Monday, September 22, 2008

Regarding Breaking Dawn

If you want to read this book and have not, don't read any further.

Okay, so you've already read the book, or you're that sure you'll never have even a passing interest in it. Fair enough either way. My wife and I have both enjoyed every book that Stephanie Meyer has published so far, and Breaking Dawn was no exception. I tend not to read criticism of books I like (there is rarely any point, as it boils down to taste), but in this case the criticism was inescapable.

I started reading this book the day it came out, and finished it within a day or two, so it's been a few months since I've read it. I'm a bit late to the party with posting my thoughts on the novel, but I've been busy. Mainly I want to respond to some of the criticisms that have been made against this book:

1. The book is fan-service.

Well... this is true. Seems like kind of a fitting way to end a series to me. The protagonist gets what she wants, and everybody goes away happy. It doesn't make for a groundbreaking, emotional knife-twisting, but it sure made me happy. The Time Traveler's Wife was both wonderful and haunting, and it left me miserable and depressed for days afterward. Quite the opposite with Breaking Dawn. Personally, I think there is room for both kind of books -- those that reaffirm life, and those that speak to the inevitability of death. I'd really hate to imagine a world with just one or the other. I tend to trend toward the bittersweet or dark endings in my own writing, so this is in no way a defense of something I might do. But I'm not opposed to the idea that something I'd personally never do is still a valid thing to do.

2. Bella is too perfect, creating a vehicle for the author to fantasize through.

Well... I can see that, too. But this is hardly new. Superman and a lot of other comic book heroes come to mind as falling into a similar mold. It's satisfying to read something like this every once and a while, though it would have been boring if the whole series had been this way. It is indeed more interesting when the main characters have flaws, but Bella has been so flawed for the rest of the series that it's quite an interesting change to see her as the active, powerful one for a change (she has been so passive in many ways in the other books, so it's a notable shift). I can see why this would turn some people off, but I don't think it's right to make a sweeping dismissal of the work for this reason.

Oh, and the complaint that all the guys fall over her even though she thinks she is ordinary? Well, this really happens. Whether or not it happened to Stephanie Meyer is irrelevant, this is the story she was telling and it is not as fantastical as some people seem to think. The same thing happened to my wife a lot in high school before we got engaged (and after, a bit). Of course, I know the truth is that my wife is far from ordinary, even if she never seemed to believe it!

3. The birth scene.

Squeamish, are we? My wife and I plan to have kids in a few years, and this scene did not change our views on it one iota. It's an interesting bit of science fiction. I guess maybe this was unexpected for some in a YA book, but Stephanie Meyer has noted that she never set out to write YA with this series.

4. Overuse of adjectives and descriptors like "dazzling."

This is definitely a glitch in Stephanie Meyer's writing, but it's hardly something worth condemning her for. If she were not so popular, people wouldn't complain about this. For a relatively new author, she's extraordinarily polished and professional in her presentation and wording. People complained about "saidisms" and other extra adjectives in J.K. Rowling's books, too, but I also felt that those complaints were a bit on the nitpicky side.

5. The book is angsty.

Well, so are a lot of teenagers. So are a lot of people in love. I think that part of the reason this series works, and the reason it resonates with people so much, is the fact that it is truthful in its emotions and its story arcs. If you're jaded and don't remember what it was like to be young and in love (or missed that boat entirely), I guess it would seem a little overmuch. But again, this boils down to a taste thing. I wouldn't want every book to be like this, but I wouldn't want every book to be like any single work. This book does an excellent job of honestly telling the story it is trying to tell.

6. Characterization blunders.

(Jacob and Edward's shift in views throughout the book, the easygoing nature of Charlie and the mother when it comes to Bella's wedding, etc.) Some people have complained that these parts of the story seemed out of character with past novels, but I didn't feel that way. I was surprised at how easy Charlie and the mother took it on Bella, but it wasn't grossly out of character -- his laid-back attitude and the mother's flighty nature had been long established. Given that, it wasn't much of a stretch to have their reactions be comparably tame so that the story could move along.

As for the changes with Jacob and Edward, there was support for their changes in past books, too. Edward has long made it clear that he would do whatever is best for Bella even at the expense of his happiness (hence his offer for her to have "puppies"), and Jacob has also been fairly prey to Bella's whims. The "imprinting" thing was also long established, and provided an interesting and funny plot arc.

7. Build Up To Nothing

So they do all this preparing for a battle that doesn't happen, right? I disagree. The battle very much happened, but it was more about positioning and maneuvering and discussion than just brawn-on-brawn. Surely you don't think the Cold War wasn't a real war just because we didn't have tanks and planes and nuclear weapons firing left and right?

Yes, there was not a battle in the traditional sense (as there was in Harry Potter), but I think this was one of the strengths of this work. The physical/magical battles in Harry Potter were long established through the series and so to not have one at the end would have been a letdown to be sure. But in the Twilight series, physical violence has been far overshadowed by the threat of violence along with emotional and mental conflict. Stephanie Meyer delivered on all these fronts without taking the story in a cliche direction just for the sake of having a "big battle" at the end. I thought it was the right decision, and it tied together nicely with everything else she had written so far.

8. Bella doesn't lose anything. There are no sacrifices.
Yep, this is a pretty "happy ending" type of book. In some respects, it is almost one long epilogue to the rest of the series. As I said before, that's not the sort of book I'm likely to write (I trend darker than that), but it doesn't offend me in the least that Stephanie Meyer chose this path. I found it interesting, and enjoyable, and a wonderful way to say farewell to the characters. In fact, if she wrote another book that was an "epilogue to the epilogue," so to speak, I'd read that one, too.

There are room for all kinds of stories, and not all of them have to center around suffering and loss. Bella and Edward (and Jacob) certainly suffer plenty during this novel, and there is conflict everywhere even when an overarching plot is not evident, and I felt like that was more than enough to keep the story interesting and meaningful. The fact that the suffering is passing and that everything works out is perhaps part of the uplifting theme of this book -- some genuinely dark and scary stuff happens (the birth in particular), but at the end of it things are better and life goes on. Surely this is a message worth writing about at least in some books?

There were other complaints in addition to these, of course, but most of them were so clearly rooted in taste that they aren't really debatable. To me, the most important thing is that Stephanie Meyer's work was original and interesting -- she didn't fall back on formulaic tropes, and she didn't bore her audience with self-indulgent tangents and explanations. Almost everything fit, the pace was reasonable, and she left at least this fan with a pleasant memory of her series at the end of it all. You can argue the artistic merits all day long, but I think there's value to be had in doing just what Stephanie did.

New Art

Over the last few months, I have added a variety of new images in my latest gallery. Some highlights:

Back Creek 2

Blowing Apocalypse
(This monster is the one I am considering making a plastic model of.)

Broken Gravity - Panoramic

Hangar Scaffolding

Power Substation

River Vegetation 2
(Now with realistic shoreline)

Swallowing Pills

This is more of a public service announcement than anything else. All my life, I have been unable to swallow pills. In twenty-some years, I've never swallowed ONE single pill. For years I have had acid reflux disease, but it has gone untreated because I couldn't take the medicine. Now the consequences of that have become more serious, so I finally managed to teach myself how to take pills.

According to some statistics on the Internet (who knows how reliable these are), perhaps as many as 40% of all adults have trouble swallowing pills -- to the point that they sometimes skip their medication out of frustration, etc. I tried all the various techniques from all sorts of different sources. I also bought the surprisingly-inexpensive Medi-Straw to try to improve the situation. Nothing worked for me (but there are lots of good ideas on those links, and the Medi-Straw would probably do great for people with different swallowing methods than me).

But I kept at it for weeks, trying to swallow this stupid little slow-release pill that was fast turning into a demonic tormentor. The trick, for me, finally came with analyzing how I normally swallow and focusing on that. Let me explain:

Like a lot of people, I eat relatively quickly. This means I was already swallowing fairly big chunks of food while eating -- much bigger than a pill at times -- without thinking about it at all. This is something we all do, and so it stands to reason that we can all learn to swallow pills easily with practice. Two months ago I would not have believed I would say that, though!

My breakthrough came from tearing off half-dollar-sized chunks of wonder bread and chewing it, then swallowing it. No pill yet, just the bread. I noticed that I could comfortable swallow pretty much the whole thing in one go without incident or discomfort, after chewing it a bit. I focused on the way my tongue stayed out of the way (it had historically been blocking the pill from going down my throat, or keeping it pinned against the roof of my mouth), and the mechanics of how I swallowed when I wasn't stressing about something foreign (like the pill) being in my mouth.

At least for me, it was nearly impossible to swallow the pill until I paid more attention to how it felt to swallow naturally. I suspect others will find the same. Once I was comfortable with how it should feel to swallow the pill, I took another half-dollar-sized piece of bread and chewed it up. At the last second, when I was ready to swallow, I instead paused and dropped the pill in first. Then I swallowed, and presto -- I could hardly believe the pill was gone.

This remained difficult for another week or so, often taking up to 45 minutes of trying to successfully complete, but with more practice it became gradually easier. Sometimes I had to chew the bread a little more with the pill actually in my mouth (careful not to chew the pill itself), but in this general way I was able to get the pills down reliably.

Now it's been about two months, and I can easily take pills on the first try with just a bit of bread. I've also taken them with brownies, grapes, lasagna, and other random foods that happened to be handy at the time. I still can't take it with liquid, but pretty much any food can be chewed up and swallowed with the pill. It's not a matter of "disguising" the pill inside pudding, or some other sort of food -- it's a matter of suppressing my gag reflex and satisfying my subconscious that there aren't harmful foreign bodies in the food. Once I learned how to do those two things, it all became possible, and in fact surprisingly easy.

You can do it too! The last tidbit that helped me on this long road was this: evidently it is impossible to accidentally inhale a pill given the mechanics of how your mouth is constructed. This was extremely reassuring, let me tell you. Best of luck everyone out there who still can't take pills reliably -- I have every confidence that you can accomplish this thing. If I can do it, after all those years of failing, truly anyone can.

The Protomen

The Protomen are absolutely amazing. I've never been a particular fan of Mega Man, but their music video (see link) really hooked me and I bought both their albums. If you aren't into NES-style chiptunes (I love them) you should stick with the first album, though.

The Protomen are basically a band that creates rock operas surrounding the story of Mega Man. Their title track, Hope Rides Alone (the music video linked to above) is pretty amazing, but a lot of their other tracks are just as good, if not better. The Will of One is just incredible, as are The Stand and Sons of Fate.

As with most rock operas (another personal favorite: Beethoven's Last Night), I found I had to listen to the Protomen album multiple times before I caught everything that was going on. The first few listen-throughs I simply found the material compelling, and a good listen. After I really understood the story, however, I discovered a truly unexpected emotinal weight to it. I've always thought of Mega Man as largely uninteresting, lightweight robot fare (apologies to fans), but the story presented here is something I won't stop thinking about for a long time. This just became one of my favorite albums.


If you haven't heard of Shapeways and you're at all into 3D computer design, check it out. It's a service for printing three-dimensional objects made of lego-like plastic. That probably sounds like sci-fi if you haven't heard for 3D printing before, but it's quite real. What's unique about this service is its relatively low cost compared to most 3D printing shops.

For authors that are also into 3D modeling, or who know (or can pay) someone with that skill, this is a pretty cool opportunity. Personally, I'm planning on making a plastic model of one of the monsters from my current novel -- if it is published, that will be a pretty cool thing to have for giveaways, and as a talking point at any signings, etc. Definitely better than pens or buttons or whatever (though those have their place).

Maybe I should be selfishly hoarding ideas like that for my own personal use, but someone else is bound to think of it anyway. And really, hoarding good ideas is for lonely jerks. Let's see some durable, painted, limited-edition figurines of characters from upcoming novels!

State of the... me

It's been a long time since my last post, hasn't it? Well, there's no surprise there for me -- it was inevitable. I stink at routines. Everything I do in life seems to happen in spurts, since I have so many things competing for my attention. I'm sure everyone here is familiar with that juggling act.

"Everyone here? You mean he expects that someone is still hanging around this dusty old blog?"

Well, oddly enough, the weekly hits to my blog/website have hardly dropped at all during the long silence, though the visitors are of a different nature. Where once I primarily had aspiring writers popping in from blogs like Miss Snark, Nathan Bransford, or Anne Mini, now it's mostly people finding me through keyword searches on Google or Google Images. Amazing how free art can bring in random traffic. I hope people are putting it to good use / enjoying it.

But I digress. At this point I should be launching into the cliche Blogger/Livejournal "I'll try to do better" post, right? God knows I've written my fair share of those already this year. But I'm not going to flog that dead horse again -- time to stop apologizing. Fact is, I'm not a "good blogger" and I don't really aspire to be one. Daily content of merit? Lord, I don't think I have it in me. Weekly is even a huge stretch. I've long been fascinated with the cartooning careers of Gary Larson and Bill Watterson, wondering how they managed to keep up a daily flow of great work over what basically amounts to a decade. And now I know... I'll never know. I'm just not that sort of writer. I don't write poems or short stories for much the same reason -- everything worthwhile I write requires forethought and marination, as well as page space to stretch its legs.

Hence why my blog posts have always been a bit too long for comfortable daily-digest-style reading. This just isn't my format. Besides, all the time and effort I might spend on trying (and ultimately failing) to maintain a "good" blog would just be siphoning that time away from more meaningful pursuits.

Here I considered going into a lengthy definition of "more meaningful pursuits," supported by commentary on why I'm unhappy with many of my prior posts about writing, but one thing I'm learning these days: less is sometimes more. I trust you can draw the needed inferences yourself, and if not... well, you probably don't really care anyway.

SO. What's this blog still doing here, if I'm not going to treat it like a proper blog? Well, my current plan is to mistreat this poor webspace for years to come. Yes, blog, you're in for an extended, lonely, world of pain: you've just become primarly... *gasp*... a news page.

Basically, if I have some news to share, I will. If I don't, I won't. How frequently will I update? Who the heck knows? Will my posts be long and insightful? Probably not! Will I provide interesting links on occasion? Yes! Posts of new art? Yes! Lot's of rhetorical questions and exclamation points? Let's hope it ends here!

In all seriousness, sometimes I have things I need to share with the world, but there's not a lot of value in me blathering on about nothing during the in-between times. I'm not very good at it, and it's not a personal goal. Lately it's been quiet on the personal-news front because I've been writing, working on another project of a different sort (to be announced in around a year, most likely), and basically taking some time to enjoy life and spend time with my wife.

The writing well, for me, really dries up without those other stimuli and activities. This is the main thing I have learned about writing in the last quarter year: some activities sap my ability to write well (like watching copious amount of low-grade television or movies, Internet/blog addition, reading too many novels that aren't in a style I admire), while other activities enhance it (video games in moderation, exercise, healthy eating, watching mostly movies and reading books with writing I do admire).

I've also finally been able to answer my most burning question to my own satisfaction: What is a novel? As in, what does it consist of, how is it made, why and in what way do some novels become more than the sum of their parts, while others sputter on the runway? I'd love to be able to share that revelation with you, but I can't really express it. It's a personal thing, anyway -- everyone who's really considered the question could probably give you a wildly different dissertation on the subject. It's not so much my answer that should matter to you; the important thing is, if you are truly serious about writing, that you take the time to vigorously search for your own answer. Finding mine has taken roughly three years of struggle, and I'm quite positive my thoughts on the matter will grow and evolve -- perhaps even change completely -- over the coming years.

So, for now, that's the news. All is well, my writing is proceeding at the correct pace for maximum quality of the novel and sanity of the author, and so on. A few more frivolous posts to follow (links to things I've found interesting recently, but haven't posted about).