The Fault in Our Stars - Few Faults Indeed - Early Screener “Review”

I’ve probably mentioned previously that I really like John Green, both for Nerdfighteria and for his fiction.  Last night, I had the opportunity—thanks to my excellent girlfriend—to attend an early screener of The Fault in our Stars, the adaptation of Green’s latest and most popular book to date with the author and the film’s director, Josh Boone at the Alamo Drafthouse.

I had no idea this showing was coming and when Chelsea got us the RSVP (note: not a reservations; many had to be turned back despite using two auditoriums) I didn’t realize that the preview was so far ahead of the full release.  Things got exciting quickly.

Truth be told, seeing the film early and for free was the bigger draw for me.  Something about Green’s web presence makes him (1) very accessible and (2) very human.  Even so, the Q&A after the film was nice as were a few little treats I’ll sprinkle in from here.

Note: If you wish to avoid minor spoilers, do not continue.  However, if you’re familiar with the synopsis (YA romance between two teens with cancer) I probably won’t give too much away.

2nd note: This isn’t going to be a review so much as an adaptation comparison (like I did with Catching Fire) and some stray observations.

In the week leading to the preview, I was what I’d call frivolously excited.  Chelsea was so sweet to get us tickets the moment a friend alerted her to the screening, and I was quite touched, but it wasn’t any kind of directed excitement …

… until just before showtime.  Seated in the theater, surrounded by a crowd that loved the book, the opportunity to see it early and with great big fans was quite meaningful.  I knew there wouldn’t be many dry eyes in the room and it was nice to know that most if not all around me were constantly anticipating—as was I—the next tear-jerking moment.

Green and Josh Boone did a pre-showing hello, and as you can expect with all celebrity personalities, he was less polished and fast-paced IRL than he is online.  However, the Q&A revealed this to be nerves.  He knows the movie is good, he knows how blessed he has been in the adaptations, but he is still so nervous about disappointing his fans.

Just as with the book, TFIOS the film elicits laughter and tears in the first ten minutes.  Just that kind of story.  Be ready.

Early scenes are great proof that the movie will be true to the book.  The support group in the literal heart of Jesus gets little screen time but is so perfectly delivered by Mike Birbiglia and a group of actual teenage cancer survivors that nothing at all is lost.  And the Issac thrashing/Augustus & Hazel gushing scene (see how I didn’t give anything away there) was as though cast right out of my readerly head.  Perfection, and Boone at Q&A said that scene made him nervous, like it might not come off filmed as written.

It was a constant struggle for me to stay in the moment with the story and not think ahead to the tragedies to come, and thus I felt I was often on the verge of tears, even in lighter moments.

As we drew in on Amsterdam, the first of a series of surprises from the filmmaker or Forever Fest of Alamo Drafthouse (I’m not sure which) were delivered to our table. (My apologies, phones were confiscated at the door.)

First, we are all given sparkling grape juice to toast with the couple over dinner.  Then we were given our own tiny version of the Chef’s Choice, a fried ball that I’m 99% sure contained risotto.

Of course, readers know not all is well in Amsterdam and Willam Defoe made a perfect Peter Van Houten.  Likewise, Ansel Elgort had one of many very impressive scenes in the little face off here.

But nevermind that.  It’s a necessary stone on the couple’s path.  The Anne Frank house scene was powerfully done, so much so that just as I was routing for the story to come, I couldn’t help but connect Anne’s plight to the spectre over Hazel and Gus and feel brokenhearted once again for the resilient, beautiful little girl who passed away just shy of the date of camp liberation.  As this is something Green seemed to work very hard on in the novel, I was so glad the film captured it.

The egg scene was perfect (more on this in a bit) and Gus’ delivery of their justification was pitch-perfect.

NOTE: Additional spoiler alerts, this is the closest I will get to “ruining” the story.

I did have a moment in the film where I thought they might be sanitizing Gus’ illness.  The scene at the gas station is poignant and hard to watch, but the one in Gus’ house with his family about was unfortunately cut.  I hope to see it in the extended edition, but who knows?

There was something so comforting, so powerful, about hearing the room around you sobbing at the story they’ve shared and come to so love.  If there were any consistently dry eyes in the room, I assure you they were few and far between.

After the film, the Q&A wasn’t particularly astounding.  There were the obligatory questions as well as the inappropriate and asinine, but really this has been the case at almost author Q&A I’ve ever attended.  Nerdfighteria asks the same questions as everyone else.  Still, there were moments when the story became real for the novelist and director once again and at least once when I wondered if Green might lose composure.

With the livestream over, Green signed some books outside and took some photos next to:

Our very own car to egg.  I was a bit conflicted about this, but Chelsea and I took part nonetheless.

TFIOS was a near-perfect, meticulous adaptation of one of the best and most tragic love stories I have ever read.  If you’re a fan of the book or even moderately intrigued by the premise (Green does a fan-freaking-tastic job of showing cancer patients as people rather than heroes), you really should head out to see the film.

The Fault in Our Stars, featuring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort hits theaters everywhere June 6th.

Lessons Learned in My First Year as a Novelist

On June 2nd, 2012, I took two significant and disparate career steps at once.  It was my first day back in a full-time, salaried IT job and I began my first novel.  It was no unambitious day (oh litotes).

The day came after spending eight months as an admin, underutilized and bored every day at work, about two writing fiction again after a long hiatus.  But that, dear readers, is well-trod ground and we needn’t go over it again.

(You know, I say I started my first novel, but I did make a meager attempt at a first novel when I was 14.  My buddy let me hear no end about how I’d written Final Destination but given how many sequels that garbage spawned, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.)

(On 2nd, 3rd, and 4th thought, yeah it was.  I’m glad that computer lost the file.)

Yesterday morning, thirteen days shy of the one year anniversary of starting my novel writing “career,” I finished my second.  To be clear, when I say finished, I mean I finished the initial draft.  Books one and two in the trilogy still need so very many hours of work before I likely shelve them as a writing exercise, but that is not the point of this post.  With the completion of the second novel’s first draft, I have committed roughly 250,000 unedited words to The Suzerainty, plus some 15K words on short or non-fiction pieces and whatever I’ve written here.  I’m fairly proud of that output.

It seems a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned, realized, or had confirmed in my first (near) year writing novels.

  • Novels are no harder than short stories.  Most of my writerly career prior to this year consisted of terrible short stories, the odd poem, and some decent literary criticism.  Even with my ideas thoroughly outlined—something I’d have never done pre-grad school—and my thesis under the belt, the prospect of an attempted first novel was a frightening one.  I found rather quickly that this fear was unfounded.  The approach, for me at least, was much the same as with writing shorter pieces, albeit with a much longer jaunt to completion.  My outlines are broken into rough chapters from the beginning and though much changes over the process—my outlines tend to triple in size as I go—it often feels like I am writing sequential short stories.  I will admit that at times writing short stories can be more exciting with the end always just around the bend and the faster paced editing but I often found that the wound-down excitement of novel writing was often temporary.  If I had to give some bit of advice about starting that first long form work, I’d say look to Toni Morrison:
    “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.”
    Do it for you and that fear won’t last.
  • Breaks are Necessary.  Another quote here, but you’ll often find someone already said it better than you would.
    “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” –Octavia E. Butler
    This is the approach I have taken since I began writing again last year and it works.  In my opinion, it works for everyone.  Even if you think you’re best work comes from inspiration—we’ll differ in opinion here, but nevermind—you should still be honing your craft every day.  Even so, you need breaks sometimes.  A break, however, if not a vacation.  Sometimes whatever you’re working on will feel stale, or boring, or just plain bad.  Maybe you need some distances (not too much).  Go write something else for a week.  Got a burning short story idea?  If not, start keeping a writing buffer.  You’ll always have more ideas than you’ll know what to do with.  Play with one and let the problem stew.  It may still be there, but the clear mind will let you move past it until time to edit.
  • Ignore common sense in favor of writer suggestions, unless they overlap.  If you’ve never written creatively before, your head is probably full to bursting with utter BS about writing.  Suspect everything you think until you can back it up with experience.  Seek out the advice and habits of those you admire.  You might find that many of your preconceptions align with their tried and true methods, but judging from those wishful thinking writer-to-be questions you hear at every single reading and signing under the sun, I bet a lot of them are wrong.  The same might be true about changing mediums.  I moved from short stories to novels and as I say I was a bit nervous.  There is a conventional wisdom in genre fiction that you have to start with short stories to get anyone to buy your novel.  This model works for some, I’m sure, but it seems to be based on an incomplete reading of how we used to find new sf writers.  It just isn’t true anymore.
    An addendum to this advice might be to weed out those you admire whom you know work in ways you never could or would.  You’re a pure discovery writer?  Don’t look to avid outliners.  Nothing revolutionary in it.
  • Seek out advice from writers you admire, and feel free to ignore any of it.  This is a necessary follow up on the previous bit.  You’ll need help from the habits and ideas of your favorites, seek them out.  But then feel absolutely within your right and reason to ignore whatever doesn’t make sense or won’t work for you.  The great big not-so-secret secret is that for every success who says, “Do X and Y will happen,” a hundred others did exactly that and Y never came.  Our advice comes from those who succeed because no one is listening to those who don’t, but that plays into something called the survivorship bias, whereby we more highly regard the stories and advice of those who “made it” versus those you didn’t.  We look to their success and say, “Oh, they did X.  I’ll do X.  That’s the ticket.”  Don’t ever do X just because Mr./Ms. Awesomesauce did it and hit the big time.  Do it because it feels like the right thing to do to make you write.
  • Keep in time edits to a minimum.  And again, this bit almost directly contradicts the previous.  And feel free to ignore it (though I have a hard time imagining any of my readers would say they admire me) even though I think it’s pretty important.  You can always edit that piece one more time.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez used to say he wouldn’t read his books after publication because he was sure he’d find things he wanted change and never be able to fix them.  If something is unclear in yesterday’s work, make it clear.  Make a note.  That rubbish has to go.  Then put it out of mind.  It is very hard to tell the difference, in the moment, between your internal heckler and your internal editor.  Until you’re absolutely sure who’s who, take a note and tell both of them to hit the pavement.
    [I can’t claim any credit for the idea of The Internal Heckler v. the Internal Editor, so click the link and go listen to the episode of Writing Excuses from wince it came.]
  • There are very few people out there who want to hear about what you’re working on anywhere near as often as you think about it.  But you’ll find them.  They may be your beta readers, or similarly interested readers in general.  They may be your SO (figure out quick if not, or that could get messy).  They may be a work colleague or a potential editor or your barista.  Figure out who and they will be your outlet.  Leave the others be until you have a finished draft.
  • Just write.  Writers write.  Soccer players play soccer.  Swimmers swim.  Being published doesn’t make you a writer, writing does.  So do it every … damn … day.  Seriously.  Write it, then let it sit, then read it.  This is how you get better at your craft.  If this is what you want to do, then do it.  A lot.  Until not a single person in your life can possible ask if you’re still giving writing a try.  You’re a writer, and they see it.  You never stop.  Sheesh.  Do you do anything else?

To that last point, I made no plan for what I wanted to work on today and already I regret it.  I no longer like a day off from writing.  That could just be me.  I appreciate discipline and like my routine, but to some extent I think everyone does and, as with many things, once you blow past your barrier, writing every day is not just possible, not just easy, it’s necessary.  As for me, I think I’ll comb my buffer, trim the fat, fluff the intrigue, and play with some short fiction for a little bit.  And there are always short stories that need attention.

Read the Classics? Read the Biggies?

I come from the humanities.  English, to be specific.  It probably goes without saying that I have a good grounding in the classics.  Between two degrees, I read more than a few foundational works simply because they are foundational.  That said, I prefer contemporary literature most of the time.

Yet, when I really embraced sf, first as a field of study and later as a fan, I felt a need to build my foundation and continue with the contemporaries.  I don’t know that you’ve tried this before so, trust me, it’s difficult.

It’s really quite hard to read the great, big, groundbreaking works of the past century or more while trying to keep up with the ebbs and flows of the field as it stands today.  It seems more and more that people a generation or two ahead of me in sf see this foundation building as essential even while acknowledging that it may no longer be the way we do things.  So I’m left with a bit of a quandary:

To read the classics, or not

The pros and cons in this regards have always seemed about even for me.  Some older genre texts, especially formative texts from times when whatever genre might have been finding itself, can be a bit of a crapshoot.  For every classic work that stands the test of time, say 2001 or We, there are countless books that read problematically for a contemporary reader.  I will never enjoy reading Heinlein or Asimov, regardless of interesting plots.  They are too much philosophy or thought experiment, respectively, to give me what I want in fiction.  I’m glad for those I’ve read, but they don’t lead me to others.

Sad to say, even for one immersed in the field and enjoying most every minute of it, the casual sexism, racism, and xenophobia can quickly stack up against a work’s merits, especially when one is reading less critically or just for enjoyment.

What often happens, and what happened for me recently, is that I will start a work (this time, Bester’s The Stars My Destination) quite intrigued and be quickly underwhelmed by the execution.  This isn’t to say that Bester wasn’t or isn’t important to the field but rather that I’ve gotten from him what was important by the weight of his influence.  Going back to read these books, I’m quite familiar with what made them special because countless books to follow have drawn inspiration and grown because of the early work of Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein and Bester and others. 

Certainly, as an occasional lit scholar, I can appreciate that one level, these books still call for investigation and criticism, but as a reader equal parts interested in critical investigation and pure joy, many of these works are hard to get through.

This is hardly surprising when I compare the same conditions to literature in general.  Many classics give me great joy, many others bored me to tears despite a promising idea, and others still hold no interest at all.  The same must of course be true with genre literature.  I have, however, found it easier to decide which general classics are worth a go, as compared with genre lit.  Certain foundational texts are sturdier than others.  I can get by having only read the Inferno from Dante’s trilogy, but as a lit guy, I really did need a good knowledge of biblical lore, and Shakespeare, and Greek mythos. I feel I’ve begun and abandoned far fewer general classics than genre classics, though to be honest this is just a knee-jerk impression of my own reading unsupported thus far by data.

What do you think?  Which classics (genre or otherwise) have you loved and revisited?  Which have disappointed you beyond all bounds of logic?  And which send you running from your once beloved bookstore?

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