Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Wednesday Wanderings

So I've been watching the CW's fantasy series, The Outpost.  I don't know that I would have even known it existed, except that Dean Devlin - from Leverage - is one of the producers.  That's also what pushed me over the edge to turn it on, besides the fact that it's a fantasy series and I have a certain perverse desire to see those succeed.

At first encounter, The Outpost is purely formulaic, cliche fantasy.  There's an evil empire, which has taken over from the rightful rulers, and goes about oppressing people.  The main character is a Strong Female, an orphan whose village was slaughtered and is now seeking revenge.  She has incredible fighting ability for someone not formally trained.  For goodness' sakes, her name is Talon ... and this from a fantasy race that bears a remarkable resemblance to elves.

But then the little details start creeping in.  Those "elves" are Blackbloods, which gives our heroine some trouble when she has to hide her injuries and her nature.  The zombie-like creatures encountered early on are known as Plaguelings, and they have the neat (if nasty) detail of producing a venomous serpent mouth to attack their victims.  The Lu-Qiri summoned a few episodes in is recognizably demonic, but cut from an insectoid cloth, giving it an unusual appearance, and it's very well done.  (In fact, I think an inordinate portion of the effects budget was spent on the Lu-Qiri - more on that later.)  What's interesting about the Lu-Qiri plotline is the particular way the creature plays cat-and-mouse with Talon.  She may have called it, but she can't control it.

Most appealing, though, are the secondary characters.  First is Janzo, the odd little brewer who works in the tavern.  Janzo at first comes off creepy (and still does, at times - the actor walks a delicate line), but then the viewer finds out he's an awkward, weirdly charming, loyal nerd.  The second character who really jumps out of the screen is Gwynn, the outpost commander's daughter, who is first seen gambling in the tavern before she sweeps down upon Talon and imperiously demands safe escort home.  She's regal and mischievous by turns, able to wear the mantle of power but never taking it too seriously.  She becomes steadily more important as the season progresses, and Talon can't figure out *what* to do with her ...

Captain Garret is nothing much to write about; he rescues Talon, and they start up an angry / flirtatious banter.  There's even a scene where they have a fight, one overpowers the other, and Sexual Tension Is Rife (tm) until someone interrupts.  (Come on, really?)  That said, there are hints of depth to his character that suggest he could grow beyond the boy-toy role.

Overall, the cliche elements in The Outpost read like an attempt to make sure that the show is appealing and "safe" to people who aren't really familiar with fantasy - maybe those whose only exposure is the Lord of The Rings movies or perhaps a few episodes of Game of Thrones.  It has all the flags to tell the viewer that "yes, this is epic fantasy" ... and let's face it, the first few episodes of Thrones followed the same strategy.

The big difference is budget.  The Outpost clearly dumped a lot of its production budget into the Lu-Qiri and the Plaguelings, which effects are really well done ... and honestly, not enough into their stunt work or scenery.  Some of the wide shots are painfully obvious as CGI renderings.  But let's face it, how do you make these decisions when there's only so much money to go around?

Still, as The Outpost continues, the characters expand and the world trickles in, and one gets the feeling that it's poised to depart from the expected beats of stereotypical fantasy, and where it does to continue to follow the lines, it can do them well.  *If* it gets the budget to expand for season two ...

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Song Styles

This is not a writerly song, but it is definitely a human song.

I think most women - and probably a lot of gentlemen - have felt like this every now and again.

Bad Body Double - Imogen Heap

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Wednesday Wanderings

I watched the pilot for AMC's Lodge 49 this weekend in the hopes of finding a new show.  I managed to get through it, but I don't think I can stand to give it another episode, because the main character is a certain type that I find particularly infuriating:  the lovable loser.  

I feel as if there should be quotes around the first word there, because all the traits that make this character type someone the audience likes can't overcome my reaction to the "loser" part.  The lovable loser is usually quirky, endearingly awkward, good-natured even to a fault, and often has a treasure trove of trivia to hand.  But this is a character who often doesn't have a job, or if they do, it's a subsistence job that they keep screwing up.  Unemployment itself isn't a vice, but the lovable loser generally isn't even trying to find a suitable job.  If they're on the hunt, it's usually for some ridiculous, pie-in-the-sky scheme.  

Often, the lovable loser doesn't have a home.  They crash on someone's couch, or there's an endearing vignette about them breaking into their old apartment - which they've been kicked out of - and sleeping there.  Or a hammock on the beach is fine ... until it starts to rain.  The lovable loser doesn't have long-term ambitions.  Sometimes, there's a backstory of tragedy to explain why the lovable loser has fallen apart, but many of these characters outlive their welcome on this.

The nail in the proverbial coffin, though, is the fact that these characters routinely let down the characters in their lives.  They borrow money and don't pay it back.  They disappear for weeks at a time.  They don't have phones.  If nothing else makes them snap out of it, letting down the people they love sure ought to.  (You could argue that clinical depression might be preventing this, but I've yet to see a take on the lovable loser seriously incorporate this rationale.)

The lovable loser is the overgrown man-child in Knocked Up.  He's the screw-up brother in every family dramedy; he's probably every character Owen Wilson has ever played.  And he's often the love interest for a female lead who is "too straight-laced, too ambitious, too career-obsessed."

And the lovable loser is pretty much always male.  I can't think of a female example off-hand; Annie from Good Girls is the closest I can come, and she's not always that likable.  In fairness, I wanted to knock that character in the head several times, too.  Seems like women don't get to implode this way.

Seeing these characters grow up and redeem themselves is often supposed to be part of their arc, but sometimes - especially in a television series - they just exist as a foil for everything around them.  The problem is, personally, I don't have patience for their nonsense, unless they're going to shape up within the first few episodes ... and then if they aren't the lovable loser, what are they?  Of course, when it comes to movies, this is when the curtain conveniently falls ...

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Songs Style

The traditional musician and the writer in me meet when it comes to songs that tell a story.  All good songs do, to some extent, but most are a vignette:  a snapshot in the middle of (implied) backstory and perhaps resolution.  This is part of why Adele's "Rumour Has It" drives me so nuts:  I can't suss out the exact sequence of events or what's going on.  Which I think is the point with that one, as it's about baseless rumo(u)rs and how they get out of hand, but ... still!

But in this case, I'm talking about ballads and story songs, music that shares the whole scope of a story.  And in true Celtic fashion, often an unhappy ending.  Easily one of my favorites:

(Fun sidebar about this song:  the first time I heard it, I went, "This is *so incredibly Celtic* in sensibility."  Some time later, I did a Google search on the composer, and many of the hits on his name were Irish tunes such as Eleanor Plunkett.)

Reddy does this a lot - "Keep On Singing" and "Angie Baby" are two others that spring to mind.  By contrast, I'd consider "Delta Dawn," though it definitely makes events clear, less of a story song and more of a vignette.  It's static, staying in the aftermath.  (For the longest time, I thought the guy in this song was "a man of loaded grease.")

Here's a slightly more recent song, the arc of a life:

And, of course, there's a classic.  Here's the inimitable Kirsty MacColl's take on ...

This one is so definitive for me that I find the uptempo jazz version jarring.  (And this isn't even quite the right version - I couldn't find the Titanic Days cut on the internet.)  It's Celtic emotion at its best.

For my fellow writers, I'm going to end with a jazzy harp original that presents the ultimate writer's dilemma:

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Wednesday Wanderings

One of the unexpected side benefits of entering the culinary field has been that I've become more aware of my creative tastes, what I like to do - not just food, but with fiction and even music.  (Since this is a writer blog, though, I'll focus on the former.)  Part of it is metaphor; I'm used to drawing comparisons between disparate things, to seeing the application of a thought or technique in something else.  But mostly, it's sheer volume:  I invent more dishes, cook more food, than I will ever complete short stories, flash, poetry and certainly novels.  So a pattern emerges in a much more concentrated form.

First of all, though I enjoy some traditional elements, I'm bored by (most) straight interpretations.  I like my mac-n-cheese with goat cheese, chorizo, or even avocado.  I'm mostly drawn to unusual, even unlikely, flavor combinations.  If it makes you go, "... wait, what?" I probably want to try and tackle it.  One of my favorite discoveries of late has been carrot risotto; speaking of carrots, parsnip cake is so much better than carrot cake.

And I do this in writing, too.  I tend not to find inspiration until I've put two unrelated ideas together; sometimes, the more unlikely, the better.  I'm currently editing a story for an anthology I describe as my "spy tree" story.

Which leads me to:  I enjoy a challenge.  Give me a new dish, a new technique, something precise to mix and measure, and I will dive right in.  As a cook, I started with Indian cuisine, which isn't usually beginner friendly.  As a writer, I just had to try writing a mystery novel from the POV of a nonhuman character ...

But I don't like things that are overly elegant and polished.  I'm not a fan of ornamentation and garnish work for its own sake.  That doesn't mean the plate is always plain, but the garnish has to serve some purpose:  taste component, moisture (sauce), or in the case of a pastry, hinting at what is contained within that chocolate (etc) shell.  I like things that look handmade, rustic, perhaps a bit messy, even random - but the design is often far more composed than it looks.

All of this applies to my writing, too.  I'm at home with peculiar, off-beat descriptions, but I don't like lengthy passages or purple prose for its own sake.  And I'm averse to stories that are too tidy, where absolutely everything presented is germane to the plot and everything gets tied up.  I enjoy showing glimpses of the setting, the characters, the past, that aren't strictly linked to the story, but they do contribute to the feeling of a living, breathing world beyond the page.

In conclusion, cooking has actually helped me hone in on some of the things I do in my writing that I might have recognized in passing, but didn't really think about in detail.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Song Styles

Lately, I've been obsessed with two songs that offer somewhat different takes on the same theme:

No Roots - Alice Merton
Lone Ranger - Rachel Platten

As is my wont, I've turned these songs over in search of characters I can connect them to ... and come up blank.  These are both tales of wanderers, and more than that, wanderers by choice, without strong ties to where they've come from or the specific intention of finding some place to put down ... well ... roots.

Both my current novels in progress - Surgeburnt in draft stage, Unnatural Causes in final edits - center on a single location.  Obviously, that's easier from a descriptive standpoint, but given the fact that I worldbuild obsessively, I certainly could send my cast further afield.  Scylla and Charybdis is a novel of journeys, but Anaea is deeply informed by where she has come from.  I lack the kind of rootless-by-choice drifter the songs above describe.  Perhaps it's because I'm a homebody at heart; perhaps it's that the type of stories I tend to tell don't lend themselves well to this kind of wandering.

Or perhaps it's a phase I have yet to get into.  I find I tend to go through loose trends / themes with my writing.  Right now, it's snarky narrators, women with attitude who tend to bring a tongue-in-cheek air and sarcasm to their world.  Who knows where I will travel next?

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Wednesday Wanderings

Recently, I posted a roundup of some of the best review comments I got for Scylla and Charybdis.  In the interests of balance, I felt I should post my favorite negative comment.  Here it is:

That said, apart from a few too many descriptions of clothing for my tastes ...

I had to laugh when I saw this.  It helps if you know me in real life:  I'm the embodiment of that meme, "I base my fashion sense on what doesn't itch."  Add in my preference for things that let me move freely and play the harp, plus the necessity of performance wear that looks good for a gig, and you end up with a style of long swooshy skirts and sleeveless shirts, and an awful lot of purple because that's my favorite color.

As far as Scylla and Charybdis goes, I used clothing descriptions in a general sense as an illustration of its respective societies.  Fashion has a lot to say about individuality and values.  In my fantasy realms, I sometimes take it a step further and have cultures emphasize (and design clothing around) features the western world take for granted.  One unpublished project, I had a culture that prized feet ...!  Maybe for the best it didn't go anywhere. 

Since Anaea is trying to blend in, and appearance is often everything in those cases, clothing was part of how she did that.  Certainly I couldn't use makeup for this:  I've got no clue how to use it beyond the basics.  Researching physics and planetary science, sure.  Makeup, absolutely not.

In conclusion, this reviewer just might have a point.  Perhaps I described a few too many articles of clothing.  It still makes me laugh.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Song Styles

Preparing for a wedding in October where the bride requested Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah for walking down the aisle - just for her specifically, so I'll be playing the Irish tune "Southwind" for the bridal party and then switching when she and her father come in.  Thanks to a harper friend, I was able to get my hands on a harp arrangement of the tune.  Here's the version:

Hallelujah - arr. Michelle Whitson Stone

Some tricky rhythms going on, but I have time to absorb it, and otherwise the arrangement is well within my comfort zone.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Wednesday Wanderings

I didn't post last Wednesday due to culinary commitments:  I had my practical exam for CPC (Certified Pastry Culinarian) certification.  I passed! ... and then passed out.  A lot of stress and hard work leading up to that moment.  This week, I'm working (Weds is my usual day off), but I figured I could squeeze a post in.

Of course, my brain still very much is on food (isn't it always?), so I'm mulling over how cooking resembles writing fiction.  You start with a concept, however specific or vague:  mac and cheese or a high fantasy story of an underground race.  Before you begin, cooking or putting fingers to keys, you'll want to gather your ingredients.  Now, some of us - both cooks and writers - fly by the seat of our pants, throwing things in as whim and inspiration strikes, but you can't work with something you don't have.  For writers, let's call that research.  You might be able to fake gun play (or curry powder) if you don't know what you're doing, but something will probably be not quite right.

No matter how much of a plan you have (or don't), things change as soon as you start cooking / writing.  Maybe as your characters argue, you uncover something that changes your plot; maybe the peaches you're using are sweeter than intended and you need more vinegar to balance flavor.  If you follow the plan blindly, you run into trouble.  You have to follow what the ingredients (characters) are telling you.

And you have to add things at the right time.  Don't foreshadow a plot twist, and the reader feels cheated; don't add the potatoes early enough, and they won't cook through.  I suppose here's where the metaphor falls down:  you can edit the story after you're done, but good luck retroactively changing how you cooked something!

If cooking is writing fiction, then baking is form poetry.  It requires a delicate, precise balance of elements.  And it doesn't matter how objectively "good" a potential component is:  if it doesn't fit into the form, then it either all falls apart, or you end up with something that doesn't meet the definition.  You still have to be able to improvise, but within narrow specifications.  Think of it like tightrope walking.

Oops ... that's another metaphor entirely.