How to NOT Suck at Reviewing in Five Easy Steps

To anyone that has read this blog for any length of time, it’s no secret I love reviewing stories in all forms of media.

It enables me to think critically and learn what makes a story fail or succeed.

I owe much of my growth as a writer to watching other reviewers discuss what they did or didn’t like in stories and, more importantly, why.

While I don’t claim to be a professional critic, I believe there are certain steps one can take in order to not suck at reviewing.

1. Know Thyself 

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Before you can judge something, it is important you have examined your own personal tastes and biases. These, as well as your own experiences, will influence how you digest media. 

I read a review on  Ford v. Ferrari in which the “critic” spent the entire article berating the movie for being about white guys and….that’s it.

She failed to mention anything about the writing, characters, lighting, cinematography, editing, music, or anything relevant to the story. I learned absolutely nothing about the film or whether or not I would have enjoyed it.

I felt like I was reading a diary entry by a moody teenager that was angry at her father rather than an actual review someone was payed to write.

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It’s fine to have opinions whether they be political or otherwise, but it’s important you are able to compartmentalize. You have to ask yourself if you dislike something because it is genuinely bad for the story/characters, or simply because of your own intrinsic biases.

2. Don’t Nit-pick

If you look closely you will find flaws in every form of fiction. Perhaps the writer described a character as having brown eyes in one chapter and then mistakenly refers to them as cerulean a hundred pages or so on. Yes, this was something the writer or editor should have caught in re-writes, but honestly it isn’t that big of a deal.

There are entire channels on Youtube dedicated to nit-picking *coughCinamaSinscough** and while they can be amusing to watch, unnecessary emphasis is placed on minuscule infractions.

Small things can add up over time, but if you are constantly hammering on things that are essentially inconsequential to the main story or details most people wouldn’t notice anyway,  you need to reevaluate.

Most people don’t care.

Or if they do, they don’t care that much. 

If a problem is big enough it will find you.

3. Don’t Be an Elitist Prick 

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Having a degree in the medium you are reviewing is a wonderful resource. You can apply what you have learned from your studies in order to give informed opinions. I’ve learned a lot about the art of storytelling from watching video essays and attending lectures by people who studied extensively in their respective crafts.

The issue is some use their education as a trump tool, believing that their opinion is greater than the unwashed masses because they own a piece of paper that says Department of English or Department of Film and Media on it.

The truth is most people don’t care whether or not you have a degree. They care if you can provide them with an interesting or humorous perspective.

While the average joe might not be as well versed in the arts, they are still capable of snuffing out what works and what doesn’t in a story. Remember, most stories aren’t for the elites. They are for the other 99.9% of people.

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4. Don’t Insult People Who Like What You’re Reviewing 

I recently watched a review of Joker by a Youtuber named ralphthemoviemaker in which he makes a huge mistake.

In this video, Ralph essentially calls everyone who enjoys the movie a moron. But he doesn’t stop there. In fact, most of his review seems to be directed towards people who enjoyed the movie and how dumb they are for not sharing his clearly more researched opinion.

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I will be the first to admit I have ridiculed many a property, so I don’t have a problem with him badmouthing the movie.

But insulting people who like it is an extremely bad move.

By doing so you all but guarantee your audience will disregard everything you say on the subject. Worse still, it will turn people who might have otherwise agreed with your assessments against you.

It’s not even an argument that can be supported with evidence.

Why are these people stupid? Because they like something you don’t?

Are people that like blue smarter than people that like pink?

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This brings me to my final point-

5. Remember It’s Your Opinion

I don’t believe all opinions are created equal. Some are weak and easy to refute when presented with enough evidence. However, it’s important to realize that there is really no one “correct” opinion when it comes to art.

In the end, art is just one big Rorschach test that is influenced by our unique experiences.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t express pleasure, disdain, disappointment or any other emotion that comes with examining stories. But we need to be open to other interpretations of the messages we consume and cognizant of how they may resonate with other people.

Thanks for reading!

Why I Converted From a Pantser into a Plotter

I think most people in the writing blogosphere know what a pantser and plotter are by now, but just in case you don’t, here’s a quick definition:

A “pantser” is someone who writes based on their intuition, or “flying by the seat of their pants.”

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Actual footage of me as a pantser

A “plotter,” however, well….plots.

That isn’t to say pantsers don’t have a picture in their head of where the story is going, they just trust more in their innate ability to navigate the story.

I used to be one such person.

It was fun.

You discover this brave new world with characters and settings, world-building and plot. Every action is unpredictable, every environment as new to you as the characters. It’s basically like the universe is telling the story to you and it’s up to you to transcribe it for others to read.

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The winds pick up and the story accelerates faster and faster until you look at the clock and discover it’s nearly 11 p.m.

You reluctantly carry yourself to bed, head buzzing impatiently for the new day to begin so you can start the whole process over.

The next day comes and you sit before your desk, ready to feel the metaphorical winds in your hair yet again, but then…..

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You get stuck.

You have no idea how your MC is going to vanquish their enemy. The momentum of the story is lost. Worse than that, you know the beginning and tiny fraction of the climax but absolutely nothing in between.

You wrack your brain for a solution, but nothing comes. You doubt the validity of your own talents. Eventually, you either convince yourself the story was never worth telling in the first place, or you form the delusion you’re just “taking a break” from this story until something comes to you.

Your computer becomes a graveyard of incomplete projects.

This was my story.

It wasn’t as though I’d never tried to be a plotter. It just seemed to me as though I wasn’t cut out for it. The muse didn’t like restrictions, you know?

I didn’t need Siri to tell me to turn left at the stop sign. My heart would lead the way!

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…….Except it didn’t.

Or it only lead me to a certain point and then ditched me.

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My muse after I hit a plothole

I spent so many nights marinating on my affliction. I was a failed pantser and a failed plotter. So what was I to do?

After a long while, I found myself once again bitten by the writing bug. Yet again, I tried playing it by ear only to fall flat on my face for what felt like the 550th consecutive time.

And so I decided I would give plotting one more try……

Holy shit was that a good idea. 

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Turns out I was doing the whole thing wrong.

Rather than slowly building up to a story, planning out the characters and their arcs, I tried boiling my entire story down to a couple of sentences jotted on notebook paper. Mostly because–while I acknowledged the benefits of plotting– I simply didn’t want to do it. I was aching with anticipation to get started. I wanted to craft sentences not make a map.

Maps are boring.

Writing is fun.

What I didn’t realize is it didn’t have to be that way.

Instead of relegating my entire novel to 500 word essay, I made an outline for each. I broke them down based on what I wanted to achieve, what I wanted the characters to think and feel, and how it impacted the plot.

I was able to create cultures and histories as well as characters and plots.

I anticipated plot-holes before they happened.

I could re-work and experiment with story elements without having to completely start over from scratch because I hadn’t actually begun the writing stage yet.

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Most importantly, I saved myself weeks, months, maybe even years of turmoil trying to make all the puzzle pieces fit together.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s still hard work and I do get stuck occasionally. However, it takes a lot less time to re-write a plot-map than it does to completely restructure your story over again because you decided to go another direction.

If being a panster has been working for you and you’ve had no issue completing projects, God bless you, you beautiful freak of nature.

For the rest of you that have found yourself frustrated and directionless, I whole-heartedly recommend you give plotting a serous looking into.

It’s not nearly as boring or regimental as it sounds.

I’ve actually found it more enjoyable than flying by the seat of my pants because I actually have confidence that my story is going in the direction it needs to go.

If it worked for someone like me, I’m willing to bet it will work for many of you.

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Happy Writing!

 

 

Thoughts on “You” Season 2 Netflix Series

Warning: The following contains spoilers for season 2 of You. If you have not seen this season but would like to, reader discretion is advised. 

I confess over the years I’ve become jaded towards thrillers. True-crime podcasts left me feeling cold. Shows like Law and Order and CSI were all cookie-cutter snore-fests that made me question the whole crime genre.

I began to despair that I would never find another show with bite. One that would leave me on the edge of my seat, craving more.

Then…. there was You.

There You were with your unique first-person perspective, biting social commentary and oh so binge-worthy content. You constantly kept me on my toes. You gave me many a sleepless night. You sent my heart racing in a way no other show has.

When I learned You were to have a second season, I was pleased. So pleased. And when the day finally came when I could watch You….

You sucked.

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There’s no nice way of putting this, this season was a mess of catastrophic proportions.

I wasn’t expecting this season to be as good as it’s predecessor but holy shit–

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While there were issues with the plot and the pacing, I think the biggest reason this season is a failure in my eyes is because the characters are so woefully bad.

Time for an autopsy everyone!

Let’s begin with Candace, Joe’s ex-girlfriend and returnee from the grave.

We, the audience, are expected to route for her as a matter of course. After all, she was a victim of a terrible crime and left for dead by someone she trusted.

But I cannot get behind this character.

Is it because she is a strong, independent woman trying to bring down the toxically masculine man?

No, it’s because she’s a complete dumbass.

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Let’s review: She knows Joe has a body count. She knows he has gotten away with unspeakable things in the past. She knows she has no evidence to back her up. And she knows she’s been off the grid so long people wouldn’t notice if she disappeared. That being said, she decides her best move is to confront this guy, with no backup and threaten him.

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Thanks to the power of plot convenience, she is spared. At least temporarily. For a while she is graciously out of the limelight, but when she comes back she only serves as an unnecessary distraction.

Candace disguises herself as Amy Adams, flirts her way into a relationship with Joe’s girlfriend’s brother and then….does nothing but lob veiled threats at Joe. She claims to be “protecting” people, but she waits so long to tell Love about Joe. Why didn’t she just say she was his ex? Why didn’t she expose him earlier?

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What’s so tragic about all this is they could have made Candace a good character. They could have made the revenge plan a viable plot point as well.

Instead of threatening Joe outright, she could have covertly stalked him and found out who he was lusting after. From there she could have set a trap and exposed him for who he really is. Joe is the POV character and narrator of the show, but they have broken POV before. They could have had a 20 minute flashback to everything Candace has been up to since season 1 and shown us her masterplan for getting back at him.

But Rachael, we wouldn’t have gotten that cliff-hanger at the end of season 1!

Easy fix: Joes discovers an anonymous note accusing him of the murder which spooks him into leaving town.

So the story would be basically the same only, you know, not completely stupid.

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Speaking of stupid, let’s backtrack to Candace and Joe’s first meeting at the coffee shop post-Beck murder. Since the screen-writer never clued us in, it’s up to me to ask the obvious question: Why doesn’t he just kill her? No one else knew she was there and it’s doubtful anyone would be looking for her. All of his problems would have been over.

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Candace: You would go to prison as you. You would sit there for the rest of your life and think you’re a good man. I’m going to show you who you really are. And when you see it, you’ll be begging me to turn you in. It’s going to be really fun fucking destroying you.

Joe:

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Unfortunately, Candace isn’t the only disappointing character in this season. 

Our ensemble cast is a veritable assortment of a-holes.

Delilah and Ellie Alves, the residence of Joe’s new apartment complex, are supposed to come across as spunky and independent, but I could not connect with them.

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From the moment they meet Joe they are antagonistic towards him for no discernible reason. Even when he is helping them out he is insulted and accused of “man-splaining.” I know he’s a psychopathic murderer and worthy of scorn, but they don’t know that.

Many people seemed to latch onto these people, but I just couldn’t. Delilah is a bitch of epic proportions and Ellie was a tedious know-it-all.

Then there are the twins

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Forty isn’t a terrible character. The issue is he shouldn’t be in this show. He clashes with the tone of You something terrible. In season 1, You was a show engrained in reality. Yes, there were the occasional funny moments sprinkled in but most of the situations were plausible, the characters were three-dimensional, and the stakes were real. In season 2, he takes the show to near cartoonish levels of silly. The scene where he and Joe are tripping balls is straight out of a Hangover movie.

Love, it must be said, is a pretty underwhelming successor to Beck.

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I wanted to put Beck through a wall many times, but she was a well-written character. Her past demons, deeply imbedded insecurities, and her damage made for a realistic person and it was heartbreaking watching her go through all the devastation Joe brought to her life.

Love, on the other hand, is a major step down in terms of character development. Frankly, even with her co-dependent brother and dysfunctional family, she is pretty dull. It wasn’t until the end, after we discover she is as crazy as Joe, that she actually starts showing promise.

Since her previous husband died from a mysterious disease, I was kind of hoping she had secretly poisoned him because she found out he was cheating or something. Sadly, his death seems to have been a result of natural causes. Pity. Even after we discovered her murderous past….I found it difficult to care because the quality of the show had deteriorated so much.

Then, finally, there is Joe.

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Sigh.

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Remember how in my  previous post about You I said I wished they had discussed Joe’s backstory a bit more? Yeah, I take it back. It was basically you’re paint-by-numbers my-daddy-beat-my-mommy/mommy-was-a-whore scenario. It didn’t add any new or interesting dynamic to the character and the child actor they got to play young Joe could not emote for shit.

I know I shouldn’t be hard on a child actor, but it’s difficult being invested in a scene when one of the pivotal characters looks like he’s stuck in a calculus class taught by Ben Stein.

That wasn’t the only Joe-related issue of this season either.

A major plot thread of this season involved Joe’s eyes being opened to the monster he truly is. As Candace promises, he finally understands the pain he has put other people through….

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Normally I applaud character development, but in this case it fell flat for two reasons.

Problem #1: Joe has high-functioning narcissistic personality disorder

Someone with his level of psychosis  would not have the self-awareness necessary to question their behavior on this level. He may acknowledge he has done bad things, but he is able to compartmentalize it all under the banner of “love” and “protection” and thus cleanse himself of guilt. 

This is evidenced by his behavior going all the way back to season 1.

When he discovers Beck’s friend Peach has been taking lewd photographs of Beck without permission, he is disgusted, noting how much of a violation this is. It doesn’t even occur to him to examine his own actions from an outside perspective and realize he has done literally the same thing by inserting himself into Beck’s life.

Only he knows what Beck deserves. Only he can help her reach her full potential. It was his responsibility to weed out all the toxic people in her life.

It’s a humorous scene, but it’s an honest one. This is how people like Joe genuinely think. They are lying, manipulative, hypocrites that are virtually incapable of self-reflection.

Problem #2:  The season was much slower as a result of Joe trying to be a better person.

What made season 1 so captivating (apart from the superior character writing) was the shock-value. You never knew what depths of depravity Joe would plumb to next.

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The intensity was turned up to 11 in every episode.

What was he going to do with Benjii? How would he deal with Peach’s codependent control over Beck? How would he evade detection? Could he actually make things work with Beck and get away with it all scot free?

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During this season, however, they pulled all the punches.

I never felt like anything was at stake. Mostly because I didn’t give a crap about any of the supporting cast.

The most excited I became was when Forty and Joe were reenacting his confrontation with Beck while high on LSD and Joe begins strangling Forty to death!

source.gifAnd….then Joe stops.

This was a common thread. Almost every time we thought someone was going to get killed, or Joe was going to do something super messed but the writer’s would pull us back. They were really trying to push for A CW vibe with comedy and drama rather than what we came for a.k.a a serial-killing psychopath.

I didn’t want to look further into Love’s life. Her family is dumb. Her brother is a nuisance. The Old Joe would never let that happen.

Come on, writers, what are you waiting for?!

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As for that ending. That….stupid ending.

You mean we went through that whole bs about how he was going to be a good person now for no reason. You denied us high-stakes, intricate plans, and general messed-upness for nothing!

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Honestly, I could go on longer, but I believe this is a good place to cap this review.

TLDR; this season was a disaster.

The characters sucked.

Nothing anyone did made any sense.

The plot was stupid.

This was a disaster.

They should never have made a follow-up to season 1. It was a perfectly good self-contained story that didn’t need to be continued.

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Goodnight, You. 

May you suffocate in your glass prison of death.

Thoughts on “The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware

Amazon Summary: When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

***Author’s note: I think it’s fair to make it clear that this book is meant to be a modern retelling of The Turn of the Screw (a book which I have not read) and so I am basing this book entirely on its own merits.***

Rowan makes for a great protagonist, but in my mind Heathbrae House is the true star of the novel.

From the outside, Heathbrae is a dignified and eye-catching piece of real-estate with old Victorian aesthetic and flashy gadgetry.

The inside, however, reveals a much darker truth.

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As Rowan notes, the house’s transformation from a run down Victorian into a modern home replete with fancy technology is not a smooth one. Rather than blending together to form a charming country estate, the modern amenities and old architecture clash with one another in garish ways. The house itself suffers from an identity crisis which is perfectly in keeping with the story’s themes, especially relating to Rowan.

 Rowan has experience as a care-giver, however, it’s obvious she lacks a lot of the matronly appeal one in such a position is supposed to hold. She, herself, comes from a cold, loveless household and is desperately trying to find one of her own. She does her best to fit into the role but as the horrors increase, her facade begins to crumble. 

I found Rowan’s struggle heartbreakingly relatable. She’s found herself in a difficult position, where all her actions can and will be monitored in a strange and new environment. I think all of us have found ourselves in such a struggle, so it was easy to route for her as she goes through all these trials.

It doesn’t help that she’s constantly second-guessing both herself and those around her as strange events keep occurring.

In spite of the fact that I’m a total scaredy-cat, most books don’t have the power to truly scare me. This is especially true when they take place in modern times. The suspension of disbelief in the day of iPads and internet streaming is so weak it can take a great deal of co-ercing to get me to go along with the program.  However, The Turn of the Key literally made me afraid to turn the next page. I know, I know,  it’s a cliché, but the environment Ware created was so creepy and foreboding, I genuinely dreaded turning the page. What was a I going to discover? A corpse? A murder weapon? A ghost?

It legitimately kept me guessing as to what was going to happen, even though I knew for certain a child was going to die at the end.

Speaking of the end…..

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Perhaps it’s just me, but I was incredibly disappointed.

It didn’t seem to me that the twists worked very well as none of them were built up to.

The best kind of twists are the ones that make perfect sense upon second reading. All the clues are there but they are so innocuous you don’t notice them from the start. However, upon reflection it all makes perfect sense and you kick yourself for not recognizing the signs. In this case, however, I think Ware played her cards too close to her chest.

She gave away so little in the fear that her audience would figure out the ending that when the reveal happens it feels like she pulled it out of her arse.

For those that don’t want to the ending spoiled for them, don’t go any farther.

 

*********Spoilers ahead, reader beware***********

 

Okay, so I thought the twist that Rowan was actually Bill’s daughter was kind of….um…

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Even after rereading Rowan’s first encounter with Bill, it still didn’t make sense to me.

When Rowan is describing Bill’s appearance she says she can’t tell how old he is, but she speculates he could be forty.

Rowan is in her late twenties.

That would mean her father would have been 12 years-old upon her conception.

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To be 100% accurate, she guess-stimates his age from 40-60, but all the same. Why would she think he could possibly be 40?

Not to mention, there’s never any indication that there was more to the scene than what information we were presented with. If I went to all that trouble to find my biological father (stealing my roommate’s identity, uprooting myself from the country, and agreeing to live in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of strangers) I would be devastated to learn that he was a pervert.

Nonetheless, Rowan carries on as if it were nothing more than an inconvenience.

What makes this twist frustrating is I believe it could have been fixable if enough care was taken.

For instance, instead of saying “Sandra and Bill” in her narration, she could have said “Bill and Sandra.” A reader might question why she was putting Bill’s name before Sandra’s even though most of her interactions are through the matriarch of the family, but I doubt anyone would think enough about it to put two and two together.

As for the big reveal that it was actually Maddie pulling the strings all along…that’s fine…I guess…

Her motivation does makes sense and it’s easy to see how her father’s bad behavior could result in her acting out in a big way.

The problem with this revelation is I seriously doubt a child her age could pull off something that elaborate. This kid would have to be Hannibal Lector-level crazy. Think about it. She gaslighted Rowan, found out how to by-pass all the security (I know kids are good with tech but come on), snuck into a boarded up attic and a whole host of other things.

Let’s be reasonable here, this is all very, very unlikely.

The twist that Ellie accidentally killed Maddie was….okay, I guess.

It’s difficult to articulate why I was disappointed by this. Perhaps its my own personal hang-up with Scooby-Doo-isque endings where there’s always a guy in a mask behind everything instead of an actual ghost.

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I get it.

It’s the 21st century.

We are supposed to be beyond superstitious nonsense, but come on.

Can’t it ever be an actual ghost?

Ghosts are fun.

Throw me a bone, here.

Overall, if Ware had just re-written a couple of things, I think she would have a first rate book on her hands. As it stands, I can’t give this book anything higher than a 6/10.

I won’t say the twists ruined it for me, but they did take away a lot of enjoyment for me.