Okay, writing stuff first. One of the big things I have always told myself when it comes to writing is that part of the voice you develop along the way, part of what makes you you is that certain trends and overused words and whatnot will crop up. It’s unavoidable. It’s not something to get too upset over but once you can identify them you’ve just made your second and third drafts a hell of a lot easier to get through.
Some of them you can excise from future writing, but I find that doesn’t happen a whole lot. If you’re really in the heat of the moment and writing as the words come into your head, you don’t want to slow yourself down on the first/rough draft stage and go “hmm, that word doesn’t flow so well.”
These are very basic how-to line editing things that I’ve learned to look out for after feedback from editors and beta readers. There’s a good chance you already know them, because when I say basic I really an going English 101 stuff here, but I see them crop up in my rough drafts all the time and in a surprising amount of self-published and indie work. They’re not going to ruin a story by themselves but they bog down the narrative flow for reasons that aren’t immediately evident when you’re in the throes of writing.
- Was/Were – Absolute worst offenders of the passive voice. Unless you’re explicitly and intentionally using it (and there are a few rare cases where you want this – let’s say that the action is more important than what the action is happening to, like you’re demonstrating a magic spell against a throwaway mook character) the first thing you want to do after you finish a rough draft is to go through and stab a red pen through every instance.
- -ly. Adverbs are our friends as long as you don’t abuse them, and there’s a reason that some critically lauded and brilliant authors from Elmore Leonard to Stephen King have all said that you shouldn’t have any -ly words show up in your story unless nothing else works. Especially “suddenly.” The action you are modifying with “suddenly” is already happening and attaching that adverb to it, ironically enough, slows the action. On top of that it provides unnecessary bloat to a sentence. The character isn’t walking quickly, he’s running or jogging. She isn’t talking loudly, she’s yelling. He isn’t suddenly breaking into dance, he’s just breaking into dance period.
- -ing. Dubious character, often shows up in the company of his friends up above. Either a participle or a gerund and very rarely a good thing. You can use -ing more often than the others but you shouldn’t use it a lot, and if you do there’s a very good chance you have a lot of was/were nearby. Look at my above examples. See how they’re better without the -ly adverbs? Now take out the -ings. He ran. She yelled or shouted. He broke into dance. It grabs you by the throat and drags you into the moment of the action, even when it’s technically being written in past tense.
There’s a lot more to go into. If you can remove “that” from a sentence and still have it make sense, you should do so. Try not to drown your narrative prose in nonspecific identifiers like a few, a little, a lot, some, etc. If you have a character who can’t tell exactly how many things there are, “several hundred” sounds better than “a lot.”
A lot of it comes down to padding. He didn’t begin to run. You don’t really begin to run, do you? Say “he ran” and cut right to the immediacy. Hit people like the proverbial sucker punch.
If Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut are both telling you to tell your story in the least amount of words possible, there’s a good reason for that and you should be listening to them if not me. And I know, this seems like such braindead easy stuff, but I find it’s good to constantly step back and remind yourself to watch for these things, be aware of them, look for your literary tells and work to mitigate them. Best case you self-correct and save yourself tons of time in editing, worst case you can still know what to look for when you’ve got the red pen in hand.
Okay, that’s all my preachy abrasive shit out of the way for this week. On to Luke Cage.
Just going to preface this by saying that I know these are all incredibly white dude opinions, if I say anything offensive here please feel free to call me on it and I will apologize and fix it, I welcome any education if I put my foot in my mouth, so on and so forth.
I seriously loved this show. I could write a week of articles on it and eventually I might just do that, but as it’s only been out for a week I’m going to try and keep this as non spoilery as possible while discussing what I loved about it. No deaths or major plot twists will be revealed, just character motivations and tone.
So, what did I love most about Luke Cage? The heroes and the villains, and that’s intentionally broad. I have to go back to its two predecessor shows and talk about them a bit before catching back up.
Daredevil came out. My expectations were not particularly high but I ended up falling for the first season, and while a large part of that is due to the action, it’s mostly because of the hero and villain’s chemistry together and the themes that the show was exploring. I did not expect to see a B-list grade superhero show tackling themes of toxic masculinity but it did just that. It may have done so sloppily at a few points and fallen back on the gore too often, but my reading of the story was about two men from fairly similar socio-economic backgrounds growing up into radically different people because of how society told them they were allowed to act and how they embraced or rejected that on various levels. Murdock and Fisk are two white guys from downtown who have been explicitly told by the world that the only way they’re allowed to express emotion is through violence or anger, and the entire story is driven by the repercussions of that. Fisk embraces it and puts on a cold, even awkward mask while ignoring the ways that it hurts himself and the people around him, while Murdock not only becomes hyperaware of the backlash but tortures himself over his actions because they go explicitly against what his religion tells him is the right thing to do. Past a certain point the story just seems to write itself with these characters hating each other for doing what they themselves cannot; Fisk can shut himself down and ignore the consequences of his actions while Murdock is governed by them.
Season two decided to discard most of this and substitute plots varying from very good (The Punisher, PTSD, toxic masculine behavior in the side of “justice” but taken to extremes Murdock won’t get neat) to very bad (a level of yellow scare shit I did not expect to see in 2016) and not a lot of great villains, so we’ll largely skip it.
Jessica Jones is my personal favorite of all the Marvel Netflix offerings so far, or at least tied with Luke Cage now, because the villain is tremendously well written. He is every convicted rapist who is convinced that he didn’t rape anyone because he didn’t literally slip something in their drink and assault them in a dark alley. He’s everyone who has ever argued that there’s such a thing as legitimate rape. He’s the dude who thinks that he deserves applause and reward just for not being terrible all the time, because other human beings are toys to him and it takes more effort for him not to break them. The invincible woman versus the man who can manipulate others and make them fight her for him. He basically has gaslighting as a superpower and it drives the show into something like a superhero horror hybrid. It was harrowing to watch, there were scenes tenser than any slasher flick I’ve ever seen.
Fast forward to Luke Cage, which I think deftly incorporates a lot of elements from those prior two shows and perfects them. It juggles a lot of antagonists and uses them to ask some very difficult questions and explore societal problems. Same with Luke. The back and forth with him and Cottonmouth over the use of the n-word was brilliant; Luke is essentially urging respectability politics while Cottonmouth is arguing that talking like a stereotypical thug makes people underestimate him and that allows him to get what he wants far easier than attempting to adhere to a level of respectability largely dictated by white people. Both of their arguments have merit and the rest of the show points out ways in which each path works and doesn’t work without saying that one is better than the other.
It would have been easy enough to have the show revel in the heights of the Harlem Renaissance (and it does at times, along with namedropping copious amounts of everything from sports stats to hip hop artists to the Easy Rawlins mystery novels) but it takes it a step further and portrays many of the seedier aspects of Harlem life and what several characters claim to be their culture… just without passing judgement on them for acting within that culture. And then exploring the top-down systemic racism that contributes to it far more than any individual criminal ever could. Villains like Cottonmouth, Diamondback or Shades are only operating in a world where they are just operating by the rules handed down to them, rules that have been broken in the past with tragic results. It shows objectively good police officers contributing to hurting people whether they set out to do that or not, just because of how their system has been structured for so long. That’s huge. I never expected to see that on a superhero show, where cops are generally portrayed as either clumsy paragons of virtue or so corrupt that vigilantes are necessary.
I also like that it shows characters who reject this system and try to fight it, regardless of how far they get. There are a billion little shades of grey going on throughout the show and it’s hard to pick any one character as having everything figured out. There are characters who have incredibly good intentions but you’re shown how far intentions go when so much is aligned against you, and that still makes their struggle all the more heroic.
And speaking of heroic, I have to say I love the portrayal of Cage here. After two seasons of Daredevil agonizing over killing versus not killing people it was tremendously refreshing to have a protagonist who says from the get go that he’s not going to use lethal force ever, and then he never really has the need to. He knows he’s impossible to kill and he knows that using his powers lethally is irresponsible. He questions himself a little bit but overall he’s one of the most positive superheroes we’ve seen come out of Marvel in a long time, there’s no beating himself up, he just knows that he has gifts and he can use them to help people, so he does and he acts like an absolute boy scout while doing so. He’s a better Superman than many film portrayals of actual Superman have been. I hope Mike Colter has a long and prolific career with Marvel because his Cage has an unbelievable amount of chemistry with every actor or actress you put him next to and I could watch him do anything for hours.
And that’s all to say nothing of the soundtrack. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you hear the songs.
If you want some more awesome Luke Cage stuff that I won’t even try to paraphrase here, Tor has put together a kickass reading list of black history and detective stories inspired by the show and Salon just recently published a great interview with Colter and Coker about the intentional politicization of the character in the way that they did.