Short Stuff

I’d like to read more, but I don’t have time to read a long, involved story.

There’s a solution for that. It’s called a short story.

 Short stories are those that can be read in under an hour – often not more than 5,000 words (beyond 7,500 is called a novella, and they are often published alone in little books, like Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption,  J.A. Jance’s The Old Blue Line, or Shirley Goodness and Mercy by Debbie Macomber) and they are often grouped together in anthology volumes, anthology meaning, literally, a collection of stories, the same way a CD album is a collection of individual songs.

Short stories are an art form of their own, still carrying the same structures of their longer novel cousins (plot, themes, metaphors, etc) but in a very short package. Some are complete stories (think of Ray Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day, or Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery) while others might just give you a slice of life, a few hours in the life of an individual with no clear beginning and no clear end, leaving you to wonder what might come next (some stories by Anton Chekhov, or Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants). They can be happy or sad, comic or dramatic, or full of irony (The Necklace, by Guy de Maupassant). Sometimes an anthology might consist of short stories on a single theme (love, loss, westerns, adventure), or they could be a mix of anything. And the beauty of an anthology is you can read one or two stories, or the whole thing, depending on your time and interest.

But short stories don’t carry the same weight as novels.

Of course they do! Many writers are known more for their short stories than for their novels – Alice Munro is considered one of the premier short story writers, having won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature in part for her short stories. Ray Bradbury is another prolific short-story writer, not quite horror, not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy, just imaginative. His philosophy was to write one short story a week, because out of 52 short stories, you were bound to have three or four that were really good. Short stories are easier to sell, if not to anthologies then to magazines – many a writer got their start in The New Yorker, Collier’s, or Atlantic, let alone Good Housekeeping and Readers’ Digest. Some of the most popular authors – Isaac Asimov, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler – carved their name writing for pulp fiction magazines.

Short stories don’t always stay short, either. Many popular films started out as short stories – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (published in The New Yorker) (Did you realize this one takes place in Waterbury, Connecticut?), All About Eve, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 3:10 to Yuma, Shawshank Redemption, Minority Report, Brokeback Mountain, Rear Window, Total Recall, and many, many others.

A little story can go a long way. If you’re pressed for time, check out the stories in these collections, and more!

Best Short Stories of Jack London

Ray Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales

Collected Short Stories of Louis L’Amour, Vol. 4

Children of the Night: Best Short Stories by Black Writers

Dancing Through Life in a Pair of Broken Heels

No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories

Beautiful Days

Amish Front Porch Stories

Bring Out the Dog: Stories

Complete Stories of Edgar Allen Poe

Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers

20th Century Ghosts

Re-Covery

They tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but a book cover can make or break a book’s success. While browsing a used bookstore decades ago, I fell utterly in love with the covers of a book series I’d never heard of before – DragonLance, by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. I had to buy them, even just to look at the covers. The cover paintings were done by Larry Elmore, one of the premiere fantasy artists of the time. I’d never gotten too much into sword and sorcery books, but I devoured these. The second trilogy was still being written, and it was agony waiting for the next book in the series. I love those books to this day; they influence my own writing and imagination, and all because I had to have that book cover.

And nothing, of course, is more infuriating than when they change that book cover you know and love, and not usually for the better. Have you read this book? The title looks familiar, but not the cover … and then you start to read and find out yes, you’ve read it before, they changed the cover on you. Why?

There are many reasons a book gets a new cover. It may have changed publishers. It may be the paperback edition of a hardcover, or a school edition, or an audiobook – and audiobook companies, who often have a middleman, don’t always get permission to use the same cover. It may be a new printing – if a book contract agrees to a run of 5,000 copies, and 6,000 are ordered, the book may get a new distribution run, resulting in a new cover. The book may have been sold to a new publisher – such as Bantam Books being sold to Random House. Random House will then reissue a strong seller with their own brand of cover. If a movie or TV series is made from the book, a new edition will be released with a cover that reflects the new media, as happened with Lord of the Rings and Ready Player One. Sometimes the publisher gets flack because the cover has absolutely nothing to do with the story, and they rework it.

Sometimes, it’s hard to keep up, and sometimes, the cover art makes you scratch your head. Take, for example, the book Alas, Babylon, a 1959 novel of nuclear apocalypse that, if it’s not still my absolute favorite novel, it’s in my top three. First below is the cover I read it with – sensible, with the red/orange color of disaster and warning and nuclear fire, and people walking out of it. Compare that with the many covers it’s had since 1959:

The current one, number two above, a fourth edition by Harper Collins, to me, is puzzling – small font, an empty boardwalk, and a hand? This is not a cover that invites me to read, tells me a single thing about the story. Perhaps, after so many editions, they run out of ideas. Another fact: it’s very rare an author gets to choose the cover of their book – or have any input at all. You may submit your perfect dream cover along with your manuscript, and the publisher will toss it and give the work to one of their contracted artists. This is how you wind up with a blonde, blue-eyed heroine on the cover when the main character has short black hair.

Book covers also reflect what seems to be popular – a few years ago it seemed every book had a girl rolling around on the ground. If one sells, then everyone wants to copy that success. The bottom half of a face? Those are popular. Romance novel covers were almost interchangeable – how many were based on the model Fabio?  This year, pink is supposed to be “in” for covers again, as well as layered graphics and bold lettering.

Don’t like a book cover? Let the publisher know! Editors read the books, not the artists, or the publisher. If they’ve missed the mark, tell them. Authors depend on good covers to grab readers; if the cover isn’t intriguing, it’s wasting money.

What book covers have hit the mark, reached out and grabbed you so you had to read it?

What types of covers make you walk away?

Has a book cover ever made you angry?

Let us know!

Read it Before You See it: Book-to-Screen Adaptations Coming in 2022

So many screen adaptations, so little time! There are so many books coming to big and small screens this year, it’s easy to lose track or what’s coming out when. We’ve put together a list of some adaptations that we’re really looking forward to this year – some have release dates, some do not, but the list will give us time to read as many books as we can before their adaptations come out! Which books are you most looking forward to seeing on the screen this year?

 

MOVIES

 

The Black Phone Release date: Feb. 4, 2022

Death on the Nile Release date: Feb. 11, 2022

Mothering Sunday Release date: Feb. 25, 2022

Where the Crawdads Sing Release Date: July 22, 2022 (Netflix)

Salem’s Lot Release Date: September 9, 2022

White Bird: A Wonder Story Release Date: October 14, 2022

She Said Release date: Nov. 28, 2022

The Nightingale Release Date: December 23, 2022

Persuasion Release date: TBD 2022

The School for Good and Evil Release Date: TBD 2022 (Netflix)

The Wonder Release Date: TBD 2022 (Netflix)

 

TV SERIES

 

Outlander Season 6 (Starz) Premiere Date: March 6, 2022

Based on the book: A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon 

Bridgerton Season 2 (Netflix) Premiere Date: March 25, 2022

Based on the book: The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn

Lord of the Rings (Amazon Prime Video) Premiere Date: Sept. 2, 2022

Based on the books: The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein 

The Sandman (Netflix) Premiere Date: TBD 2022

Daisy Jones & the Six (Amazon Prime Video) Premiere Date: TBD 2022

Conversations with Friends (Hulu) Premiere Date: Spring 2022

Shifting Dunes

When it comes to epic book series impossible to film, first came Lord of the Rings, (which was done marvelously at last but needed more than 10 hours of screen time).

Then came Dune.

Dune, by Frank Herbert, is considered the best-selling Science-Fiction novel of all time (though it’s far more Game of Thrones than space ships), with more than 12 million copies sold in 14 languages. It tied for the 1966 Hugo Award. And like Lord of the Rings, getting it to film is a Holy Grail of filmmakers.

Dune tells the far-distant-future story of Duke Leto Atreides, who is given the stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Dune is the only place in the universe where the spice Melange exists – a spice that not only can alter your mind, in some species it lets them fold time and space, creating almost instant space travel. “He who controls the spice, controls the universe.” Thus, Dune is a hotbed of politics and backstabbing. When the Duke is murdered, his son Paul, deemed an abomination by a powerful religious group, is seen as a prophesied savior by the natives of Dune. So begins the battle for control of Dune. The book is an immersive, detailed, visionary epic of grand scope (there’s a dictionary in the back). When you read the book, you are on Dune. This is a book that sticks with you for years to come.

Herbert wrote five books to the series; his son Brian added another twelve after his death. Dune – even just the first installment – is a novel of such grand scope (like GOT and LOTR) that putting it to film has been almost laughable – think of Rankin Bass’s 90-minute adaption of The Hobbit. Game of Thrones took 8 years and more than 73 hours to tell – can you imagine it as a three-hour theater film and have it make sense? It was tried in the 70’s, but after 3 years of attempts, the budget just couldn’t be managed. In 1984, David Lynch did make it, condensing much of the book to ethereal voiceovers, changing major points to condense action, and adding some now-cheesy early computer effects (the blue contacts of the Fremen didn’t work, and every frame of the film had to be colored by hand). It’s a film you either love or hate, with musician Sting as Feyd Rautha famously flexing in a winged bikini.

In 2000, SyFy channel did two Dune mini-series, which were much better received, won several awards, yet seemed to fade into obscurity faster than Lynch’s version, with the chief complaint it stuck too close to the source material, and dragged. Now, thanks to Warner Bros and HBO, we have a $165 million dollar spectacle by Denis Villeneuve that covers – only half the book, with a sequel (hopefully the second half) due in 2023. 

While the film has been viewed favorably, the scenery and cinematography spectacular, Villeneuve took many liberties with the material that once again changes the focus and depth of the story. To modernize it, he gender-swapped characters (which goes against the society Herbert wrote) and changed the roles of other women (no, the Bene Gesserit. He left out much of the religious aspect, the mysticism, even avoided the word jihad, used by the Fremen. It gives a sanitized, whitewashed view of the story, afraid of offending anyone. Herbert believed that modern societies will always decay back to a feudalistic society, and that the desert cultures, especially those of the Middle East, were more prone to messianic complexes and religious wars (remember, he’s writing in 1964 or so, when the Middle East was still rather bland politically. Think Star Wars and Tatooine, or The Great Humongous in Road Warrior, etc. There’s a lot to be said for that theory). To remove the root of the story – is it still the same story? Can anyone ever make a decent, book-abiding video version of Dune?

If you can’t wait for the new film to come out on DVD (or, rather, the first half of the book), check out the book series itself. Few things are better than the source material.

I can give up Sting in his bikini (though I thought he was a perfect Feyd), but there is no better Gurney Halleck than pre-Captain Picard Patrick Stewart. That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it!

Dune

Dune Messiah

Children of Dune

God Emperor of Dune

Heretics of Dune

Sandworms of Dune

Dune: House Atreides

Dune: House Harkonnen

Dune: House Corrino

Dune: The Machine Crusade

Dune: The Lady of Caladan

The Winds of Dune

The Sisterhood of Dune

Paul of Dune

Mentats of Dune

Navigators of Dune

 

Passing the Bechdel Test

Have you given anything a Bechdel test? Have you ever heard of the Bechdel Test?
I’d never heard of it either (and I went to a women’s college!) until it popped up on an internet group I belong to, and I had to look it up.

The Bechdel test (or Bechdel-Wallace test) is a measure of representation of women in fiction. It first appeared in Allison Bechdel’s 1985 cartoon strip, Dykes to Watch Out For (I didn’t name it) commenting on films, brought on by a quote from Virginia Woolf, in that women in fiction might sometimes be mother and daughter, but rarely are two women friends in literature. Almost always, women were viewed by their relationship to men – wanting a man, chasing a man, depending on a man, chasing off a man, etc. (Hence Jane Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”). Real women in real life talk to other women about more than just men (even if it’s only about their cat or dog).

Therefore, Bechdel gave three commandments for films to be considered women-friendly (and by default, TV and books):

  1. It must have at least two women in it (preferably with names)
  2. Who talk to each other (preferably for at least 60 seconds)
  3. About something besides a man

And the off-hand comment in a sarcastic lesbian cartoon strip surged until it’s become an almost a standard metric for the industry.

Seems pretty simple, right?

Various groups have researched more than 8000 films, and concluded that 42-50% of films cannot pass the test, and half of those that do pass do so only because two women are discussing marriage or babies. Being a female-oriented show about women does not mean the film or program can pass the test. Even female-cast TV shows such as Sex in the City don’t pass, because almost all the discussion is about men. Big-budget female-lead action films such as Lucy or Atomic Blonde or Salt fail, because the secondary characters are almost always men – there are no other women. Star Trek, which broke many TV taboos, can’t pass the test – there are many women, and they talk quite a bit, but almost never to each other. Lost in Space had three women trapped in a tin can together, and they almost never spoke to each other for more than one or two lines, occasionally. Firefly, for its very brief run, hits the mark more often than not. Okay, I Love Lucy wins for most realistic female friends ever, as does Gone With the Wind, thanks to Miss Melly, so time period is not a decisive factor. We haven’t necessarily gotten better with age, despite feminism.

Various groups have researched more than 8000 films, and concluded that 42-50% of films cannot pass the test, and half of those that do pass do so only because two women are discussing marriage or babies. Being a female-oriented show about women does not mean the film or program can pass the test. Even female-cast TV shows such as Sex in the City don’t pass, because almost all the discussion is about men. Big-budget female-lead action films such as Lucy or Atomic Blonde or Salt fail, because the secondary characters are almost always men – there are no other women. Star Trek, which broke many TV taboos, can’t pass the test – there are many women, and they talk quite a bit, but almost never to each other. Lost in Space had three women trapped in a tin can together, and they almost never spoke to each other for more than one or two lines, occasionally. Firefly, for its very brief run, hits the mark more often than not. Okay, I Love Lucy wins for most realistic female friends ever, as does Gone With the Wind, thanks to Miss Melly, so time period is not a decisive factor. We haven’t necessarily gotten better with age, despite feminism.

Not passing the Bechdel test does NOT make a film bad, nor does it make it not worth watching. Not every movie is going to center around women – Dunkirk, for example, a splendid movie about a specific battle in World War II. Women were just not involved in that. Stand By Me – a magnificent story of four young boys on a quest. Girls aren’t in the story, and if you skip this movie because of that, then you’re missing one of the best American movies. Nor is every film required to pass the Bechdel test. Casino passes two of the three qualifications, but women are mistreated throughout the film. Inclusion is just that – inclusion, not a judgment of how women are treated by the story, not a judgment of female competence, not a judgment of feminism (Gravity, with a female astronaut who saves the day, can’t pass the test, though The Martian, with a male lead, does). A woman may love a movie that can’t pass the test, and a man can certainly love a film that does. Movies of every genre pass or fail; there is no specific type of film to look for.

All the Bechdel test does, really, is point out films in which women – a full 50% of the population – are a larger focus of the story, and even if they aren’t, they’re portrayed as real, well-rounded people who speak to each other about real subjects, even if it’s about burning a roast, not just love-starved buttercups who are nothing without a man. So, if you’re on the lookout for films that show women – important or background characters – in a more realistic light, here are 15 various films that do pass the Bechdel test:

The Finest Hours

Little Miss Sunshine

Wonder Woman

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Last Jedi

Girl, Interrupted

Hidden Figures

Kill Bill

Thelma and Louise

The Exorcist

Chicago

Frozen

Birds of Prey

Bill and Ted Face the Music

Knives Out