Movie Review: Mockingjay Part 1 (Spoiler-Free)

“Miss Everdeen, it is the things we love most that destroy us.”

–  President Snow

 

mjayposterI should start this review by saying I have read all of the Hunger Games books. I think this is important because for book-to-screen adaptions like this, book fans such as myself will have a far more critical outlook on said film. I’m looking less at the story being told and more at how the film crew manages to tell it.

That being said, let’s get cracking.

I’ll start this review off bluntly and say that Mockingjay Part 1 did not in any way top Catching Fire. Instead, this movie was more on par with the first film of the series: faithful to the material, and quite in the spirit of the franchise, but woefully lacking in adding any new, smart touches to the story.

Here’s what I mean. If you recall, the first Hunger Games movie was well-done, but it took an hour and eight minutes to get to the actual Hunger Games. Parts of it felt like they dragged on, especially the opening, and overall I thought as well as the story was told, it lacked crisp direction.

Conversely, Catching Fire blew me away. The plot moved at lightning pace and was neatly presented in a smart, concise way. What’s more, the movie took on a personality of its own—while remaining faithful to source material, of course. For example, who can forget Johanna’s famous elevator dressing scene? Or President Snow’s line: “They’re holding hands. I want them dead.” I found myself laughing aloud much more than I’d anticipated. At the same time, there were small touches, such as the shot of the door closing right before the man in District 11 is shot in the head.

The makers of Mockingjay Part 1, for whatever reason, pounded their fists on the table and said, “You know that first film? The one that’s the worst in the series? Let’s make another one like that!”

I hope I’m establishing a clear picture here. Mockingjay isn’t at all a bad movie, it just fails to leave any sort of dent in comparison to Catching Fire. I’m willing to say it’s a slight improvement over the first installment, with about the same number of slight chuckles, and a remarkably similar sluggish pace.

I’m sorry if I sound harsh; I actually do quite love the entire series, but I’m a relativist with these sorts of things. Catching Fire is one of the closest things to a perfect film I’ve ever seen. Mockingjay Part 1 is woefully forgettable by comparison.

Much of the fault, I think, lies with the circus clowns in Hollywood who made the moronic decision to split this movie into two parts. If you were afraid that would affect the pace of the narrative, you were completely right. The story—while executed as best as it can be—is still awkward, contains about ten minutes total of real action, and is painfully full of filler scenes/dialogue. I would have gladly paid double the price of a movie ticket to see one incredible movie, rather than two diluted ones.

All this to say, I enjoyed it. Once it gets out of the shadow of its predecessor, it still brings many of the mostly-good elements of the first film to the table. We see uprisings in the districts…at this point, slightly trite, but still well-done. The film does a good job of setting up its finale, which hopefully will be the best installment yet. I also did enjoy the scene of Katniss singing the “Hanging Tree” song.

(And of course, who’s really surprised that J-Law can sing, on top of everything else?)

In Conclusion: While this movie contains many of the sluggish mistakes of the first film, it still stays faithful to its source material and does an impressive job of laying the groundwork for the real finale. It’s successfully made me excited for Part 2…and Prim should have a blast, also!

Too soon?

Rate: 7 out of 10.

If you liked this review, be sure to check out my reviews of the first Hunger Games Movie as well as Catching Fire!

Book Review: The Giver

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”
― Lois Lowry, The Giver

 

givercoverI’d hope there are many teenagers out there who grew up with this novel, which won a Newbery Medal in 1994 and is taught in many middle school classrooms today. I’ve re-read it several times in the past few years, and with the movie adaption hitting theaters today, I thought I’d spill my thoughts on the source material.

The Giver is basically a 1990’s Hunger Games for middle schoolers. In a futuristic world of “Sameness,” every person lives in a peaceful, organized community where jobs and spouses are assigned, emotions are repressed with pills, and no one can see color. The only person with memories of the past is an elder called “The Giver,” who gives guidance to the community leaders. The story features a boy named Jonas who is assigned to be trained by the Giver, and be given his memories, to someday take his place.

Cue realizations, revolution, blah blah blah.

I hate how trite this sounds today; since the release of this story in 1993 we’ve seen Divergent, The Hunger Games and the like. The Giver might have many of the same elements, but it still does them quite well. I was especially interested in the concept of Jonas being “given” memories a little at a time and watching those change him. I also enjoyed how the story distinguishes that as the new Giver he has “honor, but not power.” He is given full permission to lie or be rude to anyone, but he has no say in changing the Sameness of the community.

I thought the Giver himself was an interesting character. He’s wise on the surface, but deep down he’s full of bitterness towards the community and regret of his past mistakes. I think Jeff Bridges (who also helped develop the movie) will be perfect to play this role.

All that being said, there are a few things I couldn’t stand about the novel.

For one thing, I thought the pacing was putrid. The book is 180 pages long. The first 100 of these are spent introducing us to the community, to Jonas’s selection, and to his first meeting with the Giver. Within the next eighty pages, the real meat of the story is glossed over in quick successions, and then we’re left with an unresolved ending open to interpretation.

I hate open endings.

I get it; sometimes they’re symbolic, and sometimes they’re cliffhangers to set up the next installment. Problem: there is no next installment here, at least not one that reveals the fates of any of the characters. We’re left feeling as though the author got bored with her own story and stopped 2/3 of the way through.

Maybe it’s because I’m nitpicky, but if I’d told this story, I would have paced it much differently and concluded on a satisfying note, not a confusing one. Also, I realize this was the 90’s and the story takes place in a utopian society, but I do wish the secondary characters had been fleshed out a little more beyond being strictly obedient citizens.

Between these flaws and the now-tired concept, I can see why this book isn’t a bestseller anymore. That being said, it used to be.

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m excited for the movie. Jeff Bridges is playing the Giver and Meryl Streep is the community leader, which is exciting. Lois Lowry, the author, has been very involved with the production and has been Tweeting about how delighted she is with the finished product. Am I expecting to enjoy it more than the Hunger Games? Certainly not. But, I do hope for a faithful adaption. I’m all set to see it with a friend next week, so I’ll be sure to review it after the fact.

In the meantime, a conclusion on the book: Though it may no longer be the best of its genre, this story is still a classic and well worth your time.

Rate: 7 out of 10.

Movie Review: Catching Fire

President Snow: “You fought very hard in the Games, Miss Everdeen. But they were games. Would you like to be in a real war? Imagine thousands of your people, dead. Your loved ones, gone.”

Katniss Everdeen: “What do I need to do?”

 

hgmcfFirst of all, don’t worry, I won’t put any spoilers on here!

You might remember me reviewing the Hunger Games movie with a somewhat critical eye. I said how I thought the first film was nicely done, but just didn’t feel as exciting or cool as the book. For anyone who shared that concern—or any concern at all, really—fear not. The second Hunger Games movie sweeps in and blasts away any flaws in its predecessor.

Show of hands: who read the Harry Potter books, loved them, then saw the movies and loved them just as much? If you’re like me, you followed that pattern, and you noticed something: what makes the HP movies so great is that they don’t just adapt their source material line for line. They include most of it, but then give it a new feel, sort of.

For example, the sixth Harry Potter, my favorite one. In the book chapter one, we have a meeting between the ministers talking about the growing threat of Voldemort. In the movie, we have an awesome action sequence of a bridge being destroyed as Death Eaters sweep through London.

If you loved touches like that, buckle up. Catching Fire achieves the near-impossible goal of turning the source material into its own thing, while at the same time being a faithful adaption. Oh, if you see this movie and have any problems with how it was adapted, please blast me in the comments. Please. Even my most critical friends couldn’t find anything wrong with how this book was translated into a movie. Was a scene from the book cut here and there? Absolutely. Were new scenes added? Sure. But the feel is identical. No, it’s even better, because the movie is so energetic and fast-paced that you’re going at light speed for the whole ride.

You know how when you watch a really good scene in a movie and you’re just sitting there gripping the armrests, holding your breath to see what will happen? This whole movie is like that. It doesn’t let up.

What I’m trying to say is that this movie found what the first one was looking for. I personally was quite bored the first fifteen or so minutes of The Hunger Games. And even the rest was sorta…eh. Good adaption, but in the end, it felt too familiar. We’d seen it all before.

Forget that here. Oh, forget that here. I won’t spoil anything, but for anyone who knows the story: do you know how President Snow makes a big announcement about halfway through the book? Like, really big?

You’d think that would just show Katniss crying afterwards or something. But no, this movie goes all-out. We see Peeta falling to the floor, Haymitch throwing something at his TV, and Katniss breaking down her own door to run out into the woods and sob. All while an epic score plays and it shows a montage of Panem.

Think I spoiled it? That was just a taste, my friends; a single example of the tone this movie takes on. Every scene is better done than in the book. There’s quite a bit more humor, too (I laughed out loud at Johanna’s interview).

And of course, Jennifer Lawrence. She really is at the top of her game in this movie. Don’t get me wrong, she was great in the first one. But now she seems older, more mature, more like a hardened adult warrior who’s still vulnerable. They couldn’t have picked a better actress for the role.

I could spend pages breaking down all the awesome scenes and touches in the film, but I think I’m better off just telling you to go see it.

So, go see it. Now!

In Conclusion: This movie is spectacularly done and takes on its own tone while still being faithful to the book. If you loved the first movie or even if you didn’t, see this one now. It’s a whole new experience.

Rate: 9.5 out of 10.

On Writing: A Chart of Popular YA Novels’ Word Counts

“Words are only painted fire; a look is the fire itself.”

–  Mark Twain

 

I’m sure there are other charts or lists like these elsewhere on the internet, but I wanted to contribute one as well.

Word count is something you get to disregard if you’re just writing for fun, but any manuscripts which hope to be turned into books should have at least some grasp of their length, at least according to the agents and editors of today’s publishing industry.

I’m not going to talk about official guidelines for word count because that information is already available from far more qualified informants. Plus, the guidelines vary. Some editors say middle grade novels should be between 50,000 and 70,000 words, whereas others might say 60,000-80,000.

My novel is YA Fantasy, most closely resembling Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson stories in terms of age range and the feel of the story. To roughly gauge my target word count, I looked into the word count of The Lightning Thief. That one is 87,223 words long. The final draft of my manuscript totaled to around the same, give or take a thousand words.

That’s kind of a bad example, honestly, because I would’ve been fine if it was off by even five or ten thousand words. Also something to note: I didn’t tailor my manuscript to that length, or any length. I just wrote, made sure the story felt full and complete, then went back and looked at word count. I cut probably two thousand words, but I wouldn’t have hesitated to leave them in if I’d thought they should be there. Like I said, the guidelines are flexible, so an estimate will often do. If I’d written a YA Fantasy that was 130,000 words long—roughly 520 pages—then that would bother some publishers. Not all, but some. Same as if I wrote one that came in at 110 pages. As it is, mine comes in at a healthy average of 324 pages.

Anyway! Enough about me. Should anyone reading this plan to take my advice and look at word counts of popular books, I’ve compiled a chart of some of those YA books here.

The standard formula is page count= word count/250, since most novels generally have 250 words per page. So you can guess any book’s word count by multiplying its page count by 250. That being said, I made this chart with the help of this handy website, which will tell you the exact counts of just about any novel.

Word Counts

On Publishing: The Literary Agent Process, Told Through Memes and GIF’s

“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”

–  Robert Collier

 

First things first: the concept of using GIF’s to explain a process wasn’t originally my idea. By all means, before you read my take on this, I’d highly recommend checking out Nathan Bransford’s hilarious blog post, The Publishing Process in GIF Form. Mine is a bit different because it uses mostly different images, has a few paragraphs between each one, and focuses specifically on the process of getting a literary agent rather than the entire publishing cycle.

(In Star Trek villain voice): Shall we begin?

So I talked last time about the process of writing a query letter, which is one of those you-get-there-eventually tasks. Once I got there, and edited said query letter to death, it was time to look for a literary agent. I turned to the 2013 Guide to Literary Agents. I was hoping that flipping through that would be something like this:

anigif_enhanced-buzz-27969-1361551443-1

But instead it took me a solid few days to read the advice in the first half (what? Yes, I’m a teenager and I actually read advice!) and then another week at least to carefully scan through the agent listings, highlighting those that seemed like good fits.

agenttime

(In case you’re wondering, I made all of the non-animated memes myself).

Once I had a highlighted book full of potential future agents, I typed up said agents’ names and agencies in a document on my computer. That may be a little too organized for most people, especially seventeen year olds, but I’m not most people.

So then it was time to start reading over the submission guidelines for each agency, and I started to feel a lot like:

anigif_enhanced-buzz-21641-1361553914-25

And then I learned that I’ll need to include a synopsis along with my query letter and sample pages, and my reaction was:

anigif_enhanced-buzz-29954-1361553931-1

and

arguecat

But I researched the best way to write a synopsis, hammered out a rough draft, then let it sit for a few days before revising it until it was in the best possible shape. And now everything was finally, really done, and I was just about ready to prepare everything for hitting ‘send’ to the first of the agents on my list.

That’s the stage I’m at now. Everything is all ready to be sent. And I wish I could tell you I’m all like:

come_at_me_bro

But in reality, I’m feeling closer to:

anigif_enhanced-buzz-28420-1361551925-9

Okay, I promise I’ll actually write a bit of a blog post now.

Being the way that I am, I feel the need to break down every process into smaller steps. So, for my own personal organization, I’ve broken down the process from query to representation into three ‘battle rounds,’ if you will.

 

Round 1: The agent reads over your query.

So you send off the letter, completely prepared for the worst:

bracerejections

And you can only imagine what the agent is thinking as they read it:

querycon   grumpymanusc

I should clarify that these memes are meant to be a parody of how people perceive agents to be, not how agents actually are.

Admittedly, no one’s odds are good here. As Nicola Morgan wrote, “Be prepared to be rejected, often. It’s not a lottery but a very difficult game.” All I can say is that every author will get their tsunami of rejection slips. Myself included.

BUT. It should be well noted that agents aren’t heartless, bloodsucking leeches whose mission in life is to destroy prospective authors. Their mission is to find the truly good ones. And though this is a tough part of the fight for aspiring novelists, the reward of survival is valuable: an agent asks for a partial manuscript.

 

Round 2: The agent reads over your partial.

What’s unfortunate about this stage of the process is that your stress level will probably jump up. I can only imagine being at the point where an agent loved my query letter enough to ask for some of the book, then I’m left praying I don’t get rejected for a lack of writing in the manuscript itself. I wouldn’t call this the hardest part of the process, unless you’re someone who can write a decent letter for a terrible book. That’d be an interesting skill to have; I’m pretty sure I have the opposite problem.

This round is hard to survive, too, but the prize is grander still: an agent asks for your entire book. Eeep!

 

Round 3: The agent reads over the entire manuscript.

I don’t know from experience, but I would guess this is the most nerve-wracking point of the journey. On one hand, you’d think the author would feel good, because they know their work is enough to attract significant interest from an agent…but, on the other hand, now is when it gets down to a generous chunk of the luck involved with this. The agent hopefully likes your writing as well as your story, but now is the time for them to decide if they would be the best agent for it. And there is a scary plethora of reasons as to why it might not work for them.

But, if you survive this round, the prize is metaphorical wealth beyond the young writer’s imagining; the Holy Grail of storytelling, the Triwizard Cup of the typed word: an agent’s offer of representation.

Which, I can only imagine, goes something like this:

tumblr_m8rxioybpK1r9rdxs

But, for now, I’m just getting ready to send off my query letter. So, for now, I’ll say the same thing to every prospective novelist that I’m saying to myself, as I dive into this great (and terrifying) industry:

oddsfavor

I think that about sums it up. Best of luck, authors.

On Revision: Stage 1 (Plot Review)

“One’s mind, when stretched by new ideas, never regains its original dimensions.”

 –  Oliver Wendell Holmes

 

Hi, all! I hope everyone is having a relaxing winter break.

I am myself, apart from being sick, and I’m using the time to work on revising my manuscript. And of course, if I’m working on my manuscript, you know I’ll be spending adequate amounts of time procrastinating, directing my creative energies elsewhere…this blog, for instance.

Today, I talk about “Stage 1” of revising a fiction manuscript. In my intro to this, I broke the process down into three stages: Plot revision, wording revision, and the final “flow” read-through.

Plot revising is arguably the easiest of the tasks, because it actually can be fun (or so you think going in). You get to take a step back, look at the storyline you’ve created, and decide how to make it even better. And storytelling is why novel writing is so fun in the first place, right?

People write fiction for different reasons, of course. I do it because I have stories burgeoning from my brain, and I need someplace to put them. Plus, as a teenage guy still in high school, I find it’s one of the few areas of my life over which I have complete control.

That’s not why I write nonfiction, obviously, but the concept is the same: I write because I have something to say. No matter how mind-mashingly boring it might be.

But I digress. Where was I? Plot revision.

The term is pretty self-explanatory, and everyone goes about it in kind of their own way. Some skip this step altogether, some just think through the story in their heads, and some read the entire manuscript start to end to check for continuity errors.

I myself take this last road, as painstakingly tedious as it sounds. I recently sat down and read my whole book start to end, not worrying about wording (though I can’t pretend I ignored every syntax error I spotted) but just checking that everything made sense.

When telling a story, it’s easy to ignore character motivations. If you’re in the throes of creativity and you realize how cool it would be to throw in a betrayal halfway through the story, great! Eureka!

Erm…unless, as you now realize, there’s no reason at all for one of your characters to betray the other.

This is just one example, and trust me, I’ve caught myself plenty of times. I’ve found my share of characters who know things they shouldn’t, do things that don’t make sense, and say things they never would (but they did!)

And now I realize how annoying plot revision is. I have to be “that guy”…the one who reads over the book and says in a nasally voice, “Well, the story was good, but here’s why this part is improbable, this character is confusing, and this part is extraneous. Also, to be realistic, half of your characters should have died around here” (jabs to chapter number with wooden ruler).

An unpleasant task, to be sure. But not nearly as unpleasant as actually fixing these obnoxious errors.

And yet it must be done, which is what I told myself when I sat down and combed through my plot for inconsistencies. I found less than I was expecting, but they were still there, dancing around and clogging up my manuscript like those talking snot creatures in the Mucinex commercials.

And, much like in those commercials, I flushed them out. Then, once I finished reading through, I looked at the story as a whole. Did it start naturally, and come to a satisfying conclusion? Did each of the characters develop as much as I wanted them to, in a way that felt right?

This is another part of revision…knowing your story and your characters. What I mean is this: knowing what expectations you gave people when you introduced them to your characters, and making sure those expectations were met. Of course you want to surprise people, but they also shouldn’t be left feeling let down, like the author got lazy (*cough* Mockingjay).

The book should be like a breath of air: you start by taking a deep breath in, you hold it for as long as you can, then let it out slowly. It should feel natural, as should the story itself.

 

I finished my stage 1 revision on December 16th, for the most part. And now I’m immersed in stage 2—page by page word revision.

I’ll save this cheerful subject for later, though. Happy editing.

The Bad Beginning (On Writing: The Dreaded Opening Chapter)

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

–  Arthur Ashe

 

Have you ever tried to explain a good book to someone by saying, “The first chapter is terrible, but the rest are amazing”?

That’s a serious question; I’m not sure of my own answer. There are probably a handful of yes’s, and I can tell you for sure that if you tried to explain the state of my manuscript to someone, you would assure them that the beginning is utter trash by comparison to the rest of the story.

When I started hammering out the first draft back in 2009, I began the process by staring at the computer screen for a good ten minutes. Then, after sitting there thinking as hard as I could, I realized that I couldn’t come up with a good beginning to my story. So I just skipped the opening altogether and wrote the start of a fresh scene, which is now chapter five. Eventually I came up with a loose opening sequence, but I still wasn’t happy with it.

Over the years, I’ve re-written the first chapter probably five or six times.

And I’m not just talking about switching up dialogue or the order of events or anything. I’m talking about going from “sucked into a vortex inside an attic” to “kidnapped by sorcerers on the way home from school,” to “being carried down the aisle in a coffin,” all at different points in the main character’s life. All different tries at one stupid little chapter.

And—almost six re-writes and four years later—I’M STILL UNHAPPY WITH IT.

So I was really hoping I’m not the only writer with this problem.

Maybe it’s just because my novel is a YA fantasy, but for the life of me, I can’t come up with a first chapter that satisfactorily begins it. No matter what I try, I always bump into some cliché or another. My hope has been that if I try enough opening scenarios, I’ll simply run out of clichés to use eventually.

But no, I’m still coming up blank. And I’ve just finished the final re-write of the first draft. That sounds a bit backwards; I know. What it means is that I have the story in place and a lot of editing to do.

Before I start said editing, however, I need to find a good way to kick off the story. And no matter what events I run through my mind to launch it, I just can’t think of one that really grabs peoples’ interests. Nothing unique.

The reason I’m writing this post is because all of this talk of novel openings got me thinking of first chapters in general, of published, popular books. Good ones are supposed to pull you in, so you can’t stop reading, right?

But as I thought of this, I realized that not every good book I’ve read has that kind of kickoff. One example that comes to mind is The Hunger Games. The entire opening chapter is simply character setup, with Katniss running through the woods with Gale and getting ready for the reaping. It’s only the end of the chapter that starts the suspense, and to be perfectly honest, the only reason I read to that point is because my friends recommended it.

And I’m glad I did. The rest of the story was good, and I think that’s the point. “High concept” books, as they’re called, have a tiny bit of leeway in terms of gripping the reader right from the first page versus the first few chapters. But if you’re writing a book like mine, which draws its strength from its characters and their development, it can be killer to write an opening that keeps the audience interested enough to enjoy the full benefit of the story.

  

Unfortunately, that’s the end of my thoughts on this topic. I don’t have any brilliant solutions to this infernal problem, other than hoping for a spark of inspiration or a sudden epiphany. No, I can’t solve this problem; I just felt like ranting about it for a little while. If I’ve wasted your time, I’m very sorry. But hopefully I’m not the only one who has this problem, and hopefully that spark of inspiration will hit me.

Sooner rather than later would be nice.