The Hobbit: An Unexpected Success

So… It’s been a minute since I’ve posted on here, huh? I use the word minute figuratively, of course, because it has in fact been months. And I would simply say, “I won’t mention it if you don’t mention it,” if I didn’t know you better. Let’s not kid ourselves, after all. We both know that you wouldn’t be able to resist bringing up the time I went months without posting on the blog. You just can’t help yourself, can you?

Well, whatever. I’ll let bygones be bygones. Being the bigger person here. Plus, you knew what you were in for when you read the About page. I made no promises of constancy, consistency, or anything vaguely resembling blog activity when I set out on this venture. All I promised you was a handful of rambling, focus-less posts. And boy, are you in luck today!

Because I’d like to talk about a movie I saw recently. And if you’ve read this blog at all, and know what kind of fiction I read and write, you can probably guess what movie I saw.

That’s right: Jack Reacher.

Kidding, kidding. It was The Hobbit, of course, and my reaction to the film is actually a lot more positive than it sounds. Ready?

I am less disappointed than I expected to be.

Now, like I mentioned above, that doesn’t sound like high praise. But let me explain. You see, The Hobbit is one of my all-time favorite stories. I haven’t read it through in a while now, and it’s not one of those books that have on a constant reread cycle. But I count it as the first book that truly left its mark on me. In Elementary school, I was a quick and gifted reader, but I didn’t really love books. They told me that I read at the level of a college freshman when I was in fourth grade, and despite how proud I was of that esteem, I didn’t take full advantage. I could comprehend books just fine, but I only read when I had to. The Hobbit changed that for me.

I picked it up after hearing about the upcoming Lord of the Rings movies. Even then, I was the type of kid who had to start at the beginning to feel that I’d gotten the most out of anything (I still do this with bands, TV shows, and book series today). So my mom bought me The Hobbit, which I was determined to read before getting into The Lord of the Rings proper. My copy had beautiful, detailed illustrations, and I was grabbed immediately by Tolkien’s vivid, grandfatherly style of storytelling. And I still look back on that book with more than just fondness, because it’s a style of storytelling that isn’t often seen in fiction anymore. It’s not every author who can write a story and instantly transport the reader to a warm oversized chair by a fire with the first words. But The Hobbit has that power.

So you can understand why it was with some considerable trepidation that I approached Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, especially with all the negative things I’d heard already. I had heard that it was bloated and unnecessarily drawn out (the adaptation was initially announced to be one film, and then two, and then a ridiculous three). I had heard that it was filled with obvious CGI and corny 3D gimmicks. And, of course, I had heard that it was a totally unneeded attempt to cash in on the success of the first three Lord of the Rings films. I was feeling a familiar, Phantom-Menace-esque lump in my throat at the thought. And, to cap it all off, Patrick Rothfuss, whose writing I love and who has led me to many other great books and films in the past through his blog, publicly stated that he would not be seeing the movie because of these factors.

So, again, I was not expecting much. But I think those low expectations saved the experience for me. In the end, strange as it sounds, I was pleasantly surprised to be unexpectedly un-disappointed. I’d spent so much time before the film bracing myself for absolute garbage that, when the time finally came to plonk myself down in the theater, I was able to have a really good time with the film.

I’ll break it down, briefly.

Being the geek that I am, I was particularly susceptible to all the random bits of nostalgia-inducing fan service throughout the movie. When the tale began with Tolkien’s immortal lines, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”–well, when I heard those first words I immediately broke out into a smile. And the original story is that dear to me that not even my powerful inner cynic could prevent Peter Jackson from playing on my nostalgic impulses. There were plenty of little inside lines like that designed to capitalize on the fond remembrances of the initiated.

Still, it’s that same geek mentality that made me more likely to cringe at all the silly Hollywood guff, and guff there was in spades. Jackson’s ridiculously lengthy action sequences are a prime example. It was also jarring to see scenes from The Lord of the Rings repeated almost exactly in this film (Gandalf, I’m talking about you and your ever-present friend, the moth–and his ever-present friends, the giant eagles, for that matter). But I suppose it ended up cancelling out in the end, and I found myself able to look past the silliness of some moments (a sled pulled by rabbits? Really?) and appreciate the thing as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t perfect. Does this adaptation need to be three films long? Hell no. Did the first installment need to be almost three hours long? Absolutely not. Does it promise to measure up to the quality of the Lord of the Rings movies? Not by a long shot. But was it an enjoyable film? With all its flaws, I am still compelled to answer that question with a resounding yes. It was plenty fun, it had all the little moments and jokes from the books that you could want, and it looked pretty damn good (provided that you don’t see it in 3D).

And, fellow geeks, let’s be honest with ourselves. No one’s going to sully classic books like The Hobbit. No one has the power to do that. No matter who adapts it or how, Tolkien’s book will always be a wonderful, vintage bit of fairy-tale storytelling, always untouched by time. So just enjoy this popcorn-munching affair for what it is, and return home to your pipe, blazing hearth, well-stocked larder, and well-worn copy of the original book, knowing in your heart that Peter Jackson’s Hobbit could have been much, much worse.

I mean, at least Legolas wasn’t in this one.

 

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Guy Gavriel Kay

I just recently read Under Heaven,  a spectacular book written by this guy right here.

That smug bastard. Look at him. What’s that? Why do I sound bitter, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

Under Heaven was amazing. I was mezmerized by this book. The prose, the characters, the world. It was the perfect blend of the real and the fantastic. It was a damn fine book. And it was very close to the kinds of books I’d like to write. It’s history, really. Heavily inspired by history, anyway. Kay is even more unabashed about his unrelenting borrowing of real-world fact than most. He totally understands what he’s doing in his books, and he has damn good reason for it. He writes what I want to write, albeit with a bit less snark and general rudeness.

A little about the book then.

Under Heaven is a fantasy based on the Tang period in China. In particular Kay was heavily influenced by the poetry of the time, and it shows in his writing. Not only does his book contain a fictionalized representation of the great Tang poet Li Bai, but his words and world are heavily inspired by the poetry of that same man. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, Li Bai’s poetry was the initial impetus for the writing of this book.

Kay does a lot of really cool things with his writing. He has no qualms about switching to omniscient mid-chapter, even stepping out of the time period of the story and analyzing the events of his plot from the viewpoint of his world’s future fictional historians and antiquarians. His characters are well crafted, though they seem to be more vehicles for the time period than truly inspiring personalities. Still, that’s alright in a book like this, in which much of the wonder and enjoyment is derived from the fantastic world that the characters inhabit. Kay even messes around with tense, writing his male characters in the usual third person limited past tense, and his female characters in a sometimes-omniscient third present tense, so that the actions in the female chapters have both a sense of immediacy, and a strange sense of distance. Very cool stuff that you don’t typically see in a fantasy novel.

So basically, Kay is making me look bad. Pathetic, even. This clever son of a bitch even talks about his reasons for writing historically-inspired fiction, and they’re good ones. I’ll link you now to an essay written by Mr. Kay: Home and Away. Follow that link, and read the words contained therein. Do you see? Do you see now, gentle readers? Guy Gavriel Kay writes in that essay the same things that I’ve written about on this blog, but better. This essay of his? This is how I discovered that Kay is not only a man after my own heart, but also a man I am destined to destroy. In fact, disregard my previous request: don’t read the essay on the other side of that link. Just read my thing about fantasy again and pretend that it–you know, sounds better.

I do, however, have one complaint about Under Heaven, a complaint which I shall cherish, it having prevented the creation of a near-perfect fantasy novel that would have forever dashed my hopes of creating anything of even comparable quality. It seems at times that Under Heaven, as well as Kay’s other books, perhaps take a little too much from one period and region of history. They end up feeling like direct copies of actual historical events. I’d prefer a little more of a grab-bag approach to using history in a fantastic setting. That is to say, you can evoke a period of history and realistic events/cultures/characters without borrowing exact details and merely changing some names. This isn’t to say that Kay’s approach to fantasy is incorrect, but perhaps the Martins and Abercrombies of the world are a bit more creative with the content of their fictional worlds.

Alright, that’s all for now. More updates on my first draft in a short while.

Peace.

Personal Affairs

 

Well, I suppose I’d better write something, lest I fulfill the prediction that I (only half-seriously) made in my first ever post: that this blog would die an imminent and unremarkable death. I don’t want that. My legions of slavering fans certainly don’t want that. So I’m here, not to save the day, but at least to say some words about a subject with which I am most excellently acquainted.

Myself, of course.

Well, not just myself. Obviously I always talk about myself to some degree. Today is special, though! Today I’ll be writing to you, dear reader, about my own personal project. That’s right. I’m currently working on a book. It’s not the first time I’ve ever conceived of writing a book. It’s possibly not my best idea so far, and almost certainly not the best I’ll ever have. But I am determined to make it the first book I ever complete, and trust me–I am bound and determined to finish this one.

Talking about my book should provide a pretty substantial source of blog posts, which is of course the real reason I’m doing it. I have to keep up the veneer of activity somehow. But I suppose in the meantime it could also afford me the opportunity to talk about different aspects of storytelling that are going on in my own narrative.

I’ll talk about subversion of common fantasy tropes, and why those tropes exist in the first place. I’ll talk about the difficulties of switching points of view, and the pitfalls of inactive protagonists. And I’ll finish off every post with a wordcount. My goal is 75,000 words by the start of September, and I almost certainly won’t be making it. Hurrah!

But today, to kick us off, I would first like to talk about the reasons for which stories are written. And the reason I’m writing my own story. There are, perhaps surprisingly, differing views on this. Some believe that the theme or message of the piece is the primary measuring-stick of its value. Others believe that literary complexity determines a book’s worth. For me, however, a story should, first and foremost, entertain. Let’s get into this a little deeper, then.

I know a fellow. He’s an old man: the step-grandfather of my beautiful girlfriend, in fact. He was once an English professor, and his library consists only of books written before 1960, none of which could ever be called anything other than “a classic” or, at the very least, “fine literature.” He spits on modern books and authors which don’t aspire to his perceived zenith of literary sophistication. Not literally, as far as I know, but if anyone’s the sort to furtively open the pages of the latest Dan Brown novel in the back of the bookstore and plant a wad of saliva inside, it’s him.

Girlfriend’s step-grandfather–we’ll call him Arthur–is of the impression that, more than anything, the thematic substance and subtext of a book determine its value. If you don’t understand what I mean, let me give you an example that should clear things right up. He claims to have liked both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, two books renowned for being impossibly difficult to read, and certainly impossible to actually enjoy. In fact, it’s not all that unlikely that the books’ author, “James Joyce,” is nothing more than a front for a government agency tasked with uncovering the whereabouts of alien beings that look exactly like us, but don’t understand entertainment.

Arthur shuns entertainment. He even scoffs at things such as The Count of Monte Cristo for being worthless “romances,” despite the fact that The Count is a classic, thoroughly riveting tale of revenge. Who the hell doesn’t like a good revenge story? Arthur, and other alien replicants like him, is the answer. For Arthur, ill-defined mysterious qualities of questionable literary merit easily trump such paltry things as accessibility and entertainment value when it comes to the important aspects of a book. Relatable characters and a page-turning plot? No, thank you. I’d much prefer dense allegory and a touch of allusion in my book.

Well.

Then there’s another friend, whom I know from school. We’ll call him… I don’t know–Rasputin. Why not. Now Rasputin reads things for the message. He listens to music for the message. Everything has to have a message. If a book isn’t making some profound statement on the state of our fucked-up society, then it’s no good for him. All art seems only to be worth a moment of his time if it challenges authority, or subtly (or overtly, whatever) discusses the shambles that is our crumbled paradise of a world.

If my tone hasn’t tipped you off yet, I’ll condense my thoughts here: I find both of these men to be a bit silly.

Yes, that’s right. Silly bastards, the both of them. Now don’t get me wrong. Much of the best literature of our age strove to accomplish something. That’s one of the reasons that both sci-fi and fantasy are so valuable–they have the capacity to criticize our world indirectly, in such a way that the issues and arguments can be shed with new light. Just ask Kurt Vonnegut if speculative fiction can be used to say something about our own world and times.

Similarly, I’m quite fond of a lot of what is erroneously named “literary fiction,” especially of the fantasy and science fiction variety. Kurt Vonnegut, again, would have something to say about the thematic quality of his work. He’d probably say that it had none, actually, but that’s part of his genius. Ray Bradbury, for God’s sake. The man wrote Fahrenheit 451, in my opinion the best of the dystopian future novels you’re told to read in high school. Gene Wolfe, a modern master of the genre. Of course, Arthur scoffed at a book of Gene Wolfe’s and refused to read it on principle. But if you wish to read a dense, multi-layered, ambiguous, altogether literary sort of book, read Gene’s The Book of the New Sun. It’s absolutely badass.

Anyway, as I was saying. I think that these qualities are important to the overall value of literature. But my comically caricatured friends Arthur and Rasputin don’t seem to understand that stories exist for one reason primarily. Entertainment.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I don’t advise you to start work now on your novelization of Jersey Shore, or begin writing your next piece of Twilight fanfiction. Please, for the love of God, don’t. Entertainment does not mean dumbed-down schlock.

But aren’t things allowed to exist primarily for the purposes of entertainment? Are we too hip and self-aware to enjoy things, and relate to characters, and stay up late even though we have work tomorrow because the book is just too damn good? I don’t want to always sit down with a mug of tea and work my way through a classic stream-of-consciousness turd of a book. Sometimes I just want to be riveted, you know? Sometimes I want to be made to feel as much as I want to be made to think. You get me?

I mean, Harry Potter’s good, isn’t it? It speaks to people of all ages. It has relatively simply drawn, relatable characters that carry the reader through the story. It’s a page-turner, certainly. And yes, the later books were good, when the whole thing became a parallel for Nazi-era Germany and the main characters were reduced to a scrabbling band of embittered, aimless revolutionaries. Trust me, I love that kind of shit. But wasn’t the series better at the start? You know it was. It was good because it had whimsy, and charm, and it was… fun to read.

So.

I’m not writing a Harry Potter type of book. Children probably shouldn’t read the end product of my personal writing adventure, as I’m sure the content of this blog has told you. And my book has a theme, and it has, if only slightly, some intended literary merit. But I don’t ever want to forget the feeling that your first great book can give you, forcing you to lose sleep and miss meals and resent your parents for daring to pull you away from the pages. And I don’t ever want to write a book that has no chance of giving someone that amazing experience. Because that’s why stories exist. They’re powerful things, stories. And authors can do many great things with them. But in my opinion, none of those things will ever be greater than keeping someone so overwhelmingly entertained that they just can’t put the damn thing down.

Until next time.

Oh. The word count, yes. I’ll try to make this a repeat feature until the book is finished. We stand currently at 29,704 words, just 45,296 away from our goal. Wish me luck on the rest. And, as always…

Peace.

Dialogue: Friend, or Foe?

Today we answer the question laid out in the post title. As a writer, is dialogue your friend, or your foe? The answer is foe, of course.

I’m just kidding. The answer is obviously friend. I’m sure you know, learned student of the written word that you are, that dialogue is an incredibly important aspect of a book. And I’ll be honest here, it’s also one of the things that I just can’t seem to get right. I struggle regularly to write convincing dialogue, especially on the first time through a story. It just sounds stilted and, well… is shitty too strong a word? No, I think that shitty is quite an apt description, actually. I write shitty dialogue. Now why it’s shitty is a question that demands an answer.

I often find that I’m just writing dialogue for dialogue’s sake, and that’s a problem. Dialogue is a tool. One of many tools at your disposal as a writer. And as a tool, it needs to be used properly. Writing dialogue just to have quotation marks on your page is about as useful as using a hammer just for the sake of swinging one around. Yeah, it’s neat at first–hell, it might even end up being a lot of fun. But in the end you’re just going to be surrounded by a bunch of broken, messed-up shit, and no good explanation for how or why it got there.

So let’s straighten things out.

Dialogue is obviously conversation between two or more characters–between two or more people. So let’s think. How do people talk to each other? And why? Well, the why is not always as clear as you might think. Often people will engage in conversation to discuss something important, that’s true. But more often people talk to avoid discussing something important. Sometimes talking is merely a way to fill silence. Awkward small talk, and empty conversation are important aspects of dialogue that should not be ignored in a book. Your goal is to write realistic characters, right? Too often writers have their characters speak only when it is expository to the plot. I am myself a victim of this trend. It’s tempting, because you want these bastards to move the damn story along. But remember, these are people talking. Their character and personality needs to show through in their speech. Here’s an example of plain old dialogue:

“Where are you going?” Betty asked.

“Out.”

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar. I don’t know.”

“Ray, you can’t… Not now.”

“I’ve done everything you asked, Betty. I went to the doctor. I took the fertility tests. I don’t know what else you want from me. I’m going.”

“Ray!”

So there. That’s some straight dialogue that I just made up. It’s okay, I guess. But it needs more flavor, wouldn’t you say? Sometimes back-and-forth dialogue is good. Hemingway sure did plenty of it, and it worked for him. But the words are not always the focus of the conversation. If this written dialogue is supposed to represent two people talking, then we have to think about the way in which they might speak. Right now our selection reads like a bit from a play, and one with very little direction at that. In a play or movie, the actors and director bring a lot to the dialogue. Body language, tone of voice–there are a lot more factors to a conversation than just lines after lines of dialogue. So let’s try again, this time inserting a little bit of description.

“Where are you going?” Betty asked. Ray paused, his hand frozen on the doorknob, and looked over his shoulder.

“Out,” he said.

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.”

“Ray.” Betty reached out a hand and approached him slowly. “You can’t… Not now.” He slammed his hand against the door and it shuddered on its hinges. Betty recoiled.

“I’ve done everything you asked,” Ray growled. “I went to the doctor. I took the fertility tests.” His fingers squeezed into a fist, relaxed again. He sighed. “I don’t know what else you want from me, Betty. I’m going.” He twisted the knob and ripped the door open, and walked out into the darkness, not bothering to close the door after himself. Betty made it as far as the door frame before her feet refused to carry her any further. She stood staring out at the cold, black night, eyes searching through welling tears.

“Ray!” she cried, but he was gone.

Now see, I like that a bit better. Don’t get me wrong. Straight dialogue can be nice for circumstances in which the speech is the most important aspect, but more often than not that isn’t the case. When we speak, we say a lot more with our hands, eyes, and tones than we do with our words alone. I mentioned Hemingway above, and I often think of him when writing dialogue. I recall hearing once that he did not think much of descriptive dialogue tags. You’ll find his dialogue scenes rarely flirt with any language more complicated than “he/she said.” He didn’t think anything more was necessary. The man was adamant about this simplicity of language, and I admire him for that.

But he’s wrong. Or well… he’s not entirely right. You see, we don’t just say what we mean to say. People aren’t that simple. Sometimes the expression you wear when you speak reveals more about your words than the words themselves. But why write, “‘I really don’t know,’ he said. He smiled” when “‘I really don’t know,’ he smiled” is so much more to the point? And sometimes the tone and volume of your voice express what you really want to say, even when your tongue is unwilling to speak the truth. So obviously the meaning of the words “Please leave” is drastically different when the tag reads “he snarled” rather than “he pleaded.”

Beyond dialogue tags, there are lots of things that we do when we speak that affect the feeling of the conversation. This is where simple description comes into play. Nodding and smiling out of sincere interest is different from stiffly nodding while forcing your clenched jaw into a rictus grin. Staring out a window while you speak doesn’t convey the same feeling that frenetically pacing the floorboards does. Those things are important to the conversation as a whole, and you can’t afford to omit them or forget them entirely.

In addition to description and dialogue tags, you do have to consider the words being spoken. Rather, you have to consider the words not spoken. Would Ray and Betty say all of those things to one another? Would they mention the doctor and the fertility tests so explicitly? Either Ray or his wife is infertile. They know this, even if the reader doesn’t. Taking this into account is where the real atmosphere of your conversation is cultivated. There’s a certain satisfaction to discovering the topic of a written discussion rather than having it handed to you. Not only that, but if realism is your goal, then you must take into account the way that real people speak. Betty and Ray have known each other for years–I guess that they’re either married or in a committed relationship, though I wouldn’t put it past that bastard Ray to cheat on his poor lady. He really is a jerk. In any case, people don’t speak in completely expository sentences. They leave out details, because they both know the details already. Or they skirt around the details deliberately because they’re made uncomfortable by the topic at hand. So let’s change our little scene once more.

“Where are you going?” Betty asked. Ray paused, his hand frozen on the doorknob, and looked over his shoulder.

“Out,” he said.

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.”

“Ray.” Betty reached out a hand and approached him slowly. “You can’t… Not now.” He slammed his hand against the door and it shuddered on its hinges. Betty recoiled.

“I did everything you asked,” Ray growled. “I went to see… him. I took the tests. I let that bastard poke his nose into my personal life.”

“He’s not a bastard, Ray. It’s his job to ask.”

“He’s a nosy prick who can’t mind his own business!” His fingers squeezed into a fist, relaxed again. Betty was looking at him with quivering lips and eyes wet with fresh tears. He sighed. “I don’t know what else you want from me, Betty.”

“I want to have a family,” Betty whispered. Ray felt his jaw tighten.

“I’m going.” He twisted the knob and ripped the door open, and walked out into the darkness, not bothering to close the door after himself. Betty made it as far as the door frame before her feet refused to carry her any further. She stood staring out at the cold, black night, eyes searching through welling tears.

“Ray!” she cried, but he was gone.

So instead of exposition, we have hints and little details that clue the reader in on what’s really happening.

You can go too far in realism. The “um”s and “ah”s of real conversation are often too much in written dialogue. The conversation on the page has to flow, so a strict sense of realism is out of place when it distracts from the importance of the dialogue itself. But overall, writing dialogue this way gives the reader a lot more than simple, direct words. Dialogue can’t exist merely to fill up space on a page. It has to tell the reader a lot of things at once. Ideally, it should drive the plot, build the characters, and set the mood of the piece or scene all at once. In most circumstances, it will only do two, or even just one of those things. But part of learning how to write well is learning how to say as little as necessary to tell the story you want. Economy of language means a lot to the efficacy of your writing, and dialogue is no exception.

Well, I think I’ve just given myself a few ideas, and hopefully this post did the same for you. You know when you try to explain something that you don’t know yourself, and find a suitable answer in the process? Well I’m about to go off and write some truly spectacular dialogue, then bask in the warm glow of my revelation. Peace, my children. May your conversations be ever filled with pregnant pauses, tense stares, and loaded questions.