Le Esprit de L’Escalier Pt. 2

Posted: October 14, 2021 in Uncategorized

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Just because I previously wrote about something doesn’t mean I’ve magically excised it from my writing. For instance, do I still get mugged by The Spirit of the Staircase (see post) having flashes of what I should’ve said ten minutes after it could ever do me any good? To date, my recent improv classes have excellent incubators for – “Doh! That scene just died and I now know how to fix it!”

I’ll back up a bit out of consideration for my recent postings being next to nonexistent. Needing something, anything to do here in San Diego that is A) creative and B) social in a way that doesn’t depend on my family for going out and doing stuff, I ran away to the circus and joined an improv class. Starting with a Zoom class, I learned the basics and then when there was a tiny break in the grim COVID situation there was the stage. At the moment, I’m working up for the friends and family show that probably is also the final audition for joining the cast of the theater doing the teaching…no pressure there.

I suppose this is where I might go on and on about the value of classes and experiences like this upon my writing and, by extension your writing. Blather about thinking on your feet. Or learning what is and what isn’t a good scene. Just because these concepts might be true doesn’t mean I want to waste more than the two paragraphs used up here. 

For one thing, there hasn’t been the kind of improvement likely to justify such – “Dude, you clearly drank the Kool-Aid.” – praise and that type of verbiage sometimes just sounds stupid saying it out loud. Writing for years; rewriting for the same many years has a way of teaching the basics. Though I can’t deny that learning to do this mental prep work faster will help at some point. I probably could’ve gotten the same skills out of an acting class.

And now for the blood and guts of my weekly self-immolation for which you came. For your consideration, I present to you two scenes one I played in and one I just watched from the front row. And both times I got the brainwave after the instructor either gave his notes or the class had already repaired to the pub next door.

A typical safari operation in Kenya will test the marriage of a pair of newlyweds seemingly on the adventure of a lifetime…

Okay, the Rod Serling narration above didn’t work like I thought it would. Basically, it’s a three-person scene where two people start on stage and the third person either enters the scene as the third character or wipes the scene to things along. The fictional groom is having trouble with the tse-tse flies, the heat and keeping his food down in any order gets the most laughs. The fictional bride reveals under questioning a liking for the safari guide…who enters showing off his guns. Things quickly progressed to a massively kinky three-way.

The scene mostly worked, except for the note from the instructor about the difference between the Yes And of improv and the reality of a scene. Yes And in this case meant the players had to accept the reality of the possible love triangle while on safari, but they don’t have to be cool with it inside the narrative. More than enough people in the groom’s thoroughly cuckolded shoes would get nasty about this revolting turn of events. The three-way is a choice based on the players rapidly deciding what they want when they get the suggestion of safari from the audience. There are other choices.

I wasn’t in this scene. I thought nothing much of it through the rest of the class and even moving to the pub next door for the beer and chicken tenders that seem to glue the class together. We made plans for upcoming shows and discussed shows and recent mud races and, and, and… Then, I went home.

Somewhere between either catching up on the Padres’ dismal play (I’m glad this isn’t a sports blog), watching some movie, solving a crossword puzzle or even stealing time to work on my latest magnum opus it hit me.  Oh, it would’ve been totally cool if [BLEEP!] playing the groom picked a moment where he holds up an imaginary cell phone at the reveal of the affair and – “Darling, despite my barfing every four minutes, I managed to post this of the two of you on PornHub.”

Basically, my brilliant idea was to have the groom blackmail his bride with a revenge porn posting. He’d explain that yes, PornHub is all about consensual porn and that she could fight to have it removed two to three weeks from now and the possibility of hundreds of thousands or millions of page views exposing her for the scheming &*($^ she is or, in return for the appropriate consideration, he can remove it now when there’s only been fifty page views. The three-way is still possible after this move, but the scene work to get there would be balls out fun. 

This brainwave seems to me to fit into things we’ve already been taught about scenes, technical stuff like status, raising stakes, role reversals…all the things I’ve also been taught in regular acting class as well. Except there is a script in acting class. I kept seeing where [BLEEP!] playing the bride could take things. Maybe she gets rubby-rubby on the hubby. Maybe she has her own compromat on the husband (devised just now as I typed). What was it do you think? 

Hell, even [BLEEP!] as the guide has things to play from here. Just because he’s playing a Ranger Rick fella doesn’t mean that he can’t pull out his dueling cell phone and assert that the groom has his own video on PornHub (though my really wicked idea here that the other party in that video is a chimpanzee would absolutely not fly with any audience likely to buy tickets). Or that in-between safari trips, he supplements his income as one of PornHub’s web developers granting access to the passwords that arbitrarily delete any file he wants from the site. All good ideas that struck after I needed them.

Imagine if you will, two ordinary FBI agents discussing the composition of the 10 Most Wanted List…

Okay, the last four students, myself included, did a scene with the crowd suggestion of the FBI and we’d added the rule for a game we play called Blind Line. The audience suggests about two things per player in the scene that get written down and thrown on the stage. At random intervals, players pick up the pieces of paper and say the line written thereon…while justifying the dialogue in the scene.

[BLEEP!] and [BLEEP!] came out discussing that there were only white perpetrators on the 10 Most Wanted. [BLEEP!] later admitted to total brain freeze and trying to save the moment by making the disparity about all white criminals. Still, it was a train wreck waiting for a character coming on later (me) to play up a dinosaur holdover from the very bad old days of the Federal Bureau of Intimidation. 

I’ll be a little cagey here because we do live in a society that likes to misinterpret fictional things as being representative of the real views of the player and then weaponize. Made a mistake doubling down on [BLEEP!]’s rotten grapefruit served up in a moment of panic; that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Again, Yes And only applies to having to play that your scene partner launched this rotten tomato, not to doubling down.

Hours after [BLEEP!] and I admitted to each other how much we’d both fucked that one up at the pub, I took the second mugging off The Spirit of the Staircase. And the head slapper here gets even more painful when you consider my own reading history. I actually know just enough about spies and FBI agents to fake it; e.g. I can use dead drop, brush pass and false flag in a sentence and not be laughed at…thank you John Le Carré (no, I didn’t write my grand spy novel, yet, because I haven’t made much effort to find research subjects with whom I could ask to check the master’s homework).

The scene that played out long after it would do me any good started with me playing the supervisor doing what is called a Canadian Cross (cross the stage and broom off the whole train wreck). The best example is probably Graham Chapman of Monty Python wearing his British General’s uniform – “Stop that! Stop that, this instant!”

Anyway, I come on derisively calling the two characters by their last names to establish that I’m the pissed off boss. I make a joke about the 10 Most Wanted List being somewhat like “Assclowns R’ Us, if you’re an assclown you’ll eventually see us.” I then hold up imaginary (it’s improv, no props) paper targets from the other two guys’ most recent range sessions.

I point. “Well, that one almost worked out…looks like you got this imaginary perp in the carotid artery, but all these other shots are just terrible. Four outright misses. This one you took off some hair from his scalp and…” I point again. “And you, you’re worse, your best bullet looks like it took out the suspect’s left ball sack…okay, from the standpoint of acting as natural selection on the gene pool, but crap for the purposes of keeping your jobs. Now, drop what you’re doing and go down to the range to practice!”

Now I’m alone on stage with a possible fourth character that hasn’t come on, yet. I pick up my line from the floor, read it and say – “Jeez, he’s never used the emergency code!” I cross the stage and grab the fourth [BLEEP!] out of the stage wing calling him Oleg.

This part of the scene becomes about an FBI supervisor and SVR Resident who meet in a park after taking a million buses and taxis (tradecraft) to ensure they weren’t followed. The two men have an improper relationship where they’re both juggling the secret love and the toe dance with outright treason discussing spy stuff…like the fact the first two incompetent [BLEEP!]s are not only double agents but triple agents also working for the Chinese. Oleg and I then conspire to burn the untrustworthy and incompetent.None of the above happened because The Spirit of the Staircase threw a serious left hook catching me on the right mandibular joint. So far, I’m great with the time to edit. And, I’m only a bad breakfast burrito away from total disaster…at least on stage.   

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

So, you’re trying to write an epic SF story and you’re stuck on what sort of people to stick on the ship just over there loading photon torpedoes, what now? If you’ve been hired to write in an established franchise, stop reading now there’s a list of possibilities that already exist…use them. And for the rest of us that don’t have the Rolodex to get hired to further the ongoing mission to…there’s no one way and I’m not even sure what follows is mine. Anyway…

Many times, an alien race will get constructed based on the function they serve in the script. Early on the Klingons were intended to stand in for the Soviet Union in the Cold War, so you need folks likely to roll up to the neutral space station as part of an externally enforced “peaceful” settlement and cause trouble. Shooting the Enterprise violates the Organian Cease Fire (it wasn’t a peace treaty, watch The Undiscovered Country set afterwards to see my point) imposed the year earlier, but placing a spy aboard with instructions to poison the Federation’s special wheat supplies so that the nearby colony world would have to turn to the Klingon Empire to get through the next calendar year isn’t quite so well enforced by the Organians.

The writers of The Trouble with Tribbles also needed the Klingons to be good for picking the kind of bar fight that seemingly by union mandate must occur in what is essentially a Port Call/Shore Leave episode. The Klingon First Officer insults Captain Kirk, the Federation and…finally, the Enterprise. Scotty throws a haymaker probably learned from doing various pub crawls in Scotland.

So, if we are to build a race based on the handful of times the Klingons show up, we get deceitful, arrogant, warlike etc. etc. However, the folks that kept watching the show will tell you that the Klingons suddenly shifted slightly with the advent of STNG. Deceitful at all times became “only in service of defeating one’s enemies and at no other times.” What happened?

Gene Roddenberry decided to put a Klingon character, LT. Worf, on the bridge of the new Enterprise to go with “it’s eighty years later, you think maybe the war ended by now?” And given that STNG Season 1 predated Undiscovered Country by a year and a half, you see where the people doing the movie got their marching orders to dramatize the difficult change from Klingons Bad to Klingons Not So Bad. One faction of Klingons when faced with a thinly disguised metaphor for the Chernobyl Disaster sought peace and the other decided to pick a fight aided by rogue Starfleet Officers frightened of a galaxy without the Cold War.

Anyway, back to Worf. He was raised on Earth after being orphaned during a battle between the Klingons and Romulans for which the Federation rendered humanitarian aid. According to Worf, the animus of a warrior race thinking the human led Federation to be weak cowards for espousing cooperation faded over time in favor of – “wow, we can at least trust those Earthlings to keep their word.”

Worf fairly continuously mentioned his understanding of Klingon ethics, gained on Earth because no one kept him from his library card, as being about honor, duty and die serving the society. Ideals that from the outside during times when few Federation citizens had made any Klingon friends, sure look like invade and subjugate everyone around you. People I watched the show with would initially grouse – “Really? They turned the Klingons into a pastiche of Vikings mixed with a lot of Samurai.”

A backhanded way into a common reductionist method for developing a people: take characteristics supposed to have existed in the various cultures and put that on the page. Klingons may feel like the pop culture rehash of what we believe about the Vikings or the Samurai based on having these people in our collective past. But it also sort of explains how the audience suddenly decides they like Klingons, Vulcans, Andorians or whomever to populate their favorite morality play…they’re people so very much like somebody living down the street.

As a shorthand to quickly putting somebody interesting on the other ship across the video link blustering and posturing – “Ah, I can see how lawyers in the future may find flaw in my logic in this case, but you, Captain Kirk, will not be alive to benefit from their deliberations.” – I can support this method with caveats to be discussed below. Pretty much the same caveats built into my shorthand techniques for every other aspect of characters and writing fiction in general…jettison the tricks with increasing experience.

When the Klingons were first conceived, people who pick fights and conquer are going to be thought of as deceitful to go with warlike, aggressive and arrogant, like a pack of freshly trained Marines in a bar. Suddenly, with Worf taking some kind of unspecified red uniform job on the bridge before later getting the yellow shirt job of Security, the deceitful part of the previous show’s depiction has to go.

As far back as the first wave of licensed novels before STNG, Klingons got tagged with deceitful and backstabbing for having a promotion system that lands roughly between the seppuku ceremony of the samurai and what I tend to refer to as the Sith Lord Management Change Ceremony a.k.a. a junior officer kills his superior and takes the better job. The Mirror Universe also devised these ethics.

Then Worf is the good guy. The subtle shift in the cultural ethos becomes “we are so dedicated to dying in service to our people that an honorable failure among Klingons welcomes being killed for the betterment of our people.” And there are review procedures to curb the activities of the purely ambitious. We hope…

The exaggerate human traits method of alien design helps a lot with the audience bonding with Worf, Kang, Kor, Koloth and General Martok. Take it too far and the story suddenly takes on weird characteristics that sit just under the surface and can stink up the joint. One is to assume that because the in-narrative version of human culture is as equally as broad as the real culture drawn upon to create Klingons, Centauri, Narn, Romulans that the in-narrative humans will succeed because of having more tricks in their bags. 

Up to a point, this assumption can be fun to pull out explaining why Commander Riker did so well on an exchange tour with the Klingons (that and Starfleet’s SERE training that helps one keep a straight face eating Gahk because he’s already eaten grasshoppers in a desert). But there is a point where assuming that the in-narrative humans always win the inter-species diplomacy because human culture is thousands of cultures still trying to figure out how to share the same planet is just bad writing…usually someone laid it on six meters deep without thought for the exceptions that prove the rule. 

To that end the writers periodically foxed us a little bit with the Klingons on several occasions showing us sides of the species we hadn’t seen before. Canny Klingon captains proudly declare – “We have no need of assistance hating humans, but only a fool fights in a burning house! Begone!” – when they need to drive out an energy being feeding on the built-in animus between the races. When they need to bust out some legal trickery to burn Captain Kirk as part of the greater conspiracy, we see Klingon lawyers played by Christopher Plummer – “Don’t wait for the translation!” And of course, my favorite out-of-archetype Klingon is the Singing Chef…

On Star Trek: DS-9, a small almost kiosk-sized Klingon eatery opened up on the Promenade. As directed by the culturally accepted Klingon cookbooks, the Gahk wiggles and the replicated targ almost convinces the taster of having squealed just a few minutes ago (I did mention the part about nearly kiosk-sized, there really isn’t space for live targ, unless the dude has other spaces on the station we didn’t see). Lastly, this worthy gentleman busts out the highpoints from the Klingon opera canon in what I think was a decent baritone all in the service of flirting with Jadzia Dax.

Other Klingons sang these songs, usually celebrating great victories or even ones made great by exaggeration with tankards of blood wine (a decent off-brand merlot in the ken of the franchise’s relentless marketing) in hand. The Chef just wanted to get laid with a worthy woman whose actions made her almost a Klingon woman. Alas, the lady preferred Worf in later seasons, but the gent kept singing incurring the annoyance of General Martok commenting on the end of Klingon civilization as they knew it.

Of course, the existence of this chef doesn’t have to necessarily represent the end of all things Klingon. If we go back to Obi-Wan’s semi-evasive observation that begins with – “from a certain point of view” – a good chef is essential to the functioning of the army. He who has the knack of the great barbecue sauce and leaving the targ on the grill just long enough to avoid drying it out gives aid and comfort to his fellows who then gird up to slaughter tribbles with great celerity. Thus, he shall live and die advancing his society and be found flipping targ steaks upon his invitation to Stovokor. Or perhaps Martok is right and the shame of – “Gentlemen, now abed on Qo’noS (Kronos) shall hold their manhoods accursed in the presence of one of my brothers…” – has lost its sting for non-warriors and something needs to be done.

Regardless, the Singing Chef exists as a point of debate among fans and as an easy trick for the writer to expand beyond the limitations of the archetypes used to create the people from whom he springs. Here’s hoping your Klingon Singing Chef works as well…       

Because I Said So…

Posted: September 11, 2021 in Uncategorized

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

You ever have to deal with a reader/listener heckling the story? Depending on when the hecklement happens, it’s either a thing of beauty or a good time for – “Fuck you, too, the story’s the story and the clay/ink/stone just dried!” Knowing when to choose between your options is something we all learn, relearn and once again, just to be sure, because there’s always Thag in the back sitting under the painted antelope on the wall who’s pretty much just throwing hard elbows because he can.

Thag, whom the rest of us assume is five, coked up on sugar, a poster child for undiagnosed ADHD or horrors all of the above, usually can’t help it. Of course, naming this cranky gent (or lady) after one of cartoonist Gary Larson’s caveman characters, famously eviscerated by the pointy end of a stegosaur tail and, true story, that caused real-life paleontologists to name the previously unnamed anatomical structure after Mr. Thag, is unquestionably an intentional act. And then, I sometimes figuratively (people don’t offer the good stuff, anymore) smoke a bowl and relax, an act that allows me to eventually and grudgingly admit Thag isn’t always wrong.

For me, Thag was a tag team of three good friends left over from my hilarious attempt at film career. Much beer and in the spirit of In Cerveza Veritas and suddenly I’m going on and on about mostly true events in my life since the last time we gathered to drink beer and whine about the assholes that made those attempts at a film career so hilarious. I’m pretty sure Thag doesn’t like my slightly rambling speaking style that adds detail where it wasn’t requested and so blow Charge and the hecklement is off to the races.

Short version, 90-precent of all Thag-induced drop-ins ended up adding all kinds of slightly freaky sexual acts to the narrative (Thag likes what he/she/they likes). I’d dig the hole deeper trying to edit out these digressions that I thought didn’t belong in the story. A day or day and a half later, yeah, story’s actually better usually set in. No, I don’t remember any of the modified stories for – “Strong drink giveth the desire but taketh the ability.” – always reigns supreme and, really, just because the sex improved the story doesn’t always mean it was all that great from jump.

If you must know, I’m much better on paper precisely because editing helps eliminate silly digressions. My story and I’m sticking to it.

In a broader sense, the process described above seems to be the reason for the persistence of Jungian Psychology and the related contributions to the study of folklore given by Joseph Campbell and continuously foisted on us by Mssrs. Field, Vogler and Snyder (I still maintain read their books after you lock a draft). The theory is that over the multigenerational life of the story, Thag heckled – “Boring! Come on! Maybe the iguana breathes fire! No…better idea, have the girl take off her shirt!” – and then the story with its basic underlying structure hardens into epics where iguanas become dragons and heroines start to look like Wonder Woman.

The theory continues to make a few assumptions. The good, exciting parts of the story left behind by Thag create a physiological reaction to which we become addicted. How many of us seek out a scary movie precisely for the feeling of jumping out of the seats? The other main assumption is that all humans once shared the same cook fires and told the same stories, so that all narratives that really work are universal constructs and that even the structure (put a sword fight on page 50 and/or have the hero crash and burn having to reevaluate the whole journey on page 80) is assumed to be equally universal. Put another way, the story about the iguana turned dragon isn’t all that different from the story of the tall guy turned giant, even if they appear to come from opposite sides of the planet.

The folks making money selling the how-to-books have always rested their pitch on this presumed universality of certain types of stories. And they’re not always wrong. Why is it that people doing Samurai movies borrowed from Westerns only to find that the next batch of filmmakers doing Westerns borrowed from the earlier Samurai films and everybody everywhere with a Blockbuster card understood all versions of the same story as specifically exemplified by Seven Samurai and both versions of The Magnificent Seven?

Some academics build whole careers out of refuting the previous academics’ work. To my limited understanding, they do better asserting other story structures than the According-to-Hoyle Hero’s Journey as a way to get to the same place, rather than refuting the basic psychology and the work of Thag that plays out underneath. My problem with the how-to books has always been the cookie cutter mentality of follow this recipe without trying other things, but that’s a post for another day.

Thag heckled a story and depending on the opinions we take above, maybe we eventually give him/her/them credit for forcing great storytelling out into the air. Thag isn’t always wrong.

Thag isn’t always right, either.

Sometimes, the heckling is just fanboy competitiveness that takes the form of – “You did it wrong! You really should’ve had X do Y!” I’m not immune though I usually stifle this stupid shit before asking a question…or I just skip the author reading.

Recently, I’ve started to re-read Tolkien. Seeing the story again with the eyes I have now, I have questions. The biggest one I have centers around the whole structure of The Lord of the Rings…a magic ring of great and terrible power must be carried to the place of its birth and destroyed in fire to break the power of the angry being that created it.

I know why Professor Tolkien made up the rule that the Ring must go back to Mt. Doom for disposal; it creates the quest. But I can see the crankiest version of myself that really wants to know how the magic works and this or that arcane knowledge asking questions like – “wouldn’t any volcano be good for destroying the Ring?”

I could argue that a volcano, any volcano, acts as primal force of the ongoing cycle of creation and destruction and that Magic as a part of that cycle would be satisfied anywhere. Now we have a different sort of quest, one that plays out like six-dimensional hard elbow combat chess – “well, let’s see, my good buddy Gwahir (FYI, the eagle king) reports from his latest reconnaissance overflights of southern Middle-Earth that there’s, like, twenty full regiments of orcs camped out at the base of Mt. Doom, so Sauron must be expecting us. Anyway, his nephew went further south well past what we think of as the Southron lands and there is an equally suitable volcano that should serve our needs and there aren’t any orcs or southern men nearby, so maybe we adjust the plan…”

I think readers of the above seeing orc armies march back and forth between various volcanos, while the good guy armies countermarch all to deke out the other guys trying to guard the net might close the book about halfway through…no payoff soon enough. Or I might be wrong and all of this frustrating march, march, march until the marching’s done might be the basis of a really great war buddy story (something that already exists between Frodo and Sam) and we shouldn’t let my possible failure of imagination steamroll someone else’s classic literature. Either way, the story’s the story and, except as an illustrative example, I have no interest in re-writing it. If for no other reason than if I want people to respect my story as it lands on the page then I should do the same for theirs…respecting the moment when “because, I said so” becomes Canon Law.

To summarize, early on when things aren’t fully set Thag heckling the story is a good thing. Iguanas become dragons. Tall warriors just able to go above the rim on the slam become creatures for whom regular dudes named Jack or David dispose of with the greatest skill and cleverness. But once the author figures out where to put the good parts that give epinephrine hits that keep them coming back for years – “the story is the story…because I said so.

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Okay, the project named All Things Phantom Menace is now done (until I really have to see it again). With the novelization in the can, I can now move on to All Things Attack of the Clones or hopefully All Things Casino Royale (we’ll see).

Unlike the Shakespeare version (see post), there is very little about the novelization that will change the opinions formed by seeing the movie. You either roll your eyes the minute Jar Jar Binks enters frame or you slap your knees thinking you’ve experienced the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Still, they did try a little. It helps.

Mostly, the author added in quite a few scenes and moments concerning Anakin Skywalker before meeting the other pathetic lifeforms fleeing the invasion of Naboo. Anakin mentions getting flashed with Sebulba’s vents as the reason why he lost the previous pod race. So, the book starts on said race.

While I suspect that the author (Terry Brooks) working from George Lucas’s script still had to put as much of the kludgy writing style of the movie into the manuscript in the eternal dance between improving and just giving the audience more of what they want, I did like his descriptions of the desert flashing by under the pods. The two pod race sequences present a surprisingly vivid, a swirl of the red rocks, yellow sand flashing by under our hero’s pod at breakneck speed. A good moment to read.

There are many other small moments to enjoy about this book that play out in the small places between what’s required by servicing the script that we’ve already seen.

For instance, when the Trade Federation decides to gas the Jedi at the beginning a pair of birdlike creatures left in the room die first. Methinks PETA got to George Lucas and conducted a mugging to keep it out of the movie, but I digress. Or we actually see Anakin carve the japoor snippet for Padmé. A nice moment likely to always get cut out of the movie for reasons of time and flow.

Adding more in the way of slightly extra concerning Padmé’s thought process as the embattled leader of the sleepy and previously peaceful planet was quite entertaining to read. She’s depicted as blasting droid soldiers left and right to the surprise of everybody including Anakin. 

Dialogue is just simply not Star Wars’ best attribute whether in the movies or on the written page and this process continues here where Mr. Brooks added extra words explaining more about the plot at the expense of more spoken kludge. Novelizations typically get started as soon as the production “locks” the script at the beginning of production not after the martini shot goes into the can. The adaption thus has more material from which to draw and represents the script as it existed before the film editor applied a poetic ear towards cutting the spoken fat. I prefer to blame Mr. Lucas.

The depiction of Jar Jar Binks frankly doesn’t improve with the translation to the page. If much of the criticism concerning this character lands because some people feel too many real-world nasty stereotypes (Jamaican, cowardly etc…) were given free vent in a world that changed under some people’s feet, learning more about Jar Jar by way of the inner monologue common to novels isn’t going to change things.

Most of the rest of what is hard to like about the Phantom Menace are the stuff of an impressive nerd fight, that won’t change just because I read the book. No matter the form, I still ask the question – of all the star systems without proper air forces affected by the Senate’s taxation plan, why does the Trade Federation choose to blockade and invade Naboo? What does the Trade Federation get out of the deal? And did Darth Sidious choose the planet for them opting to grind some kind of axe against the planet that is allegedly his home? Never mind, I spend too much time contemplating these things.

As a read this novelization is like so many others of its ilk, an acceptable read despite that we’ve already seen the movie. There are flashes of brilliance that almost help me forget where this story really came from, but then these are dragged down by the things that dragged down the movie. Though, I can see a frazzled parent reaching for this book as a way to sneak up on a child bitching and moaning about summer reading lists and book completion quotas. Truthfully, that’s why I picked this book despite yes, I saw the movie, but that’s a story for another day…

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Wow! Imagine reading Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the FirstBEFORE seeing the movie by George Lucas! I guess that covers the pull quote for this review. Anyway, I like Shakespeare and I like Star Wars, even the much-derided Episode One (well…in the sense of enjoying going to the dentist after the cleaning ends). Obviously, I’m all over the Shakespearean homage.

Truthfully, the play’s the play and nothing substantive changes (Mr. Doescher’s readers might get nasty in tragic ways if the plot changes…like that time I spent six months re-writing a three-hour version of The Return of the Jedi. Never mind). I have and will continue to savage the actual movie well into the future (see post). What I really like about this version that trades on the tropes and limitations of the Elizabethan stage for which Shakespeare and Marlowe dove in head first is how the union-mandated iambic pentameter, asides, soliloquies and verbal description of the action serves to make it very clear that perhaps we get to blame the movie a little bit more on decisions made after the script was locked.

The reader upon being told that a Shakespeare homage edition was contemplated might chuckle a little bit and ask many relevant questions.

How does the stage director depict the pod-race that eats up ten minutes in an otherwise lackluster movie that seems to hang its hat on the scene?

People run in and out reporting to Qui-Gon Jinn the results of the latest lap, while the pod racers occasionally run through in the foreground inside cardboard pods much like the hobby horses last seen in Monty Python’s: The Holy Grail.The Shakespearean battle scene that I thought it most reminded me of was Bosworth Field from Richard III (“Rescue, My Lord, Rescue!”), but there are other possibilities…Shakespeare liked him his battles and frequently did the same things over and over.

There’s a lot of people communicating across Galactic distances in holographic beams, so how do handle that, Buster?  

Guys, spotlights. A modern stage just flips the switch and there you are. If by some highly inexplicable time travel accident this script lands on Shakespeare’s desk and he, as was accused in movies like Anonymous, appropriates it as his own, the stagehands of the day had lanterns, mirrors and such. People can work it out.

Anyway, as I read the play, I couldn’t help but enjoy it far more than the movie that spawned it. Mostly, it was because Mr. Doescher dove in head first with the Jar-Jar Binks problem. In the movie, this amphibian Falstaff archetype either really pissed off the viewer as being too forced acting as the comedy relief. Too over the top with a mostly Jamaican (we think) patois that sparked some to go nuts trying to find hidden racial insensitivities in Star Wars. Or for the younger viewers for whom George Lucas always said the series was the primary audience, Jar-Jar was greater than sliced bread because kids tend to respond to people tripping over themselves to get a laugh.

 Doescher gives Jar-Jar one hell of a raison d’etre, to unify the Gungans and human Naboo in a vision of a shared planet that rises to meet all challenges together. Thus, he speaks the best possible rendition of his movie dialogue translated into iambic pentameter and then gives an aside to the audience delivered in what in the Star Wars galaxy is the local equivalent of Received Pronunciation (also in iambic pentameter). Jar-Jar doing things intentionally and telling the audience why goes a long way towards feeling better about the character.

Another character that gets a small amount of interesting of asides is Artoo. We just have to take it on trust that Threepio isn’t intentionally mistranslating our favorite astro-mech droid. In the play, Artoo reveals he might be the smartest character in the room sussing out Jar-Jar. Everybody else just talks over and around our least favorite Frog Clown.

All through the play, the dialogue plays out clever with a capital C. There are references to other Shakespeare lines and more importantly references to dialogue the actors played in other movies. Basically, Mr. Doescher has used his library card well.

Truthfully, I missed many of the promised Samuel L. Jackson-isms probably because I don’t know, brain freeze (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). However, I didn’t fail to miss some biggies posted thirty feet tall in neon. Qui-Gon Jinn picks the last fight (in the movie set to “Duel of the Fates”) with Darth Maul dropping in extra dialogue much like Kung Fu movie fighters pointing out the people with whom they’re going to mop the floor. 

Pay attention, just before the saber merge Qui-Gon says the words “I have skills.” If we could only have a daughter for the Jedi master to rescue from traffickers (and perhaps a more forgiving screenwriter), you think maybe he’d survive this one. And when Maul skewers the Jedi, the exit line is “et tu, Sith.” Perhaps not as rhyming as “et tu, Brute,” but I’ll take it.

This play, even starting from the hardest Star Wars movie to watch, is simply excellent fun for people who enjoy both Shakespeare and The Galaxy Far, Far Away and Long Ago. Now to see if Disney actually releases it onto the stage…    

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

More than twenty later, this film still resonates as the Star Wars movie most of us hated when we saw it. I myself am not immune to such passions. In that time, there has also been backlash to the original backlash in favor of the movie, but other than what I will list below that kinda almost worked…it’s still the movie that dragged the rest of the Fall of Anakin Skywalker trilogy into [BEEP!].

The plot. Political turmoil between the Trade Federation (I swear they made a dig upon Star Trek here), the rest of the galaxy represented by the Galactic Senate and the small, peaceful and lush planet of Naboo results in a blockade of said nice planet. Two Jedi, Qui-Gon-Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), get sent on the sly to muscle a settlement, but find dark and nefarious forces at work that reveal the Trade Federation more interested in taking over temperate, green and comfortable to live on planets.

In the running around on Naboo’s surface said Jedi make friends with a Gungan (an amphibian humanoid species sharing the planet with the human Naboo society). They rescue the elected Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) escaping in a damaged ship landing for repairs on Tatooine where we meet nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), presently a slave born under strange circumstances. There’s a lot of gambling and doubling down between Qui-Gon and the blue Toydarian Watto that leads to a pod race that provides the parts to repair the ship and free Anakin.

We move to the galactic capitol where the Queen pleads for redress with Naboo’s representative, Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), at her side. The Senate being used as a chew toy by the as yet hidden Sith Lords ends up telling the Naboo to drop dead as “we really should send another blue-ribbon investigating committee.” The Queen calls for a vote of No Confidence that results in the election of Senator Palpatine as the new Chancellor and then goes home to lead the big battle with her new Gungan allies to free Naboo, a battle where Anakin foreshadows his son, Luke, blowing up the Death Star twenty-three years later, by blowing up the droid control ship with a proton torpedo shot to a conveniently exposed reactor.

The people who have made hating on Menace and the rest of Episodes 1-3 into a cottage industry focus most of their geek wrath around two tentpoles for their scorn, derision and slight regard: Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and baby Anakin. There are other reasons to feel disappointed, some that will be listed here. There are also points of logic that conversely suggest lighten up, a failing common to many Star Wars fans.

Most of my fellow nerds will comment in the Anakin section of the bashing session that a nine-year-old protagonist makes the rest of the movie difficult to believe even before we get to the technical part about did Mr. Lloyd successfully do his job? The rest of the characters are pretty much acting like adults, even the fourteen-year-old Queen Amidala (possibly a thematic callback to our real history where teenaged monarchs frequently kicked ass and took names because teenagers weren’t actually considered children until about a hundred years ago). 

The nine-year-old boy with the great skill at the flight controls wins the pod race, but is then shunted into a spare Naboo cockpit for the space battle making his almost accidental entry into the furball almost as if Anakin as an archetype vies with Jar-Jar for being the Accidental Fool…someone Inspector Clouseau would very much understand. I think a lot of the people commenting how weird Anakin played out on screen would eventually land on – “guys, you can’t have it both ways, either Anakin is this great pilot that makes a conscious decision to blow up the Trade Federation’s Battle-Donut that no one even thinks about ordering to stay out of the way in the spare space fighter, or he’s the young waif to whom things happen accidentally.” How much danger can you put a nine-year-old protagonist in anyway? I have yet to discover that formula myself and thus avoid writing YA novels as if I might catch the measles.

And twenty plus years later just say the name Jar-Jar Binks. You can say it straight or with the growly delivery of that old guy in The Graduate urging for a fulfilling career in Plastics; you’ll get the same result from everybody older than the age of nine at the time the movie originally dropped. 

Variations of – “Ugh! Who told George Lucas that this clutzy, tries too hard at comedic relief and eats up too much screen time at the expense of what passes for the main plot was a good idea? And that’s before we get all nasty about his forced mostly Jamaican patois in a movie where we’re also choosing to be angry that the primary villains who aren’t Sith all speak like Asian villains from a Fu Manchu movie.” Kids who were in the target audience at the time who are now twenty-ish swear Jar-Jar is the funniest thing ever. I was thirty. Jar-Jar bombed about like taking out Rotterdam.

There is so much more to bash about the movie and I’ve heard them all at the counter of various comic book stores, at least for the first few years until there wasn’t anything new to be had raking this one over the coals. Didn’t like Padme’s dresses. Hated the stilted dialogue almost completely devoid of contractions. Goes back and forth between thinking the pod race sequence the only thing that keeps the first half of the movie moving or perhaps it was a cheap stunt to trick the audience into enjoying the dead air in the story.

I promised you, Dear Reader, that there are some good and interesting things about The Phantom Menace. Here are a few…

The effects and music. Industrial Light and Magic always goes whole hog for a Star Wars movie, the franchise that willed their organization into being. We may get nasty about – “Really, Tatooine again!” – but the sand looks like it always does…gorgeous.

This time around when composer John Williams set his pencil to paper the highlight ended up being “Duel of the Fates.” Set under the big lightsaber rumble on Naboo we get a classic piece of acrobatic cinema. Who cares that, yet again, a Jedi has to lose someone and get angry to win the fight…despite strict dogma against getting angry?

The actors playing the Jedi, McGregor and Neeson, showed why they’ve torn up Hollywood…in other movies. It is alleged that with nothing on the page to play when having dinner at Shimi Skywalker’s (Pernilla August) humble house, that Mr. Neeson starts creating heat between the Jedi Master and analogue for the Virgin Mary. Just a light hint of maybe…

Ewan McGregor infuses his young Obi-Wan Kenobi with an infectious smile running interference for a brash character that still has many years ahead to his worst day, turning his best friend Anakin Skywalker into a Benihana entrée. Wait, good acting in a Star Wars movie? It happens.

The other fascinating aspect of this film that carries through the whole early trilogy is the genius move of establishing Senator Palpatine and Darth Sidious as owning both sides of the emergency that brings him to power. In a movie where the fans have already read ahead, there is an official attempt to separate the two characters that we don’t see Sidious take off his robe to become Palpatine. However, there’s no actual attempt to hide this with, say, Batman lowering his voice and growling.

Owning both sides of the war struck me personally at the time I first saw the movie. It had to do with Evil Stepdad 2.0 who was a conspiracy theorist for whom the true masters of the universe were alleged to own both sides of all conflicts because you always win if you’re both the Good Guys and the Space Nazis at the same time. He kept on and on about this creating a hugely integrated world view that largely predated QAnon. And then to see this concept onscreen in a Star Wars movie…

However, while we’re on the subject of Galactic politics, whatever cool and interesting we got from Palpatine owning the whole war making the results irrelevant, we gave back in the depiction of the Neimodians of the Trade Federation. For the life of me, applying any concept of the why of War whether from Sun Tzu or von Clauswitz I couldn’t figure out why the Trade Federation escalated their blockade over being taxed too high into an invasion…other than someone having read Syd Field and arbitrarily deciding – “we need an invasion to let the rest of the movie make sense.”

Sorry, I couldn’t resist one last dig at a movie that pretty much belly flopped from the Ten-Meter platform at the Olympics… 

The Voices in My Head

Posted: March 3, 2021 in Uncategorized

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Many writers talk about the critical voice in the heads and then say something along the lines of “shout that little bastard down and keep writing.” When the message naturally leads to an excuse not to write, I agree. Sometimes, the little guy has real things to say and maybe we should listen. Maybe it’s really a different voice with the same voiceprint?

Several weeks ago, I’d put the day’s words for the night and still had enough in the tank to randomly cast about for whatever might be next and give it a few hours of pre-writing development (too many syllables for think shit up). Somewhere in this a stray thought about famous Italian luthier, Stradarvari of Cremona (it’s not that stray a thought, there is a dormant music column on this blog) lands. This typically leads to similar thoughts about Amati of Cremona. 

Imagining the competition between these two rival luthiers (stringed instrument maker, including more recently guitars) in the same city leads to “ooh, what if a girl named Amati fell for a boy named Stradavari…the Romeo & Juliet of expensive violins!” And this is where the critical voice gets busy throwing hard elbows, I pitched the story wrong even to myself.

Busting out Romeo and Juliet implies a certain kind of tragic story of freshly minted Renaissance teenagers who when faced with the crushing weight of their respective families’ mutual animosities choose suicide to preserve their love. Nearly every commentator in the more than four hundred years of the play has continuously asserted that the two leads have to be teenagers (Romeo being 14 at most and Juliet maybe 13) in order to answer the question – “who commits suicide when they can’t have their way romantically?”

The play was written in the late 16th Century and set in 15th Century Italy both eras in which no one had much of proper medicine, understanding of juvenile psychology or hope that more than half of all children would survive to adulthood. Teenage marriages, especially for women, happened frequently in order for her to get started on her eight or more pregnancies. Careful reading of various profiles of historical ladies on Wikipedia seems to show that enough of the time the responsible parents arranging these matches would hold the girls back a couple years until their later teen years. 

The people living then might not have understood adolescence as we do now, but they did get the part about the immediate hit of puberty being good for stormy domestic relations and slammed doors. Certainly, they knew that the older the newlyweds were at the beginning of that marriage the more likely the response to not landing on the lover they wanted would be to, in this wisdom from The Kings Speech – “can’t they just carry on privately?” The sane approach to disappointing arranged marriages. Thus, Romeo and Juliet are in their early teens where they can only see their love being everything and die for it.

The above doesn’t really fully explain why setting this type of four-hanky tragedy among the luthiers of Cremona, just doesn’t work. It boils down to violin makers being the wrong sort of occupation to use the Romeo & Juliet outline. They were essentially well compensated craftsmen of the Upper Middle Class, not the lords and ladies of the original play with the legal right to and social obligation to carry swords and duel. More than a few people have also commented that the Montagues and Capulets spent so much time brawling in the streets that the two factions weren’t much different than street gangs with money. This makes the update to street gangs without money for West Side Story an easy leap.

People named Amati, Guarneri and Stradavari could get caught up in the rumbles of two powerful wealthy families roiling the streets if you assume that feuding Noble Family A patronizes Amati and feuding Noble Family B patronizes Stradavari. Neither luthier operation would sell to the rival family to keep and make the peace, or they would wink and nod moving the product out the back door. None of this leads to stabbing each other on the streets…especially since the cynical reasons for pitching a musically themed version of Romeo & Juliet is to close the square for Great Soundtrack built-in what with at least three pieces titled Dueling Violins.

Yes, the pride in one’s own product versus those other guys would lead to conflict but nothing lethal. You could see the two master craftsmen throwing a fist or two and then arranging the concert. Maybe there’s an affair between the adults but now we’re already too far from the Shakespeare play. There’s one slight possibility given my three minutes looking it up on Wikipedia, the third Amati trained the first Guarneri and the first Stradavari…so two apprentices throwing down to take over the old master’s business. Still not the Shakespeare play.

It matters because the middle of the play requires Romeo to get into a big fight with Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, that results in a Capulet death. Dramatists and other writers have always depended on having the characters’ own decisions cause their grief. Romeo shrugs off various insults because – “dude, I just married your cousin.” His good friend, Mercutio, takes the gauntlet because – “really, that’s the last straw!” – and then dies making Romeo too angry to stop himself. Doing these scenes with people that don’t have the easy access to the steel can be done…at the expense of too many pages used up on expository backstory.

So, when my critical voice saw this immediately and yelled at me to stop pitching it as anything like the Shakespeare play, what did I actually think up? A sitcom in most cases. A sexy romantic movie with an awesome soundtrack in a few other cases. And if I really need it to be a tragedy, I’ll just give Mrs. Stradavari-Guarneri breast cancer and we’re done.

Why is it potentially a sitcom? The property trades on the comedic conflict of the two sets of in-laws figuring it out when they come over to the kids’ house for Sunday dinner. Barbs from Master Guarneri that Master Stradavari never did his frets correctly leading to – “Papa, no business tonight please!” And then there’s a violin duel.

What sitcoms are the closest? Mostly I was thinking Dharma and Greg, where a hippie girl lands on an uptight boy attorney leading to interesting family dinners. But you can see aspects of many sitcoms, like if Darren Stevens had his parents visit more than a couple episodes of Bewitched

For the sexy drama version, now we’re cooking with gas. Stormy passionate women (or men, it’s the 21st Century, gender-switching will be attempted and have the same chances of working with an audience) raising their voices to get exactly what they want. Doors slamming with almost the regularity of the average farce. Lots of kissy-kissy scenes backlit at sunset while on picnic among the field of pretty flowers. Followed by a determination to build the best violin ever in order to have something that plays up to the abilities of this tempestuous partner who combines the talents of Isaac Stern and Jimi Hendrix. Okay, there have been times when perhaps I’ve watched too many Cinemax movies from the out-and-out Skin-Max era (not really there aren’t any angry housewives played by former Playmates who scheme to kill their overbearing husbands and there is too much good music).

On second thought, I’m an SF and Fantasy writer. Let’s take the sexy drama version and really jump down the rabbit hole with both feet. The passionate luthier couple must make the violin that the Devil might want to swipe on his way to Georgia (probably the baggage handlers destroyed his original instrument) and play up to the quality of the instrument in order to save the world from the Evil Counterpoint. Or the average trance created by misusing the average love potion or…even our excellent chance of rehashing a work lovingly referred to as Orpheus 5.0 (Wrinkle in Time being Orpheus 3.5, just sayin’). We’ll still need the hot and steamy…

None of which exactly pitches as Romeo & Juliet Set Among Anything or Meet Tony the Tiger. And that was my original point; the archetypes we sometimes fall back on to explain our work when we only have 30 seconds to get past a gatekeeper aren’t always an exact fit. But there typically is an actual story lurking in the collective unconscious that does fit what’s on the page, the problem is that this hypothetical story archetype is itself derivative of the main archetype that only fits as well as that extra pair of shoes in the back of the closet. Naturally, this story is usually almost as unknown as yours. Mileage always varies.Anyway, I appreciate your forbearance as I give a little insight into the voices in my head fully grokking the double entendre that a writer in Work it Out on Paper Mode is only a bad breakfast burrito away from needing medical intervention. Knock on wood at the absence of getting caught. And…as always, you’re invited to write your own stories.    

New Sports

Posted: January 30, 2021 in Uncategorized

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

“It’s a simple game, really. We run, hit and throw.” – thus sayeth a fictional baseball manager in Bull Durham and perhaps more than few real managers distressed by a complete lack of fundamentals witnessing the train wreck of the local version of the Mudville Nine or even the Bears…yeah, those Bears. The saying also unintentionally touches on a truth that there are perhaps two handfuls of discrete athletic skills that make up the building blocks of all the sports we played in the past or will invent in the future (writers take note). To be more inclusive that pissed off manager might include…Run. Hit. Throw. Catch. Dodge/hop. Strike. Jump. Run into. Grapple. Aim. And Climb. Covers most of them, I think. Sounds sooo very simple…

If this assertion holds true then I think I’ve just explained why most new at the time sports can be evaluated in reductionist terms – “Oh right, I see what those Yanks did taking the eleven-man version of Rugby, added a rigid distance versus attempts requirement, allowed offensive players to run into defenders who don’t have the ball and about two decades later either took a marketing survey about exciting high scoring games or simply gave up enforcing the ban on the forward pass!” We Americans call this holy game Football, despite the rest of the world making a credible case that the other eleven-man game where more kicking takes place should have the name.

FYI, to see Football’s roots in Rugby, open up the two sports’ Wikipedia pages side by side and look at the rules. Football’s residual kicking rules (PATs, field goals, punting and kickoffs) all have direct antecedents on the Rugby pitch. In the early days, you could drop the ball to the grass and attempt a drop kick field goal from anywhere on the field, another direct lift from Rugby. I went looking in the rules to see if this play that hadn’t been seen in at least eighty years had been banned by any of the leagues…the rule still stands. You don’t need to ban something made extremely difficult when you optimize your ball for the forward pass instead of the regular ground game.

You see so many elements that recur across the many sports due to a variety of reasons. When Naismith invented Basketball, players couldn’t dribble as they do now. There is some surviving film showing teams playing this way, catching the passed ball, stopping and either shooting or passing to the next player. Obviously, some fans must’ve conducted experiments and decided they liked the thought of being able to dribble, head fake and drive the lane better. Bouncing the ball on the floor was likely a compromise with the folks reminding the rest that the old rules were designed to avoid picking up the ball and running with it, important because Hoops is supposed to be a non-contact game.

The stop and must pass rule has since become a feature of the otherwise Football inspired Ultimate. Go long. Get clear. Catch the disk. Stop. Throw to the next player running ahead from his place behind. Rinse. Repeat. I’m guessing for the same reasons as why we didn’t used to dribble on the court, running with the Frisbee encourages tackling (run into & grapple) and blocking (pure run into). Pads to keep players safe probably would get in the way of a fun Frisbee game without too much contact to it (not counting going up for the interception).

As writers we have two main choices, set our sports narratives in the real world or make up a new game. I’ve done both depending on my intent. 

I have arbitrarily dropped the, at the time, fictional Los Angeles starting offense into a parallel world where Rome resisted Christianity long enough to develop modern technology, much like the classic Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses.” Pretty much my elevator pitch went like this – “football players v. gladiators.” Since it was a life or death game, the gladiators lining up over the ball got to keep their knives…not exactly Football as we know it.

I have also realized that the sports my faraway invented realities would develop would be broadly similar to real world sports, but would face play testing decisions that take things in slightly different directions. My funniest effort here is Goven-Hoka. Not very intent on spending too much time inventing a sport down to the nittiest and grittiest rules and penalties. My thought process really was just – “take Football and Soccer, have the referee get bored and blow a whistle to change between rules. Go get lunch.”

A side of eleven stalwart players kicks the ball up to the next player downfield and then the whistle, suddenly the ball handler picks up the ball and advances it under the arm…until the ref arbitrarily blows the whistle at which time the ball must hit the grass again. Believe me, I’m not stupid, I know exactly what this rule does to both games and their players. 

With the exception of the targets carrying the ball, every other player on the football field maximizes conditioning to survive Run Into, which can impede conditioning for other types of running. Conversely, few soccer players ever grow as large as America grows its football players so they’re smaller, faster and in better shape. Once puberty kicks in after the recreational youth leagues, there is very little overlap between Football and Soccer for players playing both sports…pretty much the only guys who played both were the placekicker and a couple guys who were receivers.

Yes, I’m also aware that I created a logical contradiction concerning the game’s equipment that I pretty much punted. A football has the pointy ends to aid flight for the forward pass. A soccer ball is round to aid kicking from the grass. The rugby ball splits the difference to assist in carrying and pitching it, but also to not get in the way of the drop kick goal. Goven-Hoka probably uses a rugby ball, but I didn’t think that far ahead other than I thought it would be funny.

Like anything else in writing fiction, the sports we invent come from all kinds of sources. More recently, I moved to a new house in San Diego. In the real world I didn’t take most of my old crap with me and farmed out the heavy lifting for what I did to guys with trucks and dollies, but still it was stressful enough that suddenly I’m getting ideas…

Couch drag obstacle courses, which for people likely to shop at IKEA first (Me until this move) and also unlikely to hire movers could be a mixed-doubles event. The event allows for the refs to arbitrarily move the boxes holding the breakable glass kitchenware directly into the hallway through which the couch must drag. Lose points for broken stuff. Of course, I’m thinking more of how the event evolves with a budget, say, under the cruel tutelage of those guys that do the Battlebots arenas (who came up with that screw thingy on the far wall?). 

Spring operated Joker-style boxing gloves coming out from the walls. The ref arbitrarily shifts the cant of the floor. Smoke pots. Neutral field players whapping at the couch draggers with martial arts kicking pads from odd angles in the closets.

Of course, if we decided to make sports out of moving, redecorating and remodeling, we’ll actually have to add more events, like Gymnastics, Modern Pentathlon or Decathlon. Furniture Drag, yep. Arguing Over Placing the TV Stand and/or Who Tracked Dirt on the Floor (more of a literary contest like the Dozens, I suppose, or let it go bloody). Auto Race to Home Improvement Store For The One Thing You Forgot The Last Time. And, of course the penultimate event, Swinging Wrecking Tools to Take Down That Wall That Pisses Me Off.

Yeah, that was a weird couple of months, where the only new sporting event I could come up with clearly steals from American Ninja WarriorBattlebots and some scary-ass dystopian whatever that doesn’t even have a movie (Bull@#%t Rollerball!). Oh, and the highlight reel has to be set to that brass-heavy soundtrack from NFL Films (how you used to spend Saturday after the cartoons), just saying.Anyway, sports are a small integral part of the worlds we create/borrow when we write. Some will set a knifing in the men’s room at SoFi Stadium and just use the sports we already have. Others will set the same knifing at the same stadium a hundred years from now where Football will have even more Bread & Circuses to it and will have evolved (betting the PAT goes first). Others will do the mix and match game trying to get something that might actually arise on the faraway realm of Braetheton. Some will convert the ordinary into an extraordinary new sport. Have fun…   

Dumbass, They’re the Same Idea!

Posted: December 10, 2020 in Uncategorized

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Joe Michael Straczynski once commented on a DVD track for his highly influential show Babylon 5 – “I had two ideas for space station shows. One was all the wars and great alliances. The other was a smaller concept about how people might live on space stations. Both stalled until I realized they were both the same show.”

Writers, except when really angry or exceptionally lazy, get ideas all the time. No, I won’t show my appalling list jotted down as fragments on up to a couple sentences. Some are full ideas with plots and characters ready to jump. The rest are just pieces. I suspect my list evenly splits between the two. One of many reasons to keep the list in the first place is to make sure that we can cross-reference the new idea that seems so brilliant, except for that one part that…with all of our older ideas that might actually fix the missing piece.

As you might guess, I don’t put pen to paper without my own example to echo and enhance what Mr. Straczynski has to say about combining ideas. More on that later. Back to Babylon 5

The great alliances and wars part of the show involves a created community led by human military officers on a space station in neutral space who discover a great secret concerning some of the older spacefaring races that forces a titanic shift in the affairs of the galaxy. Over the course of millennia, two ancient races have locked into recurring cycles of a grand conflict that involve the newer races as allies choosing sides. And then the various allies discover the two sides have the same goal, assisting the newer peoples of the galaxy to advance, but have chosen two diametrically opposed methodologies. Order and Chaos.

The Vorlons do Order always asking – “who are you?” – and act like galactic Boy Scout Troop leaders organizing alliances, campouts and all kinds of opportunities to learn from teamwork. The Shadows do Chaos asking – “what do you want?” – and have made a career of encouraging the greedy and power hungry to piss off their neighbors and kick over anthills on the assumption the hive will be stronger when rebuilt. The rest of the galaxy eventually learns this and asks both to leave the galaxy. A nice five-year plot.

You’ll notice one glaring lack in the two preceding paragraphs…character. Oh, sure there are a couple great scenes to be had from this plot that can hint at certain characters like when the Shadows finally get to explain their side. Still kinda thin.

The second space station idea for Mr. Straczynski came loaded with character. It answered many questions about what these people do between their big moments. They wash socks as part of personal ritual. Or ask pointed questions like – “how far they go on the first date?” – trying to gauge a new species’ ability to fit in with the station community. And then they have to go to the doctor for advice about a “food plan.”

One character gets picked to be the union-mandated alcoholic and in some episodes has that used against him. People worry about getting fat. Or how they might bond over picking fights in the casino. They play pranks on each other just to see the target get angry.

This second space station idea came loaded with people that by themselves didn’t have anything important to do. Enter the first idea with wars, great alliances and many things for which we shake our hands and say – “ooooh!” Symbiosis in the best possible way, because – “Dumbass, they’re the same idea!”

And now, my similar epiphany that blends at least three separate brain farts maddeningly teased out of the ether in pieces and parts about like how fast food chains put together chicken nuggets…

Item One. In the vein of Dream Big and Steal from Literary Classics, we have how I typically interact with The 1,001 Nights, the four-volume unabridged translated by Burton version. Just because it’s a monster book about Scheherazade telling stories to avoid getting beheaded by her pissed off husband doesn’t mean I’m not going to steal the idea of a narrator with huge personal stakes telling and hearing stories. This is even with the fact that my edition has the well-known stories (Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin) buried deeper in the text than I’ve gone.

What with the heavy reliance on Djinn, other supernatural creatures and even a couple appearances of Count Iblis (Lucifer) in the original text, there’s clearly no way my grand homage/emulation/naked rip off won’t have many supernatural characters. I do have to admit that I only got as far as angel in this part of the idea for my narrator.

Your presumed commentary at this point is sure to run to – “Okay, Mr. Jacobs, an angel is your narrator, but to which angel do you refer, they’re still characters…or should be.” And as you might guess, not having an answer is what left this idea on my list. Despite, the fact that we really only seem to have two, three if you count Jonathan Smith (Michael Landon) from Highway to Heaven, angel character archetypes from which to draw. 

Michael fights and kills things. Gabriel does the music and announcing. Mister Smith acts almost like Kwai Chang Caine going on permanent walkabout trying to help people. The rest are as anonymous to the story as FedEx drivers or perhaps the ninjas that dress like stagehands in Japanese theater and kill characters, but I digress. If your angel isn’t Mike or Gabe, you still have to invent a character. The lack thereof will stall any project.

I have one other thing to casually mention…the ambition. At this point in development, I know I’m circling closer to an angel filling in for Scheherazade. I don’t know which angel or why at this point. And like everybody with an early idea to copy the Classics, I’m just going to go bigger – “Yeah, Baby! The 2,001 Nights!” Like Spinal Tap, my amp “goes up to eleven!”

Item Two. One of my recent (less than a year) otherwise fruitless jags back into screenwriting landed me on – “I know, I’ll do Twilight Zone with a twist so I can have fun with some short but weird storytelling!” My twist ends up being the proposed title of the show, a creepy house in the mist overlooking a lonely road…House in the Mist. People who don’t know they need something roll up to stay for the night and…

Depending on the nature of the breakfast burritos I had the morning I sit down to write, the possible episodes can go anywhere. I haven’t been in very many grand old houses, but I’ve learned (metaphorically at least) to always check the closet. The real question is what’s on the other side. Edible and tasty burritos might lead to the wish fulfilment of, say, Fantasy Island. Crud probably gets us to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe probably without Lucy Pevensie having very much time for tea with Mr. Tumnus.

My thought process for the house part of this pastiche leads to no episodes, but a wraparound framing device for four. A little girl visiting the house with her parents gets up late at night searching for water. At the end of the hall, she sees a light on and enters to see four men sitting around having coffee talking about the doings of their clients. Men with recognizable names…

I’ll take a moment to make some linkages between Twilight Zone and The 1,001 Nights. How similar are the two properties? Anthology. Weird. Wonderous. And do we get to make a connection between Scheherazade and the version Rod Serling played of himself as the narrator? An essay for another day.

At this point, I still need a character with…motivation. Another way, I suppose to ask the nature of my main character/narrator. I know I’m going to feature an angel, likely due to one of my run-home-to-mama story tropes having to do with angels managing the hostile takeover and/or leveraged buyout of other pantheons. 

How did the angels give the Olympians the sumo shove when people stopped believing in them? Did they make accommodation for the deities they deemed not to bad? Offers of lateral job transitions to, say, Athena? Or kill them all? I do too many of these stories mixed in with all my other wonders. Leading to…

Item Three. My previous franchise character becomes successful enough to live in a big house with her husband and three daughters. Suddenly a fourth little girl, a foster daughter, just shows up one day and tries very hard to fit in, but she’s an outsider. With the tendencies highlighted in previous paragraphs of course this young lady is a Fallen Angel struggling to come home and performing penance as a human child.

And now I have a character. Someone really sorry for tempting humans and playing to our weaknesses and vanities who must listen to and tell the stories affected by her past actions. Three elements pulled from the ether over a period of upwards of six years. Keep all ideas and don’t be afraid of the fragements… 

A Timely Nerd Fight

Posted: December 10, 2020 in Uncategorized
If you say so, Sir…

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Elections, like this last one, aren’t good for me. In keeping with the official “I just help writers” non-political stance of this blog, I’ll leave it at they’re good excuses to freak out over things that haven’t happened, yet. Mostly, because of the need to lash out at the people who voted for the other guy. I promise to be less vague about who I thought the other guy was writing the dealer’s choice of autobiography, memoir or an angry letter to the New York Times.

I take walks late at night. Usually the walk is just about – “Ooh, a full moon, Blue Moon if you’re keeping score!” – or – “Cool! I can actually see Orion and Mars tonight!” – or even just listening to the crickets going nuts in the sagebrush in the city’s intentionally open spaces. However, the election intrudes and I sometimes start the walk raging at people who have otherwise done nothing wrong. I react to the logic of who they like and how these candidates speak about all of our abilities to write without getting leaned on by dipshits that just shouldn’t that much state power in the first place. 

I do have an opinion about which candidate scares me more based on who’s likely to get first at-bats in this area, but I do have to acknowledge my side also has these concerns waiting in the wings. I mention this to keep obfuscating my political opinion for the purposes of this blog that doesn’t get to be this political. All you need to know, my response to censorship of any kind – “Fuck you and the white horse you rode in on…Sir.” – will cause problems should either veil of douchebaggery fall.

Believing the other guy to be the one promoting the more immediate threat to me as a writer, I freak out at the start of the walk raging at family members and friends. If the worst happens, they will have supported the force that put me in jail or executed me. In some cases, I get pooh-poohed because the worst might not ever happen, but pooh-poohing is the single worst way to start talking these things out. 

This all builds into looking like a raging nutter off his meds (nighttime, no one sees) on the outbound leg. Walks by themselves are good for getting over this bullshit however temporarily. On the home leg, I remember that I still love these people and that you shouldn’t buy tomorrow’s problems a day early. 

However, going out angry usually means waking up the next morning sad and depressed. Stay in bed all day sad or consume too many donuts and chocolate-laced coffee sad…take your pick. Accepting few excuses about myself, I have shifted the too many donuts part of the story to eat cereal and try to do something about it in the day’s writing quota more days than I haven’t.

In an effort to chill out when not on these walks I’ve gone in for all kinds of distraction. Baseball (Padres showed up for a great season, yay!). Football (Hey, fellas, we don’t support the Chargers anymore, so maybe show us the East Coast game that turned out to go into overtime?). A few extra go arounds on most things Star Wars and/or whatever shiny object crosses my path on the presently open streaming service. And I also write. All worthy pursuits, until you realize that like most drugs, the good parts about Liquid Distraction are over too soon.

A couple days before the election, I wallowed in the sad at my computer. I decide to check in with a good friend’s blog having forgotten for a couple days. The premise of Tale of Adequacy, a pointy-eared Alien American schoolteacher and superheroine’s daily life acts as the web comic illustration for my friend needing to vent…including an incessant trashing of Aquaman’s total uselessness to the Justice League team. There are ponies (not terribly tolerant of My Little Pony outside the context of this blog) and all kinds of Magic the Gathering (so far, I’ve missed this gaming boat) references and team-ups…with Donut Man, most recently, but there are others.

As shown in the panel above, Cap leans against a roof parapet sharing coffee and donuts with Donut Man. Cap has “generic, Silver Age Alien American superpowers” is teamed with hero having “a complete dominion over coffee and donuts.” Donut Man semi-breaks the Fourth Wall to speak for my friend to let people in on the joke and act of mass distraction that teaming up with a pastry hero is. He says he’s only useful in certain pastry related situations.

And now because I’d spent too much of the preceding couple days sad and yelling at no one in the room and that I’m also occasionally just a contrarian crank, I’m now suddenly acting like Donut Man’s life coach. It is now a matter of honor that I playfully pop off about the possible uses for these super powers in a real spandex fight and I’m going to do it in the blog’s comment box and not texting him as I normally do. A nerd fight can also act as a writing challenge to keep the gears oiled.

I made four points.

One. If the comic book physicists and lawyers rule it so, Donut Man also has access to unlimited coffee. I’m instantly flashing to The Hunt for Red October and Captain Ramius (Sean Connery) smashing the political officer’s head on the table. Then to cover his tracks, he splashes tea everywhere and works up a good bit of shocked, shocked! Thus, coffee is a slip and fall substance.

Two. Complete dominion of all things pastry means being able to come up with donut dough. Screw the mix just right and the consistency can range from thick and sticky gumming up machinery and gluing people to the floor to watery and runny. Runny donut dough is also a slip and fall substance.

Three. This complete dominion also presupposes an unlimited supply of raw materials. My high school chemistry teacher demonstrated raw flour’s flammability throwing it in the air and setting the cloud alight with a match. BOOM! Burning villains’ eyebrows off or worse is nothing to sneeze at. Other ways to be useful might include having access to rum because some donuts use rum-soaked dough…150-proof rum? Or an unlimited store of cooking oil. Oh, right more ways to torch and deep fry bad guys, so pretty much the same category of spandex weapon. Moving on.

Four. The post is still about my friend throwing his own hard elbows entertaining himself in his own way, so I have to acknowledge his thinking with – “never underestimate his ability to give his enemies diabetes.”

Once I’d posted these four points, I suddenly had all kinds of better to my day. I started my walk that evening in a much better frame of mind. I didn’t worry about the upcoming election. And I was happier, all because as I walked, I silently gamed out all kinds of fights in which these superpowers could affect the outcome and save the day. I woke up better, too.

Okay, that basically covers my personal psychology at the moment. This is still a blog that tries to help you all get through your writing day. Can this kind of nerd fight help you? Probably, don’t know…not sure.

For those of you that still need to ask how it only took me a few minutes to bust out my four suggestions for how Donut Man actually helps in a real fight I can retort with…at this point I’m an underpaid professional at these kinds of things. Also Known As repetition, repetition, repetition and, you guessed it, repetition. Start slow and small and don’t pop any ligaments. 

Really though, I have to admit that I’d already created a similar character, Captain Cupcake. Due to an almost Bride of Frankenstein origin that doesn’t need further explaining here, she wakes up with the ability to extrude any chemical substance she can imagine married to a voluminous cybernetic database of applied chemistry solutions which can include cooking. So, I’d already gamed out this lady’s ability to lay olive oil or, worse, 10-W-40 motor oil on the steps as the hero team escapes the villain base amid the union-mandated explosions. As a matter of policy, admit when the wheel already exists.  

Not all nerd fights are created equal. The flavor referenced here is the fun kind where we roll up our sleeves and discuss things like how Superhero X teams up with Superheroine Y. Or discuss what the logical consequences of Spandex Story Element A that might’ve been overlooked by the original creators. Or, even to discuss how tired we might be of certain interpretations of certain 80-year-old characters where their core wound/inciting incident gets referenced at every turn when that origin is all over Wikipedia.

You’ll notice the word discuss highlighted three times in the previous paragraph? Talk it out, don’t yell it out. Otherwise, prepare to get kicked out of the store as the friend referenced and promoted in this post has done many times – “you have no idea how many times I’ve actually had to break up real life versions of The Silver Surfer Kirby v. Moebius fight from Crimson Tide.

Above all, I see this kind of nerd fight as a problem-solving exercise that can help with more than the chess game of how powers work. Could someone writing a nut busting family squabble benefit from gaming out that fight and the subsequent make up (or bellyflop from the Ten Meter Platform, if the story is a tragedy)? Maybe. Maybe not…don’t let me tell you your writing process. 

The game out session/nerd fight that we do when we’re alone is visually indistinguishable from going completely insane. But then again, everyone with a cell phone who uses Bluetooth earbuds looks insane until you get close enough to see the technology in their ears. Semi-facetiously, I suggest that either the writer understands about not getting caught and/or this bit of wisdom from The Madness of King George – “I have recovered my ability to seem.” – or they have the discussion with somebody real in the room.

I thank my friend for teeing up a playful snark fest where I get to pop off about a character he created and didn’t think was anything more than a one-note joke. Which then allows me to distract myself from my lingering sadness at a story for which my meager attempts to change had already been recorded…and reveal a tiny bit of my writing process. 

Anyway, reciprocity requires dropping in the link at least twice so that you may enjoy for yourselves. Remember, steal your fun and writing techniques (to the extent they aren’t direct synonyms) wherever you may…