Thursday, December 21, 2006

Assess and Respond

Devoted fans of Robert Heinlein and folks who only want to read holiday posts should probably skip my blog today.

There's something that has been bugging me, no pun intended, since I saw the movie adaptation of Heinlein's Starship Troopers back in '98. Now I understand from reading comparisons made by serious fans that the book and the movie aren't the same. Nor would I dare suggest otherwise since I haven't read the book and have no plans to. But (evidently) both the book and the movie have the same basic plot: future humans enter the military, train, go into space to find and fight giant alien bugs using long-range attacks to wipe out earth.

In the movie soldiers were sent across space to fight these bugs with fairly traditional air and ground forces; the same response humans use to combat other humans. And the troopers are slaughtered wholesale for most of the movie. So here's my question: in the future, there's no imiprothrin or cypermethrin*? Because you know, you drop some planetary-size nukes loaded to deliver those two active ingredients, and they'd kill the bugs on contact. And keep killing for up to four weeks after you bombed. Other than building the nukes and shooting them into space, no troop involvement would be required. NASA could handle it with a couple of Titan IVs.

How this relates to writing (because, of course, everything relates to writing): if you don't assess a problem correctly, you can't respond to it adequately. To kill a bug, you need a bug killer. Whatever problem you're having with your WIP or your work or your career, sending in the Marines won't work. You have to look at the problem then tailor a response that has the best chance of solving it.

Here's a recent industry example: The author vs. selling a debut novel. Author A writes a kickass debut novel with a fresh approach to an old genre standard, gets major pre-order buzz, wows the readers and ends up an overnight success. A year later, Author B publishes a knockoff of Author A's novel, is given a huge promotional push by the publisher in hopes of artificially generating the major pre-order buzz Author A got, drives off the readers with the hard sell and poor imitation, and ends up tanking badly.

They both did virtually the same thing -- and Author B got a multimillion-dollar book campaign that Author A was never given, so B should have actually done better. Where did Author B go wrong or, more correctly, where did Author A go right?

Two words say it all about Author A: fresh approach. What made A's novel kickass? The fresh approach. What got the pre-order buzz? The fresh approach. What wowed the readers? The fresh approach. What did B do? The exact opposite of what worked for A.

It's not always as simple as the situation with Author A and B. You may not have the means to give the best response to your problem. Or, however carefully you tailor your response, it may not solve it. That's when you reassess and tailor another response modified by the information you gather from the failure of the first attempt. It's like directions on shampoo bottles: Lather, rinse, repeat if necessary.

Okay, now you can yell at me for dissing Heinlein.

*the active ingredients in Raid Ant & Roach Killer

34 comments:

  1. But there would be no story if you killed all the bugs using bug spray right? Anyways wholly agree with ya on the fresh approach thing. The history fiction genre is getting a bit dry. Too many conspiracy theories for my taste.

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  2. Your post reminded me of the time I went to see Stargate at the movies. (The original film, obviously.)
    The first half was moody and atmospheric, there were clues to solve and puzzles to unlock and ancient civilisations and the Stargate and ... fantastic.
    Then came the second half: Men and women running around with guns. I was so disappointed I almost walked out.

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  3. I haven't read the book or seen the movie. (Don't like bugs.)

    But what if...we discover that those active ingredients in the amount needed to kill off those bugs would also kill us all. (Not such a big what if IMHO.)

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  4. This is a great post. Well written. (I'm sure you hear that all the time, but too much never hurt anyone.)

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  5. I didn't read the book, but when I watched the movie I thought that the main characters (the humans) are amazingly reminiscent of bigots. I can admit that I didn't like that movie at all.

    Also, I really appreciate this post, with regards to dosing the right medicine to the right illness. I think I need to re-evaluate my approach to my writing as well.

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  6. The book, which I enjoyed muchly as a teenager, had the same distopian(?) society. However, the Bugs only featured as one of many enemies, and the starship troopers had powered armour with mini-nukes and finger lasers - which were very cool indeed.

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  7. Anonymous7:13 AM

    Your post is indeed an appropriate response -- for the movie.

    Heinlein's book, on the other hand, explains quite clearly and unambiguously why humanity has need of infantry: because nuclear bombardment lacks nuance. It's very difficult to rescue civilians by bombing them. When your goal is something short of total destruction, planet-cracking bombs should not be your first choice.

    The book is about civic responsibility; about maturity and growing up; about ethics and government. The answers that it gives are less important than the questions it raises.

    The movie is about Verhoeven's memories of Nazis, his fear of government propaganda, and the dehumanization of enemies. It did not start out as an adaptation of Heinlein, and it didn't finish that way, either. The two bear as much relationship to each other as a McDonald's Shamrock Shake bears to freshly handchurned ice cream.

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  8. Actually, the book is pretty good. Heinlein, to my mind, was writing a kind of pro-war, pro-military novel.

    Now, my college roommate, a huge SF fan, offered me the Heinlein to read, then when I was finished, offered me a novel I believe was called "The Millennium War" although I can't find it on amazon.

    The Millennium War was the same sort of idea--a long-ranging war against humans and aliens--but he spun it by taking advantage of physics as we know it. Humans would stick their soldiers into stasis and send them 45 light years to fight a battle, and (assuming they lived) by the time they got back to Earth, a much longer period of time had passed. Meanwhile, each wave and sortie on each side drew upon increasingly military technology--after all, hundreds of years were passing back on the home planets, while less time was passing in space. It was a war story (or anti-war story) that made good use of the Theory of Relativity and used it in a creative way.

    Both terrific books, both similar, but both trying to say something different.

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  9. I don't like simple answers being ignored, either, simply for the sake of having giant explosions and lots of computer-generated "fun." I never read the book because I thought the movie was stupid. I realize people always want to find a new use for the Maroons, but they were INSECTS! Seriously, there were easier solutions that would have cost a lot less (then again, does anyone in this world appreciate spending less money?).

    "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras." The simplest answer is usually the best (and correct) one, and I think that's an important lesson to remember - particularly for writing. Simple doesn't mean uninteresting, if you approach it properly. Maybe it'll require a rewrite for the screenplay when Hollywood taps you, but it'll make for a better story for the readers.

    As far as alien invasions go, I think War of the Worlds had the right idea: just infect the buggers! No nukes, no armies, just a couple of hypodermic needles or small children. Simple, easy, and cheap! *-*

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  10. Loved the book.
    Hated the movie.

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  11. *sigh*

    I love these kinds of posts. Instead of thinking about story and/or considering remaining Christmas to-do lists, I get to ponder the identity of Author B.

    I should come over here and randomly post lines from Feliz Navidad over and over again as payback. *g*

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  12. Doesn't the failure of Author B have to do with the writing? I.e., if the promotional kick was really strong then its the lack of reader connection to Author B's work. Sometimes you can't imitate a certainly indefinable quality that makes one Author connect with a reader while another Author within the same genre does not.

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  13. I'm with Shannon. I wanna know who the authors are.

    And i agree with Jane, too. If Author B had written a unique book instead of a knock off...

    Although I do think authors can hit on something similiar, without ever meaning to. Without reading anything by the other author or even knowing about the other author. I just started reading Sherrilyn Kenyon last year, hadn't ever read her before. She writes great stuff, I just hadn't read it. But I've seen it in several places that I'm attempting to copy her. Can't copy what I hadn't read, nor would I attempt to copy it, even if I had read it.

    And for the record, I hated Starship Troopers. I wanted to like it. Really. I love sci fi movies. Hadn't read the book but he's a little more hard core sci fi than I like. But I hated the movie with a passion. We got up and left and we've done that only twice. I think the bug spray is an excellent idea, because it would have saved me the trouble and trauma of seeing that movie. ;)

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  14. All I remember from the movie was that Doogie Howser was in it and there was a co-ed shower scene. Good times.

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  15. I think the movie of Starship Troopers was about hot guys getting whipped and very pretty women in military outfits. Some of the actors actually looked air-brushed to me.

    But the bug spray idea would've been cool -- and could've even failed, but would have to be attempted first.

    Meantime, hmm, author A and author B. Inquiring minds who are on deadline want to know.

    Your problem-solving advice is excellent. And it's going to help me today with a problem in a novel I'm working on. Thank you.

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  16. My fear, right now, is that the book I'm workign on WAS fresh when I sold it. But since then, severla others have come out, or also been sold and are now being promoted, with similar themes. So by the time my book hits the stores, I'm worried I'll be considered Authro B. :(

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  17. Mark, you're probably thinking of The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

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  18. SandyW12:48 PM

    First of all, anyone who hated the movie Starship Troopers should consider reading the book just to get the taste out of their mouths. Vastly different. Heinlein was brilliant and only slightly twisted, an excellent combination in a writer. He had some interesting ideas about the military; I thought of this book a lot when I was in basic training. And periodically someone in my family will still get a laugh by yelling, “I’m a thirty-second bomb! I’m a thirty-second bomb!”

    Anyway, I’m a big fan of the Fresh Approach. I like variations on a theme, where someone takes a classic tale or idea and puts a whole new spin on it. But how does this really work in today’s climb-on-the-bandwagon publishing industry? Who’s buying all those Regency historicals? (Madeline Hunter was bad enough, now Claudia Dain too!) And how many angsty vampires do we need? Mind you, I love me a good vampire tale, but some of these folks writing vampires have no feel for it. I wouldn’t mind a large portion of the market being paranormals or Regencys or whatever written by people who want to write them. But it annoys me to read a book that sounds like the author’s heart just wasn’t in it.

    How does the fresh approach and looking for simple, direct solutions fit with getting published and staying published?

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  19. Yes! I just checked. "The Forever War" by Haldeman. Here's what it says from Amazon:

    In the 1970s Joe Haldeman approached more than a dozen different publishers before he finally found one interested in The Forever War. The book went on to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, although a large chunk of the story had been cut out before it saw publication. Now Haldeman and Avon Books have released the definitive version of The Forever War, published for the first time as Haldeman originally intended. The book tells the timeless story of war, in this case a conflict between humanity and the alien Taurans. Humans first bumped heads with the Taurans when we began using collapsars to travel the stars. Although the collapsars provide nearly instantaneous travel across vast distances, the relativistic speeds associated with the process means that time passes slower for those aboard ship. For William Mandella, a physics student drafted as a soldier, that means more than 27 years will have passed between his first encounter with the Taurans and his homecoming, though he himself will have aged only a year. When Mandella finds that he can't adjust to Earth after being gone so long from home, he reenlists, only to find himself shuttled endlessly from battle to battle as the centuries pass.

    And really, read "Starship Troopers" and "The Forever War" back to back and you'll have plenty of fodder for your master's thesis on speculative literature.

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  20. Anonymous2:02 PM

    Michelle said...
    "All I remember from the movie was that Doogie Howser was in it and there was a co-ed shower scene. Good times."


    Hahaha.

    Never read the book, but I didn't exactly hate the movie...maybe I'm the only one here, but I kind of enjoy stupid movies ;)

    As for the Author A vs. Author B thing...I think it really does depend on how it's written. I've come across books that look like one another all the time and depending on the story and the way it's written or the characters in play, I can enjoy each one. A fresh take is always nice...even if it's just the characters involved (see In My Wildest Dreams by Christina Dodd...you'll find a great similarity with the plot and the movie Sabrina--both versions).

    -aj

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  21. Didn't care for Starship Troopers because it was hard to like the characters.

    Going to ponder what you said about the writing. :)

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  22. Douglas Clegg said, think the movie of Starship Troopers was about hot guys getting whipped ...

    And there I thought I was the only one who remembers that best. :)

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  23. Christopher wrote: But there would be no story if you killed all the bugs using bug spray right?

    Exactly. That's why it's a Jenga SF plot. Remove one science fiction element with a common-sense solution; the entire book collapses.

    Simon wrote: Your post reminded me of the time I went to see Stargate at the movies. (The original film, obviously.)

    I liked that movie a lot, until it went Rambo.

    The first half was moody and atmospheric, there were clues to solve and puzzles to unlock and ancient civilisations and the Stargate and ... fantastic.
    Then came the second half...


    Yep. Bit of trivia: I was invited to write for a Stargate SG-1 tie-in antho. I refused because I won't do another anthology, (ever!) and more importantly, because I have never watched the series and have no idea what it's about (other than the Stargate element, I assume.)

    Gina wrote: But what if...we discover that those active ingredients in the amount needed to kill off those bugs would also kill us all. (Not such a big what if IMHO.)

    Now that would make an interesting version of this novel. :)

    aka_nik wrote: This is a great post. Well written. (I'm sure you hear that all the time, but too much never hurt anyone.)

    Thanks. I handle compliments terribly, though. I do much better if you insult me.

    Crys wrote: ...I thought that the main characters (the humans) are amazingly reminiscent of bigots.

    I think that was some of the point the director was trying to make. The first time I watched it, the satire came across so heavy-handed that I thought it was a tasteless comedy.

    Zornhau wrote: The book, which I enjoyed muchly as a teenager, had the same distopian(?) society. However, the Bugs only featured as one of many enemies, and the starship troopers had powered armour with mini-nukes and finger lasers - which were very cool indeed.

    I really should force myself to read the book someday. But yeah, I think I'd have to be a teenaged boy pumped on hormones to enjoy the movie version.

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  24. Anonymous wrote about the movie and book versions of ST: The two bear as much relationship to each other as a McDonald's Shamrock Shake bears to freshly handchurned ice cream.

    Well, that's it then. I'm lactose intolerant. Finally, an answer! Lol.

    Mark wrote: Actually, the book is pretty good. Heinlein, to my mind, was writing a kind of pro-war, pro-military novel.

    They have to be way different, then, bnecause I honestly thought the movie was a bad parody written by an anti-war protestor. You guys' comments are going to make me go and read this sucker, too. Stop being so intelligent and thoughtful.

    Andi wrote: Seriously, there were easier solutions that would have cost a lot less (then again, does anyone in this world appreciate spending less money?)

    Me, me!

    As far as alien invasions go, I think War of the Worlds had the right idea: just infect the buggers! No nukes, no armies, just a couple of hypodermic needles or small children. Simple, easy, and cheap!

    Now that's a book I've actually read (huge fan of H.G. Wells anyway) and enjoyed. But it's not fair of me to compare Heinlein with Wells; they were men of different intellects and eras.

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  25. Bernita wrote: Loved the book.
    Hated the movie.


    You and Mark are ganging up on me, aren't you? Admit it.

    Shannon wrote: I love these kinds of posts. Instead of thinking about story and/or considering remaining Christmas to-do lists, I get to ponder the identity of Author B.

    Oh? And who was it who taunted us with knowledge of the Dishing Diva's secret identity?

    Shiloh wrote: I think the bug spray is an excellent idea, because it would have saved me the trouble and trauma of seeing that movie.

    Does make me wonder if (should I ever be so lucky) selling the movie rights to one's novel is all that good of an idea.

    Michelle wrote: All I remember from the movie was that Doogie Howser was in it and there was a co-ed shower scene. Good times.

    (coughing) Okay, Michelle, I have a lung full of tea now, and it's all YOUR fault.

    Oddly enough, I can't recall the actor who played the lead but I remember Doogie too.

    Doug wrote: I think the movie of Starship Troopers was about hot guys getting whipped and very pretty women in military outfits.

    True enough. The one thing that sorta stuck with me was the battle cry line that was repeated over and over: "Come on, you [insult], you want to live forever?" and I kept thinking if I were there I'd turn around and say, "Well, yeah, dumbass, I do."

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  26. I loved the movie; never read the book.

    What was of particular interest to me was the way the original Disney-esque stereotypes had their innocence stripped away by death and violence and grief until they were citizen-soldiers for the cause. Both enemy and troopers had a 'kill 'em all' attitude and it ends with a sort of victory, but one that is transient. There is a flash of that Disney-esque world,
    and then they get back to the job.

    As for Author A and B, readers are wise enough to know a rip off when they see it.

    You're quite right P., the fresh approach works, the imitation rarely does.

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  27. Sasha wrote: My fear, right now, is that the book I'm workign on WAS fresh when I sold it. But since then, severla others have come out, or also been sold and are now being promoted, with similar themes. So by the time my book hits the stores, I'm worried I'll be considered Author B.

    Thing is, you're not writing knockoffs, Sasha; you're writing your own stuff. Also, your voice is so strong and unique that no one with a working brain cell could accuse you of being an Author B.

    The free-wheeling accusations tossed around by the mentally challenged do make you wonder if it's worth reading anything written by someone else in the genre you write in.

    SandyW wrote: ...how does this really work in today’s climb-on-the-bandwagon publishing industry?

    We see it work all the time. Sure, there are plenty of cloners out there, but the writers who don't get the big budget but still get the big buzz get noticed because they stand out in the crowd. Unfortunately it's hellish trying to sell something written to stand out because publishers don't get it.

    How does the fresh approach and looking for simple, direct solutions fit with getting published and staying published?

    In my opinion, if you go for a fresh approach you have a better chance of standing out among your peers. The editor who gets 1000 vampires-are-the-bad-guys proposals is really going to notice a vampires-are-good-guys proposal. It's not a guarantee, but how far are you going to get writing what everyone else is, and is (as you said) your heart really going to be engaged?

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  28. Does make me wonder if (should I ever be so lucky) selling the movie rights to one's novel is all that good of an idea.

    I think I'll have a clause in my contract that Mel Gibson isn't allowed to go near anything I've written, not after the History botch job he did with Braveheart. :)

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  29. Jordan wrote: Going to ponder what you said about the writing.

    I'm doing the same thing with that annoying Tao book. Let's make a pact: however much the gears grind, no banging of the head against the nearest vertical surface.

    Gabriele wrote about hot guys getting whipped: And there I thought I was the only one who remembers that best.

    I remember the getting-a-tattoo scene best. I need some Vitamin E.

    Jaye wrote: What was of particular interest to me was the way the original Disney-esque stereotypes had their innocence stripped away by death and violence and grief until they were citizen-soldiers for the cause.

    That reminds me of a theme from a book Robert Silverberg wrote way back -- "Man in the Maze" -- in which an entire civilization devoted itself, its tech and its architecture to one aim: "kill the stranger." I often wonder what the bug's POV on the war was, too.

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  30. I hate to say this because I know I'm going to be dissed, but the movie was a nostagic reminder of my military days. ;-)

    As for the rest, you needed to read the book because the main idea behind the whole book was that to become a citizen a person needed to protect his country by entering the military and serving for a certain amount of years. Anyone who did not was not a citizen.

    :-) Cyn

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  31. In both the book and the movie, they did the equivalent of bug spray, with aerial bombardments that wiped out most of the bugs on the ground. However, this is an intelligent species, and prepared for it (underground bunkers etc...)

    Those topics were covered, but only as a side line. The book was very much about politics and how to raise kids in a modern society.

    Heinlein compared it to raising a puppy. If the puppy craps on the carpet, you punish it. After a while, it knows what is bad and doesn't do it. It you ignored it, and didn't punish it, you'd have an uncontrollable dog eventually that might have to be put down out of no fault of its own. Then, he looked at how we treat juvenile delinquents. It looks a lot like not punishing them, at least in Heinlein's eyes.

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  32. Never read the book, and I HATE bugs, but I thought the book was good campy fun. Casper Van Who? heh.

    If I posited that Author A= W---, then I could make an educated guess (no judgements made as to the quality of the book as I haven't read it) of who Author B is, if it's someone who had a huge initial print run for a debut with virtually no online buzz either leading up to the realease, or (weeks later now) after. :-/

    But I'm not edumicated. So pay this lurker no nevermind. ;-)

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  33. Starship Troopers the book was as about being required to earn citizenship; to sacrifice for the right to have a say in how one's government was run; and as a demonstration of the contrast between people who claim entitlements without having contributed to the system, versus those who have earned everything they receive. As such, it was worthwhile reading, though the science part is now quite dated.

    On the other hand, the only good thing I have to say about the movie is that it's the one my guy and I went to see while I was in labor with the kidlet, and as such, I suspect its acute, pointless awfulness sped the contractions along.

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  34. Hi PBW,

    I know I'm way late to this conversation, but something was bugging me ever since you first posted this piece and I couldn't put my finger on it. It came to me, finally: The Bugs weren't insects, they were aracnids. And anybody who has ever had a spider infestation can tell you that aracnids are extremely hard to kill. It's almost easier and cheaper to tear down the house and build a new one.

    Anyway, I enjoy your blog. And now that I've revealed myself to be the true geek that I am, I'll go back to lurker mode.

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