes later my parents came home. When my dad asked me why I was watching Top Gun, I told him I had never seen it. “It’s a chick flick with planes,” he said. And I realized that I wasn’t really watching it because I wanted to watch it, but because it kept avoiding me.

So I turned it off, and went up to my room, and did some reading instead.

College ended, I got married, and video formats began to change. Despite the fact that a bunch of planes flying loudly through the air is the kind of thing my dad should have loved when it came time to show off his TV/Audio system, he stuck with Twister instead.

But I made new friends, including one who set up a projection TV and sound system in his basement. He had a house-warming gathering, and everyone showed up and brought food.

The night wore on, and my wife and I had to be up early the next day, so we ducked out before he could show everyone an entire movie, instead of loud snippets of various flicks. The film in question? Top Gun.

I asked a couple friends about it later, and learned that the movie had started skipping with about 20 minutes to go. My friend tried cleaning the DVD, but to no avail. His used disc was non-functional past a certain point. So even if I had decided to stick around, well, I still wouldn’t have seen all of Top Gun.

That was a little less than five years ago.

The thing about Top Gun is, I’m pretty sure I could see it any time I wanted to. A quick library search shows me that my local library has it on both DVD and VHS, and there are multiple copies… there is no way all of them can be scratched or checked out.

More to the point, the DVD is cheap now, since it’s been out a few years. I could own it, if I really wanted to, and no one could prevent me from seeing it.

But here’s the thing: By all accounts, the movie just isn’t all that great. If it really is, as my dad states, a chick flick with planes, well, neither of those two things is really designed to catch and hold my interest.

And, in the end, chances are good that I might have seen most or all of it anyway. It was, after all, a ubiquitous film for much of my youth. It was on regular TV. It was on cable. It was the subject of a Tarantino monologue. As I said before, my friend A had it running in her room almost every time I went in there, and I couldn’t help but see bits and pieces of it.

And of course, I’m well aware of most of the famous scenes. You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling. The death of the partner. Goose? The fact that there’s a scramble of some kind in the end.

Ultimately, the reason I may never get around to seeing the movie might be that in a sense, I’ve already seen it, and whatever meager pleasures the movie might hold have already been offered to me.