Monday, April 30, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

        The weekend before last I saw The Cabin in the Woods, the new horror movie from Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. I was intrigued by this film after seeing the trailer, which depicts a run-of-the-mill slasher-in-the-woods storyline that suddenly takes a turn into unexpected territory, much as the film itself does. Just when you think it can't get any weirder, it does, but in a way that is refreshing and original. 
        This movie plays around with the tropes of the genre, making fun of some, while putting a new spin on others, which is one of the things that makes it so endearing. It is not above poking fun at itself or horror films in general, yet it also adds its own unique perspective to the genre. For me, the best thing about this movie is its wicked sense of humor, which is unrelentingly dark and, at times, deeply disturbing. The regularity and nonchalance of the mysterious "operators" who are responsible for many of the characters' demise is both a source of comedy and terror. The combination of humor and fear works well here, as you don't know whether you're going to laugh at the next scene or cringe. 
        Because the film takes the time to develop its characters, breathing new life into hackneyed cliches, you actually care what happens to them, and when bad things start to happen, you really want them to escape. The Cabin in the Woods has more layers to it than initially meets the eye. Not only does it take a familiar storyline and put it in an unusual context, but the outside world itself is not at all what it seems. There's a rich history here that's left mostly unexplored, though references to H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, and other literary masters of the genre abound. If you're looking for a cheap thrill with recycled characters and ideas, go elsewhere, but if you are a true fan of the genre and want a movie that's both terrifying and hilarious, check out The Cabin in the Woods.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Craft Books

       Normally I'm not a fan of craft books. I've found many entertaining but not quite helpful. These two, Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress and Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, however, are the exception. Since I started revising my novel, I realized one of my weak spots is the intersection of plot and character. 
      I believe the idea of "character driven stories" and "plot driven stories" is a myth. Ideally, you want strong characters whose motivations and decisions create the plot. In action adventure fiction it's easy to fall into the trap of using an archetypal plot and plugging in cookie-cutter characters. Best case scenario, you've got a clone of an already classic story. Kress's book helps you avoid this pitfall. It's ok to start with an archetype, but you've got to make that character a living, breathing individual, otherwise what's the point? Who wants to spend five hundred pages with a guy who's got no personality? 
      Bell's book on Plot & Structure has some great tips for crafting an engaging plot and I found his methods for scene construction and revision invaluable. For anyone interested in fiction writing (regardless of genre) I highly recommend reading these two books. There's no substitute for hard work (lots of reading and writing), but it helps to have a sense of the craft and both Kress and Bell know what they're talking about. You'll never read (or write) a story the same again.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Phobos Strike/The Maze Cover Mock-Up

      I've recently completed the first draft of "The Maze"and taken a couple of passes at revision. I'm reasonably satisfied with the final story. I still have two chapters of "Phobos Strike" to finish followed by editing and revision, but once I'm done, I'll start working on the formatting for Kindle. In the meantime, here's the cover mock-up. Many thanks to my friend Travis (who also assisted with the cover of Blood Red Mars) for help with the layout and design.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Reading Update: John Dies at the End/The Reality Dysfunction


      Combining Lovecraftian horror and non sequitur humor, John Dies at the End is an over-the-top absurdist romp that somehow manages to blend action, science fiction, horror, and comedy into a hyper-fast paced adventure that's fun, engaging, and laugh-out-loud hilarious at times. David Wong (aka Jason Pargin of knows how to tell one hell of an entertaining story. It's like listening to your best friend from college recount a personal version of At the Mountains of Madness after a few too many beers and a couple magic mushrooms. In fact, it's hard to describe the plot, since it's so bizarre and multifaceted. Needless to say, had John Dies at the End been written by an author without Wong's sense of humor or deft narration it would be unreadable. That being said, this novel flies by at the speed of light. And above all else, it's FUN! Do yourself a favor and read this now. You certainly won't regret it!
      I read the Reality Dysfunction (and all of the Night's Dawn Trilogy) in high school and it's safe to say this was my first taste of the literary cocaine that is space opera. Hamilton was my gateway drug, which is surprising since this is a dense, complex, and heady story that's not really written for the first-time SF reader (let alone a 15 year-old). While most start with Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, or Card, I went straight for the 1,000 page doorstop that is the first volume of the epic Night's Dawn Trilogy (broken into six books in the US). Rereading this now, nine years later, brings out a great feeling of nostalgia. Here's where I learned to love science fiction for all it could be. Hamilton's gift is his ability to captivate the reader with his ideas. 
     The first volume of the trilogy is mainly world building and character development, which does try the reader's patience at times because there are A LOT of characters, so many in fact that there's a two page Dramatis Personae at the beginning of subsequent volumes, and it is a HUGE world. But what a world it is! The most fascinating thing about this novel is the universe its characters inhabit. Hamilton has created a believable 27th century future populated by Edenists, genetically engineered telepaths who live inside organic habitats and pilot sentient starships called voidhawks, nanotech enhanced mercenaries, gritty and believable space merchants, struggling colonists on a hellish jungle planet, and a plethora of alien life forms that are...well...truly alien. 
     Though the plot doesn't become apparent until a couple hundred pages in (that's right, it is VERY slow starting), I was so fascinated by the universe Hamilton has created that I was content to just put it in neutral and coast. At times Hamilton is a bit heavy-handed with infodumps and extraneous exposition, but on the whole this is a rich, well-written, and engaging tome. This was the novel that converted me to SF, and Hamilton is the author who planted the seed in my mind that I could one day create something as wonderfully complex and exciting as the Night's Dawn Trilogy. 
     On the writing side, I've finished the first draft of "The Maze," I'm about to revise a short story called "Ghost War," I have an idea germinating for a new short story set on a Japanese ethnic planet about a feud between a criminal organization and a quasi-religious order of mercenary-assassins, and I've also got an outline for a dark fantasy short called "The Fall of Night." Oh, yeah, and I'm making slow but steady progress on the novel revision.