Long Books

HuffingtonPost.com recently published an article by Brooke Warner entitled “3 Good Reasons to Keep Your Book Shorter than 80,000 Words.” The reasons are as follows: 1) Attention spans are shorter, 2) Overly long books are a red flag to agents and editors, and 3) The longer the book, the more expensive it is to produce.

20f12-readingI think Point 1 is pretty much self-explanatory, but I’d like to single put what seems to be the central thesis of it in the article: Successful long books are the exception, not the rule. She goes on to cite examples from such authors as JK Rowling and Ken Follet, followed by this statement: “…most readers simply don’t have the attention span for long narratives. So if you’re just starting, aim short; if you’re running long and are pre-publication (and you can stomach it), work with an editor to cut cut cut. (emphasis added)”

Ms Warner is comparing apples and oranges here. Ken Follet and JK Rowling are not good examples of “authors [who] are the exception.” They are long-time veterans and bestselling writers, and they made their bones with long novels. Some, in Ms Rowling’s case, got longer and longer.

I will admit there’s some merit to the idea of making your first published novel shorter, but I would also contend that, on the whole, this article is New York-centric, or perhaps Manhattan myopic. You’ll see what I mean as this post progresses.

My first published novel is over 106,000 words. The one coming out next year is over 90,000 words. Both novels are—and here’s the key, a quote I’m hearing from every author I know—just the right length for the story being told. My second novel is cut down from its original length considerably. In fact, by the time I finished it, it was long enough for two novels (the second half will be my third crime novel), and that’s after cutting some 14,000 words from the original manuscript. I ended up with one 96,000-word novel and one 89,000-word sequel.

Bear with me here.

The second point Ms Warner makes is that long novels are red flags to editors and agents.

Well, yeah, they probably are in New York. And anyone who bothers to keep up with the publishing scene knows what’s going on there. Fights with Amazon over pricing. Books sitting in warehouses unsold. Publishing houses losing money. Advances going down or disappearing altogether. And I’m sure there are more sad stories I’m not aware of.

So, yeah, they don’t want to see long novels from first-timers. Why? Because they’re schizophrenic. Or something like that. In essence, the Big Five are always on the lookout for the next Stephen King, the next Gillian Flynn, the next JK Rowling. Or so they say. The reality is, they’re looking for that author, but they’re so afraid to take a chance on anyone being that author that they pass up what could be bestsellers because… they want to focus on the next novels from Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, JK Rowling, et al. In other words, they want the next big thing, but they’re afraid to take the risks necessary to make sure people know about the next big thing.

And that’s because of Reason 3: the longer the book, the more expensive it is to produce.

If you’re publishing with the New York model, that’s true. The New York publishers make big print runs. Essentially, they take a chance on every novel they publish. So, if you’re on the fortunate list of perennial bestsellers that includes the people I’ve mentioned above, that’s not a big deal. Though he may have fallen off recently, Stephen King is still guaranteed to sell big. I doubt Scribner has to worry too much about getting returns on his books.

Ms Warner goes on to finally acknowledge the world outside New York in this point—by citing self-publishing. Yes, if your book is long, you’re going to have to keep the price as low as possible in order to be competitive. But what she fails to mention is that many self-publishers go the e-book route because it’s essentially free, and it’s becoming the wave of the future. She also cites print on demand, another trend that’s gaining popularity.

She completely ignores the indie publishers, and that’s where the myopia shows itself. I can’t speak for other indie publishers, but at Oghma, we’re not concerned with book length. As long as it’s a quality story, we’ll stand behind the author and pay the set-up fees to produce a larger book. In fact, we’ve already done so with Beyond the Moon by Velda Brotheron and Type and Cross by Staci Trolio. And we’ll have more long books coming out in the future.

Most indie publishers use the print on demand that Ms Warner talks about in her article—the one she cites as the wave of the future. And she’s right. She just doesn’t cover all the bases when it comes to the world of publishing these days.

Of course, if you go with an indie publisher, you’re going to have to go with whatever they want. If they want you to cut your book considerably, then that’s what you’ll have to do. Also, listen to your editor. We work hard to make your book the best it can be, and if we see long sections that really don’t advance the plot or are irrelevant to the story in some way—or can just be done in a way that makes them shorter and more concise—we’re not asking you to cut it in order to torment you or make your life harder. We want you to put out the best product possible, and that almost always entails cutting something, even if it’s just a few words here and there. Chances are, if you’ve done your homework and learned your craft the way you should, there won’t be a lot of cutting involved.

Besides, we’re all going to write some novels long and some short. If you want to persevere on the New York route and want to attract a lot of attention, push one of your shorter novels as your first work. My first published novel wasn’t the first one I’d written. Far from it. It wasn’t even the first crime novel I wrote after embarking on that genre. It was the second. I was still revising the first (the one I mentioned above that ended up becoming two novels), so I decided to make Spree—a nice standalone story-my first published work.

The final decision, of course, is up to you. But if you want my opinion, if you’re gonna dream, dream big. And if that means making your first novel a longer one (I didn’t even touch on the way Ms Warner totally ignores taking genre into account), then go for it.

If it’s good, they’ll want it.

Later,
Gil

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Learning from Stephen King

If you read this blog with any kind of regularity you know I’m a Stephen King fan. Not so much of his recent works—Duma Key is one I have a hard time remembering the title, let alone the story, and Under the Dome was something of a disappointment as well—but when it comes to his older stuff… well, that’s where my heart is.

The-Stand-Book-CoverFirst off, there’s The Stand, probably his magnum opus, at least in my opinion. It is a close second, and a novel I love to revisit on occasion. And ’Salem’s Lot will always hold a special place in my heart as it’s the first Stephen King novel I ever read—after seeing the second half of the miniseries back in the day and wanting to know what happened in the first half. In our book-poor county, I had a heck of a time finding a copy, but once I’d read it I was hooked.

There’s no way I can count up the pleasurable hours I’ve spent lost in Mr. King’s worlds, from his Dark Tower series, to The Dark Half and his short story collections (he’s one of the few authors I’ll read when it comes to shorts), his words played a big part in my decision to be a writer.

Now, whatever you may think of Mr. King and his works, I think we can agree on one thing: he’s a good benchmark when it comes to a writer’s dreams of success. He’s a regular bestseller, and even he has lamented on more than one occasion that he could probably publish his laundry list and it’d be a hit.

Mr. King is good for inspiration, and I won’t dissuade you from reading him. He knows how to string words together in a way that usually makes you want to keep reading (I’m in the middle of Finders Keepers, his newest, as I write this, and it has me reluctant to put it down), andfinders keepers his nonfiction On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is pretty much at the top of my list when it comes to recommending books, well, on writing.

But you don’t want to follow Mr. King’s methods too closely.

As Inigo Montoya said, let me ’splain.

Stephen King began his writing career in a day when the standards were different. For instance, author intrusion was an accepted way of storytelling that it would be hard to get away with today. The literary landscape has changed, and I won’t get into an argument as to whether it’s for the better or not, because I can see it from both sides (note to self: this might make a good post in the future).

Back in the seventies, when Mr. King and his contemporaries such as Dean Koontz and Peter Straub (neither of which I’ve ever been able to get into nearly as much as I did Mr. King) started their careers, author intrusion was normal, even expected. Let me give you an example from page 126 of Finders Keepers:

Pete lay awake for a long time that night. Not long after, he made the biggest mistake of his life.

It’s that last sentence I want you to pay attention to, because it breaks deep POV, and that’s a no-no these days. Writers like Mr. King can get away with it for a few reasons. His readers expect it. It’s how he learned to write, and he became a bestselling author writing that way, so why fix what ain’t broke? And probably most important, see the aforementioned reference to his laundry list. It don’t matter what the boy writes, his fans is gonna buy it.

Why change?

But I have a news flash: You’re not Stephen King. Or Dean Koontz. Or Peter Straub. You don’t have decades of bestselling books on your résumé. Your name isn’t a virtual guarantee of being on the bestseller list.

You don’t got clout, man.

foreshadowingI know, too, why Stephen King does things like he did in the example above. It’s a form of foreshadowing that heightens the tension a bit. You’re given a tidbit that bodes ill for the character, and that’s why we read books, isn’t it? To see what happens to these poor people and how they deal with it. And we really want Mr. King’s characters to get out of their predicaments because his strength is in his characters. Story is almost second in importance in a Stephen King book. We care about the characters because Mr. King rounds them out so well we can’t help but care about them—even the bad guys, in a lot of cases.

But in today’s publishing atmosphere, if this was his debut novel, an editor would tell Mr. King to go back and find another way to tell us that foreshadowing detail, one that doesn’t tell us something Pete couldn’t possibly know. Because, as much as that little detail heightens the tension, Pete can’t know it, so you can’t tell it to us that way. Mr. King can, because he got that clout I mentioned above.

The clout you ain’t got none of.

And that means you can’t get away with it, unless you find some old-school editor, and I think there must be a lot of them out there, from what I’m seeing in some published works.

And here’s the thing: if you use deep POV properly, the fact Pete doesn’t know he’s about to make the biggest mistake of his life can be used to heighten tension just as much as Mr. King’s little snippet of author intrusion does. One method might be to drop little hints, small clues, that the character (and, by extension, the reader) would see as signs of danger if only he were paying enough attention. And even if the reader sees these things and Pete doesn’t, it still heightens the tension because the reader is screaming at him to wake up and pay attention already!

There are some other authors who break these rules as well—James Clavell and Mario Puzo come to mind, as they do what is commonly called head-hopping, a huge no-noShogun these days—but you’ll notice they, too, are from the seventies.

I’m not suggesting you can’t learn anything from these authors. You can learn from any author, and there’s some merit to the argument you can learn more from a bad author than from a good one (if you can get through the book, that is), because a good one makes fewer mistakes. But you don’t want to mimic them too closely (for one, that would be plagiarism) or you’ll be making mistakes that won’t fly with most publishers these days.

And, hey, like I said, Finders Keepers is a good book so far. Last thing you want to do is ignore pleasurable reading, and there are a lot of good things you can learn from Mr. King. Such as excellent characterization.

Just don’t follow in their footsteps exactly.

Later,
Gil

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All Apologies

Sorry I’ve been so remiss with posts lately. Seems my blog muse has taken a vacation, but I think I found where the sucker is staying and I’ll have him back soon.

Meanwhile, hope your summer’s going great! (I know, it’s not officially summer yet but… have you been outside lately?)

imisread-sorry_36a209274b6b2c5e0e8478db93ec359c (1)

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Skies of Ash

Rachel Howzell Hall is a time thief.skies of ash

If the name sounds a bit familiar, it’s because I reviewed her first Detective Elouise Norton novel, Land of Shadows, last year. The book blew me away, and I’ve been waiting very impatiently on the follow-up. The wait has also been somewhat apprehensive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book by an author and was thrilled to discover them, only to have subsequent novels disappoint me.

That’s not the case with the new book in the series, Skies of Ash.

To be honest, it didn’t catch me immediately. In Land of Shadows, we had what looked to be the makings of a serial killer (at least to me) because of the nature of the crime. In Skies of Ash, the crime doesn’t seem quite as sexy at the outset: a woman and her two children killed in a house fire, the husband/father in the hospital after firefighters tackled him to prevent him from going into the burning house to rescue his family. And I think, in the hands of anyone else, this setup could have turned into something either dreadful or far too predictable.

But if this book taught me anything, it’s to expect the totally unexpected from Rachel Howzell Hall.

I’m not gonna give up any spoilers, though I am gonna reiterate what I said when I reviewed Land of Shadows: get this book and read it.

The protagonist, Elouise Norton—or Lou—still has an apparently philandering husband, who she has forgiven yet again. She’s still stuck with a cowboy partner who really doesn’t get her. And she has friends who, while they got her back, maybe nag at her a little too much—mostly about said philandering husband. And it doesn’t help that one of those friends is also a reporter who tries to get Lou to give up details she’s not at liberty to divulge.

Just another day at the office for our intrepid detective (yes, I went there).

But there are differences. Lou’s husband, Greg, is showing signs of jealousy. For some reason, he feels threatened by her partner. Of course, my thought when I read scenes where he’s razzing her for this working relationship was He seems to me to be protesting a bit too much. And there is a man she’s attracted to, though he’s best friends with the husband in the case and may well know things he’s not telling her.

land of shadowsOn top of that, her colleagues suspect perhaps her domestic troubles are prejudicing her on this case, making her suspect the husband when it’s pretty obvious he’s too grief-stricken to be the murderer.

Especially when the evidence for murder is circumstantial, at best.

But Lou is, if nothing else, determined to get the bottom of this case, and the more layers she strips away, the stranger it all becomes. Maybe the murder isn’t as sexy at the outset as in the first novel, but this case works at you in others ways, worms its way into you consciousness until you have no choice but follow it all the way through. Which I did in about two days.

Ms. Hall does what I love most in a mystery: she makes the case have an effect on the main character. Just as Michael Connelly does with Harry Bosch and Robert Crais does with Elvis Cole, the ramifications change their lives, make the cases more than just another day at work for them. There are things in the case that parallel their personal lives in some way, and there are aspects of their jobs that they can’t leave in the office. These stories go far beyond mere mysteries or police procedurals. We get to see the humans behind the cases, and we come to care for them and empathize with the effects that witnessing humanity at its worse can have on the investigators.

They’re not getting through these things unscathed.

And that makes us love these people, makes us root for them as we never would for Sherlock Holmes. We want Sherlock to solve the case. But we want Harry and Elvis and Lou to triumph, not just over the case, but over the problems in their lives as well. And because they often fail—just as we do—we root for them that much more.

Ms. Hall steps outside the boundaries of the genre with these books, and that makes me a fan, not just a reader.

I only have one problem: Ms. Hall, if you’re reading this, where’s the next one?

Later,
Gil

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The New N Word

The PC crowd is at it again. And, of course, NPR is leading the way.

Last Thursday, on their afternoon news show All Things Considered, Melissa Block interviewed Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter on the use of the word1400091124004.cached thugs to describe those involved in the Baltimore riots.

I always take notice when the matter of race comes up—and that’s exactly what this story was about—because I think the media, and certain individuals like Al Sharpton and our “unifying” president, stir things up far more than they alleviate. Yes, we rely on the news to tell us about these things, and there is room in the news for the op-ed piece.

But pay attention to how these things are couched next time you hear/see them. Who’s giving the opinion? Though I’m sure they weren’t trying to hide it, the fact is, John McWhorter is black, and I have to wonder how much that fact influenced his opinion. Quite a bit, I’d imagine.

The basic idea behind the interview was that Professor McWhorter posits the word thug is “the new n word,” at least when we eternally prejudiced whiteys use it. When black Obama uses it, or the black Baltimore mayor uses it, or any other black in the whole frickin world uses it, it’s okay. Why? Because when a white person uses the word to refer to blacks, it automatically means we’re using in a prejudiced way because we think different. That’s not my opinion. That’s Professor McWhorter’s.

NwordHe even takes a bit of exception to Obama using the word. Why? Because although he’s black, he hasn’t had “that experience” that a gangbanger has (will gangbanger be the next racially charged word?). This from a man who attended Friends Select School, a private school on Philadelphia, before being accepted to Simon’s Rock College in tenth grade. Sounds like he grew up on some mean streets indeed.

Just as an aside, something I’ve noticed about these types of interviews, at least on NPR: the interviewer (who in this case is white) seems to take every opportunity to use the word in question, though in fairness I’ve never heard them use the n word. (I’m not using that very word in this post because this is me talking, not one of my fictional characters.)

Now, full disclosure here, just to be sure we’re clear: I’m a white, heterosexual, Southern male. That makes me a far cry from being politically correct. About as far as you can get, I’d say.

But…

Despite having a rebel flag tattooed on one arm, I do not belong to the Klan. Or any other white supremacist group. Or hate group, for that matter. I have gay friends and family, Mexican friends, black friends (though those are in short supply at the moment, simply because I’ve lost touch with the ones I had), my goddaughter is in a KKK_Busters_by_Dess520relationship with another woman and it doesn’t bother me one bit. I’m not narrow-minded. I got the tattoo when I was nineteen and in the Army. I grew up in the seventies and loved The Dukes of Hazzard. I love my Southern heritage. Even in those days, I didn’t get that tattoo as anything remotely racial, and still can’t understand how anyone can make such a blanket statement to say the Confederate flag can only be a racial symbol. That discounts those of us who are proud to be Southern, even if we’re morally embarrassed by those inbred idiots parading around in white sheets. I’ve always thought it’s no coincidence their hoods look just like dunce caps.

So to have a man like John McWhorter, who apparently comes from a privileged background (his full name is John Hamilton McWhorter V, according to Wikipedia) make a blanket judgment about my thoughts just because I’m white…well, maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m taking too much offense here, but isn’t that a racially biased opinion? For him to say he knows what I mean when I say thugs without meeting me or knowing a thing about me, is prejudice. Just as much as me saying that all blacks are criminals or subhuman or any of those kinds of things. I’m making a judgment based solely on skin color or stereotype, with not a single fact to back it up. And he reinforces this biased opinion by saying it’s okay for blacks to use the word, but not whites. Sound familiar?

I could go on and on about this subject, but I’d likely start repeating myself in a lot of ways, rehashing the same old points ad infinitum. So let me close with this: we will never patch over this festering sore that is prejudice until we drop the agendas, the desires to balance the scales by fostering white guilt over honest dialogue. The word thugs, in its modern usage, originated with gangsta rap. Tupac Shakur had the words Thug Life tattooed on his stomach. It’s a term used to describe life in a gang. Tupac came from the streets, not from a private school. He has the right to use that term, according to Professor McWhorter, while a poor white guy who grew up running Southern dirt roads doesn’t have a right to use that word when referring to those who tear up their neighborhoods and loot black business owners as a way to “honor” someone killed by police.

first-they-cameWhere is the outrage when a black cop shoots a white guy? Or a black cop shoots a black guy? Why not have outrage anytime a police officer shoots someone in questionable circumstances? That’s fair, and balanced, and will benefit everyone, not just one class of people. And shouldn’t that be the ultimate aim of all this business? After all, Hitler started with the communists. But he didn’t stop there, as the Jews can attest. If we let the cops continue to abuse blacks, how long will it be before they decide they can extend that abuse to other groups?

Later,
Gil

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Superheroes in the Real World

You know, I get as caught up in superhero stories as the next guy. I grew up reading the old four-color comics and loving them, especially Ghost Rider and Spider-Man. I used to have a Marvel Treasury Edition of their adaptation of Star Wars that I wish I still owned. The artwork wasn’t the best, but it was still cool to have a comic adaptationmokf67-cover of a movie I loved so much. I was also into the more offbeat comics Marvel put out in the seventies, like Werewolf by Night and The Tomb of Dracula. And don’t get me started on Conan the Barbarian and The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. I loved those two, and have the Dark Horse remastered reissues of Conan.

But of course, Conan and Shang-Chi weren’t superheroes, at least not the kind I’m talking about in this post. I want to focus on the ones who had true super powers, like Spider-Man, Superman, and their like.

As cool as these stories are, have you ever really considered what it would be like if we really had superheroes in our world? I mean, in a practical sense? The X-Men dealt with at least one aspect of that, the idea of mutants slowly replacing us normal humans. I just watched Days of Future Past, and one of the themes of the movie is just that: how mutants are the next evolutionary step, possibly destined to replace us mere humans, though I’d suggest that day is a long way away. The mutants, after all, only make up a small fraction of the total population and, since they tend to fight one another and kill each other off, they’re not going to totally replace us anytime soon. Besides, I imagine they’d be ruling over us long before they took our place.

7764_4_C-58But that’s just one aspect. What about the damage these people cause when they go after one another? Holy cow, man, just one fight between Superman and, oh, I don’t know, Captain Marvel (another one I wish I still  had), metes out more destruction than Islamic terrorists could ever hope to achieve. And these are two good guys! This doesn’t take into account the wanton destruction the bad guys indulge in on a regular basis, apparently just because they can. I mean, why go in with a heist team and break into the bank vault when you can just punch a hole in the wall and walk out with the money?

And you know there have to be civilian fatalities to go along with all that damage. I mean, when the Hulk slams into a high-rise building and knocks it down, you know not everyone got out. It would be like having 9/11 every time some of these folks decided to have it out. The death tolls alone would turn the populace against these guys, no matter how much good they might be doing. Sure, Spider-Man is protecting us against the Green Goblin, but when they go at it they tear down or at least severely damage several buildings, not to mention all that torn up pavement. I’m sure construction contractors absolutely love these guys, but the rest of us? Not so much.

Look at the Avengers movies, and here I’m including the individual members’ movies as well. For instance, in The Winter Soldier, a big chunk of the city below the battle was destroyed when Captain America and the Winter Soldier faced one another. How many people died when that happened? And when the Hulk picks up vehicles and uses them like fly swats, how many die, and how many millions in damage occurs? Christ, I’m pretty sure a huge chunk of New York City was destroyed in The Avengers, and they’re all set to do it again this weekend with The Age of Ultron. Tony Stark is breaking out his hulk-vs-iron-mans-hulk-busterHulkbuster armor, so you know shit’s gonna get real. Real destructive, that is.

So, yeah, I’m thinkin that, as cool as these stories are, as neat as it is to read these larger-than-life exploits, I’m glad they’re restricted to the comic books and movies. I don’t think the real world can handle superheroes, and I don’t know if I’d want to live in a world with them striding around destroying everything every time one of them has a temper tantrum.

Later,
Gil

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Back to the Beginning

I want you to come back with me on a trip through time.

Madison TheaterIt’s 1977, in the small town of Huntsville, Arkansas. There’s this little theater on the town square called Madison Theater. This in in the days before the multiplexes, so there’s only one room. The theater runs movies Thursday through Sunday, with matinees on the weekends. The shows are second-, maybe third-run affairs, six months at least past their release dates, especially for the big releases.

And we’re about to go in and see what’s become a big release.

We sit in our seats. There aren’t any cup holders, and the chairs don’t recline. The best seats are usually about halfway down. The walls are covered with curtains, and the floor is sticky from where somebody spilled their soda last showing. Popcorn in one hand, drink in the other, we sit in the cool dimnness, waiting for show time.

There aren’t any commercial PowerPoints going on the screen. In fact, we can’t see the screen yet as there’s a genuine curtain covering it. This is a theater, not a multiplex. There’s no surround sound, though there are multiple speakers, and the only sounds in here for now are those of people talking and laughing. No piped in radio stations that broadcast for this chain because it’s an indie theater, locally owned.

Then, finally, the lights dim and the curtain parts, just like it would for live theater. The screen lights up—maybe off-frame at first, because these aren’t digital projectors we’re talking about here—and then the first preview comes on. Again, no commercials for cars or cell phones or what have you. Just trailers for upcoming movies.

Disco is stronger than ever, thanks to the release of Saturday Night Fever, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind has everyone interested in UFOs and little gray men. Clint Eastwood expends a million rounds in The Gauntlet, and another huge fish terrifies everyone in Orca.

Then the previews are over. The 20th Century Fox logo comes on, with its roving spotlights and heavy music, and the screen goes dark. This is the movie everyone’s been raving about, so there isn’t any talking. Then, there they are, in the middle of the screen, the words that would become world-famous:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…1127541656

Man, with words like that to open the thing, it must be a good one.

Then the music hits, that sweeping orchestral theme, its big sound hinting at big things to come, and the Star Wars logo swoops into view, receding into a glittering field of stars and the screen crawl starts, tilted away from us and following the logo into the black distance. There’s no chapter heading because this is Star Wars, not A New Hope. This is long before the prequels, long before this setting became the monster it is today, but we don’t know that yet. Science fiction movies, as a rule, aren’t very successful, and those of us who are fans of the genre worry this might be another one of those disappointing things that pale in comparison with the good books we’ve read.

The words scroll on, informing us that it is a period of rebellion in the galaxy. We read them all, enthralled, and watch as they disappear into the depths of space. What’s this Galactic Empire and what is it like? Ooo, what’s a Death Star? That sounds bad. And who is this Princess Leia and what does she look like?

This might actually be good.

The music gets quieter for a moment and the camera pans down. There’s a half-moon of in the distance, then a planet, its atmosphere a blue haze, its surface a mix of dull browns. The music swells again and there’s a sound like we’ve never heard before. A spaceship with multiple thrusters speeds over and away from us, followed by the biggest damn thing we’ve ever seen. It seems to stretch on forever before we see its huge thrusters, easily as large as the ship it pursues. The camera’s angle finally changes and we see this thing dwarfs the first ship, with a huge bridge like one of our battleships sticking up from it. It’s triangular, and it’s firing green laser bolts at the small ship.

We’re caught up now. The camera goes inside the small fleeing ship to show us two robots navigating a corridor. One of them speaking with a clipped British accent, the other with electronic noises we don’t understand. An exterior shot shows the larger ship capturing the small one. Ominous noises ensue, and crewmembers run past the robots—away from the camera—blasters at the ready. When the camera shows us their faces a few moments later, their expressions are grim but determined. They focus on a door at the end of the corridor.

We get their POV. The door’s edges flash, a laser bolt whips through as the door disappears in a shower of sparks, and then soldiers come through, dressed in white armor from head to toe, firing on the ship’s crew without remorse. A short battle follows, one that isn’t good for the rebels, and then…who’s this? He’s dressed all in black: sweeping cape, scary looking face shield, not an inch of his body showing.

star-wars-darth-vader-introThen we hear it: heavy breathing, ominous to say the least. He looks down at the bodies littering the corridor floor for a moment, then moves on.

If you’re a fan—or maybe even if you’re not—you know the footage I’m talking about. But we didn’t then. This is before the prequels, before the Special Editions, before Greedo shooting first, before Han stepping on Jabba’s tail. It’s one movie, and it has us caught up in it already. We have a dark villain, a beautiful princess (even if her hairdo is a bit weird), two robots that remind us of maybe a high-tech Laurel and Hardy, and this world we’re looking at feels real.

Yes, the corridors of the ship are, at first, clean and shiny. But as the movie progresses, we see that this setting has rough edges. The robots are dirty, and everything on Tatooine is pitted and scoured by its sands. We learn about Jawas and Sand People and Mos Eisley and…

The Force. It’s a mysterious energy field that surrounds and binds the galaxy together. That’s it. All the time Luke is learning about the Force, no one, not Obi-Wan (who, in the prequels, tested Luke’s father Anakin), not Yoda, not even Darth Vader or the Emperor, ever made mention of midi-chlorians.

And that was good. We went away from the movie talking about the Force. What was it? Was it magic? Or something else? Ben’s description left a lot of room for speculation, and that’s what made it alluring: it was mysterious, and we didn’t understand it, so we could interpret it in our own way.
This movie was different. We loved it from the start. The world it presented us was real and gritty and we could see ourselves living in it. Luke Skywalker and the possibilitystarwarstrilogy_0 of him falling for Leia was all we talked about for years. And then, when The Empire Strikes Back came out, well, the possibility that Darth Vader was Luke’s father…no, that couldn’t be.

These days, it’s called A New Hope and it’s part of this huge merchandising empire and moneymaking machine owned by Disney. Even George Lucas admitted it changed him from being one of the maverick filmmakers to one of the big corporations he rebelled against. He went from being part of the Rebel Alliance to running the Empire.

It’s been almost forty years since I saw Star Wars the first time (for me, it will always be Star Wars; I’m still uncomfortable calling it A New Hope), but I can still put it in the DVD player—even though I own the Special Edition—and feel a faint echo of the magic I felt the first time I experienced this movie in that little theater in Huntsville, Arkansas when I was twelve years old.

Regardless of what’s happened with the Star Wars Universe since then—and I have to say that not all of it has been good—the original movie, in fact, the original trilogy, was a game changer for me and my friends. It took us somewhere we hadn’t even dreamed of going, and we spent hours talking about it. It meant far more to us than who shot JR Ewing. Who cared? Darth Vader was Luke’s father and Leia was his sister.

And the fate of an Empire rested on Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber blade.

What more could you ask for?

Later,
Gil

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