For God’s Sake, Don’t Talk in the Elevator: The Social Media Pitch

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[Added later: This post has been included on Joshua Palmatier’s blog round up of posts about creating pitches. If you want to read more (after you finish mine, ‘natch) check it out.]

The elevator is a terrible place for an elevator pitch.

The idea behind an elevator pitch was that maybe someday Earnest Hopeful, young production assistant at Big Wig studios, might unexpectedly find himself alone in an elevator with Mr. Big Wig himself! How could he best describe his movie idea so that Mr. Big Wig falls in love with it, gives it the green light, and casts William Powell and Veronica Lake to star. Earnest has to be prepared! His pitch has to be shorter than the elevator ride but compelling enough that Mr. Big Wig invites young Earnest to get off at his floor.

But that’s not why we need an elevator pitch. In my entire life, I’ve never had reason to talk to a stranger on an elevator unless I couldn’t reach the button for the floor I wanted.

No, elevator pitches are supposed to be for the writer, and for social media.

For a long time, elevator pitches were mixed up with the idea of the “log line”. Log lines were the short descriptions of TV shows or movies that appeared beneath the listings in the TV Guide. But, if you went online during the late nineties hoping to find advice that would make you a pro, creating a log line for your story was commonplace advice. In that context, the log line was:

[Protagonist] struggles to [goal] in order to [what’s at stake] to prevent [terrible price of failure].

Or something like that. It was always a little different each time, but the basic Mad Libs of the thing are in that line above.

The point of a log line was to show beginning writers where their story could be found. It was about [Protagonist], not a million side characters. [Protagonist] was in pursuit of [goal] because [what’s at stake] was so important. They didn’t laze around mom’s basement, feeling sorry for themselves. And so on. It’s a fine way to highlight the important parts of a certain kind of story (essentially: stories that are like movies or tv shows, which is where these ideas come from) but it didn’t apply to every sort of fiction.

Eventually, this Mad Libs-ed log line idea merged with the elevator pitch to become the most basic way a writer could describe a story. It told you where to go with the story. It told you what mattered. It was extremely limited and limiting.

But it’s a tool, and all tools are limited. When we teach writing, it’s much easier to gas on about basic story construction than what most new writers really need: the skills and judgement needed to organize sentences and paragraphs in an enjoyable way. That’s what I really needed to study but that shit is hard to teach in a 300-word blog post or message board thread, so instead the internet filled up with “How to make your protagonist compelling” and Freytag’s Pyramid.

So, has an elevator pitch/log line ever been useful to me before I wrote a first draft? Yeah, actually, in short fiction. The format has helped me keep the story from spinning out into an unpublishable length.

For novels, which are a complex, sometimes digressive form, no. Not ever.

After the book is started, I’ve found some use for these pitches/log lines. Has the plot started to wander? Have the characters motivations become jumbled? Does this one particular scene seem to be going nowhere? That’s a good time to remind myself what, specifically, each character wants and what’s in their way. When I’m blocked in something as small as a few lines of dialog, filling in those blanks can help point the way forward.

But really, the elevator pitch is the social media pitch. It’s the short description that fits inside a tweet (oh for the luxury of a five-story elevator ride) that piques readers’ interest. It may not sell the book, but it might get readers to download the sample. I didn’t have one for the Twenty Palaces books, but I did for The Great Way: “An epic fantasy trilogy about a sentient curse that destroys an empire.”

At one point a reader asked me if I hadn’t gotten that wrong: shouldn’t elevator pitches focus on the character? Who’s the story about? What are they trying to do? This reader was focussing on all the log line essentials: Shouldn’t I fill out that Mad Lib? I responded by saying that a pitch should highlight what’s most unique and compelling about a book. If that’s the lead character and their goal, awesome. Going that route is easy enough, and it can be effective. If, instead, what’s unique and compelling is an apocalyptic tone and a weird antagonist, then some other format has to be created. The Mad Lib of a log line is a fine tool to start with when organizing a pitch, but it’s a poor fit for a lot of books. Sometimes the work has to be done without that tool.

For example, the pitch for A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark was: “It’s a pacifist urban fantasy with a hero who’s a cross between Auntie Mame and Gandalf.” Nowhere does that define her goal (which is to solve a murder) or what awful thing will happen if she fails (because she doesn’t know at first and it’s supposed to be a fun surprise) but it does highlight what I think is unique and compelling about that book.

Currently, my agent is shopping One Man, a fantasy/crime thriller, and I’ll have to create a social media pitch for it. That means I take a sheet of scrap paper and list elements that I think are fun/unusual/exciting. Not all of them will make the cut, but lists gives me something concrete to work with. Should I focus on the protagonist, a former golden boy responsible for the deaths of those nearest to him, who now bears unknown magic? The setting, a city built within the skeletons of two “dead” gods (both killed while fucking)? The plot’s macguffin, a piece of forbidden healing magic that might lead to civil war?

Nah. For me, the most unusual and interesting aspect is the stakes. The protagonist isn’t trying to destroy a magic ring, or defeat an evil army, or slay a sorcerer-king. He wants to rescue an orphaned little girl that no one else in the whole world cares about. They’re small, personal stakes for a book filled with fighting, magic, and impending war, but that’s what makes it interesting to me. Will readers feel that same way? It’s impossible to know. Fantasy readers like their stakes to be big. Epic, even. Will pitching the stakes in One Man push people away from a book they might love if they read it?

I haven’t worked that out. But then, if it were easy, everyone would do it.

That’s my take on so-called elevator pitches. Once in a long while, they’re useful during the writing process, but they’ve become necessary after the books comes out to help attract readers. Start with a log line, if you want, and make a list of unique and compelling elements that you believe will intrigue readers. And good luck. None of this is easy.

But please don’t talk on elevators.

The Harry Potter Novels, by Robert Galbraith

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[First, because just this morning I met someone who didn’t know: “Robert Galbraith” is the pen name JK Rowling uses for her private investigator novels.]

Hey, check out this tweet from more than a month ago, which is part of a longer thread that’s worth looking at. And by “longer” I mean it’s a handful of tweets that you can read in under a minute.

The real issue here is: “Backstories: are they interesting or fun?”

If you like private eye novels (and like Rowling, I do) the answer is obviously yes. They’re full of secrets and tragic pasts, and the denouement is dependent on uncovering every relevant truth. It’s a narrative about discovering a hidden narrative.

I mentioned before that I binged all the Harry Potter movies for my birthday; yesterday, I finished the last book.

Fantasy novels have long delved into the past to address the narrative present. How often do the characters in Lord of the Rings talk about Isildur, who died approximately 3,000 years before the events of the novels? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way) The Others are returning to Westeros after eight thousand years, blah blah blah. Both books touch on recent history, but it’s political history, not the stories of ordinary folks.

But the Harry Potter novels, like great detective novels, are about personal history, which is why so many of the characters are given space to explicate their past. Harry even takes time in the lull of a battle to delve into Snape’s memories. He hated Snape through seven books, but when the time came he had to stop and uncover the man’s secrets, he did. And of course, in the scene in King’s Cross, Dumbledore spills his own family tragedy for Harry’s edification.

I can understand why readers wouldn’t like it. Years ago, when Veronica Mars was getting all the buzz, a science fiction writer of some prestige decided to give it a try. She was horrified by the way Veronica dug into everyone’s lives. We even got to read a “Don’t kids these days…” rant about privacy.

But that misses the point. Rowling clearly has a love for personal history and personal tragedy. Yeah, the books changed as the series progressed, becoming more mature along with the readers, but the latter books’ digressions into characters’ secrets was already there in the stories of James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter in book three and the flashbacks to Hagrid’s expulsion and Myrtle’s death in book two.

Which is a rather long-winded way of saying that some of us out here love it and wish we could see more.

As a further note, having finished the books, I have to say that it’s ridiculous to think that Harry should have fallen in love with Hermione over Ginny. People, please.

Film Trailers out of SDCC

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A couple of years back, I told myself I wouldn’t watch trailers for movies I definitely planned to see. It made sense from a spoiler standpoint, but it couldn’t last.

Now that SDCC is passing, YouTube is awash with new film trailers, and they’re hard to resist. Let’s look at a few:

I’m not sure how I feel about this new Star Trek. I like the cast. A lot. But Trek still feels played out and CBS is using this to push their All Access online service. I’m not signing on for that, but I hope this is a solid show and I can catch up to it on library dvds.

The day that Marvel Studios realized that Chris Hemsworth could do comedy was the day that Marvel really started to pull away from the competition. His comic timing was the best thing about Age of Ultron, and I’m looking forward to this film more than most of the other in this post. Also: a good reminder to watch What We Do in the Shadows.

Not a movie, obviously, but I’ll be watching this when it premieres for three reasons: more Jessica Jones, please god do a better job with Danny Rand than in his own series, and the Foggy/Karen/Colleen/Misty/etc show. Unfortunately, it’s by Scott Buck, the guy who screwed the pooch with Iron Fist. We’ll see. (And IF has been renewed for a second season with a new showrunner, the guy from Sleepy Hollow. With luck, he’ll make a martial arts show.)

A new Fox show about mutants? I know very little about this, except that it looks like the budget was spent on cgi rather than interesting locations. But it has Amy Acker, so I’ll check it out.

Season 2 of Stranger Things? You don’t even have to show me a trailer, because I’m happy to show up for this. Still, the trailer makes it look fantastic.

I was wondering how Marvel would make The Inhumans work, and judging by this trailer, they haven’t.

A DC movie… with a sense of humor? The trailer makes this look like a solid superhero movie, but I’m still feeling stung by Suicide Squad. We’ll see.

Arrival was amazing, so I have high hopes for this. Too bad no one thought to cast a few people of color, but maybe it’ll do okay at the box office anyway.

My son really went for this book, but I haven’t read it. Spielberg is usually good even when the material is iffy, but I don’t really get a sense of what this film’s about, and I’m not excited by it.

An earlier trailer for Bright made it seem like they were going to address police brutality against marginalized people by making the marginalized people into orcs. That’s a deeply stupid idea. Despite the fact that the film looks terrible, I’m sure there will come a day when I’ve had a few bourbons and start watching it. Sad, I know.

This isn’t a new trailer from SDCC, but hey, Black Lightning! There’s no way I’ll be missing this one, for the first few episodes, at least.

There were more, obviously, but they were for shows I don’t watch or have never been tempted to watch. I’ll take a hard pass on Death Note, for example.

Harry Potter Turns 20

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Today’s the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in a series that turned an awful lot of young people into readers. Of course, it came out with a different name in the U.S. the next year.

I didn’t encounter it until much later in the year, when NPR began to cover it. I grabbed a copy at the library, read the first book, and didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
Not for me.

A lot of books other people love are not for me, and it’s usually because I’m itching for something specific. There’s no point in picking up Fellowship of the Ring when I really want to read Conan. For example.

But the popularity of the books kept growing, and people talked about them more and more online. What’s more, writers were seeing Rowling’s popularity and thinking I want that, too. Lots of online writing talk shifted from “How to write fiction” to “How to write fiction for young adults.”

It was everywhere.

What really stuck with me, though, was the weird advice people were giving. Most common was that YA writers should not waste time at the beginning of a book because young readers don’t have patience to wade through a bunch of boring text. Get that plot moving! They want the story to be exciting!

And my first thought was: I’m not a young person but I hate boring text, too! Why are people talking about adult readers as though we’re okay with dull shit?

At some point, a bookstore across town went out of business, and bussed over there to see what they had on offer. What I found were hardbacks of the first four in the series at half-price. I was a little leery, but half-off! And by that time it was a cultural phenomenon, and I figured I’d try to work out why.

Besides, they keep the plot moving!

With the second attempt, I was feeling less fussy and enjoyed myself much more. I bought the books as they came out and mostly enjoyed them; with the last volume, I took an internet vacation to avoid the gleeful spoilers that people were throwing around for book 6.

Some time later, my son saw a theatrical trailer for one of the movies, and said: “I want to see that.”

“You haven’t read the books yet,” I answered, starting a tradition that kept up until Surly Teenagehood.

In fact, we read the books as part of family read-aloud time. The second time through, hearing them spoken, I was amazed by how funny they were. For the first four books, anyway. Some parts had my son and me rolling on the floor, literally. With book five, they turned more serious, but we enjoyed them just as much.

All seven hardbacks still sit on a shelf in the back hall. I don’t reread often, and I don’t collect books, but I like having all of them in hardback.

By some strange coincidence, Sunday will be my (not) birthday–my real birthday already passed, but I’ll celebrate on this convenient date–and many months ago I decided to make my usual B-day movie marathon a Harry Potter fest. The library dvds are sitting on the shelf beside me. And as flawed as the books may be, they have a charm that the movies lack.
Still, the films are pretty uneven in terms of quality, and therefore instructive.

They’re also, when you watch them end to end, 19 hours and forty minutes long. If you assume that each of the eight films has ten minutes of credits at the end, that 18 hours and 20 minutes. Factor in bathroom breaks, meal times, pizza ordering, 2 am coffee brewing, and a previously scheduled afternoon role-playing session, I just might be staying up 23 straight hours to wait for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to get his ass kicked.

And I’m feeling sort of ambivalent about it.

I’m sure I will enjoy the films more than I remember, because I’m more forgiving when I re-watch. Plus: carb cheat day.

Anyway, today I salute J.K. Rowling for her accomplishment. Few writers will ever have as much impact on the culture as she has.

But I don’t know what house I’d be sorted into and I never will.

Three Reviews and a Pre-review

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I’m going to post three quick reviews here, so obviously there will be SPOILERS.

LOGAN

Logan is a solid, competent movie, the way most big budget superhero films are nowadays, but because it aims for tears instead of cheers, people are hailing it as revolutionary.

It’s not. It’s good and it’s sad. All the right buttons are pushed in the right order, and both Stewart and Jackman put in good performances and get to play their big death scenes. If you want mutant action with a tragic tone (and I do I really do) this is the place to get them.

But the emotional weight comes from 17 years of seeing these actors play these roles. Look at this:

LOGAN worked because it was the end of 16-20 hours of movie adventure, using characters with decades of comics and cartoons behind them. If it had been about a magical ninja whose healing spells were finally failing, it wouldn’t have gotten past the script-reading intern.

And it’s troubled by unjustified, reverse-engineered sequences. They needed a “family” scene for the little girl to see what a family looks like, so–despite being on the run from stone cold killers–they crash at the home of an Average Loving Family.

And got them all killed, which… come on. Logan and Xavier knew they were putting that family in danger, and nothing in the movie or the previous movies suggests they would put folks’ lives at risk. I call bullshit on that.

They did get the violence right, though. Finally. Rated R for brain-stabbing.

TRANSISTOR

This is a game I bought on Steam because I enjoyed BASTION, although it’s science fiction instead of fantasy. The premise is simple: In a weird but pretty and possibly virtual city, a group of urban planners have unleashed something called The Process to remake things to their liking. Then The Process gets out of control, and Only You Can Stop It.

The main character is a woman named Red, with a giant-ass science sword that gives her attack powers, each of which comes from dead people she finds and uploads into the sword. The very first person to be killed and uploaded is Red’s unnamed boyfriend: he’s the “narrator” throughout the game, although he’s not really narrating because he’s talking to Red (and by extension, you the player).

They hired a great voice actor for the part, and his dialog is well-written. The city looks fantastic. The enemies are varied and fun (I especially liked the eggs w/ chicken feet). Even the music is interesting. And the game is long, but not insufferably long.

But look at those choices: the lead character is a woman who has had her voice stolen by The Process. She’s a singer and we hear her songs, but she doesn’t get to speak. Only the man does. And her name, Red, is a stage name because of her hair. In short, he’s specific and interesting, with a voice. She is a cypher who runs around doing the work. And at the end, when they realize she can’t get her lover out of the sword, she impales herself, over his pleading, so they can be trapped in the weapon together.

She gives up her life for a guy.

This is something I’ve been saying a lot about modern entertainment: it’s beautifully executed but makes questionable choices.

BOSCH

Do you like mopey detectives? I do. The first two seasons of BOSCH are on Amazon Prime, and they’re excellent examples of a really common and generally mediocre thing: the American police procedural.

One of the things BOSCH gets right is that it doesn’t put cops on a pedestal. Some of them are bad at their job. Some are lazy, careless, or corrupt. They’re people, not a corps of heroes who are always proved to be righteous.

And it changes things up from the books. I thought I’d spotted the killer in S1 because I read the book it was based on, but nope. They tricked me. I’m easily tricked, I admit, but I’m pleased when it happens.

I can be a cheap date, story-wise.

Season two was stronger than season one because the character motivations were more believable, and I’m hoping that, when the third season comes out next month, it’ll be another improvement.

IRON FIST

Here’s the thing: I don’t experience fannish enthusiasm. I don’t get all excited. I don’t cheer. I don’t rattle on about the stuff I enjoy.

But I do like things. Sometimes too much. And when I do, I experience it as an unpleasant, obsessive anxiety.

I’m feeling that way about IRON FIST, which is due out from Netflix this week. I know reviews have been bad, but I’m still anxious to see it.

Yeah: Iron Fist’s origin is a racist narrative in the “Mighty Whitey” tradition. As much as I like the character, there’s no quibbling with this. But there is great stuff about the character, too.

First, martial arts is awesome and it looks fantastic in the comics.

It’s great in movies, too, obviously, because you can see movement and speed, but sometimes that speed makes it hard to follow. Martial arts illustration in the comics, when it’s done well, is beautiful and dramatic. It captures a moment, and that’s why it’s so common. The medium is a wonderful way to portray it.

Second, punching things like a wrecking ball is awesome.

This honestly worries me about the show, because sometimes I would love to just smash something without breaking my hand. Punch through a wall. Smash a tree to splinters. Whatever. Even if I didn’t do it often, just knowing I could would be intensely satisfying.

But the show runner for IRON FIST isn’t impressed. Having the iron fist is

not the greatest superpowers. All he can do is punch really hard … you can use it in some ways but in rest of his life, it’s not really all that significant.

Um, yeah. Let me introduce you to the concept of superheroes. They live in a narrative universe where punching is a significant part of life. That’s a basic part of the appeal. It’s not realistic, but it is fun.

There are several warning signs about the show, and this is one of them.

Third, Danny Rand went to a cooler school than I did, and he learned more interesting stuff.

I was 11 or 12 when I discovered Iron Fist, in the summer before seventh grade. August, 1977. I bought five comic books out of the spinner rack at a local drugstore: One was the issue where the X-Men fought the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, and I couldn’t even tell which characters were the good guys, or who had which name, or what the hell was going on. Eventually, I realized the hero’s faces were on the cover, so I went through and picked them out, and comic made more sense.

(If my sister hadn’t called me an idiot for buying a copy of Dr. Strange that ended on a cliffhanger–with Strange facing off against a warthog version of himself–I might not have gone back the next month just to prove her wrong and I might not have become a lover of comics.)

I discovered Iron Fist shortly after and he was one of the earliest characters I followed. I loved the way he was drawn in those early John Byrne issues, and when I tried to teach myself to draw comics, it was often Iron Fist illustrations that I tried to copy. And why not? Was I supposed to draw Spider-man with his nasty, gross armpit webs? Or Iron Man flying through the sky with his elbow slightly bent?

Nope, I tried to draw Iron Fist kicking some dude in the face.

This was seventh grade, and seventh grade sucks. It wasn’t just the usual teasing and other bullshit, not for me. I had a kid hold a knife blade to my throat. I had… I had all sorts of shit happen. If I could have gotten away from all of that to go to a place where a guy named “The Thunderer” would teach me how to be a superhero, I would have gone in a second.

It’s similar to the wish fulfillment inherent in Hogwarts, except Hogwarts is better because it’s not a generic racist fantasyland.

But liking the character in the comics is different from whatever they put in the TV show. Look at this fucking trailer:

It’s just so disappointing.

Every trailer has to intrigue. It has to set up the central elements of the show, establish tone, and assure the audience that they’re going to see something clever and interesting. This trailer absolutely falls on its face in the last task.

“How in the hell did he learn martial arts?”

“Where did you train?” “K’un Lun.”

I get it; they have story elements they need to set up. But you don’t put a line like “How in the hell did he learn martial arts?” in a script, let alone a trailer. Anyone can learn martial arts. I could, even, if I was willing to practice hurting people and take a cross-town bus a few times a week.

No, the line is “How in the hell did he take out a team of our best hitters?” or something like that. Something that sounds dynamic.

And you don’t need to put the name “K’un Lun” into the fucking trailer. It’s meaningless to the people who don’t know the character’s history, and the people who do don’t need it. Just say something indirect like “A far away place” or “you haven’t heard of it” Even better, make a joke:

“Where did you train?”

Montage of Danny in monks’ robes, Monks, the beautiful city of K’un Lun.

“Oh, there’s a little place near the mall.”

The trailer needs some grace. It needs to show cleverness and competence, which it absolutely doesn’t. Is it any surprise that the filmmakers didn’t seem to understand why fans were hoping for an Asian-American Danny Rand?

Early reviews of the show have been pretty terrible, slamming it for being dull and talky, but you know what? I’m doing my usual Marvel Netflix thing anyway. On March 16, I’m buying two six packs, ordering a late pizza, prepping a pot of coffee for 4 am, then I’m going to binge the show straight through. I expect to finish sometime Friday afternoon. That’s what I did with the other Marvel Netflix shows. Then I watched them a second time that same weekend. Then, for Jessica Jones and S1 of Daredevil, I watched a third time the following week.

Will I be disappointed by Iron Fist? Probably. I still have hope that they’ll make his origin work somehow (After all, the MCU Punisher’s origin changed from a random tragedy into a complex plot and coverup that ran through most of Daredevil S2.) Can the filmmakers do something unusual/interesting/worthwhile with the whole “White Guy is the Best at Everything” trope? I’m doubtful, but I hope so.

Notice I haven’t called myself an Iron Fist “fan.” That’s because, as I mentioned, I don’t experience fannish enthusiasm. I’ve seen people waiting in line for movies and books who are giddy about the new thing they’re about to experience, but I’ve never felt that.

I experience my enjoyment as a sort of anxiety. I’ve been anxious and distracted for two weeks, thinking about this show. Maybe it will be terrible, but it will be a tremendous relief if it turns out to be good. Or at least not as bad as it could be.

In fact, I’m hoping it will live up to this:

We’ll see.

Three Things Make a Post

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If you subscribe to my Patreon, you’ve already seen this, but here’s one for everyone else:

1. Long time readers of my blog and/or social media will know what this picture means. I’ve reached another major goal in my current work-in-progress. The book is ONE MAN, which is the fantasy/crime novel I’ve been working on for OVER TWO YEARS. The goal is that I’ve incorporated my agent’s notes and I think the book is much stronger and therefore ready to send to publishers.

There will be new drafts later on, whether publishers bite or not, but for now it’s off the table.

That means I can spend the week leading up to Giftmas doing family stuff, cleaning, cooking, and otherwise refilling the well.

2. I took the wife and son to see ROGUE ONE (no spoilers) on Friday afternoon. I liked it more than they did, but I’m more inclined to forgive the clunky, awkward moments so I can have space ships and shoot-outs. We all watch Star Wars as generic but enjoyable mass media entertainment, not as a fannish fetish object. But it’s more my kind of thing than theirs.

And the clunkiness was there–hoo boy–along with the plot problems that come with the way the films have used The Force. They also struggled with the constraints of being a prequel to “A New Hope:” Darth Vader is there, but he’s not the main villain. They need their own antagonist who can lose at the end (see above re: generic but enjoyable mass media entertainment) and not outshine the villains in ANH, but still seem powerful and effective. They might have had a better film if they’d managed it.
Still, it’s an enjoyable diversion from holiday stress.

3. Speaking of Giftmas, I’ve dropped the Amazon ebook price of the first novel in my Great Way trilogy to $2.99. If you know someone who likes ebook adventure fantasy, you might want to grab it for them. Also, once you own the ebook, the audio book becomes super cheap. That, too, might make a nice gift.

And that’s it. I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday, however you celebrate. And if you don’t celebrate at all, I hope your days are wonderful anyway.

A Spoiler-Filled Post about Doctor Strange (The Movie)

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I saw DOCTOR STRANGE this weekend, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The character combines two things I like–superheroes and modern-day wizards–but I’ve never really felt he was well served in the comics. Great name. Bad look. Unsatisfying stories. Part of that comes from his most popular villains: Baron Mordo and Dormammu, neither of which thrills me. I’d much rather read MGK’s imagined run of the comicsthan any of the actual comics I’ve seen so far.

So my expectation was that this would be a disappointment, and those expectations were reinforced by early reviews that went “Meh.” Or even worse “Competent Marvel Content of the Type We Have Come to Expect.”

Frankly, the film is much better than that. Not perfect, but I’d rank it in my top 5 MCU pictures, maybe top 3.

Yeah, it’s a problem that they whitewashed The Ancient One to make sure they could rake in all that sweet Chinese box office. It looks like they ran as far as they could from the possibility that some bureaucrat would decide the character was coded as Tibetan. But that casting decision is separate from Swinton’s performance, which perfect. She elevates every scene she’s in, effortlessly.

Likewise, the idea that the movie is not “about” anything or that Strange himself doesn’t change (“who shows minimal emotional growth even as he wins, convincingly, for two straight hours”) is silly on its face.

Yeah, it’s another origin story. People say they’re sick of those, but that’s not showing in the box office. It’s also a problematic origin, since it’s of the “Visiting White Guy Does Non-White Culture Best Of All” genre. The movie takes some of the sting out of that by making the wizards as diverse as possible, but it’s still in the mix.

Besides, this is an origin story that actually matters. It’s not “I grew up and took revenge” or “I am a good guy who got the power to be even better.” It’s the story of a terrible person who becomes a good one, and it’s also the story of coming to terms with a disability. Strange spends most of the movie trying to get back to where he was before the accident so he can return to (what he thinks is) his best self, but his best self was a massive shit head. He’s a doctor who won’t see patients who are very old or very sick, because he’s protecting his reputation.

The Ancient One tries to get him to understand he must surrender sometimes. He has to accept failure. He has to stop applying his brilliant mind to his own rep and start helping other people.

Strange just wants to be a fancy neurosurgeon again.

But then he needs his ex to save his life, and by that point he’s gotten kicked around enough to realize what a shit he’s been. He needs Mordo’s help. He needs Dr. West’s help. And to win the final battle he puts himself in a situation where he will lose over and over.

And the last shot, where he’s looking down at his trembling hands and straps on that broken watch, shows that he’s accepting that he has changed, and that he must now contribute to the world in a different way.

Yes, there are problems with the movie. Rachel McAdams’s role was thankless. The gorgeous visuals at the end of the movie weren’t as delightful as Strange’s first wild ride through the multiverse: cgi spectacle peaked early. The humor was welcome but sometimes fell flat. I’m not so enraptured that I thing it’s perfect. Far from it.

But that didn’t really matter, because I loved the character, loved the ending, loved the scars, loved the milieu, loved the performances, and loved the movie. After the stress of this election season and the revisions on my huge, unwieldy book, this movie made me joyful.

Randomness for 10/17

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1) Portugal’s Example: What Happened After It Decriminalized All Drugs, From Weed to Heroin.

2) The Man Who Invented Bookselling As We Know It.

3) Self-Destructive Beverages: a Guide.

4) Creating unconscious emotional responses with shapes. Video.

5) This house could be yours (if you’re looking for a shrine to terrible awful horrifying bad taste).

6) Carrie Fisher’s Legacy as a Script Doctor.

7) How to be Persuasive: Seven Secrets of a Hostage Negotiator

Strolling a Familiar Garden Path: Kubo, King Doug, and the Power of Predictable Plotting

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A few years ago, I picked up a copy of The Return of King Doug from my library, read it, loved it, returned it, and promptly forgot the title. No amount of Googling could call up the book again. “Satirical portal fantasy child…”

Here’s the basic plot: the centaurs, sentient trees and elfin creatures of pseudo-Narnia are gathered for the final battle against the Dark Queen. And they have a hero with them, one the prophecy says will lead them to victory! It’s a human person, named Doug. They put a crown on him, hang their most potent magical bauble around his neck, and declare him king.

Doug is eight years old. He’s happy to be made king, but once talk turns to the bloody battle at 100-to-1 odds to take place in the morning, Doug does what any sensible kid does. He runs all the way away, returning through his magical well to his grandmother’s place in the Poconos. And he brought the bauble with him.

Cut to mumble-mumble years later, Doug is all grown up, divorced with a kid. Years of therapy have convinced him that his adventure was fantasy, but he can’t get his own life together. Then his parents talk him into returning to the old cabin, and his son finds the bauble and falls back into pseudo-Narnia, and…

And you know what will happen. The prophecy he was unable to fulfill as a child will be fulfilled now that he’s an adult, and we’re going to get a satirical tour of fantasy land while we’re at it.

It’s a fun book, and I enjoyed it, but not because the plot was unpredictable. The basic outline of the story was right there, and the only surprises came from the details.

That same weekend, my wife said she wanted to see KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, largely based on the beautiful animation in the commercials. My wife has no interest in fantasy (the only fantasy novels she reads are mine, and the only fantasy movies she sees are the big popular ones or the artsy ones) but she has a long history with animation so, of course, we went.

You should go, too. See it in the theater, and stay for the mid-credits stop-motion clips. It’s gorgeous and affecting, and while Laika’s previous films have been interesting but significantly flawed, this one is a real achievement.

It’s also utterly predictable. Once the first act ends (and this is a spoiler that isn’t really a spoiler) the plot turns into a Quest for the Plot Coupons, with the caveat that the Plot Coupons can’t solve the Plot, only the protagonist’s pre-existing self can do that.

And telling you that doesn’t spoil a thing, because the real joy comes from the details. It’s in the way the characters are portrayed, and in the specifics of the tasks they take on. Finally, when the expected ending arrives, all those little details have fleshed out the story so completely that the denouement carries weight. It satisfies.

This is a lesson that I just can’t seem to learn. No matter how many detective novels I read or action films I watch, I’m constantly trying to reinvent the wheel. I keep making things from scratch.

There’s joy in making stories from scratch, but so many missteps, too. Sometimes I think that what I really need to do is start with a Farmboy of Uncertain Parentage and spiff it up.

Not that I really will. It’s just interesting to think about.

Randomness for 8/12

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1) Now that the Olympics are airing, it’s fun to look at some of the demands the IOC makes on countries bidding to host the games.

2) The best way to perform a “USB drop” hack. Technical, but interesting.

3) Saturday Evening Post covers from the DC Universe.

4) Brainstorming is a terrible way to create new ideas.

5) I don’t normally care about this sort of thing, but this mashup trailer combining The Dark Knight with Scott Pilgrim vs The World is a Batman movie I’d like to see. Video.

6) Gamer problems then and now.

7) The “Glarofon” is not a Pokemon; it’s a percussion instrument made from hand-blown glass tubes.