Monday, November 29, 2010

The Hunger Games and King David

The Hunger Games
The story goes that the prophet Nathan came to King David and told him about two men from the same city. One was rich, and the other poor. The poor man had little except a lamb he had raised. He shared his food with the lamb, slept with it at night. It was more, even, than just a pet. He loved it like a child.

One day, the rich man had a visitor for whom he wanted to prepare a feast. Instead of taking a lamb from his own large flock, he took the poor man's precious lamb, slaughtered it, cooked it, and fed it to his visitor.

King David was outraged by the tale and swore that the poor man's loss would be repaid fourfold—and that the rich man would die. Nathan told him, "Thou art the man."

Nathan didn't walk up to the king and berate him for taking another man's wife. He didn't accuse him of murder for sending that man to his death in battle. He told a story, got David ticked off at the antagonist, and then in four words turned it around so David couldn't deny his own guilt.

The Hunger Games is an excellent piece of storytelling. It's compelling, crisp, and I learned some things from it that I think will help my own writing. Collins spends a lot of time developing Katniss as a character, both through her past as well as her thoughts in the present. I know—I'm one of the last people to read this book, and I'm sure it's all been said before. Bear with me.

A couple things didn't sit well—but they were just nit-picky little things. There was one big thing that really, really bugged me, and I can sum it up in one word that describes the entire book: horrific. From the premise to the last death, the characters are put through an ordeal that's just about the worst thing imaginable. To make it even more terrible, there's a live TV audience watching the entire thing, rapt. 

I'm not against dark themes and terrible events in books or movies. But in The Mission, no one wins. Heart of Darkness leaves you feeling dark. 1984 gives no cause whatsoever to stand up and cheer. The Hunger Games is like Lord of the Flies made gloriously entertaining.

And that's the problem. But it's my problem.

I will never forget the moment it hit me that it wasn't just a fictional TV audience getting pleasure from watching kids suffer and die—it was me. Katniss could have turned to me and said, "Thou art the audience," and it wouldn't have hit any harder.

Oh, sure, Katniss and all the other tributes aren't even slightly real. They're the products of Collins's imagination, the result of a late night in front of the TV.

But you know what? Non-fiction outsells fiction. I've read true stories about people dying, freezing to death on Mt. Everest, for example. Why did I read them if not for fun?

Death is not now and never has been entertaining when you're actually there. Does seeing a fireworks stand crush a man leave you with anything but a sick feeling? Does seeing a man break his back and die feel any more heroic because he managed to spare other people? No! In my experience, death is infallibly gut-wrenching.

Capturing a death in pictures, sounds, or words strips it of qualia, the intangible things that make it real. It allows us to experience something terrible without the pain, allows us to find pleasure in the excitement of a moment that should only make us sick. Couched in a good story, safely ensconced behind a pane of glowing glass, there's nothing so awful it can't be made entertaining. (I suspected that's exactly what Collins had in mind and found it confirmed in this interview.)

I've never watched reality TV. But can I be entertained by the horrific? Thanks to The Hunger Games, I now see the answer is yes. The whole "gladiator games are bad" theme has been done a million times. (Star Trek did it at least half a dozen times.) Only now will I think twice about every death that I watch, read, and write, and ask myself why.

My only concern is that a whole lot of people will read the book, watch the inevitable movie, and completely miss the forest for the trees. What do you think? How did you feel after reading The Hunger Games?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gifted/Cursed: Poem for Aspiring Writers

Hmm, how's that for a title? Seriously, sometimes they're one and the same. It's so hard to tell a good story, but I can't help but try.

Fall in love with people
no one else knows
Cry about tragedies
no one else sees
It's a dream
a world in your throat
that you can't quite speak
Feelings real as anything
about phantoms
hallucinations in the night
It's only a story
Write it down
with just enough skill
to make you think you can
Just enough love
to keep trying
and nothing more
And again
Because you must
It's your gift

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Excuse me while I laugh.

Okay, I'm back. So, three months ago—wait, let me check—holy cow, it was exactly three months ago! I'm a man of my word! Anyway, back on August 12th, I announced I was virtually chucking my novel in the trash and rewriting the whole thing. I said "Give me three months from tomorrow." Well, I wrote the last sentence of that rewritten book on Saturday, November 13th.



Not by a long shot. Well, it's a whole lot closer than it was before, but now I've essentially got another rough draft on my hands. I've gotta go through it again and tweak the emotional responses and speech of characters, work on setting (which I frequently forget about), get rid of repetition and redundancy (get it?), and pay a lot of attention to verb choice. And delete commas. They always creep in where they're not wanted.

So what did I do with that three-month-long rewrite, aside from have a lot of fun? I got the story right. Everything makes sense. The characters come alive. It's twenty-thousand words shorter! I've finally—finally!—got a good framework to start making pretty.

A year ago, if I'd known I'd have to rewrite every single sentence of the whole book, I'm not sure I ever would have started. But here I am. If I thought I'd have to do it again, I'd probably give up right now. But I don't. (The hardest things only get done by people ignorant of what they're really in for.) Soooo...

Here I go!


Saturday, November 13, 2010


Do you ever cheat on a book? You know what I mean, and it could be either a book you're reading or one you're writing. I'll confess that sometimes, if a book I'm reading doesn't quite intrigue me all the way through, I'll see a prettier one sitting on the shelf just waiting for some attention, and I'll pick it up without finishing the first. Usually, that's it for my relationship with the first book. If you go back to it, where do you start? You can't really start over, knowing that it didn't work out last time. You can't really pick it back up where you left off once you've lost your connection with that world. I guess if you wait enough years, you forget everything and can start back up like strangers. That's what I did with The Hobbit. I tried reading it in elementary or middle school, but it was just too—something. Wordy? Obtuse? Over my head? I read it a few years later and loved it.

I cheated on Stranger in a Strange Land, and I haven't gone back to it. It's been two years, and I was less than a quarter of the way through. Kind of makes me sad, because I was so excited to read it. I mean, I bought it for crying out loud. It's still on the shelf.

Robinson Crusoe? Tried it as a kid, and it wasn't at all what I expected. (I mean, who'd have thought it was, like, two hundred years old?) Never read it.

I don't know if cheating on a book you're actually writing is worse, but it's probably easier. That kind of relationship is easier to come back to. You've got more invested. I had a brief dalliance last month with a new book idea. I never actually started writing, or even outlining, but I sure thought about the new book a lot. It's an exotic, very original idea, with great characters.

It didn't last long, though. I returned to my current project, and the closer I got to the end, the more I fell in love with it all over again. Maybe it helps that it's changed so much during this rewrite. We're very happy together right now, and I hope that romance lasts a little longer. Then, once our relationship is complete, I can move wholeheartedly onto the next one.

Well, not exactly. For awhile there, I'll have to practice bigamy. Whew. Took that metaphor a little too far, eh?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Car Crash

Ever wondered what it's like to crash into a freeway overpass at high speed in a convertible? What would it be like? Would you survive and with what sort of injuries? What's in those yellow barrels, anyway?

I wondered. Yeah, it's weird, but I have my reasons. I'm sure you can guess what they are.

The yellow barrels you see in front of overpass supports and barriers, especially on the freeway, are impact attenuators. More specifically, they're called Fitch barriers, named for John Fitch, who invented them. There are other types of impact attenuator, but Fitch barriers are the simplest and probably the most effective.

Each barrel in the line is filled with a progressively greater amount of sand or water. When a car hits the line of barrels, the sand/water is scattered in all directions, taking with it some of the car's momentum. Each barrel slows the car down a little more, as the amount of energy absorbed (and speed reduction) increases with the mass of sand/water in the barrel.

A car that hits a Fitch barrier at highway speeds is decelerated over nine or ten meters (or more) instead of the one or two that the front of the car would smash in if it hit a concrete pillar directly. This is a lot faster than a car could stop on its own, but a whole lot better than a direct impact. Some of the tests I looked at had the occupants experiencing less than 10 g, and 15 g at most. Easily survivable.

Vehicles can be flipped around by the impact. (Video of test) In a convertible, you'd end up covered in sand. It's also conceivable that a car could roll after hitting a Fitch barrier, but much more likely in high center-of-gravity trucks and SUVs.

The impact at the front of the car is more than enough to set off the airbags and will smash the front in pretty good.

Now, if the car is moving well over 100 mph, is a small convertible, and the occupant isn't wearing a seatbelt, it's possible they'd survive—maybe even likely. But at that speed, rollover risk is greatly increased, as the car could be deflected by the barrier and slide sideways at a fairly high speed. It's also possible that the car could nose down enough that you'd slide over the top of the airbag, but probably not very likely. Sports cars tend to keep your legs way out in front of your torso.

So, I didn't find a definitive answer. It seems like a rollover would be the most likely cause of fatality. That's a matter of luck. At any rate, I wouldn't try it at home.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Prayer of the Gifted

For the treasure of potential
For the night we know will come
Blessed and gifted
Cursed and scorned
Lead us far away from home

Let our power tame our passion
Hold its fire, quell its pain
Send a hero
Send us someone
With a calming gentle rain

May desire die like morning
May its flame no longer burn
Good around us
Be inside us
May our human evils learn

May the blessings we are cursed with
Never make our loved ones cry
Blessed and gifted
Shall we thank thee?
Let us ask thee only—Why?

(Does anyone understand what I'm saying?)

Thursday, November 4, 2010


I recently downloaded The Rescues' first album, Crazy Ever After. I got one of their songs a few months ago, and it was good enough that I decided to see what else they'd done. That song, Break Me Out, is probably the most perfect rock song I've ever heard. I wasn't paying attention when I downloaded the album, however, and now I have three different versions of Break Me Out—the single released through iTunes plus two more from the first album.

The funny thing is that as perfect as the iTunes single is, it took them three tries to get it like that. And that's just counting released versions.

Version one is rather restrained. Break Me Out 2.0 (that's what it's called) hits you with a wall of sound on the first time through the chorus and tries out some different licks in the middle. The final version, which is on their new album, has different mixing for a cleaner sound, a faster tempo, and drives harder. But what makes it stand-out amazing is its story arc.

A lot of songs start out small and add instruments and volume up to a climax of sorts. Most of them don't do it right, though. The chorus is frequently the same, so you get an up-down-up-down feel. A lot of songs use a wall of sound to add impact, but often that's all it is.

Break Me Out 3 starts stronger than the others, with a brighter keyboard line with percussion behind it. It doesn't dump a cacophony on you like 2.0, but incrementally ratchets up the tension, then hits you with a brief payoff right after the chorus and before verse two. The second verse is even stronger, followed by a spell where the instruments almost vanish. The net effect is to add tension, because by that time you have some idea of what's coming. When that big payoff finally comes, the timing is spot-on perfect even though it's not where you'd expect it to be. It's an awesome payoff precisely because of that. Finally, it doesn't fade out on the end like the other versions—it winds down and stops at the end of a measure.

Listen to it courtesy of Rhapsody, if you like:
Break Me Out (new album)
(The others are on eMusic, but I think you need an account. I signed up for a free trial.)

Now, if you're a writer, go back and read this post while imagining that I'm talking about a story instead of a song. Remember that they probably had a fresh set of ears to help with the final production. And realize that good is one thing, and great isn't a whole lot different than good—but it makes all the difference.

I'm off to do some polishing.