Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Advice about writing can be good or bad so how can you tell the difference?

Today is the one year anniversary of the Insecure Writer's Support Group website. To celebrate, the insecure writers of the world are putting together an anthology. The book's purpose is to assist and encourage other writers on the journey, so they are looking for tips and instruction in the areas of writing, publishing, and marketing. Now, since there is so much of this on the internet already, and I think there is literally nothing I can say that can add to this chorus, I thought I'd write an article on decision-making itself and how a person can separate good advice from bad advice. To be clear, my article here isn't intended for the anthology. Rather it's meant to somehow complement all the advice that's out there by perhaps looking at the giving and receiving of advice in a different light.

In the realm of "advice" I think the word "specious" comes to my mind particularly often. The definition of "specious" is something that has the "ring of truth" but is inherently false, and it's been my observation that all of us are guilty of accepting specious advice because of a thing called "confirmation bias."
Now, if you don't know what this is, "confirmation bias" happens in those moments where everything you see seems to confirm your wisdom. It occurs because of a misconception that your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis when in truth...your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions. Don't take my word for it, but take what Terry Pratchett has to say through his character Lord Vetinari from The Truth: a novel of Discworld:
"Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things...well, new things aren't what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don't want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds...Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true."

So I guess if I have any advice to give with regard to accepting advice from others (writing or otherwise), it is this: be skeptical of anything that promises to solve a problem especially if it fits your existing ideology. Instead, consider examining the advice using a method outlined by Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson in Psychology Today and see if it stands up to the following conditions/questions:

1) Is the advice true? Is there evidence that supports a conclusion?
2) Does the advice have actionable steps that can be reproduced by anyone? Take a recipe as an example. If you follow a recipe exactly, you will always end up with the same thing. If you apply this to say...publishing advice...and follow the steps someone has outlined exactly then you should be able to arrive at the same conclusion. If not, then the advice is probably bad.
3) Consider the source and what their agenda might be (if any).

Basically, what I'm saying is to be careful of taking advice that comes from such an ambiguous cloudy thing as "personal experience," especially if the personal experience is not framed properly. No two situations are ever alike, but with a proper frame job you can at least understand not just what worked but why it worked in the first place.

Monday, September 29, 2014

In Outlander time has consequence above and beyond just changing the past to divert the future

I think (for me) the Starz series called Outlander has perfect pacing. Events have been unfolding for Claire at a nice pace ever since she arrived in 18th century Scotland, and she's managed to go from being a woman suspected of being an English spy to one that's married to a handsome young Scot and has earned the loyalty of those who originally shunned her. And in this, I suppose there was some irony because Claire may have earned a portion of that trust by drinking from a magical spring, which legend says would have swollen her throat shut were she to utter a single lie during questioning. I say "irony" because I could tell that Claire didn't believe that a spring could have such properties, even though a circle of cairn stones at Craigh na Dun hurled her through time. It's interesting how she can pick and choose her superstitions when profound evidence that magic is real exists in her own life.

Even without having read Diana Gabaldon's books, it was easy to see that Claire and Jamie Fraser were destined to end up together. But I've absolutely loved the way in which it happened, seemingly as organic as two people first becoming friends and then finding something more a little further in the relationship. Starz even spent an entire episode on the wedding, going through the three demands that Jamie met in order to take his bride: 1) he wanted a real priest to marry them 2) he expected a ring to be made from a key (primarily the "bow" part of a key, which in itself taught me that a medieval key consists of a "blade" and a "bow," and 3) Claire would need the finest dress that they could get on short notice.

Instead of being some horrible plot device to save Claire from the evil "Black Jack" Randall, Jamie's insistence on details for his wedding turned the whole affair into one of the most romantic things I've ever seen. There was even courtship, with an exchange between the two of them that occurred after their wedding that went from Jamie telling Claire all about his lineage to their making love for the first time, to getting food and wine, and more sex, and well...yeah. It was pretty great considering that it could have been pretty awful. But maybe the true magic of the series is Claire, probably the best heroine I've come to enjoy in what seems like ages. Claire has this ability to see the worst of circumstances in the best light, and it's rather wonderful to see what she'll do next to get herself out of a situation. Or in the case of the cliffhanger ending of the mid-season finale, what luck will bring her when she is completely out of options and she's played her best hand only to fail miserably.

The most tense part of last night's mid-season finale though was Claire realizing she was just a hop, a skip, and a jump away from the pile of rocks that we can only assume will whisk her back to her own time period if she can only touch the center rock. Her husband in the future was at the stones at the same time on film, just about to leave when he heard her voice calling to him from the rocks. As romantic and tense as this seems, one thing I'm a little mystified with is the whole time travel mechanic going on here. It would appear that both timelines (Claire's future and her past) are moving at the same pace. So when she does eventually make it back to her timeline, whatever time that she's spent in the past will have passed for her in her future (essentially making her a "missing" person). It's an interesting mechanic because it means that time has consequence above and beyond the meddling one can do in the past that forges a divergent future. As far as time travel devices go, the rocks at Craigh na Dun are pretty stingy in this respect because if you're able to send someone into the past to live a different life, the least you could do when that journey's over is deposit them in the exact time in which they left so that (to an outside observer) you've only been gone a second. But doing it this way, Claire leaves a trail of broken hearts and broken men no matter "when" she goes.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Big Hero 6 shows that Disney is willing to give it another go with diversity in its films. I hope it does really well.

Is it possible that Disney finally got the message that diversity in its films is actually good? The newest film from the animation studio is Big Hero 6, and from the looks of it I'm going to like it. However, as my taste doesn't necessarily predict "blockbuster" status, I'll simply say that I think the trailer is amazing even if it never conquers the records smashed by Frozen (which left me somewhat nonplussed). Guys, I'm seriously doing a happy dance that I'm seeing Asians, Blacks, and all kinds of people of color in this show. What a breath of fresh air.

So the main character is a tech wizard (and a boy) by the name of Hiro. So yeah...an Asian kid that's also a nerd. Nice right? When Hiro's brother dies, he inherits a robotic helper named Baymax. For the rest, I think you should just take a couple minutes and watch the trailer and decide for yourself. I think its filled with funny lines and images and seems to have that uplifting feeling that I like when I watch movies of this nature. And it's fun that Baymax is fat and basically serving in the role of "hero." I like that. It almost makes me want to "clutch the pearls."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Absorbing Man, Agent Carter, and Lucy Lawless all battle it out for screen time in the season two premiere of Agents of SHIELD

Agents of Shield's second season took off with a blast last night. It was fun to see Lucy Lawless; the last time I saw her she was playing a human-looking cylon in the very good reboot of Battlestar Galactica (that was many years ago). Now she's got a role on Agents, although from what I can tell by the end of the episode, she must have only landed a one-time gig. That's too bad. However, Marvel has a history of retconning and resurrecting so much that one can say this of the following movies:

X-Men 2: Jean dies, but not really
X-Men: TLS: Charles dies, but not really
Thor: Loki dies, but not really
Captain America: Bucky dies, but not really
Avengers: Phil dies, but not really
Iron Man 3: Pepper dies, but not really
Thor 2: Loki dies (again), but not really
Captain America 2: Nick dies, but not really
X-Men: DOFP: Everyone dies, but not really

So I'm hopeful that Lucy isn't dead, but it may be too late to start a "Save Lucy" campaign. Additionally, we got treated to a taste of Agent Carter. Set to star in her own series soon, if you don't recall who Agent Carter is, she's the broad that Captain America fell in love with in the 1930's. We got a little more of her history in Captain America 2, and apparently she was quite influential in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s early days. Alas, a Captain America / Agent Carter hookup was just not meant to be /sniffle.
But most surprising (for me at least) was seeing Absorbing Man. This guy's a supervillain that's battled both Hulk and Thor (he was also one of my favorite HeroClix when I used to play HeroClix). This isn't the first time you've seen Absorbing Man either (if you call yourself a Marvel fan). Ang Lee treated us to his take on absorbing man in the very bad "Hulk" film with Eric Bana. But in case you didn't see that movie then you might be asking: who is Absorbing Man? That's a good question.

I just want to say that I think his history is pretty creative. Absorbing Man's real name is Carl Creel. He was a boxer and jailed criminal who becomes Absorbing Man when he drinks a liquid he got from Loki. It allows him to absorb the properties of anything he touches, so usually he carries around a ball and chain or a diamond. Most of the time, he's defeated by being tricked into changing his atomic structure to other things. At one point he helped Loki take over Asgard and they both ended up getting banished to outer space. Absorbing Man returned to Earth on a comet and ended up battling the Hulk (who was sent to divert the comet).

So in last night's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. we met up with Carl Creel who was on Shield's termination list because he's part of Hydra. And now he's got a "0-8-4" which is essentially S.H.I.E.L.D. speak for something incredibly badass.

Monday, September 22, 2014

One of the most memorable events of my life occurred last night when a complete stranger paid my bill

Something happened last night that has never happened to me before, and it was wonderful. My friend Adam is having a birthday today, so I took him and my friend Meg out to a fancy restaurant where we ordered a really nice Kobe beef ribeye dinner, mint-infused lemonade, creme brulee with a side of Chambord (a raspberry liqueur) and some chocolate mousse (Adam's choice). When it came time to pay the bill, the server said, "There is no bill tonight as the gentleman over there with his family heard that someone was having a birthday at this table and has paid for everything."

I was in shock. Our bill was well over a hundred dollars, and seriously, this kind of thing has never happened to me. Ever. He came over a little later and we thanked him profusely and his own table had six laughing people at it (he kind of reminded me a little of Tony Soprano). I couldn't figure out why someone would do something like this other than to be incredibly nice to another person or group of people through a completely selfless act.

The effect this event has had on me is that I suppose I should be less cynical. I've gotten into this pathos of behavior where I think everybody in this world wants something from you. Certainly, watching American Greed on CNBC has gone a long way to sour my trust in humanity. But what this complete stranger did on a modest Sunday night in December kind of blew me away. It was very classy and made me realize that there is much good in this world.

I think this week is the start of a great last quarter for 2014. I don't put much stock into the whole idea behind "everything happens for a reason," but I have to admit that my whole outlook on life has been reset and I hope that the "zen" lasts. In any case, it has become one of the most memorable events of my life.

Has a complete stranger ever paid your bill at a restaurant or bar without ever asking for anything? 

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Maze Runner is a dark edge of your seat apocalyptic film with a very likeable cast

The Maze Runner movie is a lot darker than I thought it was going to be. And when I say that, I mean it's darker than The Hunger Games (which is surprising). I went last night with my friend Adam. Intrigued with the premise of mazes (and who doesn't like a good maze?); the entire time I watched it I kept thinking, "What could have possibly built this thing?" Adam must have been thinking the same thing because at one point he leaned over and said, "At least we know what Google has been doing with its money." Because seriously...it would have taken resources like the kind Google commands in order to build this maze of towering, movable walls.

I really enjoyed this film. The attractive cast aside, I felt that it revealed things perfectly. Not too much, not all at once. The characters see the maze the same as you or I would see it. First comes disorientation. A bit later is wonder, awe, and terror...all the time asking "Where am I?" and "Are my eyes deceiving me? Are those really 300 foot walls? Am I contained in a box? Who would put me in a box?" It's this element that lends the film a very "Attack on Titan" feel to it as you get the immediate impression that those walls may bar you from exiting, but they also protect you from something on the other side. Something of which you should be afraid. Something sinister and evil.

And that's where a good deal of the terror in this movie comes from. The idea that you are trapped, but to break free means to risk everything. After all, life in the center of the maze isn't too bad. You've got camaraderie among a group of compassionate young men, you've seemingly got enough food, and you've got enough resources to live. I went into this thing thinking that the story (or the author) might try to do a spin on Lord of the Flies, where young people/children end up being absolutely terrible to each other. But that isn't the case at all. Each of the characters seemed to legitimately care for the welfare of the others, and because of that, there was plenty to like in these characters as you rooted for them to get through this seemingly impossible maze filled with horrific monsters.

I am intrigued by the "big reveal" and want to know more. The ending is left wide open for a sequel, and (warning) there is an "info dump" that comes with the climax. Yes, you do get some answers about the maze, but I won't share them with you here. In that aspect, The Maze Runner is no different from its company among the YA Titans of the world. I just hope it does well enough in the box office that a sequel is greenlit. If not, then I guess I'll have to read James Dashner's books. Meh, I probably will anyway.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A survivor's guide to what you can expect from Marvel's Age of Ultron from a speculator's point of view

With Disney's announcement yesterday of the Avengers 2: Age of Ultron synopsis (you can read it HERE), I thought I'd talk about The Vision because he's one of three newly anticipated characters that we'll be meeting in the new movie next year (you got a taste of Quicksilver from Fox's X-Men: Days of Future Past).

The Vision looks human, but wears a green cap thing that matches his green "skin-tight" one piece (do they call this a onesy?). He has a red face, wears yellow gloves and boots, and sports a yellow cape. He's going to be played by Paul Bettany who's been heard and not seen in the Iron Man movies (as the voice of the computer J.A.R.V.I.S.) as well as being in a number of high profile films (DaVinci Code, Master and Commander). It's going to be puzzling to hear him as J.A.R.V.I.S. in Iron Man's helmet while he's also The Vision (I wonder if there's going to be a connection??). I say this last part in parenthesis because "The Vision" is an android (think Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation).
This poster for the Age of Ultron movie has way too many Ultrons.
The robot Ultron is who creates "The Vision" in the first place (keep in mind that Ultron was created by Dr. Hank Pym who is Ant-Man. The whole reason for "The Vision" was to lead the Avengers into a trap. Of course, the Avengers manage to convince The Vision to turn against their master and join their ranks.

The Vision is described as being every inch a human being except that all of his bodily organs are synthetic. The solar jewel on his forehead absorbs ambient solar energy to power his whole body, he can discharge energy as optic beams that include infrared and microwave radiation, and he can manipulate his density so that he can fly and phase with walls or the earth. This, or to gain superhuman strength, immovability, or the invulnerability of a diamond-hard substance. He could also phase a hand into your chest and then partially re-materialize it to put his hand literally around your heart. Honestly this whole "phasing" thing is as powerful as the writers want to make it. Vision can phase with other universes or other dimensions to pull in mass and essentially become as heavy or as gravity intense as he wants to be).

In the comics, Captain America teaches him unarmed combat. Aside from that, The Vision has the android mind capabilities of information processing. Nice, right? I'll take all the information available on Google for $100, Alex. So yeah, The Vision is really really smart. And from what I understand about the Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Vision may develop a thing for the Scarlet Witch (another new character). In the comics, he reproduced with her, so yeah, there is at least a precedence to my speculation. But I think Marvel loves it when we all speculate on things, hence the "broken shield" prop that was unveiled at San Diego Comic Con. What the hell does this mean?
I'm assuming that Ultron cracks it, but how Vibranium gets cracked is beyond me (it's indestructible). Now, the last time that this happened was also in an Age of Ultron comic book crossover. Here's a panel from it for you to examine: 
And then there's the image of Captain America without hope, sitting in a corner with his head down. This'll be a great scene for Chris Evans to do. I just hope Black Widow or Iron Man gets him to snap out of it. I can totally hear Robert Downey, Jr. picking up where Hudson left off in Aliens proclaiming "We're F*cked!" but meaning it in a fun way meant to drive someone who is obviously in a funk out of that hopeless funk.
What I'm hoping they DON'T do is get the Scarlet Witch to pull a "Twilight" esque vision where the Avengers see a possible future where Ultron rules everything and they see Captain America's shield all broken. That would be cheesy. But then again, stating that something is made of a material that can't be broken only to break it to demonstrate the power of something is the cheese from which all comics are made of. The thing is...we keep buying it in buttloads. Of course, we could get Thanos to pop in and destroy the shield. He's done it before:
Click to EMBIGGEN
However, if Cap's shield does get broken then there's only one place in the Marvel Universe where you can go to get it fixed and that's Wakanda, home of the Black Panther. This means (of course) that we'll finally get a black guy in a major starring role in one of the seriously white-washed Marvel films. Yay for diversity. Anyways, here's a toast to speculation in all of its wonderfulness.