Review posts

Review: 10 Rules of Writing

10 Rules of Writing by Elmore Leonard

Anyone who has talked to me – or heard me talk – about writing books knows that I always start with one piece of advice: if you’re going to read one writing book, read three. Then I usually go on to say: there are lots of ways to write, and you need to find what’s best for you.

If I was going to recommend some writing books, Elmore Leonard’s wouldn’t be in the list. I had to think long and hard about this, but ultimately, there are many more useful places for you to spend your time and money.

I read it because a friend had borrowed it from the library and I could get through it in a lunchtime at work before she had to take it back. This is because of the first issue I have with the book: it’s very short. Yes, you get the ten rules of writing, but they’re a sentence or two each, and there is rarely any explanation given for why these are good rules to follow. There are some interesting pictures used to fill up the pages, but little substance.

I can nod and agree and fill in the gaps myself, but I’ve been studying writing for most of my life. Honestly, I’m not sure who this book is aimed at. Beginner writers are in danger of being bewildered by the statements and will wind up following them blindly, if at all. Experienced writers aren’t likely to find them of much value because they’re just surface rules.

And because there’s no notion about why they’re good to follow, there’s no hint about when or why it might be good to break them. As always with writing, breaking rules is just as important as following them, but you can only do that if you understand them first.

So, then we move on to the rules themselves. I will say that it is all good, solid advice. There are a couple of points that I don’t agree with (as hard and fast rules – with some explanation, context, or caveats, they would be fine). For example, Mr Leonard says not to use detailed descriptions. Some genres and styles of writing have this as a norm, so I don’t think you can apply this rule universally. In some writing, it fits the flow of the story rather than breaks it.

Context is king.

The rules themselves also overlap in a few cases. Take the description one – that’s actually two rules, one for characters and one for places and objects. Why split them up? Then there’s the last rule, the one we’ve stuck with the book long enough to reach: “Leave out parts the readers tend to skip.” Well, that covers several other rules which could have been rolled up into a single bundle.

So what you actually get is about 6 or 7 rules of writing.

Once you’ve got that far – to the end of Rule 10 – you should be at the end of the book. Right? Wrong. There’s more! At the back of the book there’s a whole splurge of information and advice about writing. It’s good stuff too, and explained better than most of the ‘rules’. Why these points weren’t made into rules, I don’t know. It’s great to have in there, but bewildering considering the construction of the book and its information.

I feel like somewhere in those pages, there is a good writing book hiding. Replace the pretty pictures with some explanatory text and you might just find it. Sadly, that isn’t what was produced.

Overall, I would advise you save your money rather than spend it on this book (I’ve only seen it in hardcover and therefore not cheap!). Borrow it from a library if you’re desperate to read it, but you’ll find many more useful writing books out there.

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Reviewing things

Reviews are something I’ve been meaning to get into for a while. I’ve done a couple, mostly out of a need to vent my irritation and/or random thoughts about the subject material (Kill Bill and True Blood (season one), for those playing at home).

I find that the more I write and the more I explore writing, the more critical of fiction I become. This isn’t just books (which, because of all the writing, I don’t have a lot of time or headspace for at the moment), but includes TV shows and movies. Plotting, character development, continuity – all those elements that transcend media and tend to ping my radar when I’m reading or watching something.

Quite often, it’s the fiction that is almost awesome that annoys me the most. I want to love it. I want it to be fantastic, but there’s something that niggles. Those are the ones I get the urge to write about. Picking apart those annoyances helps me work out more of what I like and don’t like, what I want to avoid in my own work and what I want to emulate.

I’m going to try to find more time to write reviews. At the moment, there’s a list building up of ones that I want to do, namely and in no particular order:

  • The Box (movie) – not at all what I expected, and more annoying the more I think about it.
  • Inception (movie) – awesome on first viewing, but suffers under close scrutiny.
  • White Tiger Kylie Chan (book) – one I like much more than I had expected to.
  • Remastering Jerna Ann Somerville (book) – not my usual thing, but enjoyable nonetheless.

I’m also currently watching through the first five seasons of House, and occasionally discussing elements of it with a critical and yet addicted friend. I might pull my thoughts about that into some kind of review-type-thing at some point.

It’s a plan. I wonder if I can fit any of it in around my current commitments. Don’t hold your breath, but watch this space anyway!

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Review: True Blood

I watch a lot of shows, mostly on DVD these days because TV broadcasting tends to suck. It’s not often that I feel moved to talk much about the stuff I watch, let alone do any kind of review, but I occasionally make an exception. I am fussy about my fiction, and things that irk me make me want to pick them apart until I know what it is that irks me so much.

I shall attempt not to spoil anything major, but I make no promises. I will also point out that I have not read the books, only seen the series.

A wonderful friend gave me the first season of True Blood for Christmas. I’ve heard good things about it (and a few not-so-good things, but mostly good) and have been tempted to pick it up myself. It might be part of the recent vampire craze but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s crap. The cast looked pretty good and the premise seemed interesting, and that gave me hope.

I wanted to like True Blood, I really did. But it’s like a sister with an addiction – every time you come around to forgiving past trespasses, she goes and falls on her face again, leaving you with a string of WTFs and FFSs. I kept hoping that the next time would see her right, that she’d find her feet and stand up properly for a change, and dammit, she’s family and you don’t give up on family (it was a gift and I’m stubborn enough to see things through to the end). But when she finally came to an end with promises of more to follow, I was left with an aftertaste of frustration and hair-pulling.

I just spoke with a friend about it, and wound up describing it as: “Cheesy porn. The kind that comes around to fix your dishwasher naked. Lots of filler and disappointing climaxes.”

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, True Blood is about a small Louisanna town in a world where vampires have come ‘out of the coffin’ (their words, not mine) and promise to drink bottled fake blood instead of people. The main characters are: Sookie, the telepathic waitress; Vampire Bill, who has nothing else interesting about him; Jason, Sookie’s brother (hereafter known affectionately as Fuckadoodle); Tara, the black girl who can’t get away from the fact she was named after a plantation, among several other sticks up her ass; and Sam, the huggable, dependable employer of half the cast who, unsurprisingly, takes shit for the whole season. Cue predictable romance between the telepath and the vampire, add a serial murder mystery and a butt-load of sex, shake and spill onto your screen.

Let’s start with the plot of the season (as I’ll probably go on at length about the characters within this section). First of all, the episodes annoyed me for their lack of structure. They seemed to meander all over the place without having much of anything achieved or resolved in an episode, though they made sure to end on a near-audible DUN DUN DUN note. Alias pulled this off well; True Blood did not. Clearly part of a larger story or three (one would hope, though many of the threads that were started didn’t actually go anywhere), each episode still didn’t have a coherent purpose in what it was trying to do.

What looked like the main plot of the season (the murderer killing vampire-fanciers) wound up being a damp squib at the end. I was disappointed with who the murderer turned out to be, and frustrated that Sookie failed to have any kind of clue until it was way too late. She’s a telepath who can barely control her ability to hear what people think, and yet she completely failed to pick up on the murderer’s hostility towards vampires, vampire-fanciers, and fangbangers, despite being around him frequently and even discussing these issues with him. When she did see inside his head, she failed to recognise him. No-one is that careful with their thoughts.

Which leads me on to another point: the writers seemed to forget about Sookie’s telepathy when it was inconvenient. It wound up being a plot point that was used when they felt like it, and then randomly ignored when they didn’t want her to know something. The excuse that ‘she blocks most of it out’ is thin when she clearly fails on frequent basis, enough that it’s common knowledge that she ‘knows stuff’ and she has no caution about responding verbally to people’s thoughts in public. It’s also impossible to tell when she’s actively blocking her telepathy, and the result winds up looking like clumsy writing and careless continuity.

The story I found the most interesting was the shapeshifters. This came along late in the season and didn’t get anywhere near a conclusion, but was left hanging for the next season to address. If I was jaded, I’d say that I have yet to be disappointed by it, but there is a part of me that hopes that won’t be the case.

Tara’s plot with her mother, ‘demons’, and exorcisms is interesting and fairly well done, until it runs headlong into the shapeshifter issue and stumbles into the woods, never to be seen again. What could have been an engaging story is abruptly forgotten and sidelined into something quite different, as if the show had just seen something shiny and run off after it.

I was bewildered by Tara’s sudden grab of the bottle, and more confused by her inability to recognise the person who caused her to crash her car (she was drunk, but that’s no excuse for forgetting the sudden naked woman – or at least, its a very lame one). Her storyline was so hijacked that she almost disappeared entirely from the story and the show – I was surprised to see her around Sam’s bar towards the end, and annoyed that she seemed so ‘fine’ after all of her previous struggles.

I loved Fuckadoodle’s storyline, right until the end. He’s a fairly well-constructed character: an unashamed horndog, which I appreciate for its honesty, yet he manages to be lovable as well. Through the season, he grows beyond where he started in a believable way and actually has something of an arc; something few, if any, of the other characters achieve. It’s unfortunate that it crashes down into a weird, religious puddle at the end – I didn’t buy his abrupt conversion and it left me with a ‘FFS’ aftertaste.

It’s a shame that he didn’t get a chance to find out who Amy really was. Fuckadoodle’s story would have been so much more involved and compelling if he had had to face just how nuts she was, and she would have been less two-dimensional had her character been explored further. But sadly, that was cut off. I wish they had spent more time there, before poor little Fuckadoodle was sent on a spiral which he (the actor) successfully made sympathetic.

I love his spiral; it was one of the highlights of the season for me, because it worked and felt realistic and understandable. That’s why what followed in his storyline annoyed me so much – it felt cheap after the wonderful, painful arc he had just been through.

The story that I found least interesting was the vampire/romance one. This is especially sad as it seems to be the mainstay of the series. Sookie had ‘please fuck me’ stamped on her virginal forehead from the moment she laid eyes and a blank brain on Bill. Bill found her interesting because of her telepathy and her persistent interest. I won’t go into all the detail of it, but I felt that the relationship was clumsy at best, with a lot of missed opportunities to make it feel ‘real’ or at least believable. They see each other and then they’re fighting off this irresistable passion between them. It feels forced and unconvincing, though it seems to be trying to grow into something more solid.

Once they’re screwing, it turns very strange, as Sookie is apparently in the mood for sex even if the vampire has just crawled out of the cemetery’s ground and is covered in dirt. I have no problem with sex, but I do expect it to at least be explainable beyond ‘he was there and she was there and then they fell on each other’ with no regard for anything else that’s going on. See my earlier comment about the porn coming to fix the dishwasher naked – that’s what it felt like.

We don’t get very much about Bill’s character. We see when he was turned and how sad he is about his family, but little to explain who he is now. I wanted to know why he came to the small town to live (beyond ‘I wanted my old house back’) and why he kept trying to separate himself from his fellow undead suckers. There is a lot he left unsaid, and a lot of questions that Sookie should have asked him but never did. I kept wanting to know more about him, to have an idea about who he is as a person. What I wound up with was a blank, broody vampire with a chip on his shoulder hot for a little blonde bloodbag, but in a less interesting way than Angel and Buffy.

I liked Sookie in the pilot. She’s not quite in charge of her telepathy, she’s runs off into dangerous situations without hesitation, and she’s fearless. She’s also a little bit telekinetic. Unfortunately, the more the series goes on, the more these things are forgotten. The telekinesis is the first to go – it could have been a mistake in the effects, but there’s definitely a hint of something there (see the chain in the pilot), and after the first two or three episodes, it stops happening. She’s obviously not aware of it, but the writers should be.

As the season goes on, she turns into a whiny teenager, and seems more like a foot-stamping adolescent than a woman heedlessly running into things. She keeps having to say that she’s old enough to make her own decisions, which only reinforces the fact that she really doesn’t seem or act like it. She’s erratic in ways that defy explanation and is confounded by problems she could solve if only she remembered that she was a telepath. She’s often ‘wet’ in the way that Twilight‘s Bella is, and that’s always going to annoy me in a heroine. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give Sookie a clue or a spine. I don’t mind weakness, but I do mind being asked to sympathise with characters with few redeeming features to balance out the uselessness.

Also, her reactions to events are often missing. When she loses a family member, she barely blinks. She gets flashbacks to cleaning up blood on her kitchen floor, but at the time, she acted as if it was nothing unusual. If there was a feeling of her covering up her emotions, putting on a brave face, I would accept that, but that’s not the impression I get. Reactions just seem to be missing from her. I don’t know if it’s some weird character quirk they didn’t bother to explain or a failure of the actress (though I would expect more from Anna Paquin).

Unfortunately, it is difficult not to think of Twilight when looking at True Blood. This series is an adult version of the limp, teenage-fantasy Twilight, with added balls and sex. It seems to want to do other things but it doesn’t quite know how to pull it off. I feel like there are societal issues that want to be brought to the fore (the ‘out of the coffin’ politics make nice background noise but could have been more), which would make it a more interesting series.

In all, True Blood is a series with a lot of potential but full of ‘if only’s. This poor, drunken sister likes the gutter and getting dirty. Her hands are clumsy and prone to fumbling. She seems to want to make the right moves, but never quite finds her footing and slips frequently. Best to put her to bed and hope she’s better once the hangover has cleared.

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Pondering ‘Kill Bill’

I don’t often do reviews, especially not of movies. And this isn’t really a review – it’s a collection of thoughts about a movie. This particular movie (I’m counting both parts as a single entity here) has bothered me for a while, but it wasn’t until I re-watched it recently that I finally realised why.

Now, let me preface this by saying that I’m not a big fan of Tarantino movies. I like the ones I’ve seen well enough, but for the most part, I think the hype is overdone, and he’s not the best director/writer/whatever that’s ever lived. I tend to view movies on what I see, not on who’s done something on it. Just because I loved From Dusk Till Dawn, doesn’t mean I’m automatically going to love Pulp Fiction.

If you think I’ve just blasphemed, it’s probably better if you look away now. For all our sakes.

I should also point out that I adore a good story with kick-ass chicks, martial arts, and swords. I am a huge fan of Marvel’s Elektra, and have seen her handled both well, badly, and downright stupidly. It’s interesting how difficult it is to find a well-written female assassin.

As I mentioned earlier, Kill Bill has irked me since I saw it. Not in any big way – after all, it has taken me a year or two to get around to watching it again – but enough that I get very ‘eh’ when someone mentions it. I wrinkle my nose and wonder what all the fuss is about.

The first time I saw it, it left me with a vaguely unsettled, dissatisfied feeling. Not because of the violence – that’s nothing unusual or even particularly gory – and not because the plot failed to tie up loose ends (it tied them up enough, I think). At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I guess it’s one of those things that is brought into the light by a second viewing, when you can pay attention to more of the underlying things.

Now, after reflection, my biggest problem with the movie is the main character. More precisely, the fact that the main character doesn’t have a character. Apart from her death list, she is an empty shell. I’d say she was a cypher, but she doesn’t fit that mould either.


The movie started out trying to make her into an enigma. Her name is bleeped out all the way through the first part. Then, in the second part… they seem to forget about that. Her name is dropped as if it might be some great revelation, and I was left stunningly underwhelmed. Unless her name is some reference that I am not picking up, I can’t help but wonder what the point of all that was.

Identity and names are character aspects that I love to play with. If you’re going to do something as unusual as hiding a character’s identity in such an obtrusive way, then there must be a reason. In this case, there doesn’t appear to be a reason, and that leaves the whole thing flat for me. The name – and by association, the character – was a great disappointment to me.

That was not the main reason why I was disappointed by the Bride. She’s not just lacking a name: she lacks any kind of identity (even after the name is revealed). She’s not everyman/woman. She’s not a symbol or a cypher. She’s not a fully-fleshed-out person. She’s a vehicle for a series of fight scenes, a machine, and not a terribly interesting one.

The fights are all very pretty and different. I do love me a good fight scene. But we (the audience) are asked to follow the Bride on a journey. We should be engaging with her and at least interested in how she’s going to get to her target (considering the title of the film, I think we all know what her target is and that she’ll get there). Instead, I wind up not caring about what she’s doing, mostly because she doesn’t seem to really care.

While her feet might go on a journey, the character herself doesn’t. She crosses off her death list like she’s collecting groceries at the supermarket – she might be an assassin, but this is supposed to be a personal quest. There’s very little person in this quest.

She doesn’t grow or change; by the end of the movie, she’s pretty much the same person she was at the beginning after she woke up from the coma. Sure, she has a new role to fill (which I won’t state because it’s a major spoiler), but I’m not left with the feeling that it’s going to affect her actions in the future. After all, it didn’t stop her from fulfilling her purpose (or even pause for thought or reassessment, and it should have done at least that much). The movie is a straight line of revenge, predictable and unwavering. The most interesting part of it is the fighting, but fight scenes do not a movie make.

More than anything else, the character – and therefore the movie as a whole – is lacking in motivation. While the movie is a revenge kick and that particular motivation is quite clear, it still comes off feeling very holey to me. There are a lot of whys that are never given, leaving it weak and teetering on what winds up looking like a flimsy excuse. Yes, this group of people tried to kill her and Bill put a bullet in her head. However, she’s an assassin; it comes with the territory and it’s hardly a shock that some other assassins might want to kill her. Yes, there’s the baby aspect, but that barely seems like a driving force in the movie and the previous point still stands.

There’s also a huge lack of rage – the revenge is reasoned out into ‘tit for tat’, ‘you killed me now I kill you’. Most of it is very impersonal. These people are supposed to have been her friends, but I don’t get any of that from their interactions. It is impersonal to the point that the Bride stops and has a cup of coffee and a calm chat with her first (shown) victim in the middle of the fight. She isn’t the one who restarts the fight; in fact, she seems willing to delay it. More professional than personal. So why should we care?

I could have accepted the Bride as a cypher for revenge, but because there isn’t much weight behind the revenge aspect, that doesn’t hold up. There’s nothing to show that she has calculated any of her actions (beyond ‘go there and kill certain people’) – in fact, she’s quite unprepared and clumsy in places – so the ‘cold, calculated revenge’ option is missing too. The pieces of her past that we’re shown don’t tell us why she’s so cold or inclined to violence, either.

Which leads me onto my other problem. We’re never told why this character became an assassin in the first place. What drove her to it? To become as good as she’s supposed to be, there had to be something behind her, pushing her to excel. Normal people don’t tend to become assassins – so what made her choose it? Why is killing her answer to her problems? This wouldn’t be an issue (though still a gap) if the movie didn’t go into her past, but it does.

When she goes to learn Kung Fu with Pai Mei, she seems happy and relaxed. This feels odd when she determinedly beats her own self bloody to please her new master. Why would someone apparently so content do this to herself? Bill is neither a monster nor a bully, and isn’t forcing her. Again, we have no idea of her motivation here. It comes off looking contrived and forced.

What makes all of this particularly obvious is the fact that we have a very good background given for O-Ren Ishii. As a character, she makes sense in ways that the Bride starkly doesn’t – we know why she kills and we know why she does it in her particular way. (O-Ren has her holes too – like what she was doing with the Deadly Vipers at all – but they’re minor compared to the Bride’s.)

Now, I’m sure that I can sit here and fan-wank reasons for all of these issues. I could create a story for the Bride that makes sense. But I’m not inclined to do that – this isn’t my story, and if the pieces I’m shown don’t make sense, then I’m going to be annoyed. Fan-wanking is what people do when the storytellers have failed in some way.


Another problem with the Bride is that she’s a twink. (That’s an RP term, for those of you who don’t know.) There’s nothing she can’t do, no situation she can’t get out of. Worse – she knows it. She walks in knowing she’s going to walk out, and nothing in the middle makes her question that assumption. She’s a fighting machine, and, quite frankly, that’s not that interesting to watch.

The one time she seems to lose her cool is when she’s put in the coffin, but even then, we’re given the handy little story about how she knows exactly how to get out of there. It all feels very convenient and contrived, partly because she’s freaking out one second and then, post-flashback, she’s suddenly calm and fixing it. Once out of the coffin, she shrugs it off, completely unaffected by the experience (which begs the question of why it was put in in the first place).

She’s also something of a Mary Sue (sorry, another RP term), but that mostly stems out of the twink aspect. She’s shiny and special – the so-called ‘perfect killer’ – and, as a result, not quite human. She doesn’t have any flaws – no weaknesses, no doubts, nothing. Even Superman has his weaknesses, and that, ladies and gentleman, is what makes him interesting to watch.

Now, some of the issues with the character may be down to how she was acted. Uma Thurman does posing with a sword well enough, but there wasn’t a whole lot of emoting going on. I have a fondness for subtle acting and characters who hide their true thoughts and feelings, but there wasn’t even a hint at anything going on under the hood with the Bride. And when a character says ‘ooo she looks angry’ and I think she looks blank and maybe a bit scared, I think there’s something wrong there. Show don’t tell, people – it applies to movies just as much as to literature.


So what we wind up with is an effectively empty character with a pre-defined purpose and a straight-line path to get there. We know what is going to happen at the end from the moment the opening sequence rolls. The one thing that should have made it worth the 3-4 hours’ viewing time – the main character’s journey through this tale – is missing. There are fight scenes to keep us entertained along the way, but as I said earlier, fight scenes do not a movie make.

So there you go. Kill Bill has several flaws, but, for me, the main character is the big one. Shame.

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