Life vs. Fiction

I think events of the past few years have killed a lot of popular plots for fiction. Maybe they were never actually realistic, but we could at least believe them. Now, I’m not sure they’d work anymore without a lot of adjustments or explanations of what the specific circumstances are that make them work.

First, there’s the “get the message out/publicly reveal the villain’s crimes” plot. In this one, our plucky band of heroes finds out about the villain’s wrongdoing and overcomes all the odds to spread the word far and wide, leading to the villain’s downfall. Or they might step up in a public forum with the key evidence that reveals the villain’s wrongdoing. Or they might trick the villain into saying the quiet part out loud, so that they rant about their evil scheme or say what they really think while on an open microphone, on the air, or in some other way that people can hear it.

Of course, as soon as the people hear this, it brings the villain down. The evil regime is overthrown, the villain loses all status, or the people rise up and make the villain account for his crimes. Good prevails!

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago when Arnold Schwarzenegger recorded his video aimed at the people of Russia about how their government is lying to them about Ukraine, and I allowed myself a moment of fantasizing about the people rising up and removing Putin from power. Then I realized how unlikely that was. The misdeeds of a lot of “villain” type people around the world are pretty well-known, and it doesn’t seem to affect their popularity or power. The realistic response to the heroes getting the message out would be for maybe some people who already didn’t like the villain to get angry and for everyone else to either not believe it or not care because they like some of the things the villain is doing or are getting something out of the villain’s regime. Odds are that all that effort to get the message out would end up coming to nothing.

It might work on a smaller level if the people hearing the message were victims of the villain and this information reveals that he was the one behind it, and if they had the power to actually do something. But on a larger scale, odds are that nothing would come of it.

Which brings me to the other popular plot: The evil overlord has been overthrown or killed, so we’re all free and there’s dancing in the streets.

The problem with this is that an evil overlord doesn’t get to be an evil overlord without having a critical mass of people in critical positions supporting him. I suppose if magic’s involved it might work. If the villain created a magical army or used magic to force his army to fight for him, then if he died the army would either dissipate or wake up and stop fighting. But otherwise, if the evil overlord is killed, likely someone else would step into his place, and there would still be plenty of true believers in positions of power to keep things going. The police force and military would still be out there enforcing the laws, and there would likely be plenty of people who benefited from the rule of the evil overlord who wouldn’t be happy about his death and wouldn’t want things to change. You don’t get into power or stay in power if no one else supports you and unless there’s been a massive war that wiped out all those supporters, those supporters would keep the regime going with a new leader.

I know a lot of Star Wars fans were mad that the sequels seemed to undo everything accomplished in the original trilogy, with yet another Empire-like organization to fight, but that was actually pretty realistic. What was less realistic was the stuff added to the end of Return of the Jedi in the special editions showing all the dancing in the streets. That might have happened in some of the places that were subjugated by the Empire, but in Coruscant, the capital, where people had it good, odds are they wouldn’t have been happy about the end of the Empire. A lot of the rank and file Stormtroopers might have been conscripts by the time of the rebellion, but there were probably still a lot of clones who’d been brainwashed to support the Empire. Then there were all the governors and officers and other elites who benefited from Imperial rule. Killing the Emperor and losing his henchman wouldn’t have changed society that much. There would have been a ton of clean-up work and re-education to do in order to completely rebuild society. And even then, a generation or so later you’d likely have people who didn’t experience the bad parts romanticizing the past and trying to revive it, working alongside the people who remembered it and liked it. That 37-year timeline for the rise of a new Empire-like regime is pretty realistic. Thirty years seems to be about the average between the fall of one totalitarian regime and the rise of the next one.

It seems like there are some interesting stories to be told about the aftermath of taking out the evil overlord, the people who have to go in and dismantle all the stuff surrounding the overlord, deal with the power structure, and convince the people that there was a problem with their leadership, but we seldom get that part of the story. It’s just, kill the Emperor, we’re free, the end.


Toy Stories

Over the past few weekends, I’ve rewatched the first three Toy Story movies and watched the fourth, which I didn’t see in the theater, for some odd reason. These films are so clever and imaginative, and it’s fun to track the progress of the Pixar technology from the first through the last one. But watching these has made me wonder if maybe I was a bad toy owner as a kid.

I don’t recall having a “best friend” toy like Andy had Woody. I might have when I was really little, before I have clear memories, but I certainly didn’t have one who stuck with me to the point I was planning to take it to college with me. I guess I did have my R2-D2 action figure, but that was more about showing my fondness for Star Wars, and R2 is kind of a personal mascot. I didn’t have any particular feelings for that figure.

My toys were generally my cast to play out stories I made up, so whatever feelings I had for them were for the roles they were playing at that particular moment. The object itself wasn’t that important to me. I didn’t sleep with toys. My parents didn’t do the “you can bring one toy with you” thing when we went to restaurants. If I ever did bring something with me, it was most likely a book. A toy on its own wouldn’t have been any fun unless I could have it acting out stories, and I couldn’t do that properly in public.

I was also pretty fickle. I might be really into a new toy soon after getting it, but then I’d move on. I suffered a lot from 70s TV commercial oversell (as the fourth movie so hilariously depicted), so the toy that looked like so much fun on TV, that I desperately wanted and begged to get for Christmas or my birthday, ended up not doing anything like what was shown on TV. I remember in particular the Baby Alive, a baby doll that would actually eat and drink and then you’d have to change its diaper (it came with this powder stuff that you made into a glop with water to feed it). I’m not sure why that sounded like fun, but I had a baby brother at the time, and I guess I wanted my own baby to feed. One time dealing with the grossness, and I didn’t use that feature of the doll again. As I recall, if you “fed” the doll, you then had to pour a lot of water through it to rinse it out, and it was more trouble than it was worth. Then there was the bride doll I desperately wanted, got, and then wondered, “Now what?”

When I was little, I mostly played with the Fisher Price “little people.” I had the house and the school, though the school also got turned into things like churches and auditoriums. My brother inherited those, and he also got the farm and the airport. One house where we lived had a full basement with a room we got to use as a playroom, and we set up a whole town for the people, with other buildings built out of blocks.

My Barbie dolls were mostly used to act out plays and musicals (I’d make up stories to connect the songs on my record albums, so I guess I invented the “jukebox musical” decades before that trend hit Broadway). They also served as models for clothes I designed and made. In that same house where we had a full room as a playroom, I set up a kind of town for my dolls. I had the Barbie Dream House, and I built all kinds of additions to it, including a fireplace and balcony. I was around 10 during my most intense Barbie phase, and I think I used that as a way to imagine what my ideal adult life would be like. I had a Malibu Barbie, but my primary doll was actually a Francie, who I think was Barbie’s cousin. She was brunette, a bit less voluptuous and had slightly flatter feet instead of being designed for high heels. Mine was the “quick curl” model, with wiry hair that you could curl with a “curling iron” plastic rod. But basically, her hair ended up all clumpy and frizzy, which meant she was just like me. At one point, I tried to fix this with scissors, and that never goes well. During that more intense Barbie phase, when that doll was pretty worn out, I got a PJ (a brunette Barbie), sent my Francie to a spa for a makeover, and she came home as that PJ, so I saw her as essentially the same doll. Then about six months later we moved, and I pretty much stopped playing with Barbies. We didn’t have a good place to put up the Dream House, and since I was going into junior high, I didn’t want it in my room.

I have that last doll in a box in my closet, and I guess it’s weird that the one I kept is one I didn’t play with all that much. According to the Toy Story films, that’s been a horrible fate for that doll, to be boxed up in a closet and never played with. I don’t have a daughter to give her to, and given that she’s more than 40 years old (yikes!), I’m not entirely sure how safe she’d be. There’s no telling what they were putting in toys then.

Now that those movies have made me feel bad, maybe I should find her and let her look outside, or something.

I did have a bit of a Toy Story 3 experience with my books. My parents cleared out their attic with boxes and boxes of childhood books. I knew I would probably never have kids, but my church works with a summer program that provides summer enrichment for kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods. As part of it, they have a reading program, and they like for the kids to be able to take home a few books of their own to keep. I donated all my old books to that program, and I felt like the end of Toy Story 3, in which a grown Andy gives up his childhood toys to a child, when I handed over all those boxes. I did feel attached to some of those books, and now I like to imagine children who didn’t have books of their own bringing those books home with them, and maybe getting even more attached to them than I was because these might be the first books they got to own for themselves.


Pacing Perception

At the end of last week, I’d reached the 1/4 of the book point, if this one is going to be the length my fantasy books usually are, and I felt like I’d only barely started to really get into the story. I wondered if the pacing was all off and this book was off to a slow start, so I reread what I’d written so far.

That reminded me that writing pace is not the same as reading pace. It had taken me weeks to write that much, and I read it in about an hour and a half—and that wasn’t even normal reading speed. I was trying not to edit as I read, but when you see a typo, you have to deal with it immediately because you might not notice it again. What feels slow as a writer because it takes you days or weeks to write may feel fast for a reader. In fact, I find that the fast-paced, action-packed scenes are the slowest to write.

I’m still not entirely sure what I think about this book. It reminds me of the meme showing a beautiful oil painting of a horse as “the book in my head” and a child’s stick-figure drawing of a horse as “the book when I try to write it.” The weird thing with this one is that the story is pretty much playing out according to what was in my head. The scenes are all there. And yet they’re somehow lacking. I think part of it is that the book in my head was like a movie trailer. I wasn’t necessarily seeing the whole scenes. I was seeing the highlights, the key moments. It skipped the parts that are necessary for getting to those moments or for getting from those moments to the next key moments.

Then there’s the fact that as I write, the book becomes even more vivid in my head, so there’s a huge disconnect with what I can put on the page. I’m bad about not getting much description in during the first draft, but even in a final draft it’s impossible to fully describe every little detail of what’s in my head. It would be a boring book if I did. The trick is figuring out exactly what needs to be described and finding ways to fit that in so that it’s not an obvious chunk of description, and even then, what’s on the page can never be as vivid as what’s in my head because it requires putting images and sensations into words.

This book is a bit different for me because it has multiple viewpoints, and each of those viewpoint characters has his or her own story. The stories will eventually meet up and mesh in the main plot, but I have to get them started separately and get them all to the main plot. If I were only dealing with one viewpoint character, like in most of my books, then the story would have moved a lot more quickly, and I’d be long past the point of the main character “crossing the threshold” into the main part of the story. But since I also have to set up the subplots with the other characters, it’s taking longer than I’m used to. I think that there’s some tension in seeing how those subplots are coming together to create a situation that’s going to hit the main character like a truck. We can see the disaster she’s heading for, but she has no idea when we’re just in her viewpoint, so it feels like her story is only just starting, but we know from seeing all the other stuff that she’s in for some trouble. I suspect this book may be a bit longer, as well.

And then there’s realizing what I’m writing. In my head, I saw it as epic fantasy, but it’s really more of a courtly intrigue and comedy of manners story. There aren’t any quests or battle scenes, just scheming and plotting and trying to cope with new situations. Part of my brain is going “this isn’t very exciting,” and I’m reminding myself that this isn’t an action-packed story.

I’m sure I’ll do some trimming in later drafts. There are some concepts I’ve had characters explain multiple times, since there are multiple people who need explanations, but the reader doesn’t need all those explanations, and I can maybe replace one or two with something like “he explained how it worked” and then move on. But then I’ll probably also be adding description and detail, so the length won’t change all that much.

writing life

Things I Hate Being True

One of my hobbies is optimizing my life. I love finding productivity methods and other tricks to make life work a little better or to make things go more easily. I’m always looking for some new thing that will improve my life. But there’s a lot of advice I resist because I don’t really want it to be true—and then I finally give in and try it and find out that it works even if it’s not fun. So, here are the things that I have found to be true, even though I hate that they’re true:

1) My day goes better when I set an alarm in the morning, even though I work for myself and don’t have to be at work at any particular time.
Not only do I get an earlier start (though not much earlier; we’re talking 10-20 minutes), but I’m more alert and less groggy, and I fall asleep more easily at night. I’m not entirely sure why it works this way for me. It may have something to do with the kind of alarm clock I have. I have a light alarm clock that wakes you up with light. Half an hour before the time you set, a light comes on, dim at first and gradually growing brighter. If you haven’t turned it off by the time you set the alarm for, it will play some kind of sound. I almost never make it all the way to the sound. Usually I wake up about 10 minutes after the light comes on. I love this clock because it makes me feel like I naturally woke up at the time I wanted instead of being startled out of sleep by the alarm. It’s possible that the light does something to reset my circadian rhythms and that’s why setting an alarm makes me sleep better at night.

Anyway, I kind of hate this. I’d rather just sleep until I wake up every morning, but I have to admit that my days go better when I set an alarm. One other good thing is that it makes weekends and holidays, when I don’t set an alarm, feel different from my weekdays.

2) Exercise first thing in the morning gives me more energy all day.
I really resisted this. I thought if I didn’t eat breakfast as soon as I got up, I’d feel awful. I thought I didn’t have the time. But once I started walking in the morning, I had to admit that it made things better. Ideally, I go walking outdoors, but when weather, or sometimes time, doesn’t permit, I may do yoga or even just do some jumping jacks, windmills, or other exercises. Even if it’s just five minutes of movement, it really helps set up the whole day, and I hate that. I’d rather lie in bed and then drag myself to the kitchen for breakfast.

3) When writing is the first thing I do in my workday, I get so much more writing done and am more productive all day.
I resisted this one for decades. I thought I needed to ease my way into my day, and it was important to check my e-mail, in case there was some important information I needed to know. I’d sit down at the computer and start by reading e-mail, then social media, message boards, etc. Then I’d draft my blog post and make another round of social media, etc. I’d post my blog, check around again, and then lunchtime! Finally, I might start writing after lunch. There was no way I’d be alert enough first thing in the morning to write anything worthwhile.

Well, I finally gave it a shot, and it was amazing how well I could write first thing in the morning. Doing that before I started all the other stuff gave me a lot more focus. I reduce temptation by putting my computer to sleep at night with the browser minimized and my current document up on the screen, so that’s the first thing I see when I wake up the computer. I think keeping with this routine has improved the quantity and quality of my work. And I kind of hate it because I really would prefer to spend the morning drinking tea and surfing the Internet.

If your schedule doesn’t permit writing first thing in the morning, this applies to the beginning of any writing session. Do the writing first, the other stuff later. It’s amazing. And terrible.

4) Having a schedule makes the day go better.
One of the things I love about working for myself is setting my own schedule. I do what I want, when I want to. Except I don’t. Strangely, I’m bad about not getting around to doing things I want to do, often because I’m sidetracked by other stuff. I’ve learned that making a schedule makes me more likely to get to all the stuff I want to do. A lot of that has to do with how willpower and decision-making work. You really do run out of energy for making choices, especially late in the day, so if you make all the “what should I do today?” decisions early, then all you have to do later in the day is follow the schedule. My work routine has fallen into habit well enough that I don’t have to make a formal schedule unless there’s a change I have to accommodate, but where I really benefit from this is on weekends. Having a plan means I actually get to the fun stuff instead of just puttering around and then hitting Sunday night and wondering what happened to the weekend.

5) You see more progress when you do something daily.
I am pretty good about writing daily (except I give myself weekends off). It’s everything else that I tend to do weekly. I’d take an exercise or dance class that met once a week and not do anything in between. I had choir practice but wouldn’t sing the rest of the week. But last year, I started doing daily yoga, and it’s amazing how much a difference that made compared to the once a week class I used to take. I’ve been doing daily Norwegian lessons on Duolingo for a couple of years, and I feel like I’ve made more progress with just 15 or so minutes a day than I did in all the years I took Spanish classes in school. I need to get back to doing music this way. I’ve just about lost my singing voice after two years of barely even speaking, so I should start doing daily voice work so I can eventually get back to choir. This also works for housework, doing small things daily instead of doing it all on the weekend (or not doing it at all).

These all work for me, but may not necessarily work for everyone, since we’re all wired differently. But since I was absolutely certain they wouldn’t work for me until I tried them, it’s worth giving it a shot and seeing if these things work for you.



It’s amazing how a little thing can end up making a big difference. A couple of weeks ago, I splurged and bought myself a “zero-g” lounger. This is a lawn/patio chair that creates the position your body naturally falls into in a zero-gravity environment, with your upper body and your knees elevated. Supposedly, this position is particularly good for your back. My patio is small, and I hadn’t bought any kind of lounge chair because I didn’t have room for it, but this one folds up so I can get it out of the way when I’m not using it, and since it doesn’t lie flat, it doesn’t take up as much space as a regular lounge chair.

And I must say, it’s been an excellent purchase so far. It has multiple positions, so you can sit almost upright, lean back slightly, or go full zero-g. I’ve learned that you need to sit at least partially upright if you’re eating or drinking, but even that position is very relaxing. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading on the patio in this chair. Yesterday, I was doing brainstorming, so I sat out there with a pen and paper, figuring out the next scenes in my book. I haven’t yet tried actually writing in it, using the laptop and a lap desk, but I should see if that works.

On the first day I had it, I didn’t want to come inside, even when it got dark, and then I got the bright idea to bring it inside. I don’t have room for a recliner in my living room, but since this chair can be put away when I’m not using it, it works brilliantly for movie watching. I just swing the coffee table out of the way and set up this chair in front of the sofa, facing the TV. To make it more like an indoor chair, I put a down-filled throw over it for some cushioning and have pillows for my head and back. The only problem is that it’s so comfortable that I have to fight not to fall asleep during the movie.

I’m finding that sitting like this for my leisure time is good for my back and shoulders. I have good posture when I’m standing, but I have terrible posture when I’m sitting. I have a bad habit of folding myself up in chairs, sitting half sideways so I’m twisted around. This chair forces me to sit in a proper alignment, but it’s so comfortable that it doesn’t feel like I’m being forced into a position. I may sit badly the rest of the day, but if I sit on the patio for a little while in the evening or watch a movie, it’s like it resets my back.

I found this one just by doing a Google search on zero-g patio lounger. I have a fairly small one. I’m not sure how well it would work for someone who’s taller and heavier than I am, but there are bigger, more sturdy ones. The one issue I have is that it can be difficult to get in and out of it. Even when I bring it fully upright, it’s not exactly graceful to get up from it. Once I have it set exactly the way I want it, I hate to bring it upright, so then it’s really awkward to get up and down. I’m glad there’s no one else around to see me!

This is also helping me cope emotionally with the coming of summer. I decided to “celebrate” the coming of warm weather by buying this. It feels a little silly to be this excited about a new patio chair, but it’s 2022, and you have to take your joy where you can find it.

movies, writing

Specific and Universal

I was surprised to see a criticism of the movie Turning Red that suggested it was too specific in its setting, that it would only appeal to the filmmaker and her friends, people of Asian descent who grew up in the early 2000s in Toronto.

I found that rather baffling because stories are supposed to be specific. The whole idea is to take something universal and put it into a specific place and time. I’m not of Chinese descent, was a pre-teen long before the early 2000s, and have never been to Toronto, and yet I related quite strongly to the characters in that movie. It reminded me so much of my seventh-grade year at a US Department of Defense school in Germany in the early 80s.

I have to wonder if this reviewer has ever seen any other Pixar movies. Last weekend, I watched the first two Toy Story movies. I am not a cowboy toy owned by a little boy, but I related to the fear of being replaced. That sort of experience comes up so often in life, like when your friends really seem to like the new kid in school and you worry you’ll lose them, when that new employee is so slick and cool that you’re worried your career is going to come to a screeching halt, when get a baby brother or sister and worry your parents will have less time for you. It’s a universal feeling put into a specific setting.

In fact, just about all stories are like that. You might be able to find a few things that are about someone exactly like you who’s experiencing something exactly like your life, but I’d think they’d be kind of boring. Why read or watch a story that’s basically about your life? We’re not space knights, superheroes, princesses, 1940s private detectives, or any of the other heroes that show up in fiction, but we can still find things about them that we can relate to.

That doesn’t mean, though, that not everyone needs to be represented or to see themselves in stories. Every so often it’s fun to find something that you relate to not only on a universal level, but also in something specific. I was in my 40s when the movie Brave came out, but it still gave me a huge thrill to see a curly-haired heroine—one who had real curly hair that acted like real curly hair, not like a straight-haired actress who’d had a curling iron waved in her general direction. Even better, she didn’t get a makeover in which she suddenly became beautiful when her hair was straightened. If that movie had existed when I was a kid, it would have had a huge impact on the way I saw myself. I think everyone needs to see themselves in stories at some point.

I suspect this writer thought the setting should have been more “universal,” like middle America. We need to get past the idea that white middle America is some kind of default that’s universal. It’s not, really. For one thing, which America? A town in the deep South isn’t the same as one in the northeast, and both are different from the midwest, which can vary depending on whether it’s north midwest or south midwest. There is no “universal” setting. I suppose the Toy Story movies do take place in some kind of generic suburban middle America, but since it’s seen through the eyes of toys, they have no real experience of the world outside Andy’s home so they have no idea where they are. Their specific world is Andy’s home.

When you try to have a generic setting with real people, you get a Hallmark Christmas movie, where they talk about the city without naming it and the small town may have a name, but you never know where this town actually is. The cars all have generic plates, if they show the license plates at all, so you can’t even tell what state they’re in. It’s just generic middle America, and it doesn’t seem like a real place. That’s the irony: the less specific you are about your setting, the less real it feels. You don’t find the universal emotions in the story when the setting feels fake. You’re more likely to relate to something in a specific setting that’s far from your personal experience because it feels more real.

This applies to made-up places, too. You need to make up a place that feels specific, like someone who grew up there could tell you exactly what it was like. Otherwise you get those generic quasi-medieval European-ish fantasy worlds.


Spring Fever

I seem to have developed a bad case of spring fever, but in me it works the opposite of the way it does most people. For a lot of people, spring gives them energy. They get happy about the end of winter and are excited about getting outdoors. They enjoy the time change that gives them extra daylight at the end of the day. I’m the weirdo who starts getting kind of glum. Spring seems to make me anxious and depressed, and the spring time change really messes with me.

I realized this was a pattern the other day when I was getting weirdly emotional about the Duolingo lesson. It was about employment, stuff like job applications, interviews, references, etc. That got me started wondering if I should look for a regular job while there’s apparently a lot of hiring going on and while costs are soaring. I could use a little more income, but I don’t know what kind of job I’d get. I haven’t had a regular job for twenty years, and my skills in my field are way out of date. Social media came along after I left the public relations world, and that’s the focus now, with traditional media dwindling. I have some valuable skills, but it would be hard to find a job using my skills that wouldn’t also require skills I don’t have. I was getting very glum about this while translating sentences about letters of recommendation into and out of Norwegian.

And then it struck me that it was around this time of year a few years ago that I had a total meltdown and decided I was going to quit writing entirely. It’s also been around this time of year that I’ve found myself researching things like travel industry jobs in Alaska and jobs at national parks. At this time of year, I seem to fall into gloom and despair about my life. It’s not a restlessness that makes me want to change. It’s more about feeling like I’m going to have to change because things can’t go on the way they are. I’m actually doing okay financially so far this year (though with the way real estate is going, I’ll never be able to buy another house and get out of this place), and I’m in the middle of the part of a project I like. I think it’s just this time of year.

It may have something to do with dreading the coming of hot weather. I don’t deal well with heat. I think the time change messes with me because there’s less darkness before bedtime and that makes it harder to wind down, and yet I’m waking up earlier, so I’m getting less sleep. The warmer weather means I have to take the weighted blanket off the bed, which means my sleep is less restful. And there are allergies that come with spring. Yesterday was particularly bad because we not only had pollen, but we were getting smoke from wildfires, and my eyes were burning so badly I could barely keep them open. It’s also tax season, when I have to really face my financial situation, and I always seem to be right on the line where if I make a bit more money, I have to pay enough more in taxes that I end up worse off than if I’d made a bit less money, so even the good news of having made more money turns into bad news. Plus there’s all the stress of dealing with it. That may be why I find myself pondering looking for jobs around this time of year.

I may make a note to myself in my calendar app for this time next year to remind myself that I get weird in late March and I should make no major plans or decisions at this time of year. It will pass, and I just need to be gentle with myself for a few weeks.


Recent Viewing

I’ve been keeping up my weekend movie night habit, but I’ve lost track of talking about them, so here are some thoughts on things I’ve watched recently, in no particular order:

A Fish Called Wanda — I needed a laugh, and I remembered this being very funny when I saw it at the theater when it first came out (I am old). It was still funny and quite an 80s time capsule, but not exactly the thing to watch when you’re a bit down because you’re losing faith in mankind, since even the “nice” people in this movie are fairly awful people. Still, brilliant writing and acting.

Weekend at Bernie’s — I guess I was on an 80s kick (and once I watched Wanda, Amazon started suggesting 80s movies). I remember wanting to see this when it came out because I thought the premise sounded fun, but I never did, and I’m not sure why. It came out during a summer when I was interning and had an apartment on my own in Austin (back in those days, apartments in Austin were dirt cheap over the summer. Times have changed), so there was nothing stopping me from seeing it. I went to a lot of movies alone that summer. Anyway, I finally saw it, and it didn’t quite live up to the premise. The core of the movie — the two guys pretending their dead boss is still alive because they’re afraid they’ll be killed if anyone realizes he’s dead while the assassin is going nuts because he’s sure he killed that guy — is rather brilliant and quite fun. But it’s a very small part of the movie. The movie’s only about 90 minutes long and we don’t even get Bernie killed until more than 30 minutes into the movie, and it’s another half hour or so before they learn their boss put a hit out on them and start really faking Bernie being alive. There’s a lot of padding with a romance subplot that doesn’t really add anything to the story. But, wow, the 80s vibes. It took me right back to my college years. The hair! The makeup! The clothes!

Ladies in Lavender — now for something a little more PBS-like. Two elderly spinsters during the 1930s find an injured young man washed up in front of their cottage on the Cornish coast and get a little too invested in him. That sounds like a horror movie, but it’s actually rather sweet. The guy is a Polish violinist who was on his way to America but ended up overboard from the ship, and the ladies want to support his dream, but fear they’ll lose him as one of them experiences her first crush late in life. Surprisingly, this gentle little movie was written (based on a short story) and directed by Charles Dance, perhaps best known now for playing Tywin Lannister. It has a great cast, starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. The young man looked really familiar, and it turns out he plays a villain in the Marvel movies, but he’s all grown up now.

Free Guy — This was the “restoring faith in humanity” movie I needed. I wasn’t sure about the idea of it, since it involves video games and I am not a gamer at all, but I was able to follow it well enough. In the world of a violent video game, one of the non-player characters becomes self-aware, falls in love with the avatar of one of the gamers, and starts being a hero in the game, doing good and stopping the violent acts, which inspires a worldwide movement in the real world — much to the chagrin of the guy who owns the video game company. He may destroy the game’s world unless that “Free Guy” can find the evidence the owner stole the code at the heart of the game. This movie is so sweet while also being fun and exciting. I found it oddly inspiring in the way it showed the impact of someone who does what he can to make the world better, one act of kindness at a time. At the same time, I felt like my lack of interest in video games was validated because that game didn’t look at all like fun to me.

West Side Story (the new one) — I love the original version. I have that soundtrack on cassette. I’ve seen the movie so many times, including on the big screen (thanks to the campus theater when I was in college). I’ve also seen numerous productions of the stage show. But I was intrigued by what could be done in a remake, and I was really impressed. The film is beautiful to watch, and the performances are terrific. I think the music is better than in the original. It was a little weird seeing something that was so familiar and yet so different. They took the basic story and the music and wrote a new script, in consultation with experts on the Puerto Rican community in New York in that time period, and I think the story works much better now. I intend to get this one on DVD so I can watch it whenever without worrying about whether it will stay on Disney+. I’d thought that this might be one Spielberg movie that didn’t involve John Williams, but it turns out that he consulted on the score because he was the pianist in the score for the original version!

Turning Red — A 13-year old girl from a Chinese immigrant family in Toronto in the early 2000s finds that her family has an interesting blessing/curse: upon puberty, the women turn into a giant red panda when they get emotional. Her overprotective mother intends to do a ritual that will remove the panda, but that’s the same night as the concert by the hot boy band the girl and her friends are determined to attend, whether or not their parents let them go. And she actually kind of likes the panda and isn’t sure she wants to get rid of it. It’s Pixar, so it’s sweet, funny, emotional, and has a universal emotional core even if it’s about a specific group of people. I’m from a different era and ethnicity and my parents weren’t nearly that overprotective, but it reminded me of my 7th grade year when I was 12. My friends and I were obsessing over Star Wars instead of a boy band, but otherwise the things they did at school and the way they talked about their obsession were all so familiar. The heroine even carried the same flute case I have (that I had then). There were a few moments when I was dying of secondhand embarrassment, but that was the universal part. Even if your parents didn’t go that far, when you were that age you probably felt that way because you feared you’d get embarrassed.

The Sword in the Stone — I don’t think I’d ever seen this Disney classic all the way through. There were scenes that were familiar that I know I’ve seen, but the rest was entirely unfamiliar. I know the story, of course, and I’ve even read the book it was based on. I’m not sure how well it holds up. It’s rather episodic, just a series of events rather than there being any kind of narrative drive. It was still cute and funny, and there’s always the game of finding the spots where they reused bits of animation from other movies that you can play with Disney films from that era.

Now I have to think of something to watch this weekend. I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for.


Adjusting the Process

I’ve made a start on the new book. It was a little slower than I’d hoped to get going, but that was mostly because I made an abrupt change in plans just before I started writing.

I’m adding something new to my process with this book. I’m journaling the book as I write it. I’ve been journaling for a few years. I sit at the table after breakfast in the morning with a cup of tea and do a bit of a brain dump, just getting all those swirling thoughts out of my head. A few months ago, I read an article about how doing that in the evening helps with sleep, so I switched journaling times, and it did seem to help with those random thoughts that wake me up during the night. But I really like that time sitting at the table in the morning. It’s not so much procrastination as it is enjoying that time, but it was delaying my work day. I read another article about journaling your book, doing some freewriting by hand before you start your writing day, hashing out your thoughts about the book. I’ve been doing brainstorming that way, and then as I prepared to start writing, on Monday morning I journaled about the scene I was going to write.

It seems to have worked pretty well because I had a burst of insight. I had two events happening independently, but I realized that the event in the first scene should actually cause the event of the next scene, but then that involved reworking a couple of scenes and even cutting a planned scene. So I spent more than an hour working all that out before I sat down and got to work.

I’m having the usual feeling of the perfect, wonderful book in my head being like a child’s stick figure drawing once I start writing. I’ve had to go back and put in some things I’d planned and forgot. I’ll need to add more description and emotion, as usual. I can picture the settings, but I can’t seem to find places to really set the stage because I’m too focused on what the characters are doing and saying.

But I can do that in the next draft. Right now, I’m getting the action down, and it’s fun having all these insights that make the story stronger, even if they do require rethinking things. Just this morning, that journaling gave me the solution to a problem I was struggling with. I was trying to figure out who should be present for a scene. Either way, there were benefits but also potential problems, and the solution came to me as I wrote about my dilemma.


Ready to Begin

I think I’ve done about all the prep work I can possibly do, so on Monday I will start writing this book. It’s both exciting and scary. I’ve been thinking about this story for more than two years. I spent much of that time doing research reading and some brainstorming, then started the serious character and plot work around the beginning of this year. Now I think anything else I do will just be procrastination, and not the good kind that allows me to develop the story in more depth.

One way that I know it’s time to start writing is that I’ve been dreaming this story. I’ve had dreams in the past that give me ideas that fit into this book or this series, but the other night I was dreaming actual scenes that I’d already plotted. In some of the dream, I was seeing the “movie” and hearing the narration of the book, but in some of it I was one of the characters. I did try to insert an additional (and unnecessary) character in one of the dreams, but otherwise, it was right out of my notes.

Which means I know at least the first three scenes to write, so I should get off to a good start.

Today and this weekend I’m trying to get my life ready for it to get taken over by writing. I’m taking care of errands, getting groceries, doing housework and laundry, and I hope to make a couple of meals that will provide me with plenty of leftovers so I won’t have to do a lot of cooking. I’m bad about going all-or-nothing when I get into a book, so I get nothing else done while I’m writing. I’m going to try for a bit more work/life balance, but I want to take advantage of the surge of initial enthusiasm. I’m aiming for a relaxing and restful Sunday so I’ll be ready to dive in.

So, very soon I will actually meet these characters on the page as the story goes from thought to actual words. This is where those writing exercises to find the voice help because I’ve “met” the characters outside the text of the actual book, and that makes it a little less momentous to start writing them. Even so, writing those first words after all the preparation is a bit like standing at the top of a steep ski slope, ready to fling yourself down a mountain.