17 February 2017 - 5:55 pm

Writing Spark #17

(Picture from HuTui6.com)

This week, I give you:

Scientists are getting close to communicating with the past through time travel. You receive a package from your future self. 

What would you send yourself? To what end? What would you most like to tell your past self? How did you get hold of this technology? So many questions, so much bendy timeywimey stuff!

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15 February 2017 - 6:10 pm

Revamping the CWG

Like this, but with more talking!
(Picture via Pexels)

I’ve been running my Creative Writing Group for 8 years now, here in the lovely Brisbane. It’s going great: I get a good turnout every month, and we have lively discussions about different aspects of writing, we learn things, and we have fun with exercises.

For the last few years, we’ve been meeting in a room in one of Brisbane’s big, friendly libraries. When it came to setting up the meetings for this year, I dropped the ball and sent the booking form in to our usual venue later than usual. As a result, we missed the initial round of allocations and lost our usual slot. It was my own fault, which I freely tell anyone who starts getting angry at the library for not being able to accommodate us.

I talked with the lovely people at the library to see if we could work out a different time slot to meet in, but the best they had available was Thursday evenings. That’s tricky for a lot of the group, and not great for me, so I started to think about alternatives.

Just across the river from where we usually meet is the State Library of Queensland. They have a heap of space and rooms, and I was hopeful that we could find a new home there. Sadly, it was not to be: their free meeting rooms can only be booked three months in advance, which means I can’t get a regular time slot, and the rest of their rooms are paid for. I’m dedicated to keeping the group free, so having to shell out a hefty fee for a meeting room isn’t an option.

That left me looking for other options. Rather than being stressed or upset about it, I’ve felt really positive about the process. Truth be told, I’m relishing the chance to make a change: we’ve been meeting at the same place at roughly the same time for years, and while consistency is easy and comfortable, it was also starting to get a little stale. It felt like time to shake things up.

Through the process of considering different venues and trying to find something that would suit us (that was also free and available at the right sort of time for us), I realised that meeting rooms were really turning me off. While they’re handy, in that they give us a comfortable, private room to talk about whatever we want (and the group is notorious for wandering into touchy subjects, which I encourage because artists should talk about the tricky stuff), the nature of many of these meeting rooms is that they’re enclosed and insular.

Brisbane is a gorgeous city. There are many beautiful places to visit, and it seems like such a shame to talk about art while shut away in a room. So, I decided to try something different this year, to shake the group up and see what works: moving the meeting to a weekend daytime time slot (rather than our previous Friday evenings), and picking a different venue each month.

Finding someplace that a dozen people can sit and chat for a couple of hours is a challenge, especially when the needs for suitable shade and public transport access are added in. I have a few ideas for venues, most of them outdoors (or close to outdoors).

I don’t have to do this entirely on my own, which is a great thing. I did a survey of my usual attendees, to make sure I’m going for suitable times and locations (there’s no point me setting up the meetings if no-one is able to come!). And I’ve had a heap of offers of help, which I’m incredibly grateful for.

I’m looking forward to finding us suitable meeting places and seeing how they impact our discussions. It means I’ll have to do some scouting, which is tricky because I’m trying to keep it as central as possible so everyone can get to it, but that’s a long trip for me and parking is a pain near the centre of the city. (There are some gorgeous locations out near the coast where I live, but they’re too far for most people to travel to.) The time and energy to scout are going to be tricky to find, but I’ll work that out.

Uncertainty can be really tricky for me to handle – I have a tendency to get stressed about it – but I’m learning how to handle it (it’s a process). In this case, I’m comforting myself with the knowledge that it’s temporary. I’ve got a bad-weather/emergency backup venue in mind, in case of rain or more intense heat. If the whole roving experiment doesn’t work out, I can always find a meeting room to book that won’t charge us anything (I know of an option or two). And it’s only for this year; next year, we can always book in to the library again and return to our previous pattern.

So, I’m doing a bit of an experiment, but I’m looking forward to it. Here’s hoping that our roving meetings inspire us and our writing! I’m getting a lot of requests to hold a meeting in a cemetery, so what’s the worst that could happen, right?

Our first foray is this weekend, out to a familiar venue because it’s where we held last year’s KoP and TGIO for NaNoWriMo. I have a sneaky plan in mind.

Wish me luck!

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10 February 2017 - 6:41 pm

Writing Spark #16

(Picture from HuTui6.com)

This week’s prompt is:

Killing someone gives you all the time they had left.

An interesting and brutal concept. What I love about this one is the implications that might have on a society, from punishment to child protection, destiny to immortality.

So many places you could go with this. Which one will you choose?

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8 February 2017 - 6:11 pm

Review: Netflix’s Daredevil Season 1

(Picture: Netflix)

Daredevil is one of those comicbook assets that I’m personally quite attached to. I collected the comics for a while, and I used to write in and run RP games around the character. As a result, I’m fairly familiar with the comic canon and always a little nervous when it is adapted to screen.

So, when I approached the Netflix incarnation of the franchise, I was trepidatious, but hopeful. (I am always hopeful that someone will do these characters and franchises justice.) And I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw.

Spoilers follow! For both the Netflix show and the comics. You have been warned.

Broad Strokes

Let’s start with the easy stuff. As a show, I think Netflix’s Daredevil did a good job in building the world, shaping the season, and giving us well-drawn characters to empathise with. It’s a fun ride, and they managed to build in far more elements from the comics than I had expected they would be able (or want) to.

Overall, I enjoyed it. A strong 4/5 from me.

It would have been 5/5, but there were a few key divergences from the canon that hurt the show in my opinion. Or at the very least, could have been better.

What they did right

Firstly, let’s acknowledge the stuff they did that worked, and worked well.

The plotting and pacing are great. On that level, they put the season together well, with the initial setup and the building towards the climax at the end. Very easy to watch, it carried me along to the end before I realised.

Matt is pretty much who I recognise from the comics. He’s not ginger enough, but the aesthetics are less important than his attitude. Yes, he can be self-involved and a bit of a dick, but that’s Matt Murdock.

I like that they didn’t shy away from his flaws, or the unhealthy dichotomy in the lawyer that needs to go punch people in the head at night. He’s a troubled boy, at war with himself as well as his frustration with the world around him and a legal system that can’t protect those who truly need it. The show acknowledges his Catholic leanings without making it glaringly central, and focusses more on Matt’s struggle with the morality of vigilantism and, ultimately, killing people.

This is key to many of Daredevil’s comicbook stories: his staunch opposition to killing and what that means. This first season focusses on him trying to make that decision for himself, which I like because it’s so fundamental to who Daredevil is as a vigilante and hero (like DC’s Batman). It’s great that they chose to make it so central. This arc is has some of the weaker areas of the season for me, though – more on this later.

They pitched Matt against his foil perfectly. Their Foggy Nelson is wonderful, lovable, capable, and often exasperated with his best friend. If you’re not annoyed at Matt on Foggy’s behalf, they’ve done something wrong, and they didn’t here.

Foggy is, in many ways, the heart of the show (while Matt is more of the fist-flailing tantrum), and he’s a very necessary grounding element, both for Matt and the show as a whole. He’s a voice of reason when Matt is getting lost in his own problems, and a reminder of what’s really important. In this season, he keeps both Matt and the story on track.

Without a good Foggy, any Daredevil story is going to be overly whiny and self-indulgent, and Matt will in all likelihood disappear up his own asshole. Matt’s friendship with Foggy is one of his biggest redeeming features. I’m so happy that they got this right in the show.

Netflix also did a great job with their Kingpin. I was dubious that they would find someone with the physical presence and sensitive acting chops to pull him off, but they hit the nail right on the head. I’ll be honest: I usually dislike Vincent D’onofrio’s acting work, but he was a great choice for Wilsin Fisk, and I was pleasantly surprised.

I was also (pleasantly) surprised by how much of Fisk’s backstory they put into the show, and how sympathetic it was. Netflix didn’t feel the need to make Fisk an evil man who is evil because evil. They made him a product of his background, experiences, and his own choices, and the show doesn’t get judgemental with artistic finger-shaking. It just shows the story of a man and how he ended up as the Kingpin of crime in NYC.

The show also isn’t afraid to let us see his softer side, the cracks in his armour, and the sweet man he can be under the right circumstances. In the comics, Vanessa is his wonderfully adored wife; here, she serves the same purpose as his girlfriend. We get to see them meet and court and fall in love, and she gives us a window into the parts of Fisk that he doesn’t let the world see.

Okay, she also encourages and supports him in some of his worst deeds, but if she couldn’t accept the man capable – and inclined – to reduce someone to bloody death with his own fists, she wouldn’t be a good partner for him. This is no love story where she makes him a better person; this is a love story where she makes him a better Wilsin Fisk. I love that they didn’t shy away from that, and that the love story in itself is quite beautiful and sweet. Other shows would feel the need to moralise about it and twist the relationship into something dark and sinful, but that doesn’t happen here, and it’s honestly a refreshing change.

Another character that appears in all his unflattering glory is Stick. I was curious to see if they’d include him and how, and was pleased to see that Netflix doesn’t shy away from just how much of an asshole Stick is. For all that he’s fighting on the ‘good’ side of a ninja clan war, he’s a terrible person and he damages every young person he comes into contact with in fairly fundamental ways (in the comics, he’s responsible for training and then emotionally damaging both Matt and Elektra, more so in the latter case – but more on that when I get to reviewing Season 2 of the show).

In the Netflix show, his relationship with Matt is strained and somewhat contentious, and I like how complicated it is. Stick was Matt’s teacher and walked away from the kid, and so there is a lot of mixed feelings going on there. However, they added a father-figure element that felt out of place to me, and that spoiled what was otherwise a fairly faithful presentation of how Matt learned to kick ass and got so messed up in the head. More on this below.

Deliciously geeky nods

Marvel has such a rich, much-written-in world to pull from, and I loved the smaller elements that appeared in the show. Turk is as annoying and useless as I would expect. I loved Melvin Potter’s appearance and role in the season (though I’m still hoping he makes Gladiator’s Costume Shop a thing!). Claire Temple was an interesting (and welcome) addition, a Night Nurse reference that seems to be threading through all of the Netflix shows so far.

Matt’s initial costume was a curious call-back to the first, hurried costume he used in flashbacks in the comics, when he tried to save Elektra at college. (That’s the only similar version to that costume in the comics that I can recall offhand.) I love that he develops towards the traditional dark/red Daredevil costume through the season in a logical and sensible way, including the way he doesn’t use (and isn’t called by) the name ‘Daredevil’ explicitly (as far as I could spot, he’s only referred to as the ‘Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’ in the show).

Other familiar features include Josie’s Bar, though I was disappointed that Matt and Foggy would ever deign to drink there, and not once did Daredevil throw someone through the front window. If Josie isn’t complaining about having to replace her window because Daredevil came looking for some scumbag and got into a fight, you’re not doing it right. Sorry, Netflix!

Changes they made

It’s natural that, with any adaptation, there are differences from the original. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t.

For example, Karen Page is a lot less annoying and way more interesting in the Netflix show than she ever was in the comics. I like that she gets to have a personality and an arc all her own, and has some things happen to her that ripple through into the next season (more on that in a separate review).

Karen Page is one of my least favourite characters in the Daredevil comics, so it was nice to see her updated and made somewhat palatable. She’s still fairly whiny and annoying in places (and one of the weaker elements of the show), but a distinct improvement on the original.

That said, I was puzzled over why both Foggy and Matt were looking like romantic options for her, and why she kept getting moon-eyed over Matt when they had no real connection or chemistry. The relationships felt forced to me, partly because Matt isn’t presented as the casual dater/hook-up artist that he is in the comics and partly because they barely spend any real time together, and it all seems like more complication than he needs at that time. (Plus there’s the whole, more believable relationship plot with Claire Temple.)

I got the feeling that the only reason Matt and Karen were together by the end of the season is that someone felt the need to tick that box to match comic canon. (The relationship’s path in season 2 bears this out; it fizzles because there’s simply nothing there, and neither of them seem to really care about it.)

Another change they made was to make Ben Urich black. The only reason I’m mentioning it is because they made it work for the character (and others are likely to comment on it), and it’s the type of change I welcome. He is still the respected veteran reporter that doesn’t put up with anyone getting in his way, but at heart a good, moral person who does the right thing.

It was a shame that they had to move him to a different paper, most likely because the Daily Bugle and J. Jonah Jameson are tied up with the rights to Spider-Man. Without Jameson to shout at him, I felt Ben’s story lacked something; part of Ben’s charm is how well he handles Jameson’s unreasonable bluster (mostly by completely ignoring it, without being rude), and how much he knows that Jameson needs him way more than he needs Jameson. He’s not nasty about it, but he doesn’t let Jameson get in his way, either.

I was disappointed about the end of Ben’s story in this season of the show. On one hand, it’s brave of the show’s makers to kill off such a key character in this part of the MCU. On the other, they’ve cut off so many future avenues and plot lines. It makes me sad that we’ll never see Ben and Jessica Jones trolling J Jonah Jameson like they did in Alias. Or that Ben will never become the holder of Manhattan’s heroes’ secret identities. He’s another very grounding character, and I think his influence will be missed.

Central changes

Some of the most obvious and telling changes they made in the Netflix show were to Matt’s backstory, relating to the death of his father and his training with Stick. It’s a collection of fairly small changes, but the more I think about it, the larger the implications are (as a writer, I’m often considering the impacts of events on characters, so this sort of thing stands out to me).

In the Netflix show, Matt’s father is shot after refusing to throw a boxing match when the kid is pretty young (12/13?). Matt hears the shot and somehow knows who the victim is (I’m not sure how). The shooter gets away, though the cops know who it is (which leads into a plot point in season 2).

After this, Matt is picked up by Stick and is trained in fighting and using his altered/heightened senses. However, Matt starts to think of Stick as a father figure, so Stick abandons him and disappears, after telling him off for getting too emotionally attached. After this, he winds up in the care of nuns at an orphanage.

So, we have a boy tragically losing his father, and left with a pile of daddy issues in relation to Stick. Pretty simple and straightforward: Matt learns nothing through this except that getting emotionally involved is bad, and possibly some daddy and abandonment issues.

In the comics, it’s more complex than that (at least, in the comics that I’ve read; it’s entirely possible that Marvel have several versions of his backstory, as that’s not unusual). Battlin’ Jack Murdock is killed for the same reason – refusing to throw a fight – but he’s beaten to death (not shot) and Matt overhears the whole thing. He’s able to identify the handful of guys responsible.

Before this, a short time after he was blinded, Stick found him and started to train him in secret. He taught a kid how to make sense of the world without his eyes, through his newly heightened senses, how to look after himself, and how to fight. He was tough and cruel, but he was also a teacher.

He had two simple rules: Matt wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about the training – not even his father – and he must never use his abilities in front of anyone without explicit permission from Stick.

So, when his father is killed, Matt knows how to use his heightened senses and can not only identify who was involved, but track them down. Maddened with grief, he chases them down, one at a time, and beats the crap out of them. When he gets to the last one, however, word has got around about what he’s doing and the guy is expecting him. The guy is terrified, and winds up having a heart attack and dying right in front of Matt. Matt doesn’t kill him, but he does cause the man’s death.

Stick learns of the kid’s grief-addled rampage and that Matt broke his second rule: he didn’t have permission to go beating people up. So, Stick leaves, without an explanation or single word to the kid.

In a single night, young Matt loses his father and his mentor, the only two people he really has in his life. He has just accidentally killed someone, and most likely feels that Stick’s abandonment is at least part punishment for that. He then winds up in a Catholic orphanage with the nuns.

As you can see, the changes in themselves are fairly minor. However, the original version gives us a fairly good setup for who Matt is going to be: the focus on fisticuffs; his willingness to go vigilante in search of justice; his willingness to break the rules; and his aversion to killing.

The TV show version gives us none of that, and it’s particularly a shame in light of Matt’s personal story through this first season: whether he should kill or not. He’s trying to decide what kind of vigilante he will be. His aversion to killing doesn’t seem to have any real basis, except a natural tendency, and while that’s not unreasonable or impossible, it feels thin. We see him battle against only a personal moral preference, rather than a horrible personal experience that reinforced and solidified his moral preference. To me, the latter would have been more powerful, with higher personal stakes for Matt because it challenges something he promised himself many years ago. It would have made it a tougher decision as the situation with the Kingpin forced him further and further towards believing the only solution was to kill the criminal.

(Season 2 also undercut this whole plotline by having a flashback in which he has the opportunity to take his revenge on the man who shot his father. So, he has faced this decision directly before, but we get none of it here in season 1, when it’s particularly relevant and personal. What the hell, Netflix?)

I think part of my frustration with this change is that I can’t fathom why the show-makers would bother. The original version would have supported and deepened the story they were telling, while the TV show version didn’t add anything of real value and weakened what it could have been.

The main differences we end up with are this weird daddy-issues relationship between Stick and Matt, and the unresolved murder of his father. The latter is addressed in season 2 (as mentioned above), but he could easily have faced the man who ordered the hit instead. The Matt/Stick relationship didn’t need messing with – the comics has the ‘you abandoned me when I needed you most’ aspect, so there’s plenty of tension between them to play with.

Missed opportunities like this frustrate me as a reader or watcher, because it could easily have been so much better. Changes like this smack of laziness or lack of insight, and it’s a real shame. Dammit, Netflix, you could have done better.

 

That all said, I think they did a great job overall. In the scheme of things, the small changes are still pretty small, and they did so much more right. The first season is a fun ride into the dark and difficult world Matt lives in, with a wonderful villain and a heap of tough choices, and I love it. Definitely recommend this one to watch!

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3 February 2017 - 6:21 pm

Writing Spark #15

(Picture from HuTui6.com)

This week, our prompt is more specific and focussed:

One day we peeked in the window and saw the headmistress calmly sewing her arm back on.

It might be more guided than most of these sparks, but it still raises plenty of fun questions to ponder and answer. Like, how the headmistress came to be missing that arm, and why ‘we’ might be peeking in on her. Not to mention just how she can be so calm while performing that type of repair work.

So much packed into one small sentence. How will you unpack it?

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1 February 2017 - 6:01 pm

Adapting thoughts

YA adaptations ahoy!
(Picture: not mine)
(Disclaimer: I won’t be reviewing any of these)

We’re seeing a lot of adaptations, remakes, and updates to existing pieces of fiction coming through lately, particularly in the movies but also in TV shows like the Netflix Marvel ones. I’m finding that I want to review more and more adaptations, so I thought I’d spend a bit of time analysing and sharing my approach to reviewing/critiquing adaptations.

It can be difficult to judge a piece on its own merits when the original source looms particularly large. It’s especially complicated when different people have different ideas about what’s important in the source material, and what an adaptation ‘should’ do in order to be a ‘good adaptation’.

For me, it’s important to recognise that an adaptation will never be a carbon copy of the original. Text does not translate directly to screen, or to stage, in either direction or combination. Even text to audio can be tricky, depending on the text. Different media have different patterns, expectations, conventions, consumption requirements, and audiences. The experience is necessarily different, and so the presentation must be different.

So, when considering an adaptation, it’s not a question of ‘is it different from the original’, but ‘how is it different’ and ‘how much is it different’. From there, I consider whether I think it has strayed too far from the source, or if they’ve done a good job at translating it into a different medium.

A part of that, but also a crucial question in its own right as far as reviewing something goes, is asking whether the result is a good film/TV show/book, etc. An adaptation can be terrible in terms of staying true to its source but also a good movie, and the reverse is also true.

So how does an adaptation stay ‘true’ to its source, and at what point has it strayed too far? This is entirely subjective and difficult to define, but I’ll try to outline my personal approach. I do this to give my comments some context, and as I mentioned above, different people have different criteria when it comes to this sort of thing.

Some people will decry changes in character appearances, for example, because it doesn’t match their mental image of what a particular person should look like. This is less important to me. Aesthetics tend to be pretty far down on my list of things I care about, unless they’re an important part of the story or theme of the original piece, or form something important about a character.

To me, it’s the core of the original that’s important.

For characters, who they are on the inside and how they interact with the world around them – and influence the story they’re in – is more important than the details on the outside.

But what defines ‘inside’ and ‘outside isn’t simple, either. There are some characters to whom race is an important part of who that character is, while there are some who are not fundamentally defined by it. Sexuality is key to some characters but superfluous to others. Even single physical details can be important depending on the context they’re placed in, like being the only redhead in a sea of blondes, or unusually tall. The aspects that define the core of a character are entirely subjective and blanket statements simply don’t work here.

For example, in the 2003 Daredevil movie, I liked the casting Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin because he had the physical presence and gravitas of the comicbook character, and altering his racial background didn’t change where he had come from as a character (a poor kid from a rough neighbourhood, who fought his way up to affluence and power). The details and nuances might be different, but the larger strokes were the same. Others made objections about the race-flipping, from what I can tell only on the basis that ‘Wilson Fisk wasn’t black’, without any notion given of why it was important that he was white.

For other aspects of the story, such as setting and plot, how important it is that they’re done according to the original depends on how important they are to the story. Many stories have been adapted to different settings, times, and even genres, and yet still work as faithful adaptations.

Bride and Prejudice is one of my favourite Pride and Prejudice adaptations, because the story, the social aspects, and the interpersonal relationships work well when transposed into a contemporary Indian setting. The Bollywood flavour to it is a heap of fun, too. Similarly, Shakespeare can work well when transposed into contemporary settings, like in 10 Things I Hate About You, even though it might be missing the expected Shakespearean language and flavour.

It’s hard to say what I would consider to be the ‘core’ of the story, because it so much depends on the story. In most cases, it’s the character journeys: how they relate to each other, what they learn, and who they end up being when it’s all done (as in the adaptations mentioned above). In many, it’s the theme or message driving the story. This often interacts with the character journeys, so they can go hand-in-hand, but that isn’t always the case; the same message given in different ways can still be a good adaptation.

For example, Disney’s 1989 The Little Mermaid is one of the worst adaptations I have ever seen. As a movie, it’s delightful and the songs are catchy, and it’s totally adorable. However, as an adaptation, it misses the mark by a country mile. Sure, the characters are basically the same, the setting is familiar, and the basic plot follows the original (until the ending), but the movie gets all the important stuff wrong.

It not only didn’t deliver the message of the original, it actually gave the complete opposite message. It also invented an antagonist that was never in the original, but this is most likely driven by the writers missing the original’s intention. (The sea witch is in the original, but not as an antagonist.)

In Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, the only antagonist in the story is Ariel herself. She changes herself to try to win a man, and it’s her own foolishness in thinking that this will work that is her downfall. All of Ariel’s machinations fail because the prince is actually a good person and stays true to the person he’s in love with and engaged to (specifically: someone not Ariel). The story is a tragedy, even though Ariel redeems herself at the end by choosing responsibility rather than rage or selfishness. She has to accept personal responsibility for her situation and the damage she has caused to the people around her, and that sacrificing herself for the good of others is the only right, moral choice left to her, because of her own choices.

Disney, on the other hand, would have us believe that if you change everything about yourself, and lie to and manipulate a man, then girls, you’ll get him. Isn’t that great?

Truthfully, I wish that Disney had stayed away from The Little Mermaid. It was never going to do the original justice, because they don’t make tragic stories and had to have a happy ending in which the girl and boy hook up.

Another way that adaptations can fail to live up to the original is by over-simplifying them. Too often, I see remakes or reworks of a story that fail to grasp the complexities of the original, distracted by pretty aspects like aesthetics, shiny aspects like technology, or racy elements like sex and explosions. This usually results in a shallower story, and often lacks the heart that drew people to the original.

The Little Mermaid is an example of this, turning a story of self-discovery and moral evolution into a simple love story (with pretty songs).

Another example is the remake of Total Recall. In the 1990 original, they packed in a whole heap of uncertainty and layers of mind-fuck, so that you were never quite sure what was real and what had been implanted in the main character’s memory. The 2012 remake lost sight of this, erased most of the ambiguity (they make a couple of half-hearted attempts to confuse the main character, but it fails to reach the audience), and simplified the story by making it blindingly obvious what was real and what wasn’t. A thought-provoking movie was turned into an entertaining action movie, far shallower than the original. More impressive than that: they made an Arnold Swarzenegger movie look wildly intelligent.

I’ve seen comments in response to this issue along the lines of ‘but this is a new vision and the artist might have been trying to say something different’. To me, that smacks of laziness; if an artist wants to say something different to the original, why not just make something new? Why twist someone else’s work for their own purposes? It feels dishonest to me, unless the point is subversion or parody (but this is seldom the case).

Again, it’s not as simple as that. There are always exceptions and grey areas. Let’s take To Kill a Mockingbird for example: an iconic film with themes of prejudice and racism at its core. If someone remade it to focus on disability instead of racism, would that work? I think it could, and there’s a level at which it can call back to the original to reinforce the theme of prejudice and its consequences. What if it was remade to remove the prejudice angle, and it became a more straightforward courtroom drama? At that point, I would be asking why they called it To Kill a Mockingbird, and didn’t simply make an original movie.

Wearing a ballgown doesn’t make you a princess unless you’re trying to be a princess regardless of the dress.

Because changes are inevitable in an adaptation, I think it’s important to consider why changes have been made (not just looking at what has been changed). Creators are always making choices, and it’s worth trying to understand those choices before deciding whether they were done well or not. Sometimes it’s the needs of the medium; some conventions or mechanisms simply don’t work well when translated to another medium. Sometimes it’s an update caused by a change in the times, such as the minefield that is turning comics that were created in a more racist and sexist age into a modern movie (Doctor Strange, I’m looking at you).

There are so many reasons why a change might be made – some of which we can only guess at from this side of the screen/page – that it’s hard to be more specific than that. I try to consider it, untangle it, and go from there.

As always, it’s easy to criticise and point fingers and say negative things. It’s easy to pick holes. I prefer to take a step further and examine why I feel negatively about something, how the makers got to that place, and what they might have done to do it better. Sure, an adaptation of a novel into a movie isn’t going to cover deep backstory on your favourite side character, and it’s going to gloss over a whole heap of stuff, because movies don’t have the time or narrative breadth to do everything a novel can. So, for me, the question is: did they keep the important stuff and do the story justice? If it was me, what would I have done differently to make it better?

I think it’s easy to assume that the original is best, too, and that’s simply not always the case. It’s possible to improve on the source: for example, I haven’t heard a single person say that the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies weren’t improved by skipping the Tom Bombadil section of the book. Different doesn’t always mean bad.

The last thing I want to add about adaptations is that it’s easy to be blinded by the original and forget to judge the piece as a piece in its own right. Sometimes, choices are made because that’s what makes a better movie. Sometimes, choices need to be viewed as a whole, because while the makers might have strayed from the original, they made a good movie or TV show out of it, and that’s worth recognising. Game of Thrones is probably a good example: both books and show are good, though they differ in many ways and are diverging (I haven’t read the books yet, so am running on feedback from others on those!).

In many ways, a piece can be diminished by its connection to an original source; it might do better if judged on its own. Like the 2004 King Arthur movie, which works fine as a generic, gritty ancient war movie, but suffers (badly) by claiming to be anything to do with King Arthur and real history.

Reviewing adaptations is a minefield. I shall endeavour to consider them from all of the above angles, for those pieces where I am familiar with the original. You can probably tell that I can be opinionated, but I try to also be fair and even-handed.

Strap in, friends. There’s more to come.

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27 January 2017 - 6:16 pm

Writing Spark #14

(Picture from HuTui6.com)

Another deceptively simple prompt to get you going:

I’m only telling you this because you won’t be able to tell anyone else.

This works well as the first line to a piece, or simply as a jumping-off idea. It can be taken anywhere, but also runs the risk of being too broad. (I find some writing prompts are too broad to spark a specific idea, and wind up being frustrating.) It all depends on what you hook onto!

I like this one because you can come at it from so many different directions. Why can’t you tell anyone else? What’s so important about this secret? Is this the start of a villain’s monologue? The real origin of something wonderful, or something disastrous? Why are you there, to listen to this secret?

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25 January 2017 - 6:03 pm

A plethora of love

Why must there always be smoochies?
(Picture: not mine)

Western society and its fictional media seem obsessed with sexual relationships. Not necessarily sex itself (because being too sexual is bad); rather, romance and sexual attraction, and the promise of sex.

I have no problem with these ideas on their own. I love a good romantic subplot, or even main plot when the mood strikes. I like a bit of raunchy goodness. I adore seeing couples come together. (I’m currently in the middle of writing a very romance/sex-heavy part of a story, and loving it!)

I start to have an issue when it becomes ubiquitous. Too often, romances are shoe-horned into stories, whether books or TV shows or movies. Fan-fiction takes non-romantic relationships and adds sexual heat. I start to object not because I dislike romances, but because of all the things that these couplings are replacing, and for the messages it sends.

One of the things that worries me most about this trend is that it erases other types of love and relationship. Relationships are so much more than just sex and attraction, and they can be deep and valuable without a hint of sexual chemistry. Too often, I see that if a man and woman work closely together, or are in close proximity for long periods, they must, at some point, hook up. Or if two men are very close, loyal to each other, often comrades of some sort, they must also be fucking.

It’s unrealistic, and honestly, childish (in its desperate clamouring for simplicity, not in that children do this). It is entirely possible to be devoted friends with someone of your preferred will-boink gender and type, and have it never go anywhere near sex. You can be utterly loyal to them, to a fault, have a deep affection, and for it to be completely non-sexual (or asexual; I’m using ‘non-sexual’ to avoid confusion with the asexual orientation).

But so many of the stories we read and see deny that this is a possibility. If two people get on really well, at least one of them will want to get naked and sweaty with the other. This is particularly pervasive in fan-fiction, which is notorious for taking non-sexual relationships and turning them sexual (the Wincest and Twincest* fandoms are so notable they have their own names, and turn brothers into lovers). Why can’t brothers just love each other? Support each other and have each other’s backs? Why is that not beautiful and satisfying in its own right?

Talking about fan-fiction is tricky, because it’s a minefield of people striving to tell the stories they want to tell. I’m not trying to bash fan-ficcers; they are, unfortunately, the extreme example that illustrates the point. I get that two hot guys fucking is sometimes the point, and that’s fine. I also understand that, for minorities, often these pairings are about representation and putting themselves (or people like themselves) into media in a way that mainstream media is currently failing to do. (Glorifying incest is a shade too far in my book, but that’s a personal opinion.)

I mention it because it’s all part of this worrying trend that turns every relationship into a boink-fest. Like there’s nothing else.

It’s got to the point where the exceptions jump out at me, and I’m desperately grateful for them. Like the end of Pacific Rim, when the two lead characters, despite some chemistry in the movie and being in each other’s heads, embrace platonically at the end instead of the snog I was expecting Hollywood to produce. It was a natural progression of their relationship, rather than the usual rush-to-squishiness that happens. That moment wasn’t about romance; it was about appreciating each other, with affection, and was nice to see.

Sometimes, the best way we can support and comfort one another is with a hug.

Similarly, Zoe and Mal in Firefly/Serenity are a great example. They’re inseparable, utterly and fiercely loyal to each other, they live together, they’re both physically-capable characters, and go through high-stakes combat situations (and we all know that adrenaline leads inevitably to boinking, right? Like we can’t help ourselves).

And yet, there’s absolutely no chemistry between them (it’s even explicitly addressed in the TV show). In any other show, they’d be all over each other (see, for example, Farscape for a different choice with similar archetypes). In Firefly, though, they’re allowed to be attached to each other and romantically (and sexually) independent. Their orientations even mesh, so it’s not that they couldn’t be attracted to each other that way; they simply aren’t. I love this!

These two examples also allow something that is erased by much Western fiction: men and women can be friends and not want to fuck at any point in the relationship. No ‘friendzoning’ required (I hate that whole idea because of everything it carries with it).

And this is where I mention the messages that this trend sends. That every close relationship must involve sex at some point, like it’s expected. This is where the ‘friendzoning’ trend/trope annoys me, because our media encourages men, in particular, to expect sex as part of being friends with a girl.

It’s worth mentioning that I’ve dated guys that I’ve been friends with for some time. I’ve had that type of relationship evolution myself, so I’m the last person to deny that it can happen. I’ve also had a lot of close male friends in my life that have involved no chemistry on either side (despite compatible sexual preferences), and have just been great mateships. I value those relationships greatly. So the denial that the latter can happen annoys me intensely. Why would you deny yourself the wonderful friends you could have?

Then there’s the trend that people in intense situations must get together, because that’s a healthy way to start a relationship. The movie Speed addressed this explicitly, and it’s no surprise that the relationship at the end of the first movie has fallen apart by the sequel (it’s also convenient for their casting/plot choices, of course). Too many times, I’ve looked at a couple snogging at the end of a story with its ‘and they boinked happily ever after and had little tiny protagonists of their own’ tone, and wound up thinking ‘but they have nothing in common and returning to their real lives is going to be a hell of a shock’. Enjoy the sweaty sex while it lasts, kids, because that’s only a happily-for-now ending, not a happily-ever-after.

More worrying is the trope that we still see all over the place that uses a romantic hookup as the hero’s reward at the end of his struggles. Because women are still prizes to be fought over and won, and we, apparently, can’t help but get all weak-kneed in the presence of a successful protagonist. These are usually the most ill-matched pairings, because the girl must be hot and male heroes have had a trend in recent years of being more ordinary-looking, delving into nerdy (Transformers, I’m looking at you).

It’s not to say that the nerd can’t get the hot girl, because sure, we all love to see someone punching above their weight. But it’s the notion that all you need to do is succeed at whatever is in front of you to ‘get’ her that rankles. In Transformers, it’s particularly obvious, because they spend no time at all developing why the girl would want to be with this boy on a relationship level (and there’s not a whisper of chemistry between them). He’s the ‘hero’ of the story, so therefore, getting the girl is a foregone conclusion and the story does nothing to provide any other reason for the hook-up.

Too often, the romance aspect is pushed in at the last minute, like they’re ticking a box.

Turning a relationship to sex can also cheapen whatever it had been growing into in the story. It’s so frustrating to see burgeoning friendships turn into ‘nah, they’re just going to fuck’, and what might have been an interesting aspect to the story be cut off. Because a lot of how we deal with sex, particularly in the media, is cheap and distancing, and lacks complexity, by replacing emotional or affectionate intimacy with physical intimacy.

Turning a relationship romantic can also cut off other avenues of expression, exploration and discussion. ‘Because love’ becomes the reason for everything, and I’m so terribly bored with that. We do things for so many reasons, and being in love with someone doesn’t have to be at the top of the list.

One example that comes to mind is the current Stucky (Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes) fan pairing. There is some desire to make this pairing canon in the MCU, and fans who will claim that it’s subtext in the movies. At least part of this is because the MCU is desperately lacking in gay representation and having a notable character like Captain America be gay (or bi, really) would be huge. I get that, and I support the sentiment that there should be more gay representation (in the MCU and media in general). However.

I think that giving Steve and Bucky’s relationship a sexual or romantic angle would cheapen and over-simplify it. Steve’s relationship with and feelings towards Bucky are complicated, and not entirely about Bucky. His dogged support and pursuit of Bucky through Civil War shows us a lot about him and about the trauma that he is struggling to deal with: losing everyone he knew to the passage of time while he was frozen; survivor’s guilt, particularly with what happened to Bucky; a desperate belief in the possibility of redemption; and the loyalty between comrades and friends.

Bring romance into it, and all of those things fade into the background. We can sit back and stop questioning: Steve’s motivations are explained by ‘because love’, because love is such a powerful force that you don’t need any other explanation to shore it up. For someone to go to those lengths for a friend, though, that lets us know that there’s a lot more going on under the hood than is immediately obvious. We question, we watch more closely, because if not love, then why? We start to notice how much Steve is looking in the mirror when he looks at Bucky and seeing all the things that he could have been, if things had been different. If he hadn’t been lucky. If he had fallen off that train and into the enemy’s hands. The struggle with the friend who had protected him for so long suddenly needing his protection. His desperate need to believe in there being good underneath the mask of the Winter Soldier. Tucking all of this away under romance-tinted lenses is a disservice to otherwise complex and interesting characters.

As a creator and consumer of fiction, I’m interested in the human condition. I want to see it in all its dirty, complicated messiness. I want to see all the diverse aspects people and how we interact with and are influenced by the world around us.

Not every relationship can and should be about romance or sex or hearts. There are so many different ways to love others: some involve kisses, others hugs, and others supportive words.

For those who cry about representation, who want this character to be gay, or that character to be bi: what about asexual characters? Or aromantics? What about stories that are not about romance? Why must it be everywhere?

Why can’t we embrace the bromance or the sisterhood without sex getting in the way, or celebrate close familial love, or enjoy the notion of heterosexual life partners**? Why isn’t it okay for soulmates to be just friends? Why can’t we explore all the different flavours of love available to us?

Because there’s so much more out there worth exploring. Demand more from your fiction! Like Frozen, which revolved around the connection between two sisters (and lampooned romantic relationships and our childish obsession with them). Or Brave, which was about connecting with parents, and balancing compassion and understanding with duty.

Demand more, write more. Enjoy the breadth and depth of human emotion, and don’t let media pressure cheapen it with a thin veneer of sex. We’re so much better than that.

 

* For those unfamiliar: Wincest is the Winchester brothers from Supernatural hooking up; Twincest is the Weasley twins from Harry Potter doing the same.

** Jay and Silent Bob reference; another flavour of bromance without a hint of actual romance.

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20 January 2017 - 6:13 pm

Writing Spark #13

(Picture from HuTui6.com)

An oldie but a goodie:

You wake up covered in blood.

Grim and sticky, this one can take you in many directions. Whose blood is it? Do you know why and how you got red on you? What’s your first reaction to waking up this way: fear, anger, annoyance? Do you freak out or take it in your stride? And, interestingly, how long does it take you to notice?

Enjoy your bloody mess.

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18 January 2017 - 6:33 pm

Amazon Unlimited scams hit authors

Amazon, the behemoth that started out as an online bookstore.

Amazon, the behemoth that started out as an online bookstore.

Part of the Amazon is not your friend series. 

In 2015, Kindle Unlimited (KU) changed how it was determining how much to give authors who were part of the program, moving from a ‘per borrow’ system to a ‘per page’ one.

At least one of their motivations for doing this was to prevent authors from trying to game the system by turning out lots of short works. Per-page payments meant that authors of longer works should, theoretically, be paid more.

Over a year on, and I think it’s safe to say that Amazon didn’t achieve their goal. In fact, they seem to have made the scamming problem worse: it got to a point where scam books were taking over the bestseller list and utterly devaluing KU for non-scamming authors.

The Big Flaw

How did they do this? Because, despite the paranoid reactions about Amazon being big brother and collecting all kinds of data on you through your Kindle (including mine!), they can’t tell what pages you’ve read. We gave them way too much credit. They can only tell the latest page in the book that you have viewed. From there, they assume that you’ve read everything from the front cover up to that page.

Hyperlinks are a common – and required – element of an ebook. If you click one that takes you from page 20 to page 300, KU records that you’ve read 300 pages (and pays the author accordingly), rather than the actual 21 pages. There’s also the front matter (copyright statements, etc) that everyone skips past but still counts as pages read.

How the Scammers Scam

You’re probably already seeing how easy it is for scammers to game the system. Where some people said that this would make authors write better stories, to keep people reading page after page, instead you have scammers creating ebooks with links at the start of the book to offers and competitions on the last page, to make them get paid for the entire book’s worth of pages even if you haven’t actually read them.

In the middle, scam books typically have junk. There might be enough legitimate, story-like text to fill up the 10% preview to entice readers to borrow it, but the remainder of the book (usually thousands of pages) is trash text, or repeated copy-and-pastes of that first preview section.

If the text isn’t entirely trash, there might be translations of the story at the front, making readers click past pages and pages of Google-translated gibberish to find the English version.

Or, similarly, ‘bonus content’ at the front of the book (instead of the back, where it typically goes in a print book), so readers who want to read the story they’re there to read click past it, racking up a chunk of pages that no-one has read. (This can be used legitimately, because readers can react negatively to a story ending 70% of the way through the book and the rest is ‘bonus’. One author specifically moved her bonus content to the front to respond to feedback and improve reader experiences.)

Another tactic that scammers have used is to put the table of contents (ToC) at the back of the book. As it’s a useful navigation tool, it’s common that a reader would use it, and record a full book read without reading a single page of the story. (It’s worth noting that this could be invisible to the reader; they’re not going to care where they are in the ebook, as long as they know what to read next!)

A ToC is a required part of an ebook, but its location is at the discretion of the author. Many (legitimate) authors move it to the back to reduce the noise at the start of the book, because the beginning section is used as the preview. The preview an important tool for enticing readers to read or buy a book, and they want potential readers to get to the story as quickly as possible. So, having the ToC at the back of the book can aid sales and support readers; it’s not necessarily a sign of a scam.

So, it’s easy for scammers to rack up huge numbers of page views with very little effort. They’ve been so successful at it that scam books started to take over the bestseller lists on the Amazon site, because Amazon factors in the ‘borrows’ and likes to pump up books in the KU/Kindle Select program.

Real authors are the ones who have been paying the price. Because the money paid out to KU authors is a fixed amount, and the portion given to authors is determined by their percentage of the total page views for the month, it means that authors found their incomes dropping at a startling rate.

Amazon’s Response

Unfortunately, Amazon’s response to this issue has been in typical Amazon style: wild and indiscriminate use of the ban-hammer. They went on a campaign of ripping books off the shelves if their ToC was in the rear of the book, despite this being used for legitimate reasons by real authors. The backlash against this was so huge that they wound up back-pedalling on it and allowing rear ToCs. However, by then, the damage for many was already done.

The impacts for legitimate authors are huge. Due to the way Amazon’s algorithms work, books that were removed from the store lost sales ranks and visibility. It takes a lot of work and money to recover the sales position of an affected book. Due to the timing of the bans, at least one author wasted a whole bunch of money on a promotion that coincided with his book’s removal. This has real impacts on visibility, saleability, and future earnings. In short: it hurts authors’ livelihoods.

For some authors, it has been worse than that. One author, Pauline Creedon, had all of her books removed from Amazon, lost all outstanding royalties, had her account cancelled, and was banned from ever selling through Amazon again. The reason? Some of her KU borrows came from ‘systematically generated accounts’ – the type of system a scammer might use to artificially inflate page read numbers.

While it’s great that Amazon is cracking down on this type of behaviour – paying click-farms to bulk up your page reads – it’s clear they’re hitting legitimate authors as well. Pauline says she did not pay anyone to do this, and it’s not like authors can prevent click-farms from going nuts on their book. The spike that she – and other legitimate authors like her – received wasn’t enough to earn her a significant amount, either. Speculation says that click-farms attempt to hide their scammy activities by clicking through ‘real’ books, which is why Pauline is not the only author to be hit by this accusation and ban-hammering. Pauline’s case was a little while ago now, but I saw another report of a legitimate author being punished for this reason just this week – it’s clearly an ongoing issue.

This seems like a particularly extreme response on Amazon’s part (banning for life? on an unsubstantiated violation?), especially when compared to their actions towards real scammers.

Because, on the flip side, when books are reported as scams, Amazon takes a long time to respond. When they do, they might take down an individual book, but do nothing about the account. These accounts typically have a massive catalogue of scam books. Let’s be clear: these scams are not very well hidden; a quick, cursory glance is enough to confirm what is or is not a scam, but Amazon simply aren’t bothering to do anything but the bare minimum.

They are quick with the automated ban-hammers, but slow and minimalist when responding to reports of real problems. It’s pretty clear that their focus is on the quick, easy action rather than solving the real problems.

Since mid-2016, chatter has grown quieter over KU and Amazon’s shenanigans. But nothing has changed: authors must still be on their guard at all times, and we’re still getting reports of legitimate authors being banned out of hand. One particular blog post suggests that authors should query any spike in sales with Amazon, to get ahead of accusations of fraud, rather than simply celebrating a book doing well. It’s pathetic that this is probably good advice, but even that isn’t working for authors who try to do the right thing.

I remain sure that I will not be making my books exclusive with Amazon any time soon, nor will they be available through KU. Amazon has a long way to go before their service is anything other than a waste of everyone’s time and effort.

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