And Then There Were Two

Since I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year because I’m still knee deep in working on the first book of the Unari Empire Trilogy, I figured now was a good time to let y’all in on some exciting developments with the book.

First and foremost – it has a title! A working title, at least. Right now the first book in the trilogy is going to be Gods of the Empire. That should be followed by Widows of the Empire and, finally, Heroes of the Empire. Subject to change, of course, but it’s a far sight better than Untitled.

Second, the trilogy has been reshaped somewhat (again). My original plan was to have three main characters whose stories developed through the three books. After doing a lot more writing, I’ve decided to cut one of those characters out, for the most part. He has a role to play in the end of things, so he’ll make an appearance, but I ultimately decided not to make him a main character. It will help keep the word count in the right area and, I hope, sharpen the story a bit by narrowing the focus. He’ll get a stand-alone short story to flesh out his background, eventually.

That means that . . . third – the complete first draft is finally done! Recall that I had what was going to be book one of seven done before restructuring it into a trilogy. Now I’ve written a draft of the second half of the first book, so after a couple of editing passes to bring it up to speed with the first half I will have a good, solid base to start a more holistic edit of Gods of the Empire.

If all goes according to plan, I should have a finished product in the first half of 2019.

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Off I go!

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Author Interview – Natalie Sypolt

After a little hiatus we’re back with West Virginia short story writer Natalie Sypolt.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m Natalie Sypolt. I live in Preston County, West Virginia and I teach at Pierpont Community & Technical College. I also run the high school portion of the West Virginia Writers Workshop, held each summer at WVU. I write primarily short fiction set in Appalachia.

What is it about West Virginia (or Appalachia more generally) that makes it such good fodder for stories? Is it because it’s home or something else?

I think for me I write about West Virginia and Appalachia because it is what I know, what is in my heart. Any place can be fodder for story. I also think it is important to write about this region–to show the stories and lives of people who may not get the spotlight much (or who get it only for certain, usually unfortunate and sometimes completely wrong, reasons). No one ever asks why a story is set in NYC or LA. Those just seem like natural choices. WV is a natural choice for me, and when I talk to young writers, I try to get them to see that they can tell an important story and set it here, where they know. They don’t  have to set their work in a metropolitan city for it to be taken seriously.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

My first book, The Sound of Holding Your Breath, is out in November from WVU Press. It is a collection of short stories. All are set in West Virginia. I am currently completing my second book, which is a collection of linked stories, also mostly set in West Virginia.

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Which story in The Sound of Holding Your Breath is your favorite or means the most to you? Why?

I don’t know that I can really name a “favorite”. I do really feel close to “My Brothers and Me”. I wrote that story all in one setting after a summer of local news stories involving domestic violence and partner murder/suicides. It felt important and necessary. I also really love the last story in the collection, “Stalking the White Deer”, because I wrote it at Hindman and then had the story published in Appalachian Heritage, which had always been a goal publication.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

I primarily write fiction. I’ve always been a great reader, since I was a child, and I think I first started writing as a way to enter into the stories I loved.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

Honestly, process is not something I think a lot about in my own work. Most writers I know do, and I respect that a lot, but for me I don’t have a set “process” that I follow every time I write a story. Usually, I will have thought about the story—or at least the start of a story—for a long time before I ever put words to paper. If I’m writing a short story, I most love to write it all in one setting so that the voice and energy stay the same. I often will start by writing by hand—a couple paragraphs or a page or so—and then switch over to a computer once I’ve gotten started.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

 I don’t know that I can name a favorite character.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

 I love research, so I guess nothing would ever seem too weird to me. Most of my stories, though, are pretty realistic and set here, in the world that I best know. One of my more recent stories, though (not in this current book) does take place partially in Ireland. I knew I wanted to have the main character visit the Cliffs of Mohr and that she’d had a situation that involved a loved one attempting suicide. When I’d been at the Cliffs a year before, I had wondered if people came there to kill themselves—a morbid thought, yes, but it is ridiculously easy to reach the edge. So, when writing this story, I did a little research on this and discovered that the Cliffs of Mohr is close to the top of this list of suicide locations in Ireland. I then fell down a depressing rabbit hole of research that did end up in the story.

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What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Oh, boy. Well, a lot of things. I think the most important thing I learned after making myself miserable in grad school is that my voice is just as important as anyone else’s. Just because someone talks louder doesn’t mean that they’re right, especially when it comes to my writing. I learned to trust myself more, and to worry about what other people thought a little less.

Do you have your work read by beta readers or others before it becomes final? How do you handle that feedback while trying to “worry what other people thought a little less”?

It depends. Sometimes I will send a story to my friend Melissa, who I went to graduate school with. We’re very good readers for one another and I trust her explicitly. (She, by the way, is embarking on a year long road trip in which she will visit all 50 states in a camper van–follow her at EdgyontheRoad.com.). More often, though, I don’t show anyone. That’s a bad answer, and I should do more workshopping, but I just don’t. I’ve learned to trust myself, and that has to be enough for now. I would not mind having a writer’s group someday, though.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

Well, I would maybe not have to work quite as much, which would be nice. Having some structured time is good, though, and nothing really structures time as much as having a job.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

This is a great question for me because I love talking about books. Within the last couple of years I have discovered the novels of William Gay. I had read some of his short fiction in school but had no idea how great his novels are. They are dark and creepy, but also have this beating heart of humanity. I also read We Have Always Lived at the Castle by Shirley Jackson (who is best known for “The Lottery”) and was totally blown away. So, so good. As for contemporary writers that I am in love with right now: I really enjoy the work of Michele Young-Stone who writes these magical realism stories that I could never write but love to read and think about. I also liked Silas House’s latest novel, Southernmost.

What do you think your next project will be?

As I said, I’m finishing the first draft of my linked collection. I have also started writing a novel set in West Virginia and loosely based on a family story that my grandfather told me.

Why did you decide to make your second book a collection of linked stories? How has the need to link them together made writing them different from the stories in your current book? 

 In my head, everything is already connected. That’s how my brain works. Even though my current book isn’t called a linked collection, I imagine all those people inhabiting the same world, living as neighbors or family members. I think that the idea for the linked stories started several years ago when Melissa and I decided we were going to write linked collection together–she’d write one story, and then I’d write one to respond to it. That idea didn’t really work out, but I just kept going with the same characters. I also found that it was easier to write when I sat down to work or when I went to a writer’s retreat if I already had a project underway. I could just enter back into the project with a new story.

Learn more about Natalie at her website.

Have Fun Storming the NaNo!

It’s November, which means it’s also National Novel Writing Month!

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I’ve participated in NaNo several times over the years, but I’m sitting this one out. Not because I’m not writing, but because I’m still knee deep in working on the first book of the Unari Trilogy. I’m just not in a good spot to start something new right now.

But, to all of you participating in NaNoWriMo, whether you’re at it for the first time or you’re a seasoned veteran – good luck! Fifty thousand words are only a month away!

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“Killer Queen” – A Short Story

Once again, author Eric Douglas has invited other writers to do some short fiction for Halloween. Once again there’s no word limit or target, so naturally my entry this year is twice as long as last year’s. You can read that one here, as well as my two prior 100-word entries here and here. And, as always, head over to Eric’s place to check out stories from all the other folks.

Now, without ado – “Killer Queen”


Sanchez wasn’t surprised that there was a crush of onlookers and paparazzi when she arrived. A bloody murder at the Calabria Club was just the kind of thing that got social media in an uproar. She whipped out her badge and used it to cut a swath through the gawkers.

“Evening, detective,” said a young officer. “Quite a scene.”

“Nothing like what’s inside, from what I’ve heard,” Sanchez said, slipping under the crime scene tape.

“It ain’t pretty.”

She already knew the basics. They didn’t make any sense, so she did her best to put them out of her mind. She wanted to view the crime scene with the freshest eyes possible.

The Calabria Club was the kind of small, hip club Sanchez could never hope to get into. She imagined it was usually all dim lights and pulsing music. Now it was deadly quiet except for the muffled talk of cops and lit as brightly as the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. It was like when you see the person you took home the night before for the first time in the cold light of morning. Never a pretty picture.

The vic was on the floor next to the bar. She was a young woman of indeterminate ethnicity, with long black hair and a short, sparkly silver dress. She lay on her back, hair spread around her head like ink spilled from a well.

Most of her face was gone.

Sanchez leaned down. “Holy shit.”

Doc Forbes, the medical examiner on call, stepped over. “Never seen anything like it.” She pointed to the vic’s throat. “Ripped clear out. I mean, somebody went in with bare hands and literally tore this woman’s throat apart. I’ve seen mob killings, dismemberments, you know? Where they’re sending a message? Never anything like this.” She shivered and walked away.

Sanchez had never seen anything like it, either. The vic’s face was a mess of blood and torn flesh. In a couple of spots Sanchez could even see bone. The vic’s throat was nothing more than a dark, damp chasm where her windpipe had been.

Sanchez shook her head. There was another officer nearby. “There’s a perp, I understand?”

He nodded to a back room.

Sanchez thanked him and headed behind the bar, toward the back office. She knocked and let herself in.

“I don’t believe it,” was the only thing Sanchez could say. “Twitter was right.”

Stina Blomgren, the up and coming model and social media star, sat slumped in a chair, flanked by a pair of officers. Her hands, caked with blood up past the wrist, lay limp on her lap. Her dress had once been electric blue, but now it was a symphony of arterial red streaks and splashes that would have made Pollock proud. A red smear streaked across her face from her lips, mixing with slowly flowing tears. She was mumbling something Sanchez couldn’t quite make out.

Sanchez tapped Cal Cooney, her partner, on the shoulder. “What happened?”

“We’re getting security footage now,” Cooney whispered, all the while keeping an eye on Stina, “but the witnesses all say that she just went nuts and attacked that girl.”

“Is she a friend? A rival?” Sanchez had a hard time figuring out what could make somebody do that to another human being.

“That we don’t know. She’s not being very helpful, saying ‘something just came over me.’ Over and over, that’s it.” Cooney said. He nodded back over his shoulder. “Stina’s purse is in the next room. Take a look through it, see if there’s anything interesting.”

Sanchez nodded and backed out of the room. In a collection of coats and bags she found a small clutch that matched the dress Stina was wearing. She cleared a spot on the table and dumped the contents out. Out came a state ID card and a couple of credit cards with Stina’s name on them. It was definitely hers. No phone. Maybe somebody in the crowd nicked it. The only other thing of interest was a tube of lipstick.

Sanchez picked it up. The tube was plain white plastic, without any of the design elements she was used to. The only thing on it was a small sticker on the bottom. “Killer Queen,” it said, along with “PINTURA,” the cosmetics company.

“Ooh,” she said. Pintura was so hot these days stores could barely keep it on the shelves. Not that it mattered to Sanchez. This would probably go for at least a sixty, seventy bucks a tube, well out of her reach on a detective’s salary. She popped the top. It was a bright, fiery red, more dazzling than any Sanchez had ever seen, sharp and forceful. It was probably a prototype of some kind, given the plain white tube. One thing was certain – Stina wasn’t going to need it where she was going. It was a shame that it would just wind up rotting in an evidence back somewhere.

Sanchez looked around for moment and, convinced she wasn’t seen, slipped the tube into her pocket. One of the perks of the job.

~~~~~

While the Calabria Club Cat Fight, as the press had dubbed it, was bloody and sensational, it was an easy case to put down. The murder had been filmed by multiple security cameras from beginning to end, with a few cell phone videos managing to capture the bloody conclusion. It was just as the witnesses had said – Stina jumped on the victim without provocation and ripped her apart. They didn’t know each other and had barely interacted at the club. Sanchez’s job was to figure out what happened – that was obvious. She’d let the ADAs and their shrinks try to figure out the why. That was above her pay grade, so she moved on to more pleasant things.

Sanchez grabbed her phone and texted Teo, a guy she met on a dating app a couple of weeks back. They’d met once in person, for afternoon coffee, just to check each other out and make sure they weren’t serial killers. He was cute and had been as nervous as she was, so she decided he was okay. She’d also run his name through the databases at the station. Sure, it was against the rules, maybe even illegal, but this wasn’t the kind of thing you took chances with. She was satisfied that Teo wasn’t a criminal, so it was time to push things to the next level.

They agreed to meet for dinner that evening at a small bistro in Sanchez’s neighborhood. She put on her best little black dress, the one that let her show off the curves she had to pretend she didn’t have at work, and grabbed the lipstick she’d taken from Stina’s bag.

She’d gone to the Pintura website to look up the color, but couldn’t find anything called “Killer Queen” in their lineup. That meant it had to be a prototype or early edition. It went on more smoothly than any lipstick she’d ever used. It was as bright red as she’d imagined, like the paint job on a Ferrari. It glistened just a bit, enough to add a thin shine to her lips. She wondered if there was something else in it, as it burned just a bit on her lips. It was like one of those Aztec chocolates that warms up the back of your mouth just as the chocolate flavor dies off. It wasn’t painful, just odd.

~~~~~

She and Teo sat at the bar and had a drink while they waited for their table to be ready, making small talk. He knew she was a cop, but not yet that she worked homicide. It was too early for her to tell stories of blood, bullets, and ripped apart families. Someday she hoped to have someone she could share those burdens with, but for now she kept him entertained with stories from her days as a beat cop. Amusingly insistent drunks, drag queens on bath salts, and neighbors engaged in the most intense disputes over the most mundane things, by contrast, made for good conversation.

Teo laughed at all the right places and showed some compassion when expected.

Teo didn’t have any amusing work stories. He was an office manager for a law firm that handled “boring business stuff,” as he put it. That made for steady work, but wasn’t particularly exciting. He came to life, though, when he talked about music and photography and his rec league basketball team which, he insisted, was the oldest in New York City.

Sanchez nodded and smiled, then did that flirty thing with her hair that was pretty much reflex when she was feeling like this. She liked Teo and could see something worth building here. She was also getting warm, like she already had an entire bottle of whiskey in her. Part of that was the flush of arousal and excitement at how well this date was going, but it was more intense than she’d ever felt before.

They were shown to their table in the corner. They kept talking over an appetizer and salads, but Sanchez increasingly found herself with less to say. Teo picked up the slack, but she started to feel like her mind was slowing down, keeping her from contributing much to the conversation. The warmth that had begun in her belly had risen and become even fiercer. Although it was winter and she knew the restaurant wasn’t hot, she found herself sweating. She became intensely aware of her own breathing.

She finished another glass of wine.

Were all of Teo’s stories this boring? She started noticing that he wasn’t really able to string two coherent thoughts together, like he was just vomiting up a stream of conscious. Was it her? She wiped her forehead, which was hot and damp. She chugged an entire glass of water in one go.

“Are you all right?” Teo asked. He cocked his head a bit, like he was genuinely curious. He touched her hand on the table, but she pulled away.

“Fine,” she said, shaking her head. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It felt like her insides were on fire, like electricity was coursing up and down her body. She started breathing fast, like she was running a race. Her heart pounded in her ears, driving on and on like a thumping dance beat. Even after the water and wine her throat was parched. Whatever she did she couldn’t get herself to settle down.

“Melissa,” Teo said. “Are you all right? Can I get you something?”

The table, bare wood without a cloth, was softer than she imagined. Her fingers dug into it while she tried to calm herself. She looked up at Teo. The rest of the restaurant was a blur, but he remained in perfect focus. His look of concern sickened her. Who was he to care about her, anyway? What was his real motivation in all this? That little smile, that smirk he’d worn all night. Something had to be done.

“Melissa?” he asked again. “What’s wrong?”

Sanchez bolted up in her chair, overturning the table and driving Teo to the floor. He yelled something, but the screams that boiled up from inside her, then erupted from her, drowned out his pathetic cries. She went for the face first, slashing and grabbing chunks of dull flesh. Blood flowed, staining her hands, but she didn’t care. She had to keep going.

~~~~~

It wouldn’t have been Cooney’s case anyway – not in his precinct – but it surely would have been taken from him given that his partner was the suspect. Not suspect, killer. A room full of diners saw her do it.

He weaved his way through the onlookers and found the primary, an old friend of his from the academy. Cooney looked at the scene and had flashbacks from the Calabria Club.

“She still here?” he asked.

“In the back,” the primary said. “You look like you’ve seen this before.”

“I don’t know.” Cooney shook his head. “I just don’t know at this point.”

Cooney went to the back room, where Sanchez was sitting in a chair, flanked by a pair of uniformed officers. It gave him a strong sense of déjà vu – blank expression, blood all over her hands and dress, and she kept repeating something over and over. Cooney knelt down beside her.

“Jesus, Michelle, what did you do?” He looked for some kind of understanding in her eyes, but they were blank and empty, like windows of a house where everyone had moved out.

“Something just came over me,” she mumbled. “Something just came over me. Something came over me.”

~~~~~

Pintura Won’t Proceed With “Killer” Line

By Hope Williams, Beauty Business Daily

Cosmetics giant Pintura (NYSE: PNT) quietly announced that it was stopping development on a new line of products that was to be marketed under the “Killer” brand. The press release merely stated that initial reports from beta testers had not been as strong as the company hoped for and, in charting its course for the future, resources were better allocated elsewhere.

The “Killer” line was first announced 18 months ago and received some pushback because of the name’s violent connotations. The company had touted that the products, infused with proprietary compounds developed exclusively for Pintura, would have helped create a bold new look for the modern woman.

Social media has been abuzz with talk of incidents involving some of the “Killer” prototypes. Last month model and Pintura endorser Stina Blomgren was charged with murder after a violent outburst in a New York club, but there is no evidence that she was one of the “Killer” beta testers.

A Pintura spokesperson would not respond to our requests to comment.


Of course, I’m aware of the musical reference (you thought that was a coincidence?).

Happy Halloween!

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Come See Me! Learn From Me(?)

I wanted to let folks know about a couple upcoming appearances I’ll be making – getting out of the office and into the bright light (hopefully) of day!

First, on October 26 and 27 I’ll be at the West Virginia Book Festival at the newly renovated Charleston Convention Center (formerly known as the Civic Center). I’ll be in the marketplace both days (11:30 to 6:30 on Friday, 8 to 5 on Saturday) selling books, signing them, and just generally chatting people up. In addition to the marketplace there’s the annual used book sale, lots of workshops and such, and loads of great authors. Come check it out.

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Then, on November 17, I’ll be part of the West Virginia Writers fall conference in Flatwoods, West Virginia. I’ll be doing a pair of workshops:

Lines in the Speculative Sand – When Genre Matters in Fantasy & Science Fiction (and When It Doesn’t): Is my story fantasy? Is it science fiction? Does it even matter? Dive into the weird world of speculative fiction and learn some of the rules of the road (so you can go break them if you want).

Law 101 for Writers – Getting It Right When Your Character Goes to Court: Into every character’s life a little law must fall. Even if you’re not writing legal thrillers, there’s lots of reasons for characters to wind up in court. Learn some tips and discover some valuable resources to make your legal writing feel real.

There will be lots of other workshops, too, from marketing on the cheap to short play writing to ekphrastic poetry (I had to look it up, too). Something for just about every writer, in other words. Find out how to register at the WVWI website.

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Weekly Read: Saturn Run

As I think I’ve said before, one of my least favorite criticism of a book or movie is that it “has no plot.” Unless we’re talking about some really experimental stuff, every story has a plot because in every story SOMETHING happens. It might not be huge, it might not be life changing, but it’s something. What folks mean when they say that, I’ve decided, is not that “nothing happens,” but that “nothing happens that I care about.” In other words, the events of the story just wash over you and leave no residue.

It would be wrong to say nothing happens in Saturn Run, a collaboration between novelist John Sandford and Ctein (the first a long-time writer of thrillers, the second an artist, apparently). Quite a bit happens, given the setup and all, but I can safely say that nothing happens that I cared about, at least until the last quarter of the book or so. By that point, I couldn’t be roused to give much of a shit.

The setup is fairly standard – an alien ship appears in our solar system, is discovered by accident, and we humans head out to make first contact. What Saturn Run adds to the mix is a race to get there run by American and Chinese spacecraft, each taking different routes using different tech to make it to Saturn first. We spend almost all of the first three quarters of the book on the American ship (including its dealings with the American government back here on Earth), which wins the race. It’s reward? Being the first to a kind of interstellar truck stop full of fuel, science, and tech. Actual aliens are nowhere to be found.

The journey to get there is long and shot through with lots of technical data dumps, but precious little of concern actually happens. Partly this is down to the characters, who basically just function as pieces to move around as the plot requires. The closest thing to a main character, Sandy, begins as a skirt-chasing surfer waiting to inherit family money, only for us to learn he’s actually a kick ass solder suffering from PTSD; but he goes back to surfer mode on the trip while acting as the official expedition cinematographer (at which he’s also kick ass). None of this ultimately matters, since he has no motivation and we don’t care why he does anything he does.

In fact, it’s hard to care about anything that happens. For instance, before the American ship (named after Richard Nixon, a clever nod to his dealings with China) leaves Earth orbit there is a test of its system for dealing with excess heat built up by its drive system. The test goes wrong, but there’s no drama in this. The chief engineer explains calmly that this kind of thing happens, it’s why you test first, and it’s just a problem to be solved (and it is). This is a great attitude to have in the real world, but it sucks when it comes to fiction. If every problem gets solved without much consequence, why should I care about them? Same goes for the mysterious failure of half the drive system once they’re underway, which doesn’t matter because the ship already has enough momentum to get to Saturn before the Chinese.

Even when stuff happens to people there isn’t really much to it. The engineer? She dies mid trip due to another accident, just after she and Sandy have started sleeping together. Thanks to spiffy drugs and just the way this book is written this basically has no impact on anybody. It doesn’t even impact the ship in general, as her second chair engineer steps up and does a fine job. That kind of sums up this book in a nutshell to me – if a main character dies and nobody in the book cares, why should I? And don’t even get me started about the cat.

Things improve once the Chinese arrive on the scene, but not enough. For one thing, all of a sudden we begin to get POV scenes from the Chinese involving character’s we’ve never met through the rest of the book. I should care about them why? Kept at a distance they could have been vague bad guys with shady motivations, but we get enough into their heads to know what’s going on without any emotional investment to go along with it. The book builds some goodwill toward the end as it powers to a fairly cynical conclusion, but it weaves at the last moment and destroys that, too.

It’s entirely possible that I’m not the target audience for Saturn Run. It’s hard science fiction in the most literal sense – the space travel and what happens at Saturn are based on extrapolations from known science and are pretty realistic. There are no warp drives or teleporters here. In fact, there’s a half-hour afterword on the audiobook version diving deeply into the science involved. That I skipped it indicates that this book was never for me in the first place.

But there’s no reason why hard sci-fi, focused on known science and clever, plausible problem solving, can’t also be compelling drama. If you only care about the engineering challenges and how they’re met, this is the book for you. If you want characters that matter to you going through situations that have consequences that matter, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

SaturnRun

The Second Book Problem

The old saw goes that, with notable exceptions, sequels never live up to their predecessors. This is a particular issue when it comes to trilogies, as the middle installment often suffers from what some writers and critics call the “second book problem.” What is this, exactly? I think it breaks down into two separate issues.

The first issue is peculiar to speculative fiction, although I could see it coming up in other areas. That is the simple fact that the first volume of a sci-fi or fantasy trilogy is going to have to do some heavy lifting on world building – Is the story set in our world or a completely different one? Are we playing by the physical rules we know (with certain extrapolations) or is scientific accuracy out the window? Are the characters human or not? All of that can (probably should) produce a sense of wonder and awe in the reader as the world unfolds. The initial introduction to Westeros or the Culture or post-apocalyptic Canada should leave the reader a little bit shocked.

That’s gone by the time the second book rolls around. Certainly, a writer should deepen and make more interesting the world in which their story is being told in a second volume, but it’s difficult to capture the initial “wow” factor a second time around. Kings that once ruled the world on the backs of flying, fire-breathing dragons? Awesome shit! The genealogy of those kings, as important as that may be? Not so much.

The second issue is that, just like the middle point of any story, the second part of a trilogy can have a plot that seems to drag a bit. The initial flush of excites as the plot unwinds in the first volume is gone, but the satisfying conclusion of the entire tale in the final volume is still a ways off. At best there’s a lot of clever table setting and some interesting side plots; at worst, there’s a lot of wheel spinning.

“Wait a sec,” you might be thinking, “didn’t you write a trilogy? Aren’t you writing another one? Do you think you’ve solved the second book problem, smart guy?”

TEH Cover (540x810)

Probably not, but that’s ultimately a question for readers to answer. I tried to make The Endless Hills work as a middle volume by broadening the number of characters to provide a wider view of the conflict that flamed to life in The Water Road. I hope that helped with the second issue, but I’m not so certain about the first.

What seems true, however, is that even really excellent writers still fall victim to the second book problem. The hottest writer in fantasy right now is N.K. Jemisin, whose brilliant The Fifth Season I noted a couple of months back. The third book of that trilogy, The Stone Sky (which I’m now deep in the middle of), just won a Hugo, making Jemisin the first writer to win the award three years (and three books) in a row. Still and all, The Obelisk Gate, the second book in the trilogy, can’t help but sag a bit. The world, which gets a lot of depth and shading, isn’t “holy shit!” anymore and one character’s story falls into the “table setting” genre pretty well. It’s still amazingly good (did I mention three Hugos in a row?), but it shows that even someone as talented as Jemisin isn’t immune from second book syndrome.

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So what makes the exceptions to the rule stand out? Maybe it’s because the next installment was a step down or maybe there’s enough new and different in the second installment to keep the freshness alive. Or, maybe, when a trilogy or series is all said and done we tend to brush over the criticisms of the middle parts the way we kind of brush over the middle parts themselves. It may be inherent to the trilogy format itself. I’m not sure, which is kind of a problem for a writer. Like most things, keeping the issue in mind and trying to deal with it is probably the best course, and keeping in mind that it bedevils just about everyone.

Other Great Lawyer Movies

Several years ago, the American Bar Association Journal put together a list of the “best lawyer movies.” They’ve recently updated it, to their credit (there’s nothing quite so sad as an out of date “best of” list), and it’s full of great movies – Primal Fear, A Few Good Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.. I come not to scorn that list, but to supplement it, with five of my favorite overlooked lawyer movies.

A word on what “lawyer movie” means (to me, at least). It’s a movie where a lawyer is a main, if not the main, character and where the practice of law is important to the plot. It doesn’t have to revolve around a courtroom (although that helps) and, taking a cue from the ABA’s inclusion of A Man for All Seasons, isn’t limited to American lawyers. So, with that said, off we go.

Breaker Morant (1980)

Breaker

Breaker Morant gets bonus points for not only being a great lawyer movie, but a great war movie, too. Set during the Boer War of 1899-1902, it’s the story of three Australian soldiers (although the titular Breaker is of English extraction) put on trial for murder of enemy prisoners and a German missionary. They’re attorney, another Australian, has only every handled land conveyancing before. It is, ironically, a real kangaroo court, with the soldiers being scarified more for the sake of international PR than justice.

That’s because, the movie asks, what is justice in a war where there are no rules? It’s from the Boers that we get the word “commando.” By the time the movie is set they’re fighting a rearguard irregular action that eschewed pitched battles, uniforms and the like. The by-the-book military law ways of dealing with prisoners didn’t really fit with that kind of war. But is the British Empire more interested in enforcing the rule of law or using the Australians as scapegoats? The irony is the murder of the German missionary, of which we knew they are completely guilty, is the one count on which they’re acquitted.

It also contains what might be my favorite last line in all of cinema:

 

 

A Soldier’s Story (1984)

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Another one that doubles as a great war movie as well as lawyer movie. Only this time the war is World War II and it’s nowhere near the events of the film itself. Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, it’s the story of an African-American army officer sent to a Mississippi base to investigate the death of an African-American drill sergeant.

Through the investigation we learn about the sergeant’s unit, a group of African-Americans desperate to do their part to defeat Hitler, but who have been reduced to a semi-barnstorming baseball team (they might get to play the Yankees). There’s an exploration of racism (the fact that the investigating officer is black is just too much for some folks) and abuse of power that spirals into a genuinely satisfying twist. Plus, there’s a hell of a cast, led by Harold Rollins and Adolph Caesar, but also including Robert Townsend, David Allen Grier, and a young Denzel Washington.

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

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You don’t want to quit me, I’m your dream client: I’m the most fun, I’m rich, and I’m always in trouble.

Every lawyer has difficult clients, something that the movies aren’t always good at putting up on screen (to see a great portrayal of what it’s like to work with a fraud client watch Shattered Glass). Sadly, most of our difficult clients aren’t as fun or rich as Larry Flynt, though some of them are in trouble even more often than “always.”

The People . . . (directed by the late great Milos Foreman) is a bio-pick, but it spends a lot of time in court, culminating with the most realistic depiction of a Supreme Court argument I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s the culmination of Flynt’s fight against (the late and decidedly not great) Jerry Falwell, who sued Flynt and Hustler over a parody ad that implied Falwell had sex with his mother. For that alone, it makes the list.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

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Every other movie on my list (and many on the ABA list) has great courtroom scenes. The Sweet Hereafter never gets anywhere near a courtroom, yet it still provides one of the best portraits of what it means to be a lawyer I’ve ever seen.

Mitchell Stephens (played by Ian Holm) is a big city lawyer with a drug-addicted daughter trying to build a case in a small, isolated Canadian town. A school bus has crashed through the ice, killing many of the town’s children and leaving deep scars on just about everyone. Stephens trudges from home to home, trying to sign up plaintiffs for a suit against the bus manufacturer and the school district. Thus, Stephens is literally an ambulance chaser, yet it’s clear he does believe in the righteousness of what he’s doing. He’s not just chasing a payday (though there is that). The melancholy of it all, being absorbed by the traumas of others, comes through in every scene with him. No other movie I’ve seen gets that aspect of what it means to be a lawyer.

Naturally, it all falls apart at the end (thanks to a surviving child, played by Sarah Polley, who’s gone on to direct some great films), which makes it the rare lawyer movie where the lawyer loses. Again, that’s a hard truth for most lawyers (most of my fellow criminal defense lawyers, at least).

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

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One of the reasons I like to talk about “favorites” instead of “best” is that movies (and all art) strikes different people in different ways and sometimes you love something even if it isn’t a critical darling. I don’t think anybody would call Intolerable Cruelty one of the Cohen Brothers’ best movies, but it is undoubtedly one of my favorites.

That’s largely down to the fact that for the first year of my legal life I was a divorce lawyer. Working for legal aid as the domestic violence specialist I split my time between working with abuse victims to get protective orders and getting them out of marriages. The people I was working with didn’t have enough property (and, thankfully, not many had kids) to fight about most time, much less enough to worry about something like the famous prenup that bears the name of Myles Massey (played with all his old-school movie star charm by George Clooney), but the beats and rhythms of what divorces cases are like are the same regardless of what’s involved. Maybe it’s millions of dollars; maybe it’s the commemorative Smurf glasses from Arby’s. I recognized that on the screen.

Plus, there’s an easy screwball feel to the whole thing (Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the woman who cooks up the scheme to bring Massey to heal, is great, too), with just enough bizarre touches (Massey’s wheezing senior partner, the Baron, etc.), that it’s just fun. Which is something you shouldn’t be able to say about a movie with a divorce lawyer as the main character!

Weekly Read: Kings of the Wyld

It’s a fairly standard setup for a fantasy story – a gang of unruly characters get together to journey across the land in order to fulfill some quest. But what if the gang is a band? I mean, what if a group of fantasy mercenaries was treated like a rock and roll band? That’s the great conceit of Kings of the Wyld.

The band, in this case, is called Saga. When the book begins the band has been broken up for a while and Clay is making ends meet as a city watchman, married with daughter. That all changes with Gabriel shows up in desperate need – his own daughter, now a mercenary herself, is stuck in a city besieged by various beasties and baddies on the other side of the world. He needs to get the band back together to save her.

What follows is a pretty fun read, although it comes off a little shallow. Part of the fun is that is that Nicholas Eames really leans into the “group of mercenaries as a band” idea. A lot of the names are references to music in our world – the wizard named Moog, the axe called Syrinx (a Rush reference, I’m guessing), and even Saga itself, which I think is a reference to the Canadian semi-prog band  The characters also play the parts. Moog is the keyboard player stand-in (naturally), weird and aloof and always in flowing robes (not capes? Rick Wakeman weeps somewhere). Gabriel is the nominal front man, the once pretty face up front. Clay plays the bass player roll, holding everything together. The bands also relate to each other like musicians, equal parts jealous of the others’ success and impressed by their prowess. Plus there’s a whole thread about how in Saga’s time bands had to go real feats of heroism, not empty, showy displays in huge stadiums. There’s even sleazy managers! That all works really well.

The actual plot doesn’t fare quite so well. It at times feels like an overgrown Dungeons & Dragons campaign, with the crew moving from one adventure to the next without any real weight to them. Characters change from friend to foe and back again because the plot requires it. At one point a character loses a limb, but then regrows it. There aren’t really any harsh consequences to face. Add to that the fact that the object of the quest – saving Gabriel’s daughter – seems painfully far away for most of the book, until suddenly it isn’t. To be fair, the book wraps up the story and doesn’t leave us hanging, but it comes off as rushed.

But the biggest issue, for me, is that the story sets up as a story of old guys getting back together to relive their former glories, but very few of them act like it. Nobody’s really lost a step when it comes to fighting, everybody heals quickly when needed. It’s a lost opportunity, since aging heroes aren’t often the main course in a fantasy epic.

All that being said, Kings of the Wyld is a fun read. The episodes themselves, while they don’t add up to much, are well done in and of themselves. The dialogue is quick and funny. And Eames manages to work in a staggering array of creatures and beasties for our heroes to interact with. It verges on overload, but it doesn’t cross the line. So if you’re a fantasy fan and want a familiar tale with a twist, this one’s for you. Sometimes it is good to get the band back together.

KingsoftheWyld

Ideas Will Always Be Free Range

I have a file on my computer that’s full of “what if?” ideas that occur to me from time to time. Most of them will never find their way into an actual story – there’s a fair gulf between “cool idea” and “cool story.” In light of that, it can be cool to see one of those ideas show up on the big screen completely independent of your having it.

The Australian film OtherLife is based on a nifty “what if” question – what if, via a process involving programmable biotech (don’t call it drugs) dropped into a person’s eye, that person could experience rich and full “memories” of experiences in the blink of an eye? Think of the ability to cram an entire vacation into a few seconds! Actually, that sounds kind of shitty and easily manipulated, but it’s still a cool idea.

Otherlife

In the film the tech’s creator, Ren, is having problems with the system as it gets ready to go public. To help the company with funding, her partner wants to explore a Government-proposed use of the tech – to make criminals experience a long time of confinement without actually having to incarcerate them. Ren is furious (since her motives are purely altruistic and personal) and balks at the idea, of course. Things spiral out from there to a not all that interesting conclusion.

Mostly because that idea – of incarceration by memory – is a really interesting one. You may have guessed by now that’s the one that I wrote down in my “what if?” file years ago. But the film isn’t really interested in exploring the ideas behind that setup, instead using it to jump start the plot and put Ren through a very weird experience. It’s interesting enough to watch, but doesn’t really stick with you for very long, putting thrills and twists ahead of deep thought and head scratching.

Newbie writers sometimes worry about either not having an “original” idea or that if they discuss their own idea in public it will get “stolen.” Fact is, neither of those things is a problem. Ideas are only the beginning. It’s what you do with them that matters, how the characters you create are affected by them. OtherLife takes the “memories of punishment” idea and does one thing with it. If I ever get back to it I’ll do something very different. The world’s big enough for both (and more!) and all the richer for it, too.

Which is funny, because watching Otherlife gave me another neat idea! It has to do with people disappearing and then reappearing and what that does to them and those around them. It’s now sitting in my “what if?” file, quietly tucked away. Maybe one day it’ll become something worth developing.