Darkest before Dawn

The little ironies of life are funny sometimes.  Often when we think we look our best, we feel great all day, go home and look in the mirror and find that the feeling doesn’t quite match our appearance. Perhaps there’s food stuck in our teeth or dandruff on our shoulders. Maybe we have sweat stains under our armpits and a spot of toothpaste pooled on the bottom of our shirt. We may in actuality have looked pretty scary, but we felt great and so acted great and happy all day. We were at our best even if an outsider would say we looked our worst.

In contemplating the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ this Easter Season it struck me how when things look bleakest, those are often the most significant and important moments. By all accounts on that morning of the third day, Satan had won. No one’s sins were forgiven, and everyone was doomed to be apart from God and with Satan forever in the torment of Hell. The women walking to Jesus’ tomb were in mourning for their dearest friend. They were shocked to find that he was alive. Jesus was alive again after suffering the punishment of God’s wrath in our place. He took on our sin and gave us his holiness, his perfection, and his death was his finest moment, even though an outsider would have said it looked like he failed. But he didn’t fail; he rose again, conquering, death, sin, and the Devil all in one fell swoop.

If it’s ironic that we often feel at our best when often we actually look laughable, how much more fascinating is it when we feel at our worst. Some days, nothing seems to go right. We are crabby, we snap, we burst into tears, and we make one mistake after another and by the end of the day we wonder if there’s anything lovable or even likable about us at all. For Christians, we fill those times with the comfort that God always loves us no matter what. Still, we may feel we failed, as people, as Christians, as witnesses of that love. Sometimes when we feel at our worst, sure, it’s true, but sometimes we feel at our worst, but realize later that we may have been at our best. We may have been crabby yet brutally honest with someone who needed to hear the truth. We may have smiled in solidarity with someone else who was also having a bad day. Ever think you gave an awful performance or speech and everyone else thinks you were great? We scratch our heads at that, right? What are other people seeing that we don’t see?

The truth is, as much as we know ourselves, we don’t know ourselves very well. The picture of ourselves in our heads is a far cry from what others see. And, generally, that’s a blessing, for other people are far kinder to us than we are to ourselves. For Christians, God uses us as our weakest moments to shine brighter in his name, because it’s all not about us, but that wonderful salvation. And those moments that are the hardest, those times when we are really struggling, those are the times we grow the most as people.  Those are the times we learn the hard lessons and we learn the truths about love and live.  We don’t know it at the time, of course, and later on we discover we’ve grown gorgeous butterfly wings and think, how did I get here? How did God get me here? And sometimes we realize it was those dark moments, and sometimes we never know when it was that we grew.

For myself, those times when I’m feeling down and I’m definitely not at my best and I’m stalling with writing, I find myself thinking about how it’s always darkest before dawn. My prayer is that in the moments of despair, God will push me to hope. And I do find that after a time of heartbreak or melancholy, my mind is more focused, my story ideas brighter. I don’t always notice it, but when I really think about it, when things are going well, I don’t work as hard, I don’t try as hard, and I become soft and slothful. If it weren’t for the dark times, I wouldn’t be writing at all. The joy of anything in life, especially Easter and the Resurrection shines out the brighter because there’s something to contrast it against. I have to wonder if that’s why God started it all in the first place. I mean, he knew we were destined to sin, to go against his will and holiness, but he loved us so much and maybe loved that contrast that at once makes human life so perilous and so precious, that he found it worth it to create us, that it was better to create us with both the peril and preciousness rather than not create us at all. That it was better to have to face the suffering of the cross for our sake rather than face nothing at all.

Yes it’s darkest before dawn and sometimes it seems like dawn will never come, but sometimes dawn comes so slowly it creeps up on us and one day we stop and think, “hey, I’m happy!” Life is so miraculous and ironic and such an adventure. Just when we think winter will never end, the earth shakes off its slumber and teems with new life. Just when we think we hit rock bottom several fathoms ago we come to find that we helped someone without knowing it, or inspired someone, or wrote all our tearstained poems in perfect iambic pentameter. Life’s kind of exciting because we actually don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. We don’t know what we are capable of until put to the test. It’s at once terrifying and fascinating, and even in those moments when we really, truly fail or behave awfully, we take it to heart and learn from it whether we want to or not.

Happy Spring, Happy Easter. When you think you look your best, don’t forget to check your teeth and when you’re at your worst remember that butterflies have those beautiful wings from struggling out of that binding cocoon. Without that struggle the butterflies would be fragile and weak, with it their wings are strong and they can fly out in to the world and beautify it. Without the cross, Jesus couldn’t have given us salvation and eternal life. Anything worth having comes with struggle. This is the tightrope we walk in this world of sin.

Romans 5:3-5 says: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (NIV)

When a Snail Falls in Love: Less Is More

“Less is More” is a common enough phrase, but rarely is it shown well in TV land. TV and movies more often than not, live in excess, clocking in far longer than the stories warrant and sometimes turning amazing shows at the beginning into shallow shells of themselves at the end. Romances or romantic comedies can be especially troublesome with this, throwing obstacle after more bizarre obstacle in front of the would-be happy couple in order to get in just one more episode.

The Chinese drama When a Snail Falls in Love, makes all the right moves where others fail. First off, the episodes are short, only thirty minutes, instantly increasing the pace compared to other shows. Second, although it’s a love story, that part is sparse at best, making the romantic moments that much sweeter, subtle though they may be. In fact,  the ending may be the only glaring part in the romance with (spoilers) a sudden kiss and proposal. At the same time, though, the couple has earned it by sticking to the case and having each other’s back. Thirdly, the main story is a police crime drama, not merely a cover story for the romance.  Despite the cute drawings the main character does, the story is anything but fluffy, with a ton of great action scenes and amazing cinematography that screams awards shows. It is also helps that the setting is somewhat exotic–southeast China (I think), and Myanmar.

The “snail” in the story is Xu Xu a psychological profiler, played by Wang Zi Wen.  Xu Xu’s deduction skills are top notch, but she’s not super athletic and is continually at risk for not being able to meet the physical standards of the police force.  She isn’t a bad cartoonist either, and quickly makes an animal cartoon character for each of her coworkers, including the boss, Ji Bai, who is her “lion.” Ji Bai (played by Wang Kai) is both good at his job and is also very athletic. His action scenes are pretty awesome as he uses his long legs to kick in one bad guy after another.

Xu Xu didn’t seem terribly interesting at first, but by the end she’s grown into her own and the audience can see why she deserves a spot on the force. Not only does she strive to meet the physical standards, but she is an intuitive detective, spotting things others don’t and having a sixth sense for when something is off. She is also courageous and bold at unexpected times, like when infiltrating a gambling den. Her alien watchfulness at the beginning (think Sherlock Holmes) becomes more feeling and animated by the end, perhaps due to her finding love.

Ji Bai is a good leader admired by women and respected by his colleagues. He is one of those all around good guys and if he’s a little eager to rush into danger, it’s because he likes and is good at doing his job. He has movie star looks and skinny arms that are somehow endearing. His weakness for a childhood friend is shown to be just that as she (again, spoiler) turns out to be one thread in an entire carpet of swindlers, drug dealers, traffickers, and near-do-wells, all of which he presumably had no idea.

The best thing about When a Snails Falls in Love is its unpredictability.  One starts watching thinking it’s going to be a typical romance with a sheen of police drama over the top.  Oh no.  The police investigation IS the story, and how refreshing it is. One crime after another is woven together in a way that makes the show feel more like a very long movie than just a show. In fact, the investigation pushes the romance story line to the side pretty fast, making the cartoon drawings with the theme song extremely out of place until they are finally dropped and preserved in Xu Xu’s comic book diary.

When a Snail Falls in love has less running time that other shows, but does far more with it.  A shout out to the editors and the director Zhang Kai Zhou. They know how to get the most out of their actors and quickly get to the heart of scenes instead of wasting time with filler. The choice to put the focus on the crime solving is what makes it stand out in a sea of romance dramas.  When a Snail Falls in Love is available on dramafever.com and viki.com.

Random Thoughts

In considering what to write about this week, I had several things, so I’ll just touch base briefly on all of them.

  1. The King of Dramas is a great show. It entertained all the way through and everyone grew for the better in some way, especially the two protagonists. The only misstep I thought was the shoehorning of a blindness handicap into the story which was something really not needed. Perhaps it was meant as a satire on writers inserting such issues into TV shows, etc., but as a whole I didn’t think it worked.
  2. War and Peace. I am still reading, though it is sloooow going. Page 200 is in sight.  Only 800+ more to go. I greatly appreciate it’s not all battlefield descriptions or I would seriously be depressed.
  3. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster. Forster is easily one of my favorite authors.  I love A Room with a View and have read it many times. This book is sort of a precursor to that and is about a young widow who goes to Italy and ends up engaged to a poor Italian a lot younger than herself. Her inlaws are horrified. Great fun so far and I can easily see how this story morphed into A Room with a View.
  4. Population, Resources, Environment: Issues in Human Ecology by Paul Ehrlich. My brother plumbed the thrift stores to find this publication from 1970. I’m reading it to do “opposition research” as he calls it. Ehrlich and his book The Population Bomb was more or the less the beginning of the current environment vs. human hysteria–I don’t even know what it’s called now. Climate change, I think? What’s next, changing the name again to the weather and then saying people who disagree are weather deniers? Oh, man, let’s just do that. So much fun. Anyway, I detest this whole idea that there are or ever will be too many people in the world. The world was built for humanity. Some hilarious quotes so far: “Spaceship earth” is “filled to capacity.” 2017: 7+ billion and growing – 1970 was about half that.  The earth is not full, not even close. This one had me nearly rolling on the floor in laughter: “Demographers who are interested in the total population of the planet work primarily with birth and death rates since there has been no migration to or from the earth.” A well of entertainment this book is. To be fair to the author I think he’s stepped back on some of his claims since then.
  5. Silence by Shusaku Endo. First, I am appalled I’ve never heard of this book before. Second, as a Christian I find the story intriguing. Do and will Christians hold to their faith in the face of real physical harm? Would I? Haven’t started reading it yet, but if I like it I will also try out the movie by Marin Scorsese.
  6. New Kdrama: Perfect Wife. Viki.com has it (I bounce between them and Dramafever). I watched episode one not really grasping what the show will be about.  The main character, Shim Jae Bok, is a woman in her thirties with a couple of kids and a not-so-faithful husband, but there’s a strange twist of someone behind the scenes manipulating events to incite her husband to cheat on her and to also get their family to move to a certain house. Sung Joon is in the cast as an annoying younger coworker (and future love interest?) and the cheating husband is played by Yoon Sang Hyun. Shim Jae Bok is played by Ko So Young who in this looks eerily like Rosamund Pike from Gone Girl, so I felt this foreboding while watching it.  By the end of the episode I wasn’t clear on where the story is heading, but I kind of like that. Viki.com has at least up to Episode 9 subtitled in English, so I’ll have to catch up at some point.  Other drama recommendations: Goblin, When a Snail Fails in Love (Chinese one), and She Was Pretty.

–P. Beldona

The Show Must Go On

It’s funny that when one is working on a project, one sees similar themes and ideas everywhere. I am–probably too–proud of the fact that I’ve taken a scene I knew was bad and am rewriting it. Sometimes I think parts of my story are bad, but then in reading them later, think they are ok and keep them. It’s tough with writing because you can read your own stuff one day and think it stinks and the next barely recognize it and think, “who is this brilliant writer?  Can’t be me, can it?”  But some scenes are bad from the beginning, bad ideas, uninspired, and so on.  I’m excited because I genuinely found one I wanted to change and know the new one will serve the story better.

Speaking of rewrites, what person calls themselves a writer and thinks there will be no editing? No rewrites? No criticism? Now imagine that writer is writing for movies or TV and can’t stomach the possibility of their script being changed?  Bizarre.  I mean, who doesn’t know that the script changes constantly, especially when filming starts, and if it’s bad with movies, what about TV shows?

But I’m rambling. I’ve been watching this kdrama called The King of Dramas. It’s an awesome show with a huge flaw in that the writer lives in this fantasy of “no revisions, no changes” to her original script. Fortunately, she is learning (like I am) as the episode sprogress, but still. Her rigidity stuck out like a sore thumb at first and it was hard to suspend my disbelief.

The King of Dramas, or, in my mind, The Show Must Go On! with same-titled song from Moulin Rouge, is a 2012 kdrama about producing a Korean TV show. With epic music and everything from mafia financing to last-second deadlines, this show will have you wondering how any dramas are made at all. I mean, who would want all that stress and headache? And it become clear why showbiz people can be a bit neurotic. Anthony Kim (Kim Myung Min) is Macbethian in his strive for power, with ruthlessness and an alarming propensity for lying. Kim, the actor, has a magnetic presence about him and although everyone claims to dislike him you get the feeling they secretly want to be on his team.

The naive, stubborn writer is played by Jung Ryeo Won, and it’s refreshing to have a heroine for whom romance will turn out to be incidental. She’s also not overly crazy, mannish and loud, but womanly and thankfully doesn’t have any part-time jobs. I like the down-and-out-girl-with-10-jobs-and-a-relative-in-the-hospital, trope but it’s nice to have a break from it. Lee Go Eun is refreshing in her normalcy. Jung Ryeo Won also has a unique look that compliments her thoughtful character.

The comic relief in the show falls on the chosen lead of Lee Go Eun’s script, handsome and famous Kang Hyun Min. This guy fits every bad stereotype of an actor–vain, money and fame hungry, selfish–and he’s hilarious! Choi Si Won overcomes his distracting Ken-doll  looks by actually…acting, something that other K-pop stars seem to take eons to figure out.

Both male leads are jerks and the farthest thing from husband material. I’m about halfway through the series and am wondering if they are going to go with a love story eventually and if either will prove themselves worthy enough for the quite nice, but stubborn writer.  And being that she’s working with overbearing people, it’s also a good thing that she’s so stubborn, but I’m glad she learns to do some self-reflection when it comes to her writing. And the show is actually fine without a love story, so different still.

My favorite character, though, is the middle-aged cutie Jung In Gi. He plays recovering alcoholic director Koo Young Mok. Jung’s a bit more disheveled in this than I’m used to seeing (he’s in a ton of Korean shows and movies), but he adds much needed gravitas when the others are too over the top. He also is very believable as a kdrama director and steals a lot of his scenes simply by his presence. He’s a likable father figure to the younger characters–someone who has “been there, done that” but is still struggling himself.

I don’t know what else the real writers of The King of Dramas will throw at their characters in the remaining episodes, but I’m guessing there’s a good many inside jokes going on for those whose careers are built in show-biz. No matter the country or culture, entertaining people is rarely as easy as it seems. And somehow the shows do go on and on and on in miraculous precision.

–P. Beldona

See Also Murder: book review

As much as I love YA sci-fi and fantasy, adventure, and Regency-era romances, my all-time favorite genre is mystery. Nothing tops a good mystery, and unfortunately they are very rare. My favorite mystery series right now is the Flavia De Luce series by Alan Bradley. I’m reading his latest, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d at a snail’s pace in the hopes I can make it last until the next one is published. I also peruse my local library shelves periodically in the hopes that I will connect with another series. I may have found it.

See Also Murder by Larry D. Sweazy (love the name!) is subtitled “A Marjorie Trumaine Mystery,” so I hope, hope, hope that means there will be more of them. The sleuth is an indexer caught my eye. Once upon a time I worked as a proofreader (oh, how my grammar and spelling have plummeted since then!) and we also had an indexing department in the building. I was always a little jealous because the indexers had their own offices with doors, and aside from having to proofread their spelling and check occasional page references, I didn’t learn much about their job. According to the author of this mystery (a longtime indexer), not just everyone can be one, at least a good one.  Indexing takes a certain kind of mind that can notice key phrases and points in a work and correctly categorize them for future readers. It also might help to be a lister, or one who writes lists. That’s not me. I keep short lists and often either forget I wrote them down in a dusty day planner or typed them into my notes app. Weeks or months later when I open said planner or app in an effort to prove to myself I actually use them, I’m amazed to find these lists and somewhat embarrassed I wrote them down at all.

(Ah, organizing for the sake of organizing. There’s this great line in the movie The Jacket with Adrien Brody: “I’ve been approached by the Federal Trade Organization. … They have asked me to head up the Organization for the Organized!”)

So, one needs a knack for indexing. And Marjorie Trumaine has that knack. She quickly and easily categories and organizes people, ideas, clues and so on. See Also Murder is set in the North Dakota plains in the 1960s and the story is fully infused with the atmosphere and culture of that era. Readers who’ve grown up in middle states, or “flyover country” as it’s often called, will connect with the story in a way the “coasters” probably won’t.

As a mystery, See Also Murder isn’t so much a whodunit (avid mystery buffs will be able to spot the culprit fairly quickly) as it is a character study. Marjorie Trumaine lives a lonely isolated life and it becomes obvious that any threat to her or her husband could quickly become terrifying, especially if they find they can’t trust the few people they know.

I also want to give a shoutout to Scandinavian history and mythology. It’s not something I know a lot about and what I do know mostly comes from the Marvel Thor movies. Sweazy inspired me enough that my latest book purchase was Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. I come from half Norwegian, half German stock and once in a while I find it worthwhile to dig into my roots.

See Also Murder is a great, atmospheric read that will stick with readers long after the story has been closed and put away. Isolation is rampant even, and maybe especially, in our modern technology-filled times. Easily seen as both vice and virtue, isolation is a perfect setting for a ghastly murder.  Isolation is the “single effect” (as E.A. Poe would say) that defines the book.

P. Beldona

Complicated Stories

The trouble with writing complicated stories is that they quickly run away with you. The details start to overshadow the narrative and can easily confuse the reader (and the writer!). One begins to see only the trees and not the forest.  Still trickier is making sure all of those details make sense and crucially deciding which details to leave out. Me, I tend to minimize rather than leave out, a storytelling flaw I hope to overcome one day, and I really only decide to do that after exhaustively rereading the manuscript until me head spins. Also, some details need only to be revealed certain places, so sometimes I have to go back and remove prior references to them.

In fantasy in particular critics are always on about “world building,” but for readers who just want a good story it is a turn off to read too-detailed descriptions of how this fantasy world operates. I’ve found generally in using magic in a story it’s best not to explain too thoroughly how the magic works. Magic isn’t logical, so it’s going to be difficult to explain it logically and then one starts leading the reader down a path of fitting that magic into the real world, which can’t be done, or at least can’t be explained. Going as far as saying magic words or employing certain hand movements, etc., as in Harry Potter is about as far as one can really go in explaining it. In TfD I mostly explain the magic by a creature using dust and then concentration and/or willing something into being. It is a bit vague, but I find it works for the story and is much tied to the Christian idea of creation, so that picture will hopefully be in the readers’ minds as an example. For myself, I don’t mind the magic working being left a bit vague, though I do need to work at highlighting the limits of Etherland magic. Will I leave that for this book or the next one? A good question to think about on the weekend.

Right now I’m organizing a lot of players, both “real world” and “show world,” for the disappearing act finale. Have a few traitors to manage also. That’s gotten a bit ridiculous, so I might just go with that – quintuple agents and beyond!  Sometimes the piratical Jack Sparrow fan in me gets the best of me, the writer.

I think it was Stephen King who said something about writers not inventing stories, but unwrapping stories already there. That is how I feel about Trolls for Dust. It was this whole, gigantic, complicated story just waiting for me to start unwrapping it. Some of the paper is sticking, but little by little I’m stripping it away to the goodness underneath.

–P. Beldona

Sensitivity Readers

This baffles me. Why hire someone to read your work and ensure you don’t offend anyone? Actually, not “anyone,” but those who live and breathe by whatever current form of political correctness is in place. As a writer, there is no guarantee, no matter what you write, that you will never offend someone. That truth alone should make the practice of hiring a “sensitivity reader” a poor investment, but pour on top of that the increasingly shrill culture of offense today and the question becomes: Why write in the first place? How in our overly sensitive PC culture can one hope to be any sort of artist without offending that culture at some point? And the rules of what is “offensive” are changing all the time.

It used to be a badge of honor for writers and artists to offend the prevalent narrative or world view. Why the heck would any writer want their stories or essays to be so lukewarm that they offend no one? How far down the rabbit hole have we gone even thinking that’s it’s possible to never offend. What about the readers who want exciting stories that challenge how they view the world? What about the offense they take at a boring story with feminists rants they’ve heard a hundred times already? No, no, let’s give them more drivel toeing the PC line. Keep to the status quo, everybody’s doing it. Marxist collectivism, when it’s not murderous is actually really boring. Everyone must be the same all the time with no differences, whether in dress or viewpoint. Used to be that artists were the ones holding this stuff back. Now, they share in the oppression of anything remotely interesting.

Fellow writers, if it’s authenticity you’re worried about, hire a good researcher, not some “sensitivity” tool.  If your book sparks a reaction, great, that means that people are reading it, that they care about it, and that they will tell more people about it who will spend their money to read it and will also be talking about it.  Twilight had a lot of mockers and offended many, but they were all talking about it and you couldn’t walk anywhere for months without hearing about sparkly vampires. Guess who now has enough money to continue writing and getting better at her craft? Uh, huh, that’s right.

Should our goal be to offend? I suppose that depends on what kind of writer you want to be. Satirists thrive on offense. If you’re just a storyteller like me, though, the goal is to tell an exciting and engaging story and often that involves challenging readers’ sensitivities. So what?  They are reading, and that is the point.