Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sherly, You're Joking

I recently saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie. And I liked it. But not the way you're thinking. If you want to see a great action movie, by all means take in Game Of Shadows.

But the movie reminds me of a local restaurant called Twisted Rooster. They have on the menu a sandwich they call a Reuben sandwich, and it's a great sandwich with coleslaw and Russian dressing--but it's not a Reuben sandwich.

Game of Shadows is a cool Steampunk 007 movie. I'll buy Sherlock Holmes being an action hero, but he's not a spy--he's a private eye. And I'll buy into Mycroft Holmes being a gubmint official, but he's not a diplomat--he's a mathematician. The shaken-not-stirred character is cool, but not Sherlock Holmes.

It's someone else.
Just as Sherlock Holmes is not a Steampunk 007, Mycroft Holmes is not a Victorian M.

The considerable powers Mr. Fry brings to the role were significantly underused. When he played Jeeves to Hugh Laurie's Wooster, I saw the makings of an excellent Sherlock Holmes. The years and Mr. Fry's expanding waistline has made him into a perfect Mycroft, but he was used largely for comedic effect in this movie. He didn't really do anything significant--just like M does in your typical 007 movie.

I once had the occasion to know several cryptanalysts and cryptologic mathematicians. They manifested the very sort of smarts one would expect of the Holmes brother who went into mathematics. Sure, there's deep involvement in a nation's intelligence community, but it's an armchair sort of thing that you saw in the Tom Clancy stories where a roomful of analysts debate the significance of a radio intercept or a satellite photo--not the parkour-style chasing about that you'll see James Bond do.

I had altogether expect Mycroft to be heading the codebreaking effort against Moriarty's notebook, not Dr. Watson's lovely bride.

Other quibbles. Dr. Watson was mustered out of the military because of a war wound. In the canon he has delicate health, but in this movie he walks with a limp. A limp that goes away when he's dancing, or when he's running. Hmmmm.

Then there's Mycroft's nudism. It has comedic effect, but it's altogether gratuitous--unless you were wondering about Mr. Fry's middle-aged spread. Like wise Sherlock's aversion to horses? Where'd that come from? Arthur Conan Doyle had no problem making Sherlock an expert swordsman and boxer, why would he stint with horsemanship?

Moriarty is some kind of Lord of War (without the cocaine), and he's aiming to start a World War by sabotaging some kind of peace conference that reminds me a lot of a Star Trek episode.

Finally there's Rivendell on the Reichenbach falls. This is Rivendell.:

This is the Reichenbach Falls where Holmes and Moriarty have their final conflict:

Notice any difference?

I happened to like the Lord Of The Rings, 007 movies, Star Trek and the Wild Wild West, but I will never confuse them with Sherlock Holmes.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Does Bad Writing Exist?

This seems a ridiculous question until asked to define bad writing.

Months back I was reading about how John Locke sold a million books and his response to his critics is unique. He doesn't engage any assertion that his books might be poorly written. Instead, he shrugs and says the haters are simply not his market. There's some virtue in this way of thinking and it is a paradigm shift.

Yet I think this paradigm has its limits. I've tried to follow two commandments in my writing:
  • Thou shalt be interesting.
  • Thou shalt be clear.
Honor those two commandments and I have no quibble with John Locke. Otherwise, I suppose bad writing does indeed exist: It is writing that is unclear and/or uninteresting.

Give Catnip To Cats and Dognip to Dogs
So, are you cool with a writer interrupting a narrative with an extended treatment of discrete mathematics complete with equations? No? Would that constitute bad writing because it's uninteresting? Doesn't Neal Stephenson do that? Or how about an extended political monologue? Didn't Ayn Rand do that?

Mathematics and libertarian politics are--to some readers--what Elmore Leonard calls "the stuff people skip." To other readers the stuff is pure catnip. Some people are bored to tears by that which titillates others. This makes the first commandment of being interesting an audience-dependent thing.

The writer needs to know who's going to be reading his work before he can know how to keep that first commandment. Thus, if you are in any way inclined to read my work, please tell me about yourself.

Don't Make Enemies
 I may surprise you, but less than 100% of the people reading this supporter the Whig Party, belonging instead to the parties of Lincoln and Jefferson. Reflect for a moment on your response to someone writing something that's identifiably from the other side. The contradictory politics distracts from the writing and from the story. There is absolutely no good reason to alienate the 50% of the book buying public who belongs to the other party. (Or in my case the 100%.)

In addition to politics there's religion. Not that many of you are Zen Baptist Puritans, and if you make your book into a tract for Something Else, I'll probably toss it against the wall. Good and evil are concepts that are non-denominational and non-sectarian. C.S. Lewis wrote from a Christian perspective, but nobody would call Narnia a heavy-handed tract because he engaged his readers at the level of good and evil as it runs through the center of human nature. He didn't engage in Bible thumping because it would alienate everyone who doesn't think the Bible to be God-inspired.

There are zero-sum games. I can think of a few topics of conversation that always end badly, because no matter what position I take, the issue is so polarizing and the passions so strong, that someone on one side or the other will be so angry, I'll create an enemy. The only way to win these games is to not play. I just won't go there.

Don't Be Evil
There are some things that warrant nothing less than complete, unequivocal condemnation. Period. Pedophilia? The Ancient Greeks may have tolerated it, if so they deserve whatever hell they're burning in. Nazis? Only Mel Brooks can joke about Springtime for Hitler.

Sometimes you can be ambivalent about gray areas. People of good faith disagree about whether such and such is acceptable behavior or not. That's not the case here. The writer needs a moral compass that's magnetized enough to sense when there is a consensus that a thing is wrong and must not be treated ambiguously.

A friend was deeply offended by a "romance" novel that depicted rape and pedophilia with too casual a treatment. I'll take my friend's word for it that the work stunk. I thought it unworthy of the time and bother of condemning it. But my friend grabbed hold of it and brought every cannon to bear in deprecating the work in the harshest possible terms. If the work was merely bad, she would not be so motivated to badmouth it, but the work was evil, and my friend felt a moral obligation to condemn it as evil--like Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick.

Personally, I noticed this a couple years ago when I revisited Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter stories. Since these are all in the public domain, I reformatted them to look good on my Sony Reader (This was in my pre-Kindle phase.) I read a few of the novels and then ran into something I hadn't noticed when I first read the books when I was a teen. John Carter's son--the protagonist of whatever novel I was reading--owns slaves, and the antagonist insinuates himself into the young man's household as a slave. Who should I root for? I don't approve of slavery, even fictional slavery on another planet. I put the book down and haven't read anything else by Edgar Rice Burroughs since. 

Don't Be A Writer
Shakespeare said, "the play's the thing." Same goes for the narrative. Your reader is not going to want to read beautiful words. S/he wants to read a story. The words of a story are like the wires holding up Flash Gordon's spaceship. They have to be there, but it's better if nobody notices them. Clear writing is like clear spring water: It is transparent. It is invisible.

I've goofed around trying to write in a style or voice that's congruent with the time and place of the POV character. This is a mistake. Yeah, it's cool to write like a Victorian. I rather like the old stuff better than I like the new stuff. And this lets me write like what I prefer to read. But I hear people remark about the words and I realize they're not thinking about the lifeless body hanging in the locked room . Fail.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

After NaNoWriMo Then What?

My daughter won NaNoWriMo over a year ago. She didn't do it this year. And after she finished her novel, she put it in a drawer or something. It hasn't seen the light of day since. She won't let me see it.

I don't think she's unusual. And I think that's a shame. It's easy to figure that after writing with such intensity the writer will want to kick back and rest for a bit. And after that the manuscript is easy to leave in the desk drawer to languish.

Instead of languishing, something else should happen. Or maybe it should languish if the novel is really bad. Who's to say? That's tricky, because sometimes what I think is a bad novel is regarded quite highly by someone else. Or vice versa. In olden days, it was very easy to know what constituted a good novel: someone in New York would take it from a slush pile and declare it publishable. Maybe it would sell, too.

I think that after November finishes, all those novels submitted to should be read by someone. They may not be ready for public consumption, but they should be read. And this got me thinking about A Proposal for Improving Ebooks that I posted a few weeks back.

Suppose someone were to create an e-reader program that runs on iPads, Android tablets, PCs and Macs, but this e-reader program is tied to a server. The reader signs up to read someone's NaNo opus, then goes through it adding annotations identifying typos and--more pertinent to Nano--providing feedback to the author of a more editorial nature. This feedback, like the novel, would not be made public, but would go from reader, to Internet server, to author with only those things the reader and author want public seen by anyone else.

Alternatively, writers and readers can using something like Google Docs, specifically Jae-Sung Lee's Pinfolio, to give readers editable copies of the novel. But I have never been able to work this way. I think the only person making changes to the novel should be the author. And the reader should only be making annotations that are for the author's eyes only. The author alone should be responsible for doing something about these annotations.

My current thinking is that someone needs to lash up a prototype e-reader to give readers a feel for what I have in mind. And mockups of the server screens with diagrams that illustrate the processes of finding/choosing readers by writers and hooking things up to the NaNoWriMo people. This would give the NaNoWriMo author a system to take his work to the next level.

What do you think?

Those more worthy than I: