How Can I Make These Opening Chapters Better? An Experiment

I got the nicest rejection from an agent the other day.  And she said this:
“This is creative and full of promise… but it is too complicated and confusing in execution to succeed in today’s crowded urban fantasy market.  You’re trying to do too much and it shows:  urban fantasy should flow smoothly and read easily and this is as much work to read as an edgy SF novel. ”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
Thing about it is, I’m generally happy with the plots of my novels.  You get five chapters into them, and the groove kicks in and people seem to read the rest in a gulp.  But the openings…
…I’m not good at starting novels.  There always seems to be too many balls that I want to fling into the air at once, since my novel-length stories are invariably about crazy worldbuilding and the ramifications thereof, and so I’m not just trying to explain characters but the rules of the place they live in.  And so all three of my attempts to create novels have had these clunky starts that my fellow authors have marked as not having enough of an emotional thoroughline.  Folks are so busy going, “Wait, what was that?” to actually fall in love with the characters the way I want them to.
And don’t get me wrong, science fiction is rife with starts like that.  Dune’s a classic, and I don’t think you can have more “Wait, what?”s per sentence than you do with Dune.  But today’s audience seems to want a clearer connection with their characters, and I’m so busy saying, “All right, here’s this knot of New Stuff” that it’s actually detracting from the point of any good novel – which is to say, these people who you’re going to follow through it.
And it’s not the worldbuilding.  Seanan McGuire’s Feed and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station all have complex worlds with their own rules, but they somehow managed it.  And since those first three chapters are so damn important, I’ve asked, “What do they do that I don’t?”
So I’ve been pondering, and what I intend to do is to read the opening chapters to twenty or so modern spec-fic novels that I loved.  And just the opening chapters.  Knowing what the rest of the book looks like and all the complexity that will unfold from there, I’ll see where they start, what’s the opening dilemma for the characters, how the characters are introduced, and – more importantly – what they chose to leave out of the opening, given all the stuff that I know happens down the road.  And we’ll see if I learn anything.
Those novels are:

Uglies Scott Westerfeld
Girl of Fire and Thorns Rae Carson
Hunger Games Suzanne Collins
American Elsewhere Robert Bennett
The Atrocity Archives Charlie Stross
Coldest Girl In Coldtown Holly Black
Harry Potter J.K. Rowling
The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss
Feed Seanan McGuire
Who Fears Death Nnedi Okorafor
Ancillary Justice Anne Leckie
Old Man’s War John Scalzi
Throne of the Crescent Moon Saladin Ahmed
Tooth and Claw Jo Walton
Boneshaker Cherie Priest
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Susanna Clarke
Perdido Street Station China Mieville
Dragon’s Path Daniel Abraham
Three Parts Dead Max Gladstone
Shadow Ops Myke Cole

And let me just say: thank you, Amazon Kindle Sample Chapters!  (Also, if you’re looking for a list of “Books that Ferrett would recommend in a heartbeat,” well, there you are.)
I’m pretty sure I’ll learn something by the time I’m done reading all of those.  I don’t know what it is, but I’ll share what I find.  And the good news is I’ve got a set of long trips to New York City, so I’ll have a lot of time to analyze.
Wish me luck.

Why Guardians of the Galaxy Gives Me Hope About Marvel

So the first full “Guardians of the Galaxy” trailer is out:

And I love it because Guardians of the Galaxy is showing us just how fucking smart Marvel is.
After the rampant success of the The Avengers, Marvel had a clear path to success – find beloved superhero, unearth a classic storyline, pepper it with witty one-liners, lather, rinse, repeat.  And Marvel looked that future straight in the barrel, and said, “Okay, but eventually, that’s gonna get old.”
And they said, “Why not do a wild experiment when we’re on top, to see how far we can push the limits?”
Usually, the weird tonal dissonances come after the franchise is all but dead and they’re seeing what they can do to repair it – and then you wind up with Friday the 13th in space!  Here, Marvel said, “Fuck it, we could do Power Man, or Deadpool, or Ms. Marvel, or reboot The Punisher/Daredevil well, and utilize this formula that makes a lot of people happy.”  And they thought seven steps down the line and went, “…but people will get bored if we keep churning out the same thing, and this far into our master plan, it’s time to reach deep into our archives and make people excited about something they didn’t even know they wanted.”
So.  A flying raccoon gets the nod.  And maybe Guardians of the Galaxy will be good, maybe it won’t – I trust James Gunn, but every director’s got a misfire in ’em – but I like what this choice says about Marvel’s marketing team, and that choice says, “We’re gonna keep pushing the envelope.”
And after watching Man of Steel, which was stuffing Superman into an envelope of gritty Chris Nolan-style quote-unquote “realism,” I say make mine Marvel.

On The Uncomfortable Hierarchy That Writers Have

When I was at Clarion, a Very Big-Name Writer came to speak to us.  He believed he was inspiring.
Among the many things he said in an attempt to exhort us was, “As writers, maybe ten of you are worth one of me! And ten of me are worth one of Neil Gaiman, here! And ten of Neil are worth one Stephen King!  But you can move up that ladder!”
And later on, we asked Neil about that, and Neil made that soft little sigh he makes when he’s disappointed in someone. “The thing about {$Big-name-writer},” he ventured, “Is that he sees hierarchies everywhere. And so he finds them. And he’s usually on the bottom of them, which I think makes him deeply unhappy.”
Neil is right.
The thing is, back when I was a quote-unquote “nobody,” I still had conversations with John Scalzi and Tobias Buckell and other quote-unquote “big” writers punching above my weight. When she went to WorldCon, my friend Emily wound up having a great conversation with George Martin, even though she didn’t know who the hell he was. My wife had a brilliant discussion with Alan Dean Foster, and I still envy her for that (I was out of the room).
I think that in general, if you talk to a writer and have something interesting to say, they will chat with you. And that’s glorious. There are exceptions, of course, as there are in any field – I can think of a handful of folks who sniffed my nametag and found me wanting, then conspicuously ignored me – but mostly, I go to cons because what the fuck, here I am talking with all kinds of people, some of whom are pretty big deals…. and they don’t care.
Now, Big-Name Writers are often not as available to the general public as you’d like, because when I go to a con I prioritize my friends.  And often my friends are fellow writers, and so I wind up being a little exclusive because, shit, how long’s it been since I’ve seen Keffy? And people who’ve been around forever probably have some flavor of that, where there’s only so many people they have time to meet, and they wanna seek out the familiar Greatest Hits collection instead of seeking out the just-as-good-but-more obscure B-side that is currently you.
And there’s also writers who are fans of each other. It’s interesting, because I look at some groups of writers, and sometimes I feel they’re very clubby, promoting each other’s fictions. But I realize that’s because they’re each fans of that style of writing, as in they’re all aspiring to be very similar stylistically, and so they chat more – and I recognize that I tend to seek out people who write like me who I’m a fan of. So that’s another factor.
And, of course, there are douches who don’t have time for “lesser” people.  These douches exist in every profession, sad to say.
But in general, I agree with Neil. I think that Twitter and cons are a surprisingly hierarchy-free environment – you can find elements of tiering if you look for it, of course, but having moved in other fields where hierarchies are much more ingrained, generally I’m shocked at how amazingly friendly and approachable writers are.
The thing is, I see hierarchies all the time, because I have a crippling case of impostor syndrome.  And, much like Big-Name Writer, the problem with having impostor syndrome is that it hunts for reasons why authors must be superior to me… and then puts me on the bottom of that totem pole.  And there’s a very sad part of me that keeps track of who’s responded to my oh-so-witty Twitter replies, and who got the invite to that anthology when I didn’t when I am totally in her league, and knows that he has an agent and that’s all due to the way they shook hands at the convention, that’s proof of how ridiculously old-boys’-group this whole shebang is.
I’m generally a better writer when I ignore that noise.
I can concentrate more on the work.
The thing is, you can see hierarchies wherever the hell you want.  In many cases, you can take a group of your friends and map them into strict (and maybe even accurate) hierarchies from the Alpha Dog all the way down to that shivering Gamma Rabbit, and the only thing you’ll have accomplished is to make yourself feel miserable that you’re not at the top.  And I find that if you abandon the idea of “Who is superior to whom?” and instead kick back to go see a movie with them and throw popcorn at each other, your life will be a lot more satisfying.
Spend less time worrying about the hierarchy and more time making friends.  It’s actually good advice everywhere, but especially so in writing where you’re going to take enough hard knocks from rejections and bad reviews and stories you don’t yet know how to write.
So yeah, I get fits of hierarchy, which I treat like fits of depression – an unhelpful illusion that I should do my best to ignore.  And when I shrug that shit off, I find it easier to write another 500 words for the day.
Those 500 words need to be better.  Can I write better than I did the day before?  That’s all that matters.

WeaselCon, New York City, 02/20 at 4:30 pm – A Reminder!

As a reminder, I’ll be spending two hours at the Beer Culture bar in New York City at 4:30 pm on Thursday, February 20th.  If you can read this, you’re welcome to show up and say hello to Gini and me.  (Though it’s nicer if you RSVP so I know you’re coming.)
I will provide nametags.  I will also post a picture of what Gini and I are wearing that day on my Twitter feed, so you’ll have the best possible image of me.  I will, as threatened, pontificate at length about the new corduroy pillows.
Feel free to show up, if you wish.  I have no idea how many people will arrive, so we’ll see how it all goes.

Oscar Movie Reviews: Her, American Hustle, Wolf On Wall Street

Every year, Gini and I try to see all ten nominees for Best Picture.  I don’t know whether we’ll get through it this year, as we’ve boiled it down only lacking the three smallest films – Dallas Buyer’s Club, Philomena, and Nebraska, two of which you can only see in theaters – but we did go on a run last week where we saw three of the big nominations.
I was so excited to see this film – it’s by a director I love, it’s near-future SF, and it deals with AIs interacting with human beings (which is one of the things I continually write about).  So when I got to the theater, I was bouncing up and down in my seat.
So why didn’t I like it?
First off, the problem with Her is that it’s incredibly self-indulgent.  Yes, I know, it’s trying to create a sense of time passing, but there’s so many shots of Joaquim Phoenix wandering sullenly through melancholy rainbows that you could literally shave ten minutes off the film if you cut those wandering scenes out.  I get that he’s lonely and isolated.  But when you keep repeating that montage throughout the film, it adds flab.
Then there’s the other unfixable issue in that Her is trying to tell two character arcs – I won’t spoil it, but basically Her is two movies bolted together.  And by the time we got to the end of the first one, I was satisfied, and emotionally exhausted – and then it told a whole other side of that story, and I just didn’t have the energy for it.  And that other half of the relationship is entirely necessary, as it’s what gives the film its emotional depth, but it’s also got a heavily preordained conclusion.
Unlike the first half of the film, which has the potential to go in all sorts of unexpected directions, the second half starts with a heavy-handed foreshadowing of what’s going to happen, and then… that’s exactly what happens.  There are no surprises on this road to the end, just a repetition and deepening of the dilemma.  And so, when you’re already tired from dealing with the emotions stirred up in the climax of the first half, you’re watching a very on-rails experience in the second half.
Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film – I quite liked a lot of it.  I liked that the OS Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with very much has her own agenda.  She is not a passive construct, but something actively seeking, and the fact that she’s willing to contradict and baffle him is glorious.  I read a Twitter-review that said that the OS was all that was bad about women – a clingy, needy, bitchy girlfriend – but I think that says far more about the writer than the film, because the OS is a literal blank slate who is dealing with a man who purposely eats his emotions.  He’s actually kind of a schmuck to her, and the fact that people sympathize with him is actually somewhat of an issue.
But I liked that Joaquin Phoenix was lonely, but not isolated – he had friends, a small social life, a good job.  He wasn’t a stereotypical nebbish who no one liked, he was just sort of a disquietingly soft-spoken Man Of Awkward who could be nice in the right circumstances.  (A creepy guy who dated, via some combination of wish fulfillment, the most astoundingly beautiful women – his ex-wife is a heartbreaker, and his romantic tension is Amy Adams, for Christ’s sake.  That kept throwing me out of the film as I thought, “This mustache with this personality gets these women?”)
But basically, this movie is self-indulgent, taking over two hours to tell a story that could be told in 100 minutes.  It’s got some really nice stuff in it, but I wondered why it was crashing at the box office.  Now I know why.
American Hustle
Basically, at this point, I’m going to assume that Christopher Bale is magic in whatever he’s in.
American Hustle is a wonderful train wreck of a film where you take a bunch of clearly-defined dysfunctional personalities, put them in a paint can, and shake.  Basically, every time a situation could be solved easily, someone exacerbates it by acting in an entirely in-character and yet totally disastrous way.  It’s a ping-pong ball where alliances shift effortlessly as these idiots wound each other and take stupid revenge…
…and yet you actually feel sympathy for them.  They’re all in pain in some way.  And yes, they are taking it out on other people, but there’s a certain desperation in the way that none of them know how to be happy, and they want to be happy, and so they’re grabbing at other people like a drowning man clutching at a life preserver.  They’re making the absolute wrong moves, of course, but the genius of American Hustle is that even as you facepalm you can understand why they think this is a good idea.
They’re wrong.  They’re always wrong.  But American Hustle is a frenetic masterpiece of glory to watch, and cements David O. Russell as one of my favorite directors.
(Also – and I will be honest here – watching Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence slink around in revealing 1970s dresses is pretty easy on the eyes.  Sorry, straight ladies, you get the freakazoid hairstyles of Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper.  It’s really not fair at all.)
Wolf on Wall Street
I really did not want to watch this, as I’d had enough of three-hour indulgent movies.  Add that to the fact that it’s about bankers who make my skin crawl, and I thought it’d be like being locked in a party filled entirely with people you hated to talk to.
Yet Wolf on Wall Street is Scorcese’s funniest movie.  There’s several scenes – the quaalude scene, the discussion of midget acquiring – that could be straight-up raunchy comedy.  It’s as though Scorcese, who always admired gangsters and so never really made them look ridiculous, said, “Fuck it, bankers,” and decided to make them look as goofy as possible.
Don’t get me wrong: my ass wriggled for a lot of this film, as everyone in it is repugnant, and doing repugnant things, and I kept thinking, “Okay, Gini and I know that all of this hooker abuse and drugs are nothing anyone should aspire to… but after Gordon Gecko, I know the next generation of scummy bankers will be using this film as a checklist of things they want to do,” and that kept sickening me.  But I don’t know how you approach that.  I don’t know how you make a movie about excess that won’t actually cause some psychopaths to respond positively to it.
(I mean, you can, but then it’s so dreary that no one will want to watch it.)
So Wolf on Wall Street was like watching a training film for the next generation of assholes.  I know people will be citing this as an inspiration.  And that sickened me.
But the thing about Wolf on Wall Street is that it’s smartly indulgent.  Yes, an hour of this movie could be cut – but we’ve seen this story before.  Guy gets the joys of crime, gets the crown, overreaches, gets caught, winds up a schmuck.  If you’d cut it down, you’d make it less interesting, because all of the good stuff is literally the stuff that’s not important to the plot, but is hysterical.  In particular, the most memorable sequence in the movie (quaaludes, man) is a narrative dead-end that literally thumbs the plot to a pause for twenty minutes – but like any good anecdote, it’s worth telling.  Cut out the anecdotes, and the story is cliched.
So I liked it more than I thought I would.  And Jonah Hill is a surprisingly good actor.  Really, I’m more impressed by the dude’s narrow range every time – he doesn’t vary wildly outside of sad-sack, but he sure plays a lot of notes on that tiny violin.