How Not to Write a Book: Connie Willis’ “DOOMSDAY BOOK”


On the advice of my brother, I bought this paperback. He knows that I often wonder how long I could survive if I magically time-travelled to the medieval days. Could I teach the medievals some basic science that would vastly improve their lives before they burnt me at the stake for being a godless heretic? Could I convince a king to turn his energies to making sure his subjects were literate, rather than waging war on his neighbors, or would he have me executed for spreading the dangerous idea that monarchs are answerable to their subjects?

The book is 578 pages long. It took 6 years to write. The front cover quotes the NY Times saying it’s a “tour de force”. It won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1992, which would make you think it’s a great book. What a fool you’d be to think that! It stank worse than a 7th grader’s gym shorts.

The book is basically the story of a grad student historian in the year 2050, who goes back in time to study medieval life in 1320. But as soon as she goes through the “net” to the past, the net operator suddenly collapses with a highly infectious disease. They’re supposed to re-open the net in 2 weeks to bring the historian back – but with the university quarantined and no other net operators available, what are they going to do? She’ll be trapped in the past forever! Meanwhile, the historian arrives in the past with a similar debilitating infection. Now she can’t remember where the drop point was, so how’s she going to get back to it for the rendezvous in 2 weeks?

OK, so far, that’s a decent plot. But here’s where it all goes wrong.

– The net operator collapses on page 24.
– The historian is clearly ill on page 80.


Folks, I’m not exaggerating, it’s 310 pages of the university staff going back-and-forth to hospitals trying to figure out what the disease is while their phones keep malfunctioning, intercut with the historian girl spending all her time in bed trying to figure out how to ask someone where she was found without blowing her cover. Holy cow. What’s your reward for slogging through these 310 pages of boredom? NOTHING. The plot doesn’t move forward. The characters don’t develop. All we get is boring minutae.

Here’s the rules you broke, Connie Willis. Pay attention.

    1. Your protagonist must be active. They drive the story. Having the historian laid up in bed for 200 pages doesn’t make them active!

    2. Have meaningful conflict in your book! “I forgot where the drop is” carries you for a chapter or two –
    not for 310 pages. Especially when your audience suspects that your historian might not be so bummed about spending her whole life in the time period she’s obsessed with.

    3. Write characters we care about. I don’t care about the professor because he is a 1-dimensional character. So is the historian… and the doctor… and the medieval people… and everyone else around them! They are cardboard people. So I don’t really care if they get what they want in the story.

    4. Don’t tell me how to feel by having the characters think it. If someone says something dumb to the professor, Willis invariably writes “how stupid, he thought.” Really? I know it was stupid! You don’t need to have your character think it for me to know it. Give me some credit, lady!

FINALLY, around page 367, we finally confirm what the professor has been worried about this whole time (something the audience has been praying for…) The historian didn’t get to the right year. In fact, she’s 20 years late – right when the Black Plague was roaring across Europe. Holy cow! She’s in the middle of the plague with no medicine and people are gonna start dropping like flies – that’s cool! But really, you’re gonna make me wait 310 pages for that? At page 367, I DON’T CARE BECAUSE I GOT BORED IN THE MIDDLE 290 PAGES!!!! I WANT THEM ALL TO DIE SO THIS BOOK WILL END!

Which leads us to rule 5, which is very similar to rule 2:

    5. Have meaningful AND CONTINUAL conflict in your story! Don’t introduce your little conflict (“I don’t know where the drop site is”) on page 80 and think you’re covered for the rest of the book. Your real punch-in-the-gut conflict didn’t show up until page 367 – “I’m surrounded by people with the plague and we have no medicine!” That should have happened a lot sooner – maybe around page 150? And in between these 2 mini-revelations, each scene needs to have some real tension in it. I can only read about how hard it is for little Ms. Historian to talk without coughing a few times before I lose interest. Or how Mr. Professor keeps trying to dodge one student’s stereotypical protective mother. And you played these games for… how many pages?

This book should have topped out at around 250-300 pages. Those would be pages of regular-size type, thank you, not the itty-bitty type your bloated tome currently uses.

In very un-Goldman-like fashion, I actually STOPPED READING THIS BOOK. It’s true. There’s very few books I have started and not finished, so it takes a lot to get on this list. You made it, DOOMSDAY BOOK.

Please allow me to suggest a good tool to help you with your next work, Connie Willis. Study it hard if you want a 2nd chance from me.


PS – actually, I’m lying. There’s nothing Connie can do to get a 2nd chance from me. Even if she memorizes STORY cover-to-cover.

My letter to JRR Tolkien’s lawyer

If you hadn’t heard about the Tolkien Trust’s lawsuit against New Line, read here first.

Dear Ms. Eskenazi,

I read on about the lawsuit you’ve filed against New Line on behalf of the Tolkien Trust for gross points that were never paid on the LORD OF THE RINGS films. It’s a typical tragedy in this town of ours that the only way one gets paid what they’re owed is to sue for it.

I think you and your clients are in a unique position with this lawsuit to make a big difference in the way Hollywood studios do business. Everyone knows that the accounting systems at the studios are completely fraudulent, designed to cheat everyone but the studios out of any profits from projects. We all hear the stories day after day of how people were routinely screwed out of points and residuals. But the system won’t change until the burden of keeping it in place is too onerous for the studios. So far, no lawsuit has impelled them to change their ways because everyone has settled, from Art Buchwald to Peter Jackson. I think one of the big reasons they settle is that they’re afraid of being blacklisted. But the Tolkien Trust doesn’t need to fear being blacklisted. Their primary property has already been exploited; there’s not much left to sell to Hollywood. Furthermore, they’re a charity. It would be a great charitable gift to the hardworking creative artists of Hollywood if the Trust would see this suit all the way through to the very bitter end. Fully expose New Line’s bookkeeping schemes in the sunlight of open court, and then show the court how this is standard operating practice in the industry. Set a precedent of massive financial risk for any studio that does business this way. Make it impossible for them to keep doing this to their creative partners.

Good luck in your suit. I hope you will see it all the way through and make a real difference for us.

The Best Movie of 2007?

I’ll come out and say it, ONCE might be the best movie of the year. A little movie from Ireland that nobody saw, including myself, when it first opened in selected theaters this summer. I kept hearing that it got rave reviews from every critic that saw it, but the poster was so non-descript that I never got the motivation to actually get into a theater and see it. Here we are, many months later, and it’s what I call “free movie season” in Los Angeles – meaning that if you’re a member of certain unions or associations, the studios invite you to free screenings of the movies they want nominated for year-end awards like Golden Globes and Oscars in the hopes that they’ll get your votes. Seeing as how your correspondent is a member of the Editors Guild, and also unemployed due to the Writer’s Strike, this is proving to be a particularly packed free movie season.

But back to the story – I see a lot of movies and I’m a harsh critic. Working inside the machine of Hollywood makes me very aware of the tired tricks and regurgitated stories that so often stain our country’s movie screens. I’m not just a harsh critic – I’m a brutal critic. Just ask my fiancée, who suffers through my heavy sighs when movies take a wrong turn. Well, in this weekend’s screening on the 20th Century Fox lot, the only sounds coming from me were sniffles after profoundly emotional moments. ONCE is simply a magnificent little movie. No huge drama, no robots crashing through cityscapes, no murders, rapes, or revenge, just a simple story of a few very real human beings, one of whom makes his living as a street musician on a busy commercial street in Dublin, and the girl he meets one night on the job. Anyone who loves music will love this movie. The acting feels completely real and natural; the story feels completely real; and the music is tremendous. Right after seeing the movie, I went out and got the CD and it’s been playing in my car ever since. Anyone who loves playing the guitar will love this movie. Anyone with a heart in their chest should love this movie. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’m just going to say, go see it. If it’s not playing in your area anymore (which is very likely), don’t worry. The DVD is out December 18th.

And if anyone’s interested…
My favorite popcorn movies of 2007 were probably PLANET TERROR and TRANSFORMERS. Yeah, I know TRANSFORMERS was really dumb, but it was also a lot of fun. And SURF’S UP was wicked good too!

I Have Seen the Face of God

… and it looks like my new universal remote control

my awesome new remote

The number of remote controls on our couch-side table is truly horrifying. There are so many that we have no space left to put down our water glasses or soda cans. We have five remotes:

    – TV
    – VHS
    – DVD
    – Receiver
    – Cable box

To watch anything, you have to use at least 3 remotes – 1 to turn on the receiver and switch to the correct input, 1 to turn on the TV, and 1 to control the component you wanted to watch (VCR, DVD, or cable). As a techie AV guy, I was completely fine with this setup, but you’ll win the bet if you guess that it drove my girlfriend crazy. Like most women, it took her forever to figure out what remote did what, and she was always worried that she’d hit the wrong button and mess up all my carefully calibrated gear.

Last week this all changed. A friend of mine recommended checking out a Logitech Harmony remote control while I was at Best Buy stocking up on all the other stuff that my new HD TV has required me to upgrade (HDMI cables, an upconverting DVD player, etc). “You will love this remote,” he confidently predicted. “It controls everything with one button, and you can program it on your Mac.”

Program it from my Mac? Control everything with one button? Where do I sign up!!!

This remote control is a miracle. Why didn’t someone think of this ten years ago? We’ve all seen the so-called “universal remotes” – huge things with a thousand buttons that claim to control all your gear, usually with a fancy name like “Remote Commander!” They all worked on the same principle – on the top row of the remote, you click which component you want to control, then click the buttons below to perform a task, then click the component button of the next thing you want to control, etc. Took forever. And who could remember what all the buttons did, since each one had multiple functions?

The genius of Logitech is that they realized that the smartest way is control things is to have a SINGLE BUTTON for each task – so (for example), when you hit the “play movie” button, the remote will:

    – turn on the TV
    – switch the TV to the correct input & aspect ratio
    – turn on the receiver
    – switch the receiver to the correct input
    – turn on the DVD player
    – start playing the DVD!

How great is that? All from hitting one button! The remote does all the work! Can you guess what the other buttons are? That’s right – obvious things you want to do, like “watch TV”, “listen to music”, “play a game”, etc!

Here’s how this Holy Grail works. You load the Harmony software onto your Mac or PC, and then type in the manufacturer and model numbers of all your gear. The software downloads the right codes & info from Logitech’s online database and uses the USB cable that comes included to program your Harmony remote for you. If you want to be geeky (you bet I did!) you can configure your remote down to the tiniest detail, controlling what functions appear on the remote’s screen (and in what order), or even mapping specialized buttons onto your remote. Once your remote is configured, you can test everything and the remote’s Help function can make adjustments if anything is still not working perfectly. It truly, honestly, 100%, does not get any better or easier than this.

I got the 670 model because it was marketed as the best one for controlling a DVR. At Best Buy, it was $150, but on Amazon, it was only $100 plus $5 for shipping. You may cry out in shock, “A hundred dollars? For a hundred dollars, I’ll gladly juggle all those remotes and hit all those buttons myself and save the money.” If that’s what you say… then you, sir, clearly don’t understand what is important or fun in life.

Van Halen blows it at Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction

Diamond Dave


Only Van Halen’s second lead singer, Sammy Hagar, and ex-bass player Michael Anthony turned up for their induction. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen has just gone into rehab and original lead singer David Lee Roth stayed away in a tiff over what he would perform.


“Velvet Revolver performed in place of Van Halen and without Roth. Frontman Scott Weiland explained the ensuing controversy: “We were asked to perform. Kinda what happened was, he wanted to sing the song ‘Jump.’ We felt from an artistic standpoint, and I’m being totally honest with you, that it wasn’t a song we felt comfortable with. We don’t have keyboards. To bring a keyboard on stage wouldn’t work for us. We said we’d do “Jamie’s Cryin'” or “You Really Got Me,” and he was adamant that wasn’t okay.”

Dear Scott Weiland – you don’t get to tell David Lee Roth what song he sings at his Rock N Roll Hall of Fame induction!!! You haven’t earned it! You are a pathetic junkie – a junkie who should be down on his knees every hour, thanking God that he gets to be in a band with Slash. When Diamond Dave says “Jump”, you say, “How loud?”

Thoughts on THE LORD OF THE RINGS extended DVDs

When I saw the LORD OF THE RINGS movies in the theaters, I was not ecstatic. I read my oldest brother’s copy of THE LORD OF THE RINGS three or four times during junior high and high school, and the trilogy completely dominated my childhood fantasy life, even more than the X-Men. I spent endless hours daydreaming about elves, rings, spiders, Nazgul, filthy hobbitses, and huge armies of orcs crushing mankind. I even named my D&D character after Aragorn (for the geeks out there, “Eoren” was a Ranger, and I got him up to level 15). Unfortunately, the movies all left me feeling disappointed (except for THE RETURN OF THE KING’s battle of Pelennor Fields sequence). Of course, it’s not fair to judge a film by the masterpiece that plays in the feverish mind of a young adolescent desperate for escapism. And to their credit, the movies did help me to understand things that never clicked for me when I read the books – for the first time, I understood the difference between Sauron and Saruman (as a kid I’d always lose track of which one was which somewhere near the last third of FELLOWSHIP – why on Earth did Tolkien give his two villains such similar names?), and I finally understood the differences between Rohan and Gondor (which also ran together in my young mind, with their similar stories of impotent kings. Kudos to Peter Jackson for making the 2 kingdoms so visually and culturally distinct).

My girlfriend had only ever seen THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS in the theater, and wanted to see the rest, so when I saw all 3 extended DVD box sets on sale for $9.99 each at the video store, I went a little crazy and bought them all. This weekend was our long-awaited viewing party. To my surprise, this time I really liked all 3 movies.

The extended FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is 30 minutes longer. Honestly, the 30 minutes shouldn’t have been cut out in the first place. The longer version is great, and does a much better job of setting everything up. THE TWO TOWERS has added 43 minutes, and RETURN OF THE KING is 50 minutes longer. (thankfully, none of those minutes include a single frame of Tom Bombadil, who should have been cut out of the books too.) In every case, the added material improves, expands, and enhances the existing versions of the films. I don’t think anyone should ever watch the short versions again. Ban them. Watch the extended DVDs – and watch them back-to-back for maximum effect.

While watching, I couldn’t forget one poignant fact from an excellent documentary in the FELLOWSHIP box – that Tolkien, who was already orphaned by age of 12, fought in World War I and witnessed the horrors of trench warfare firsthand. Almost all of his close friends who enlisted with him were killed in battle. He emerged from the war orphaned all over again. The impact of the war on Tolkien is evident throughout the trilogy, which is singularly obsessed with death. All the characters worry about if they’ll die, how they’ll die, or if they’ll die with honor and glory.

As an adult, I get something completely different from the story than I did as a child. As a kid, I was enthralled by the great battle of good versus evil, of massive armies fighting do-or-die battles like that of Helm’s Deep. But I was never able to latch onto the more personal dilemmas of the characters. This time around, I was drawn to the smaller, more human dilemmas, in particular the tragedy of Boromir. Desperate for the ring that he believes will win the war for his dying city Gondor, Boromir is overwhelmed by the ring’s seduction and tries to steal it from Frodo. Frodo flees in terror and the spell is broken. Boromir realizes what he’s done, but it’s too late. As a herd of Uruk-Hai attacks, Boromir fights to his death to defend the two hobbits left in his care, redeeming himself and dying a hero. My heart also broke for Faramir, Boromir’s sad younger brother, who is clearly unwanted by their father Denethor. Denethor wishes Faramir had died instead of Boromir. This storyline gets its due in the extended version of RETURN OF THE KING, which features a long flashback scene between Boromir, Faramir, and Denethor that is one of the best scenes in the trilogy and easily worth the admission price. Suddenly, meaningful human drama that we can all identify with! That’s the secret to good drama, nothing more. Great battles are lots of fun – but when they are reduced to the struggles of individual men, we viewers feel far greater depths of emotion.

A photographer was told by an actor he had photographed, “The more personal my expressions, the more universal they become.” The same principle exists here.

PS – Elijah Wood honestly does suck as Frodo. All gay jokes about Frodo and Sam aside, Wood is wooden – he’s boring and not very expressive. And the last nitpick – why the hell does Théoden lead his Riders of Rohan against Oliphants in a STRAIGHT LINE? The Oliphants have thick barbed wire strung between their tusks – riding straight into that is a bad strategy, o horse king!

Hobbit Regular
The book that started it all…

Hobbit CartoonOr was it this one?

Movie Review: Rocky Balboa

It’s about the man, not the fight


The Italian Stallion returns for the 6th time in “ROCKY BALBOA”, appropriately titled to emphasize the film’s focus on character over plot. Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character emerges from retirement to face an audience worn down by formulaic repetitions of the storyline that worked so well in the first ROCKY film: challenged by a physically superior foe so dominant that to fight him is tantamount to committing suicide, Rocky trains harder than anyone ever thought possible, and in the end, thanks to his limitless heart, triumphs over his brutal antagonist (to the great relief from his always-worried Adrian).

In my book, there were only 2 good films in the franchise – ROCKY I, the original and by far the greatest, and ROCKY III, because it introduced us all to Mr. T and he was fantastic. (I remember walking home from seeing the movie at the theater in the Center and promising myself I’d do pull-ups from ceiling pipes like T did in the movie. Unfortunately, that vow fared poorly). The strengths of the first ROCKY are numerous, but at the core, the movie is all about characters, and heart, so when that lovable big dreamin’ dummy Rocky gets in the ring against Apollo Creed, we really, really, really want him to win. Stallone seems to have forgotten this lesson – until now.

I’m now adding ROCKY BALBOA to the list of great movies in the franchise, and I think it’s better than ROCKY III. (Heresy for a child of the ‘80s to say – but it’s true!) Kudos to Sylvester Stallone, who wrote and directed as well as starred. Here he returns to the kind of material that I think serves him best – not muscle-bound action crap, but work rooted in character. My favorite performances from Stallone are performances where character comes first – where I believe in his underdog status. Those would be ROCKY I, COP LAND, and here in ROCKY BALBOA.

In this movie, I fell for the big palooka Rocky all over again – his weird but lovable speech patterns, his nervousness around other people, his complete lack of guile, and his huge, genuine big-heartedness. This was the first ROCKY movie where I didn’t want to see the fight – not because I was worried Rocky would get killed, but because I was enjoying the movie so much without it. We’re seeing Rocky’s struggles as an aging, over-the-hill icon, as a father whose son is distant, as a man who sees relics of his past all around him and whose only soul mates are all dead. Watching Rocky wandering around his old Philadelphia haunts was wonderful, and it didn’t feel forced or saccharine; it felt right for the character and for the story. We’ve aged right along with this character, so his flashbacks of the better days resonated deeply, because they felt distant and beloved to the audience too. And the audience is well-rewarded by organic re-appearances of characters large and small from throughout the ROCKY series. I could have stayed in theater for hours watching that kind of Rocky movie. Although I would like to have seen more screen time devoted to some of the storylines that weren’t fully developed in the film (Rocky’s relationship with his son, and his relationship with Street, the boy he’s mentoring), I still came away happy. I really liked seeing a man who once had it all returned to his humble roots, trying to lift others up in that charmingly simple way that Rocky has. Rocky Balboa was a good guy and I missed him. I’m sorry we won’t be seeing anymore of him.

I recommend that anyone who enjoyed the film check out the Q&A sessions that Stallone did via e-mail on (scroll down for links to his other answer sessions.) He reveals himself to be a very intelligent guy who acknowledges the stupidity of doing bad movies like STOP OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT that have dulled his star’s luster. Here’s two of his comments that I found particularly interesting:

I thought the most tragic thing one could be confronted with is the prospect of loneliness and the second, the lack of opportunity to prove one’s self-worth. So Rocky was just a manifestation of all the underdogs who dream of one day having the opportunity to reach for the stars. They may not get there, but at least the opportunity to show what’s in a person’s heart is the main goal.

Non-physical courage is the most profound courage of all.

Spoilers follow! Don’t read if you don’t want the movie spoiled!

    How great was it that Stallone brought back L’il Marie? Even though she’s only on camera for a couple minutes in the original, I remembered her clearly. She was a great character. Too bad she turns into an Adrian substitute here.
    I thought it was absolutely great that Rocky doesn’t even stick around for the formal announcement of who won the fight. Because it doesn’t matter to him. He didn’t come to win, he came to fight. He’s got the confidence and experience and self-esteem to know that he did what he came to do. A great dramatic choice.
    I thought the relationship between Rocky and his son was about 80% right, but there were some missteps. The scene where Rocky goes off on him on the street was really good, but we didn’t need it hammered home to us during the big fight. If Rocky’s doing the fight to prove to his son that you just keep moving forward, then a few well-placed looks between them during the battle would sell much better than awkward voice-over. Just when it looks worst for Rocky, he should look over at his son, and we see in Rocky’s eyes that he’s sending the boy a message. The trembling kid stares back – and we see the message has been received. That’s filmmaking. I also want to see more of Rocky mentoring Street, and a scene between Street and Rocky’s son showing how they felt about each other – one son who rejected his father’s legacy, and his apparent replacement.
    Less of the L’il Marie during the fight. With all of her nervousness and whining, she became the new Adrian.
    I hated that the first rounds of the fight were shot on video, as if we were seeing them on TV. I felt very removed for that part of the movie. Don’t switch from film to video in the middle of the movie. It’s jarring… as is the weird color shifts.