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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Are Reviews Worthwhile?

I have a certain advantage over most writers, in that writing is my second creative career. I started out doing music, and specifically doing music for film and theater, and for sheer venomous bitchiness, nothing beats a theater critic. Fortunately there are also these saving words of wisdom from playwright Brendan Behan, which are well-known to everyone in the business:
"Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves. "
I bring this up because there was a lengthy opinion piece in the St. Paul Pioneer Press this weekend from alpha theater bitch Dominic Papatola decrying the end of the National Arts Journalism Project and the fact that, in this day of blogs, podcasts, and Internet chat rooms, just about any unwashed heathen can have an opinion -- and worse, publish it.

While Papatola's sheer arrogance is breathtaking, his piece did get me thinking. The truth of the matter is, as an author, I don't have much use for reviewers. Given the way the publishing cycles work, by the time a review of something I wrote appears in print, it's at least a year after I actually wrote the thing -- more likely two years -- and I've moved on. But as a reader, I'm finding that I'd much rather check out a book by reading the reviews on Amazon, as they're more likely to be written by someone who has actually read the book and understands the subject.

How about you? Have you ever bought a book based on a rave review, only to find that the reviewer clearly never read beyond the dustjacket blurb? Have you found that some movie critics are antireferences: if they love a movie, you know you'll hate it? Is there really any use for the "professional" reviewer anymore?

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Star Wars III: The Missed Opportunity

After a week and a half of resistance, I broke down and took the kids to see Revenge of the Sith yesterday afternoon. The Teen Princess actually fell asleep during the movie -- twice -- and The Kid got awfully fidgety and impatient before the last light-sabre duel was finally over. As we emerged from the theater, blinking in the overcast daylight, the Teen Princess said, "Hayden Christensen is gorgeous, but God, I wish he'd kept his mouth shut!" The Kid, on the other hand, ever the observant critic, said, "Dad, how come the soldier droids were so much stupider in this movie than in the last two?" My guess is that even the Evil Galactic Empire contracts its military programming out to the low bidder, but I kept that observation to myself.

The real problem with ROTS -- interesting acronym, that -- is that Lucas put all his energy into the visuals and didn't spend enough time on the script. Admittedly, the visuals are spectacular, and I'll probably rent this one when it comes out on DVD just to slow-mo some scenes to see what I missed. But this movie could have been Lucas's Macbeth: the brilliantly told tragic story of a great man's descent into evil and madness.

Instead, what we get is the story of a moody young snot who doesn't get the promotion he thinks he deserves, so he goes postal on his co-workers. Some tragic hero.

Your comments, s'il vous plait?


Thursday, May 05, 2005

Termagant III: Revenge of the Stereotype

I love the English language: it's both my favorite tool and my favorite toy. One of the especially wonderful things about it is the way that a single word can sometimes express centuries of history in tightly encoded form.

For example, the other day I ran across the word "termagant," and not being precisely sure of its meaning, I looked it up. My little pocket dictionary defined it as, "an overbearing or shrewish woman," but that didn't seem to fit the context, so I turned to the Mother of All Dictionaries (Webster's 2nd) and found an earlier definition: "An imaginary being supposed by Christians to be a Mohammedan deity. He is represented in ancient moralities, farces, and puppet shows, as vociferous and tumultuous."

Ah, now *this* was getting interesting. The hunt was on!

"Termagant," it seems, was a stock villain in Medieval morality plays. Supposedly the heathen god of the Saracens, he was typically clean-shaven, dressed in a turban and colorful robes, and spent most of his stage time explaining his evil plots, berating his minions for their incompetence, and threatening them with dire consequences if they failed to get it right next time. Because of the robes audiences often assumed the character was supposed to be female (hence the modern definition), and because the character was so commonly and outrageously overacted, Hamlet found it necessary to give this advice to his players in Act III, Scene II:
O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it out-Herod's Herod: pray you, avoid it.

So there's today's advice for you: when you are writing your villain, remember, Termagant's been done already, and he was old four centuries ago. Pray you, avoid it.

And who's your favorite fictional Termagant?

Sunday, May 01, 2005

What one bit of advice...?

In a recent interview, I was asked to come up with the one bit of advice I would offer aspiring speculative fiction writers. After thinking it over, I've decided that my most important single piece of advice is this:

There is only one good reason for writing fiction, and that is for the love of telling the story. Getting published and getting paid for your work is enormously validating, of course, but if you don't love telling stories, there are plenty of other ways for someone with good communication skills to make a living.

If you ever find yourself in a position where you are writing a piece of fiction solely for the money: stop right there. Don't do it. There's already an adequate supply of indifferent hackwork in the world. Don't add your contribution to that vast, fetid heap.

What's your one piece of advice?