Back in (TV) School


Last month while students headed back to school in real life, two fictional schools began their third seasons on the air. And gave us one more reason why no one wants to relive high school.


Yes, I’m talking about Glee—the musical-comedy-drama from Fox.

The core group of Glee hopefuls at McKinley High are still trying to persuade anyone and everyone that they’ve got talent. And they do—but somehow this year it just isn’t as fresh.


Perhaps that’s because Glee Club nemesis, Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch)—who I love BTW—is still singing the same tune so to speak. Oh sure, she’s now running for office in the congressional campaign, but her platform hasn’t really changed since in Season 1. Get the arts—and in particular the Glee Club—out of schools. Ho Hum.


Meanwhile, higher education just keeps getting better and better. With Pierce (Chevy Chase) readmitted to the study group, the usual gang is back at Greendale for another year. But any resemblance to the McKinley High formula ends there.


From zany noir detection (Competitive Ecology, Episode 3), to parallel realities (Remedial Chaos Theory, Episode 4) the NBC comedy series Community continues IMO to be the byword for thinking outside the creative box.



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Space: The Final Frontier of the Reckless Driver


…to boldly go…


I recently watched a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Liaisons (Season 7, Episode 2). During a cultural exchange with the lyaarans, two lyaaran ambassadors remain aboard the Enterprise, while Captain Picard’s heads for the lyaaran homeworld. A malfunction forces them to crash land on an unknown planet—Picard and the shuttle pilot are both thrown to the floor and the pilot apparently sustains a concussion.


Though it eventually becomes clear that the situation Picard finds himself in—he is rescued by a lone survivor of another crash—is not what it appears, the image of the two men sprawled on the floor of the shuttle was a forceful reminder of one flaw in the Star Trek universe.


Where the H*** where the seat belts?


The seat belt was invented in the early 19th century by Edward J. Claghorn. It wasn’t, however, until the late 1950’s that the now familiar 3-point seat belt that is standard safety equipment in vehicles today was invented by Nils Bohlin, a Swede.


And yet this equipment feature was, apparently, unknown—or plain disregarded—in the twenty-third century.


Developed by Gene Rodenberry in the 1960s, the original Star Trek television series (1966-1969) might be excused from this lack of foresight about seatbelt safety, since legislation regarding the mandatory use of seat belts only began in the 1970s.


But what about the twenty-fourth century?


Seat belts are conspicuously absent aboard the Enterprise in Star Trek: TNG (1987-1994) and Voyager (1995-2001). 


















Statistics are clear—wearing a seat belt dramatically increases the chance of surviving a…collision. Of course, seat belt usage would also dramatically decrease the dramatic value of many a Star Trek episode!


There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Perhaps it’s connected to the concurrent decline in grammatical standards.

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Taking Stock of Summer


Recently re-watched Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in Summer Stock (1950).


One of the things I love about Kelly’s dancing is the way he incorporates “ordinary” props into his dances. I say ordinary in quotes, because, of course, the props weren’t just lying around. They were a strategic part of the effect. Like the squeaky floorboard and the newspaper in one of Kelly’s Summer Stock dances.


Then, a couple of nights ago, I was reacquainted with one of Kelly’s early song and dance films—Cover Girl (1944) with Rita Hayworth.


And, as usual, this got me thinking—Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. Each of them redefined dance on the big screen, making the moves look effortless and magical.


While everyone can voice an opinion on the issue, only seven women are experts on the subject. Rita Hayworth for one, who, with the making of Cover Girl was the first person to have danced on screen with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire (in You’ll Never Get Rich, 1941 and You Were Never Lovelier, 1942).


Fortunately, with a classic movie channel at my fingertips, I don’t have to take any bets or make any choices. 




Oh, and in case you were wondering, the other women who danced with both Kelly and Astaire are—Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Vera Ellen, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, and Debbie Reynolds.



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What Would You Do?



Last month I wrote a post about a woman who wrote a diary while stranded for weeks in her van on a remote logging road.


This led me to watch, 127 Hours, the movie based on Aron Ralston’s book Between a Rock and a Hard Place. The book is, of course, based on his April 2003 hiking trip in Utah when his right arm was trapped by a boulder.


No, I did not faint at the incredibly realistic climax scene. But I do admit to holding my hand up to block the screen—or my eyes—or both.


Ralston had a video camera with him. His video segments during the days he was stuck in Blue John Canyon are incredibly moving and offer an extraordinary insight of the experience.


Which brings me to my title for this post.


The day I watched 127 Hours, I also heard NY Times Best Selling author Robert Dugoni speak about creating plots and memorable characters. In that  synchronicity that sometimes happens,


I walked away from that session thinking about something Dugoni said—“what would you do?” Whether we’re aware of it or not, as readers we ask this question every time we are caught up in a story—a story in which the protagonist must make increasingly more difficult decisions that seem to lead to worsening conditions.


127 Hours may be a movie, but Ralston’s story is not fiction, which makes it all that more compelling.


Following my convoluted brain for another few moments…


The next day I watched The Girl who Played with Fire, the 2009 movie based on the second book in Stieg Larrson’s Millenium series. This may be fiction, but it is no less gripping to follow Lisbeth Salandar’s (Naomi Rapace) decision-making process as she deals with being accused of a triple homicide.


But that isn’t what intrigued me. A journalist, for the past fifteen years of his life Stieg Larrson took precautionary measures because of threats from right-wing groups. He even wrote a book of instructions on how journalists should respond to threats of violence. Then one day when he was fifty, Larsson died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He left no will, so his estate goes to his father and brother rather than his partner of several decades Eva Gabrielsson.


 What would you do?—Fact and fiction offer intriguing opinions.


Oh, and in case you are wondering—yes, I do have a will. And no, I am not planning any vacations to go hiking in Utah, or anywhere else for that matter.



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A Good Excuse


Okay, I’m a week late with this blog post.


So, what’s my excuse?


I’ve kept my head down, my eyes on the computer, my brain on my latest work in progress. Which, I’m very happy to report is no longer in progress.


It’s finished! What’s more, I sent it out on its quest to find a home.



Then this morning the doorbell rang. The UPS guy was standing outside with a box. For me. Of books.


I love electronic publishing. I love my backlist, and the fact that it’s not going to disappear off the shelves any time soon. But…there is just something about picking up a print book in your hands. Feeling the actual weight of all those words on the pages. Admiring the cover. The name on the cover!


Hallie Clearwater is about to meet her match. He might not be cybernetically enhanced like she is, but Daniel Highcliff is one formidable man. When she collects him from prison to help her catch a traitor, even in his weakened state he possesses an aura of danger. His murder charges aren’t the half of it.


On an Earth where environmental disaster and hostile takeovers have permanently changed the lay of the land and the political climes, Hallie and Daniel must learn to trust each other. By day, they deal with a corrupt government and the rift between “pure” humans and enhanced ones. By night, they explore an even rockier terrain — the intense passion between the two of them.

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Uncontrollable Factors: A Test of Character


By chance, I recently watched two movies set during World War I—


The first, The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, based on a novel of the same name by Spanish writer Vincente Blasco Ibáñez, was the top grossing film of 1921.


Released by Metro Pictures Corporation, it was the movie that launched Rudolph Valentino to superstardom—most particularly because of his commanding, sensual presence in the “tango scene.”



The story follows the lives of two sisters—one married to a Frenchman, the other a German—and their families as events in Europe culminate in the declaration of war.


Valentino didn’t just dance his way to box office success. His portrayal of Julio Desnoyers traces the growth of a profligate—painting scantily clad women in his studio and eventually embarking on a torrid affair with a married woman—to a well-respected man willing to fight on behalf of his father’s homeland.


The second movie, Passhendaele, was written, co-produced, directed and starring Paul Gross, this 2008 Canadian production follows a veteran, a nurse, and her brother from Alberta to the muddy, bloody Belgian battlefield.

Again, it is fascinating to see how each character responds to the pressures and prejudices that are stirred by the storm of war.


Many years ago a tornado ripped through the city where I live. Afterward, an older couple who had lost their home—a whole neighborhood was destroyed—were interviewed by the local news channel. The woman was distraught at the loss of her entire worldly possession. The man simply said, “we’ll start again.”


Both responses are perfectly legitimate. But as a writer, I can’t help but be drawn to the intriguing test of a character’s inherent qualities that surface when  faced with an uncontrollable event in his or her life.






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A Five Second Revelation


A few years ago I wrote a Who Done It—or rather, I tried to, but wasn’t terribly satisfied with the results. I recently toke another look at the story—because, hey, it was a good idea. After extensive revisions, I’m now preparing the manuscript for submission.


Along the way I learned a valuable lesson—aside from the one that once again proves I’m stubborn when it comes to pursuing a sound story idea.


I discovered I preferred writing suspense rather than mystery stories.


Once heard Hitchcock’s observations on the nature of the two genres—that mystery is essentially an intellectual process, while suspense is an emotional process—I knew why.


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 I recently caught up with the 89 year old Betty White in Hot in Cleveland:


And this started me thinking about the professional journeys film and television actors make that is encapsulated in their body of work. The successes and struggles, for instance, of someone like Kathy Bates who spent much of her career creating award-winning stage characters, only to lose the role when it was transferred to the silver screen. Perseverance and a whole lot of talent eventually led to an Oscar. Now in her 60’s, she continues to give powerhouse performances, this time on the small screen in the new legal comedy-drama Harry’s Law:


The legal team working at Harriet’s Law and Fine Shoes wins some cases, but loses others. Very smartly written, the show offers no clear answers—only shades of grey. And an intriguing journey for the title character, Harriet Korn (Bates) as she reinvents and redefines herself .


Proving once again that a life journey, including a professional one, is unpredictable.

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Another Kind of Forest

A few weeks ago, in my last post over at FFnP, I talked about the character of Jake Sully in the 2009 movie Avatar to explore the concept of the forest as a powerful metaphor for transformation.

But not every protagonist encounters his or her adventure within a literal forest as Jake did.

Consider James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) from the 2009 Star Trek movie.

The opening sequences of the movie show Kirk in action and reveal several key characteristics about the man who eventually accepts the challenge and enters Starfleet Academy. Evoking memories of the original Kirk (William Shatner) in the television series and subsequent movies, one core trait is Kirk’s style preference for thinking outside the box. By style preference, I mean how Kirk prefers to interact with the world around him.

So, take a man who is smart, bored, already something of a rebel and who constantly thinks outside the box and what kind of forest does he need to face?

Starfleet, with its structure, ranks and protocol presents the perfect contrast to someone who thinks outside the box.

How, then, does this divergence between Kirk’s and Starfleet’s motivations and goals fit in with the concept of transformation?

Jack Zipes, an authority on fairy tales, has this to say about the forest:

No one ever gains power over the forest, but the forest possesses the power to change lives and alter destinies. [Zipes, The Brother’s Grimm, p. 65]

As Zipes’ quote suggests, Kirk doesn’t conquer his forest. But nor does the forest completely conquer Kirk. In this case, the transformation is subtle.

At the end of the movie—and indeed as any Trekkie knows—Starfleet retains its structure, ranks and protocol. It is Kirk who transforms himself from a man who couldn’t find his place in the world into a Captain of the Enterprise, albeit one who thinks outside the box.

©Robin Matheson

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Guest Blog: Exploring the Hero’s Forest



Speaking of taking a journey—


This week I’m over at the Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal Chapter’s blog discussing the character of Jake Sully from the 2009 blockbuster film, Avatar.  





Thanks, FFnP for the invitation, which anticipates the upcoming Journey Cycle course I’ll be offering through the Chapter starting January 31 and running for the month of February.


The Journey Cycle


Course Description:


Is your protagonist poised at the Edge of the Forest, negotiating the Trail of Breadcrumbs, or facing the Mirror on the Wall? To reach a satisfying ending to any story, be it romance or another genre, each step in the Journey requires careful deliberation if your hero or heroine is to pass the Glass Slipper Test.


This course uses the familiar, symbolic world of Fairy Tales to reinterpret the Hero’s Journey into easy to understand motifs. As a story building tool, the course examines key issues and poses a series of questions about each stage to help writers “troubleshoot” their way to the next “level”. A 2-part assignment is included with each of the 12 lectures.


Whether you are seeking a better understanding of the journey process to create a stronger story structure or you are looking for some brainstorming ideas to conquer a certain leg of that journey, this course is for you!




Students are provided with a chart of the Journey Cycle.


Lecture 1: Castles and Cottages (the Ordinary World)

Lecture 2: Magic Beans

Lecture 3: Burn the Spinning Wheels

Lecture 4: Fairy Godmothers

Lecture 5: At the Edge of the Forest

Lecture 6: Following the Trail of Breadcrumbs

Lecture 7: The House in the Forest (Supreme Ordeal)

Lecture 8: The Genie in the Lamp

Lecture 9: Following the Trail of Peas and Lentils

Lecture 10: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Lecture 11: The Ensorcelled Set Free

Lecture 12: The Glass Slipper Test



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