April 28, 2013

The Book Was Better

Stolen from http://themovieblog.com 
There is a lot of anticipation surrounding the movie The Great Gatsby, which is due to hit the silver screen for the fourth time on May 10th, and within hours of its first viewing we are certain to hear a chorus of reviews.

Like this:

  • "What a great movie!" 
    - People Who Think Leonardo DiCaprio is Cute

Or maybe this:

  • "It wasn't as good as the TV movie in 2000 with Mira Sorvino and Paul Rudd."
    - People Who Like to Watch TV Movies

Or possibly this:

  • "It wasn't as good as the movie in 1974 with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford."
    - People Older Than 50 / People Who Don't Like Leonardo DiCaprio

Probably not this, but you never know:

  • "It wasn't as good as the movie in 1949 /1926."
    - People Who Like Old Movies

I am going out on a limb here and predicting that the most common review you're going to hear is this:

I have to (shamefully) admit that I have not read the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but in general terms I'm okay with the assessment that movie versions of books aren't as good as the books themselves. I also don't think it's a fair comparison to make because movies are working with a handicap.

A handicap you say? How do you figure? With all the money and star power and marketing and technology at their disposal, how is it possible that they could be at a disadvantage? It's actually quite simple: for all the things movies have going for them, when you get right down to it the advantages are finite. There's only so much money, so many special effects, and only a couple hours to work with to tell the story...

Movies have limitations, imagination does not. 

At the end of the day, the reader constructs their own set of images and all the subtleties and nuances that make the characters and their environment real are (for the most part) in control of the reader. This holds especially true for books where the writer does a particularly good job of showing the reader what's happening without forcing them what to see.

I have never considered myself to be an avid reader (hell, I haven't read The Great Gatsby), but before I traded Homer and Shakespeare for Newton and Einstein I enjoyed it quite a lot. I was, however, absolutely fascinated with movies. I worked in a movie store for several years, took a film class in high school, and at last count (two decades ago) had watched over 5,000 full-length feature films. After all that film watching there is one that, for me, shows that behind every great movie is a great writer. That movie is Pulp Fiction.

Stolen from http://wallsave.com 
The screenplay for Pulp Fiction is an absolute pleasure to read and I'm certain that had it been a book it would have been a great one. Maybe not an all time classic but a spectacular work of writing nonetheless. Even still, I can't help but think that Pulp Fiction is at its absolute best as a movie. It's one example I can think of that showed me the limitations of my imagination.

As it turns out, Pulp Fiction was up for Best Picture with two movies that the Huffington Post lists as being better than their literary originals: Shawshank Redemption and Forrest Gump (the latter getting the Oscar nod). So while it seems possible for a film to rise to the occasion, I would assert that it's an uphill climb that gets even steeper for books that history has deemed "great". Would you put Shawshank Redemption or Forrest Gump in this category? I can't say for sure because I haven't read those books either(!) - but Modern Library doesn't - and neither do the readers they polled. This according to their 100 Best Novels list.

It's worth noting that those readers have 7 of their top 10 books written by either Ayn Rand (4) or L. Ron Hubbard (3), and neither of those two names appear in Modern Library's Top 100, so clearly there's a difference between what the "experts" think and the general public thinks. One thing these two groups can agree on is that The Great Gatsby is a really good book (ML's board ranking it at #2 and their readers ranking it at #13). So, will the latest edition of the movie hold up?

I doubt it.

What I do know is that I should read the book and I'm definitely going to see the movie - and I'll probably enjoy both to a certain degree - but for very different reasons.

~ Andrew

April 21, 2013

Recipe for Disaster

It starts with the idea that anyone with an internet connection can go and find instructions on how to make a bomb with a common kitchen appliance. Sadly, this idea isn't new. The information has existed for decades, but the technological age in which we live makes this information all too easy to obtain. You would be right to think that there must be violent motivations behind the desire to create such a device and put it to use, but that's not always the case. 

There's a company in the U.S. currently publishing blueprints that you can simply plug into a 3D printer and then print yourself restricted parts for firearms, like the lower receiver for an AR-15 assault rifle. When asked about what his thoughts were on the fact that this was one step closer to anyone being able to manufacture a gun that could pass freely thought a metal detector the co-owner of the company, Cody Wilson, replied:

"I think there’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing in a moral sense. We’re pursuing what we think is a step toward liberty..."

The first time I was exposed to the question of social responsibility when it came to published material was in high school. There was a rumour floating around that someone in the school had acquired a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook and people were freaking out! Well the adults were, but the students, they just wanted to see something blow up. Several years after publication the author of the book had a change of heart and wrote the publisher requesting it be taken out of print. Due to the manner in which the copyright was assigned (to the publisher, not the author) the author was told that that wasn't going to happen. William Powell, says of his infamous book:

"The central idea to the book was that violence is an acceptable means to bring about political change. I no longer agree with this."

While I applaud William Powell's change of heart, the content is still readily available and it continues to promote violence. You can't un-ring a bell. But this isn't a post about gun control or anti-terrorism (though I happen to feel that both of those things are generally a good idea). All of the above are examples of content that's driven by an agenda (terrorism, civil liberties, political protest). But what about when the agenda is simply to entertain? What happens when a work of fiction becomes the Anarchist Cookbook for the sociopath living next door? 

This is a question that recently popped into my head when I was driving to work and listening to Metallica's Nothing else Matters. For whatever reason, a spectacularly disturbing scene popped in my head as the song played. I imagined it as a soundtrack playing over the events as they unfolded, the main character singing along as he committed heinous acts of evil and atrocity. If I think about it, there's nothing unique about what I envisioned - I'm sure several movies, televisions shows, or books have captured the essence of this scene several hundred times over - but when the song ended I paused my music and drove the rest of the way in silence thinking to myself, What is this crazy serial killer's motivation? What would drive this individual to commit such unspeakable acts of violence?

Before long, I had established a back story for my antagonist, the motivations behind his actions, and a suitable ending that, depending on which way I want the story to go, could either please readers or make them scream in frustration (i.e. getting caught or getting away with it). Once I had these ideas in place, and after a day's worth of work of thinking about something else, I was left to ponder, What if any of this were to be used by someone in real life? 

Part of me thinks it's ridiculous to worry that a work of fiction would end up driving someone to act on it, but it happens all the time. It's not in the same as distributing bomb making instructions or blueprints for restricted gun parts but is the fact that the book is labelled as fiction enough? I would like to think so, but at the same time I still feel somewhat responsible of making sure that it's crystal clear I'm talking bullshit for your enjoyment and that it's not a how-to manual or some demented personal wish list. I suspect a lot of artists struggle with this, but I'm not really sure.

Anyway, at the end of the day I can always get Bono to step in and make things right.

~ Andrew

April 14, 2013


If you follow my tweets, have me as a friend on Facebook, are part of the super secret society private group for crazy people writers on Facebook, or read this blog, then you are aware that I wrote a short story a while back based on the loss of someone close to me and submitted it for publication in an anthology that was being put together to help out a writer friend. The proceeds of this book are going to "Orange" Karen DeLabar and you can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and the Internets.

This week, on April 11th to be exact, the anthology finally made its first public appearance and the response has been amazing. So many people, and not just friends and family either, have picked up the book - in some cases several copies. Readers Digest's Most Trustworthy writer, Margaret Atwood, even re-tweeted a link!

It's hard to put into words what it feels like to be a part of something like this (but that won't stop me from trying).

The Orange Karen Anthology represents my first publication, and that's a really big deal. Seeing my name on the back cover of a book is a amazing feeling and one that's completely surreal. The story I wrote was one that was really close to me (write what you know, right?) and over the last couple weeks I have re-read it numerous times, read some of it out loud for R.B. Woods' "Word Count" podcast, and shared my story and the link to the book with hundreds of people: friends, family, co-workers, random strangers in the Twitterverse and Facebook, and the lady whose kid takes piano lessons at the same time as my kids' guitar lessons.

Suffice it to say I'm a little emotional.

One thing I have going for me is I know I'm not alone in what I'm feeling. Many of the other people involved have expressed how overwhelmingly emotional it is to be a part of this. Back in January I posted an open letter to writers. The catalyst for that post was largely due to personal experiences some of my writer friends were having at the time and the key takeaway was that to be a writer one of the things you need is a good support group. Based on what I've seen in the past few days it's clear that the people who put the anthology together, the contributing authors, and Karen herself have one of the most amazing support networks you could ever ask for.

It's moments like these that convince me that there may be hope for humanity after all.

This is the most round about, disjointed, gushy, thank you post you can imagine, but as I mentioned a minute ago I'm a little emotional, so cut me some slack. Knowing that Ryan's story is helping Karen have a happier ending to her story is what this is about, and I wanted to let as many people as possible know how much I appreciate it.

I'm reading the anthology in its entirety now and I have to say there are some pretty amazing stories in there (mine is titled "Losing Vern"). If you haven't picked up a copy already I would highly recommend you do.

~ Andrew

*As a note, if you pick of a paper copy from the link above it results in the best royalty payment (that goes straight to Karen's medical bills). This is not a hard sell, just an FYI. If you pick up the eBook you still qualify for the group hug from the organizers and contributing authors.

^ If you own a Kobo and need the book for that format please contact me for a solution.

April 07, 2013

Dude Writes Like A Lady

One of the most difficult things to do is to set aside all that you are and pretend to be somebody else. Actors do it all the time, and the really good ones even convince themselves they have made a complete transformation. Writers do it all the time as well, only there are times when they have the added complication of trying to convince the reader that they're pretending to be someone of a different gender as well.

Yes, there are cases where female actors have played male characters and vice versa, but the list of movies where the viewer is unaware that it's all a fa├žade is pretty small and films have the benefit of a team of makeup and special effects artists to help with the transition. The unknown screen writer (in gender, and in many cases name as well) has all of that support to help in the world to help pull it off. The fiction writer though? Well, all they have are their words, and I have got to tell you... it's a challenge.

The reader should know everything there is to know about the character if we want them to be mentally invested. That means that when writing from the characters point of view (POV) they need to observe, act, and think just like the character would. If the character is a teenage girl arguing with her boyfriend then the writer has to find a way to be convincing enough that it doesn't distract the reader. To go back to our acting friends, this would be akin to actually conveying anger instead of just yelling angry words.

Most of the time we have some context before we start to read a book. I can pick up Harry Potter knowing that J.K. Rowling is a lady. As such I'd be willing to fill in the gaps and suspend disbelief for a bit if the character wasn't enough like my expectation of the dude. But what about if you knew nothing about the writer? Do you think you'd be able to tell if they were a dude or a lady? I would argue that you would a very large percentage of the time.

Hey, this sounds like the perfect time to run an experiment. To the lab!!!

The scene is this: Someone (a man or a woman) is walking through a park. Can you tell which of these were written by a dude and which were written by a lady?
  • Paragraph 1:

  • Paragraph 2:

  • Paragraph 3:

  • Paragraph 4:

My daughter reads a lot. She's 10 coming up on 11 and currently into the Angie Sage "Septimus Heap" novels. If I were to do a count I'd bet she's read more lady authors than dude authors by four or five times. She also hasn't been corrupted by decades upon decades of gender inequality and stereotypes so I decided to have her take a crack at reading the paragraphs above. The result? She was able to pick the gender of the writer correctly in three out of the four (she didn't get the last one. Well done author #4!)

Personally, I think it's easier for ladies to write dude characters than it is for dudes to write lady characters. I attribute this to nothing more than the fact that most men are absolutely clueless as to what goes on inside the mind of a woman (this is not new) and as such are at a disadvantage when it comes to putting themselves in that POV.

I manage this problem by simply not using the female POV when I write. Is that a good solution? Nope, but it's all I've got. I'm 80% through my first draft of my first novel so I'm okay if I don't have this particular skill in my tool kit. It will come in due time. Speaking of which, I am writing a short story that's a little bit on the saucy side in which I will have to get inside the mind of a woman (while she - and on occasion her partner - gets into her pants). So far it's not going that well. Of course, if I could do that any better I'd probably be in a different profession.

~ Andrew

Oh, for those who want to know, here are our writers:
And just for fun, here's some Aerosmith:

April 01, 2013

The Big Reveal

Well the guesses are in and we have a winner!
Thanks to everyone who stopped by to have a read and congratulations to Stephanie Fuller for correctly picking out which one of these was a complete and total lie. Stephanie, just send me an email with the pictures you want (up to 10) from Andrew's Alphabet and I'll get them to you right away.
Of course, because I'm sneaky (or just a jerk - you decide) I've decided not to directly reveal which answer is bunk. Instead, I've made all the choices clickable and upon doing so, the choice will expand to reveal a brief story about the item. The false one will be appropriately labelled (and in red text).
Of course, if you want to just go back to the original post and check to see which one Stephanie picked you can do that too :)
Without further delay. Here are the facts (and one lie):
  1. I have scored a game winning goal at Maple Leaf Gardens
  2. I have assisted Penn & Teller on stage with one of their tricks (Mofo the Psychic Gorilla)
  3. I have been paid as a freelance writer to provide original content to a video game
  4. I have had a 1 minute conversation and spoken five scripted words on a nationally broadcasted television show (US and Canada) 
    1. The episode aired more than once and I have been recognized by at least one complete stranger for this appearance
    2. It was 20 years before I saw it
  5. I have played, and won, hockey games on both the 1932 and 1980 Olympic hockey rinks in Lake Placid New York 
  6. I have had a 500 word anecdote selected for inclusion in a Darwin Awards book
    1. In the first printing (hard cover) they incorrectly spelled my name
  7. I have stood in the room where Winston Churchill was born
  8. One summer in Europe was spent working as a groundskeeper for a Canadian embassy
  9. I have had a 5000 word short story selected for inclusion (and soon to be published) in an anthology
  10. I have appeared as a street fighting bum in a rap music video
  11. I have eaten snake soup
  12. I was once qualified to instruct both flat water canoeing and small vessel sailing
  13. I once stayed awake for over 100 consecutive hours
  14. I have appeared in a TV commercial for a financial institution (singing & texting - but no talking)
  15. I have been a teacher's assistant for English as a Second Language children (ages 6-10) with behavioural problems
    1. This job was a block away from the most crime riddled area of Canada's largest city
  16. I have broken or cracked the following bones: toe beside the big one on the left foot, left foot, left ankle, left tibia, left arm (radius AND ulna), left pinky and middle fingers (separate breaks), several ribs, right ankle, right wrist, right pinky finger, nose, head (stiches), and brain (more than 4 concussions)
  17. I have driven my car to the publicized geographic longitudinal centre of Canada
  18. Last year of high school I did not take notes or use anything but a pencil to write assignments/tests in calculus.  I got 94%.  Last year of university I studied more for my Calculus 3 course than any other subject.  I got 51%
    1. In school, we covered in 3 lectures (9 hours) what took Isaac Newton over 20 years to uncover and write down (granted, he had other things going on).
~ Andrew