Archive for January, 2023


Pacing Star Wars

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been rewatching the Star Wars saga (live-action movies and TV series) in interior chronological order. It blows my mind how much of it there is now. I think I started in November, and I only got to the original movie last weekend, with five movies and two TV series before it and five more movies plus 1 2-season (3 by the time I get there) and 1 one-season series to go. And that’s not even counting the animated stuff. I remember a time when watching all Star Wars content would have meant just watching that one movie.

It had been a long time since I watched the original Star Wars (I still can’t make myself call it A New Hope), and it was interesting seeing it again in the context of all the stuff that’s been added before it, especially the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, as well as Andor and Rogue One (I got a giggle out of thinking that Disney+ could put a “skip recap” button on the opening crawl if you’ve recently watched Rogue One). But the other thing I found interesting on this viewing was the story structure. I usually use this movie as an example when talking about story structure because the beats are so clear and it uses such a simple, fundamental structure (plus, most people are familiar with the story, so I don’t have to worry about spoilers or people not knowing what I’m talking about). But I’d never actually timed out the beats, looking at where they fall in the story. This time I did, and it turns out that while all the beats are very clearly there, they fall in unusual places, so this movie is paced rather unusually.

For one thing, we don’t even meet our hero until nearly 20 minutes into a 2-hour movie. And then it takes a little more time to get his Call to Adventure. He doesn’t accept the call and enter the “new world” of the story, in which he leaves the familiar for the unknown, until about 40 minutes in, close to the halfway point. This is stuff that usually happens within the first half hour or so.

But this is the final, edited movie. The script originally had something different, cutting from the opening space battle to Luke spotting a glint in the sky and then watching the battle through his binoculars. It then cuts back and forth between the stuff happening on the ship (the battle, Darth Vader’s arrival, Leia making the message with R2 and then getting caught, etc.) and Luke rushing to town in his landspeeder to excitedly tell his friends about the space battle he saw and getting mocked for it, then running into his friend who’d gone off to the Academy but was home on a break. His friend said he was going to run off to join the Rebellion and encouraged Luke to take some kind of action. This is the friend he runs into just before the final battle and who dies near the end of the battle. All this is in the novelization that was written from the screenplay before the movie was finished, and it was shot. You can find these scenes on YouTube. Lucas left them out even from the special edition.

That does introduce our hero sooner and show more of his motivation for what happens later, but if it had been left in, it would have delayed the Call to Adventure and the Threshold Crossing even more. Most of the info about Luke and his life that we get in this segment is repeated in his conversation with C3PO in the garage and then with his aunt and uncle at dinner. The only thing that’s sort of left hanging out there is the thing with his friend and why he’s so affected by the death of this one guy in a squadron full of people he barely knows. They added in a bit more of the reunion at the rebel base in the special edition so it’s not totally out of the blue. I think the pacing does work better the way it is, focusing on introducing the world and its greater conflicts before drilling down to the guy who’s going to have to deal with it.

With the Crossing the Threshold moment coming so late, there’s only about 20 minutes for the Tests, Enemies, and Allies segment — arrival in Mos Eisley, the cantina, meeting Han and Chewie, escaping from Tatooine, and the lightsaber training on board the ship. The midpoint of the movie happens when they’re brought on board the Death Star. In Joseph Campbell’s terms, that’s when they go into the belly of the beast, so that tracks.

This means that the last half of the movie is utterly packed with action. We’ve got the prison break, the trash compactor, a lot of running through the Death Star, the Swing across the gap, the lightsaber duel, the escape from the Death Star and space battle, and then the final battle. No wonder the movie leaves you breathless. After all that, you’re exhausted just from watching it. Going back to that idea of the first page selling this book and the last page selling the next one, the last half of this movie probably has a lot to do with its success. You leave with a sense of triumph, like you’ve just had a really good workout and have all those endorphins buzzing through your system.

It does start with a bang, with that iconic opening shot of the small ship pursued by the massive Star Destroyer, but then the first half is mostly worldbuilding and exposition. There are little bursts of lower-stakes action, but there’s still intense tension in just about every scene. You get the feeling of something building, and then the second half provides the catharsis for all that tension.

I may need to reread the novelization to see how Alan Dean Foster handled it in novel form (especially since I’ve met Alan and heard some of his stories about writing that book, which was published under George Lucas’s name).

Now on to The Empire Strikes Back, and I can get a bit misty-eyed at the idea that Rogue Squadron in that movie is an homage to the Rogue One team (even though it was reverse-engineered).


How Does it End?

I’m still working on plotting the ending to this book I’m working on. I struggle with endings. When I start out, I have a detailed outline of the beginning, and the ending of the outline is a vague “they beat the bad guys and live happily ever after.” I tell myself I’ll figure it out as I get closer to it, once I have a better sense of my characters and the story. Then I get there and I still don’t know, so there’s a lot of handwaving and chaos.

But the ending is so important. It’s said that the first page of a book sells that book, and the last page sells the next book. That doesn’t mean it has to be a cliffhanger, just that it should be so satisfying that it makes the reader want to repeat the experience with the author’s next book, whether it’s another book in that series or an entirely new book.

So, I got the bright idea to figure out what that last page should look like. What will the characters be doing at the very end? What will the new configuration be? If the beginning of the book is the “before” picture of the main character and the world, what is the “after” picture once the characters (and maybe the world) have changed?

And I realized I had no idea. I had a vague sense of what the characters will be like at the end, but not what they’re doing or how I’d show what they’d be like.

This week, I’ve been working on that, outlining a potential ending scene and then reverse engineering from there. What kind of story climax do I need to get to that ending? What would lead to that story climax happening? And so forth. That’s made me realize I’ve made some poor choices in the beginning. There’s a whole sequence I can cut because it doesn’t support the character arc (and even undermines it). And that’s going to move the midpoint of the story, which also needs to be changed.

It’s been a good week for doing this kind of work because it’s cool and cloudy, so I’ve been huddling on the sofa under the electric blanket with tea and a notebook and letting my mind play.


Doing It Wrong

I’ve reached the point in the book I’m working on where I need to figure out exactly how I’m going to end it. I know the final result, but how I get there and what the climactic scene looks like is kind of hazy. I was working on plotting it and struggling to put it all together when I got insight from an unlikely source: the trailer for season 3 of The Mandalorian.

It occurred to me that the story I’m writing is in some ways a lot like The Mandalorian. There’s a lot of “except for” and “but if instead” there, to the point that it’s not really like it at all, but the important thing for my purposes is that it centers on an isolated loner who takes responsibility for a vulnerable orphan. In all my outlines and character development, the fact that this guy is a loner is key, and his character arc is supposed to be him learning that he can’t go it alone and he’s stronger when he teams up with others.

And yet, very early in the story, when he gets stuck helping this young woman travel to a place that will be safe for her, his first thought is that she might be able to help him with the thing he needs to do. He then wants her to stick around. This is why it was so hard for me to plot the end. He completed his character growth arc in the first quarter of the book. That left me with no big turning point for the end.

Commence head banging on desk.

Oddly, I’d set up Chekhov’s entire arsenal to show that he was going to have a hard time working with someone else earlier in the book. We saw him have to take responsibility for someone else and immediately dump that individual with the first potential new home, which set up the way we expect him to act later. And then I forgot about it entirely. I did have some story reasons for taking the route I did, since there is some conflict and deception involved with him planning to get her to help but manipulating her into being the one to offer, but that’s not really what I want to do with this character. His character arc isn’t about him being manipulative. I’d have to change a lot more to set that up, and it would be a totally different story.

Fortunately, I know how to fix it, and it adds a lot more conflict along the way. Although this character is actually very little like the Mandalorian (not a bounty hunter who belongs to a strict warrior religion), I should put a picture of him on my desk to remind me that it’s supposed to take him some time to really warm up to this individual he feels responsible for, and even longer to figure out that this individual might have something to offer him instead of just being a burden. My Star Wars obsession seems to be good for my writing.

Now I’m going back and fixing the book so I can move forward in the right direction and maybe get a running start on writing the ending.

movies, musicals

Movie Musicals

I seem to have gone on a movie musical kick lately, and they were all relatively recent (21st century, not the 50s and 60s when Hollywood musicals were a big thing).

First, one I hadn’t heard of and stumbled across on Amazon, Walking on Sunshine. This is basically Mamma Mia, but set in Italy instead of Greece and using 80s pop music instead of ABBA music. A young Englishwoman travels to Italy to join her sister on vacation and learns that her madcap sister is about to get married, and the groom is the man our heroine fell for during a previous vacation to this place. The Mamma Mia influence is really obvious, with a lot of character and situation parallels. You can tell that someone was trying to cash in on that. And I have to admit that I might actually like the story in this movie better than Mamma Mia. It’s less creepy than “one of these men who slept with my mom around the same time might be my dad” and the ending is more satisfying. It’s fun, fluffy, extremely lightweight entertainment with catchy music, and if you grew up in the 80s there’s a bonus nostalgia factor with the music. It’s fun guessing which pop song they’ll use for each situation. It’s amusing to consider that there’s also an element of E.M. Forster a century or so later to this story, since it’s about English people going to Italy and finding themselves and learning to loosen up. It’s like moving Where Angels Fear to Tread to the 21st century, removing the tragedy, and adding pop music.

Under other (non-pandemic) circumstances, I would have gone to see the latest musical version of Cyrano at the theater on opening day because this sort of thing is totally my jam. But it showed up on Prime Video and I may be watching it repeatedly (I’ve already been listening to the songs on YouTube so often that they keep popping up in “listen again” for me). This is the classic story of the brilliant and witty but physically unattractive man who helps the handsome but inarticulate man woo the woman they both love by ghostwriting love letters to her, but with some twists. There’s the music, for one thing. The other is that instead of him having a big nose, as Cyrano is usually portrayed, he’s a little person (since he’s played by Peter Dinklage). That adds some nuance, since Dinklage is a very handsome man, but his stature might be harder to get past than a big nose, especially in that time period (the adaptation was written by his real-life wife, so I’m sure there was some thought put into that). It’s a romantic story, but not a genre romance. I’d say the vibe is kind of Moulin Rouge meets Les Mis. There are occasionally some surreal anachronisms (like breakdancing in the historical setting), but then a lot of it is very grounded, so that it goes into this dreamlike place when the musical numbers kick in. “Dreamlike” is a good description of this film. I find myself wondering if I really saw it or if I dreamed it. The music is kind of ear-wormy and the actress playing Roxane is utterly incandescent. This gives you an idea of what it’s like:

Then last weekend I rewatched La La Land. I watched it on HBO when it first showed up there after release, and I recall liking it, but it didn’t make a strong impression and didn’t give it much thought until a few months ago, when I was listening to a radio show on musical theater and movie musicals. It was an episode on “to dub or not to dub,” looking at movie musicals that had the singing dubbed by professional singers, those that maybe should have, and those in which the actors were able to sing for themselves. As an example in the category of “it may not be the best singing, but it’s about the acting of the song and the emotional impact” they played this song:

That’s probably what won her the Oscar for this role, and it’s more impressive when you know that this was sung live, not lip synced to a studio recording, and it’s one continuous take with no edits, so she had to get the whole thing right. Anyway, this song hit me at that time on a tender spot emotionally. I was pondering whether I’d made the right choices in my life and trying to decide whether I should keep trying with writing or give up and get a regular job so I’d have more financial security, and this idea of the world needing dreamers was what I needed to hear. At that time, the movie wasn’t streaming on anything I had access to, but it recently showed up on Prime, so I rewatched it, and I think because of what I’ve been pondering, it had a much bigger impact.

The story is about an aspiring actress and an aspiring jazz musician who meet when they’re both at pivotal points in pursuing their respective dreams, when they’re going to have to decide whether or not to give up and try something else. It looks and feels a lot like an old Hollywood musical while at the same time being somewhat realistic about how hard it is to make it, how rare and difficult those big breaks can be, and what compromises and choices you might have to make in pursuit of your dream. I think one reason it worked better for me the second time was I had my expectations set better. Because it feels like an old Hollywood musical, you’re expecting it to be a romance and to work out that way, but it’s really a love story about a dream, not a person. If you’re expecting it to be a romance, it feels like a bait and switch, but if you know it’s about the dream, it works a lot better.

It reminds me that what I’ve always wanted to do was bring stories to life. I wanted to go into film or television, either as a writer or as someone who puts together the pieces to bring it all together. I didn’t know enough about the business to even know what, exactly, it was I wanted to do. Now I know I was looking at being either a development executive or being a TV staff writer who might eventually work up to showrunner/executive producer. But I knew I didn’t want to live in LA. Even when it’s heavily romanticized, like in this movie, it holds zero appeal for me. If I were to list the things I want in a place to live, it would be the polar opposite of every one of them. So I didn’t pursue it, since there’s no point in training to do something that would require you to live in a place you’d hate while also having to struggle to break in. When I actually visited LA, my impressions of what it was like were confirmed — and my first visit was even pure Hollywood, going to a red-carpet movie premiere.

So, anyway, that movie gives me a lot of feelings. I’m still not sure what choices I’d make if I could go back in time and have a do-over, knowing what I know now. Back when I would have been studying TV and film, it was before the Internet and Zoom meetings, before you could make a decent movie on your iPhone and post it to YouTube, where it might go viral and get you a break. If I could be 18 again but now, I might make different choices, but I’m not sure I would pursue that dream if I had to be 18 again back when I was 18. Now I just have to hope that one of my books gets made into a series and I get to be involved somehow.

I do think I could suck it up and move to California if I got a chance to work on one of the Star Wars series. Just putting that out there.

Speaking of Star Wars, I think after my sidetrack into rom-coms and musicals I’ll get back to my Star Wars rewatch. I’m just about through rewatching Andor, so I think I’ll go for a Rogue One/A New Hope double feature this weekend. I haven’t watched them back-to-back, though I’ll have to do it on subsequent nights since I don’t have the stamina for watching two movies in one evening.

writing life

Getting Things Done

I’ve noticed during the course of my writing career that writing a first draft is all-consuming for me. I may not spend that many hours in the day actually producing words, but my brain is never off-duty. That means I have no brain left to do anything else. I may try, but I’ll stare at the computer screen and try to remember what I should be doing. This is a real problem because there’s business and marketing stuff I need to do in addition to writing, and most of that requires a lot of attention to detail.

I start my writing first thing in the workday, before I do anything else, and that tends to make me more productive for the rest of the day, but it also means that by the time I reach my writing goal for the day, I have no brain left to do anything else. But if I start the day doing marketing or business work, I never manage to start writing.

I only have about a week left of working on this first draft, so I don’t have a lot of time for experimenting now, but I’m pondering a couple of different ideas.

One is to make a clean break between writing and other work. Right now, I reach my writing goal and immediately try to switch over to other work. Maybe if I stop and go do a bit of housework or exercise and then come back to the computer I’ll be better at switching gears and have more brainpower.

Another possibility is to have a designated “getting things done” day. I did this in the past when I was teaching children’s choir, which meant my workday ended early and I had prep work to do, so I seldom got much done. I declared that to be the “get things done” day and didn’t even try to do any writing on that day. That was the day for errands, personal business tasks like paying bills, and doing any publishing business or promo work. Then I just focused on writing the rest of the week. I think I did get more administrative and marketing work done, but it also hurt my writing momentum. I didn’t get additional writing done on the other days to make up for the day with no writing, and I had to review where I left off after taking a break in the middle of the week.

I’ve also tried scheduling, where I have designated times for writing and for admin and promo work, and I don’t worry about writing goals but go by the clock. That hasn’t been that effective for me because it doesn’t address having run out of steam when it’s time for admin work.

I think I’ll try that break idea next week and see what happens. Right now, I do my exercise at the end of the workday, as a way of making a break between work and relaxation. Doing a yoga session helps me unwind and relax in the evening. But maybe if I did that after writing it would help me shift gears. Or I could take a walk or do something around the house, then go back to the office and start what might feel like a second workday.

Or I could somewhat combine the two and have a getting things done day in which I only write in the morning. Plow through as much writing as I can get done before lunch, then have lunch, and then do my business and promo stuff after lunch. That way, I can maintain some momentum but still get things accomplished.


Remember the Conflict

I woke this morning with the horrible realization that yesterday’s writing had been all wrong. I wrote a scene that was supposed to have been the big emotional turning point in which a key piece of information was revealed to one of the characters. It was supposed to be so shocking that it changed the way she saw one of the other characters and made her question her dealings with him. In a previous draft of this book, I’d tried to put this revelation too early in the story, but it was a dramatic scene in which the villain tried to force this revelation by creating a situation that made the character do something that he then had to explain, and then the other character had to react. But since I’d put it too early, they didn’t have enough of a relationship established for it to have that big of an impact.

Moving it much later in the story had a different effect. They’d built up some trust, but that meant I wrote it as just a conversation, and the reaction was simply, “Oh, that explains a lot.” No real emotional impact, no shock. No decision point. I’d completely skipped the turning point scene.

At least I did figure it out before I wrote any further, so I can fix it, and I’ve figured out how to fix it. I think the new version will be much better even than what I had originally planned because there’s more trust to have been broken. Since I realized this so quickly rather than on a later draft, I guess I haven’t entirely forgotten how to write. I think I was just being conflict averse. There’s so much conflict and tension in the world right now that I want these characters to like each other and get along. But fiction needs conflict. It’s hard to have a story where absolutely nothing bad happens. Even a book that’s being called the cozy fantasy has some bad stuff happening and some conflict.

So now I’m writing an angsty bit, and there will probably be a lot of chocolate consumed while I work on it. And I will need to put sticky notes around my desk saying “remember conflict.”

Back to the Grindstone

I’m more or less back to normal after the holidays. I’ve put away the decorations, though I’m sure I’ll be finding artificial pine needles from the garlands I put on my loft and stair railings in strange places for the next few months. I’ve eaten the holiday leftovers, aside from the last few cookies. (We won’t talk about all the chocolate I bought in the post-holiday clearance sale.) I’ve even mostly returned to my normal schedule after taking a couple of weeks off. And it’s exhausting.

It’s not as though I drastically changed the way I spent my days while I was taking time off. I just wasn’t trying to think. Now my brain is trying to catch up and remember how to think properly. It’s like trying to run after staying on the couch for months, even though it was only a couple of weeks.

I tried easing back into work by rereading the book up to where I left off, and from there I had a couple of days of revising the last couple of chapters, since I changed my mind about what would be happening there and I needed to fix it before I moved forward. I finally got to writing new additional words yesterday. Now it’s full speed ahead, but I will probably collapse soon.

Fortunately, I didn’t forget the changes I wanted to make. The story’s still there in my head. It’s just putting it into words that’s been weirdly difficult this week. It may not have helped that I got back into a regular exercise routine this week, too. That will eventually give me more energy, but for the first week or two it just makes me more tired. I’m so glad it’s the weekend. I need to recover!

But I should finish this draft of this book midway through this month. I like what I’ve written so far, story-wise. The words themselves need a lot of polishing, but I’ll worry about that once I have the story down.


The Rom-Com Film Festival

For the past couple of weeks, I took a break from my fantasy and Star Wars viewing and watched a bunch of romantic comedies. There were the Christmas/holiday movies, and then there were a bunch of movies leaving Prime at the end of December that I wanted to watch, most of which were rom-coms, so that was what I did between Christmas and the new year. Here’s a quick rundown of the ones that were good enough to be memorable.

Something from Tiffany’s (Amazon Prime original) — I’d put this into a similar category as The Holiday or While You Were Sleeping, since it’s a movie set during the holiday season rather than really being a “Christmas movie,” and most of it takes place between Christmas and New Year’s Day. There’s just enough holiday to give it a festive vibe, but not so much that you would feel weird watching it at any other time of year.

One man is buying an engagement ring to propose to his girlfriend at Tiffany’s while another man is buying a small pair of earrings for his girlfriend, and when there’s an accident just outside the store, the bags get swapped, so the girlfriend of the guy just buying earrings opens her present to find an engagement ring, while the one expecting an engagement ring gets earrings. The mix-up leads both couples to reconsider things. I thought this one was a lot of fun. The cast is very engaging and there’s a good energy to it. I think it might even have worked as a big-screen release, if they still made rom-coms for the big screen.

Sleepless in Seattle — this is a classic, and I’d been planning to rewatch it ever since reading a biography of Nora Ephron earlier in the year. I think I’ve only seen it once, so it was like seeing a new movie. I was supposed to see it on a date — the guy asked me out specifically to see this movie but he hadn’t checked the listings, so he didn’t know where or when it was showing. When we finished dinner, he suggested we drive by the nearby theater to see if it was playing there. It had started about half an hour earlier. I wasn’t having enough fun to want to drive around to other theaters (this was in the days before smart phones allowed you to look up things like movie times) or hang out to wait for the next showing, so I didn’t end up seeing the movie until about a year later when I rented it while I was recovering from knee surgery. I remembered some parts of the movie, but the whole middle was new to me and some of the mental images I remembered weren’t in the movie, so I might have zoned out while on painkillers for part of the movie and dreamed something. I liked it more this time than I recall liking it then. I was hanging out with a lot of romance authors at that time, and they hated it because it wasn’t really a romance to them. I think if it were published as a book it would be more of a “chick lit” sort of thing. It is a little creepy how she basically stalks him while she’s engaged to someone else, but I still like the characters and the idea of not settling.

The Cutting Edge — another classic. I hadn’t realized this was written by Tony Gilroy, who’s the showrunner and one of the writers for Andor. I’d seen this one over and over because my friends and I often rented it for movie nights during the 90s but hadn’t watched it in a long time, and I think it holds up well. I love figure skating and rom-coms, so win! The day after I watched it, I found the DVD on the clearance shelf at the used bookstore, so now I have a copy.

The Proposal — I’d never actually seen this one, in which a Devil Wears Prada-type book editor forces her assistant to marry her so she can stay in the country, only to find herself falling for him and his family. I’m not sure anyone but Sandra Bullock could have pulled this role off and managed to make that character vulnerable and charming under the bitchy exterior. It’s funny how closely it parallels While You Were Sleeping, in spite of it being a very different story and polar opposite character. I have to give Sandra Bullock huge props for gender flipping the usual Hollywood age difference and getting much younger men as her romantic leading men in both this and The Lost City.

About Fate — Another Prime original new this year. It’s hard to describe this one without giving away some twists, and I don’t think the description on their site is very good or at all accurate, so here goes my blurb: A man and woman have to consider the role of fate when their eerily parallel lives intersect on New Year’s Eve.

This is another one that could have been released for the big screen. I liked the characters and actually wanted them to get together. It was sweet and romantic and funny. Apparently, it’s a remake of an old Soviet movie that’s a major tradition in Russia. It’s shown on TV every New Year’s Eve, and just about everyone has it memorized. The reviews from people familiar with the original are very negative, so now I’m curious if there’s a subtitled version of the original out there, but I liked this one a lot. It even inspired a couple of story ideas I want to play with.

I noticed while watching all of these that the romance is seldom my favorite part of a romantic comedy. I tend to like the other relationships — the family and friends. Or I like the relationship between the hero and heroine before things get romantic. My favorite part of most of these movies, though, is the character growth, seeing the transformation of the characters. That may be why I don’t mind that the hero and heroine in Sleepless in Seattle don’t meet until the end. It’s not really about the romance, it’s about her figuring out who she is and what she really wants.

This could explain why I was wildly unsuccessful as a romance novelist. I managed to fake it long enough to sell a few books, but I couldn’t sustain it. I’m better off writing things that are about something else but that have romantic possibilities.